As caravans crossed the silent and deserted valleys, caravanners gazed at the caves at the sides of the mountains. These caves were said to have been once inhabited by the Bani Thamud or the Children of Thamud. These people, Arabs believed, belonged to one of the lost tribes of Arabia.
Bani Thamud were a proud and gigantic race, existing at the time of patriarch Abraham. When they lapsed into idolatry, God sent them a prophet from among themselves whose name was Saleh. His task was to restore them to His righteous path. People refused to listen to him unless he proved the divinity of his mission through a miracle. Saleh prayed, and God caused a rock to open up from which came out a gigantic she-camel, producing a foal and abundant milk soon after.
Some of the Thamudites were convinced by the sight of the miracle and gave up idolatry. The greater majority of them remained unimpressed and continued in their disbelief.
Disappointed, Saleh left the camel among the people as a sign from God, but warned them that a catastrophe would befall should they do her any harm. For a time, the camel was left to feed quietly in their pastures, but when she drank from a brook or a well, she never raised her head until she had drained the last drop of water.
In return, it was believed, she produced milk to supply the whole tribe. As she, however, frightened other camels out of pastures by her huge size, she became an object of offense to the Thamudites who, to get rid of the beast, hamstrung and then slew her.
God retaliated for the killing of the she-camel. He caused a fearful cry, accompanied by great claps of thunder, to descend upon the Thamudites people at night from heaven; in the morning all the offenders were found dead, lying prostrated on their faces. Thus for avenging the death of a she-camel, God obliterated a whole race from the face of the earth. The land of the Thamudites still remains barren, caused by a constant curse from heaven.
This story had a powerful impact on Muhammad's mind, who, in later years, refused to let his people encamp in the neighborhood, hurrying them away from this accursed region.
Another tradition gathered by Muhammad during one of his journeys related to the city of Eyla, situated near the Red Sea. This place, he was told, had been inhabited in ancient times by a tribe of the Jews. Like the Thamudites, they had lapsed into idolatry. Also, because the tribe had profaned the Sabbath by fishing on that sacred day, God transformed their old men into swine, and the young ones into monkeys.
What had happened to their womenfolk was not told, so Muhammad necessarily remained vague while narrating this story in the Quran.
The aforesaid traditions, among others, are found eloquently described in the Quran, thus indicating the extent of the bias to which Muhammad's youthful mind had been subjected during his journeys.