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?