“And We certainly sent into every nation a messenger, [saying], “Worship Allah and avoid Taghut.” And among them were those whom Allah guided, and among them were those upon whom error was [deservedly] decreed. So proceed through the earth and observe how was the end of the deniers.” (Quran 16:36)
‘Aad and Thamud are two of several communities described in the Quran as recipients of God’s chosen prophets – and being utterly destroyed for rejecting them. But unlike most of the others, these two stand out for not having any clear counterpart in the Judeo-Christian tradition – a wellspring of Middle Eastern traditions, of which Islam draws in so small measure.
To ‘Aad was sent the prophet Hud; to Thamud, Saleh, and together with another mysterious figure, Shoaib, they constitute the only three pre-Islamic prophets mentioned in the Quran that have an exclusive Arab provenance. It would be unsurprising then, to find them in the archaeological/literary records related to ancient Arabia.
And indeed we do, but with an unexpected twist!
Traditionally, both the prophets – Hud and Saleh – and by implication, their respective communities – ‘Aad and Thamud, are thought to have existed generations before Abraham, placing them well before 1300 BC (at the very least1). But as we’ll see below, archaeological and literary records place them firmly in Northern Arabia/Jordan, well after the death of Jesus (33 AD)
Long before the Roman empire, before Alexander’s conquests, even before the great Persian monarchs, there were the Assyrians – lords of much of the Middle East, and archetypes of almost every empire that came after them. Its in their records, that we find out first mention of Thamud.
“The Thamudites, the (Ibadidites), the Marsimanites and the Khapayans, distant Arab tribes, who inhabit the desert, of whom no scholar or envoy knew, and who had never brought their tribute to the kings, my fathers, I slaughtered in the service of Assur, and transported what was left of them, setting them in the city of Samaria.”
Many centuries elapse before we find Thamud again in the textual record, though their name crops up many times in (undated) inscriptions throughout North Arabia.
The earliest abundant references for Thamud in our literary sources are in relation to the Nabataean empire – a large Arab kingdom encompassing parts of modern Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia (including the Hejaz, the area containing Mecca and Medina) and even parts of Sinai. Heavy contact with Romans resulted in us having a pretty decent record of its territories and people. After several centuries of independent existence, it was finally incorporated into the Roman empire in 106 AD.
al-Hijr, the second most important centre of the Nabataean empire, is the title of the 15th chapter of the Quran. Verses 15:80-83 describe its inhabitants as carving their homes out of mountains and being decimated by a loud shriek – characteristics ascribed by the Quran elsewhere to the people of Thamud2. A report in the hadith collection of Bukhari makes this connection between Thamud and al-Hijr quite explicit.
In the Nabataean period, several impressive facades were carved into the hills outside al-Hijr, between the 1st century BC and 1st century AD. As Suleyman Dost observes, “The Qur’ān’s reference to rock-cut dwellings… fits the picture perfectly with the exception that these carved niches do not seem to have functioned as living areas”3
Returning to textual references, Diodorus, a Greek historian writing in the first century BC, mentions a group called Thamoudēnoi in North-Western Arabia4. A little later, Pliny, the Elder (d. 79 AD), a Roman historian, while writing his “Natural History”, mentions the Thamudaei5 – a people dominant in Hegra, adjoining the Nabataeans. Later still, we find them mentioned by Ptolemy (d. 168AD), in his Geography.6
More than a century after Jesus, in the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (d. 180 AD), we find that a part of the Thamud tribe was enrolled in the Roman army. A temple they constructed at Rawwafa, 200 miles north of Medina, mentions the following in a Greek-Nabataean bilingual inscription:
“For the wellbeing of the rulers of the whole world . . . Marcus Aurelius Anthoninus and Lucius Aurelius Verus, who are the conquerors of the Armenians. This is the temple that was built by the tribal unit of Thamud, the leaders of their unit, so that it might be established by their hands and be their place of veneration for ever”7
Further confirmation of their service under the Romans, comes via a late 4th (or early 5th century) military document Notitia Dignitatum, which clealy mentions two cavalry units of Thamud, one serving in Egypt and the other in Palestine.
“Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with ‘Aad; of Iram of the lofty pillars?” (Quran 89:6-7)
‘Aad are mentioned as another Arabian tribe destroyed by God for rejecting their Prophet Hud. Traditional Quranic commentaries assumed that they were a South Arabian people, but it turns out, they had their base in Wadi Ramm in present-day Jordan. In fact, we even know the scripts they used!
Ptolemy (d. 168 AD), describes a people called Oaditai8, bordered by Aramaeans to the north, and Thamud to the south, close to what is today called Wadi Ramm.
That these are the people of ‘Aad, is hinted by a Nabataean inscription in Wadi Ramm, at a temple dedicated to the goddess Allat. It mentions the elusive city of Iram (mentioned in the above Quranic verse), and reads “May Abdallâhi son of ‘Atmo be remembered for all time before Allât, the goddess of Iram.”. Several broken columns in the ruins of Wadi Ramm have been interpreted as the “lofty pillars” associated with Iram in the Quran.
Another inscription from the same temple mentions ‘Aad by name, and reads, “by Ghawth son of Aslah son of Thokam and he constructed the temple of Allât, of the people of Ad“. Several other inscriptions bearing the names ‘Aad and Iram have been discovered in Jordan.
The scripts used in these inscriptions is mostly Hismaic and Safaitic – writing systems native to Arabia, and quite distinct from the one later adopted for writing the Quran.
The Quran mentions ‘Aad as successor to the people of Noah (Q 7:69), and Thamud, as successor to ‘Aad in turn (Q 7:74). This has led traditional Muslim historians to place the two quite early in history, much before the time of even Abraham and Moses. But as is clear from the above discussion, Thamud were thriving as late as maybe the 4th century AD, while the people of ‘Aad have left their final trails, only a few centuries before that.
In the historical and archaeological record, both were contemporaries, but by the time of the Prophet in the 7th century AD, they had become little more than a distant memory, and their ruins, places of myth and legend.
As Dost aptly observes, the “description [of ‘Aad and Thamud] in the Qur’ān is the sum of historical memory and topographical observations modeled on the familiar configuration of perished peoples”
(This is part of series on Arabia. You can find the first one here)
- The Tel Dan Stele, dated to 9th century, refers to the House of David, prompting scholars to place king David around 1000 BC. Since 3 centuries (at minimum) is required to traverse the 14 generations between Abraham and David, this would place Abraham somewhere before 1300 BC (though traditional Biblical chronology places him even before, around 1900 BC)
- Q 7:74 mentions Thamud as building houses out of mountains, while Q 54:31 confirms that they were destroyed by a shriek
- “Thamūd, Ṣāliḥ, al-Ḥijr, God’s She-camel”, “An Arabian Quran” – dissertation by Dr Suleyman Dost, Assistant Professor of Classical Islam at Brandeis University (hereafter referred to as Dost)
- Dost, pg 129
- “Natural History“, Book 6, chapter 32
- “Geography“, Volume 6, chapter 7.21
- “Arabia and the Arabs” by Robert Hoyland, Professor of Late Antique and Early Islamic Middle Eastern History at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, pg 68
- “Geography“, Volume 6, chapter 7.21. The “-itai” at the end is a Greek grammatical artifact in both Oaditae and Thamyditai (The translation here mis-spells Oaditae; you can see the correct one, and the Greek original at Pg 406 here)
(Written by Daud)