Of Pharaoh and Thamud

A few hundred kilometers northwest of Medina lies the valley of Al-Hijr, where Thamud, the tribe of Saleh (pbuh), once dwelt. All that remains of the land they once inhabited is marvelous architecture — towering, ornately carved stone outcrops that survive to this day. When the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions passed through this valley on their way to the Battle of Tabuk, he instructed them saying, “Do not enter the ruined dwellings of those who were unjust to themselves unless (you enter) weeping, lest you should suffer the same punishment as was inflicted upon them.”[1]

This hadith informs us of the correct Islamic attitude towards past civilizations, specifically those destroyed by divine punishment. Rather than mindlessly admiring their worldly achievements, we are encouraged to seek deeper meaning: to recall the patience of the Prophets and the arrogance of their peoples, to remember the strength of the Almighty and our own powerlessness, and to reflect upon the fleetingness of this worldly life and the foolishness of choosing it over the akhira. Coming across the ruins of fallen nations should evoke feelings of pity, humility, and God-consciousness. If we are unmoved by such sights, we risk becoming like those who were unjust to themselves, who turned away from the signs of Allah ﷻ and the warnings of His Messengers and brought upon themselves His punishment. The teachings in this hadith align with the mention of Al-Hijr in the Qur’an:

Indeed, the residents of the Stone Valley (Al-Hijr) also denied the messengers. We gave them Our signs, but they turned away from them. They carved their homes in the mountains, feeling secure. But the mighty blast overtook them in the morning, and all they achieved was of no help to them. [2]

Al-Hijr, also known as Hegra or Mada’in Saleh, is now an archeological site and a tourist destination in Saudi Arabia. Although past fatwas have prohibited visiting and residing in that area, the Kingdom has greatly relaxed such regulations in its attempt to develop the site for tourism following its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. [3] In 2012, the chairperson and president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, Sultan bin Salman, visited Al-Hijr during its renovation, followed by two members of the Senior Council of Ulama and consultants in the Royal Court, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Manea and Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq, who gave the project their blessing. [4][5]

Since 2018, the annual “Winter at Tantoura” festival has been held in the nearby old town of Al-‘Ula, with some of the festival’s events also taking place in Al-Hijr, such as a musical performance in front of the site’s rock-cut tombs in December 2021. [6] Tours of the site are also available for visitors. The festival — especially the concerts — has received criticism from many Muslims who saw it as a blatant defiance of the aforementioned hadith. [7]

Meanwhile, in Egypt, millions of dollars were spent on the 2021 “Pharaoh’s Golden Parade” that transferred 22 royal mummies from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, where they are currently on display. The mummies were placed in nitrogen-filled containers that were carried on specially crafted and decorated vehicles. The lavish event included performances by singers, musicians, and dancers dressed in Ancient Egyptian costumes. Roads were closed for the celebrations, while large screens and flags concealed Cairo’s impoverished neighborhoods from view. [8] When the mummies arrived at the museum, they were received by Egyptian president, El-Sisi, as celebratory cannons fired in the background. 

Although the parade was praised by some for evoking Egyptian pride, treating the mummies with veneration, and revitalizing tourism in Egypt, it was also heavily criticized. Critics described it as a distraction from the regime’s human rights violations and a waste of money in a country with a poverty rate of around 30%. [9] Tangentially, only a few weeks before the parade, a train crash near Sohag killed 32 people and injured more than a hundred. [10] The alarming prevalence of railroad accidents in Egypt is caused by the crumbling infrastructure, in addition to neglect and poor management. 

Returning to the subject of the parade, one of the mummies featured was the corpse of Ramesses II, commonly thought to be the Pharaoh of the time of Musa (pbuh). When I visited the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in the summer and wandered through the  mummies section, admiring the decorated caskets and reading the biography of each king and queen, it had simply slipped my mind that one of them could be the Fir’aun mentioned in the Qur’an. Then, near the exit of the hall, I overheard a man reciting the verses about the death of Fir’aun in Surah Yunus:

We brought the Children of Israel across the sea. Then Pharaoh and his soldiers pursued them unjustly and oppressively. But as Pharaoh was drowning, he cried out, “I believe that there is no God except that in whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am now one of those who submit.” He was told, “Now you believe? But you always disobeyed and were one of the corruptors. Today, We will preserve your corpse so that you may become an example for those who come after you. And surely most people are heedless of Our examples!” [11]

In a place that celebrates kings and queens just for being kings and queens and celebrates the dead for their attempts to defy death, that stranger’s recitation served as a much needed reminder of how a Muslim should be: remembering Allah ﷻ and reflecting upon His signs at every opportunity. Allah ﷻ preserved the remains of past nations only so that we may reflect and repent, so that our hearts soften and our eyes weep as our beloved Prophet ﷺ instructed, and so that we strive to oppose their behavior — oppressive, arrogant, and disobedient to Allah ﷻ.

Works Cited

[1] Al-Bukhari. Sahih al-Bukhari. Trans Muhammad Muhsin Khan. Vol. 4, Book 55, Hadith 564. Accessed 11 Jan. 2023. https://sunnah.com/bukhari:3381
[2] Khattab, Mustafa, translator. The Clear Quran. 15:80 https://quran.com/al-hijr
[3] “Saudi fatwa permits opening Mada’in Saleh.” Sky News Arabia, 11 Sep 2012, https://www.skynewsarabia.com/varieties/44589-%D9%81%D8%AA%D9%88%D9%89-%D8%B3%D8%B9%D9%88%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%AC%D9%8A%D8%B2-%D9%81%D8%AA%D8%AD-%D9%85%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%8A%D9%94%D9%86-%D8%B5%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD. Accessed 11 Jan 2023.
[4] “Prince Sultan bin Salman: plans for opening Al-Hijr site after a month and a half.” Al-Riyadh, 16 March 2012, https://www.alriyadh.com/718927. Accessed 11 Jan 2023.
[5] “Sheikh Al-Manea: archeological sites are evidence of civilization.” Al-Riyadh, 11 Feb 2013, https://www.alriyadh.com/718927. Accessed 11 Jan 2023.
[6] “Hegra Candlelit Classics.” AlUla Moments, Experience Al-Ula, 31 Dec. 2021, https://www.experiencealula.com/en/events-alula-moments/hegra-candlelit-classics.
[7] Da’doosh, Ahmed. “Madain Saleh.. the land of ‘weeping’ sways dancing.” Al-Jazeera, 29 Dec 2018, https://www.aljazeera.net/politics/2018/12/29/%D9%85%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%86-%D8%B5%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD-%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%AC%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%88%D9%85%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%B9%D9%88%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A9. Accessed 11 Jan 2023.
[8] Uddin, Rayhan. “Egyptians Criticize Mummy Parade for Neglecting the Living.” Middle East Eye, 5 Apr. 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/egypt-celebration-mummy-ancient-dead-criticised-human-rights.
[9] Uddin, Rayhan. “Egyptians Criticize Mummy Parade for Neglecting the Living.” Middle East Eye, 5 Apr. 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/egypt-celebration-mummy-ancient-dead-criticised-human-rights.
[10] “Egypt: Train Collision Kills 32 after Emergency Brakes Triggered.” Al Jazeera, 26 Mar. 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/26/egypt-train-crash-kills-dozens-media-reports.
[11] Khattab, Mustafa, translator. The Clear Quran. 10:90-92 https://quran.com/yunus

Photo by Adam Bichler on Unsplash

Khadija S.

Khadija S. is a first-year university student pursuing a degree in medical sciences. Her interests include linguistics, literature, and the Islamic sciences.

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