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Period of Revelation

This Surah was revealed in the very early stage at Makkah.

Major Issue, Divine Law and Guidance

An example that Allah can save His house (Al-Ka'bah) by destroying an army of 60,000 with elephants, through a flock of birds.


In this Surah, Allah's punishment which was inflicted on the people of the elephant is referred to and described very briefly because it was an event of recent occurrence, and everyone in Makkah and Arabia was fully aware of it. That's why the Arabs believed that the Ka'bah was protected in this invasion, not by any god or goddess, but by Allah Almighty Himself. Then Allah Alone was invoked by the Qureysh chiefs for help, and for quite a few years the people of Qureysh, having been impressed by this event, had worshipped none but Allah. Therefore, there was no need to mention the details in Surah Al-Feel, but only a reference to it was enough.

History of attack on Ka'bah

According to Arab historians, the Abyssinian army that invaded Yaman had two commanders, Aryat and Abrahah. Aryat was killed in an encounter, and Abrahah took control of the country; then somehow he persuaded the Abyssinian king to appoint him his viceroy over Yaman. This man was the slave of a Greek merchant of the Abyssinian seaport of Adolis, who, by clever diplomacy, had come to wield great influence in the Abyssinian army occupying Yaman. The troops sent by the Negus (king of Abyssinia) to punish him either warned him or were defeated by him. Subsequently, after the death of the king, his successor was reconciled to accept him as his vicegerent of Yaman. Through passage of time, he became an independent ruler of Yaman. He acknowledged the sovereignty of the Negus only in name and described himself as his deputy.

After stabilizing his rule in Yaman, Abrahah turned his attention to the objective which from the very beginning of this campaign had been before the Byzantine empire and its allies, the Abyssinian Christians. This was to spread Christianity in Arabia and to capture the trade that was carried out through the Arabs between the eastern lands and the Byzantine dominions. The need for this increased because the Byzantine struggle for power against the Sasanian empire of Iran had blocked all the routes of the Byzantine trade with the East.

To achieve this objective, Abrahah built in Sana, the capital of Yaman, a magnificent cathedral called by the Arabian historians Al-Qalis. After completing the building, he wrote to king Negus, saying: "I shall not rest until I have diverted the Arabs pilgrimage to it. 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. According to Muhammad bin Ishaq, when he was within three miles of Makkah at a place called 'al- Mughammas,' Abrahah sent his vanguard forward and they brought him the plunder of the people of Tihamah and Qureysh, which included two hundred camels of Abdul Muttalib, the grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Then, he sent an envoy of his to Makkah with the message that he had not come to fight the people of Makkah, but only to destroy the House (i. e. the Ka'bah). If they offered no resistance, there would be no cause for bloodshed. Abrahah also instructed his envoy that if the people of Makkah wanted to negotiate, he should bring their leader to him. The leader of Makkah at that time was Abdul Muttalib. The envoy went to him and delivered Abrahah's message. Abdul Muttalib replied: "We have no power to fight Abrahah. This is Allah's House. If He wills, He will save His House." The envoy asked him to go with him to Abrahah. He agreed and accompanied him to the king. Abdul Muttalib was such a dignified and handsome man, that when Abrahah saw him he was much impressed; he got off his throne and sat beside him on the carpet. Then he asked him what he wanted. Abdul Muttalib replied that 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 has brought you down in my eyes; you only demand your camels, but you say nothing about this House which is your sanctuary and the sanctuary of your forefathers." He replied: "I am the owner of my camels and am requesting 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 to defend it against him, Abdul Muttalib said that it rested between Him (Allah) and him (Abrahah). With this, Abdul Muttalib left Abrahah who returned his camels to him.

One thing which becomes evident from this tradition is that the tribes living in and around Makkah did not have the power to fight such a big force and save the Ka'bah. Therefore, obviously, the Qureysh did not try to put up any resistance. The Qureysh on the occasion of the Battle of the Trench (Ahzab) had hardly been able to muster ten to twelve thousand men in spite of the alliance with the pagan and Jewish tribes; they could not have resisted an army of 60,000 strong. Muhammad bin Ishaq says that after returning from the camp of Abrahah, Abdul Muttalib ordered the Qureysh to withdraw from the city and go to the mountains along with their families for fear of a general massacre. Then, he went to the Ka'bah along with some chiefs of the Qureysh and taking hold of the iron ring of the door, prayed to Allah Almighty. Ibn Hisham, in his book 'Life of the Prophet,' has cited some verses from Abdul Muttalib:

"O God, a man protects his house, so protect Your House; Let not their cross and their craft tomorrow overcome Your craft. If You will to leave them and our Qiblah to themselves, You may do as You please. My Lord, I do not cherish any hope from anyone against them except You. O my Lord, protect Your House from them. The enemy of this House is Your enemy. Stop them from destroying Your settlement."

After making these supplications Abdul Muttalib and his companions also went off to the mountains. The next morning Abrahah prepared to enter Makkah, but his special elephant, Mahmud, which was in the forefront, knelt down. It was beaten with iron bars, goaded, but it would not get up. When they made it face south, north, or east, it would immediately start off, but as soon as they directed it towards Makkah, it knelt down. In the meantime swarms of birds appeared carrying stones in their beaks and claws and showered these on the troops. Whoever was hit would start disintegrating. Ibn 'Abbas says that whoever was struck by a pebble, would start scratching his body resulting in breaking of the skin and falling off of the flesh. In another tradition Ibn 'Abbas says that the flesh and blood flowed like water and bones in the body became visible. The same thing happened with Abrahah too. Nufail bin Habib, whom they had brought as guide from the country of Khatham, was searched out and asked to guide them back to Yaman, but he refused and said: "Now where can one flee when God pursues? The split nose (Abrahah) is the conquered; not the conqueror."

According to Sayyidah Umme Hani and Sayyiduna Zubair bin al-Awwam, the Prophet (pbuh) said: "The Qureysh did not worship anyone but Allah, the One and Only, for ten years. The Arabs describe the year in which this event took place as Am al-Feel (the year of the elephants), and in the same year the Prophet of Allah (pbuh) was born.