Semite, person speaking one of a group of related languages, presumably derived from a common language, Semitic (see Semitic languages). The term came to include Arabs, Akkadians, Canaanites, some Ethiopians, and Aramaean tribes including Hebrews. Mesopotamia, the western coast of the Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa have all been proposed as possible sites for the prehistoric origins of Semitic-speaking peoples, but no location has been definitively established.
By 2500 BCE Semitic-speaking peoples had become widely dispersed throughout western Asia. In Phoenicia they became seafarers. In Mesopotamia they blended with the civilization of Sumer. The Hebrews settled with other Semitic-speaking peoples in Palestine..
Origins and early history
Further information: Ancient Semitic-speaking peoples and Proto-Arabic
According to Arab-Islamic-Jewish traditions, Ishmael was father of the Arabs, to be the ancestor of the Ishmaelites.
Traditional Qahtanite genealogy
The first written attestation of the ethnonym Arab occurs in an Assyrian inscription of 853 BCE, where Shalmaneser III lists a King Gindibu of mâtu arbâi (Arab land) as among the people he defeated at the Battle of Qarqar. Some of the names given in these texts are Aramaic, while others are the first attestations of Ancient North Arabian dialects. In fact several different ethnonyms are found in Assyrian texts that are conventionally translated “Arab”: Arabi, Arubu, Aribi and Urbi. Many of the Qedarite queens were also described as queens of the aribi. The Hebrew Bible occasionally refers to Aravi peoples (or variants thereof), translated as “Arab” or “Arabian.” The scope of the term at that early stage is unclear, but it seems to have referred to various desert-dwelling Semitic tribes in the Syrian Desert and Arabia. Arab tribes came into conflict with the Assyrians during the reign of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, and he records military victories against the powerful Qedar tribe among others.
Old Arabic diverges from Central Semitic by the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE.
Nabataean trade routes in Pre-Islamic Arabia.
Medieval Arab genealogists divided Arabs into three groups:
“Ancient Arabs”, tribes that had vanished or been destroyed, such as ʿĀd and Thamud, often mentioned in the Qur’an as examples of God’s power to vanquish those who fought his prophets.
“Pure Arabs” of South Arabia, descending from Qahtan. The Qahtanites (Qahtanis) are said to have migrated from the land of Yemen following the destruction of the Ma’rib Dam (sadd Ma’rib).
The “Arabized Arabs” (mustaʿribah) of Central Arabia (Najd) and North Arabia, descending from Ishmael the elder son of Abraham, through Adnan (hence, Adnanites). The Book of Genesis narrates that God promised Hagar to beget from Ishmael twelve princes and turn him to a great nation.(Genesis 17:20) The Book of Jubilees claims that the sons of Ishmael intermingled with the 6 sons of Keturah, from Abraham, and their descendants were called Arabs and Ishmaelites:
And Ishmael and his sons, and the sons of Keturah and their sons, went together and dwelt from Paran to the entering in of Babylon in all the land towards the East facing the desert. And these mingled with each other, and their name was called Arabs, and Ishmaelites.
— Book of Jubilees 20:13
Assyrian horsemen pursue defeated Arabs
Assyrian and Babylonian Royal Inscriptions and North Arabian inscriptions from 9th to 6th century BCE, mention the king of Qedar as king of the Arabs and King of the Ishmaelites. Of the names of the sons of Ishmael the names “Nabat, Kedar, Abdeel, Dumah, Massa, and Teman” were mentioned in the Assyrian Royal Inscriptions as tribes of the Ishmaelites. Jesur was mentioned in Greek inscriptions in the 1st century BCE.
Life-size bronze bust sculpture of Ibn Khaldun.
Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima distinguishes between sedentary Arabian Muslims who used to be nomadic, and Bedouin nomadic Arabs of the desert. He used the term “formerly nomadic” Arabs and refers to sedentary Muslims by the region or city they lived in, as in Yemenis. The Christians of Italy and the Crusaders preferred the term Saracens for all the Arabs and Muslims of that time. The Christians of Iberia used the term Moor to describe all the Arabs and Muslims of that time.
Muslims of Medina referred to the nomadic tribes of the deserts as the A’raab, and considered themselves sedentary, but were aware of their close racial bonds. The term “A’raab” mirrors the term Assyrians used to describe the closely related nomads they defeated in Syria. The Qur’an does not use the word ʿarab, only the nisba adjective ʿarabiy. The Qur’an calls itself ʿarabiy, “Arabic”, and Mubin, “clear”. The two qualities are connected for example in ayat 43.2–3, “By the clear Book: We have made it an Arabic recitation in order that you may understand”. The Qur’an became regarded as the prime example of the al-ʿarabiyya, the language of the Arabs. The term ʾiʿrāb has the same root and refers to a particularly clear and correct mode of speech. The plural noun ʾaʿrāb refers to the Bedouin tribes of the desert who resisted Muhammad, for example in at-Tawba 97,
al-ʾaʿrābu ʾašaddu kufrān wanifāqān “the Bedouin are the worst in disbelief and hypocrisy”.
Based on this, in early Islamic terminology, ʿarabiy referred to the language, and ʾaʿrāb to the Arab Bedouins, carrying a negative connotation due to the Qur’anic verdict just cited. But after the Islamic conquest of the eighth century, the language of the nomadic Arabs became regarded as the most pure by the grammarians following Abi Ishaq, and the term kalam al-ʿArab, “language of the Arabs”, denoted the uncontaminated language of the Bedouins.