Surah Al-Fil or Surah Feel (in Arabic: سورة الفيل) is the 105th chapter of the Qur’an. The meaning of Al-Fil is “The Elephant” and is classified as a Meccan surah with 5 ayat (verses).
It is called “The Elephant” which could be referring to the birth year of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). It could also refer to Abraha (an Aksumite army general) who began a military expedition against the Quraysh of Mecca. He attacked Meccans while riding on an elephant.
Allah mentions in the Surah he saved the Meccans and the Kaaba by sending a swarm of birds that pelted the invaders with clay stones. The entire army of Abraha was destroyed for attacking the Kaaba.
Below you can read the entire Surah Fil. We’ve included transliteration and Sahih International translation for each verse. After you can read the different Tafsir on Surah Fil which will explain the historical context and significance of this Surah.
Read Surah Fil Translation and Transliteration
Bismillah Hir Rahman Nir Raheem
in the Name of Allah, The Most Gracious and The Most Merciful
alam tara kaifa fa ala rabbuka bi ashaabil feel
1. Have you not considered, [O Muhammad], how your Lord dealt with the companions of the elephant?
Alam yaj’al kaidahum fee tadleel
2. Did He not make their plan into misguidance?
Wa arsala ‘alaihim tairan abaabeel
3. And He sent against them birds in flocks,
Tarmeehim bihijaaratim min sijjeel
4. Striking them with stones of hard clay,
Faja ‘alahum ka’asfim m’akool
5. And He made them like eaten straw.
Tafsir of Surah Fil
Here you can expand your knowledge on the Qur’an and Surah Fil by reading the various Tafsir works. In the various interpretations you can learn about the historical context, the lessons the Surah offers, as well as the significance of this surah.
Tafsir by Ibn Kathir Surah Fil
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
This is the story of the people of the Elephant, in brief, and summarized. It has already been mentioned in the story of the People of the Ditch that Dhu Nuas, the last king of Himyar, a polytheist — was the one who ordered killing the People of the Ditch. They were Christians and their number was approximately twenty thousand. None of them except a man named Daws Dhu Tha`laban escaped. He fled to Ash-Sham where he sought protection from Caesar, the emperor of Ash-Sham, who was also a Christian. Caesar wrote to An-Najashi, the king of Ethiopia (Abyssinia), who was closer to the home of the man. An-Najashi sent two governors with him: Aryat and Abrahah bin As-Sabah Abu Yaksum, along with a great army. The army entered Yemen and began searching the houses and looting in search of the king of Himyar (Dhu Nuwas). Dhu Nuwas was eventually killed by drowning in the sea. Thus, the Ethiopians were free to rule Yemen, with Aryat and Abrahah as its governors. However, they continually disagreed about matters, attacked each other, fought each other and warred against each other, until one of them said to the other, “There is no need for our two armies to fight. Instead let us fight each other (in a duel) and the one who kills the other will be the ruler of Yemen.” So the other accepted the challenge and they held a duel. Behind each man was a channel of water (to keep either from fleeing). Aryat gained the upper hand and struck Abrahah with his sword, splitting his nose and mouth, and slashing his face. But `Atawdah, Abrahah’s guard, attacked Aryat and killed him. Thus, Abrahah returned wounded to Yemen where he was treated for his injuries and recovered. He thus became the commander of the Abyssinian army in Yemen.
Then the king of Abyssinia, An-Najashi wrote to him, blaming him for what had happened (between him and Aryat) and threatened him, saying that he swore to tread on the soil of Yemen and cut off his forelock. Therefore, Abrahah sent a messenger with gifts and precious objects to An-Najashi to appease him and flatter him, and a sack containing soil from Yemen and a piece of hair cut from his forelock. He said in his letter to the king, “Let the king walk upon this soil and thus fulfill his oath, and this is my forelock hair that I send to you.” When An-Najashi received this, he was pleased with Abrahah and gave him his approval. Then Abrahah wrote to An-Najashi saying that he would build a church for him in Yemen the like of which had never been built before. Thus, he began to build a huge church in San`a’, tall and beautifully crafted and decorated on all sides. The Arabs called it Al-Qullays because of its great height, and because if one looked at it, his cap would be in danger of falling off as he tilted his head back. Then Abrahah Al-Ashram decided to force the Arabs to make their pilgrimage to this magnificent church, just as they had performed pilgrimage to the Ka`bah in Makkah. He announced this in his kingdom (Yemen), but it was rejected by the Arab tribes of `Adnan and Qahtan. The Quraysh were infuriated by it, so much so that one of them journeyed to the church and entered it one night. He then relieved himself in the church and ran away (escaping the people). When its custodians saw what he had done, they reported it to their king, Abrahah, saying; “One of the Quraysh has done this in anger over their House in whose place you have appointed this church.” Upon hearing this, Abrahah swore to march to the House of Makkah (the Ka`bah) and destroy it stone by stone. Muqatil bin Sulayman mentioned that a group of young men from the Quraysh entered the church and started a fire in it on an extremely windy day. So the church caught on fire and collapsed to the ground. Due to this Abrahah prepared himself and set out with a huge and powerful army so that none might prevent him from carrying out his mission. He took along a great, powerful elephant that had a huge body the like of which had never been seen before. This elephant was called Mahmud and it was sent to Abrahah from An-Najashi, the king of Abyssinia, particularly for this expedition. It has also been said that he had eight other elephants with him; their number was also reported to be twelve, plus the large one, Mahmud — and Allah knows best. Their intention was to use this big elephant to demolish the Ka`bah. They planned to do this by fastening chains to the pillars of the Ka`bah and placing the other ends around the neck of the elephant. Then they would make the elephant pull on them in order to tear down the walls of the Ka`bah all at one time. When the Arabs heard of Abrahah’s expedition, they considered it an extremely grave matter. They held it to be an obligation upon them to defend the Sacred House and repel whoever intended a plot against it. Thus, the noblest man of the people of Yemen and the greatest of their chiefs set out to face him (Abrahah). His name was Dhu Nafr. He called his people, and whoever would respond to his call among the Arabs, to go to war against Abrahah and fight in defense of the Sacred House. He called the people to stop Abrahah’s plan to demolish and tear down the Ka`bah. So the people responded to him and they entered into battle with Abrahah, but he defeated them. This was due to Allah’s will and His intent to honor and venerate the Ka`bah.
The army continued on its way until it came to the land of Khath`am where it was confronted by Nufayl bin Habib Al-Kath`ami along with his people, the Shahran and Nahis tribes. They fought Abrahah but he defeated them and captured Nufayl bin Habib. Initially he wanted to kill him, but he forgave him and took him as his guide to show him the way to Al-Hijaz.
When they approached the area of At-Ta’if, its people — the people of Thaqif — went out to Abrahah. They wanted to appease him because they were fearful for their place of worship, which they called Al-Lat. Abrahah was kind to them and they sent a man named Abu Righal with him as a guide. When they reached a place known as Al-Mughammas, which is near Makkah, they settled there. Then he sent his troops on a foray to capture the camels and other grazing animals of the Makkans, which they did, including about two hundred camels belonging to `Abdul-Muttalib. The leader of this particular expedition was a man named Al-Aswad bin Mafsud. According to what Ibn Ishaq mentioned, some of the Arabs used to satirize him (because of the part he played in this historical in this historical incident). Then Abrahah sent an emissary named Hanatah Al-Himyari to enter Makkah, commanding him to bring the head of the Quraysh to him. He also commanded him to inform him that the king will not fight the people of Makkah unless they try to prevent him from the destruction of the Ka`bah. Hanatah went to the city and he was directed to `Abdul-Muttalib bin Hashim, to whom he relayed Abrahah’s message. `Abdul-Muttalib replied, “By Allah! We have no wish to fight him, nor are we in any position to do so. This is the Sacred House of Allah, and the house of His Khalil, Ibrahim, and if He wishes to prevent him (Abrahah) from (destroying) it, it is His House and His Sacred Place (to do so). And if He lets him approach it, by Allah, We have no means to defend it from him.” So Hanatah told him, “Come with me to him (Abrahah).” And so `Abdul-Muttalib went with him. When Abrahah saw him, he was impressed by him, because `Abdul-Muttalib was a large and handsome man. So Abrahah descended from his seat and sat with him on a carpet on the ground. Then he asked his translator to say to him, “What do you need” `Abdul-Muttalib replied to the translator, “I want the king to return my camels which he has taken from me which are two hundred in number.” Abrahah then told his translator to tell him, “I was impressed by you when I first saw you, but now I withdraw from you after you have spoken to me. You are asking me about two hundred camels which I have taken from you and you leave the matter of a house which is (the foundation of) religion and the religion of your fathers, which I have come to destroy and you do not speak to me about it” `Abdul-Muttalib said to him, “Verily, I am the lord of the camels. As for the House, it has its Lord Who will defend it.” Abrahah said, “I cannot be prevented (from destroying it).” `Abdul-Muttalib answered, “Then do so.” It is said that a number of the chiefs of the Arabs accompanied `Abdul-Muttalib and offered Abrahah a third of the wealth of the tribe of Tihamah if he would withdraw from the House, but he refused and returned `Abdul-Muttalib’s camels to him. `Abdul-Muttalib then returned to his people and ordered them to leave Makkah and seek shelter at the top of the mountains, fearful of the excesses which might be committed by the army against them. Then he took hold of the metal ring of the door of the Ka`bah, and along with a number of Quraysh, he called upon Allah to give them victory over Abrahah and his army. `Abdul-Muttalib said, while hanging on to the ring of the Ka`bah’s door, “There is no matter more important to any man right now than the defense of his livestock and property. So, O my Lord! Defend Your property. Their cross and their cunning will not be victorious over your cunning by the time morning comes.” According to Ibn Ishaq, then `Abdul-Muttalib let go of the metal ring of the door of the Ka`bah, and they left Makkah and ascended to the mountains tops. Muqatil bin Sulayman mentioned that they left one hundred animals (camels) tied near the Ka`bah hoping that some of the army would take some of them without a right to do so, and thus bring about the vengeance of Allah upon themselves.
When morning came, Abrahah prepared to enter the sacred city of Makkah. He prepared the elephant named Mahmud. He mobilized his army, and they turned the elephant towards the Ka`bah. At that moment Nufayl bin Habib approached it and stood next to it, and taking it by its ear, he said, “Kneel, Mahmud! Then turn around and return directly to whence you came. For verily, you are in the Sacred City of Allah.” Then he released the elephant’s ear and it knelt, after which Nufayl bin Habib left and hastened to the mountains. Abrahah’s men beat the elephant in an attempt to make it rise, but it refused. They beat it on its head with axes and used hooked staffs to pull it out of its resistance and make it stand, but it refused. So they turned him towards Yemen, and he rose and walked quickly. Then they turned him towards Ash-Sham and he did likewise. Then they turned him towards the east and he did the same thing. Then they turned him towards Makkah and he knelt down again. Then Allah sent against them the birds from the sea, like swallows and herons. Each bird carried three stones the size of chickpeas and lentils, one in each claw and one in its beak. Everyone who was hit by them was destroyed, though not all of them were hit. They fled in panic along the road asking about the whereabouts of Nufayl that he might point out to them the way home. Nufayl, however, was at the top of the mountain with the Quraysh and the Arabs of the Hijaz observing the wrath which Allah had caused to descend on the people of the elephant. Nufayl then began to say, “Where will they flee when the One True God is the Pursuer For Al-Ashram is defeated and not the victor. Ibn Ishaq reported that Nufayl said these lines of poetry at that time,
“Didn’t you live with continued support We favored you all with a revolving eye in the morning (i.e., a guide along the way). If you saw, but you did not see it at the side of the rock covered mountain that which we saw. Then you will excuse me and praise my affair, and do not grieve over what is lost between us. I praised Allah when I saw the birds, and I feared that the stones might be thrown down upon us. So all the people are asking about the whereabouts of Nufayl, as if I have some debt that I owe the Abyssinians.” `Ata’ bin Yasar and others have said that all of them were not struck by the torment at this hour of retribution. Rather some of them were destroyed immediately, while others were gradually broken down limb by limb while trying to escape. Abrahah was of those who was broken down limb by limb until he eventually died in the land of Khath`am. Ibn Ishaq said that they left (Makkah) being struck down and destroyed along every path and at every water spring. Abrahah’s body was afflicted by the pestilence of the stones and his army carried him away with them as he was falling apart piece by piece, until they arrived back in San`a’. When they arrived there he was but like the baby chick of a bird. And he did not die until his heart fell out of his chest. So they claim. Ibn Ishaq said that when Allah sent Muhammad with the prophethood, among the things that he used to recount to the Quraysh as blessings that Allah had favored them with of His bounties, was His defending them from the attack of the Abyssinians. Due to this they (the Quraysh) were allowed to remain (safely in Makkah) for a period of time. Thus, Allah said,
(Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the Owners of the Elephant Did He not make their plot go astray And He sent against them birds, in flocks (Ababil). Striking them with stones of Sijjil. And He made them like `Asf, Ma’kul.)
(For the Ilaf of the Quraysh, their Ilaf caravans, in winter and in summer. So, let them worship the Lord of this House, Who has fed them against hunger, and has made them safe from fear.) (106:1-4) meaning, that Allah would not alter their situation because Allah wanted good for them if they accepted Him. Ibn Hisham said, “Al-Ababil are the groups, as the Arabs do not speak of just one (bird).” He also said, “As for As-Sijjil, Yunus An-Nahwi and Abu `Ubaydah have informed me that according to the Arabs, it means something hard and solid.” He then said, “Some of the commentators have mentioned that it is actually two Persian words that the Arabs have made into one word. The two words are Sanj and Jil, Sanj meaning stones, and Jil meaning clay. The rocks are of these two types: stone and clay.” He continued saying, “Al-`Asf are the leaves of the crops that are not gathered. One of them is called `Asfah.” This is the end of what he mentioned. Hammad bin Salamah narrated from `Asim, who related from Zirr, who related from `Abdullah and Abu Salamah bin `Abdur-Rahman that they said,
(birds Ababil.) “In groups.” Ibn `Abbas and Ad-Dahhak both said, “Ababil means some of them following after others.” Al-Hasan Al-Basri and Qatadah both said, “Ababil means many.” Mujahid said, “Ababil means in various, successive groups.” Ibn Zayd said, “Ababil means different, coming from here and there. They came upon them from everywhere.” Al-Kasa’i said, “I heard some of the grammarians saying, “The singular of Ababil is Ibil.” Ibn Jarir recorded from Ishaq bin `Abdullah bin Al-Harith bin Nawfal that he said concerning Allah’s statement,
(And He sent against them birds, Ababil.) “This means in divisions just as camels march in divisions (in their herds).” It is reported that Ibn `Abbas said,
(And He sent against them birds, Ababil.) “They had snouts like the beaks of birds and paws like the paws of dogs.” It has been reported that `Ikrimah said commenting on Allah’s statement,
(birds, Ababil.) “They were green birds that came out of the sea and they had heads like the heads of predatory animals.” It has been reported from `Ubayd bin `Umayr that he commented:
(birds, Ababil.) “They were black birds of the sea that had stones in their beaks and claws.” And the chains of narration (for these statements) are all authentic. It is reported from `Ubayd bin `Umayr that he said, “When Allah wanted to destroy the People of the Elephant, he sent birds upon them that came from sea swallows. Each of the birds was carrying three small stones — two stones with its feet and one stone in its beak. They came until they gathered in rows over their heads. Then they gave a loud cry and threw what was in their claws and beaks. Thus, no stone fell upon the head of any man except that it came out of his behind (i.e., it went through him), and it did not fall on any part of his body except that it came out from the opposite side. Then Allah sent a severe wind that struck the stones and increased them in force. Thus, they were all destroyed.”
(And He made them like `Asf, Ma’kul.) Sa`id bin Jubayr said, “This means straw, which the common people call Habbur.” In a report from Sa`id he said, “The leaves of wheat.” He also said, “Al-`Asf is straw, and Al-Ma’kul refers to the fodder that is cut for animals.” Al-Hasan Al-Basri said the same thing. Ibn `Abbas said, “Al-`Asf is the shell of the grain, just like the covering of wheat.” Ibn Zayd said, “Al-`Asf are the leaves of vegetation and produce. When the cattle eat it they defecate it out and it becomes dung.” The meaning of this is that Allah destroyed them, annihilated them and repelled them in their plan and their anger. They did not achieve any good. He made a mass destruction of them, and not one of them returned (to their land) to relate what happened except that he was wounded. This is just like what happened to their king, Abrahah. For indeed he was split open, exposing his heart when he reached his land of San`a’. He informed the people of what happened to them and then he died. His son Yaksum became the king after him, and then Yaksum’s brother, Masruq bin Abrahah succeeded him. Then Sayf bin Dhi Yazan Al-Himyari went to Kisra (the king of Persia) and sought his help against the Abyssinians. Therefore, Kisra dispatched some of his army with Sayf Al-Himyari to fight with him against the Abyssinians. Thus, Allah returned their kingdom to them (i.e., the Arabs of Yemen) along with all the sovereignty their fathers possessed. Then large delegations of Arabs came to him (Sayf Al-Himyari) to congratulate him for their victory. We have mentioned previously in the Tafsir of Surat Al-Fath that when the Messenger of Allah approached the mountain pass that would lead him to the Quraysh on the Day of Al-Hudaybiyyah, his she-camel knelt down. Then the people attempted to make her get up but she refused. So, the people said, “Al-Qaswa’ has become stubborn.” The Prophet replied,
(Al-Qaswa’ has not become stubborn, for that is not part of her character. Rather, she has been stopped by He Who restrained the Elephant (of Abrahah).) Then he said,
(I swear by He in Whose Hand is my soul, they (the Quraysh) will not ask me for any matter (of the treaty) in which the sacred things of Allah are honored except that I will agree with them on it.) Then he beckoned the she-camel to rise and she stood up. This Hadith is of those that Al-Bukhari was alone in recording. It has been recorded in the Two Sahihs that on the Day of the conquest of Makkah, the Messenger of Allah said,
(Verily, Allah restrained the Elephant from Makkah, and He has given His Messenger and the believers authority over it. And indeed its sacredness has returned just as it was sacred yesterday. So, let those who are present inform those who are absent. )
This is the end of the Tafsir of Surat Al-Fil, and all praise and thanks are due to Allah.
The subject-matter of the Surah
This Surah refers to the story of the People of the Elephants who came with an army of elephants for the purpose of destroying the House of Allah in (The Holy Ka’bah) in Makkah. But their plan backfired and the Divine scourge overtook them. Allah destroyed the army with a flock of ordinary birds. Thus their plans were foiled and thwarted.
When did the event take place?
This event took place in the very year in which the Holy Prophet ﷺ was born at Makkah, according to some traditions and the popular view among the historians. [Ibn Kathir]. The scholars of Hadith have taken this event as a special type of mujizah (miracle) of the Holy Prophet ﷺ ، but the term mujizah, in its real sense, refers to an abnormal event shown by Allah to prove the claim of a prophet to having been sent by Him. Therefore, a mujizah is shown after a prophet’s Divine commission. However, sometimes it happens that a miraculous event takes place before a prophet’s claim to prophet-hood. This, in the parlance of the scholars of Hadith, is called irhas which means ‘prologue or introduction’. The word irahs means a ‘foundation stone’ [Qamus]. As the miraculous events taking place before the advent of prophets or before their claim to prophet-hood are meant to introduce and affirm that soon a particular prophet will be Divinely commissioned, they are referred to as irhas. Many miraculous incidents of this nature [irhasat] occurred before the birth and the advent of the Holy Prophet ﷺ ، and one of them was the incident of the ‘People of the Elephants’ who were miraculously prevented by the Heavenly scourge from destroying the House of Allah.
Story of the People of the Elephants
Ibn Kathir, the leading authority on Prophetic Tradition and history, recounts the story as follows: Yemen was under the control of the rulers of Himyar. They were idolaters. Their last king was Dhu Nuwas, an idolater himself, was the enemy of the righteous Christians of his time, who believed in and worshipped One Allah. He persecuted the believers, who were opposed to idol-worship, by burning them alive. Most scholars agree that he killed, in cold blood, by throwing about 20, 000 sincere and righteous Christians in his city into a large fire pit, burning them alive in an effort to get them to give up their sincere religion. This is the story of the ‘People of Fire-Pit’ referred to in [85:4-7]. Two men somehow managed to escape from him. They fled to Syria and took refuge with Caesar, who was himself a Christian and the emperor of Syria. They requested the emperor to avenge this cruel act of Dhu Nuwas. Caesar wrote to Najashi (Negus), the king of Abyssinia [now Ethiopia], who was closer to the home of the man. Najashi sent two governors with him: Arbat and Abrahah, along with a huge army.
The army invaded Yemen and freed the whole country from the possession of Himyar. Dhu Nuwas tried to escape, but was drowned in the sea and died. Yemen thus became part of the Abyssinian dominion and Abrahah was appointed its viceroy. However, he and Arbat fought each other until Arbat was eventually killed and Abrahah emerged victorious. The latter was appointed the commander of the Abyssinian army in Yemen, and the governor of that region. Having captured Yemen, he built a superbly luxurious cathedral in his area. The purpose was to attract the people of Yemen to make pilgrimage to this cathedral instead of Ka’bah in Makkah. It was huge and tall so that a person standing at the bottom was not able to see the top. He decorated the structure with gold, silver and other precious gems. In short, he meant it to be an architectural masterpiece, second to none or unsurpassed in the world, to be revered by all and sundry and divert pilgrims from the Sacred Mosque in Makkah to his cathedral in Yemen. He did this after he had witnessed the love and enthusiasm of the Yemeni Arabs – which were the same as those felt all over the Arabia – for the Ka’bah, with the aim of making them forsake their attachment to the Mosque of Makkah and turn instead to his new luxurious cathedral. Thus he proclaimed throughout his kingdom that no one should ever visit the Ka’bah in Makkah, and that the pilgrimage should from now on take place to his so-called ‘Ka’bah’ in Yemen.
Although the Arabs were idol-worshippers, the love and reverence for the religion of Prophet Ibrahim (علیہ السلام) and the Ka’bah had permeated their hearts. As a result, the ` Andan, Qahtan and Quraish tribes were enraged and infuriated by this proclamation. One night, someone entered the church and defecated in it. According to other narratives, a nomadic tribe halted near the church and started a fire for their own needs. The wind on that day was blowing violently and the cathedral caught on fire and sustained much loss. When Abrahah came to know about it, and learnt that a Quraishi had done this, he swore to march to the House of Makkah and destroy it stone by stone. Thus he prepared himself and set out with a huge and powerful army, so that none might prevent him from carrying out his mission. He asked for Najashi’s permission. He permitted him and sent for him, particularly for this expedition, a special elephant whose name was Mahmud. It was unusually huge in size and powerful in strength the like of which had never been seen before. The king of Abyssinia sent in eight more elephants as reinforcements for the army. Their intention was to use this extraordinary elephant to demolish the Ka’bah. They planned to do this by fastening chains to the pillars of the Ka’bah and placing the other ends around the neck of the elephant. Then they would make the elephant pull on them in order to tear down the walls of the Ka’bah [God forbid!] all at once. When the Arabs heard of Abrahah’s expedition, they considered it their moral obligation to defend the Sacred House and thwart the evil plans of the conspirators. Thus, the Arabs raised a large army under the command of Dhu Nafr, a Yamenite Arab. He called the Arabs to go to war against Abrahah and fight in defense of the Sacred House, so that the enemy is unable to tear it down. The people responded to him readily and entered into battle with the enemy, but he defeated them. This was due to Allah’s will that no humans should protect His House and His intent to expose the enemy to embarrassment and venerate the Sacred Sanctuary to the highest degree. Dhu Nafr was captured and taken prisoner.
The army continued on its way until it came to the settlement of the Banu Khath’am tribe. Their leader, Nufail Ibn Habib, led his entire tribe against the army, but they too were defeated and Nufail was taken prisoner. Abrahah at first decided to kill him, but at second thought he forgave him and took him as his guide to show him the way to Hijaz.
When the army approached Ta’if, the people of Thaqif went out to Abrahah. They wanted to pacify him, because they had heard about the fate of those who had resisted him previously. Also, they were afraid that he would demolish their temple consecrated in the name of their idol Al-Lat. Therefore, they did not resist him on the understanding that he would not touch the idol of Lat. He was compassionate to them, and they sent a guide with him by the name of Abu Righal. When they arrived in a place called Al-Maghmas, near Makkah, they settled there. This was the pasture where the camels of the Quraish grazed. Abrahah sent his troops on a foray to capture the camels and other grazing animals of the Makkans. They accomplished their mission. They also drove away about two hundred camels of ` Abdul-Muttalib, grandfather of the Holy Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and the leader of the Quraish. Abrahah then sent an emissary named Hanatah Al-Himyari to enter Makkah and bring to him the leader of the Quraish. He mandated him to convey to the leader of the Quraish his message that the king did not come to fight with the Makkans unless they stood in his way of destroying their Sacred Sanctuary. Arriving in the city, Hanatah was directed to ` Abdul-Muttalib Ibn Hashim, to whom he communicated Abrahah’s message. According to Ibn Ishaq’s narration, ` Abdul-Muttalib replied: “By Allah! We too have no desire to fight him, nor do we have the might to do so. This is the Sacred Sanctuary of Allah built by His friend Prophet Ibrahim (علیہ السلام) . If He wills to prevent Abrahah from pulling it down, He will protect it. And if He allows him to approach it, by Allah, we have no means to defend it.” So Hanatah told him: “Come with me to Abrahah.” So ` Abdul-Muttalib went with him.
When Abrahah saw him, he was highly impressed, because ` Abdul-Muttalib had the most handsome, charming and attractive personality. He descended from his throne and sat with the latter on a carpet on the ground. He then said to his interpreter to ask him: “What do you need?” ` Abdul-Muttalib replied to the interpreter: “I want the king to give back my two hundred camels which his soldiers have taken from me.” Then Abrahah told his interpreter to relay to him: “When I first set my eyes on you, I admired you greatly and had great respect for you. But all that is now lost. You speak only of your two hundred camels while you fully well know that I have come to tear down your Ka’bah which is the embodiment of your religion and the religion of your forefathers. You did not even say a single word to persuade me to spare it.” ` Abdul-Muttalib calmly responded: “I am the owner of my camels and am concerned about them. I am not the owner of Allah’s House. The Master of the House knows how best to protect His House.” Abrahah rudely rebuffed: “Your God cannot protect it from me.” ` Abdul-Muttalib made a rejoinder: “Then do as you like or [take your chance!] ” According to other narratives, there were other chiefs of Quraish with ` Abdul-Muttalib at the time of this negotiation. They proposed to Abrahah that if he withdrew from the Sanctuary, the entire region of Tihamah would pay him a third of their agricultural produce annually as tribute. But he turned down the offer. He then gave back ` Abdul-Muttalib’s camels to him. ` Abdul-Muttalib took his camels and went back home, ordering his people to leave Makkah and seek shelter at the top of the mountains. He feared that atrocities might be committed by the army against them. Then he went with a few figures of the Quraish to the Sacred Sanctuary. He held the metal ring of the door of Ka’bah and prayed Allah to give them victory over Abrahah and his army. While hanging on to the ring of the Ka’bah’s door, he earnestly implored: “We have no strength to face the army of Abrahah. So, 0 my Lord! Defend Your Ka’bah.” Having so prayed in all earnestness, ` Abdul-Muttalib led all the Makkans to the neighbouring mountains, because they were convinced that Allah’s scourge would overtake Abrahah and his troops. This is the reason why they spoke to Abrahah about their camels, and not about the House of Allah.
When the next morning dawned, Abrahah prepared to enter the sacred city of Makkah. He prepared the elephant named Mahmud and mobilized his army, and they turned the elephant towards the Ka’bah. At that moment Nufail Ibn Habib, whom Abrahah had captured earlier, approached it and stood next to it, and taking it by its ear, he said: “Return safely where you came from, because you are, verily, in the Sacred City of Allah.” Then he released the elephant’s ear and it knelt and sat down forthwith. The elephant drivers exerted all efforts to persuade the elephant to enter the City, but their efforts were in vain. Then they tried striking it with large iron spears and putting iron arrowheads in its trunk. They beat it on its head with axes and used hooked staffs to pull it out of its resistance and make it stand, but it refused. So they turned it towards Yemen, and it rose and walked quickly. Then they turned it towards Syria, it walked fast. Then they turned it towards the east and it walked briskly. Then they turned it towards Makkah, it knelt and sat down again.
This was one aspect of the manifestation of the Divine power unfolding itself miraculously. On the other hand, some flocks of birds were seen coming from the sea. Each bird carried three pebbles of the size of gram seeds or lentils, one in each claw and two in its beak. According to Waqidi’s narration, the birds looked unusual which were never seen before. They looked smaller than pigeons, and their claws were red in colour. They flew over Abrahah’s army and pelted them with the pebbles. Each pebble was more devastating than the bullet of a revolver. When it fell on anything, it tore directly through the body and settled deep in the ground. Seeing this scourge, the elephants fled in panic, except one which was harmed and destroyed by the pebble. Not all of Abrahah’s men were destroyed instantly. People escaped in different directions. They died excruciatingly on their way back. As Allah had willed that the most distressful scourge should be inflicted upon Abrahah, He did not allow him to die immediately. In fact, Allah afflicted him with a deadly disease. A kind of poison spread thoroughly through his entire body and caused every single part to decay – his limbs began to rot and separate from the rest of his body and he started losing one finger after another. His body was carried back in that state to Yemen. By the time they arrived back in San’a’, the capital of Yemen, his body was broken down limb by limb until he eventually died. Two of Mahmud’s (name of elephant) drivers remained in Makkah, but both of them became blind and paralyzed. Muhammad Ibn Ishaq reports that Sayyidah ` A’ishah ؓ narrates that she saw them blind and paralyzed. Her sister, Sayyidah Asma’ ؓ says that she saw the two blind and paralyzed men begging. The ‘People of the Elephants’ is a momentous event in Arab history, which was witnessed by hundreds of Arabs. It is to this well-known historical incident that this Surah refers.
Verse [105:1] أَلَمْ تَرَ كَيْفَ فَعَلَ رَبُّكَ بِأَصْحَابِ الْفِيلِ (Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the people of the Elephant?) In the phrase alam tara [have you not seen], the second person pronoun refers to the Holy Prophet ﷺ. It is interesting to note that the event took place before the blessed birth of the Holy Prophet ﷺ. He could not have seen or witnessed it with his own eyes. However, the incident was so widely known as if the Prophet ﷺ had seen it with his own eyes, which is a sign of the certainty of its happening. Such a knowledge is described by the word ru’yat [seeing]. As reported earlier, Sayyidah ` A’ishah ؓ and her sister, Sayyidah Asma’ ؓ both say that they had seen the two camel drivers had become blind and paralyzed and used to go around begging. In this way, the traces of this event were seen even after the birth of the Holy Prophet ﷺ.
Verse [105:3] طَيْرًا أَبَابِيلَ (… birds in flocks.) The word ababil is plural and is said to have no singular. It means birds in flocks, or swarms of birds. It is not the name of a particular bird. In Urdu usually ababil refers to ‘swallows’, they are not implied in the verse as indicated in the above narration. These birds were somewhat smaller in size than pigeon and they were birds that were never seen before. [ Said Ibn Jubair, as quoted by Qurtubi].
Verse [105:4] بِحِجَارَةٍ مِّن سِجِّيلٍ (…stones of baked clay.) The word sijjil is a compound Persian word, Arabiciszed, made up of two Persian words: sang [ stone ] and gil [clay]. They refer to ordinary or common clay rolled into little balls and then baked to harden. These pebbles are not heavy or hard like rocks chipped off mountains. They in themselves did not have any devastating power, but it was Allah who created in these stones the high capability of explosion and blowing-up even more than the bullets of a revolver.
Verse [ 105:5] فَجَعَلَهُمْ كَعَصْفٍ مَّأْكُولٍ (And thus He turned them into an eaten-up chaff.) The word ` asf means ‘chaff, straw, husk or bran’. Usually the ` asf is scattered and when it is eaten or devoured by animals, it does not remain in the same state. This is what happened to Abrahah and his army.
The miraculous event of the ‘People of the Elephant’ enhanced in the hearts of the entire Arabian society the love, respect and honor of the Quraish. When Arabia witnessed that Allah has, on their behalf, miraculously destroyed their enemy, they were convinced that the Quraish are men of God, and custodians of the Sacred House of Allah [Qurtubi]. That is why they were respected and protected wherever they went; although other caravans in Arabia had to fear attacks from highway robbers, the Quraish travelled untouched and enjoyed high social status. As a result, they could freely and safely carry out their commercial activities in the neighboring states, and enjoy economic prosperity. The Surah that follows refers to these journeys and invites the Quraish to be thankful to Allah and worship Him alone for providing them with all of their needs.
The Commentary on
This surah refers to a widely famous incident in the Arabian Peninsula which took place before the commencement of the Islamic message. The incident shows very clearly how God protected the sacred area, which He willed to be the focal point of the last enlightenment, the cradle of the new faith, from where it was to begin its blessed march to exterminate jahiliyyah from all corners of the world and to establish in its place God’s infallible guidance.
The various reports about this incident relate that after the Abyssinians had expelled the Persians from Yemen and established their rule there, the Abyssinian governor of Yemen, Abrahah, built a superbly luxurious church giving it the name of the then Abyssinian Emperor. He did this after he had observed the love and enthusiasm of Yemeni Arabs — the same as those felt all over the Arab land — for the Ka`bah, the Sacred Mosque at Makkah. His purpose behind building the church was to make the Arabs forsake their attachment to the Mosque at Makkah and turn instead to his new luxurious church.
But the Arabs did not turn away from their historical shrine. They believed themselves to be the descendants of Abraham and Ishmael who built the House, which is the name they often used for the Ka`bah. For them, this fact was a source of pride in line with their tradition of honouring their forefathers. Vain and hollow as they were, their beliefs were, in their eyes, better and more profound than those of the people of earlier revelations [i.e. the Jews and Christians]. They viewed these religions as contradictory and futile.
As a result, Abrahah decided to pull the Ka`bah down in order to achieve his objective of turning the Arabs away from it. He therefore marched at the head of a great army equipped with elephants. At the front was a huge elephant which enjoyed special fame among Abrahah’s men. News of Abrahah’s march and his objective travelled throughout Arab lands giving rise to very strong feelings amongst the Arabs about the destruction of their sacred House. A nobleman of the royal family of Yemen, called Dhū Nafar, tried to stop the Abyssinian governor, calling on his people and other Arabs to fight Abrahah and defend the House. Some Arab tribes joined him in a battle against Abrahah which Dhū Nafar lost before he was taken prisoner. Later, while Abrahah was on his way, he was intercepted by Nat’l ibn Ĥabib al-Khath`ami, who had mobilized two Arab tribes as well as other Bedouin volunteers, but Abrahah again won the battle and captured Nat’l. Nat’l then agreed to act as a guide for Abrahah showing him the way. When the Abyssinian governor approached Ţā’if, a number of its leaders went to him to say that the House he wanted to pull down was in Makkah and not at Ţā’if. They did this in order to prevent him from destroying the house they had built for their idol, al-Lāt. They also provided him with a guide to show him the way to the Ka`bah.
Then, on his arrival at al-Mughammas, a valley en route from Ţā’if to Makkah, Abrahah despatched one of his commanders to Makkah where he looted some belongings of the Quraysh and other Arabs, including 200 camels which belonged to `Abd al-Muţţalib ibn Hāshim, the chief of Makkah and the Prophet’s grandfather. Quraysh, Kinānah, Hudhayl and neighbouring Arab tribes then gathered together to fight Abrahah, but realized that they stood no chance of winning, so did not proceed any further. Then Abrahah sent a messenger to Makkah to meet its chief and convey to him that the governor of Yemen did not come to fight the people of Makkah, but just to pull the House down. If they left him to accomplish his objective, he would be pleased not to cause any further bloodshed. Abrahah also ordered his messenger to bring with him the Makkan chief, if the latter did not propose to fight. When the messenger communicated his master’s message to `Abd al-Muţţalib, the latter said: “By God, we do not want to fight him and we have no power to resist him. This is God’s sacred House, built by His chosen friend, Abraham. If He protects it against Abrahah, it is because the House is His, and if He leaves it to him to destroy, we cannot defend it.” `Abd al-Muţţalib then went with the messenger to meet Abrahah.
Ibn Ishāq said that `Abd al-Muţţalib was a most handsome, charming and venerable-looking person. When Abrahah saw him he felt much respect for him. He felt that `Abd al-Muţţalib was too noble to sit beneath his royal bed, but at the same time he did not wish his officers and troops to see him elevate his guest and sit him on his own couch, so instead he sat with `Abd al-Muţţalib on the carpet. Then Abrahah ordered his interpreter to ask his guest what he wanted. `Abd al-Muţţalib said he wanted to request the king to give him back his 200 camels which had been looted by his commander. Abrahah ordered his interpreter to tell `Abd al-Muţţalib on his behalf: “I admired you when I first saw you but when I spoke to you I was disappointed. Do you come to talk to me about 200 looted camels and forget about the House which is an embodiment of your and your forefathers’ religion and which I have come to destroy? You did not even say a word to persuade me to spare it.”
`Abd al-Muţţalib said: “I am only the master of my camels, but the House has its own Lord who is sure to protect it.” Abrahah snapped: “It cannot be defended against me.” The Makkan chief said: “You take your chance!” Abrahah returned his camels to him.
`Abd al-Muţţalib went back to the Quraysh and told them of his encounter with the Abyssinian commander. He ordered them to leave Makkah and seek shelter in the surrounding mountains. Then he accompanied a few Quraysh dignitaries to the Ka`bah where he held the ring on its door in his hand. They all prayed hard to God for His help and protection of the House. `Abd al-Muţţalib is reported to have recited the following lines of poetry in his prayer:
Our Lord, a creature protects his property, so protect Yours. Let not their cross and their might ever overcome Your might. If You are leaving them to destroy our House of worship, then You surely have something in mind.
Abrahah, on the other hand, ordered his army to march with the elephants to complete their mission, but at a short distance from Makkah, their famous, huge elephant sat down and refused to go any further. The soldiers exerted all efforts to persuade the elephant to enter the city, but their attempts were in vain. This incident is a fact acknowledged by the Prophet. When his she-camel, al-Qaşwā’, sat down some distance from Makkah, on the day the Ĥudaybiyah peace agreement was concluded, the Prophet said to those of his Companions who claimed she had become mulish, that she had not and that mulishness was not part of her nature. “But,” the Prophet added, “she has been prevented by the same will which debarred the elephant from entering Makkah.” On the day of the conquest of Makkah, the Prophet said: “God protected Makkah against the elephant but He allowed His Messenger and the believers to take it under their control. Its sanctity today is the same as yesterday. Let those who hear this convey it to those who are absent.”
Then God’s will to destroy the Abyssinian army and its commander was fulfilled. He sent groups of birds to stone the attackers with pebbles of sand and clay, leaving them like dry and torn leaves, as the Qur’ān describes. Abrahah suffered physical injuries. The remainder of his army carried him back to Yemen, but his limbs began to separate from the rest of his body and he started losing one finger after another, until they arrived at Sana`ā’. According to various reports, Abrahah died after his chest was cleaved apart.
A Rationalist View
Versions of this event vary with regard to the description of the bird flocks, their size, the nature of the stones and the manner of their effect. Some accounts add that smallpox and measles broke out in Makkah that year. Those who are inclined to limit the scale of miracles and unfamiliar phenomena, seeking to explain all events as resulting from the operation of natural phenomena that are familiar to us, prefer to explain this event as an actual outbreak of smallpox and measles that afflicted the army. They further explain that the ‘birds’ could have been flies or mosquitoes carrying germs. The word ‘bird’ in Arabic refers to all that flies. Explaining this surah in his own commentary on this part of the Qur’ān, Imām Muĥammad `Abduh says:
On the second day, a smallpox and measles epidemic broke out among Abrahah’s soldiers. `Ikrimah says: “It was the first time smallpox had appeared in the Arabia.” Ya`qūb ibn `Utbah says: “That was the year when measles and smallpox appeared in Arabia. The diseases had an almost unparalleled effect on their bodies: their flesh began to fall apart. The soldiers and their commander were horror-stricken and ran away. Abrahah was also hit. His flesh continued falling off his body, finger by finger, until eventually his chest broke up and he died at Sana`ā’.
This is what different reports have mentioned and what is logically acceptable. This surah shows us that the smallpox and measles were produced by solid stones carried and thrown on the soldiers by colossal flocks of birds that are helped on their way by winds.
It is in line with these reports to believe that those birds mentioned in the surah refer to a kind of fly or mosquito which carries the germs of some diseases, and that the stones were of dried and poisonous clay which the wind carried and which might have stuck to the birds’ legs. When this clay touched any organism, it penetrated deep into it and then caused complications in wounds and injuries which upset the whole body, leading to the dropping off of flesh. Many kinds of these powerless birds are, as a matter of fact, among the most efficient of God’s troops, which He uses for the destruction of whomsoever He wills. That little organism, called nowadays ‘germ’, is within this classification. It gathers in large groups, the number of which is unknown except to the Creator. It is not essential for the manifestation of God’s might that the birds should be as large as mountain tops, or of a certain shape or colour, and it is not essential for this manifestation that we should know the size of those stones and the way they work. For God has troops of all kinds: “In everything He has a sign attesting to His oneness,” as the saying goes.
There is no force in the universe but is subject to God’s power. To that tyrant, Abrahah, who wanted to destroy the Ka`bah, God sent birds carrying smallpox and measles. Both he and his people were destroyed before entering Makkah. That was an act of grace and a blessing from God bestowed on the neighbours of His sanctuary in spite of the fact that they were idolaters. God wished to protect His House until He sent His Messenger, Muĥammad, to protect it with the force of faith and ideology. At the same time, it was a punishment from God inflicted on His enemies, the people of the Elephant, who wanted to destroy the House without reasonable justification.
This can be taken as a basis for understanding this surah. Nothing else can be accepted without logical explanation, even if it is authentically reported. Divine power is exhibited more strikingly when those who manifested their might by recruiting elephants, the largest quadruped animals, were destroyed and crushed by a tiny animal, invisible to human eyes. A wise person finds this certainly greater, more fascinating and miraculous.
Natural Phenomena and God’s Power
This assumption [of smallpox or measles resulting from clay infected with the germs of those diseases] advanced by the well-versed Imam is contrasted with one included in some narratives, describing the stones thrown by the birds as causing the heads and bodies of the Abyssinians to split. They speak of the stones boring through their bodies, leaving them like remnants of dry leaves. To us, neither of the two explanations outweighs the other in manifesting God’s might, or provides a better explanation of the event. Both are the same with regard to their possibility and the demonstration of God’s power. Whether the natural phenomena known and familiar to man operated to destroy the people God willed to be destroyed, or His purpose was accomplished through some divine rule and phenomena of which man has no knowledge, are in our view exactly the same.
The divine rules of nature are not circumscribed by the boundaries of man’s knowledge or what is familiar to him. For man knows only the fraction which God puts before him, and only that which suits his understanding and thought. Hence, so-called miracles are part of the rules of nature laid down by God, but they are miracles only when measured by human knowledge and experience.
Hence, there is no need for unease or doubt when faced with a supernatural event. Nor is there any need to seek an explanation for it, if the reports mentioning it are authentic, or there are enough reasons, based on what is in the texts, to suggest that it was supernatural, going beyond known natural laws. That a certain event should run according to familiar natural laws is no less significant or less effective than its following supernatural laws. Natural rules familiar to men are in fact miraculous when measured against human power and ability. Sunrise is a miracle, though it occurs every day, and the birth of every child is superhuman in spite of its happening every minute. If anyone wants to challenge this, let him try to devise a birth! The employment of birds of any kind to carry crushed stones infected with germs, and cast them at the raiding army the moment it was about to overwhelm the city and destroy the House, is indeed a great miracle. That God’s will should have been realized in that way would comprise several miracles, with each regarded as a clear and spectacular manifestation of His might and will. Had this course been followed, it would not have been less significant or less striking than sending a certain kind of bird, carrying unfamiliar kinds of stones, to afflict human bodies with a peculiar sort of affliction at that particular time. The two courses are the same; both are miraculous and superhuman.
As for the event in question, the opinion advocating an unfamiliar, preternatural course carries more weight. This opinion visualizes that God sent groups of unfamiliar birds, carrying strange stones which caused extraordinary affliction to human bodies. To accept this opinion does not necessitate the acceptance of those narratives which describe the birds in most fascinating terms, similar to descriptions of legendary incidents that betray exaggeration.
God had a scheme for the House: He wanted to preserve it as a refuge for mankind where everyone finds peace, and to make it a gathering point for the followers of the new faith to march out in security in a free land, not subject to any external force or to any tyrannical government which might try to smother the new message in its cradle. God also wanted to make this event a permanent lesson, clear to everyone in all ages, so much so that in this surah He reminds the Quraysh, even after Muĥammad (peace be upon him) is given his message, of this grace He bestowed on them, making it an example of how He protects His sanctuaries and preserves them. There is no need for any attempt to impart a familiar image to this event, exceptional as it is in essence and circumstances. This is all the more so when we take into consideration the fact that what we know of smallpox and measles and their effects on man does not fit with what was reported of the effects of the incident on the soldiers’ and their commander’s bodies. Neither of the two diseases causes man’s limbs to fall off, finger by finger and organ by organ. Nor does either disease cause the cleaving of one’s chest. The Qur’anic narrative suggests very clearly that this is what happened: “Thus He made them like stalks of devoured leaves.” (Verse 5)
Moreover, the reports of ‘Ikrimah and Ya`qūb ibn ‘Utbah do not state that smallpox hit the army. Neither report says anything more than that smallpox broke out that year for the first time in the Arabian Peninsula. Neither of the two men suggests that Abrahah and his army in particular fell victim to this epidemic. Besides, if only the army was affected by the diseases while the Arabs around remained safe — that is, if the birds were meant to strike only the army — then this is again preternatural. Since the event is in any case supernatural, why trouble ourselves in limiting it to a certain explanation only because this explanation is based on what is familiar to us?
The motives of the Rationalist School, of which Imām Muĥammad `Abduh was the leading figure, to limit the field of the supernatural and the imperceptible to our senses when explaining the Qur’ān, are both understandable and commendable. This school tried to explain such events within the bounds of the known and familiar natural laws. It was confronted with a superstitious trend which tightened its grip on the minds of the masses at that time. Moreover, it faced a flood of legends and Talmudic narratives which books explaining the Qur’ān were overburdened with, while fascination with modern technology and science on the one hand, and doubt in the principles of religion on the other, were reaching their zenith. The Rationalist School tried, therefore, to preserve the place of religion taking the standpoint that whatever it says is compatible with reason. Hence, this school strived to keep religion pure from any association with any kind of legend and superstition. It also tried to establish a religious mentality which understood natural laws and recognized that they were constant and infallible, and which attributed all human and universal functions and operations to these natural laws. This mentality is, in essence, the Qur’anic mentality. For the Qur’ān refers people to natural laws as they constitute the permanent and infallible rule which organizes individual operations and diverse phenomena.
Yet resisting the pressures of superstition on the one hand and fascination with technology on the other left their stamps on the school. It became extra cautious, tending to make familiar natural laws the only basis for the divine laws of nature. Hence the Qur’anic explanations of Shaikh Muĥammad `Abduh and his two disciples Shaikh Rashid Riđā and Shaikh `Abd al-Qādir al-Maghribi clearly show a strong desire to reduce the greater number of miracles to only the more familiar of God’s natural laws rather than the preternatural. They explain some of these miracles in a way that would be in line with what is called ‘rational’, and they are excessively cautious in accepting what is imperceptible to human senses.
With this understanding of the environmental factors behind the Rationalist School’s trend, it should be noted that it has gone too far in overlooking the other side of the comprehensive concept which the Qur’ān aims to implant in Muslim minds. This is that God’s will and power are absolute, limitless and go far beyond the universal rules and laws He ordained, whether familiar to man or not. This absoluteness does not accept the human mind as a final arbiter. Neither does it accept the limits of the human mind as binding in such a way as to classify as probable only that which may be acceptable to human reason, and to demand ‘rational’ explanations for all that is unacceptable to it. This demand is frequently stated by advocates of this school.
Moreover, the divine laws of the universe are not only those familiar to man. Indeed, what is familiar to man is only a fraction of these laws. Both these and the unfamiliar laws are the same in manifesting the greatness of divine power and the exactness and precision of God’s designs.
Nevertheless, we must be well guarded against superstition and at the same time reject any unfounded legend with conscious moderation, so that we neither succumb to the influence of particular environments nor feel urged by a need to resist a common tradition of a certain age.
There is a safe rule for approaching Qur’anic texts, which may be appropriately stated here. We cannot approach what the Qur’ān states with prejudiced minds and preconceived ideas, whether generally or in relation to the subject matter of the statements under study. The opposite is the correct way: we must approach Qur’anic statements in such a way that helps us to derive our concepts from them and formulate our ideas on their basis. What the Qur’ān states is final as it is. For what we call ‘reason’ and its adjudication on what the Qur’ān relates of events in the universe or of history, in our own world or in the realm of the imperceptible, is no more than the net result of our finite human existence and experience.
Although human reason is, in essence an absolute force, not subject to, or limited by, individual experiences or events, it is, after all, confined to human existence. This existence does not reflect the absolute, as this belongs to God. The Qur’ān comes from God, the Absolute. Hence, it is binding on us in the sense that whatever it states is the basis of our very ‘rational’ concepts. Then, no one can say of a certain Qur’anic statement: ‘It is unacceptable to reason, so a logical explanation must be sought for it,’ as advocates of the Rationalist School frequently say. This does not mean that we should accept superstitions, it only stresses that human reason is not the arbiter of what the Qur’ān states. When the expressions of a Qur’anic text are clear and straightforward, they determine how our reason should approach that text in order to formulate our views concerning its subject matter as well as regarding other universal facts.
A Momentous Event
Let us now examine the text of the surah itself and try to understand the significance of the story.
“Are you not aware how your Lord dealt with the people of the Elephant?” (Verse 1) It is a question that draws attention to the wonders involved in the incident itself and stresses its great significance. The incident was so well known to the Arabs that they used to consider it a sort of beginning of history. They would say, ‘This incident happened in the year of the Elephant’, and, ‘That event took place two years before the year of the Elephant’, or, ‘This dates to ten years after the year of the Elephant’. It is well known that the Prophet was born in the year of the Elephant itself. This is perhaps one of the fascinatingly perfect arrangements of divine will.
The surah then is not relating to the Arabs something they did not know. It is a reminder of an event well known to them, aiming at achieving something beyond actual remembrance of it.
After this opening note, the surah tells the rest of the story in the form of a rhetorical question: “Did He not utterly confound their treacherous plan?” (Verse 2) This means that the designs of the people of the Elephant were useless, incapable of achieving anything at all. They were like someone who had lost his way and thus could not arrive at his destination. Perhaps this is a reminder to the Quraysh of the grace God bestowed on them when He protected and preserved the House at a time when they felt too weak to face the mighty aggressors, the people of the Elephant. Such remembrance was perhaps intentionally meant to make them feel their disgrace when they persistently denied God after He had helped them out of their weakness. It may also curb their conceit and heavy-handedness in their treatment of Muĥammad and the few believers who supported him. God destroyed the powerful aggressors who wanted to pull down His House, which serves as a sanctuary for all people. God, then, may destroy the new aggressors who try to persecute His Messenger and suppress His message.
The Qur’ān portrays superbly how the aggressors’ defeat was brought about: “Did He not… send against them flocks of birds, which pelted them with stones of sand and clay? Thus He made them like stalks of devoured leaves.” (Verses 3-5) The birds flew in flocks. The Qur’ān uses a Persian term, sijjil, which denotes ‘stone and clay’ to describe the substance with which the birds struck the aggressors. The dry leaves are described as “devoured” to denote that insects or other animals had eaten them. It is a vivid image of the physical shattering of the Abyssinian army as they were stricken with these muddy stones. There is no need to go into such explanations as that it was an allegorical description of their destruction by smallpox or measles.
The Arabs and Islam
The significance of this event is far reaching and the lessons deduced from its mention in the Qur’ān are numerous. It first suggests that God did not want the idolaters to take responsibility for protecting His House, in spite of the fact that they held it in deep respect and sought its security. When He willed to preserve the House and made it clear that He Himself was its protector, He left the idolaters to their defeat by the Abyssinians. Divine will then directly intervened to repel the aggression and preserve His sacred House. Thus the idolaters did not have a chance to hold the protection of the House as a ‘favour they did to God’ or as ‘an act of honour’. If they had done so, they would have been prompted by fanatic jahiliyyah impulses. This point gives considerable weight to the argument that the divine will of destroying the aggressors was accomplished through preternatural rules.
This direct intervention by God to protect the House should have prompted the Quraysh and the rest of the Arabian tribes to embrace Islam, the divine religion, when it was conveyed to them by the Prophet. Surely, their respect and guardianship of the House, and the paganism they spread around it, should not have been their reason for rejecting Islam! God’s reminder to them of this event is a part of the Qur’anic criticism of their stand, drawing attention to their amazing stubbornness.
The event also suggests that God did not allow the people of earlier revelations, represented in this case by Abrahah and his army, to destroy the sacred House or to impose their authority over the holy land, even when it was surrounded by the impurity of idolatry and idolaters were its custodians. Thus the House remained free from any human authority, safe against all wicked designs. God preserved the freedom of the land in order that the new faith would develop there completely free, not subjected to the authority of any despot. God revealed this religion as the force which supersedes all other religions. He wanted it to take over the leadership of humanity. God’s will concerning His House and religion was accomplished long before any human being knew that the Prophet, who was to convey the new message, was born in the same year. We are reassured when we realize this aspect of the significance of the event. We know the wicked ambitions of international imperialist forces and world Zionism concerning the holy lands. We realize that these forces spare no effort to achieve their wicked ambitions. But we are not worried. For God who protected His House against the aggression of the people of earlier revelations when its custodians were idolaters will protect it again, if He wills, just as He will protect Madinah, His Messenger’s city, against the wicked designs of evildoers.
Moreover, the event refers to the reality of the Arabian situation at that time. The Arabs did not have any role to play on the face of the earth. They did not even have an identity of their own before Islam. In the Yemen they were subjugated by either Persians or Abyssinians. If they had any government of their own, it was under the protection of the Persians. In the north, Syria was subject to Byzantine rule which was either direct or in the shape of an Arab government under Byzantine protection. Only the heartland of the Arabian Peninsula escaped foreign rule. But this was in a state of tribalism and division which deprived it of any weight in world politics. Tribal warfare could drag on for 40 years or longer, but neither individually nor as a group did these tribes count as a power in the eyes of the mighty empires neighbouring them. What happened with regard to the Abyssinian aggression was a correct assessment of these tribes’ real strength when faced with a foreign aggressor.
Under Islam the Arabs had, for the first time in history, an international role to play. They also had a powerful state to be taken into consideration by world powers. They possessed a sweeping force that destroyed thrones, conquered empires, and brought down false, deviating and ignorant leaderships in order to take over the leadership of mankind. But what facilitated these achievements for the Arabs for the first time in their history was that they forgot their Arabism. They forgot racial urges and fanaticism. They remembered that they were Muslims, and Muslims only. They carried the message of a forceful and all-comprehensive faith, which they delivered to humanity with mercy and compassion. They did not uphold any sort of nationalism or factionalism. They were the exponents of a divine idea which gave mankind a divine, not earthly, doctrine to be applied as a way of life. They left their homes to struggle for the cause of God alone. They were not after the establishment of an Arab empire under which they might live in luxury and conceit. Their aim was not to subjugate other nations to their own rule after freeing them from the rule of the Byzantines or Persians. It was an aim clearly defined by Rib`iy ibn `Āmir, the Muslims’ messenger to the Persian commander, when he said in the latter’s headquarters: “God ordered us to set out in order to save humanity from the worship of creatures and to bring it to the worship of God alone, to save it from the narrowness of this life so that it may look forward to the broadness of the life hereafter, and from the oppression of other religions so that it may enjoy the justice of Islam.”
Then, and only then, did the Arabs have an identity, a power and a leadership. But all of these were devoted to God alone. They possessed their power and leadership as long as they followed the right path. But when they deviated and followed their narrow nationalistic ideas, and when they substituted for the banner of Islam that of factional bonds, they came under subjugation by other nations. For God deserted them whenever they deserted Him; He neglected them as they neglected Him.
What are the Arabs without Islam? What is the ideology that they hold, or they can give to humanity if they abandon Islam? What value can a nation have without an ideology which it presents to the world? Every nation which assumed the leadership of humanity in any period of history advanced an ideology. Nations which did not, such as the Tartars who swept over the east, or the Berbers who crushed the Roman Empire in the west, could not survive for long. They were assimilated by the nations they conquered. The only ideology the Arabs advanced for mankind was the Islamic faith which raised them to the position of human leadership. If they forsake it they will no longer have any function or role to play in human history. The Arabs should remember this well if they want to live and be powerful and assume the leadership of mankind. It is God who provides guidance for us lest we go astray.
Though the address apparently is directed to the Prophet (peace be on him), its real addressees are not only the Quraish but all the people of Arabia, who were well aware of the event. At many places in the Quran the words alam tara (have you not seen) have been used, and they are meant not to address the Prophet (peace be on him) but the people in general. (For example, see Surah Ibrahim, Ayat 19; Surah Al-Hajj, Ayats 18, 65; Surah An-Noor, Ayat 43; Surah Luqman, Ayats 29, 31; Surah Fatir, Ayat 27; Surah Az-Zumar, Ayat 21). Then, the word seeing has been used here to signify that in and around Makkah and in the vast country of Arabia, from Makkah to Yaman, there were many such people still living, who had witnessed with their own eyes the event of the destruction of the people of the elephant, for it had occurred only about forty to forty-five years earlier, and the people of Arabia had continually heard it described by the eye-witnesses themselves so that they had become so certain of it as though they had seen it with their own eyes.
Here, Allah has not given any detail as to who were the people of the elephant, wherefrom they had come and what was the object of their march, for all these things were well known among the people.
The word kayd is used for a secret plan meant to harm somebody. The question is what was secret in this case? Sixty thousand troops together with several elephants had openly come from Yaman to Makkah, and they had kept no secret that they had come to destroy the Kabah. Therefore, there was nothing secret about this plan. However, what was secret was the motive of the Abyssinians. They by destroying the Kabah, crushing down the Quraish and intimidating the Arabians, wanted to take control of the trade route that led from south Arabia to Syria and Egypt. This motive they kept hidden, and instead proclaimed their intent that they wanted to destroy the Kaabah, the principal House of Arab worship, in retaliation for the pollution of their cathedral by the Arabs.
Literally, fi-tadlil means: led their plan astray, but idiomatically leading a plan astray means bringing it to nought and rendering it fruitless. At one place in the Quran, it has been said: But the disbelievers’ plot (kayd) ended in vain. (Surah Al-Momin, Ayat 25), At another: And that Allah does not lead to success the plan (kayd) of deceivers. (Surah Yousuf, Ayat 52). The Arabians described Imra ul-Qais by the epithet of al-malik ad-dalil (the king who lost and wasted), for he had lost the kingdom left by his father.
Ababil means many separate and scattered groups whether of men or other creatures, which come from different sides successively. Ikrimah and Qatadah say that these swarms of birds had come from the Red Sea side. Saeed bin Jubair and Ikrimah say that such birds had neither been seen before nor ever after; these were neither birds of Najd, nor of Hijaz, nor of Timamah (the land between Hijaz and the Red Sea). lbn Abbas says that their beaks were like those of birds and claws like the dog’s paw. Ikrimah has stated that their heads were like the heads of the birds of prey, and almost all the reporters agree that each bird carried a stone in its beak and two stones in its claws. Some people of Makkah had these stones preserved with them for a long time. Thus, Abu Nuaim has related a statement of Naufal bin Abi Muawiyah, saying that he had seen the stones which had been thrown on the people of the elephant; they equaled a small pea seed in size and were dark red in color. According to Ibn Abbas’s tradition that Abu Nuaim has related, they were equal to a pine kernel, and according to Ibn Marduyah, equal to a goat’s dropping. Obviously, all the stones might not be equal but differing in size to some extent.
Literally, bi hijarat-im-min sijjil means stones of sijjil type. Ibn Abbas says that sijjil is the Arabic version of the Persian sang and gil, and it implies the stones made from clay and become hard when baked. The Quran also confirms the same. In Surah Houd, Ayat 82 and Surah Al- Hijr, Ayat 74, it has been said that stones of baked clay (sijjin were rained on the people of Lot, and about the same stones in Surah Adh-Dhariyat, Ayat 33, it has been said that they were the stones made from clay (hijarat-im min tin).
Hamid-ad-Din Farahi, who in the present age has done valuable work on the research and determination of the meaning and content of the Quran regards the people of Makkah and other Arabians as the subject of tarmihim in this verse, who are the addressees of alam tara. About the birds he says that they were not casting stones but had come to eat the dead bodies of the people of the elephant. A resume of the arguments he has given for this interpretation is that it is not credible that Abdul Muttalib should have gone before Abrahah and demanded his camels instead of pleading for the Kabah, and this also is not credible that the people of Quraish and the other Arabs who had come for Hajj, did not resist the invaders and leaving the Kaabah at their mercy had gone off to the mountains. Therefore, what actually happened was that the Arabs pelted the army of Abrahah with stones, and Allah by sending a stormy wind charged with stones, destroyed it completely; then the birds were sent to eat the dead bodies of the soldiers. But, as we have already explained in the Introduction, the tradition does not only say that Abdul Muttalib had gone to demand his camels but it says that he did not demand the camels at all but tried to dissuade Abrahah from attacking the Kabah. We have already explained that according to all reliable traditions, Abrahah’s army had come in Muharram when the pilgrims had gone back and also it was beyond the power of Quraish and other Arab tribes living in the surrounding areas to resist and fight an army 60,000 strong. They had hardly been able to muster a force ten to twelve thousand strong on the occasion of the Battle of the Trench (Ahzab) with the help of the Arab pagans and Jewish tribes then how could they have mustered courage to encounter an army, 60,000 strong? However, even if all these arguments are rejected and the sequence of the verses of Surah Al-Feel only is kept in view, this interpretation is seen to go against it. If it were so that the stones were cast by the Arabs and the people of the elephant were rendered as chaff, and then the birds came to eat their dead bodies, the order would be this: You were pelting them with stones of baked clay, then Allah rendered them as chaff eaten up, and then Allah sent upon them swarms of birds. But here we see that first Allah has made mention of sending swarms of birds; this is immediately followed by tarmihim bi-hijarat-im min-sijjil (which were pelting them with stones of baked clay); and then at the end it is said that Allah made them as straw eaten up.
The word asf as used in the original has already occurred in verse 12 of Surah Ar-Rahman: dhul-asf warraihan: and corn with husk as well as grain. This shows that asf means the outer covering of seeds, which the farmer throws away after the grain has been separated from it. Then the animals eat it, and some of it falls down in the chewing and some is trampled under the hoofs.