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Commentary on Surat Al-Fīl

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Chapter 105: Surat Al-Fīl
The Elephant

By: Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri

In the name of Allah,
the Beneficent, the Merciful

This chapter refers to the event that took place, as far as we know, in the year of the birth of the Prophet. Although the story was well-known and much talked of at the time, very few actual details of the event have survived. We know that other people were very jealous of the residents of Mecca and of the Quraysh, who, as guardians of the House of God held a position of great honor among the Arabs. One of their rivals was the Emperor of Abyssinia. Through his viceroy Abraha in the Yemen, he built what he believed was another Ka'bah, this time in San'a, to compete with the one in Mecca. This second ka'bah did not attract pilgrims in the numbers the Emperor had hoped for, and so he sent a huge army, headed by elephants, to destroy the Ka'bah in Mecca. He believed that San'a could thus become the most important center of pilgrimage in that part of the world.

  1. Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with the possessors of the elephant?

What is of relevance here is the confrontation between strength and power of great magnitude, and its direct opposite. The lesson is that real power is not measurable by ordinary means. The destruction of the army which had been sent to destroy the Ka'bah was not a miracle but, rather, a natural phenomenon which heralded the birth of the Prophet announcing the shining forth of that great Light in the midst of darkness.

To understand the significance of the elephant we must realize that what weapons people possessed at that time were flimsy and scarce. In a land where warriors had, at most, a few slim spears and bent swords, the possession of an elephant meant that its possessor was regarded almost as an emperor.

  1. Did He not cause their strategy to end in confusion?

Kayd means 'an artful plot', or 'scheme'. Did Allah not make their plot go awry?

  1. And send down flocks of flying creatures onto them,

Abābīl means 'flocks', and it does not necessarily refer only to birds but also to large, overwhelming numbers.

  1. Pelting them with stones of baked clay.

Sijjīl means 'stones like lumps of dry clay'. It is related to the verb sajala, which means 'to record, write down', or 'document'. There are many interpretations of this verse. We do not know what this phenomenon was, whether an actual storm brought a swarm of tiny creatures, such as birds, which inflicted this large army with stones (sijjīl) that penetrated their flesh, or whether a disease suddenly swept over them (many illnesses such as measles and small pox were not identified in those days), perhaps brought by birds and insects. Despite the fact that this occurrence was widely known and discussed, we still do not know the true nature of the attack because at that time people's understanding of natural phenomenon was not as clear as ours is today. We know only that this mighty army was suddenly and totally devastated, just as it was approaching the Ka'bah.

  1. So He made them as devoured straw.

The result of the attack was that this enormous army became like the leftover stubble of grain or grass after having been mowed to the ground. In some of the numerous descriptions it is said that after this destruction the ground appeared as if a flat sheet made up of thousands of the enemy army's men and their elephants had been laid down on it.

End of the Surah

Back Up Next

The Opening - A Commentary on Chapter 1: Surat Al-Fatiha ] The Cow - A Commentary on Chapter 2: Surat Al-Baqarah ] The Family of 'Imrān - A Commentary on Chapter 3: Surat Al-'Imrān ] The Spider - A Commentary on Chapter 29: Surat Al-'Ankabt ] The Heart of the Qur`an - A Commentary on Chapter 36: Surat Ya Sin ] The Beneficent - A Commentary on Chapter 55: Surat Al-Rahmn ] The Event - A Commentary on Chapter 56: Surat Al-Wqi'ah ] The Kingdom - A Commentary on Chapter 67: Surat Al-Mulk ] The Jinn - A Commentary on Chapter 72: Surat Al-Jinn ] The Unwrapped - A Commentary on Chapter 73: Surat Al-Muzzammil ] A Commentary on the Last Section of the Qur`an ]