But how many (countless) generations before them have We destroyed? Can you find a single one of them (now) or hear (so much as) a whisper of them? (Surah Maryam: 98)
Man is on earth to be tested. Throughout history, the pure messages and the revelations of Allah communicated to people by His messengers provided guidance for mankind. These messengers and books always summoned man to the right path, the path of Allah. Today, the last book of Allah, His only unaltered revelation to mankind is available: the Qur'an.
In the Qur'an, Allah informs us that He showed the right path to all people throughout world history and warned them through His messengers of the day of judgement and hell. However, a majority of these people denounced the prophets sent to them and showed animosity towards them. Because of their arrogance, they brought Allah's wrath down upon themselves and were quite suddenly wiped off the face of the earth. The relevant verse follows:
As also 'Ad and Thamud, and the Companions of the Rass, and many a generation between them. To each one, We set forth parables and examples; and each one We broke to utter annihilation (for their wrong actions). And the (disbelievers) must indeed have passed by the town on which was rained a shower of evil: did they not then see it (with their own eyes)? But they fear not the Resurrection. (Surat al-Furqan: 38-40)
The news of previous peoples, which constitutes a great part of the Qur'an, is certainly one of the issues of the revelation to be contemplated. The lessons that are to be drawn from their experience is stated as follows in the Qur'an:
See they not how many of those before them We did destroy? Generations We had established on the earth, in strength such as We have not given to you, for whom We poured out rain from the skies in abundance, and gave (fertile) streams flowing beneath their (feet): yet for their wrong actions We destroyed them, and raised in their wake fresh generations (to succeed them). (Surat al-An'am: 6)
Another verse addressed to men of understanding who can take warning and take heed is the following:
But how many generations before them did We destroy (for their wrong actions), stronger in power than they? Then did they wander through the land: was there any place of escape (for them)? Verily in this is a message for any that has a heart and understanding or who gives ear and earnestly witnesses (the truth). (Surah Qaf: 36-37)
Allah in the Qur'an tells us that these cases of destruction should be a warning for succeeding generations. Nearly all the destructions of ancient peoples related in the Qur'an are identifiable, thanks to current archive studies and archaeological finds, and thus can be studied. Yet it would be a great mistake to develop only a historical or scientific approach while examining traces of these cases in the Qur'an. As stated in the following verse, each of these incidents is a warning from which to draw lessons:
So, We made it an example to their own time and to their posterity, and a lesson to those who fear Allah. (Surat al-Baqarah: 66)
Yet, we should consider one significant fact: those communities who resisted obeying the commands of Allah did not suffer under Allah's wrath suddenly. Allah sent them messengers to warn them so that they would regret their behaviour and submit to Him. That all troubles befalling men is a reminder for the grievous punishment in the hereafter is stated in the Qur'an:
And verily We make them taste the lower punishment before the greater, that happily they may return. (Surat as-Sajdah: 21)
Destruction often followed when these warnings evoked no response in the communities and when their perversity increased. All these communities were punished by the wrath of Allah. They disappeared from the pages of history and were replaced by new generations. These communities actually received benefit from the favours of Allah, led their lives in prosperity, indulged in the enjoyment of all sorts of pleasures and, while doing all these things, never occupied themselves with the remembrance of Allah. They never reflected on the fact that everything in this world is doomed to extinction. They savoured the moment and never thought about death and beyond. To them, anything and everything to do with worldly life seemed eternal. Yet, the real eternal life lies beyond death. They had no gain whatsoever from this perception of life; however, history provides sufficient evidence of their bitter destruction. Despite the passage of thousands of years, their memories remain as a warning, reminding current generations of the ends of those who stray from their Creator's path.
Thamud are one of those communities that perished due to insolence towards divine revelation and overlooking the warnings of Allah. As stated in the Qur'an, Thamud were known for their prosperity and power and they were a nation who excelled in art.
And remember how He made you inheritors after 'Ad and gave you habitations in the land: you build for yourselves palaces and castles in (open) plains, and carve out homes in the mountains; so bring to remembrance the benefits (you have received) from Allah, and refrain from evil and mischief on the earth. (Surat al-A'raf: 74)
In another verse, the social environment of Thamud is illustrated as follows:
Will you be left secure, in (the enjoyment of) all that you have here? Gardens and springs, and cornfields and date-palms with spathes near breaking (with the weight of fruit)? And you carve houses out of (rocky) mountains with great skill. (Surat ash-Shu'ara: 146-149)
Exulting in affluence, Thamud led an extravagant life. In the Qur'an, Allah says that the prophet Salih was sent to Thamud to warn them. The prophet Salih was a person who was well-known among Thamud. His people, who did not expect him to proclaim the religion of truth, were surprised by his calling them to abandon the perversity they were in. A small part of the community complied with Salih's summons, but most did not accept what he said. In particular, the leaders of the community denied Salih and were antagonistic towards him. They tried to injure those who believed in Salih and to oppress them. They were enraged against Salih because he called them to worship Allah. This rage was not specific to Thamud: they were repeating the mistake made by the people of Nuh and 'Ad who preceded them in history. This is why the Qur'an refers to these three peoples as follows:
Has not the story reached you, (O people!), of those who (went) before you? Of the people of Nuh, and 'Ad and Thamud? And of those who (came) after them? None knows them but Allah. To them came messengers with clear (signs); but they put their hands up to their mouths, and said: "We deny (the mission) on which you have been sent, and we are really in suspicious (disquieting) doubt as to that to which you invite us." (Surah Ibrahim: 9)
Thamud were determined to remain arrogant and never change their attitude towards the prophet Salih and even were making plans to kill him. Salih warned them further saying: "Will you be left secure, in (the enjoyment of) all that you have here?" (Surat ash-Shu'ara: 146-149) Indeed, the Thamud increased their perversity being unaware of the penalty of Allahand adressed prophet Salid with pride and exultation:
"O Salih! Bring about your threats, if you are a messenger (of Allah)!" (Surat al-A'raf: 77).
The prophet Salih told them, by Allah's revelation, that they would be perished in three days.
Three days later, the prophet Salih's warning came true and Thamud perished.
The (mighty) blast overtook the wrongdoers, and they lay prostrate in their homes before the morning, as if they had never dwelt or flourished there. Ah! Behold! For Thamud rejected their Lord and Cherisher! Ah! Behold! Removed (from sight) were Thamud! (Surah Hud: 67-68)
Thamud paid dearly, by being destroyed, for not obeying their messenger. The buildings they had constructed and the works of art they had produced could not protect them from the penalty. Thamud were destroyed with a grievous penalty just like all the other peoples who have denied faith before and after them. In brief, their ends matched their attitude. Those who revolted were utterly ruined, and those who obeyed received eternal deliverance.
The People of Saba
The story of the people of Saba (Sheba in the Bible) is recounted in the Qur'an as follows:
There was, for Saba, aforetime, a sign in their homeland – two Gardens to the right and to the left. "Eat of the Sustenance (provided) by your Lord, and be grateful to Him: a territory fair and happy, and a Lord Oft-Forgiving!"But they turned away (from Allah), and We sent against them the Flood (released) from the dams, and We converted their two garden (rows) into "gardens" producing bitter fruit, and tamarisks, and some few (stunted) Lote-trees. That was the requital We gave them because they ungratefully rejected faith: and never do We give (such) requital except to such as are ungrateful rejecters. (Surah Saba: 15-17)
As related in the verses above, the people of Saba lived in a region noted for its arrestingly beautiful and fruitful vineyards and gardens. In such a country, where living standards and circumstances were so high, what they should have done was be grateful to Allah. Yet, as stated in the verse, they "turned away from Allah". Because they laid claim to all their prosperity, they lost it all. As we are informed by the verse, the Arim flood laid waste the whole country.
The Glorious Sumerians
Sumer was a collection of city-states around the lower Tigris and Euphrates in what is now southern Iraq. In our day, the terrain that someone travelling to southern Iraq would most frequently encounter is nothing but vast desert. Most of the land, with the exception of cities, and regions that have since been afforested, is covered with sand. These deserts, once the homeland of the Sumerians, have been there for thousands of years. Their glorious country, which today we are likely to meet only in textbooks, was as real as any contemporary civilisation. These people were as alive as we are today and they created architectural masterpieces. In a sense, the magnificent cities built by the Sumerians are part of the cultural heritage of our own time.
In brief, Queen Puabi, an important name in Sumerian history, was buried with a splendid treasure. According to accounts, these matchless riches were carried to her tomb by a procession of guards and servants. Queen Puabi may have been buried together with treasures beyond counting, but that did not save her body from being reduced to a skeleton.
Like all other people in her kingdom, for whom she may have felt contempt because they were poor, her body decayed under the ground becoming a putrefying mass of bacteria. This is surely an impressive example showing that the wealth and properties of this world by no means ensure salvation from a disastrous end.
Land and sea may lie relatively still for centuries. Then, an upheaval suddenly unleashes a cataclysm. Perhaps no event illustrates such a horror so clearly as the calamity of ancient Thera. What happened there may have been the most explosive volcanic eruption in history. Towering over the Aegean Sea some 3,500 years ago, a mile-high volcano formed a ten-mile-wide island. There loomed over a magnificent civilisation centred some seventy miles to the south on the island of Crete. At its peak, perhaps 30,000 people dwelled in Akrotiri, Thera's main city, in which were erected fresco-decorated palaces and from which were dispatched ships laden with goods for trade. While scholars remain uncertain of the exact date – estimates range from 1470 to 1628 BCE – they know the sequence of events. Light earth tremors were followed by a violent quake, aftershocks, and an explosion whose reverberations were audible as far as Scandinavia, the Persian Gulf, and the Rock of Gibraltar.12 Huge tidal waves arched up and smashed Amnisos, the harbour of Knossos. Today, only the remains of those glorious palaces are left.
The Minoan civilisation, one of the most important civilisations of the period, most probably never expected such a drastic end. Those people who boasted of their wealth and properties lost everything they had. Allah, in the Qur'an, underlines that the drastic ends of such ancient civilisations should be reflected on by contemporary societies:
Does it not teach them a lesson, how many generations We destroyed before them, in whose dwellings they (now) go to and fro? Verily in that are Signs: Do they not then listen? (Surat as-Sajdah: 26)
The Disaster of Pompeii
For historians the remains of Pompeii are striking testimony to the debauchery that once prevailed there. Even the streets of Pompeii, a symbol of the degeneration of the Roman Empire, evoke the enjoyment and pleasure indulged in by this city: the once busy streets lined with taverns, night-clubs, and brothels, still provide glimpses that the disaster left of the daily life.
Here, on soil now enriched with volcanic ash, were once prosperous farms, lush vineyards and luxurious summerhouses. Situated between the slopes of Vesuvius and the sea, Pompeii was the favourite summer resort of wealthy Romans who had escaped the sweltering capital. Yet, Pompeii witnessed one of the most fearsome volcanic eruptions in history, obliterating the town from the face of the earth. Today, the remains of the inhabitants of this city – asphyxiated by the poisonous vapours of Vesuvius as they were going about their daily lives as usual – vividly portray details pertaining to the Roman way of life. The disaster struck Pompeii, together with the neighbouring city Herculaneum, on a summer day, just at a time when the region was crowded with wealthy Romans spending the season in their glorious villas.
Herculaneum was closer to Vesuvius; most of its residents fled the city terrified by the fast-moving pyroclastic surge that roared towards them. Those who did not leave the city immediately, did not live long to regret their delay. The pyroclastic surge on reaching Herculaneum killed these tarriers while a slower-moving pyroclastic flow engulfed the town, burying it. Excavations at Pompeii, on the other hand, reveal that a majority of its inhabitants were reluctant to leave the city. They thought they were not in danger because Pompeii was not very close to the crater. For this reason, most wealthy Pompeiians did not abandon their homes and instead took refuge in their houses and shops, hoping the tempest would soon blow over. They all perished before they had time to realise that it was too late. In just one day, Pompeii and Herculaneum along with six nearby villages were wiped off the map. The Qur'an declares that events such as these are a reminder to all:
These are some of the stories of communities that We relate to you: of them, some are standing, and some have been mown down (by the sickle of time). (Surah Hud: 100)
Unravelling the secrets of Pompeii was not possible until centuries later. Rather than mere clues however, the excavations of the ancient city yielded up vivid representations of its people's daily lives. The shapes of many of the agonised victims were preserved intact. The related verse follows:
Such is the chastisement of your Lord when He chastises communities in the midst of their wrong: grievous, indeed, and severe is His chastisement. (Surah Hud: 102)
Today, vast ruins are humbling evidence of complex civilisations that once flourished hundreds, even thousand of years ago. Many of the builders of the great metropolises from different epochs of history are now nameless. Their wealth, technology or works of art did not save them from a bitter end. It was not them but succeeding generations who took advantage of their rich heritage. With few clues to guide us, the origins and fates of these ancient civilisations are mysteries to this day. Yet two things are evident: they assumed they would never die and they indulged in worldly pleasures. They left behind great monuments believing that thereby they would achieve immortality. No less than these ancient civilisations, many groups of people today also have such a mindset. In expectation of immortalising their names, a majority of the members of modern societies devote themselves entirely to accumulating more wealth or to creating works to leave behind. Moreover, it is more than likely that they revel in more extravagance than did earlier generations and remain heedless of Allah's revelations. There are many lessons to be drawn from the social attitudes and experiences of ancient communities. None of those early communities survived. The works of art and monuments they left behind may have helped them be remembered by succeeding generations but they did not save them from divine punishment or prevent their corpses from decaying. Their remains stand there only as a reminder and warning of Allah's wrath on those who are rebellious and ungrateful for the riches bestowed by Him.
Undoubtedly the lessons to be drawn from such historical events should eventually lead to wisdom. Only then can one comprehend that what befell early societies was not purposeless. One may further realise that only Almighty Allah has the power to create any disaster at any moment. The world is a place where man is being tested. Those who submit to Allah will attain salvation. Those who are satisfied with this world, on the other hand, will be deprived of a blessed eternity. No doubt, their ends will match their deeds and they will be judged in accordance with their deeds. Surely, Allah is the Best of Judges.
11. Mesopotamia and Ancient Near East, Great Civilisations Encyclopaedia, Iletisim Publications, p.92.
12. Ana Brittannica, Volume 20, p.592.
13. H.J. de Blij, M.H. Glantz, S.L. Harris, Restless Earth, The National Geographic Society, 1997, p.18-19.