ISHMAELITE (ĭsh'mā-ĕl-īt, Heb. yishme‘ēlîm). A descendant of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, whom Abraham sent away into the desert after the birth of Isaac (Gen.21.14-Gen.21.21). The twelve sons of Ishmael and his Egyptian wife became princes and progenitors of as many tribes. They lived in camps in the desert of northern Arabia, though occasionally some of them, such as the Nabateans, settled down. Mostly, however, they lived like Ishmael, “a wild man” of the desert (Gen.16.12); also like him, they were famous for their skill with the bow. Joseph was sold by his brothers to some Ishmaelites (Gen.37.25-Gen.37.28).

The word is apparently used in the OT in a wider sense, referring to the nomadic tribes of northern Arabia generally (Gen.37.28, Gen.37.36; Judg.8.24). All Arabs, following Muhammad’s example, claim descent from Ishmael.