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The tombs of Madain Saleh could not be the Thamud mentioned in Quran (al-Hijr)

18 januari 2022

Why the present structures of Madain Saleh could not be Thamud, when studying the Quran  

The purpose of this article

My purpose is to help collect as much academic information as possible and - from muslim perspective - deduce possible conclusions from this information concerning the misconception that the present tombs of Madain Salih are the dwellings of the Thamud mentioned in the Quran, the original Thamud.    


What is Madain Saleh, what culture is attributed to the site and why is it an issue?

Madain Saleh with its 131 tombs is spread out over 13.4 kilometers and the walled urban center would have covered about 650,000 square meters or 160 acres.[1] It is estimated to have been built from 300 BC to 100 AD, because it bears testimony to Nabataean civilization. However, the same site also features som 50 inscriptions of the pre-Nabatean civilization[2]. The timing of Nabatean presence is closer to the time Jesus Christ (AS) lived.


In Wikipedia we find the following general information about Hegra or so called Madain Saleh, in the north-west of Saudi Arabia:


(Ancient Greek: Ἕγρα) known to Muslims as Al-Hijr (Arabic: ٱلْحِجْر),also known as Mada’in Salih (Arabic: ( صَالِح مَدَائِن) romanized: madāʼin Ṣāliḥ, lit. 'Cities of Salih'), is an archaeological site located in the area of Al-'Ula within Medina Province in the Hejaz, Saudi Arabia. A majority of the remains date from the Nabataean Kingdom (1st century AD). The site constitutes the kingdom's southernmost settlement and its second largest city after Petra (now in Jordan), its capital city.Traces of Lihyanite and Roman occupation before and after the Nabatean rule, respectively, can also be found.[3]


Madain Saleh is therefore attributed to the Nabateans from 300 BC to 100 AD, since it bears testimony to Nabataean civilization. The same site also features some 50 inscriptions of the pre-Nabatean civilization[4], but overwhelmingly we find architecture and scribing’s from the Nabateans. This poses a problem for Muslims who believe that Madain Saleh is the actual place where Thamud lived or the actual Al-Hijr of the Quran, since the timing of Nabatean presence is closer to the time Jesus Christ ,Gods peace and blessings be with him (AS), lived rather than before Moses (AS) according to Quran (40:30-31).


Were early muslims informed about the Nabateans and their civilization?

The early muslim sources are full of interaction with the Nabateans. So they were well informed of their existence.

In the history of al-Tabari vol. 2 p.18, we are informed that when 'Ad "was destroyed, Thamud was called Iram. When Thamud in turn was destroyed, the remaining sons of Iram were called Arman - they are Nabateans." According to al-Tabari the Nabateans therefore are decendants of Thamud. That would be in conformity with the opinion held by som muslims that the Nabateans would have inhabited the lands of the earlier Thamud.

For example, in The History of al-Tabari (839–923 CE) vol. 9 p. 152, we can read that the Prophet Mohammed (AS) had two camels that were bought from the Nabatean market. The Nabateans (Saqita) went to Madina as traders according to the muslim historian Al-Waqidi (747 – 823 AD) before and after the coming of Islam. This was not popular with the Byzantines who began persecuting the Nabateans because of this (p 347).

In al Muwatta of imam Malik (report nr 93-95) we are informed that "as-Sa'ib ibn Yazid said, "As a young man I used to work with Abdullah ibn Utba ibn Masud in the market of Madina in the time of Umar ibn al-Khattab and we used to take a tenth from the Nabateans."

The Nabateans also worked as agents for the muslims against the romans (Byzantium) by providing them with intelligence about the movements made by the Byzantine army (p.348). A christian Nabatean was sent to Umar ibn al-Khattab with intelligence from Amr ibn al As (p. 348). Later the Nabateans participated in the muslim army and fought against the Byzantines (p. 349). The Nabateans of Palestine were also ordered by Umar ibn al-Khattab (RA) to sweep the place of the Rock in Jerusalem.

The Nabateans joning and helping the muslims was, accordning to Salah K. Hamarneh, History department University of Jordan "There is no dobut, then, that the Arab Nabateans resented the fact that the Romans and later the Byzantines were the ones who destroyed their state and influence. We can therefore rule out the opinions of some deceitful christian missionaries that Muhammad (AS) or the early muslims didn't know about the history or civilization of the Nabateans and therefore mixed up the tombs of Madain Saleh with Thamud. We would have to conclude that the Nabateans themselves would have objected to this.

The general problem with archeological evidence and historical research

As is widely known, prehistoric events and archeology – that is before written history – means great uncertainty. “Prehistoric civilizations did not leave behind written records, so we cannot read about them[5].”. “Even today, we can only piece together a tiny fragment of all that has occurred. And a lot of that understanding could very well be wrong because it is inevitably partial and incomplete. Many things that historians take as a given today will be questioned by future historians armed with new tools and new evidence.”[6] .


Thamud and likewise the Nabateans didn’t keep written records of their history so we therefore should conclude there is great uncertainty about the origins of their history or places. “The challenge with getting to know the Nabataeans is that they left behind so little first-hand history. With the immense popularity of Petra today, it’s hard to imagine that we don’t know much about its creators. Most of what we’ve learned about the Nabataeans comes from the documents of outsiders: the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians.”[7].


With the above citations I want to underscore that one has to be careful what conclusions to draw from historical and archeological findings, since this can change with new findings.


Who were the (Quranic) Thamud and when they existed?

(7:73) And to the Thamud [We sent] their brother Salih. He said, “O my people, worship Allah; you have no deity other than Him. There has come to you clear evidence from your Lord. This is the she-camel of Allah [sent] to you as a sign. So leave her to eat within Allah ‘s land and do not touch her with harm, lest there seize you a painful punishment.[8]


The Quran does not indicate any exact timings for Thamud. According to the Quran (40:30-31) a believer told Pharaoh to take lessons from the destiny of the peoples of Ad and of Thamud. Moses would have lived around 1500 BC to 1200 BC according to most common (religious) estimations. This means that the Thamud existed before Moses (AS) according to the Quran. Thamud are however placed after Noah (AS) and the people of Ad and before Moses (AS). We find a relative timing in (25:37-38): And the people of Noah - when they denied the messengers,1 We drowned them, and We made them for mankind a sign. And We have prepared for the wrongdoers a painful punishment. And [We destroyed] ‘Aad and Thamud and the companions of the well and many generations between them. When God says many generations, this means that a long time passed between ‘Ad and Thamud and the companions of the well. There is no certain knowledge of who The companions of the well (Ashab Ar-rass) were or where they lived, but the verse implies that at least hundreds of years have passed between them and Thamud before them. Tafsir ibn Kathir mentions that a generation has by some been defined as 120 years, 100 years, 80 years, 40 years and so on, but the strongest opinion is that a generation is when one generation goes and is succeeded by another generation. Jesus Christ was the last prophet before Muhammad (AS), so The companions of the well existed before Jesus Christ AS. Prophet Muhammad (AS) was well informed of that Moses had lived long before Jesus Christ. We find hadith where the Christians question Mughira b. Shu'ba about Maryam being the “sister of Haroon” although Moses lived long before Jesus Christ by such and such, see Sahih Muslim hadith 2135[9] and Muhammad (AS) replied that the (people of the old) used to give names (to their persons) after the names of Apostles and pious persons who had gone before them, without objecting about the timeline of Moses living long before Jesus Christ. Thamud according to a Quranic timeline would therefore have lived at least thousands of years before Muhammad SAW.  


The earliest written historic mentioning of a people named Thamud is from the 8th century BC in Assyrian sources. The mentioning of Thamud around 750 BC does not mean Thamud didn’t exist before this date, logically because they would have to exist at least for a few generations to be conquered and worth mentioning by the Assyrians. These later Thamud that are mentioned in these Assyrian or Roman sources could also have taken this name after the earlier Thamud in mentioned in the Quran or after the land that had belonged to the earlier Thamud.[10]


Robert Hoyland writes:

This then raises the question of whether we are talking about the same tribe over this very long period of time.  Possibly the original tribe died out or dispersed at some point, but the name, on account of its antiquity, was subsequently adopted by some new grouping.”[11]


In another history book we read:

“According to the book written by Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Ansari and Dr. Hussein Abu Al-

Hassan said; “Al-Ula and Madain Saleh about Al-Hijr: Al-Hijr was settled by man from the most ancient times for the availability of the essential ingredients for stability such as water and fertile soil in addition to its location on the trade route road.


Some texts in the Holy Qur’an affirms that Al-Hijr was populated in the third millennium BC at the very least and it was settled by the people of Thamud in that period depending on the chronological sequence of events in the Qur’an where the people of Thamud are mentioned after Noah and before Moses. Some historians open that the period of Moses is that of Ramses II (1224 - 1290 BC) that he was Moses’ Pharaoh and that Thamud, which mentioned in the Ashuri works and in some Greek and Latin texts is not related to people of the Prophet Saleh (PBUH). However, we can consider them as remnant of that ancient nation who later became Bedouins after they had lived in civilization.”[12]


Thamud and the inhabitants of Al-Hijr

Muslim theologians have also traditionally considered the inhabitants of Al-Ḥijr (Quran 15:80-84) to be the same people as Thamud.


The location of Thamud according to Quran and hadith

The Quran does not give us any precise geographic location for Thamud[13]. The only locations that is directly connected to the name of Thamud is “al wad” or the valley in English and indirectly the people of the Hijr in 15:80 (Al-Hijr literally means and is translated as The rocky tract). Neither does hadith give us any exact geographical location for Thamud, except that it is in the region of Al-Hijr.


Sahih Al-bukhari hadith 4702:


عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عُمَرَ ـ رضى الله عنهما ـ أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ لأَصْحَابِ الْحِجْرِ ‏ "‏ لاَ تَدْخُلُوا عَلَى هَؤُلاَءِ الْقَوْمِ إِلاَّ أَنْ تَكُونُوا بَاكِينَ فَإِنْ لَمْ تَكُونُوا بَاكِينَ فَلاَ تَدْخُلُوا عَلَيْهِمْ أَنْ يُصِيبَكُمْ مِثْلُ مَا أَصَابَهُمْ  ‏‏


Narrated `Abdullah bin `Umar:


(While we were going for the Battle of Tabuk and when we reached the places of the dwellers of Al- Hijr), Allah's Messenger (SAW) said about the dwellers of Al-Hijr (to us). "Do not enter (the dwelling places of) these people unless you enter weeping, but if you weep not, then do not enter upon them, lest you be afflicted with what they were afflicted with."[14]

- The arabic text does not mention "the dwelling places" but that is the interpretation and/or comment of the english translator.  That is why that part is within parentheses. 


Sahih Al-bukhari hadith 3378

Narrated Ibn `Umar:

عَنِ ابْنِ عُمَرَ ـ رضى الله عنهما أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم لَمَّا نَزَلَ الْحِجْرَ فِي غَزْوَةِ تَبُوكَ أَمَرَهُمْ أَنْ لاَ يَشْرَبُوا مِنْ بِئْرِهَا، وَلاَ يَسْتَقُوا مِنْهَا فَقَالُوا قَدْ عَجَنَّا مِنْهَا، وَاسْتَقَيْنَا‏.‏ فَأَمَرَهُمْ أَنْ يَطْرَحُوا ذَلِكَ الْعَجِينَ وَيُهَرِيقُوا ذَلِكَ الْمَاءَ‏.‏ وَيُرْوَى عَنْ سَبْرَةَ بْنِ مَعْبَدٍ وَأَبِي الشُّمُوسِ أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَمَرَ بِإِلْقَاءِ الطَّعَامِ‏.‏ وَقَالَ أَبُو ذَرٍّ عَنِ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ "‏ مَنِ اعْتَجَنَ بِمَائِهِ ‏"


When Allah's Messenger (AS) landed at Al-Hijr during the Ghazwa of Tabuk, he ordered his companions not to drink water from its well or reserve water from it. They said, "We have already kneaded the dough with its water and also filled our bags with its water.'' On that, the Prophet (AS) ordered them to throw away the dough and pour out the water.


We do not get information on where this Hijr is located – nor which part of Hijr this is – besides on the way to Tabuk.  


Based upon the Quranic verses and the hadith we conclude that the Prophet (AS) and his companions did visit the land of Thamud and the ruins of the punished peoples, but they did not claim that any of these specific ruins – or more so the tomb carvings of Madain Saleh – belonged to the first tribe of Thamud from the Quran.[15]


In other sources like tafsir and history you may find geographic locations for Thamud.

The most famous place attributed to Thamud by Muslims is the so called Madain Saleh or Hegra/al-Ḥijr Archaeological site in Saudi Arabia. For a while even a fatwa “by the Council for Senior Ulema, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, prohibited visiting the area based on a hadith in which the Prophet Mohammad taught Muslims to avoid places subjected to God’s wrath”. “The fatwa has since been lifted.[16].

The earthquake and obliteration of the land of Thamud

God Almighty clearly says that he inflicted a terrible punishment on Thamud and literally levelled their town or valley with the ground.


(7:77) So they hamstrung the she-camel and were insolent toward the command of their Lord and said, "O Ṣāliḥ, bring us what you promise us, if you should be of the messengers."


(7:78) So the earthquake seized them, and they became within their home [corpses] fallen prone. (Sahih international)


Ibn Kathirs commentary says about this verse (7:78) that:


“When the sun rose, the Sayhah (loud cry) came from the sky and a severe tremor overtook them from below; the souls were captured and the bodies became lifeless, all in an hour.”

“The scholars of Tafsir said that none from the offspring of Thamud remained, except Prophet Salih and those who believed in him. A disbelieving man called Abu Righal was in the Sacred Area at the time and the torment that befell his people did not touch him. When he went out of the Sacred Area one day, a stone fell from the sky and killed him.”[17]


Tafsir al-Jalalayn“So the Trembling a violent earthquake and a cry from the heaven seized them and they lay lifeless prostrate in their habitations keeled over their knees dead.”[18]


In surat Ashams (91:14) we can read more about the vast destruction that afflicted Thamud:


“(91:14) But they rejected his statement as a lie and hamstrung the she-camel. For that crime their Lord rumbled down upon them, utterly razing them to the ground."[19]


Pickthalls translation says “(91:14)

But they denied him, and they hamstrung her, so Allah doomed them for their sin and rased (their dwellings).[20]


Amatul Rahman Omar:

(91:14) But they belied (and disobeyed) him and hamstrung her. Then their Lord destroyed them completely for their sin, so much so that He leveled them (all to the ground).


Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation:

(91:14) Then they rejected him (as a false prophet), and they hamstrung her. So their Lord, on account of their crime, obliterated their traces and made them equal (in destruction, high and low)!


Faridul Haque:

(91:14) In response they belied him, and hamstrung the she camel – so Allah put ruin over them because of their sins and flattened their dwellings.[21]


In Tafsir we read that

“Other verses of the Qur'an have also mentioned: فَأَخَذَتْهُمُ الصَّيْحَةُ (that is, a Cry or Sound seized them - 15:83). The word: الصَّيْحَةُ (As-Saihah) means a shrill cry or severe sound. From these two verses, we find out that two kinds of punishment had simultaneously converged on the people of Thamud, the earthquake from below and the ` Saihah' from above.”[22]


The comment of Ala-Maududi[23]says this means “For that crime their Lord rumbled down upon them, utterly razing them to the ground.”    


Dr Omar Abd al-Kafi (Islamic theologian, and manager of (Dubai International Holy Quran Award Islamic Studies Center) also gives this explanation of the verse 91:14 in arabic.[24]He (God) flattened their houses and homes with the ground.


Nouman Ali Khan after studying the tafseers (commentaries) of 91:14 says:


The word damdama is to destroy something by pounding it into the ground such that it becomes one with the ground.”. “So, just like Allah (swt) balanced and evened out the nafs He literally crushed these people and levelled out their town to the point you would never have known there was a settlement at that place.[25]


In Tafseer Al-Qurtubi concerning verse 91:14 he explains the meanings of damdama ‘aleyhim:

القشيري : وقيل دمدمت على الميت التراب : أي سويت عليه . فقوله : فدمدم عليهم أي أهلكهم ، فجعلهم تحت التراب .فسواها أي سوى عليهم الأرض


Translated Al-Qurtubi wrote: According to Qushayri: And it is said earth is covered over the dead one, that is flattened over him, His saying “damdama ‘aleyhim” or destroyed them, he put them under the earth, and flattened them, or flattened the earth over them.[26]


In the Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur’anic usage (by Badawi and Abdel Haleem) we can read that the root d-m-d-m is anger, to shake up violently; to inflict great punishment; to bury; to smother. Damdama is to crush, to destroy, to visit with great punishment…[27]


In surah al-Ankabut (29:38) we can read that


Sahih international (29:38):

And [We destroyed] ‘Aad and Thamud, and it has become clear to you from their [ruined] dwellings. And Satan had made pleasing to them their deeds and averted them from the path, and they were endowed with perception.


Abdullah Yusuf Ali (29:38):

(Remember also) the ‘Ad and the Thamud (people): clearly will appear to you from (the traces) of their buildings (their fate): the Evil One made their deeds alluring to them, and kept them back from the Path, though they were gifted with intelligence and skill.


Tabari comments the meaning of verse 29:38 that The Almighty declares “Oh people, and remember ‘Aad and Thamud, (and it has become clear to you from their dwellings) the ruin and desolation we caused them”.[28]


According to the above Quranic verses and commentaries we could conclude that the dwellings or village of Thamud was crushed and levelled to the ground, so the remains of their habitat should bear clear traits of this utter destruction from God. In this case Thamud’s habitat or dwellings should not be in any good condition, especially since the Quran (29:38) over 1.400 years ago and commentaries of the Quran, mention that there are ruins or traces left visible of Thamud’s dwellings. The hadith of the Prophet visiting Al-Hijr will also have to be interpreted in light of these Quranic verses that speak of the dwellings of Thamud being ruins. Since the Prophet (AS) did not speak of any mountain homes, rooms or buildings but simply literally said “do not visit (enter) these people” there is no reason to speculate about this. 

More on why the present structures of Madain Saleh could not be the place of Quranic Thamud   

About Madain Saleh - or as it is also called Al-Hijr – we can read in (among other places) the site Islamqa.info, that there is no consensus about the site of Madain Saleh as the place for Thamud or the Al-Hijr described in the Quran[29]. The Muslim researchers that do not consider Madain Saleh as Al-Hijr of the Quran do so because of several reasons. Several researchers have, for example, identified Thamud with the place of Al-khoraibah/Alkhraibeh (also known as Daidan or Dadan northwest of AlUla) instead, based on the many findings of Thamudic texts. Al-Khoraibah in Daidan is mainly destroyed.


Dr. Sulaiman Al-Thiaeb, professor of ancient Arabic writings and archaeology[30] at King Saud University (KSU) and also consultant at the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) since 2019 – who spent decades exploring among other places the AlUla region, including the Madain Saleh – already in 1995 wrote an article that explained that Madain Saleh could not be the place of the Quranic Thamud (i.e. according to Muslim sources). He explains that the construction and the walls of Madain Saleh have no marks at all that would be there after the destruction God sent upon Thamud (i.e. the violent earthquake etc.) [31]. When asked about the Quranic verses that say that Thamud carved dwellings in the mountains he answers that there are several places in the Arabic peninsula that have carved rooms in the mountains.



Dr Sulaiman Thiaeb also points out that the area of Madain Saleh has been inhabited during almost the entire Muslim history – the Khilafah ar-Rashidah, Umayyad, Abbasid, and Ottoman times – and it wasn’t until some 50 years ago that it was considered as the actual cursed place of Thamud[32]. During Ottoman times there even was a train station near the site.


Ibn Batutta, who lived in the 14 th century (600 years ago), travelled by the area and also testifies to Hijr’s beautiful condition still then:


On the fifth day after leaving Tabuk, they reach the well of al-Hijr—the Hijr of Thamud—which has an abundance of water, but not one of the pilgrims draws of it, however violent their thirst, following the example set by the Apostle of God (God bless and give him peace), when he passed it by on the expedition to Tabuk. For he drove on his riding camel, giving orders that none should water from it, and those who had used it to make dough fed their camels with it. At this place are the dwellings of Thamud, in some hills of red rock.

They are hewn out and have carved thresholds, such that anyone seeing them would take them to be of recent construction. Their bones lie crumbling inside these houses—'verily, in that is a warning example'. The place of kneeling of the she-camel of Salih (on him be peace) is between two hills there, and in the space between them are the traces of a mosque, in which the pilgrims perform a prayer. From al-Hijr to al-'Ula is half a day's journey or less.[33]  


Another source informs us that

The Abbasids built castles on the Shami Pilgrimage road including Madain Saleh Castle in Al-Hijr, which is still there.” Then, the Ottoman State extended the Hejaz Railway to transport pilgrims from Levant, Turkey and Palestine to Makkah and built a main station in Madain Saleh including houses, workshops for the maintenance of locomotives, offices and dormitories for staff and water tank. After that, Al-Hijr ruled by Al-Sharaf for a short period. [34]


Dr. Fahad Mutlaq Al-Otaibi at King Saud University (specifically researching and writing books about the Arabic peninsula and the Nabatean culture) explains [35] in an interview:


First of all, some of the recent findings show that – even though they were defeated in the third century AD, the Nabateans as a people existed up until the Islamic conquest and even participated in it. This is contrary to the Thamud mentioned in the Quran (i.e. who were a much older people after Noah and at least 3500 BC).


Second, the Madain Saleh is still existing upright, although Thamud’s dwelling was hit by an earthquake among other punishments according to the Quran.


Dr. Fahad Mutlaq Al-Otaibi also makes a point about Thamudic writings in Madain Saleh that just because you find a writing in another language doesn’t mean that those people lived there. One example would be that if an Englishman wrote a note in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia doesn’t mean the town belonged to Englishmen.


Third, that It was very late in history, only 50-60 years ago, that the place of Madain Saleh was considered as the actual cursed place of Thamud’s dwellings.


Dr. Al-Otaibi also points to that the reason there is no places found for the living in Madain Saleh is that it could have been a graveyard which people carried their dead to, though some researchers have the opinion that what became tombs used to be homes (22:00).  


Concerning the last point that the area of Madain Saleh once also had a living city, we can read in the Smithsonian magazine: Like Petra, Hegra is a metropolis turned necropolis: most of the remaining structures that can be seen today are tombs, with much of the architectural remains of the city waiting to be excavated or already lost, quite literally, to the sands of time. One of the only places where the words of the Nabataeans exist is in the inscriptions above the entrances to several of the tombs at Hegra.” [36].


One must agree with Dr Al-Thiaeb and Dr Al-Otaibi since many of the rooms/tombs in the Madain Saleh are in such a good condition that the complete writings and delicate and beautiful cut out stone ornaments are still intact on the outside walls and the rooms inside are complete with niches. Or as Ibn Battura describes them in the 14th century – that is some 600 years after Prophet Muhammad (AS) “anyone seeing them would take them to be of recent construction” This stands in stark contrast to the Quranic destruction of Thamud, described in the Quran and tafseers. 


The name Madain Saleh itself seems to be a misunderstanding of later Muslim generations caused by early generations.

There are reports that the naming of Hegra as Madain Saleh seems to be a misunderstanding:

“The name "Madain Saleh" is somewhat new and has nothing to do with the Prophet Saleh (Peace be upon Him), the name "Madain Saleh" was given to Al-Hijr area almost 1400 years ago. Ibn Nasser Addin Mohammed ibn Abdullah quoted Abu Kassim Mohammed Saleh Alborzali that Madain Saleh that located near Al-Ula on the Shami pilgrimage road is an Islamic town and Saleh to which it attributed is one of Beni Abbas ibn Abdul Motalib.

So many people later thought that the name belonged to the Prophet Saleh (Peace be upon Him) who was sent to the people of Thamud. Sheikh Hamad Aljasser (May Allah have mercy on him), had an article published in Arab Magazine under the title of "Al-Hijr is not Madain Saleh". In addition, some old maps determine the location of the city of Saleh to other of Al-Ula, near Moghira or Al-Mabiat Village with reference to the location of Al-Ula and Al-Hijr on the same map.”[37] [38]

If the Nabateans did construction work on Madain Saleh it does not rule out that earlier generations could have been there excavating the mountain sides.

Although we can definitely conclude that the Nabateans did work on Madain Saleh, because they left unique architectural landmarks there, we cannot rule out that other cultures or people were there before them, or originally carved out the rooms in the mountain, whether they were the Quranic Thamud or other groups of peopole. There is plenty of evidence that this area has been inhabited for thousands of years.


In the Smithonian magazine we read that:

“Though the Nabataeans left behind scant records, Hegra is where their words are most prominently visible. But the Nabataeans weren’t the only ones here: about 10 historic languages have been found inscribed into the landscape of AlUla, and this region in particular is seen as instrumental in the development of the Arabic language. Something about AlUla has inspired civilization after civilization to leave their mark.[39]


Hegra is absolutely the jewel in the crown,” McGauran says. “However, one of the beautiful and unique things about AlUla is that it is this palimpsest of human civilization for many thousands of years. You have this near continuous spread of 7,000 years of successive civilizations that are settling in this valley—important civilizations that are just now being revealed to the world through archeology.”[40]


And Madain Saleh appears to contain both Thamudic and Nabatean writings. “A lot of Thamudic words found on the site and the designs carved on the ceiling of the diwan indicate that the place was used for the pleasures of life.”

“Al-Yahya said a lot of Nabatean writings on the site of the diwan in addition to Thamudic writings indicate that history in this region is mixed and needs further study and investigation in order to explain to the coming generations the past of this region in detail.” [41]

One should bear in mind that not far from Madain Saleh there are the mountain graves of Dedan (Daidan) attributet to Dedanites, which means there definetely existed more ancient people than the Nabateans that already was digging holes in the mountain sides (before the Nabateans).  These grave holes also actually look more like graves (and not like small houses as in Madain Saleh).

"In the ancient oasis Dedan, close to today's city of Al-Ula in Madinah Province, a kingdom flourished from at least the 6th century until the 2nd century BCE. There, the kings of Dedan and later Lihyan reigned over a territory that spread at its apogee from the city of Iathrib (today's Madinah) to the Levant.

These tombs are square-shaped holes, cut at different heights out of the side of the mountain, their cavities being about two meters deep.

They are approximately dated to the 5th century BCE, the probable period of the Lihyanite takeover of the region." [41.1]


Some of the greatest architectural wonders are built by earlier civilizations and taken over by later peoples, like Hagia Sofia. It was built in 537 AD as a church by the Byzantines and taken over by the Ottomans in 1453, when minarets and Islamic calligraphy was added and it became a mosque. The Mesquita Cathedral in Cordoba was originally a mosque and became a church. Rome was built on the remains of Etruscan architecture, art and culture[42]. The Parthenon in Athens itself was turned into a church for almost a thousand years, from 500 AD to 1450 [43]. Since these places mentioned are of later dates than the Quranic Thamudian culture, we have much more information about when, how and who built them originally. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.


There are also still unanswered questions about Madain Saleh, like the lacking stones that was cut out from the mountains and when the stone quarries were established? If the Nabateans cut out the enormous quantitities of stone from the mountain sides, then where are the stones or stone heaps they should have left, or the structures they built with these stones?  

The quarries at Mada’in Salih represent just one piece of the puzzle from which the joint team hopes to tease answers. “Where was the quarried stone being used?” asks Nehmé. “And remember, in addition to the stone from the quarries, there were enormous quantities of cut stone and building material coming out of almost 100 rock-cut tombs. We know this stone was used for building, as there is no evidence of spoil heaps. This is certainly a missing link, a puzzle for us to look at solving,” she says, adding that the puzzle is made more complex because, thus far, no inscription or evidence has been found that can accurately date the quarries.

What is more puzzling still is that across the open desert plain amid Mada’in Salih’s clusters of carved tombs, there is not a single visible trace of a building of any kind.”[44]

Mr. Eid Al-Yahya in his show على خطى العرب (In the footsteps of the arabs) [44.1] visits Madain Saleh and shows that some of the tombs had windows and doors as high as a normal man, and asks what possible use a dead person can have of daylight, fresh air and a full size door?

Al-Yahya also demonstrates that the niches dug out in the tombs, and that are supposed to be for human bodies, are just to small to use for that purpose since they are just not wide enough for a human body, not even a childs.

Al-Yahya also demonstrates that there is full out room (Qasr al-bint), where you can stand upright and walk around. He asks why somone would dig out a full room in the mountain, with a smaller room (the size of a closet or utility room) in it and niches where you could rather fit every day objects than a body, just to put a dead body in it? 

Al-Yahya also shows a tomb over which someone started grinding away the stone decorations below to write a commemoration tablet, but didn't complete, which could indicate that the Nabateans reused the site of Madain Saleh and did not carve out the mountains theme selves.

Al-Yahya doesn't deny that Nabateans were present in Madain Saleh and built on it or completed it, but he has the opinion that they couldn't bee the original carvers of the mountain dwellings. He admits though that he is not an expert and that these are his own conclusions. 

We should also bear in mind that archeology is a science and about estimation. That is it can change.

In an article from 2021 we can read about a redating of camel inscriptions in north western Saudi Arabia. Originally estimated as 2.000 years old inscriptions showed up as actually being 8.000 years old!

Life-size camel carvings in Saudi Arabia originally thought to be 2,000 years old actually date back 8,000 years - making them almost TWICE the age of Stonehenge, new analysis reveals [44.2]

Rock-hewn dwellings by the  Edomites  and before them the Horites in the Old Testament in the Bible

I am not saying that the Edomites are Thamud, but I'm just presenting  intereseting correlations about the existence of people way more ancient than the Nabateans - in the Middle East - that carved their homes out of the mountains and were destroyed. 

In Obadiah 1:3 in the Old Testament the Edomites are mentioned: 
The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart, Who shall bring me down to the ground?

A sixth-century (BC) date for Obadiah is a "near consensus" position among scholars.

In several commentaries of the Bible - among others - we read about the Edomites and the Horites. 

"The mountains are hardly accessible, therefore, on the western side; whereas on the east they are gradually lost in the broad sandy desert of Arabia, without any perceptible fall (see Burckhardt in v. Raumer's Pal. pp. 83-4, 86; and Robinson's Palestine, ii. p. 551ff.). They also abound in clefts, with both natural and artificial caves; and hence its earliest inhabitants were Horites, i.e., dwellers in caves; and even the Edomites dwelt in caves, at least to some extent."

"The Edomites were proud of their wealth and riches, which they had by robberies amassed together; and of their military skill and courage, and of their friends and allies; and especially of their fortresses and fastnesses, both natural and artificial; and therefore thought themselves secure, and that no enemy could come at them to hurt them, and this deceived them:

thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock; their country was called Arabia Petraea, the rocky; and their metropolis Petra, the rock: Jerom says that they that inhabited the southern part of the country dwelt in caves cut out of the rock, to screen them from the heat of the sun: or, "thou that dwellest in the circumferences of the rock" (p); round about it, on the top of it, in a tower built there, as Kimchi and Ben Melech. Aben Ezra thinks that "caph", the note of similitude, is wanting; and that the sense is, thou thoughtest that Mount Seir could secure thee, as they that dwell in the clefts of a rock:

whose habitation is high; upon high rocks and mountains, such as Mount Seir was, where Esau dwelt, and his posterity after, him. The Targum is,"

"The whole southern country of the Edomites," says Jerome, "from Eleutheropolis to Petra and Selah (which are the possessions of Esau), hath minute dwellings in caves; and on account of the oppressive heat of the sun, as being a southern province, hath under ground cottages." Its inhabitants, whom Edom expelled Deuteronomy 2:12, were hence called Horites, i. e., dwellers in caves. Its chief city was called Selah or Petra, "rock." It was a city single of its kind amid the works of man . "

"The dwellings of the living and the sepulchres of the dead were, apparently, hewn out in the same soft red sandstone-rock, and perhaps some of the dwellings of the earlier rock-dwellers were converted into graves by the Nabataeans and their successors who lived in the valley. The central space has traces of other human habitations ."

As above we can read that the Christians believe that Nabateans might have converted earlier rock-dwellings in Petra to graves.

Jeremaiah 49:7-8 places the Edomites in Dedan (Wadi al Qura)

7 Concerning Edom, thus saith the LORD of hosts; Is wisdom no more in Teman? is counsel perished from the prudent? is their wisdom vanished?

8 Flee ye, turn back, dwell deep, O inhabitants of Dedan; for I will bring the calamity of Esau upon him, the time that I will visit him.

16 Thy terribleness hath deceived thee, and the pride of thine heart, O thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, that holdest the height of the hill: though thou shouldest make thy nest as high as the eagle, I will bring thee down from thence, saith the LORD.

17 Also Edom shall be a desolation: every one that goeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss at all the plagues thereof.

18 As in the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighbour cities thereof, saith the LORD, no man shall abide there, neither shall a son of man dwell in it.

It is rather interesting that the Edomites according to Jeremaiah (about 650-570 BC) are placed in Dedan - which is in wad al Qura - that is the Wadi (valley) where Thamud lived and were mentioned in the Quran, according to the Quran commentaries. 

"Edomites are related in several ancient sources including the Tanakh, a list of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I from c. 1215 BC as well as in the chronicle of a campaign by Ramesses III (r. 1186–1155 BC).[5] Archaeological investigation has shown that the nation flourished between the 13th and the 8th century BC and was destroyed after a period of decline in the 6th century BC by the Babylonians.[5] After the fall of the kingdom of Edom, the Edomites were pushed westward towards southern Judah by nomadic tribes coming from the east; among them were the Nabataeans, who first appeared in the historical annals of the 4th century BC and had already established their own kingdom in what used to be Edom by the first half of the 2nd century BC."

Also note worthy is that the Pharaos of Egypt were well aware of what was going on in the neighbouring countries, so we might not be that surprised when when the Quran mentions a man close to the Pharao recalls what happened to the Thamud. 

New findings of stone and rock structures near Al-Ula (and Madain Saleh) are between 7,000 and 9,000 years old.

In recent years more and more archeological findings of extremely old stone structures and stone building cultures have been found near Al-Ula. And not surprisingly – from a Quranic perspective that places the original Thamud thousands of years ago as a stone builder culture – these people built stone or rock structures.


In the archeology blog Ancient origins we read:

Over 7,000 years ago, people built hundreds of large stone structures in the area that is now northwest Arabia. Archaeologists have identified this act as the earliest known example of a widespread monument building tradition. The stone structures, called mustatils, predate the Egyptian pyramids and Britain’s stone circles - by millennia.[45]


From NBC news (April 30 2021):

“Thousands of monumental structures built from walls of rock in Saudi Arabia are older than Egypt's pyramids and the ancient stone circles of Britain, researchers say – making them perhaps the earliest ritual landscape ever identified.

A study published Thursday in the journal Antiquity shows that the mysterious structures dotted around the desert in northwestern Saudi Arabia – called "mustatils" from the Arabic word for "rectangle" – are about 7,000 years old. That’s much older than expected, and about 2,000 years older than either Stonehenge in England or the oldest Egyptian pyramid.”[46]


“The "head" of a mustatil consists of a larger wall of stones and contains a small niche or chamber; researchers have found animal bones in at least one of the chambers, which suggests it was used to make sacrificial animal offerings.”[47]


Concerning the Site of Al-Ola close to where Madain Saleh/Al-Hijr is situated we can read in Arab news that The area bears evidence of other ancient civilizations. Just 22 kilometers from Madain Saleh is Al-Ola, located on the ancient incense route. The city served as the capital of Lihyan, an ancient Arab kingdom. It is home to archaeological remnants that date back thousands of years, including it’s citadel which is some 8,000 years old.”[48]


The use of the dwellings in the mountain as tombs does not contradict the Quran per se

One of the criticisms that also is refuted about Madain Saleh is that it is a place for tombs only and therefore a misconception was made by Muhammad AS that these were living quarters. A refutation to this argument is that in the Arabic language the word Bayt as the dwellings of Thamud were described in the Quran does not contradict it being a tomb, according to Dr. Sulaiman Al-Thiaeb [49].


Scholars believe that the Nabataeans saw their tombs as their eternal home, and now their spirits are being resurrected and stories retold as part of AlUla’s push to become an open-air museum.”[50]

Could the Nabateans be Ashab Al-rass (the people of the well)?

The people “of the well”, are mentioned twice in the Quran (25:38-39 and 50:12-14), along with ʿĀd, T̲h̲amūd and other unbelievers. 

25:38 And [We destroyed] ʿAad and Thamūd and the companions of the well1 and many generations between them.

25:39 To each one We set forth Parables and examples; and each one We broke to utter annihilation (for their sins).


— Saheeh International

The excegetes know nothing for certain about them:

فقد اختلف المفسرون في تعيينهم واتفقوا على أن الرسّ بئر عظيمة أو حفير كبير .

The exegetes differed in their specification and agreed that the rassis a large well or a large hole.”[50.1]

The root meaning of rass is a well or water pit. [50.2]

The Quran (25:38) tells us that Ashab Al-rass lived many generations after Thamud, and the naming itself testifies to that the remarkable thing about them was their well or the hole (they dug). They occur twice in the Quran and both times together with Thamud. The Quran informs us that they were pagans and were destroyed. We are not informed of a prophet to them, neither in Quran nor seems anyone mentioned in authentic hadith although exegetes like Al-Qurtubi explained that it has been "mentioned" that a prophet, possibly Shuaib (AS) could have been sent to them. [51]

Some classical commentaries like Tanweer Tafseer have mentioned that ibn Abbas said that The people of the well were a village of Thamud or that they were a people from the remnants of Thamud [52] [53]  .

"The Nabatean people mastered the management of water resources with drainage systems to collect rain waters and direct them either towards a cistern or towards the 130 wells discovered so far along the main wadi (dry valley) that crosses the site of Madain Saleh.

From those wells irrigation systems were installed supplying surrounding cultivated fields that could provide cereals and legumes for the local population and travelers.[54] "

"The Nabataeans greatest accomplishment was probably their system of water management. They developed a system to collect rainwater using water channels, pipes, and underground cisterns. Added to this, they developed very strong, waterproof cement, some of which is still in existence to this day [55]."

In Eid Al-Yahyas episode about Madain Saleh (watch from 5:01[56], he literally explains that the Nababateans originated from Arrass in Al-Qassim ( Al-Qassim Province in Saudi Arabia ) because findings of Nabateans has been confirmed there. For exampel Nabatean inscriptions have been found in Al-Qassim[57]. Eid Al-Yahya however doesn't reflect upon or mention the thought that the Nabateans might be the people of the Rass described in the Quran. 

The descriptions in the Quran could possibly fit into the Nabateans who lived many generations after the earlier Thamud (described in the Quran), they dug wells and were experts in irrigation systems and they were pagans who were destroyed.

God alone knows the truth (Allahu a'lam)

[1] https://nabataea.net/explore/medain_saleh/medain-saleh/

[2] https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1293

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hegra_(Mada%27in_Salih)

[4] https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1293

[5] https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/archaeology/

[6] https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/world-history-beginnings/origin-humans-early-societies/a/learning-about-prehistory-article

[7] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/hegra-ancient-city-saudi-arabia-untouched-for-millennia-makes-its-public-debut-180976361/

[8] https://www.thelastdialogue.org/article/the-word-thamud-mentioned-in-quran/

[9] https://sunnah.com/muslim:2135

[11] ARABIA AND THE ARABS, From the Bronze Age to the coming of Islam, Robert G. Hoyland (page 69)


[14] https://sunnah.com/bukhari:4702

[15] https://www.abuaminaelias.com/thamud-historical-error-quran/

[16] https://thearabweekly.com/madain-saleh-saudi-arabias-hidden-city

[17] https://www.wordofallah.com/tafseer

[18] https://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=0&tTafsirNo=74&tSoraNo=7&tAyahNo=78&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0&LanguageId=2

[19] https://www.islamicstudies.info/tafheem.php?sura=91

[21] https://www.alquranenglish.com/quran-surah-ash-shams-14-qs-91-14-in-arabic-and-english-translation

[22] https://quran.com/7:78/tafsirs/168

[24] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvoptqqoM5w (4:34 forward and 5:45 forward)

[28] https://quran.com/29:38/tafsirs/15

[30] https://www.arabnews.com/node/1767426/saudi-arabia. Al-Thiaeb’s entire career revolves around archaeology. He obtained a higher diploma at Belgium’s Université catholique de Louvain in 1984. He did a Ph.D. in archaeology from Durham University, England in 1989.

[36] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/hegra-ancient-city-saudi-arabia-untouched-for-millennia-makes-its-public-debut-180976361/

[37] https://www.scribd.com/document/132228720/Historic-Madain-Saleh#

[39] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/hegra-ancient-city-saudi-arabia-untouched-for-millennia-makes-its-public-debut-180976361/

[40] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/hegra-ancient-city-saudi-arabia-untouched-for-millennia-makes-its-public-debut-180976361/

[41] https://www.arabnews.com/node/1209766/saudi-arabia

[41.1] https://www.saudiarabiatourismguide.com/lion-tombs-dedan/

[42] https://historythings.com/lived-italy-romans/

[43] https://greekreporter.com/2021/07/09/parthenon-christian-church/

[44]  https://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/200704/new.pieces.of.mada.in.salih.s.puzzle.htm

[44.1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjRjkjQ-VEA&t=532s

[44.2] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-9992791/Life-size-camel-carvings-Saudi-Arabia-TWICE-age-Stonehenge.html

[44.3] https://biblehub.com/commentaries/obadiah/1-3.htm

[44.4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edom

[45] https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/mustatil-0015260

[46] https://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/mysterious-stone-structures-saudi-arabia-are-older-pyramids-rcna805

[47] https://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/mysterious-stone-structures-saudi-arabia-are-older-pyramids-rcna805

[48] https://www.arabnews.pk/travel/majestic-madain-saleh

[50] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/hegra-ancient-city-saudi-arabia-untouched-for-millennia-makes-its-public-debut-180976361/

[50.1] https://quran.com/25:38/tafsirs/92 (arabic Tanweer tafseer)

[50.2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Companions_of_the_Rass#cite_ref-4

[52] https://quran.com/25:38/tafsirs/92

[53] https://quran.com/50:12/tafsirs/en-tafsir-maarif-ul-quran

[54] https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-technology/sophisticated-water-technologies-ancient-nabataeans-002193

[55] https://www.nabataea.net/explore/history/water-collection/  

[57] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjRjkjQ-VEA&t=532s