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Chapter 105: Al-Fil (The Elephant)
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Chapter 105:

The Elephant

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

  1. Hast thou seen how thy Lord dealt with the possessors of the elephant?
  2. Did He not cause their war to end in confusion?
  3. And send against them birds in flocks?
  4. Casting at them decreed stones —
  5. So He rendered them like straw eaten up?

This chapter was revealed at Makkah. In the last chapter, Al Humazah (The Slanderer), Allah had threatened destruction to those who found  fault with others and looked down contemptuously on them and regarded their own wealth as evidence of superiority. In this chapter a warning is contained in the fate of those haughty ones to whom wealth was the touchstone of greatness and who in their time and with their own hands brought agony to one whose heart was the House of Allah; that is, the heart of the Holy Prophet (sas) who was made to undergo persecution after persecution. They were told that before their very eyes stood the Ka‘bah which they believed to be the House of Allah and that they should remember the time when Abrahah, the King of Yaman, went with his army, in which was an elephant, to demolish the Ka‘bah but suffered destruction himself. The purpose of recalling this incident was to inform them that not only was the Prophet’s heart the House of Allah but so, too, was the heart of every sincere and righteous believer. That is why the Holy Prophet reported the following words which Allah revealed to him:

“Allah, Most High said: The heavens and the earth cannot contain Me, but the heart of a true believer can” (Hadith Qudsi).

It is indeed a fact that if Allah resides in the heart of a man there can be no greater House of Allah and no heart can be a better residence for Allah than the heart of the Holy Prophet (sas).

Even the unbelievers of Makkah bore witness to this fact when they confessed: “Muhammad is lost in love for his Lord.” And in a later age European historians have had to admit that Allah was so uppermost in the heart of the Holy Prophet that he saw Allah everywhere and in everything. If he happened to see something good, or a flourishing habitation, he would exclaim: “It has pleased my Lord so He has blessed it with happiness.” If he passed by a ruined place, or a dilapidated city, he used to say: “It has displeased my Lord so He has destroyed it.” In short, he saw the hand of Allah in every situation and even his enemies testified to this.

In this chapter a severe warning is given to those who wished to attack the Holy Prophet’s heart, which was the House of Allah, and who further desired to extend this assault to other Houses of Allah (that is, the hearts of the believers), with the intention of razing them to the ground and who were also making dastardly plans to wipe out Islam from the earth. They were told that their end would be the same that Allah, Most High, had ordained for the Companions of the Elephant who went to destroy the Ka‘bah, the House of Allah.

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim. In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
Alam tara kaifa fa‘ala Rabbuka bi ashabil fil Hast thou seen how thy Lord dealt with the possessors of the elephant?
Alam yaj‘al kaidahum fi tad lil Did He not cause their war to end in confusion?
Wa arsala ‘alaihim tairan ababil And send against them birds in flocks?
Tarmihim bi hijaratim min sijjil Casting at them decreed stones —
Fa ja‘ala-hum ka ‘asfim ma‘kul So He rendered them like straw eaten up?

The time when the Companions of the Elephant went to destroy the Ka‘bah is an important date in the history of the Arabs. Abrahah, the Christian King of Yaman (a province of Ethiopia), had built a famous church in Sana, the capital of Yaman. His plan was that the people of Arabia should repair to his church as the focal point of gathering (as in the yearly Pilgrimage etc.) rather than to Makkah and that eventually they would all be converted to Christianity. But as the Arabs paid no heed to this church, he conceived the idea to destroy the Ka‘bah so that when this central gathering point was pulled down, people would of their own accord throng to his church. All historians unanimously agree that this event occurred in the year in which the Holy Prophet (sas) was born and so this year is called the Year of the Elephant; and the army of Abrahah came to be known as the Companions of the Elephant because there was an elephant in the army. Some people are of the opinion that there were several elephants in it.

When the invading forces approached the environs of Makkah they seized some of the camels belonging to Abdul Muttalib, the Prophet’s paternal grandfather. Abdul Muttalib sought out Abrahah and asked him to return the camels, whereupon Abrahah, in great astonishment, remarked to him:

“You are asking for your camels and you make no mention of the Ka‘bah which I have come to demolish!”

To this, Abdul Muttalib relied:

“I am the owner of the camels so I have come in search of them. The Ka‘bah has a Lord and Master Who will take care of it Himself.”
And so it came to pass.

On seeing the large army of these people with their pompous parade of elephants and knowing his people’s own inability to confront them, Abdul Muttalib evacuated the inhabitants of Makkah from the city and they sought refuge in the neighbouring mountains. Before leaving, he held on to the latch of the door of the Ka‘bah and addressed the Almighty:

“We have no fear whatever. Man protects his home, so do Thou, O Lord, preserve Thy Own House. Their cross and their might can never triumph over Thy power.”

Before Abrahah could reach the Ka‘bah, an epidemic spread through his army and destroyed it. The commentators of the Holy Qur’an all agree that this came about through the agency of flocks of birds. These birds all carried a pebble in their beaks and two in their claws and on whomever a pebble fell he was destroyed.

However, Ikrimah says that those on whom the stones fell were struck down by small-pox (Tafsir Razi). Abrahah, too, was afflicted by this disease and when he returned to Yaman he died a totally broken man, and the elephant, too, perished. Most probably what happened was that the birds had alighted on a swampy area that was filled with germs and had then flown away. Dried up pieces of dirt stuck to their claws and when they fell on Abrahah’s army an outburst of small-pox resulted.

If Allah, Most High, could bring about the destruction of a whole big army through a flock of puny birds, why could He not make the powerful group of unbelievers at Makkah taste defeat at the hands of Muhammad and his insignificant band of followers? Of course He could and later events fulfilled this prophecy to the letter, for one can clearly see how the powerful armies of the Makkan unbelievers were overcome by a weak band of the Prophet’s companions.

Plain as daylight, too, was the manner in which Allah, Most High, protected the Ka‘bah, the House of Islam, from destruction, and also the other houses of Allah, that is, the hearts of the believers, in each of whom the Prophet had built a house of Allah and which he had purified of idols as he did to the physical Ka‘bah itself.

There is a great warning in this: If any nation should try to demolish the house built by the Holy Prophet (sas), that is, Islam, and to destroy Muslims in whose hearts the Oneness of Allah and love for Islam have found root, then Allah will spring to their rescue just as He did in the time of the Companions of the Elephant. This is the sentiment that Dr. Iqbal expresses in this beautiful couplet:

Tauhid ki amanat seenon men hain hamare
Asan nahin mitana nam o nishan

“The trusteeship of Islam resides in our hearts
Not easy is it to wipe us out of existence.”

Specially targeted here are the Christian Fathers who, like their counterpart, the Christian King of Yaman, are determined to destroy Islam and sully the belief in the Oneness of Allah all for the sake of enhancing the glory of their churches and cathedrals and increasing their political dominion. Allah, Most High, will give assistance to Islam through the weak hands of Muslims in whose hearts Allah lives, just as He did in the time of the Companions of the Elephant because He, Himself, is the Guardian not only of this House (Islam) but also of the belief that Allah is One. He can make use of any instrument however feeble it may appear.

Today the elephants are represented by all kinds of criticisms aimed at the hearts of Muslims in the attempt to erase the love of Allah from their hearts, and the Christian Fathers are even trying to replace the Ka‘bah and all it symbolizes for Muslims with something else — the love of this worldly life — as is borne out by this statement of intent written by Reverend Imamad-din: “If we cannot succeed in converting Muslims to Christianity, we shall shake the foundation of their faith by a flood of objections.”

So Allah let loose on them His birds — the Promised Messiah and his small band of followers — who rained heavenly stones on them in the form of literature which annihilated their elephants, that is, their objections, to such an extent that even famous Christian leaders in Europe itself are disenchanted with the doctrines of the Trinity and the Atonement. Today the breaking of the Cross is no longer hidden from the eyes of the wise.

This, too, is the meaning of the hadith in which it is written that the Holy Prophet (sas) saw in a vision that the Dajjal was circumambulating the Ka‘bah and so, too, was the Promised Messiah. This means that the Dajjal was going around the Ka‘bah just as a thief would go around a house with the intention of breaking in and stealing. On the other hand, the Promised Messiah was making the rounds of the Ka‘bah like a watchman on guard intending to catch and punish any thief that may be hovering about. Thus the mischief of the Christian Fathers is called the Dajjal who is going around the Ka‘bah in order to damage in some way the edifice of Islam and to steal its treasures and carry off its people with him. However, the purpose of the Promised Messiah’s circulation of the Ka‘bah is to guard the building of Islam and to preserve it by Allah’s grace from being captured by the Dajjal.

In regard to the verse: Arsala alaihim tairan ababil (He sent on them flocks of birds), Hazrat Maulana Nuruddin, the world-renowned commentator of the Holy Qur’an, says that it refers to a common saying among the Arabs and which means “bringing destruction to”. That is why in the pre-Islamic poetry of the Arabs, we find the proud boast of the poets who used to say that flocks of birds accompanied their armies. This is the origin of this terminology, because it is a fact that where there are dead bodies vultures will abound.

Thus when people say: “We have ruined their plans” and then “We have sent flocks of birds against them”, it means that their enemies have been killed and the birds have come to feast on their dead bodies. A death is regarded as honourable when the dead body is buried by its family members with due reverence. On the other hand, a dishonourable and pitiable death is one in which no one mourns and the corpse is devoured by carrion crows.  In the Bible there is a prophecy concerning the destruction of Gog and Magog in somewhat similar terms:

“Thou shalt fall upon the mountains of Israel, thou, and all thy bands, and the people that is with thee: I will give thee unto the ravenous birds of every sort, and the beasts of the field to be devoured” (Ezekiel 39:4).

In this chapter, the intention is to highlight the irony that those enemies who came with such pomp and pride and exultation to destroy the House of Allah themselves suffered an ignominious death and their dead bodies were eaten up by birds.

As regards the verse tarmihim bi hijaratim-min sijjil (casting at them decreed stones), Maulana Nuruddin used to say that the vultures struck the corpses against the stones so as to separate the flesh from the bones and so make it easier for them to eat. That is why in the verse fa ja‘ala-hum ka‘asfim ma‘kul (so He rendered them like straw eaten up), ma‘kul meaning eaten up is used to describe how the birds beat the corpses against the stones and ate the flesh in such a way that the remains looked like husk in the desert and presented a frightening and horrible scene.

In this description given to us in this chapter of the birds eating away the flesh of the soldiers, Allah wants to impress on our minds the frightful end of that army. Secondly, He wants to emphasize to the people of Makkah the great favour He had bestowed on them — as the army of the Companions of the Elephant was destroyed and the bodies of the soldiers who had died from the pestilence of small-pox were strewn all over the jungle, it was inevitable that the atmosphere in Makkah would have become polluted and this would have caused the health of the Makkans to suffer great damage. In fact, an epidemic of small-pox would most likely have raged through Makkah, and together with the stench of the putrid corpses of Abrahah’s  army, life would have become unbearable in the city.

But just then birds by the thousands flew down and devoured the flesh of the corpses, leaving behind only their bones. In this there was mighty evidence of Allah’s mercy in that He saved them from the deadly odour of the fetid bodies and from the outbreak of small-pox and from the deadly contamination of the atmosphere.

Allah, Most High, through His limitless grace displayed His favour to the Makkans by protecting the Ka‘bah and preserving their lives and their wealth. Further, He destroyed their enemies and dispelled the fear of an eruption of small-pox and cleansed the atmosphere of pollution. Those same birds, by being instrumental in the destruction of the enemy and by their consuming the dead bodies so that the environment was purified, became a remarkable example of Allah’s favour to the people of Makkah. These were additional indications of Allah’s mercy and help and favour through which He preserved the condition of the Makkans.

To appreciate Allah’s magnanimous favours to the Makkans we shall look at what happened to the city of Baghdad when it was conquered by Halaku Khan. So terrible was the widespread massacre of Muslims that its like has perhaps never been witnessed in the history of the world. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims were put to the sword by those idol-worshipping Tartars — women and children were trampled under the feet of horses and the nobles were walled in alive. But so deadly was the resulting stench of the decomposing bodies that a great pestilence swept through the Tartar army bringing death to thousands of soldiers and forcing the others to flee the city in great haste. See how wonderful was the mercy of Allah, Who saved the Makkans from this kind of calamity.

Today, Muslims must make their hearts the Houses of Allah, and the Oneness of Allah, their treasure, and should equip themselves to stand up for the defence of Islam. Then whoever should rise up to demolish this House of Allah and to raze to the ground the Ka‘bah of Islam will suffer the same fate as that mentioned in this chapter concerning those former would-be destroyers of the Ka‘bah.

In reference to this, the late poet Wosil writes:

Ka‘bah dhane ko jo aenga koi filon se
Kar-e-zeppelin tujhe le denge ababilon se

If anyone should come with elephants to destroy the Ka‘bah
Allah will provide you with flocks of birds to do the work of zeppelins

Next: Chapter 106: Al-Quraish (The Quraish)
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