This is another story of the Qur’anic stories that narrate the history of prophets and their peoples. It is that of Houd and his people, Aad. This story is mentioned in some eight chapters, such as A’araf, Houd, Mu’minoun, Shu’ara, Ahqaaf, Thaariyaat, Qamar, and Fajr. The Qur’anic style has varied in telling this tale, shuttling between the style of recounting the historical facts and the dialogue-style of storytelling.
In our exposition, we will concentrate on discussing the story within a dialogue setting. We shall endeavor to bring to light the characteristics of the approach of this prophet to dialogue with his people, which differ in some respects from Prophet Noah’s people and others. This is with aim of coming up with a variety of approaches that we can put to use in our contemporary life.
We shall discuss the subject of this story in the surroundings in which the dialogue was conducted between prophet and people.
To the ‘Ad people, (We sent) Houd, one of their (own) brethren: He said: “O my people! Worship God! Ye have no other god but Him will ye not fear (God)?” The leaders of the unbelievers among his people said: “Ah! We see thou art an imbecile!” and “We think thou art a liar!” He said: “O my people! I am no imbecile, but (I am) a messenger from the Lord and Cherisher of the worlds! I but fulfil towards you the duties of my Lord’s mission: I am to you a sincere and trustworthy adviser. Do ye wonder that there hath come to you a message from your Lord through a man of your own people, to warn you? Call in remembrance that He made you inheritors after the people of Noah, and gave you a stature tall among the nations. Call in remembrance the benefits (ye have received) from God: that so ye may prosper.” (7: 65–69)
A contest between two approaches
At the start, the approach of the unbelievers was to accuse the Prophet (a.s.) of stupidity and telling lies. His reply was more restrained and amicable. He called upon them to reflect on the issues and laws he had raised before them, reminding them that he was intent on giving them good counsel. He then calmly exclaimed as to why they could not comprehend the sending of a messenger among them, who was of their own. What was the justification for their refusal to accept that? He went on to remind them to call to mind God’s favors to them – of physical power, so much so that they could dig out houses in the rock. How they were given preference over other peoples, whom they ruled over. What was their reaction? Did they accept Houd’s invitation to ponder his message, so that they could engage him in dialogue to clarify the situation? None of that was forthcoming. They were bent on showing intransigence and haughtiness, forestalling any move towards change, accusing him of slandering the faith of their fathers and forefathers, reacting furiously, and challenging him to bring down on them the curse of punishment, which they thought he was incapable of making happen, or he was not serious in effecting it. This was their multi-faceted position on Houd’s argument. This had turned the good-intentioned honest argument into a dangerous stand-off: “They said: ‘Come thou to us, that we may worship God alone, and give up the cult of our fathers? Bring us what thou threaten us with, if so be that thou tell the truth!’” (7: 70).
Yet, the response came sharp and enlightening, carrying in its turns ridicule of what they worshipped, i.e. idols that were bereft of any power to overcome anything, let alone the Omnipotent. What they worshipped were just names, which did not carry any weight or value, thus: “He said: ‘Punishment and wrath have already come upon you from your Lord: dispute ye with me over names which ye have devised, ye and your fathers, without authority from God? Then wait: I am amongst you, also waiting.’” (7: 71).
The shades of the picture are even more defined:
O my people! I ask of you no reward for this (Message). My reward is from none but Him who created me: Will ye not then understand? And O my people! Ask forgiveness of your Lord, and turn to Him (in repentance): He will send you the skies pouring abundant rain, and add strength to your strength: so turn ye not back in sin! (11: 51–52)
He touched a nerve when he raised their hopes of abundant water, to which they used to look forward in their desert land, in giving them more power that was a source of their boasting and vanity, and calling upon them to ask God’s forgiveness, the Lord who has control over all that. He warned them not to turn away from him, while being overwhelmed by crime, rebellion, and sin.
What was their response?
They said: “O Houd! No clear (Sign) that hast thou brought us, and we are not the ones to desert our gods on thy word! Nor shall we believe in thee! We say nothing but that (perhaps) some of our gods may have seized thee with imbecility.” He said: “I call God to witness, and do ye bear witness, that I am free from the sin of ascribing, to Him, other gods as partners! So scheme (your worst) against me, all of you, and give me no respite. I put my trust in God, my Lord and your Lord! There is not a moving creature, but He hath grasp of its forelock. Verily, it is my Lord that is on a straight Path. If ye turn away, I (at least) have conveyed the Message with which I was sent to you. My Lord will make another people to succeed you, and you will not harm Him in the least. For my Lord hath care and watch over all things.” (11: 53–57)
They snubbed his argument without any convincing counter argument; they turned down his invitation because they deemed him weak. They accused him of insanity for attacking their gods, branding him with a whole raft of pejoratives. However, he declared his disavowal of their setting up partners with God, both with His testimony and their own testimonial, in order that he could draw a line between both the parties in the end. As for the situation arising from branding him weak and insignificant, he countered that with the power of the All-powerful, which is capable of overcoming them by another people, after He had disposed of them, without their being able to do anything to stop that. Then he defied them if there was anything in their power they could do to harm him, leaving them under no illusions that they could not reach him.
Thus, this approach is worth pondering by the workers in the way of God, with a view to following its example in their work among the communities they live in and aspire to guide them to God’s path.
Comparing the Peoples of Noah and Aad
By contrasting both the stories of prophets Noah and Houd (a.s.) and their peoples, we can come up with these observations:
The line of thinking of the people of Noah was similar to that of the people of Aad, i.e. they had almost identical viewpoints with regard to (a) the personality of the prophet, (b) rejecting the feasibility of a human being becoming a prophet, (c) accusing the prophet of fabrications and telling lies, (d) branding him insane, (e) sanctifying the faith of their ancestors and their morals, and (f) dismissing the notion of resurrection. The reason for this similarity could be the proximity of time between the two peoples, as has been mentioned in the Holy Qur’an: “Call in remembrance that He made you inheritors after the people of Noah, and gave you a stature tall among the nations. Call in remembrance the benefits (ye have received) from God: that so ye may prosper” (7: 69).
The Divine Messages were on a collision course with the well-off section of society, which instinctively used to wage war against those Messages because they were under the illusion of feeling threatened and for fear of relinquishing their privileges. It is worth noting that the Divine Messages do no grant any concessions to any individual or group of people outside the remit of work and efficiency. This can be observed from the Quranic description of this group of people as opulent and the singling out of this portrayal when recounting real life situations.
The adversaries of the Messages were unable to prove rationally their case in rejecting those Messages. Their rejection was induced by their inability to come out from the status quo and embrace change.
The prophet, in Houd’s case as well as in Noah’s, stood his ground by giving good counsel, exercising restraint and forbearance, in trying to open a window on their hearts and minds, as perchance they might accept the truth and be guided to the right path, i.e. that of belief in God. He did all that without letting his personal anger take hold over him because, in discharging his noble mission, he did not have any personal choices. What governed his moves and the positions he contemplated, and eventually took, were the principles and the interests of the Message alone. These were the similarities between the stories of the two prophets, Noah and Houd, and their peoples.
What distinguished the latter from the former was that Houd’s people were far more powerful than Noah’s. This meant that they managed to mount a more determined opposition and show far greater intransigence, in which case they exerted more pressure on Prophet Houd.
Yet, Houd did not give in to their pressure and defied their physical power, in that it was God-given and that He is the All-powerful and He alone can strip them of it. Without His will they could neither earn any benefit nor cause harm, and neither death nor life.
He went further in defying them with the Power he derived from God, addressing them thus: “So scheme (your worst) against me, all of you, and give me no respite” (11: 55).
It is evident that, according to the prevailing circumstances, the style of dialogue was ranging from the mild, which was intended to open their hearts and minds to the truth, to the severe, which was meant to make the opponent see sense.
This has been the picture, which the story of Houd, in his dialogue with his people on the question of belief in God, the Quranic verses has been trying to paint. Maybe, the picture has revealed more than we have been able to put our fingers on.