Pre-Islamic Arabian Prophets

William J. Hamblin, “Pre-Islamic Arabian Prophets,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 135–55.

Pre-Islamic Arabian Prophets

William J. Hamblin

William J. Hamblin was an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University when this was published. At the time of the symposium, he was a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Michigan. A graduate of Brigham Young University in history, he received his M.A. in history and Near Eastern studies at the University of Michigan. His dissertation topic was “Fatimid Military Organization during the Period of the Crusades.”

One of the most important concepts in Islamic theology is that the message of Islam is of universal significance for mankind.[1] This principle is inherent in a number of Muslim doctrines and grows directly out of the revelations of the prophet Muhammad. According to Muslim theology, whereas all prophets previous to Muhammad had been sent to only one people, the message revealed to Muhammad in the Qur’an is a message for every nation on earth. In the Qur’an (7:158), God commands Muhammad: “Proclaim: O Mankind, verily I am God’s Messenger for all of you.” In another passage Muhammad is called the “seal of the prophets”

(khatim annabiyin, Qur’an 33:40), which is generally interpreted by Muslim commentators as meaning that he is the last of the prophets, his message a confirmation and fulfillment of the messages of all former prophets.[2]

God’s revelations and the religion of Islam also are considered to have universal significance historically; that is, all true forms of past religion have been Islamic. Likewise, all true prophets of the past are believed to have preached the same Islamic faith, although it did not receive its fullest expression until the revelations of Muhammad. Thus, the Qur’an contains numerous accounts of many biblical prophets, including Jesus, all of whom Muslims accepted as having been true prophets of God.[3] According to Muslim theology, however, the Bible is not a fully reliable source on religious matters nor are its accounts of the prophets necessarily accurate, because the Bible has been changed from its original form by later deletions or additions. Sura 2:80, often interpreted as referring to Jews and Christians, states, “Wo unto those who write the book [Bible] with their own hands and then say, This is from God.” Likewise Sura 5:13, 15, states, “They twist the words from their proper place and have forgotten a part of that which was given to them . . . O People of the book [Jews and Christians], our prophet has come to you to make clear much of the book which you have forgotten.”

Thus, Muslims have interpreted various biblical passages as actually being prophetic references to Muhammad. For instance, Haggai 2:7–9, reads in part, “The desire [Hebrew hemedathi of all nations shall come . . . and in this place I will give peace [Hebrew shalom].” The triliteral Semitic root of the Hebrew word for desire, hemedath, is equivalent to the Arabic root hamada, which is also the basis for the name Muhammad. Likewise, shalom is the equivalent of the Arabic salam, which is the root of the word islam. Some Muslims therefore interpret this verse as reading, “The desire of all nations [Muhammad] will come . . . and in this place I will give peace [Islam].”[4]

The revelations of God, however, were not limited only to those given to the Israelites and Christians in the Bible. God has offered many nations an opportunity to accept his revelations by sending to them various nonbiblical pre-Islamic prophets. For example, “For every nation there is a messenger” (Qur’an 10:47), and “We [God] have sent to every nation a messenger” (Qur’an 16:36). In other words, God has revealed His word not only to those prophets mentioned in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures but to numerous others as well.

Perhaps the most intriguing of these nonbiblical prophetic figures are six prophets whom the Qur’an identifies as God’s messengers to pre-Islamic Arabia: Hud, Salih, Abraham, Ishmael, Shu’ayb, and Muhammad. Muhammad is, of course, the last and greatest of the Arabian prophets and the historical founder of Islam. Abraham and Ishmael are the Islamic counterparts of the biblical figures, although the Muslim interpretation of these figures differs radically from the biblical.[5] According to the Qur’an, it is Ishmael, not Isaac, who receives the birthright from Abraham and whom God asks Abraham to sacrifice as a test.[6] Shu’ayb may well be a nonbiblical prophet, but later Muslims tended to associate him closely with the biblical Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law.[7]

Hud and Salih

The stories of Hud and Salih, who have no traditional associations with biblical prophets, are related on three occasions in the Qur’an and by numerous later Muslim theologians and historians.[8] One of ancient Arabia’s powerful tribes was called ‘Ad.[9] The ‘Adites, polytheists and idol worshipers, were renowned for elaborate buildings which reportedly imitated the glories of Paradise and in which the Adites thought they could live forever.[10] It is said that no other structures created by the hand of man were as magnificent as those of the ‘Adites. Because of their pride and polytheism, God sent the prophet Hud to them, calling them to repentance and monotheism. Most of the ‘Adites rejected Hud’s message, for which God cursed the tribe with a three-year drought. The ‘Adites then sent a delegation to pray for rain at Mecca. In response to their prayers, God sent three clouds—one white, one red, and one black—and had the leader of the delegation, Qayl, pick the cloud which would be sent to the ‘Adites. Qayl chose the black cloud, thinking it would bring rain. Instead it brought a devastating desert storm from which the ‘Adites sought refuge in their great buildings. But the entire tribe along with its magnificent buildings were destroyed and buried in the desert sands. Only Hud and his few followers escaped.

The prophet Salih was sent to Thamud,[11] a tribe to whom God had granted great prosperity after the destruction of ‘Ad. The Thamudites also lived in great buildings and cut houses out of the rocks in the sides of mountains. Salih called the Thamudites to repentance, telling them to act justly and worship only God. God granted the Thamudites a sacred she-camel as a sign that Salih was a true prophet. (The traditions say variously that God caused this camel to spring from a rock or that it gave amazing amounts of milk.) Salih warned the Thamudites not to harm this sacred beast. When some members of the tribe hamstrung the camel to show their defiance, God destroyed them with a great earthquake.[12]

A number of historical questions surround these traditions, not the least of which involves the sources. Scholars have generally taken one of three approaches. First, some assume that the Qur’anic versions of the story accurately describe actual historic events, the position taken by most faithful Muslims. Second, the Qur’anic accounts can be seen as representing Muhammad’s version of pre-Islamic tales which reflect, however dimly, actual historical events. Third, some scholars dismiss them as fabrications by either Muhammad or by some pre-Islamic storyteller.

This study assumes some historical basis for the traditions and examines some possible interpretations of the origin and significance of these traditions by using seven types of evidence.

First, archeological and pre-Islamic epigraphic evidence represents one of the most important types of historical data available, since no contemporary histories from pre-Islamic Arabia have survived. There are, of course, a number of difficulties involved in trying to correctly interpret such evidence. Second, non-Arabian historians and geographers often provide useful clues concerning events in pre-Islamic Arabia. Third, the large body of pre-Islamic poetry occasionally deals with some aspects of the traditions of Hud and Salih. Fourth, the Qur’an, one of the earliest written records in classical Arabic and one of the most important links between pagan and Islamic Arabia, refers to Hud and Salih. The Qur’an exerted a tremendous influence on all subsequent Islamic versions of the traditions. Fifth, there is a large body of hadith literature (traditional sayings of Muhammad), some of which has some bearing on the question at hand. Sixth, Qur’anic taftir (commentaries) deal with Hud and Salih.[13] Finally, later Muslim works such as histories, literature, and geographies, give the fully developed Islamic versions of the Hud and Salih stories but apparently also occasionally refer to nonreligious pre-Islamic Arabian traditions.[14]

The main historical questions surrounding the traditions of these pre-Islamic prophets are: Can the traditions be traced to the pre-Islamic period? If the traditions have a pre-Islamic origin, how far back can that origin be potentially traced? Can geographical boundaries for the traditions be established? What facts, if any, can be learned concerning the prophetic figures themselves? And finally, do these stories have any general significance to pre-Islamic society?

Archeological evidence supports a pre-Islamic origin for the Hud traditions. In Hadramawt, near the border between Oman and South Yemen on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, is the most important Islamic shrine of southern Arabia—the Tomb of Hud. R. B. Serjeant, by correlating a number of literary texts with the geography of the current tomb, concludes that it is the same site frequently mentioned by Muslim historians and geographers.[15] He has also found evidence that the site was a pre-Islamic cult center. Merchants arriving on the monsoon winds from the east would congregate at Shirh, near Hud’s Tomb, to meet and exchange goods with traders and Bedouins from the interior regions at an annual trade fair. The Tomb of Hud would thus have served as a regional shrine much as Mecca was the shrine center for the more famous Fairs of ‘Ukaz.[16] Such fairs, the major cultural, religious, and economic events of the year, caused a month’s truce from the otherwise continual strife and have consistently been held in Hadramawt from pre-Islamic times well into this century.

The traditions of Salih are linked to al-Hijr in central Arabia, also known as Mada’in Salih, or “Salih’s cities.”[17] Its ruins, Nabataean tombs dating from about the first century A.D., may be Muhammad’s “houses cut in the mountains” (Qur’an 7:74). It is impossible to determine whether this connection was made by pre-Islamic Arabs or later Muslims.

Some pre-Islamic inscriptional evidence refers to Hud, one particular inscription in a religious invocation, even though what is definitely known about these inscriptions is too fragmentary to allow generalization about their relationship to Hud.[18] I am unaware of any inscriptional evidence relating to Salih.

Some pre-Islamic poetry shows that pagan Arabs knew the general outline of traditions relating to the destruction of the tribes of ‘Ad and Thamud and the city of Iram.[19] The poet Umayya tells the story of Salih and the camel.[20] Although Umayya lived until a few years after the Hijra, he never converted to Islam and indeed was somewhat antagonistic to Muhammad. It would seem strange for him to compose a poem concerning Salih if Salih had been a creation of Muhammad rather than a figure of pre-Islamic tradition. References to Hud are less definite, since almost the entire corpus of surviving pre-Islamic poetry is from the north,[21] and Hud was a prophet of southern Arabia.

An Islamic tradition which, if authentic, would indicate that Hud was known to pre-Islamic Arabs, relates that during the reign of the first Caliph Abu Bakr, a man from Hadramawt came to ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, to discuss religion and convert to Islam. During their discussion the man from Hadramawt said that Hud was considered an important prophet by many of the Hadrami Arabs.[22] The medieval historian and theologian At- Tabari reports that the Jews questioned the validity of the Hud traditions by claiming that he was not mentioned in the Bible. At-Tabari replied:

The Jews claim that the tribes of ‘Ad and Thamud and the prophets Hud and Salih are not mentioned in the Torah. Nonetheless, their fame among the pre-Islamic Arabs and Muslims today is like the fame of Abraham and his people.

If I didn’t hate lengthening books with irrelevant matters, I could recount poems of the pre-Islamic poets, which discuss the tribes of Ad and Thamud which confirm what I have said.[23]

This combined evidence would seem to indicate that the Hud and Salih stories had a pre-Islamic origin. The tribes with which they are associated, ‘Ad and Thamud, as well as the mythical city or tribe of Iram, appear in a large number of pre-Islamic poems. The Tomb of Hud is a shrine dating from pre-Islamic times, possible pre-Islamic inscriptions mention his name, and later Muslim traditions claim that he was known to pagan Hadrami Arabs. Pre-Islamic poetry indicates that the Qur’anic story of Salih was also based on pre-Islamic traditions. It would seem, then, that the stories of these prophets were not fabrications of Muhammad.

This leads then to the next question: If the traditions did not originate with Muhammad, can chronological boundaries be set within which the origins of the traditions of Bud and Salih can be said to lie? Islamic versions of the story call Hud and Salih descendants of the biblical Noah in either the fourth or eighth generations (Hud) or the eighth or tenth generations (Salih). However, these genealogies seem to have essentially been borrowed verbatim from the biblical genealogies found in Genesis chapter 10.[24] Probably the medieval Muslim writers assigned Hud and Salih such great antiquity because in all three Qur’anic versions the Hud and Salih stories directly follow that of Noah, and later Muslim commentators and historians apparently attributed a specific chronological meaning to the probably somewhat arbitrary ordering of the Qur’anic stories. They thereupon grafted the figure of Hud onto biblical genealogies to make him fit the apparent Qur’anic dating.[25] Thus, the later Muslim accounts probably do not reflect pagan Arabian tradition. Likewise pre-Islamic poetry also offers no chronological clue.

It is possible, however, to attempt to develop a chronological frame of reference for the traditions by correlating non-Arabic sources with Arabian tradition. The tribe ‘Ad, to which Hud was sent, has been linked by O. Loth to an historical Arabian tribe named Iyad, mentioned in a Palmyren inscription dating to the reign of Zenobia (A.D. 267–272). Another scholar, A. Sprenger, associates the ‘Adites with an Arabian tribe mentioned by the classical geographer Ptolemy called the Oaditai, and D. Sidersky associates ‘Ad with the biblical city of Admah.[26] None of these explanations, however, has found general acceptance among scholars, and the historical questions relating to the tribe of ‘Ad remain essentially unanswered.

More light is available on the ‘Adites’ sister tribe, Thamud, to whom Salih was sent. ‘Ad and Thamud are closely connected by both Islamic and pre-Islamic sources. Qur’anic accounts of Salih always follow those of Hud.[27] Both tribes are of great reputed antiquity and, according to traditional Arab genealogists, are two of the four ba ‘ida, or extinct tribes.[28] This genealogical relationship is further reflected in the theory that “the people of ‘Ad were called Iram; when the ‘Adis were destroyed) the name Iram was transferred to Thamud.”[29] The way in which medieval Muslims linked ‘Ad and Thamud to biblical genealogies emphasizes the close relationship thought to exist between the two tribes.[30] They were also linked by pre-Islamic poets who “mention Thamud with the ‘Ad as examples of the transitoriness of worldly glory.”[31] A chronology of Thamud could therefore provide at least some parallels for ‘Ad as well.

The tribe of Thamud makes an excellent historical test case. Inscriptions in Thamudic script date back to the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.[32] Nicholson claims that Byzantine sources refer to the “equites Thamudeni” in the fifth century, although I found no ancient authority which confirmed this.[33] A number of classical geographers writing around the time of Christ make reference to the Thamudenoi, and in an Assyrian inscription of circa 710 B.C., Sargon II describes his victory over an Arab tribe named Thamud.[34] These historical references demonstrate that the tribe of Thamud existed as a functioning tribal unit from late pre-Islamic times to possibly as early as the eighth century B.C.

The historically verifiable chronological of existence for the tribe of Thamud offers us some indication of the possible antiquity of the Salih and Hud traditions. Examples of the oral transmission of traditions across a number of centuries are well known-the Jewish Mishna, Muslim hadith, and, perhaps the most famous example, the case of Abraham. Depending on what dates are established for Abraham and when the stories are thought to have been written down, the Abraham stories can represent the transmission of an oral tradition for over a thousand years.[35] This does not mean that the Salih and Hud traditions necessarily originated in remote periods; they may have emerged a few centuries or even decades before the birth of Muhammad. But there is no reason to limit those origins to the period just before Muhammad.

Although the Hud and Salih traditions are chronologically vague, they are geographically precise. The Hud traditions center in Hadramawt in southern Arabia around the Tomb of Hud. All Arabic sources agree that the tribe of ‘Ad, to whom Hud was sent, inhabited the region of Hadramawt, and that the city of Iram dhat al-Imad is to be found there. Likewise, the traditions of Salih can be reasonably linked to northwestern Arabia, historically the geographical location of the tribe of Thamud.[36]

Philological and literary approaches provide further information. Salih means simply “virtuous or pious.” Attempts to equate Salih with the biblical Salih contradict Muslim genealogies. More probably, Salih is a descriptive title rather than a personal name.[37]

The name Hud is much more interesting. One interpretation sees him as an allegorical figure representing ancient prophets or religious teachers in general rather than being any definable historic figure, a view given some support by linguistic evidence related to the names ‘Ad and Iram. J. Wellhausen points out that the Arabic phrase, “since the time of ‘Ad” has an alternative form, “min al-’adi,” which means simply “from ‘Ad.” He speculates that ‘Ad meant “ancient time” and that the tribe was invented because of a misinterpretation of the original meaning. Iram’s adjectival form, irami, is used by one pre-Islamic poet to mean “a man of ancient race.” According to this interpretation, the Qur’anic Hud is an allegorical figure, only arbitrarily related to pre-Islamic tradition.[38]

On the other hand, the triliteral root for hud, H-W-D, is used in a number of different ways in the Qur’an. The basic meaning of the Arabic word relates to Jews or things Jewish, and several times in the Qur’an, hud means Jew, while the verbal form hada in the Qur’an means “to practice Judaism.”[39] This Jewish connection is further emphasized by one of the two medieval versions of Hud’s genealogy, which equates him with the biblical Eber, the traditional ancestor of the Jews. Further, according to Hadrami traditions, Hud had a son with the Jewish name Daniel.[40]

An objection might be that the Qur’an specifically calls Hud the “brother of the ‘Adites” (Qur’an 7:65, 11:50). However, medieval Muslim scholars could not agree on an interpretation for this phrase. Was Hud an actual member of the tribe of ‘Ad, a Semite, or simply a descendant of Adam? Medieval theologian Al-Qurtubi discusses the name Hud and the Arabic root for Jewishness, concluding that such a connection might have some validity.[41]

The most obvious possibility that this theory presents is that if an actual historic figure existed whose activities formed the basis for the Hud traditions, he may have been a Jew, who for some reason took to preaching in Arabia. His actual name could have been forgotten over the years, causing him to eventually become known simply as “the Jew,” or Hud.[42]

What were Jewish and Christian religious influences on pre-Islamic Arabia? The penetration of Judaism into the Arabian peninsula can be traced back possibly as early as the seventh century B.C., when Jewish traders may have established small colonies or trading outposts in different parts of Arabia.[43] There is also good evidence of strong Jewish influence in Arabia in the first century before Christ, when the Idumaeans, who were apparently semi-sedentary Arabs living in the deserts east of Judaea, were converted to Judaism and eventually formed the Idumaean dynasty to which the famous Herod of the Gospels belonged.[44] In the first century A.D. when the Jews were expelled from Judaea by the Romans, it seems that some fled into Arabia, forming the basis of important northern Arabian Jewish tribes such as the Banu An-Nadir and the Banu Quraiza. Other Arabs, such as the Jewish colony at Yathrib (Medina), which was to play an important role in the life of Muhammad, were possibly early converts to Judaism.[45] An important Jewish dynasty was also established in southern Arabia in the fifth century A.D., where for a time Judaism became the state religion.[46]

Christianity also had an important influence on early Arabia. It is possible that Christian missionaries first entered Arabia during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine II (334–361) from the recently converted kingdom of Aksum in the horn of Africa and possibly from Syria at the same time. In time the Orthodox, Monophysite, and Nestorian proselytizers all found converts among the Arabs: the entire tribe of Banu Ghassan became Monophysite Christians, and mercenaries for the Byzantine emperors. A Christian dynasty from Abyssinia, aided by Justinian the Great, was established for a time in southern Arabia, and the Sassanian Persians established hegemony over parts of southern Arabia in the latter part of the sixth century, which lasted until the rise of Islam.[47]

The existence of important Jewish and Christian elements in pre- Islamic Arabian society has led many scholars to search for Jewish and Christian origins for many Islamic practices and doctrines, including attempts to link the Hud and Salih traditions with biblical or other Jewish sources. Heinrich Speyer, for example, associates the tale of the great windstorm which destroyed the tribe of ‘Ad with similar stories from the apocryphal Book of Jubilees, and even Josephus’s Antiquities. Likewise he tries to find biblical names, such as Ammihud and Abihud,[48] from which the name Hud could have been drawn.

Pointing out such parallels can be useful, but there is also, however, the potential danger that the existence of a parallel will lead to an assumption of causality. Simply establishing that a certain concept existed before a later similar concept does not necessarily imply that the former caused or influenced the latter.[49]

Parallels with the Story of Lehi

Bearing in mind these dangers, it is interesting to examine some possible parallels between the traditions of Hud and the story of Lehi, a Jewish prophet in self-imposed exile from Jerusalem with his family. According to the Book of Mormon, a work which Latter-day Saints accept as an ancient scripture, Lehi’s family wandered through the “wilderness” to the Red Sea, built a ship, and voyaged to the New World.

Although the Book of Mormon provides no specific information on the route, Latter-day Saints generally accept that Lehi and his party traveled through Arabia, ending their journey in Hadramawt,[50] the same region where Hud is supposed to have preached. In a religious sense, Lehi was a Jew, which corresponds with the theory that the name Hud could refer to a Jewish prophet.

A theoretical reconstruction of Lehi’s stay in southern Arabia could run something like this. Lehi and his family eventually arrive in Hadramawt, at that time a highly populated region serving as one of the main trade routes of southern Arabia. There they would have necessarily made contact with the local inhabitants, if only because every well in the region would have been owned by some tribe or city, and strangers would not have been allowed to drink from the wells without permission. The Book of Mormon makes no mention of any contacts with local inhabitants, but Ishmael was buried “in the place which was called Nahom” (I Nephi 16:34), implying that it was so called by local inhabitants, in contrast to Lehi’s usual practice of giving a new name to each place where they stay (see 1 Nephi 2:14, 16:13, 17:6).[51] According to this theory, Lehi discusses religion with the local inhabitants of Arabia, possibly converting a few, but at least leaving the impression that a man of God had dwelt among them. The oral tradition eventually becomes the pre-Islamic and Qur’anic traditions of Hud.

In view of this theory it is possible to examine some parallels between the literary images of Lehi’s vision of the tree of life and some similar images in the story of Hud, with the assumption, still speculative, that Lehi told the Arabians of his vision in Jerusalem, and its images became, in oral tradition, the activities of the prophet Hud. Take the following examples:

1. According to the Islamic Hud traditions, one of the chief sins of the tribe of ‘Ad was pride symbolized by magnificent buildings, an attempt to create an earthly replica of paradise. For this impious pride, God sent the prophet Hud to call them to repentance. For the most part, the ‘Adites failed to heed his call. This religious image of the building symbolizing man’s pride correlates with the image of the “great and spacious building” of Lehi’s vision, filled with mocking men and women representing “the pride of the world” (1 Nephi 8:26, 11:35–36).

2. The city of the ‘Adites was built at a place “beneath which rivers flowed.”[52] Likewise a prominent part of Lehi’s vision is the “river of water” flowing between the “great and spacious building” and the “tree of life” (I Nephi 8:13, 8:26, 11:25, 12:16).

3. When the ‘Adites reject Hud’s message, God sends a drought to chasten them. A delegation of ‘Adites pray for rain at Mecca. In response to their prayer, God sends a black cloud and a great windstorm, which destroys them and their city. An important image in Lehi’s vision is the “mist of darkness,” which causes that men “perish and are lost.”[53] The black cloud of the Hud story and the “mist of darkness” of Lehi’s vision are both religious images relating to the destruction of the wicked.

4. The final vindication of Hud’s prophetic calling comes when the magnificent buildings of the ‘Adites, in which they thought they could live forever, are destroyed by the storm. Likewise, in Lehi’s vision, the triumph of God over the wickedness of the world is by the destruction of the great and spacious building: “and it fell, and the fall thereof was exceeding great.”[54]

5. Salvation comes to Lehi and his party by partaking of the fruit of the tree of life. Hud, on the other hand, and those few who believed in his message, are saved in a hazira, “an enclosure for camels made of trees to protect them from the cold and wind.”[55] To an Arab transmitter of oral traditions, it would have seemed strange for Hud to be saved from the destroying winds because of a single tree; a barricade of trees would be more reasonable. Although this process of transmutation is hypothetical, it could account for the tree of life becoming a hazira; certainly both images have the similar function of providing salvation from the wrath of God.

Although a number of remarkable parallels exist between the stories of Lehi and those of Hud, we cannot conclude that Lehi is the basis of the Hud traditions. The causal link is missing. We can, however, conclude that the record of Lehi, a pre-Islamic prophet of Arabia by Mormon belief, coincides with what Islamic traditions tell us about such prophets. In other words, Lehi fits the pattern of what we know concerning pre-Islamic Arabian prophets.

Similarly, the causal link is often missing from attempts to connect the Hud and Salih traditions with possible Jewish or Christian antecedents. Islam was indeed greatly influenced in its development by Judaism and Christianity, just as Christianity was greatly influenced by Judaism. But the attempt to link virtually every aspect of Islam to Jewish or Christian antecedents obscures Arabia’s independent religious history, of which only traces have survived. Great Arabian religious leaders, whose stories have been lost, were undoubtedly a part of that history. I would maintain that rather than reflections of outside religious influences, the stories of Hud and Salih are important traces of an independent Arabian religious tradition, manifestations of the religious mentality of the pre-Islamic Arabs.

Such manifestations indicate that pagan Arabs, unlike almost all other religious groups of southwest Asia at that time, believed in the possibility of prophethood. If a prophet like Muhammad had appeared in a Jewish or Christian community (or a later Muslim community), he would have been denounced as a false prophet because prophecy had ceased.

For most Christians, Christ was the ultimate and last revelation. For Jews, prophecy had ceased in favor of trying to discover the will of God in the Torah and Misha. In fact, Muhammad was rejected by the Jews of Yathrib as a false prophet.

Pagan Arabs, however, did not reject Muhammad because they rejected outright any possibility of prophethood. They said first that they would accept Muhammad as a prophet upon receiving a visitation from an angel or a sign from God. They also objected that a true prophet should somehow be different from normal men, above mundane necessities such as eating. The Quraysh claimed that if God really had a message for mankind he would deliver it through one of the leaders of their community.[56] These objections are not against the idea of prophethood in general but only against the idea that Muhammad himself was such a prophet, a concept further reinforced by the great number of “false prophets” who appeared after Muhammad’s death.

Pre-Islamic Arabia was filled with religious controversy and confusion. Nestorians, Monophysites, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and pagans all practiced and preached in Arabia. Umayya ibn Abi As-Salt,[57] who died about A.D. 630, reflects such religious awareness. He was a hanif, a member of an important religious group in pre-Islamic Arabia characterized by ascetic monotheism and rejection of idolatry. They sought to worship God in the manner of Abraham (known to the Arabs as “the Hanif”),[58] while generally believing that neither Christianity nor Judaism had the full religious truth. Umayya “traveled in search of the true religion,”[59] visiting monasteries, interviewing religious leaders, and even learning to read so he could study religious books. Above all he was searching for an Arab prophet, and even hoped that he himself might one day receive a revelation from God. In one of his poems he says, “[We need] a prophet from among us to inform us of the afterlife.”[60] Significantly, in Umayya’s poetry, he recorded the story of the pre-Islamic prophet Salih, and those of many other prophets.

It is in relation to this type of religious mentality that stories of Hud and Salih should be understood. They reflect the desire of many Arabs to find someone who could bring them closer to God. It is in such a religious environment that prophets can arise.


[1] I am dealing with these questions solely from the point of view of classical Islamic theology, without making any attempt to distill what may or may not have been the original Arab interpretations of the meaning of Muhammad’s revelations. All Arabic translations are mine.

[2] Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Iartr At-Tabari (d. 922/3) Jami’al-Qur’an (The Collection of the Explanations of the Exegesis of the Verses of the Qur’an) (Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi, 1954), 22:16.

[3] For an excellent study of the Qur’anic view of Christ see Geoffrey Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an (London: Faber and Faber, 1965); for examinations of how the Qur’anic accounts of biblical prophets relate to the Bible, see Heinrich Speyer, Die Biblischen Erziihlungen im Qoran (Hildeschein: Georg Olms,1961), and D. Sidersky, Les Origines des Légendes Musulmanes (Paris: P. Geuthner, 1933).

[4] For further similar examples see Abdu al-Ahad Dawud, Muhammad in the Bible (Kuala Lumpur: Pustaka Antara, 1979).

[5] For a discussion of the Muslim and Israelite accounts of Abraham and Ishmael see the appropriate chapters of Speyer, Biblischen Erziihlungen; Sidersky, Origines des Légendes; Josef Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen (Berlin: W de Gruyter & Co., 1926), 86–87, 91–92.

[6] Qur’an 37:99–109. Isaac was also considered an important prophet (Qur’an 37:100–103).

[7] Qur’an 7:85–93, 11:84–95; F. Buhl, Encyclopedia of Islam, old ed., s.v, “Shu’aib’; Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen, 119–20.

[8] See Qur’an 7:73–79, 11:61–68, 26:141–59; F. Buhl, Encyclopedia of Islam, old ed., s.v. “Salih”; Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen, 123; Abu Ja’far At-Tabari, Tarikh ar-Rusul wa-l-Muluk, ed. M. J. DeGoeje (Leiden: Brill, 1879–1901), 1:244–52. An English summary of At-Tabari’s accounts can be found in R. A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 1–3. In chronological order the three accounts of Hud are Qur’an 26:123–40, the sura (chapter) of Hud; 11:50–60, 7:65–72; Hud is also mentioned in 46:21. These tales are developed in At-Tabari, Tarikh, 1:231–44. Essentially the same story can be found in Abu Ishaq Ahmad ibn Muhammad Ath-Tha’labi (d. 1038), Qisas al-Anibya’ (Cairo, Maktaba al-Jumhariyaa al-Arabiyya, n.d.), 66–71. Ath-Tha’labi includes very complete isnads which are important for a study of the origin and development of the Hud traditions in Islamic times. The present study is limited to seeing what can be determined if we accept the latter Islamic accounts as faithful reflections of earlier traditions.

[9] See F. Buhl, Encyclopedia of Islam, new ed., s.v. ‘Ad; Horovitz, Koranische

Untersuchungen, 125–27.

[10] Medieval Muslims equated the buildings of ‘Ad with the mythical city of Iram dhat al-’Imad. See Qur’an 89:6; Yaqut ibn ‘Abdallah al-Hamawi, Mu’ajam al-Buldan, 5 vols. (Beirut, Dar Sadir: 1955–1957); A. J. Wensinck, “Iraim dhat al- ‘Imad,” Encyclopedia of Islam, old ed.; W. Montgomery Watt, “Iram,” Encyclopedia of Islam, new ed. Medieval Muslims even attributed the building of the pyramids of Egypt to the ‘Adites. Jamal ad-Din Ibn Taghribardii, An-Najum az-Zahira fi Muluk Misr wa-I-Qahira (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub, 1929–1972), 1:38; Taqiad-Din Al- Maqrizi, AI-Mawa’iz wa-l-i’tibar bi Dhikr al-Khitat wa-l-Athar (Beirut: Dar Sadir, n.d.; a reprint of the Bulaq edition), 1:111–12. On the ‘Adites’ belief that they could live forever in their buildings see Qur’an 26:129.

[11] H. H. Brau, Encyclopedia of Islam, old ed., s.v.”Thamud.”

[12] F. V. Winnett and W. L. Reed, Ancient Records from North Arabia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970), 39, give a variation on this story from local traditions.

[13] At-Tabari’s monumental tafsir, Jami’ al-Bayan, is one of the most useful. One of the earliest extant tafsir, it is also relatively free from many of the polemical doctrinal questions which fill the tafsir of later schools and sects but which also may well contain some important additional relevant traditions.

[14] Besides the history of At-Tabari and Ath-Tha’labi’s collection of stories mentioned above there is the important geographical study of southern Arabia by ibn al-Hasan Ahmad Al-Hamdani (d. 945), al-Iklil, ed. N. A. Faris (Princeton: University Press, 1940); Faris translated this work into English as The Antiquities of South Arabia (Princeton: University Press, 1938). There is also an important collection of south Arabian legends by scholar and antiquarian Wahb ibn Munabbih (d. 732), At-Tijan fi Muluk Himyar (Hyderabad: Da’ira al-Mu’arif, al-’Uthmanfya, 1928); he relates some traditions of Hud on pp. 325–56.

The important, difficult and controversial questions of the historicity of the entire corpus of early Muslim traditions and history fall outside this study. For recent conflicting opinions see the fascinating work by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (Cambridge: University Press, 1977), which attempts to completely reinterpret Islamic history by rejecting the Muslim historical tradition and relying solely on non-Arab sources. See also Patricia Crone, Slaves on Horses (Cambridge: University Press, 1980), 3–17, for a summary of her views on the problems of early Islamic historiography. For a defense of the reliability of the early Islamic traditions based on the study of early Arabic papyri, see Nabia Abbott, Studies in the Arabic Literary Papyri, vol. 2: Qur’anic Commentary and Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 5–83.

[15] R. B. Serjeant, “Hud and other Pre-Islamic Prophets of Hadramawt,” Le Museon 67 (1954): 121. See also Landberg, Hadramout (Leiden: Brill, 1901), 152–60, which reviews some of the classical literature used by Serjeant.

[16] Serjeant, “Hud,” 123–31; F. Krenkow, “The Annual Fairs of the Ancient Arabs,” Islamic Culture 21 (1947): 111–13, refers briefly to the fairs of Shihr; Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs, 10 ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974), 93–94. Although almost all Arabic sources agree on the location, a few medieval writers say that the Tomb of Hud is in either Mecca or Damascus. See A. J. Wensinck, Encyclopedia of Islam, old ed., s.v, “Hud.” On population in Hadramawt see Brian Doe, Southern Arabia (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), 97–102, where he reviews the archeological and inscriptional evidence. On trade routes see Gus W. Van Beek, “The Rise and Fall of Arabia Felix,” Scientific American 221 (December 1969): 36 ff.

[17] Winnett and Reed, Ancient Records, 37–39, 42–54, 130–32.

[18] Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen, gives a number of possible inscriptions, p. 149; A. Jaussen and R. Savignca, Mission archéologique en Arabie (Paris: E. Leroux 1909–1920), 2:348, give an inscription which is translated “By Hud, Allahi.”

[19] Waraqah bin Nawfal, in Bulugh at-Arab fi Ma ‘rifa Ahwal al-’Arab, ed. M. S. al-Alusi (Cairo: Maktaba Muhammad af-Tayyib, 1964), 2:271–72; At-Tabari, Tarikh, 1:236, 241; Ath-Tha’labi, 66, 71. Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen, 89–90, 126–27, gives over a dozen other references to various pre-Islamic poets, and pp. 105–6 gives additional pre-Islamic references to Thamud. On Iram, see Diwan Labid (Leiden: Brill 1889), 8; Diwan Zuhayr (Cairo: Dar al- Qawmiyya lit- Tiba’a, 1964), 158. It is not necessarily clear from these passages that the Iram referred to is the same as the Iram dhat al-Imad mentioned in the Qur’an. Iram may also have been a tribe.

[20] Diwan Umayya, ed. F. Schulthefz (Leipzig: Brill, 1911),44. See also H. H. Bran, Encyclopedia of Islam, old ed., s.v. “Umaiya.”

[21] Hafiz Ghulam Mustafa, Religious Trends in Pre-Islamic Arabic Poetry (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1968), xiii-xiv. Hud is mentioned in two unidentified poems which At-Tabari seems to accept as being pre-Islamic (At Tabari, Tarikh, 1:237, 241). The same poems can be found in Ath-Tha’labi, 66, 71. They may be forgeries. On the practice of forging pre-Islamic poetry in later times see K. A. Fariq, History of Arabic Literature (Delhi: Vikas Publications, 1972), 29–32. The earliest confirmed reading seems to be Thabit (d. 674? at over 100 years old), Diwan Thabit (Gibb Memorial Series), ed. H. Hirschfeld (Leyden: Brill, 1910), vol. 13: poem 91, line 5 (Arabic p. 44–45, with English notes pp. 72–73). This poem, however, was apparently written after his conversion to Islam. I could find no other pre-Islamic references to Hud.

[22] Hamdani, al-Iklil, 132–33; English translation 78–80.

[23] At-Tabari Tarikh, 1:251–52.

[24] For Hud, ibid, 1:231; Ath-Tha’labi, pp. 66. For Salih, see At-Tabari, 1:244; Ath-Tha’labi, p. 72. The same genealogies, with some variations, can be found in many tafsir dealing with the appropriate Qur’anic verses. Hud’s genealogy found in At-Tabari, 1:231, is compared to the Hebrew genealogies in Genesis 10; Salih’s genealogies follow much the same pattern.

Hud Genealogy 1:

Arabic Biblical

Nuh Noah

Sam Shem

Iram Aram

‘Us Uz

‘Ad-mythical, the ancestor of ‘Adites



‘Abd Allah


According to this tradition, then, Hud is a member of the tribe of ‘Ad. Note also the genealogical relationship between Iram/Aram and ‘Ad.

Hud Genealogy 2:

Arabic Biblical

Nuh Noah

Sam Shem

Arfakhshad Arphaxad

Shalakh Salah

‘Abir Eber

According to this tradition, ‘Abir is hud, which would make Hud the ancestor of all Hebrews and Arabs.

[25] The prophetic stories in the Qur’an are essentially but not consistently chronological. Sura 7 discusses Noah, Hud, Salih, Shu’ayb, and Moses. Sura 11 deals with Moses, Noah, Hud, Salih, Abraham, Lot, Shu’ayb, and Moses again. Sura 26 discusses Moses, Abraham, Noah, Hud, Salih, and Lot. Although Hud consistently follows Noah, the ordering of the stories as a whole is too inconsistent to allow us to conclude that Muhammad or the pre-Islamic Arabs necessarily thought of Hud as chronologically following directly after Noah.

[26] O. Loth, “Tabari’s Korancommentar,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morsenlandischen GeseUschaft 35 (1881): 628. He refers to a Palmyren inscription dating to the reign of Zenobia discussed in the same journal by O. Blau, “Altararabische Sprachstudien,” 27 (1873): 342–43. Ptolemy, Geography 6: 7, 21; A. Sprenger, Das Leben und die Lehre des Mohammad (Berlin: A. Effert & L. Lindtner, 1869), 1:505–18. Buhl summarized his and Loth’s views in Encyclopedia of Islam, s.v. “Ad,” along with some related archeological evidence. D. Sidersky, Origines, 29–30; his biblical reference is Genesis 10:19; Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen, 125–27; Speyer, Biblischen Erzahlungen, 116–19, explains the story of ‘Ad as being founded on an Arabian misunderstanding of Judaic scriptures and legends.

[27] So do all accounts with which I have dealt, excepting isolated hadith. See, for example, At-Tabari, Tarikh, 1:244–52; Ath- Tha’labi, 72–79.

[28] Hitti, History of the Arabs, 30–32. In the Qur’an both Thamfid and ‘Ad are termed bu’din (7:60, 68).

[29] A. J. Wensinck, Encyclopedia of Islam, new ed., s.v. “Iram.”

[30] See note 24 for references:

‘Ad Thamud

Nud (Noah) Nuh

Sam (Shem) Sam

Iram (Aram) Iram

‘Us (Uz) Jathir (Gether)

‘Ad Thamud

[31] H. H. Brau, Encyclopedia of Islam, old ed., s.v. “Thamud.”

[32] For complete references see Sidersky, Origines, 29–30. Winnett and Reed, Ancient Records, 67–164, also give a large number of references.

[33] Nicholson, Literary History, 3.

[34] “Thamoudenoi,” Diodorus Siculus Bibliotheca 3:44; “Thamudeni,” Pliny, Natural History 6:28:32; “Thamudenoi” or “Thamuditai,” Ptolemy, Geography 6:7:4–21; for Tamud see D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927), 2, no. 17. In the Assyrian inscriptions possible philological links can be found also to the tribe of ‘Ad. The Sargon II inscription also refers to his victory over the Ibadi tribe. Later, circa 668 B.C., Sennacherib is said to have conquered “Adumu, the fortress of Arabia” (possibly linked with Admah of Genesis 10:19?). See Hitti, History of the Arabs, 38.

[35] There is some question that the transmission of hadith was fully oral. See Abbott, Papyri; E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible Genesis (New York: Doubleday, 1964), xxii-xxiii, John Van Seters on Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975),7–9, while disagreeing with the conclusions, summarizes the views of various biblical scholars dating Abraham as early as the third millennium B.C.

[36] Buhl, Encyclopedia of Islam, s.v. “‘Ad”; Watt, Encyclopedia of Islam, s.v, “Iram.” For Salih see Winnett and Reed, Ancient Records, 130–33.

[37] Speyer, Biblischen Erziihlungen, 119; Salih is found in Genesis 10:24; Winnett and Reed, Ancient Records, 44.

[38] Hartwig Hirschfeld, New Researches into the Composition of the Qoran (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1902); J. Wellhausen, Gottinger Gelehrte Anzeigen (1902), 596, summarized in Buhl, Encyclopedia of Islam, s.v. “‘Ad”; Harith bin Hilza in his Mu’allaqa, line 68, discussed by Watt, Encyclopedia of Islam, s.v. “Iram.” It is possible, of course, that the tribe of Iram was of such renowned antiquity that it became synonymous with great age.

[39] Edward W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co. 1955–56), 8:2905–6. It is naturally related to the main word in Arabic for Jew, yahud. See Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen, 153–55; Qur’an 2:62, 111, 135, 140; 4:46.

[40] Serjeant, “Pre-Islamic Prophets,” 166–67.

[41] Al-Qurtubi, Al-Iami’ li-Ahkam al-Qur’an (Collection of the Wisdom of the Qur’an) (Cairo: Dar at-kutub al-Misriyya 1935–1950), 7:235–36.

[42] Winnett and Reed, Ancient Records, agrees with this possibility (45).

[43] Charles Cutler Torrey, The Jewish Foundation of Islam (New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1967), 10–11. It is interesting for Latter-day Saints that his description of the expansion of Jewish traders into Arabia corresponds with Hugh Nibley’s reconstruction of Lehi as a merchant. Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1952).

[44] DeLacy O’Leary, Arabia Before Muhammad (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1927),172; Josephus, Antiquities, 13:9:1.

[45] O’Leary, Before Muhammad, 173–74.

[46] H. StJ.B. Philby, The Background of Islam (Alexandria, 1947), 116–20.

[47] For a general study of the influence of Christianity in Arabia see Richard Bell, The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment (1926; reprint ed. Frank Cass, 1965); O’Leary, Before Muhammad, 125–49; Hitti, History of the Arabs, 78; Philby, Background, 112–15, 121–26; J. S. Trimingham, Christianity Among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times (New York: Langman, 1979).

[48] Torrey, Jewish Foundation; Bell, Origin of Islam; the extensive bibliography in Abraham I. Katsh, Judaism and the Koran (New York: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1962), 229–45; Speyer, Biblischen Etzahlungen, 116–19.

[49] David Hackett Fischer, Historian’s Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought(New York: Harper Torch book, 1970).

[50] Nibley, Lehi, 123–28.

[51] Nibley, Lehi, 72–77, 85–91.

[52] Yaqut, vol. 1, p. 155. In Arabic, “allati tajri min tahtiha al-anhar.” This phrase is a direct quote from a Qur’anic description of paradise (Qur’an 2:25).

[53] At-Tabari, 238; Ath-Tha’labi, 68; 1 Nephi 8:23,12:17. No Hud parallel to the important Book of Mormon image of the iron rod seems extant.

[54] Qur’an 26:129; At-Tabari 1:239; Ath-Tha’labi, 68–69; 1 Nephi 11:35–36.

[55] 1 Nephi 8:10–11; 11:21–22. In the Qur’an also salvation is symbolized by partaking of fruit in a garden by flowing rivers (Qur’an 2:25). Lane, Lexicon, 2:596.

[56] This analysis follows Mustafa, Religious Trends, 56–59; Qur’an 6:37, 25:7, 43:31

[57] See Mustafa, Religious Trends, 40–41, 97–103; Brau, Encyclopedia of Islam, old ed., s.v, “Umaiya.”

[58] Qur’an 3:67, 95; 10:105; 22:31.

[59] Mustafa, Religious Trends, 97.

[60] Diwan Umayya, 46.