Is ‘Mada’in Salih’ the Location of Prophet Salih’s People?

The area of al-Hijr in modern-day Saudi Arabia is now known as ‘Mada’in Salih’ (The Cities of the Prophet Salih) as Muslims have long believed that the dwellings carved into the mountains there were left by the Thamud, the people of Prophet Salih. However, the Thamud were not the only civilisation that built houses in rocky mountains, and most, if not all, of the ruins at ‘Mada’in Salih’ were made by the Nabateans who lived almost two thousand years after the destruction of the Thamud. The area of al-Hijr was also home at one point to people who were destroyed by God as mentioned in the Quran and Hadith, but were those the Thamud or a different people? This is a very important question because the popular belief among Muslims that al-Hijr was home to Prophet Salih and his people, and their belief that the Nabatean ruins were made by the Thamud, has anti-Muslim polemicists to argue that the Quran and the Prophet ﷺ made a big mistake in associating and its ruins with the Thamud who were a far more ancient people than the Nabateans.

Al-Hijr was home to more than one civilisation. One of those civilisations that lived there was destroyed by God – and it may or may not be the Thamud of Prophet Salih. God (swt) said in the Qur’an:

“The people of al-Hijr also rejected Our Messengers. We gave them Our signs, but they turned their backs. They carved out dwellings in the mountains, and lived in security. But the blast overwhelmed them early in the morning.

[Q. 15:80-84]

Most of the ruins that can be found at al-Hijr today, however, do not belong to that civilisation, but rather to the Nabateans who came after them and established their second major city there. But where the people mentioned in the Quran the same as Salih’s Thamud, as assumed by all Qur’an commentators and almost all pre-modern Muslims?

The land of al-Hijr

Abdullah ibn Umar narrated that when the Messenger of God ﷺ went with his Companions to Tabuk (in northwestern Saudi Arabia today), they passed by the site of al-Hijr. The Prophet ﷺ said, ‘Do not enter the dwellings of those who were punished by God except while crying. If you are not crying then do not enter their dwellings lest you be afflicted with what afflicted them.’ He then masked his face with his mantle and rode faster until they crossed the valley.’ (1)

In another narration, Ibn Umar told a different part of the story: God’s Messenger found that some of the Muslims who were travelling ahead of him had stopped in the dwellings of the people of al-Hijr in order to draw water from the well there. They drank from this water, refilled their water skins from it, and also used it to mix with their grains and make dough. When he ﷺ heard this, he commanded them to pour out the water in their water skins and to throw away the dough they had made with it. (2)

In all the most authentic and widely-corroborated versions of this hadith, these people are not associated with the Thamud but simply referred to as ‘the people of al-Hijr’ as the Qur’an calls them. Most Qur’an commentators have assumed that the people of al-Hijr are themselves the Thamud that Prophet Salih was sent to, because both carved into the rock and both were wiped out by a ‘blast/shout.’ This belief appears in some wordings of the hadith above, where some of the narrators, after the mention of ‘al-Hijr,’ have added: ‘the land of the Thamud.’ These words were added with regard to the context of the hadith, and were not added to the sayings or actions of God’s Messenger himself. These are additions made by later narrators who simply assumed that al-Hijr was the home of the Thamud, and we need not worry about these additions or rely on them to prove or disprove anything.

What we do know is that none of the historical remains in al-Hijr belong to the people that Prophet Salih was sent to, though they may in fact belong to a people who came much later who also called themselves the Thamud. These latter-day Thamud may possibly be descendants of survivors from the original Thamud, or of a group from the Thamud who were not punished. As for the Thamud of Prophet Salih, they lived almost two thousand years before the ruins of the other civilisations that remain in al-Hijr. That is why there is a strong case to think that these were in fact a different people. A problem only arises if we think that the Quran and Hadith were referring to the ruins of al-Hijr as the dwellings of Salih’s people, because of the great difference in the age of each civilisation.

When Did Salih’s Thamud Live?

The Thamud of Prophet Salih were one of the most ancient and most powerful Arab tribes and civilisations, a very ancient civilisation that came from modern-day Yemen where there is an area still known as Thamud today. At one point, most, if not all of them migrated from the Yemen south of modern-day Saudi Arabia to the northern and central parts of modern-day Saudi Arabia. We do not know where the Thamud of Prophet Salih lived, whether it was in Yemen or after their migration north. What we do know from the Qur’an and Arab history is that they lived around the third-millennium BCE. This is clear not only from the recurrent Qur’anic placement and mention of the people of Thamud before the people of Musa (as), but this verse in which someone who secretly believes in Prophet Musa (as) warns his people of what happened to the Thamud before them:

“The believer said, ‘My people, I fear your fate will be the fate of those others who opposed [their Prophets]: the fate of the people of Noah, Ad, Thamud, and those who came after them- God never wills injustice on His creatures.”

[Q. 40:30-31]

We also know that Musa (as) almost certainly faced the Pharaoh Ramses II, who died in 1213 BCE Arab history and the Qur’an also suggest that they lived more than a thousand years before that still, before Prophet Ibrahim (as) as well (e.g. Q. 11:89). We do not know where Prophet Salih’s people lived, and it is possible that they did also live in this area of al-Hijr, but there is no strong reason to believe this, except for one part of a hadith which, as I will show, is not conclusive and is problematic.

Did God’s Messenger ﷺ Think that the Prophet Salih lived in al-Hijr? Discrepancies in a Hadith

The hadith in question is a continuation of the same hadith of Ibn Umar (quoted above) about the behaviour of God’s Messenger ﷺ when passing by the land of al-Hijr. The narrations above came from Ibn Umar via two of his students: his son Salim, arguably his best student, and Abdullah ibn Dinar. Now, a third student of Ibn Umar, his freed slave Nafi’, also narrated the part of the story about some people drawing from the well at al-Hijr, and related how God’s Messenger commanded them to throw away the water they took from there and the dough they made with it. Nafi’s version, however, adds one more sentence at the end: ‘He ﷺ commanded them to draw water from the well that the she-camel (of Salih) used to drink from.

Bukhari realised that there was a problem here: this version from Nafi is not corroborated by the narrations of the two other students of Nafi’s teacher Ibn Umar. None of them had this extra wording. This was only one problem. The second problem was that Malik did not narrate this version of the hadith from Nafi, when Nafi was his best source for the hadith of Ibn Umar, and Malik was one of the two or three best narrators from Nafi. Bukhari was always suspicious when he saw a hadith of Nafi or al-Zuhri that their star student Malik did not narrate.

He felt that this cast doubt that this hadith came from them at all and might be a mistake from someone else down the chain who mistakingly attributed the hadith to them. One often sees that whenever this is the case, when a hadith of Nafi or al-Zuhri is not narrated by Malik, Bukhari tries to find for it a supporting chain that shows someone else narrating this hadith from that same teacher of Malik too, in order to show that this hadith really does go back to that teacher.

This mutaba’a (corroborating report) is usually from a weak chain that is not authentic enough to be in Sahih Bukhari, but Bukhari feels can help support the authenticity of the primary hadith that is being corroborated. This is exactly what Bukhari does here: he mentions that elsewhere (in a weak hadith which Ibn Hajar narrates in full in Taghliq al-Taʿliq), there is a narration in which yet another student of Nafi narrated this hadith. Now that we have two people narrating it from Nafi (Ubaydullah and Usama), we can feel less concerned about the fact that Malik did not narrate this hadith from Nafi. But we should know that whenever a hadith in Bukhari is in need of such corroboration, we should never assume that it enjoys the same level of authenticity as a hadith that does not need such corroboration, because this corroboration itself is weak and cannot be relied upon on its own in the first place. Two problematic hadiths supporting each other can never equal the strength of one fully authentic one. Not every hadith in Bukhari is of equal level of authenticity. 

Now let us assume that the hadith really did come from Nafi. There is still the question of why Malik avoided it and went to Ibn Dinar instead. That is one question. Secondly, anyone who has studied Bukhari and Muslim closely knows that even the most authentic hadiths in these books, even those that come from the most authentic chains, may contain unreliable variations and additions. The authors of these books knew this very well: not every word of an authentic hadith is itself authentic. One must compare all the different versions and study how the authors employed and arranged them in order to discover which parts are authentic and which parts might be mistaken additions. Muslim’s method is easier in this regard: he puts the most authentic versions on top, and each subsequent narration is weaker or less reliable, or contains more faulty wording, than the one above it. And here he places Nafi’s narration, which mentions the she-camel of Salih, at the bottom.

The conclusion is, therefore, that the version of this hadith from Nafi directly linking the site of al-Hijr to the people of the Prophet Salih is unreliable. There is the possibility that it does not come from Nafi at all, but also the possibility that it does come from him, and that it was he who mistakingly added a sentence that does not belong there about God’s Messenger ﷺ instructing people to drink from the well that Salih’s she-camel drank from. This part of the hadith cannot be attributed with confidence to God’s Messenger ﷺ, and therefore we as Muslims have no problems whatsoever if it turns out that Salih’s people did not live in al-Hijr at all, but elsewhere. Yet, if it turns out to be true that Salih’s people did live there, we should still know not to attribute any of what is found there today to them, except perhaps this disputed well of the she-camel.

Another Thamud

Almost two thousand years after the destruction of Salih’s people, another group, who went by the name of Thamud – or at least were called that by outsiders – came to the area of al-Hijr. The historian Robert Hoyland believes that these were people who adopted the name of Thamud even though they likely had no connection to the original Thamud. (3)

Another possibility is that these were descendants from the original Thamud, as there is no proof that all of the original Thamud were destroyed, and until now there are Arabian tribes that claim descent from them. The earliest known mention of this new ‘Thamud’ in historical sources is is a 715 BC inscription of the Assyrian king Sargon II, which mentions them as being among the people of eastern and central Arabia subjugated by the Assyrians. They are referred to as ‘Tamudaei’ in the writings of Aristo of Chios, Ptolemy, and Pliny.(4) These Thamud settled on the slopes of Mount Athlab to the north-east of the location of the Nabatean ruins, which would come later, where they built houses and temples into the rocks. They flourished in that location from at least the 8th century BCE, and have left writings and pictures engraved into rock. At some point, however, they simply vanished and were no longer mentioned as a people by other civilisations.

There is evidence that by the 3rd-century BCE, the area known as Mada’in Salih was inhabited by another people instead, the powerful ancient Arabian kingdom known as Lihyan. So what happened to these latter-day Thamud? It is possible that they dispersed, or were conquered by the Lihyan, or, migrated elsewhere. It is even very likely that these second ‘Thamud’ are the ‘people of al-Hijr’ who were wiped out as mentioned in the Qur’an, and that the Qur’an referenced them by their location, not their name, so that they are not confused with the original Thamud. If so, there is a possible parallel to that with regard to the people of Ad. The Qur’an in one verse mentions says, ‘He destroyed Ad the first’ (Q. 53:50). The exegetes have differed on the meaning of this verse: Is it referring to Ad as ‘the first’ because they were the first people to be destroyed after the flood of Noah, or is it referring to ‘the first Ad,’ as opposed to a second Ad? There is some evidence in the hadith literature supporting the existence of two Ad people who were destroyed in different ways in different times (see the Qur’an commentaries on this verse).

The Nabatean City Abandoned

It is only in the 1st century CE that the area came under the rule of the Nabatean king Aretas IV Philopatris (al-Harith IV), who made al-Hijr the kingdom’s second capital after Petra in the north. Just like the ‘People of al-Hijr’ before them, the Nabateans found that the geology of the area was perfect for carving into the rocks, as they had also done in Petra. The Nabateans carved their own magnificent buildings in the rocks and left inscriptions in their own language. During the Roman and Byzantine era, trade routes shifted to the sea and the land routes that had helped al-Hijr flourish suffered. Al-Hijr began to decline as a centre of trade and was eventually completely abandoned.


  1. Bukhārī and Muslim
  2. Bukhārī and Muslim
  3. Hoyland, Robert G. (2001). Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam. Routledge. p. 69.
  4. Phillip Hitti, A History of the Arabs, London: Macmillan, 1970, p. 37.

Another version of this article was first published on the Sacred Footsteps website.

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