Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Was it the Thamudians or the Nabateans?

I recently watched Muslim Christian Dialogue About the Quran, between a Christian lawyer and Muslim Nouman Ali Khan. Nouman argued that God always gives a miracle to his prophets to validate their message, and cited the Arab prophet Saleh who produced a live camel from a rock. The miracle given to Muhammad was the perfect Quran.

Having recently spent three days at Madayn Saleh in Saudi Arabia, where Saleh allegedly lived, the video caught my attention. Is it possible that these two ideas (Saleh and the Magic Camel; Muhammad and the Perfect Quran), instead of proving the infallability of the Quran, prove that it is a flawed document? Impossible, you say? Let's look at the story in four stages: what the Quran says, why it says what it says, what history and archeology say, and how Muslims resolve the difference.

The Quran repeats the story of Saleh in numerous places. He is usually placed within a trinity of ancient prophets (sorry, "trinity" is the wrong word; perhaps we should say "trilogy") that include flood survivor Noah, Hud from the tribe of Ad, and Saleh from the tribe of Thamud. Most Muslim historians and Quranic commentators, including Ibn Kathir and Al Tabari, place Saleh about two centuries after Noah. They believe that the "generation after Noah and its messenger" (Quran 23:31,32) refers to Ad and Hud, and the "people of the century after that" (Quran 23:42) refers to Thamud and Saleh. The following verse, Quran 23:44, indicates that many more prophets were sent before Moses (Quran 23:45). This is in agreement with Quran 14:8,9, where Moses stated that these three prophets (Noah, Hud, and Saleh) lived long before him. So Saleh and the Thamud tribe, according to the Quran, lived many thousands of years ago.

Quran 7:73-78, 15:80-84 and several other texts tell the basic story. The Thamud lived in a rocky area called Al Hijir (which means rock in Arabic), and carved their houses out of rocks. They were idolaters, and Allah sent one of their own, the prophet Saleh, to call them to himself. When the Thamud challenged Saleh to produce a live camel from a boulder if he wanted them to believe, he did so. An immense pregnant camel appeared, and soon gave birth to a calf. Following Saleh's instructions, the people set up a system where only the camel could drink from their wells every other day. The people in turn would all drink the milk of the camel. Some of the tribespeople rebelled and killed the camel. Allah then sent an earthquake to destroy them in their homes.

When Muhammad passed through the area on his way to raid Tabuk, he warned his army not to enter the rock-carved homes unless they were in tears, lest they meet the same fate as the original inhabitants. For this reason, some members of the Saudi ulema still oppose any tourist development of the area (that really makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?).

Now comes the interesting part; where did the story come from?

Umayya ibn Abu al-Salt was a poet and one of Muhammad's relatives. Numerous hadith refer to Muhammad's appreciation of Umayya's poetry. Sahih Muslim tells the story of Muhammad asking one of his followers if he remembered any of Umayya's poetry. After the man recited a few verses, Muhammad asked him to continue, until the man had recited one hundred couplets.

Early Muslim historian Ibn Hajar Al Askalani wrote that Muhammad would often sit with Fariah, the sister of Umayya, and she would recite to him her brother's poetry. Much of this later appeared in the Quran. Umayya's lines:

The God of the heavens and the earth
And lord of the mountain peaks
Created them and planted them firmly
Without visible pillars or cords

Are repeated almost word for word in Quran 31:10: “He created the heavens without visible pillars, and planted mountains firmly on the earth.”

The famous story of angels opening the chest of Muhammad to remove a "clot of impurity" (as if sin is a physical clot!) first appeared in Umayya's poetry.

Included in Umayya's poetry was the local folk legend of Saleh and his Magic Camel. Umayya even gave more details than did Muhammad; he described the camel emerging from the boulder, as well as the camel's newborn calf.

(An interesting aside is that Umayya ibn Abu al-Salt, like most of Muhammad's relatives, never became Muslims. According to one hadith, when Umayya was passing by the cemetary where those killed in the Battle of Badr were buried, he commented, "If Muhammad were really a prophet, he would not have killed his own people.")

Muhammad was well aware of the structures carved out of the rocks in the area now known as Madayn Salah. It was directly on the caravan routes between Mecca and Syria, and he had probably seen them on his trips as a young man. He simply took the legends, gave them a location, added his usual warning of, "What happened to them will happen to you if you don't follow me," and put them in the Quran.

Part three: what do history and archeology say? This will be really short, because anyone interested in further research can find much available online.

The abundant archeological remains available in western Saudi Arabia, as well as documents from ancient Greek and Roman historians and geographers, make it easy to determine with great certainty who lived where when.

An Arab tribe known as the Lihyans occupied the area of Al Hijir in the 4th century BC. About three centuries later, the area was overtaken by the Nabateans who came from Petra in Jordan. The Nabateans in turn were conquered by the Romans in the 2nd century AD. The Nabateans carved tombs for their deceased out of the rocks, and these tombs still exist today.

The Thamud tribe first appeared in history when they were defeated by King Sargon II in 715 BC. They remained as an Arab tribe until they disappeared in the 5th century AD. Although they lived in various parts of Saudi Arabia, there is no evidence the Thamud ever lived in Al Hijir. Remnants of Thamud writing have been found in the southern Tabuk region, but that is still some distance north of Madayn Saleh. Saudi archeologists agree with their non-Muslim counterparts that the ruins from Madayn Saleh are one-hundred percent Nabatean.

A quick review of the differences between archeology and the Quran indicates the following:

1. The Quran says the Thamud lived soon after Noah and before Moses; archeology places them from the 7th century BC to the 5th century AD.

2. The Quran says the Thamud lived in the area of Al Hijir; archeology says the Lihyans and other tribes lived there.

3. The Quran says the Thamud built their houses out of rocks; archeology says these were tombs built by the Nabateans (and Muhammad, who knew nothing of the Nabateans, did not realize they were tombs, not houses).

Now we come to the final part: how do Muslims reconcile the differences between the Quran and archeology? That's easy. At the hotel where I stayed in Al Ula, there were two kinds of tourists. The first were groups of Westerners, who were interested in the archeology of the region. The second were busloads of Muslim pilgrims from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and other Muslim countries who spent a day at Madayn Saleh as part of their hajj or umrah package tour. Our (Muslim) tour guide told us the archeological history of the area. We learned about the Nabateans, their stone carvings, their engravings, and their history. The Muslims pilgrims didn't learn anything about that. Their tour guide told them about Saleh and the Magic Camel, the camel who was created from a rock. They went home to tell their children about the thousands of Thamudians who lined up to drink fresh milk from the udder of Saleh's Magic Camel.....and the legends continue, generation after generation.

If you are a Muslim, I have a question for you. Which group of tourists would you have preferred to be with? What would you have wanted to hear from your tour guide? The history of the Nabateans, or the story of the Magic Camel?


Sara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AbuAsiya said...

I was attracted to read this post, however after about three paragraphs I had to stop. People that try to discredit the Quran and say it was Muhammed's words, are truly evil and misguided. Muhammed has never disrespected any person, He actually showed respect to those who disrespected Him. It is ridiculous that We here in the states are so arrogant as to say evil things about God's Messengers.

When God has given us refuge from all the ills of the world. Until we witness the fate of these people we read about we will not truly understand about life. Allah has given us much time to correct ourselves and appreciate him, but instead people find time to talk ill of Muhammed. Don't you people read. Look at the other prophets and their people. The other prophets were killed, beguiled, and talked bad of too. Why not change the course of history in your life and family. Instead of following along.

The Quran was not created, and IT definitely wasn't words of pagans. Thats Blasphemy and an oxymoron. How can Guidance come from he who is misguided. Prophet Saleh was a truthful man, but his people were ignorant and arrogant. Look at their example So when Muhammed say's do go there, you stay away, because whether he said it or not, the dwelling is cursed. We don't believe in ghosts, but the souls of that land are defiantly wretched.

In my conclusion, just stop talking about things you have no respect for, and because you mention Hadith doesn't make you credible. It actually makes you more misguided. To know hadith and be guided to the seerah and reject the deen, SubhanAllah. You really need to get off your high horse and wake up. Also it doesn't matter if the Shia (family) of Muhammed in large part didn't accept Islam, Tauheed is not handed down or passed around. Allah chooses his successful servants. Not seniority or monarchy. The slave Bilal Ibn Rabah ( RA) took shahada, and Abu Talib din't! Get it.

You should, look at the example. Here in the states many former slaves or descendent's of slaves have taken Shahada, but the Slave master and descendent's of them haven't ( all in large part). Islam is the true leveler of egos and guidance.

Susanne said...

I really enjoyed this information. I didn't realize you heard a different version from the Muslim group of tourists...hmmmm. Wow. Thanks for sharing this!

ahmed said...

@abuasiya; this write up has nothing to do with respect ( which has to be earned anyway) but about the truth. billions of lives depend on knowing the TRUTH. I prefer to know the truth then respect will follow, afterall my (after) life literally depends on it.

If Muhammad goofed about the caves, for God's sake lets us examine the issues clearly and not side step it as you have. We have heads on our shoulders and shouldn't accept irrationalities just for respect.

eve10n said...

I happened to saw this old post on google because I wanted to learn about the Navateans but I found something totally different. Well the only thing a wanted to bring to your attention is that as long as you "fight " for the truth( with no hint og sarcasm) you should realize that science in general is not 100% reliable in all cases -how many scientists made huge mistake in their theories and even in their measurements and as long as you are not a qualified archeologist with a valid respected point of view in this field then why should we believe your affirmations as being more truthfull than the islamic texts? I mean you talk about us muslims that we believe in hocus pocus and that you believe in the TRUTH but most probably you didn;t even know how did the archeologists got to those conclusions. Instead of putting so much effort in discrediting islam ( which is not possible anyway because Allah protects it untill the end of time and there is no victory agains Allah) maybe you should study errors of science (like the evolution of Darwin) -affirmation made by real scientists who have nothign to do with religion -which is something I bet you are passionate about. If I sounded disrespectful I didn't mean it and I apologize in advance.

SSP Lab said...

This is a fascinating tale because from what I understand, Saleh preceded Mohammed by centuries, meaning that there was no "Allah" or Islam at that time. If there is any truth in this story at all, it raises the question as to what religion Saleh actually was. Even more interesting is the fact that this is a classic Abrahamic tale of a god that prohibits idolatry and yet there is no mention of it in the OT. Why is that?

What I would like to know is what caused the demise of the people of Thamud. The date when all this transpired seems hard to pin down (Saleh lived well before Mohammed, yet it is said that there were a group of ppl who identified as being from Thamud up until near Mohammed's time). I don't believe the story of Saleh, so historically what do we know about what happened to these people?

Faisal said...

Assuming Prophet Muhammad wrote the Quran..well the challenge still lies open. Bring few verses that match the Quran. Dont you think pagan Arabs had enough poetic talent to accept this challenge in Quran? Prophet lived among them for many years but none of them could. Rather they would advise any strangers coming into Mecca not to listen to Quran. The Ghassanids and many other Arabs were Christians and could easily rise up to the challenge.And now it has been 1400 years and still Quran is unmatched? Now you have computers so why dont you do so?

Faisal said...

Not just Arabs but Greeks too mentioned Thamudites in their writings.