In the Qur’an there is a very interesting and telling account about a she-camel and a prophet named Salih who God sent to warn a certain people about a coming punishment that would result from their continued injustices unless they stopped committing their crimes, repented and reformed. The leaders of that town of course laughed at, and mocked that prophet, since he was someone they knew, and could hardly imagine being a prophet. They knew his family, his background, and whereas they respected his family, they had no real regard for him. He was simply a man, like other men in their eyes. He was not distinguished in any way that makes him notable among other men who were not prophets. He worked no miracles, and as far as we know, he had no book of signs to share, just a simple warning that went ignored. Of course this prophet did not merely deliver the message and take cover, or leave town. He preached and taught in the city for years prior to the impending j! udgment of which he warned. Yet, the leaders of the town not only ignored his warnings, they mocked his prophecies, calling them “tall tales.” They even defied God by carrying out the very act that had been specifically prohibited by God, through His prophet, which was the killing of the she-camel. God had inspired the prophet Salih to advise the leaders of the town that this one special camel should be treated in a certain way. In reading the story, one immediately recognizes that the instructions regarding this camel were not unique, or extraordinary. There was no burden being placed upon the people to provide for the she-camel as God had commanded. God had instructed the prophet to simply advise the people that the she-camel was a sign from God, and should be granted her rights. “How?” The people wondered, could such an animal be a sign from God? What message is communicated through a pregnant female camel, a lowly beast of burden, who is distinguished from the others onl! y by her physical qualities, her color, or race, since she cannot work or benefit anyone in the same way that other camels earn their keep. God’s command was that she not be burdened, that she be allowed to graze undisturbed, and that she receive her turn for watering, and care as did the other camels, since she is destined to give birth, new life, and along with it new hope. Immediately upon receiving the message about the she-camel, the people of Salih hamstrung the she-camel in defiance. The prophet Salih recognized at that point that no more preaching was necessary, so he left the town, and soon after his departure, God’s punishment came to bear upon the Thamud.
The story begins in the Qur’an, in Chapter 7, verse 73, where it says: ” To the Thamud people (We sent) Salih, one of their own brethren. He said “Oh you people worship God, you have no other God but him. Now has come unto you a clear sign from your Lord. This she-camel of God is a sign to you, so leave her to graze in God’s earth, and let her come to no harm, or you shall be seized with a grievous punishment.”
“And remember how He made you inheritors after the Ad people and gave you habitations in the land. You build for yourselves palaces and castles in open plains, and carve out homes in mountains, so bring to remembrance the benefits of God, and refrain from evil and mischief on the earth.
The leaders of the arrogant party among the people said to those who were reckoned powerless-those among them who believed: “Know you indeed that Salih is a prophet from his Lord? They said, “we do indeed believe in the revelation that has been sent through him.”
The arrogant party said: “For our part we reject what you believe in. Then they hamstrung the she-camel, and insolently defied the order of their Lord, saying: “Oh Salih, bring about your threats, if you are a prophet of God.”
So the earthquake took them unaware, and they lay prostrate in their homes in the morning. So Salih left them, saying: “Oh my people, I did indeed convey to you the message for which I was sent by my Lord. I gave you good counsel, but you love not good counselors.”
The Qur’an explains the symbolism of the She-camel for us saying: ” We sent the she-camel to the Thamud to open their eyes, but they treated her wrongfully. We only send the signs by way of fear, and warning from evil ” (17:59). Qur’anic scholar Abdullah Yusef Ali explains this for us saying, “signs, miracles, and portents are sent by God as warning, to strike fear into the hearts of evil doers and reclaim them to the right path.”
We might ask ourselves what exact crimes the Thamud were committing that led to the she-camel being sent to them as a warning sign, with God’s commandments to treat her justly. Abdullah Yusef Ali believed that the she-camel challenged the Thamud in their areas of weakness, which included greed, and arrogance, and disrespect for the rights of the poor, and those whom they believed had no value or worth equal to their own assumed value. Yusef Ali writes: ” The story of this wonderful she-camel is variously told in tradition. What we are told in the Qur’an is that 1. The she-camel was a sign or symbol, which the prophet Salih used for warning to the haughty oppressors of the poor 2. There was scarcity of water, and the arrogant or privileged classes tried to prevent the access of the poor or their cattle to the springs, while Salih intervened on their behalf 3. Like water, pasture was considered a free gift, in this spacious earth of God, but the arrogant ones ! tried to monopolize the pasture 4. This particular she-camel was made a test case to see if the arrogant ones would come to reason 5. The arrogant ones, instead of yielding to the reasonable rights of the people, hamstrung the poor she-camel and slew her, probably secretly. The cup of iniquities was full, and the Thamud people were destroyed by a dreadful earthquake, which threw them prone on the ground and buried them and their houses and fine buildings.”
To better understand the character of the Thamud, we need only read the narrative in the Qur’an, which chronicles their conversation and actions. In Chapter 26, verses 142-159 we read,” Behold their brother Salih said to them, “Will you not fear God? I am to you an apostle worthy of all trust. So fear God and obey me. No reward do I ask of you for it; my reward is only from the Lord of the worlds. Will you be left secure in the enjoyment of all that you have here? Gardens and springs and cornfields and date palms with branches near breaking with the weight of fruit? And you carve houses out of rocky mountains with great skill. But fear God and obey me, and follow not the bidding of those who are extravagant and who make mischief in the land and mend not their ways. They (the Thamud) said: ” Thou art only one bewitched! Thou art no more than a mortal like us. Bring us a sign if you are telling the truth. He (Salih) said: ” Here is a she-camel, she has a right! of watering, and you have a right of watering, severally on a day appointed. Touch her not with harm, lest the penalty of a great day seize you. But they hamstrung her, then did they become full of regrets. But the penalty seized them. Verily in this is a sign, but most of them do not believe. And verily thy Lord is He the exalted in Might, Most Merciful.”
There is a she-camel in Palestine. She is a Palestinian people who are being denied their rights. She is a people being hamstrung, and slaughtered by an arrogant and defiant entity that refuses to recognize the rights of all human beings, regardless of their race or religion to basic human rights, which include the right to life, dignity and sustenance, food and water, and medical care. There is a she-camel in Palestine, and she is being slaughtered while the world turns up its nose at her and asks what value she has upon which to base her claim that she has a right to live. What right can she have to share the resources, or to enjoy the rights conferred upon the chosen, by the owner of the land, who is God, since she has no identity, no definition, no government, no allies, no treasury, no fine homes, no inheritance, no oil. We cannot recognize her. Still, she is there and she is being hamstrung. She is pregnant with potential, and promise of a future, but ! we cannot see what rests in her belly, and there is no one to claim ownership, or to love her pending birth. There is a she-camel in Palestine, “And verily thy Lord is He, the exalted in Might, most Merciful.”
The writer is the Founder and President of the National Association of Muslim American Women. The author is also head of the International Assoc. for Muslim Women and Children, an accredited NGO with the UN Division on the Rights of the Palestinians.