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‘And his hand shall be against every man…’

The first Arab, according to the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament was Ishmael (Ismail), from whom Arabs of 7th century Arabia claimed scriptural descent when they became Muslims, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2008 23:20 IST
Renuka Narayanan

The first Arab, according to the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament was Ishmael (Ismail), from whom Arabs of 7th century Arabia claimed scriptural descent when they became Muslims. The Biblical tale goes, in the Book of Genesis, that ‘When Abram was seventy-five years old, God promised him that through his seed the nations of the earth would be blessed. But as yet, the patriarch had no offspring. A decade rolled by and still no child blessed the home of Abram and his wife, Sarai. Finally, Sarai suggested that a child be obtained for Abram through Hajar, Sarai’s Egyptian handmaid, for such was an accepted custom in those days, upheld in the ancient ‘Code of Hammurabi (146)’.

When Hagar conceived, she flaunted her condition before the barren Sarai, who then drove her out. As Hajar journeyed back to Egypt, she was visited by an ‘angel’ (Genesis 16:7,13). The celestial messenger informed Hajar that she would bear a son and his name would be Ishmael, meaning, “God hears”. (How ironic that one of the terrorists in the Mumbai massacre was apparently named ‘Abu Ismail’, ‘Father of Ishmael’).

A number of extraordinary Biblical prophecies were made about Ishmael and his descendants. It was foretold that lshmael would be “a wild ass among men; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. And he shall dwell over against all his brethren” (Genesis 16:12). Later, it was said of Ishmael that God would “multiply him exceedingly,” and that he would be the father of “twelve princes” and a “great nation would proceed from him” (Genesis 17:20). Those who keep track say that these prophecies were dramatically fulfilled by the Arabs and by their eventual religion, Islam.

For one, Ishmael grew up, married an Egyptian and begat twelve sons who became princes of their respective tribes as prophesied. These people were one of the several ancestors of the Arabians. Secondly, lshmael was characterized as a “wild ass.” As we Indians know from the wild ass in our own Rann of Kutch, this hardy, clever animal inhabits desert regions and is hard to catch. Scholars therefore say that “wild ass” is no insult but indicates the Bedouin of Arabia. The most has been made, though, by WesternChristian writers of a chilling prophecy about the descendants of Ishmael: that “his hand shall be against every man and every man’s hand against him” (Genesis 16:12).

The Untamable Arabs

Indeed, the history of the Arabs does suggest a strange consonance with the Biblical prophecy. The Persians were unable to conquer them. Herodotus, the Greek historian (430 CE) in his Histories, writes in Chapter 3, Section 88: “The Arabians were never subject as slaves to the Persians.” (Of us, he says less flatteringly in 3:94: “The Indians, who are more numerous than any other nation with which we are acquainted, paid a tribute exceeding that of every other people, to wit, three hundred and sixty talents of gold-dust. This was the twentieth satrapy.” I saw the carvings at Apadana Palace in Persepolis myself, of langoti-wearing, headload-bearing Indians: now technically Pakistanis?).

Neither the Greeks nor the Romans could subdue the Arabs, though Pompey, the great Roman general who overcame so many Mediterranean nations, tried his best, as did the emperor Trajan. The fierce and unruly Bedouin were finally unified and taught the basics of civilized behaviour, right down to regular washing habits by one man, in the seventh century: the Prophet Mohammed. This was at a time when both Judaism and Christianity were riven by decadence (orthodox Abrahamic writers are fond of listing ‘idolatry’ among their sins, but we Indians protest strongly against being classed with the seventh century Arabs. It is certainly not the same: which Hindus know, but they rarely do).

As everyone does know, after the Prophet, the rest is literally history for almost fifteen centuries. Alas, the whole world also knows that ‘fidayeen’ are still made to believe that the “sword” is their key to heaven. For any attack that an ‘Islamist’ group claims responsibility for, the world has no lack of writers evoking the Ishmaelite prophecy against Muslims that “his hand shall be against every man and every man’s hand against him.”

The Moon of Truth

Three weeks ago at the ancient Hindu holy town of Pushkar, I managed to meet O, an Israeli, with great difficulty, through a proper introduction. The difficulty lay in that the Israelis in India are very private and have mastered the art of avoiding eye contact. Moreover, I was not looking for random tourist quotes but a real conversation, if possible. O met me on the condition of not being interviewed or photographed. We sat talking for a couple of hours at Sunset Café by the Brahma Kund and here is a fact that O presented me with.

Recently (Opening the Book, HT October 10) my startling discoveries about the true Qur’anic textual meaning and context of the words jihad, qital, kafir and mushrik (idol-worshipper) were based solely on what the Holy Qur’an itself was saying and the historical context of its ayats. Now, with the ancient holy pond and Kartik Poornima as witness, O and I, children of two of the world’s oldest religions, discussed a third that had so affected our histories. And O said that the English translation of the Bible (King James) was wrong when it came to Genesis 16:12.

In Hebrew, this line as written by O, goes: Yado ba-kol ve-yad kol bo. Literally translated, he said it goes “His hand/in-everything/and hand/everyone/him (in his).” That means, desert-dweller or not, Ishmael belongs with humanity. He is not “against every man”. On the contrary, his hand is meant to be in everyone else’s. In yours and mine, and ours in his.

The Chabad

At Pushkar, in contrast to the spiritual inclusiveness of O, I also saw the face of orthodox Judaism (see photo). Isaak, 27, the Moroccan Jew from Israel seen here, believes that the head of his religious group, the Chabad-Lubitsa, is “the modern Moses”. “We are the Chosen,” he told me gravely. “For non-Jews, here are seven universal principles of goodness and kindness,” and handed me a card (They are what every religion teaches, with the piquant addition of ‘no idolatry’, a concept interpreted very literally by orthodox Jews and Muslims).There are 12 Chabads across India and its present head, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, lives in Brooklyn, USA at HQ.
It’s completely unreasonable that anyone should target the Chabad for though they uphold the strict principles of the orthodox Hasidic sect, the Chabads are not ‘Jewish Taliban’ in the walk-about-with-whips sense. Rather, “they function all over the world as a home away from home wherever there are Israelis,” says Sharon Rappaport, Second Secretary, Culture, at the Israeli embassy in New Delhi.