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Ash-Shams: Fleshing out Thamud

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

When I first read Al-Fajar and an-Najm, I had no idea who the Thamud were, though it was clear it was a collapsed “civilization” or city that was smoteth.

Here’s Michael Sell’s summary:

“By the time of Muhammad, ‘Ad and Thamud had become symbolic of great civilizations that had risen and fallen in times past. In the Qur’an, they become, along with the civilization of the Pharoah, emblematic of those peoples who refused to hear the reminders of their prophets and ultimately came to ruin.” (my emphasis)

“In both early Islamic poetry and the Qur’an, the destruction of Thamud became a parable for the passing of civilizations. The poets attributed the passing of the civilization to the incessant work of fate/time, which wears down all things and thwarts human aspirations. The Qur’an attributed the destruction of Thamud to the refusal of its people to heed the words of their prophet [Salih]…”

This second half of this sura goes into the details of what Thamud did:

The people of Thamud called truth a lie in their inhumanity
when they sent out their worst
The messenger of God said God’s camel mare, give her water!
They called him liar and hamstrung her for slaughter
Then their lord rumbled down upon them for their crime and wiped them away

Sells explains (because I wouldn’t have understood why a camel mare was so important):

In disobeying their prophet, Salih, the people of Thamud slaughtered God’s camel mare. Nothing was more taboo in ancient Arabia than the unjustified killing of a camel mare. The central ritual of pre-Islamic poetry was the camel sacrifice and distribution of the meat throughout the tribe. The improper slaying of a camel mare was a sacrilege or abomination of such enormity that it led to tribal wars that lasted generations.

By slaughtering God’s camel mare, the people of Thamud committed what was by both ancient tribal standards and Qur’anic standards an abomination.

Finally, Sells suggests there are two warnings in the example of Thamud:

  1. “The ephemeral nature of human grandeur… and the ruin that comes to civilization that refuses to hear the words of their prophets.”
  2. “The fact that sometimes wrongdoers seem to prosper and those who do right and follow the prophets remain oppressed.”

I did a bit of additional reading, and it’s thought that Thamud was associated with the Nabateans of Petra (remember the closing scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? The Valley of the Crescent Moon? The place where ornate buildings were carved out of the rock of the valley wall? That’s Petra).

The first half of ash-Shams sets up a near personification of the sun which is quite beautiful:

By the sun and her brightening
By the moon when it follows her
By the day when it displays her
By the night when it veils her
By the sky and what constructed her
By the earth and what shaped her
By the soul and what formed her
and revealed her debased and revealed her faithful
Whoever honors her flourishes
Whoever defiles her fails

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