The Surah derives its name from the word ashab al fil in the very firstverse.
Period of Revelation
This is unanimously a Makki Surah; and if it is studied against itshistorical background it appears that it must have been sent down inthe very earliest stage at Makkah.
As we have explained in E. N. 4 of Surah Al-Buruj above, in retaliationfor the persecution of the followers of the Prophet Jesus Christ(peace be on him) in Najran by the Jewish ruler Dhu-Nuwas of Yaman,the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia invaded Yaman and put an end to theHimyarite rule there, and in 52S A. D. this whole land passed underAbyssinian control. This happened, in fact, through collaborationbetween the Byzantine empire of Constantinople and the Abyssiniankingdom, for the Abyssinians at that time had no naval fleet. Thefleet was provided by Byzantium and Abyssinia sent 70,000 of itstroops by it across the Red Sea to Yaman. At the outset one shouldunderstand that all this did not happen under the religious zeal butthere were economic and political factors also working behind it, andprobably these were the real motive, and retaliation for the Christianblood was just an excuse. Since the time the Byzantine empire hadoccupied Egypt and Syria, it had been trying to gain control over thetrade going on between East Africa, India, Indonesia, etc., and theByzantine dominions: from the Arabs, who had been controlling it forcenturies, so as to earn maximum profits by eliminating theintermediary Arab merchants. For this purpose, in 24 or 25 B. C.,Caesar Augustas sent a large army under the Roman general, AeliusGallus, which landed on the western coast of Arabia, in order tointercept and occupy the sea route between southern Arabia and Syria. (See map of this trade route on p. 111 of The Meaning of the Qur'an, vol. iv). But the campaign failed to achieve its objective on account of theextreme geographical conditions of Arabia. After this, the Byzantinesbrought their fleet into the Red Sea and put an end to the Arab tradewhich they carried out by sea, with the result that they were leftonly with the land route. To capture this very land route theyconspired with the Abyssinian Christians and aiding them with theirfleet helped them to occupy Yaman.
The Arab historians statementsabout the Abyssinian army that invaded Yaman are different. Hafiz IbnKathir says that it was led by two commanders, Aryat and Abrahah, andaccording to Muhammad bin Ishaq, its commander was Aryat, and Abrahahwas included in it. Then both are agreed that Aryat and Abrahah fellout, Aryat was killed in the encounter, and Abrahah took possession ofthe country; then somehow he persuaded the Abyssinian king toappoint him his viceroy over Yaman. On the contrary, the Greek andSyrian historians state that when after the conquest of Yaman, theAbyssinians started putting to death the Yamanite chiefs, who had putup resistance, one of the chiefs, named As-Sumayfi Ashwa (whom theGreek historians call Esymphaeus) yielded to the Abyssinians andpromising to pay tribute obtained the Abyssinian king's warrant to begovernor over Yaman. But the Abyssinian army revolted against him andmade Abrahah governor in his place. This man was the slave of a Greekmerchant of the Abyssinian seaport of Adolis, who by clever diplomacyhad come to wield great influence in the Abyssinian army occupyingYaman. The troops sent by the Negus to punish him either warned him orwere defeated by him. Subsequently, after the death of the king, hissuccessor was reconciled to accept him as his vice regent of Yaman.(TheGreek historians write him as Abrames and the Syrian historians asAbraham. Abrahah perhaps is an Abyssinian variant of Abraham, for itsArabic version is Ibrahim).
This man through passage of time became anindependent ruler of Yaman. He acknowledged the sovereignty of theNegus only in name and described himself as his deputy. The influencehe wielded can be judged from the fact that after the restoration ofthe dam of Marib in 543 A. D. he celebrated the event by holding agrand feast, which was attended by the ambassadors of the Byzantineemperor, king of Iran, king of Hirah, and king of Ghassan. Its fulldetails are given in the inscription that Abrahah installed on the dam.This inscription is extant and Glaser has published it.(For furtherdetails, see E. N. 37 of the commentary of Surah Saba).
Afterstabilizing his rule in Yaman Abrahah turned his attention to theobjective which from the very beginning of this campaign had beenbefore the Byzantine empire and its allies, the Abyssinian Christians,i. e. to spread Christianity in Arabia, on the one hand, and tocapture the trade that was carried out through the Arabs between theeastern lands and the Byzantine dominions, on the other. The need, forthis increased because the Byzantine struggle for power against theSasanian empire of Iran had blocked all the routes of the Byzantinetrade with the East.
To achieve this objective, Abrahah built in Sana,the capital of Yaman, a magnificent cathedral, called by the Arabianhistorians al-Qalis, al-Qullais, or al-Qulais, this word being anArabic version of the Greek word Ekklesia, church. According, toMuhammad bin Ishaq, after having completed the building, he wrote tothe Negus, saying: "I shall not rest until I have diverted the Arabspilgrimage to it."Ibn Kathir writes that he openly declared hisintention in Yaman and got it publicly announced. He, in fact, wantedto provoke the Arabs into doing something which should provide himwith an excuse to attack Makkah and destroy the Ka'bah. Muhammad binIshaq says that an Arab, enraged at this public proclamation somehowwent into the cathedral and defiled it. Ibn Kathir says this was doneby a Quraishite and according to Muqatil bin Suleman, some young menof the Quraish had set fire to the cathedral. Either might havehappened, for Abrahah's proclamation was certainly provocative and inthe ancient pre-Islamic age it cannot be impossible that an Arab, or aQuraishite youth, might have been enraged and might have defiled thecathedral, or set fire to it. But it may well also be that Abrahahhimself got this done secretly by his own agent so as to have anexcuse for invading Makkah and thus achieving both his objectives bydestroying the Quraish and intimidating the Arabs. In any case,whatever happened, when the report reached Abrahah that the devoteesof the Ka'bah had thus defiled his cathedral, he swore that he wouldnot rest until he had destroyed the Ka'bah.
So, in 570 or 571 A. D.,he took 60,000 troops and 13 elephants (according to another tradition,9 elephants) and set off for Makkah. On the way, first a Yamanitechief, Dhu Nafr by name, mustering an army of the Arabs, resisted himbut was defeated and taken prisoner. Then in the country of Khath'amhe was opposed by Nufail bin Habib al-Khath'am, with his tribe, but hetoo was defeated and taken prisoner, and in order to save his life heaccepted to serve him as guide in the Arab country. When he reachednear Ta'if, Bani Thaqif felt that they would not be able to resistsuch a big force and feeling the danger lest he should destroy thetemple of their deity Lat, too; their chief, Mas'ud. came out toAbrahah with his men, and he told him that their temple was not thetemple he had come to destroy. The temple He sought was in Makkah, andthey would send with him a man to guide him there. Abrahah acceptedthe offer, and Bani Thaqif sent Abu Righal as guide with him. Whenthey reached al-Mughammas (or al- Mughammis), a place about 3 milesshort of Makkah, Abu Righal died, and the Arabs stoned his grave andthe practice survives to this day. They cursed the Bani Thaqif too,for in order to save the temple of Lat they had cooperated with theinvaders of the House of Allah.
According to Muhammad bin Ishaq, fromal- Mughammas Abrahah sent forward his vanguard and they brought himthe plunder of the people of Tihamah and Quraish, which included twohundred camels of Abdul Muttalib, the grandfather of the HolyMessenger of Allah (upon whom be His peace). Then, he sent an envoy ofhis to Makkah with the message that he had not come to fight thepeople of Makkah but only to destroy the House (i. e. the Ka'bah). Ifthey offered no resistance, there would be no cause for bloodshed.Abrahah also instructed his envoy that if the people of Makkah wantedto negotiate, he should return with their leading chief to him. Theleading chief of Makkah at that time was Abdul Muttalib. The envoywent to him and delivered Abrahah's message. Abdul Muttalibreplied:"We have no power to fight Abrahah. This is Allah's House. IfHe wills He will save His House." The envoy asked him to go with himto Abrahah. He agreed and accompanied him to the king. Now AbdulMuttalib was such a dignified and handsome man that when, Abrahah sawhim he was much impressed; he got off his throne and sat beside him onthe carpet. Then he asked him what he wanted. Abdul Muttalib repliedthat he wanted the king to return his camels which he had taken.Abrahah said: "I was much impressed when I saw you but your reply hasbrought you down in my eyes: you only demand your camels but you saynothing about this House which is your sanctuary and the sanctuary ofyour forefathers." He replied: "I am the owner of my camels and amrequesting you to return them. As for the House, it has its own Owner:He will defend it." When Abrahah said that He would not be able todefend it against him, Abdul Muttalib said that that rested betweenHim and him. With this Abdul Muttalib left Abrahah and he restored tohim his camels.
Ibn Abbas tradition is different. It does not mentionthe demand for the camels at all. According to the traditions relatedfrom him by Abd bin Humaid, Ibn al-Mundhir, lbn Marduyah, Hakim, AbuNuaim and Baihaqi, he states that when Abrahah reached As- Sifah (aplace situated between Arafat and Taif in the mountains near thesacred bounds of Makkah), Abdul Muttalib went to him and said: "Therewas no need for you to come so far. You should have ordered us and wewould have brought before you whatever you needed." He said: "I hearthat this House is the House of peace: I have come to destroy itspeace."Thereupon, Abdul Muttalib said: "This is Allah's House. He hasnot allowed anyone so far to dominate it."Abrahah replied: "We willnot return until we have destroyed it."Abdul Muttalib said:"You maytake whatever you like from us and return."Abrahah refused to budgeand ordered his troops to advance, leaving Abdul Muttalib behind.
Leaving the two traditions as they are, one thing which becomesevident is that the tribes living in and around Makkah did not havethe power to fight such a big force and save the Ka'bah. Therefore,obviously, the Quraish did not try to put up any resistance. TheQuraish on the occasion of the Battle of the Trench (Ahzab) had hardlybeen able to muster & strength numbering ten to twelve thousand men inspite of the alliance with the pagan and Jewish tribes; they could nothave resisted an army 60,000 strong.
Muhammad bin Ishaq says thatafter returning from the camp of Abrahah Abdul Muttalib ordered theQuraish to withdraw from the city and go to the mountains along withtheir families for fear of a general massacre. Then he went to theKa'bah along with some chiefs of the Quraish and taking hold of the ironring of the door, prayed to Allah Almighty to protect His House andits keepers. There were at that time 360 idols in and around theKa'bah, but on that critical moment they forgot them and implored onlyAllah for help. Their supplications which have been reported in thebooks of history do not contain any name but of Allah, the One. IbnHisham in his Life of the Prophet has cited some verses of AbdulMuttalib, which are to the following effect:
"O God, a man protectshis house, so protect Your House; Let not their cross and their crafttomorrow overcome Your craft.
If You will to leave them and our qiblahto themselves, You may do as You please."
Suhail in Raud al-Unuf hascited this verse also in this connection:
"Help today Your devoteesagainst the devotees of the cross and its worshipers."
Ibn Jarir hascited Abdul Muttalib's these verses also, which he had recited in hissupplication;
"O my Lord, I do not cherish any hope from anyone againstthem except You.
O my Lord, protect Your House from them.
The enemy ofthis House is Your enemy.
Stop them from destroying Your settlement."
After making these supplications Abdul Muttalib and his companionsalso went off to the mountains. Next morning Abrahah prepared to enterMakkah, but his special elephant, Mahmud, which was in the forefront,knelt down. It was beaten with iron bars, goaded, even scarified, butit would not get up. When they made it face south, north, or east, itwould immediately start off, but as soon as they directed it towardsMakkah, it knelt down. In the meantime swarms of birds appearedcarrying stones in their beaks and claws and showered these on thetroops. Whoever was hit would start disintegrating. According toMuhammad bin Ishaq and Ikrimah, this was smallpox, which was seen inArabia for the first time in that year. Ibn Abbas says that whoeverwas struck by a pebble, would start scratching his body resulting inbreaking of the skin and falling off of the flesh. In anothertradition Ibn Abbas says that the flesh and blood flowed like waterand bones in the body became visible. The same thing happened withAbrahah too. His flesh fell in pieces and there arose bores on hisbody emitting pus and blood. In confusion they withdrew and fledtowards Yaman. Nufail bin Habib, whom they had brought as guide fromthe country of Khatham, was searched out and asked to guide them backto Yaman, but he refused and said:
"Now where can one flee when Godpursues?
The split nose (Abrahah) is the conquered; not theconqueror."
As they withdrew they were continually falling by the bayand dying. Ata bin Yasar says that all the troops did not perish atthe spot; some perished there and others perished by the wayside asthey withdrew. Abrahah died in the country of Khath'am.
This eventtook place at Muhassir by the Muhassab valley, between Muzdalifah andMina. According to the Sahih of Muslim and Abu Da'ud, in thedescription of the Holy Prophet's farewell pilgrimage that Imam Jafaras-Sadiq has related from his father, Imam Muhammad Baqir, and he fromHadrat Jabir bin Abdullah, he says that when the Holy Prophet (uponwhom be peace) proceeded from Muzdalifah to Mina, he increased hisspeed in the valley of Muhassir. Imam Nawawi has explained it sayingthat the incident of the people of the elephant had occurred there;therefore, the pilgrims have been enjoined to pass by quickly, forMuhassir is a tormented place. Imam Malik in Mu'atta has related thatthe Holy Prophet said that the whole of Muzdalifah is a fit place forstaying but one should not stay in the valley of Muhassir. In theverses of Nufail bin Habib, which Ibn Ishaq has cited, he describesthis event as an eye witness:
"Would that you had seen, O Rudaina, butyou would not see, What we saw by the valley of Muhassab.
I praisedGod when I saw the birds,
and I feared lest the stones should fallupon us.
Everyone was asking for Nufail
As though I owned theAbyssinians a debt."
This was such a momentous event that it soonspread throughout Arabia and many poets made it the subject of theirlaudatory poems. In these poems one thing is quite evident thateveryone regarded it as a manifestation of Allah Almighty's miraculouspower, and no one, even by allusion, said that the idols which wereworshiped in the Ka'bah, had anything to do with it. For example,Abdullah ibn Az-Zibara says:
"The sixty thousand returned not home,
Nor did their sick man (Abrahah) survive on return.
Ad and Jurham werethere before them,
And there is Allah, above the servants, Whosustains it."
Abu Qais bin Aslat says:
"Rise and worship your Lord andanoint
The Corners of the House of Allah between the Mountains ofMakkah and Mina.
When the help of the Owner of the Throne reached you,
His armies repulsed them so that they were lying in dust, pelted withstones."
Not only this, but according to Hadrat Umm Hani and HadratZubair bin al-Awwam, the Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace) said:"TheQuraish did not worship anyone but Allah, the Only and One, for tenyears (and according to others, for seven years. Umm Hani's traditionhas been related by Imam Bukhari in his History and by Tabarani, Hakim,Ibn Marduyah and Baihaqi in their collections of Ahadith. HadratZubair's statement has been related by Tabarani, Ibn Marduyah and IbnAsakir, and this is further confirmed by the mursal tradition ofHadrat Sa'id bin al Musayyab, which Khatib Baghdadi has recorded inhis History.
The Arabs describe the year in which this event tookplace as Am al-Fil (the year of the elephants), and in the same yearthe Holy Messenger of Allah (upon whom be His peace) was born. Thetraditionists and historians almost unanimously state that the eventof the people of the elephant had occurred in Muharram and the HolyProphet was born in Rabi al-Awwal. A majority of them states that hetook birth 50 days after the event of the elephant.
Theme and Substance
If Surah al-Fil is studied in the light of the historicaldetails as given above, one can fully well understand why in this Surahonly Allah's inflicting His punishment on the people of the elephanthas been referred and described so briefly. It was an event of recentoccurrence, and everyone in Makkah and Arabia was fully aware of it.The Arabs believed that the Ka'bah had been protected in this invasionnot by any god or goddess but by Allah Almighty Himself. Then Allahalone had been invoked by the Quraish chiefs for help, and for quite afew years the people of Quraish having been impressed by this event,had worshiped none but Allah. Therefore, there was no need to mentionthe details in Surah al-Fil, but only a reference to it was enough sothat the people of Quraish, in particular, and the people of Arabia,in general, should consider well in their hearts the message that theHoly Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be Allah's peace and blessings) wasgiving. For the only message that he gave was that they should worshipand serve none but Allah, the Only and One. Then, they should alsoconsider that if they used force to suppress this invitation to thetruth, they would only be inviting the wrath of God, Who had socompletely routed and destroyed the people of the elephants.