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Quran Stories: Companions of the Elephant

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Interpreters and historians have mentioned this story in various ways and disagreed on the year it happened, but the origin of the story is available[1].

Dhu Nuwas, the king of Yemen, persecuted the Christians of Najran, near Yemen, to make them abandon their religion[2].

After this crime, a man named Dhu Thulays escaped from among the Christians and headed to the Caesar of the Romans, who was a Christian, and explained to him what had happened.

Since the distance between the Romans and Yemen was far, Caesar wrote to the Negus (the ruler of Abyssinia) to avenge Dhu Nuwas for the Christians of Najran and sent the letter by the same messenger.

The Negus prepared a great army of seventy thousand warriors led by Aryat and directed it to Yemen. Abraha was also one of the leaders of this army. Dhu Nuwas was defeated, and Aryat became the ruler of Yemen. After a while, Abraha rebelled against him, removed him from power, and took his place. This reached the Negus, who decided to suppress Abraha. But Abraha declared his complete surrender to the Negus and loyalty to him. When the Negus saw this from him, he pardoned him and kept him in his place.

A Church Without Parallel

To prove his loyalty, Abraha built a huge, incredibly beautiful church, unlike anything on the face of the earth at that time, and decided to invite the people of the Arabian Peninsula to make the pilgrimage to it instead of the Kaaba, transferring the status of the Kaaba to the land of Yemen. Abraha sent delegations and preachers to the Arab tribes in the Hijaz, inviting them to the pilgrimage of the church in Yemen. The Arabs felt threatened due to their close connection to Mecca and the Kaaba and their view of the Kaaba as one of the monuments of the noble Abraham (peace be upon him).

Some narratives mention that a group of Arabs secretly came and set fire to the church, and it was said that they desecrated it with filth, to express their objection to Abraha’s act and to humiliate his temple.

Why the haste, Abraha?

Abraha became angry and decided to completely destroy the Kaaba, to take revenge and to direct the eyes of the Arabs towards the new temple. So, he prepared a great army, some of whose members rode elephants, and headed towards Mecca. When he got close to Mecca, he sent men to plunder the wealth of the people of Mecca, among the plundered items were two hundred camels belonging to Abdul-Muttalib. Abraha then sent a messenger to Mecca saying: ‘Look for the leader of the people and tell him that Abraha, the king of Yemen, invites you. I didn’t come to wage war, but to destroy this house. So, if you surrender, your blood will be spared’.

I am the Lord of the Camels

Abraha’s messenger came to Mecca and looked for its nobleman and was directed to Abdul-Muttalib. He conveyed Abraha’s message, to which Abdul-Muttalib replied, “We don’t have the power to fight you, and the House has a Lord who will protect it.”

Abdul-Muttalib went with the messenger to Abraha. When he appeared before him, Abraha admired his beauty, elegance, and majesty so much that he stood up out of respect, sat on the ground, and made Abdul-Muttalib sit beside him because he didn’t want Abdul-Muttalib to sit on the royal bed. Then he asked his interpreter to ask Abdul-Muttalib about his needs. Abdul-Muttalib replied: “My camels were plundered, command them to be returned to me.”

Abraha was astonished and said to his interpreter: “Tell him that he occupied a place in my heart when I saw him, but now he has fallen from my grace. You talk about your camels and don’t mention the Kaaba, which is your honor and the honor of your ancestors, and I came to destroy it!” Abdul-Muttalib replied: “I am the lord of the camels, and the House has a Lord who will protect it.”

Abdul-Muttalib returned to Mecca and told its people to take refuge in the surrounding mountains. He went with a group to the vicinity of the Kaaba to pray. He took the ring of the Kaaba’s door and recited his famous verses, asking for divine help and protection against the invaders.

Abdul-Muttalib and a group from Quraysh then took refuge in one of the valleys of Mecca, and he ordered one of his sons to go up a mountain to see what was happening.

His son returned quickly and informed him that a black cloud was coming from the sea (Red Sea) towards Mecca. Abdul-Muttalib was pleased and shouted: “O people of Quraysh, enter your houses because God has brought you victory from Him.”

On the other hand, Abraha, riding his elephant named Mahmud, with his strong army crossed the mountains and descended to Mecca. But the elephant refused to move forward. However, when directed towards Yemen, it would rush. Abraha was surprised and perplexed by this.

Meanwhile, birds came from the seaside, appearing like spears, carrying a stone in their beaks and two in their feet, the size of chickpeas, and they threw them at Abraha’s army, annihilating them. And it is said: The stone used to fall on a man among them, penetrating him and exiting from the other side.

The army was overcome with an extraordinary panic. Those who perished perished, and those who could escape did escape towards Yemen, falling along the way. Abraha was hit by a stone and wounded, then returned to Sanaa, the capital of his kingdom, where he passed away. It was said that the diseases of smallpox and measles were seen for the first time in the lands of the Arabs that year. And it was said that Abraha came with one elephant that he was riding, named Mahmud. Some said there were eight elephants, some said ten, and some said twelve.

In this year, according to the popular narration, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was born, and there seems to be a connection between the two incidents. Anyway, the significance of this great event reached the extent that that year was named the Year of the Elephant and became the beginning of the Arab historical calendar.

The Miracle (The House Has a Lord Who Protects it)

The Holy Quran mentions this long story in brief, striking phrases, filled with eloquence and rhetoric, focusing on points that help in achieving the Quranic objectives represented in awakening the stubborn arrogant and demonstrating human weakness in front of the mighty and exalted power of Allah.

This incident shows that miracles and supernatural events do not necessarily, as some have thought, require the presence of a prophet or imam, but appear whenever Allah wishes to show them. Their purpose is to showcase the greatness of Allah and the truth of His religion.

This extraordinary punishment differs from what befell other nations, such as the flood of Noah’s people, the earthquake and the shower of stones on Lot’s people, and the thunderbolt on the people of Thamud. These are a series of natural incidents, and their miraculous nature lies in their occurrence under those particular circumstances.

As for the story of the annihilation of Abraha’s army with stones from the sky thrown by flocks of birds, it’s not like natural incidents. The flight of these small birds, heading towards that specific army and pelting it with stones capable of shattering the bodies of a massive army…all of these matters are extraordinary. But they are very insignificant compared to the power of Allah Almighty. Allah, who created within these stones atomic energy that, if released, could produce a massive explosion, is capable of placing in these stones properties that can transform Abraha’s army into devastated debris.

We don’t need to go to what some contemporaries have interpreted as the destruction of Abraha’s army by microbes of measles and smallpox or to say that these stones were equal atoms with the gaps between them removed, becoming very heavy and able to penetrate bodies.

All these are justifications aimed at giving a natural attribute to this incident. We don’t need them. The Quran did not tell us more than that, and the matter is not apologetic in front of Allah’s ability, glorified by He.

The Severest Punishment by the Simplest Means

It is noticeable that this story includes a demonstration of Allah’s power in front of the arrogant and tyrants in the best way. Perhaps the punishment that befell Abraha and his army is unsurpassed, as a result of which the army was shattered and turned into devastated debris. Then the annihilation of this fierce army, with all its power and might, was by small stones and small birds like swallows. This is a warning to all the tyrants and arrogant ones in the world to know their weakness in front of Allah’s power, glorified by He.

God Almighty may assign these significant tasks to smaller beings, like microbes not visible to the naked eye, to multiply and reproduce in a short time and afflict powerful nations with various epidemics like plagues and annihilate them within a short time.

The Great Marib Dam in Yemen was a means of significant civilization and a magnificent and powerful city for the Sabaean people. When these people became tyrants, the command to annihilate them came through a desert mouse or a number of mice that bored into the dam, and the hole gradually widened with water until the great dam broke, and the water swept away all that the people had built, drowning individuals or scattering them lost and separated everywhere. These are manifestations of Allah’s power, glorified by He.

On the other hand, this incident coincided with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) paved the way for the blessed mission, and was a precursor to the dawn of Islam.

From another aspect, the story is a threat to all the tyrants of the world, from Quraysh and others, to know that they can never resist the power of Allah Almighty, so it is most appropriate for them to return to their senses and submit to Allah’s command and surrender to truth and justice.

Also, from another side, it shows the importance of this grand House. The enemies who targeted the demolition of the Kaaba and the relocation of the centrality of this Abrahamic Sanctuary to another place faced a punishment that became a lesson for generations and increased the importance of this sacred center.

And from yet another side, this incident confirms Allah’s will in making this Sanctuary safe, in response to the supplication of Abraham (peace be upon him).

A Definite Historical Incident

The incident of the People of the Elephant was of such importance and fame among the Arabs that they made it the beginning of their history. The Noble Quran begins the discourse (Have you not seen) by addressing its Prophet (PBUH) who did not witness this incident, which is an indication of the definitiveness and certainty of the occurrence of the incident.

In addition to that, when the Prophet recited these verses to the polytheists, no one denied them. If it had been a matter they would oppose, they would have objected, and historians would have recorded this objection, as they recorded all other special objections.


Stories of the Quran: Sheikh Naser Makarem Shirazi

[1] We mention it based on the well-known narratives in (The Biography of Ibn Hisham), (Bulugh al-Arab), (Seas of Light), and (The Assembly of Explanation) summarized.

[2] The Qur’an mentioned the story of this persecution in the context of the People of the Ditch in the chapter of Al-Burooj.

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