Owners of the Elephant

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Allah the Almighty says: {Have you (O Muhammad (Peace be upon him)) not seen how your Lord dealt with the owners of the Elephant? [The Elephant army which came from Yemen under the command of Abraha Al-Ashram intending to destroy the Ka`bah at Makkah]. Did He not make their plot go astray? And He sent against them birds, in flocks. Striking them with stones of Sijjil (baked clay). And He made them like (an empty field of) stalks (of which the corn has been eaten up by cattle)}. (Al-Fil 1-5)

At one time Yemen was controlled by Abyssinia. Ibn Ishaq said that the Abyssinian governor of Yemen, Abraha Al-Ashram, built a huge, lofty church and wrote to the king of Abyssinia, the Negus: “I have built you a church that is unprecedented, and I am intending to divert pilgrimage from Makkah to Abyssinia.”

According to Al-Suhaili, Abraha Al-Ashram subjugated the Yemenis to build that contemptible church and humiliated them in several ways. He used to cut off the hand of anyone who arrived late for labour at sunrise. He took many valuable things from the palace of Bilqis to add to the church, including marble, precious stones, and other valuables. He erected gold and silver crosses, built ebony and ivory pulpits, and built the church high and wide.

After Abraha was killed, if anyone tried to take anything from the church building or its ornaments, the Jinn were reluctant and hesitant to harm him. This was because it was built above two idols called Ku`aib and his wife, which were about sixty cubits high. So, the Yemenis left the church untouched till the era of Al-Saffah, the first Abbaside Caliph. He sent a group of pious scholars of firm will, who totally demolished it, and it has remained destroyed till the present day.

Ibn Ishaq said that when the Arabs heard of the letter that Abraha sent to the Negus, a man from Kinanah got angry. He set out till he reached the church, where he urinated on its walls as a sign of anger and derision. Nobody noticed him, and he returned home safely.

The news reached Abraha, who asked about the culprit. He was answered, “This was done by one of those Arabs who perform pilgrimage to the Ka`bah at Makkah when he heard of your declared intention to divert pilgrimage from their Sacred House to your recently-built church. He got angry and came to urinate in it, declaring it to be unqualified (for Pilgrimage).”

Upon hearing this, Abraha burst with rage and swore that he would demolish the Ka`bah. Then he ordered the Abyssinians, to prepare for war. He led a big expedition against Makkah with one or more elephants.

The Arabs heard the news and were terrified, but they decided to fight him when the news was confirmed that he intended to destroy the Sacred House. A nobleman of Yemen called Dhu Nafar set out to encounter him, accompanied by his own clan and those who answered his call to fight against Abraha. The two parties met, and Dhu Nafar and his followers were defeated and he himself was taken as a prisoner of war.

He was then brought before Abraha, who was about to kill him, but Dhu Nafar said, “O king! Don’t kill me, I may be of any use to you.”

Abraha did not kill him but kept him tied up in custody. Then Abraha went on intending what he set out for. When he arrived at the land of Khath`am, he encountered with Nufail Ibn Habib Al-Khath`ami, who was leading his two tribes, Shahran and Nahis, along with his followers from among the Arabs.

Nufail was defeated and taken as a prisoner of war to be brought before Abraha. Abraha intended to kill him, but Nufail said: “O king! Don’t kill me. I may guide you to the destination you desire. Here is my pledge of allegiance.”

Abraha set him free and took him as a guide. When they passed by Ta’if, there came to him Mas`ud Ibn Mu`tab Ibn Malik Ibn Ka`b Ibn `Amr Ibn Sa`d Ibn `Auf Ibn Thaqif along with his followers, who said, “O king! We are nothing but your slaves, we listen and obey, no hostility is ever there between you and us, and our House (the house of Al-Lat) is not the one you want. You only want the House in Makkah, so we will send with you someone to lead you to it.”

Al-Lat was their sacred house in Ta’if. It was to them just as the Ka`bah was to the rest of the Arabs. They sent a man called Abu Rughal to show Abraha the way to Makkah. They went on till they arrived at a place called Al-Maghmas, where Abu Rughal died. Abu Rughal was buried there and afterwards, the Arabs used to stone his grave.

However, it is mentioned elsewhere in the Story of Thamud that Abu Rughal was among the train of Abraha and that he sheltered himself with the Sacred House (Ka`bah) and when he came out, a stone hit him and he was killed. The Prophet (peace be upon him) told his Companions, “As a sign of this, he was buried with two branches of gold.” They dug and found them. To settle between this and the narration of Ibn Ishaq, we may say that the later Abu Rughal had the same name as his ancestor whose grave used to be stoned by the Arabs. Moreover, the people used to stone his grave as they stoned that of the former.

Ibn Ishaq said that when Abraha arrived at Al-Maghmas, he sent a man called Al-Aswad Ibn Maqsud with a cavalry dispatch. Al-Aswad seized some of the Arabs’ property, which included two hundred camels belonging to `Abdul Muttalib, the Prophet’s uncle, who was the principal man among the nobility.

Upon this, the tribes of Quraish, Kinanah and Hudhail decided to fight against Abraha, but they realized that they could not afford it, so they abandoned the idea.

Then, Abraha sent Hanatah Al-Himiari to Makkah, ordering him to ask for the chief of the people and tell him, “I did not come to fight against you, I only came to destroy the Sacred House. If you do not stand in our way, we will not harm any of you at all.” Abraha added to his messenger, “And if he shows his desire not to fight, bring him to me.”

When Hanatah entered Makkah, he asked about its chief and master. He was told that it was `Abdul Muttalib Ibn Hashim. He saw him and thus delivered the message. `Abdul Muttalib replied, “By Allah! We do not intend to fight. Really we cannot afford it. This is the Sacred House of Allah and His Khalil (friend) Ibrahim (peace be upon him). Only He Alone can protect it if He wills to.”

Upon hearing this, Hanatah said, “Come with me to meet with Abraha. He ordered me to do so.”

`Abdul Muttalib set out for him accompanied by some of his sons. When they approached the camp, he asked about Dhu Nafar, who was a friend of his. He entered upon him in his prison and said, “O Dhu Nafar! Can’t you do anything for us in this plight of ours?”

Dhu Nafar said, “What can a prisoner do while waiting for death to come either in the morning or at night? All that I can do is to send to the keeper of the elephant, Anis, who is a friend of mine, to recommend you, say a good word for you, intercede for you before him, and to seek permission for you to meet with Abraha.”

`Abdul Muttalib said, “That’s enough with me.”

Dhu Nafar sent to Anis saying, “`Abdul Muttalib is the chief of the Quraish. He is generous to both humans and animals, and the king Abraha has seized two hundred camels that belong to him. So, seek permission for him to meet Abraha and do whatever you see useful for him.”

Anis said, “Surely, I will do so.”

Anis presented himself before Abraha and said, “O king! The chief of the Quraish is here and wants to present himself before you, so give him permission, please!”

Abraha gave his consent. `Abdul Muttalib was very handsome and grand, and when Abraha saw him, he showed great respect and was highly impressed. He refused to make him sit lowly in front of him, and also disliked to let the Abyssinians see him allowing him to sit on his own chair. Consequently, he descended from his chair and sat beside him on the rich carpet.

Then Abraha said to his interpreter, “Ask him what does he want?”

But Abraha was surprised to hear from `Abdul Muttalib, through the interpreter, that all he wanted was compensation for his two hundred camels, but did not ask him to leave the Ka`bah alone. When Abraha expressed surprise, `Abdul Muttalib answered, “I am the master of the camels, whereas the Ka`bah has its Lord to defend it.”

Abraha said, “No one can defend it from me.”

`Abdul Muttalib said, “You are on your own!”

Finally, Abraha gave him the camels back.

Ibn Ishaq continued: It is said that when `Abdul Muttalib entered upon Abraha he was accompanied by Ya`mur Ibn Nafa’ah Ibn `Adiy Ibn Ad-Dail Ibn Bakr Ibn `Abd Manah Ibn Kinanah, the chief of the Banu Bakr tribe, and by Khuwailid Ibn Wa’ilah, the chief of the Hudhail tribe, who offered Abraha one-third of the properties of Tihamah district in return for his going back and leaving the Ka`bah alone. But, Abraha refused their offer. Ibn Ishaq added: “I am not certain about the authenticity of this.”

When `Abdul Muttalib returned home, he told the Quraish about what happened between him and Abraha and ordered them to evacuate Makkah and move to the mountains. Then, accompanied by some men, he stood holding the ring of the Ka`bah’s door and invoked Allah and sought His aid against Abraha and his troops.

`Abdul Muttalib let go the door’s ring and set out with his companions to the mountains, seeking shelter and waiting to see what would happen next. In the morning, Abraha prepared to enter Makkah with his elephant and troops.

The elephant’s name was Mahmoud. When he was directed towards Makkah, Nufail Ibn Habib came near him and whispered in its ear, “Kneel down, Mahmoud, and go back home safely. You are in Allah’s Sacred Town.”

He let go its ear and the elephant knelt down.

As-Suhaili said that this means that the elephant fell to the ground, as elephants do not kneel down. But it is said that some elephants might kneel down just as camels. And Allah knows best.

Nufail Ibn Habib went away and climbed the mountain till he was far and safe. The Abyssinians beat the elephant to force it to stand up on its feet, but it refused. They hit its head with axe-like weapons, but it refused. They tried their best to force it to stand up on its feet, but they could not. They directed its face back towards Yemen, and it stood up and ran in that direction. They directed it towards Syria and then towards the east, and it stood up on its feet and ran in that direction. They again directed it towards Makkah, but it refused.

Then Allah the Almighty sent upon them birds resembling hawks from the seaside. Each bird held three stones, one in its beak and one in each foot. The stones were like chickpeas and lentils, and anyone of the Abyssinians that was hit by a stone was killed. The birds did not hit them all. The rest of them fled, seeking the way they had come from and asking Nufail Ibn Habib to guide them back to Yemen.

Ibn Ishaq continued: The Abyssinians fled while death pursued them on every path and in every way, and Abraha was hit with a stone as well. They carried him, and his body began to break apart till they reached Sanaa. After a short while, as historians claim, his chest cracked and he died.

Ibn Ishaq said: I have been told by Ya`qub Ibn `Utbah that, that year was the first in which measles, smallpox, and bitter trees such as colocynth and African rue appeared in the Arab Peninsula.

According to Ibn Ishaq: When Allah the Almighty sent His Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), He reminded the Quraish of the Grace and Favour He bestowed on them by defeating the Abyssinians and defying them saying: {Have you (O Muhammad (Peace be upon him)) not seen how your Lord dealt with the owners of the Elephant? [The Elephant army which came from Yemen under the command of Abraha Al-Ashram intending to destroy the Ka`bah at Makkah]. Did He not make their plot go astray? And He sent against them birds, (Ababil) in flocks. Striking them with stones of Sijjil (baked clay). And He made them like (an empty field of) stalks (of which the corn has been eaten up by cattle)}.

Then, Ibn Hisham and Ibn Ishaq started to interpret this Surah. Ibn Hisham said: The word “Ababil” means in flocks, though the Arabs never used that word before the Revelation of the Glorious Qur’an. But as for the word “Sijjil”, I was told by Yunus An-Nahwi and Abu `Ubaidah that it was used by the Arabs to mean solid and strong. Moreover, some interpreters claimed that this word was originally two in Persian, but the Arabs rendered them a single word, that is “Sinj” and “Jil”. “Sinj” means stone and “Jil” stands for clay; and hard stones consist of these two materials, stone and clay. He added, “`Assf” stands for leaves. Al-Kasa’i said: I have heard some grammarians saying: The singular form of “Ababil” (flock) is “Abil”. Besides, many of our early scholars said: “Ababil” are flocks of birds gathering group after group from here and there.

`Abdullah Ibn `Abbas (may Allah be pleased with father and son) narrated: Their beaks were like those of birds and their legs were like those of dogs.

In addition, `Ikrimah transmitted: Their heads were like those of lions and they came from the seaside and their colour was green.

Also, `Ubaid Ibn `Umair said: They were black marine birds, holding stones in their beaks and feet.

`Abdullah Ibn `Abbas (may Allah be pleased with father and son) said also: They looked like the phoenix, and the smallest stone they carried was equal to the head of a human being and other stones were equal to camels’.

The same view was held by Yunus Ibn Bakir after Ibn Ishaq. Some interpreters said: The stones were too small. Allah knows best.

Ibn Abu Hatim said: Abu Zar`ah told us on the authority of Muhammad Ibn `Abdullah Ibn Abu Shaibah after Mu`awiyah after Al-A`mash after Abu Sufyan after `Ubaid Ibn `Umair: When Allah the Almighty wanted to destroy the owners of the elephant, He sent against them birds resembling hawks in flocks from the seaside. Each one of them carried three stones, one in its beak and two in its two legs. They flew over till they were directly above the army, then they screamed and let go of the stones. The stones cut off or cracked whom they hit from his head to his toes. In addition, Allah the Almighty sent a severe wind that hit the stones and added to their speed and strength, which caused the majority of the army to perish.

As stated earlier, Ibn Ishaq said that not all of them were hit by the stones. Rather, some of them managed to return to Yemen and related to their people what had happened to them and the whole army. And Abraha himself was hit with the stones and was carried till he reached Yemen where he died, may Allah the Almighty damn him!

Ibn Ishaq narrated: I was told by `Abdullah Ibn Abu Bakr after Samurah after `A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) that she said: I saw the rider and keeper of the elephant at Makkah blind, crippled and asking the people to feed them.” However, it was mentioned earlier that the keeper was called Anis, but the rider was unidentified. Allah knows best!

In his tafsir (interpretation), An-Naqqash mentioned that the flood carried away their dead bodies and threw them into the sea. In the same year of this great incident, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was born. Some scholars say that it took place two years prior to his birth.

Then, Ibn Ishaq cited the poetry the Arabs composed pertaining to that great incident in which Allah the Almighty made victorious His Sacred House, which He wanted to honour, dignify, purify, and respect by sending His Messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Law He sent with him. One of the fundamental pillars of this Law is the Prayer, whose Qiblah direction was made to the honourable Ka`bah. What Allah the Almighty did to the owners of the elephant was never for the sake of the Quraish themselves. The Christians who were represented in the Abyssinians were really nearer to the Ka`bah than the polytheists of the Quraish, but the victory was granted to the Sacred House itself in preparation for the advent of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Added Ibn Ishaq and others: After the death of Abraha, the Abyssinians were ruled by his son Yaksum, then by the latter’s brother Masruq Ibn Abraha, who was their last king.

The incident of the elephant took place in Al-Muharram 882 according to the Roman Calendar. Following the death of Abraha and his succeeding two sons, the Abyssinian rule over Yemen came to an end, and the church built by Abraha was deserted. No one could even approach it, for it was built over the burial place of two idols, that of Ku`aib and his wife. The two idols were made of wood, they were about sixty cubits high, and they were touched by the Jinn. For this very reason, no one could take the risk to come near the church or to take anything of its building or ornaments for fear of the evils of the jinn. It stayed deserted till the time of the first Abbaside Caliph, As-Saffah, who learned of the riches found inside the church. He sent his governor of Yemen, Al-`Abbas Ibn Ar-Rabi`, to destroy it and bring him all the precious objects he might find there.

*Translated by `Ali As-Sayed Al-Halawani

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