Thamud is an historical error in the Quran?

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

The tribes of ‘Ad and Thamud were ancient people who existed on the Arabian Peninsula many centuries ago and were recipients of the Prophets Hud and Salih, respectively. They are mentioned in the Quran as examples of civilizations that Allah had destroyed because of their sins and as signs of the fleeting nature of the worldly power.

The Quran and Sunnah do not identify any specific existing ruins as belonging to the first ancient tribe of Thamud, although some Muslim historians and popular folklore have done so. Missionaries and polemicists seize upon the error of this folklore as an alleged example of the error of the Quran, but in reality, this is not the case.

The first ancient tribe of Thamud should be distinguished from later tribes named Thamud by historians and archaeologists, as well as the region itself, which was known as the ‘land of Thamud’ and sometimes simply ‘Thamud.’

In Islamic prophetic history, the Prophet Salih (s) was sent to the first tribe of Thamud before the coming of Moses (s), since one of the believers warned Pharaoh about what happened to them.

Allah said:

وَقَالَ الَّذِي آمَنَ يَا قَوْمِ إِنِّي أَخَافُ عَلَيْكُم مِّثْلَ يَوْمِ الْأَحْزَابِ مِثْلَ دَأْبِ قَوْمِ نُوحٍ وَعَادٍ وَثَمُودَ وَالَّذِينَ مِن بَعْدِهِمْ ۚ وَمَا اللَّهُ يُرِيدُ ظُلْمًا لِّلْعِبَادِ

He who had faith said (to Pharaoh and his company): O my people, I fear for you the likes of the day of the confederates, the likes of the fate of the people of Noah, ‘Ad, and Thamud and those after them. Allah does not want wrong for the servants.

Surat Ghafir 40:30-31

It is estimated by some historians that Moses (s) lived around the 16th century BCE. If accurate, the Prophet Salih (s) would have lived many generations and perhaps centuries before Moses. Indeed, the Quran states that many generations came after the first tribe of Thamud without specifying an exact timeline.

Allah said:

وَقَوْمَ نُوحٍ لَّمَّا كَذَّبُوا الرُّسُلَ أَغْرَقْنَاهُمْ وَجَعَلْنَاهُمْ لِلنَّاسِ آيَةً ۖ وَأَعْتَدْنَا لِلظَّالِمِينَ عَذَابًا أَلِيمًا وَعَادًا وَثَمُودَ وَأَصْحَابَ الرَّسِّ وَقُرُونًا بَيْنَ ذَٰلِكَ كَثِيرًا

The people of Noah, when they denied the Messengers, We drowned them and made them a sign for people – We have prepared for wrongdoers a painful punishment – and ‘Ad, Thamud, the companions of the well, and many generations between them.

Surat al-Furqan 25:37-38

We simply do not know the true date and timeline for when the first Thamud of the Quran existed and, therefore, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to accurately identify the ruins of such an ancient civilization that lived thousands years ago.

Nevertheless, a number of interesting archaeological sites still exist in Arabia that have preserved the ruins of lost civilizations, such as the Archaeological Site of Al-Hijr (Madâin Sâlih). Some Muslims have mistakenly equated sites such as these with the first Thamud of the Quran, but it is believed by archaeologists that a different group of people called the Nabataeans, in fact, built some of these sites.

Compounding the confusion is the fact that the tribal name Thamud is applied today to a broad section of different peoples throughout history, not only to those mentioned in the Quran. According to the Online Corpus of the Inscriptions of Ancient North Arabia (OCIANA) at the University of Oxford:

‘Thamudic’ is a name invented by nineteenth-century scholars for large numbers of inscriptions in ANA alphabets which have not yet been properly studied. It does not imply that they were carved by members of the ancient tribe of Thamūd.

Source: OCIANA, Thamudic

As such, missionaries and polemicists have claimed that the mistakes of Muslim folklore, or contradictory applications of the name Thamud to archaeological discoveries, suggest an historical mistake in the Quran.

Yet as we have seen, the Quran does not claim any of these specific sites belong to the ancient tribe of Thamud per se. Rather, it tells us to look at the region in which Thamud had existed as well as the “many generations” after them.

Allah said:

وَعَادًا وَثَمُودَ وَقَد تَّبَيَّنَ لَكُم مِّن مَّسَاكِنِهِمْ

And ‘Ad and Thamud as has been made clear from their dwellings.

Source: Surat al-‘Ankabut 29:38

Al-Suyuti comments on this verse:

بصرف ثمود وتركه بمعنى الحيّ والقبيلة

By declining the noun Thamud or not, it means the region or the tribe.

Tafsir al-Jalalayn 29:38

Hence, the Prophet (s) and his companions did visit the land of Thamud and reflected upon the ruins of many idolatrous peoples found there, but they did not claim that any of these specific artifacts belonged to the first tribe of Thamud from the Quran.

Abdullah ibn Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, reported:

أَنَّ النَّاسَ نَزَلُوا مَعَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم عَلَى الْحِجْرِ أَرْضِ ثَمُودَ فَاسْتَقَوْا مِنْ آبَارِهَا وَعَجَنُوا بِهِ الْعَجِينَ فَأَمَرَهُمْ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَنْ يُهَرِيقُوا مَا اسْتَقَوْا وَيَعْلِفُوا الإِبِلَ الْعَجِينَ وَأَمَرَهُمْ أَنْ يَسْتَقُوا مِنَ الْبِئْرِ الَّتِي كَانَتْ تَرِدُهَا النَّاقَةُ

People descended with the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, to the valley of Hijr, the land of Thamud, and they drank from the wells and kneaded flour with it. The Prophet ordered that the drinking water be split and the flour given to the camels, and he ordered them to drink the water from the well to which the she-camel (of Salih) had come.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2981, Grade: Sahih

In another narration, the Prophet said:

لاَ تَدْخُلُوا مَسَاكِنَ الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا أَنْفُسَهُمْ إِلاَّ أَنْ تَكُونُوا بَاكِينَ حَذَرًا أَنْ يُصِيبَكُمْ مِثْلُ مَا أَصَابَهُمْ

Do not enter the dwellings of those who wronged themselves unless you are weeping, lest you be afflicted with the likes of what afflicted them.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2980, Grade: Sahih

The ruins were identified by the Prophet (s) as belonging to “those who wronged themselves,” without ascribing them to the very first tribe of Thamud. It is likely, then, that most of the artifacts in this region belonged to the “many generations” of “those who came after them” as the Quran mentions.

In sum, missionaries and polemicists contrive an accusation against the Quran by obscuring, deliberately or not, the meaning of Thamud in the Quran and its relationship to the complex array of archaeological sites in Arabia. The Quran does not make any claim about the historicity of specific sites, but rather enjoins the believers to reflect upon the many ruins of idolatrous societies throughout Arabia as a lesson in the futility of disobedience to Allah.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.