The Arab Prophets

Surah 89 (Al-Fajr / The Dawn): 6-10 

6. Have you not noted what your Lord Did unto Aad,

7. Of Iram, with their buildings proud,

8. The likes of which were never raised Throughout the world?

9. And to Thamood, Who rocky mountains hewed?

10. And unto Pharaoh, Lord of Multitude?

[‘The Quran, A Poetic Translation from the Original’, 2000, Fazlollah Nikayin, Iranian-born linguist]


Although, as has been seen, the Qur’an draws heavily upon Jewish and Christian sources, it also refers repeatedly to three non-biblical prophets that the Qur’an, especially in Surahs 7, 11 and 26. These three are Hud of ‘Ad and Saleh of Thamud and Shuayb of Midian, All of their stories closely fit the straflegende or punishment narrative, motif described in 〈20.〉 above. These stories are often told in parallel to one another, and so formulaic are they that their narratives seem to merge into one another, with specific details moving from one to another without explanation.


Hud of ‘Ad

Hud, see especially {7.65-72}, {11.50-60}, {26.123-139}, {46.21-26} and {54.18-21}, preached monotheism to the people of ‘Ad, who are described as ‘viceregents after the people of Noah’, {7.69}. {46.21} locates the ‘Adites within a landscape of ‘wind carved sand dunes’. Elsewhere a reference to ‘Ad, {89.6-7}, juxtaposes it with ‘Iram the pillared‘, possibly ‘exalted’, ‘the like of which was never created in all the land’, although who, where or what ‘Iram’ refers to, and whether it contains a preserved memory of a lost city, an ‘Atlantis of the sands’ (as proposed by Ranulph Feinnes) remains a matter of pure speculation. {53.50} refers to ‘Ad the Former’, apparently contrasting it with Thamud as their successors. The existence of a historical people called the people of ‘Ad is corroborated by Nabbatean inscriptions, but details concerning them are scant.


When the people of ‘Ad ignored Hud’s message to them, the Adites were ‘cut off‘, ‘cursed’, ’destroyed’, and their cities were smitten by ‘a cloud bound for their valleys… a wind carrying a painful punishment destroying everything by the Command of its Lord’, {46.24-25}.

Saleh of Thamud

Saleh, see especially {7.73-79}, {11.61-68}, {15.80-84}, {26.141-158} and {27.45-53}, preached to the people of Thamud who had been made ‘vice regents after ‘Ad’, {7.74} (the name Thamud literally means ‘after ‘Ad’). The people of Thamud may well be the same folk as the people of al-Hijr who are referred to in {15.80-84}, since each is said to have ‘hewn out dwellings in the mountains’, {26.149} and {15.82}. In {27.52} the Thamud dwellings are said to be still visible: ‘And those are their houses, lying desolate for their having done wrong Surely in this is a sign for a people who know.’ This description of abandoned ‘rock hewn dwellings’ inevitably calls to mind the majestic abandoned city of Petra in Jordan, chiselled out of mountains by the Nabatean civilisation but largely if not entirely abandoned by the time of the Qur’an. The people of Thamud are well attested to in the archaeological record, as far back as the eight century BC, and are mentioned by Claudius Ptolomy and Pliny the Elder (first century AD).


Surahs 7, 11 and 26 tell how God granted the people of Thamud a she-camel as a blessing and as a test of their obedience to His command, delivered by Saleh, that they must share their water with it, {54.28}, and do it no harm. This command was ignored by the people of Thamud who hamstrung the camel, as a result of which they were destroyed by an earthquake, {7.78} or alternatively a mysterious but dreadful manifestation of God’s wrath that the Qur’an refers to as the ṣayḥata. This power is deployed by God to annihilate the peoples of Thamud, Midian, Lot 〈68.〉, the ‘companions of the town’ (see below) and a further unnamed people, {23.41}, and it will also play a role in the mass destruction to be wrought on all humanity on the Last Day, {50.42}. It has been variously translated as the ‘the Cry’ (per Pickthall, The Study Qur’an and Ali Qarai), ‘the Blast’, (Yusuf Ali, Haleem), ’the Scream’, (The Monotheist Group), ’the Shriek’ (Sahih International) or (per Qaribullah) ‘the Shout (of an angel)’. Its effect is described in the Qur’an as ‘seizing’ its victims so that ‘morning found them lying lifeless in their abode’, {11.67} and {15.83}, ‘like a fence-maker’s dry sticks’, {54.31}, or ‘dross’, {23.41}.


Surah 27 gives a reason for the destruction of Thamud that is completely unrelated to any camel: the plotting by nine people, for unknown reasons, to assault Saleh and his household, for which God ‘destroyed them and their people all together’ whilst saving the reverent, {27.53-54}.


Shuayb of Midian

Shuayb, preached to the people of Midian, {7.85-91}, {11.84-94} and {29.36-37}, whose particular vice was greed, and whose sins included the giving of false measure, see 〈80.〉 These were presumably the same folk as ‘the people of the thicket’ (alternatively ‘the people of the wood’) of {26.176-189}, {15.78-79}, {38.13} and {50.14} to whom Shuayb also preached and who were also destroyed for the sin of giving false measure.


Unlike ‘Ad and Thamed, Midian is reasonably well documented as the region east of the Red Sea coast. It is named in the Bible as the place where Moses settled as a young man and married Zipporah, after fleeing from Pharaoh 〈22.〉 Since Moses’s father in law, Jethro, is described in Exodus 3.1 as ‘the priest of Midian’, Shuayb is sometimes either identified as Jethro himself, or else presumed to have a close association with him, such as being Jethro’s uncle, although there is no specific basis for any such connection in the Qur’an.


In common with the people of Thamud, the people of Midian were destroyed for their greed by either a great earthquake, {7.91} and {29.37}, or the ṣayḥata, {11.67}, each of which is described using the exact same words as those used to describe the destruction of the Thamud in those same surahs.


The three destructions of ‘Ad, Thamud and Midian should be placed into the following chronological sequence:

1. The people of ‘Ad are the ‘khalifa’ (‘viceroys’ per Pickthall, ‘heirs’, Haleem; ‘inheritors’, Yusuf Ali or ‘successors and replacers’, Muhamed Ahmed and Samira) of the people of Noah, {7.69}.

2. The people of Thamed are the khalifa of the people of ‘Ad, {7.74}

3. The people of Midian probably lived much later than those of ‘Ad and Thamed, since the name is associated with Moses and the Exodus story.

However, whilst the use of the word ‘khalifa’, suggests a sequence of peoples inhabiting a particular region, one after another, the different landscapes referred to – sandy desert (‘Ad), caves (Thamud) and a forest (Midian) – have also been chosen to give the stories as wide a geographical distribution as possible.


Other smitings and overview

Also destroyed, in presumably similar circumstances, are:

  • the unnamed ‘subverted’ cities and peoples of {53.53} and {69.9},
  • people of Sheba, who were punished by God twice: first by having the fertility of their two gardens destroyed by the flood of ‘Arim (possibly meaning ‘of the (collapsed?) dam’), so that these thereafter bore only ‘bitter fruit, tamarisks and a few lote trees’; then by being ‘torn to pieces’ as a punishment for the obscure sin of wishing to ‘increase the distance of (their) journeys’, {34.15-20},
  • all but one of the inhabitants of an unnamed town mentioned in {36.13-30} who were destroyed by the Cry for rejecting two of God’s messengers, even after they had been reinforced by a third and by one of the town’s own inhabitants had come running from its outskirts to urge his neighbours to heed the messengers’ warnings,


  • the people of Tubba, who were destroyed for denying the messengers that had been sent to them, {50.14}, and generally being guilty, {44.37}.


The overarching theme is summed up as:

{7.94} We sent no prophet to a town but that We seized its people with misfortune and hardship that haply they would humble themselves…

{7.98} Did the people of the towns feel secure from Our Might coming upon them in broad daylight while they were playing?

{7.99} Did they feel secure from God’s plotting?

None feels secure from God’s plotting save the people who are losers.



The punishment-narratives

A very large part of the Qur’an is devoted to telling and retelling stories of the fate of past peoples who were destroyed by God for one reason or another. A detailed analysis of these ‘ominous history lessons’ has been undertaken by David Marshall in ‘God, Muhammad and the Unbelievers’.


Marshall observes that the punishment-narratives began as a relatively minor genre in the early Qur’an, for which the primarily focus is upon the coming apocalypse and the punishments of the afterlife, to which theme, past punishments were merely a prelude. Probably the earliest two such narratives were Surahs 105 (the companions of the elephant) and 85 (the companions of the pit), and it has been noted that in both, a political anti-Sassanian message can be seen.


The literary device of linking these stories together in chains seems to have developed early, and to have involved, from the outset, juxtaposing biblical and non-biblical (presumably Arab folkloric) stories:

{69.4} Thamud and ‘Ad denied the calamity.

{69.5} As for Thamud, they were destroyed by the overwhelming.

{69.6} And as for ‘Ad they were destroyed by a howling, raging wind.

{69.7} He imposed it upon them for seven nights and eight days consecutively so that thou might see the people felled as if they were hollowed palm trunks.

{69.8} So dost thou see any remnant of them?

{69.9} And Pharaoh and those behind him and those subverted brought iniquity.

{69.10} They disobeyed the messenger of their Lord and he seized them with a devastating blow.

{69.11} Truly when the waters overflowed, We carried you upon the ship.

{69.12} That We might make it a reminder for you and that attentive ears might take heed.

Similarly {89.6-14}.


It is notable that in neither Surah 105 nor Surah 85, nor in several other of the early punishment-narratives, is any warner or warning mentioned. In the above passage from Surah 69 the focus remains upon the destroyed peoples, with only one reference to anonymous ‘messengers’ and the names of Moses and Noah deliberately avoided. It bears repeating that in Surahs 74 to 114 Pharaoh is mentioned six times and Moses only twice.


As the genre develops, though, the motif of the spurned prophet emerges gradually, with the inclusion first of names, and then details of the indignities that they had to suffer from unbelievers.  In later surahs the prophet becomes the central figure of his story, and sometimes even its narrator. The account of the Flood in Surah 71, for example, is recounted almost entirely in the words of Noah, who tells how he called down the flood himself.


As the punishment-narrative stories become embellished with details they become more homogenous within a surah (if at the cost of a given story becoming inconsistent between one surah and another). Their formulaic nature is stressed through their being concluded with a refrain, such as:

Surah 26:  ‘Truly in that is a sign, but most of them are not believers,
And truly thy Lord is indeed the Mighty, the Merciful.‘

{26.8-9, 67-68, 103-104, 121-122, 139-140, 158-159, 174-175 & 190-191}


Surah 37:  ‘Thus do we recompense the virtuous,
Truly he was/they were among our believing servants’,

{37.80-81, 105, 111, 121-122 & 131-132}


Surah 54: ‘How then were My Punishment and my Warnings?/
So taste My Punishments and My Warnings!

And indeed, We have made the Qur’an easy to remember; so is there any who remembers?’

{54.16-17, 21-22, 30, 37 & 39-40}

The same point is made by these stories being presented as items in lists of peoples destroyed by God for ignoring His prophets: {9.70}, {11.89}, {14.9}, {17.17}, {22.42-47}, {38.12-14}, {40.31}, {50.12-13} and {66.10}. The point is deliberately stressed that these stories are not an unfolding history but a repeating typology with little more than the names of the prophets and the nature of the punishment changing:

{29.39}Each We seized for his sin. Among them are some whom We sent a torrent of stones, and among them are some whom the Cry seized,
and among them are some whom We caused the earth to engulf, and among them are some whom We drowned.

God wronged them not, but they did themselves wrong.


As for the prophets, their profile becomes, for those familiar with the Bible, ‘flattened’ each using the same phrases, such as, in Surah 26: ‘Will you not be reverent? Truly I am a trustworthy messenger unto you, so reverence God and obey me’ recited verbatim by Noah {26.105-108}, Hud {26.124-125}, Saleh {26.142-144}, Lot {26.160-164} and Shuayb {26.177-179}.


More significantly, the insults suffered by the prophets of old – the mockery and accusations of lies, sorcery and possession are strikingly similar to those suffered by the Qur’an author himself. It may not be too harsh to say that this semi-autobiographical quality makes the Qur’an author a literal ‘seal of the prophets’ as he impresses his own situation and message onto the stories of the prophets who had gone before him.
The punishment-narrative genre reaches its peak in the middle period of the Qur’an’s announcement history. As the Qur’an author’s message turns from warning to threatening, there is a brief period wherein the more martial figures of the kings of Israel and Dhu’l Qarnayn are invoked, and then the genre, and indeed all references to Old Testament prophets fade in prominence, as the Qur’anic community become embroiled in conflict with their enemies. There is little praying in aid of biblical figures in the Qur’an later verses of war and law.


This rise and fall in the punishment narratives fits within a wider Qur’anic thematic arc. It was illogical that localised punishments should be threatened in the same surahs that were insisting that Last Day is about to dawn for the whole of mankind. The only role of past punishments in this early phase was to act as a foretaste of the coming apocalypse. The change of tactic may have been because warnings of the end of the world had proved too ineffective upon its audience (for which there is plenty of evidence in the Qur’an itself) or alternatively they may have been too successful. A belief that the end of the world is nigh, may cause a congregation to examine its conscience, but may be less successful in motivating them to put in the effort to form a community that is sustainable in the long term. Once the community was engaged in a battle, the failure of God to support his people by supernatural means would become have more awkward the more that it was promised. The Qur’an had to adapt its message to make its audience themselves the punishment of the unbelievers, and as it happens that seems to have been sufficient for success.


On a more fundamental level, the fundamental message of the punishment-narratives is entirely consistent with the surahs that came before and after them. This theme is what a Youtuber producing videos under the name Islam Critiqued has termed the ‘theology of replacement’ that runs throughout the Qur’an, whether it is addressing punishment-narratives, warfare, judicial issues or the Last Day. In the Qur’an, any problematic behaviour encountered, whether from disorderly or rebellious communities of the past – such as the peoples of Noah, Pharaoh, ‘Ad, Thamud, Lot, Midian etc – or the present – mushrikūn 〈51.〉, Jews 〈88.〉, hypocrites 〈49.〉; or from disobedient wives 〈79.〉 and rebellious children 〈28.〉, those who ‘spread mischief〈79.〉 and ultimately the whole world itself is consistently dealt with in the same way: by God destroying or expelling, rather than reforming, those who fail to show due deference and raising in their place ones whom it is hoped would be more compliant. However, as the deviser of the term points out, the recurring nature of the theme ironically only serves to emphasise this approach’s ineffectiveness as a solution to life’s disappointments.



A further non-biblical figure to feature in the Qur’an, though not apparently either a prophet or a messenger, is Luqman, whose wise words to his son, counselling humility are quoted approvingly by God in {31.12-19}.