Seerah: The Event of the Elephant
The messenger –commendations and peace of Allaah be upon him- was born in the year of the elephant (‘Aamul feel). Before Islam, the Arabs did not have a standard dating system before Islam. They used to mark dates with milestones. An example of their milestones is the event of the elephant. Our messenger –commendations and peace of Allaah be upon him- was born in the year that this great event took place.
The event of the elephant was a precursor to the birth of our noble messenger –commendations and peace of Allaah be upon him. The occurrence was a big sign for a bigger occurrence that would change the history of the world forever. And ever. The birth of Muhammad –commendations and peace of Allaah be upon him.
Let’s start from here
The Arabs were idolaters who had corrupted the religion of our father Ibrahim –peace be upon him. The story of the first man to introduce idols in Makkah is well-known. The Arabs worshipped idols but thought –ignorantly or arrogantly- that they were still practicing the pristine religion of our father Ibrahim –peace be upon him. So, they still had some relics from the religion of Ibrahim-peace be upon him.
One of the relics from the religion of Ibrahim was the hajj rite. The Arabs used to perform pilgrimage to the holy Ka’bah in Makkah. They loved and honoured the Ka’bah. In fact, the Quraysh tribe were only respected among the Arabs because of their service to the Ka’bah.
Enter Abrahah bn Sabbah…
Abrahah bn Sabbah was the king of Yemen. Yemen was under the empire of Ethiopia at that time. The kings of Ethiopia were known as Najaashee. The Najaashee at the time of Abrahah would later accept Islam and protect the Muslims from oppression. But he would never see the prophet with his eyes till his death.
When Abrahah saw the Arabs preparing for hajj, he became envious. Then he pondered…finally, he concluded and wrote a letter to The Najaashee saying:
Indeed, I have built a church for you. None like it has been built before. And I will not cease until I direct the pilgrimage of the Arabs to it.
The church was indeed magnificent. The Arabs used to call it ‘Al-Qalisah’ meaning ‘cap-remover’. This was because it was so high that if you tried to look at its top your cap would fall off your head.
An Arab man, enraged after learning about what Abrahah wrote to Najaashee, got angry, went to the church and defecated there.
The beginning of trouble!
Who dared to try this
One of the people of that house
On hearing that, Abrahah swore that he would march to Makkah and demolish the Ka’bah.
An Elephant named Mahmoud
Abrahah wrote another letter to The Najaashee informing him of what had happened. He also requested for The Najaashee’s elephant.
The Najaashee had an elephant called Mahmoud. Mahmoud was a giant elephant. Not many Arabs had seen an elephant before. They only knew camels. But a camel is no match for an elephant. Not in any way. Above that, Mahmoud was not an ordinary elephant, it was a giant elephant.
On hearing of Abrahah’s plan, the Arabs realised that his jihad wasn’t a joke.
On the way to the Ka’bah
One of the kings of Yemen, called Dhu-Nafar, heard of Abrahah’s plan. He prepared an army to stop the demolition mission. The two parties met and fought but this army was too feeble to stop the demolition. Abrahah defeated Dhu-Nafar’s army and took him captive.
On the way some Arab tribes gathered to form an army. The army was led by a man called Nufayl bn Habeeb Al-Khath’amee from the tribe of Khat’am. They met Abrahah and fought but he defeated them too. Thereupon Nufayl said,
O king, spare my life that I may show you the way to the Ka’bah.
So Abrahah spared his life and took him captive.
On getting to Ta’if -a city twelve hours from to Makkah. – Abrahah met another army under the command of Mas’ood bn Mu’attib. But they were not here to fight. Rather they said to Abrahah,
O king, we are your slaves and we’ll give you Abu Rigaal, he will show you the way to the Ka’bah.
Abu Rigaal was their freed slave.
Before they got to Makkah, Abu Rigaal died at a place called Mughammas. Whenever the Arabs passed by his grave they used to throw stones at it. A poet called Farazdaq said about his bitter rival, Jareer;
When Jareer dies throw stones at his grave
As you throw stones at the grave of Abu Rigaal
Abrahah Packs Camels in Makkah
When Abrahah got to Makkah, he ordered that the camels be gathered and brought to him. Then he sent a message to the people of Makkaah saying:
Tell the elite(s) of this city that I have not come for war. I have only come to destroy this house.
On hearing that, Abdul-Muttalib (the prophet’s grandfather) said to the people of Makkah:
We have no hand (power) over him. So we will leave him to what he has come for. Indeed, this is the house of Allaah, built by his bosom friend Ibrahim. Indeed we have no power to face him.
Then, AbdulMuttalib said to his friend Dhu-Nafar, take me to the king. Dhu-Nafar was only a captive but he promised Abdul-Mutalib that he would take his request to Unays, Mahmoud’s trainer.
I will ask him to exaggerate your request before the king
Abrahah granted Unays’ request and granted Abdul-Muttalib permission to meet him. Abdul-Mutallib was (literally) a big man. This made Abrahah honour him on seeing him.
Abrahah didn’t want Abdul-Muttalib to sit with him on his bed, so also he didn’t like that Abdul-Mutalib sit beneath him. So he descended and sat with Abdul-Muttalib on the chair.
Abrahah told his translator to tell Abdul-Muttalib that;
When I saw you, I thought you were a noble man. So I honoured you. I have come to destroy a house that is your religion, the religion of your fathers, your honour and protection but you didn’t say anything about it. Instead, you’re only asking me to return your camels that I packed.
Then Abdul-Muatalib said:
I am the lord of the camels, the house has its Lord that would protect it.
What can prevent me from it?
That is left to you.
Then Abrahah ordered that Abdul-Mutallib’s camels be returned to him. And it was done.
When Abdul-Muttalib returned to his people, he gave the report of his meeting to the members of Quraysh. Then he ordered them to take refuge in the valleys, away from the city for two reasons;
First, for safety. Perhaps a punishment may descend on the army.
Secondly, many times soldiers commit atrocities without the approval and consent of their commanders.
So they took refuge in the valleys as Abdul-Muttalib had commanded (or advised).
Abrahah set to enter Makkah
Abrahah was now ready to leave Mughammas and enter Makkah. He set his army and prepared his elephant. But Nufayl secretly held Mahmoud’s ears and whispered in it,
Kneel Mahmoud! For you are in the sacred land of Allaah
The elephant knelt.
They tried to urge Mahmoud on but it didn’t respond. They turned it towards Yemen, it stood and marched quickly. When they turned it towards Palestine it marched. When they turned it to the east it did the same. But when they turned it towards the sacred city of Makkah it knelt.
While they were struggling with Mahmoud’s resistance, Nufayl seized the opportunity and fled to the mountains.
How your Lord dealt with the Owners of the Elephant
Then Allaah sent birds from the direction of the sea to destroy the army of the elephant. Each bird carried three pieces of baked clay; one in its beak and one in each of its legs. When the birds were over them like a pregnant cloud, they began to drop their stones. Everyone who was hit by any of the stones perished.
The army scrambled and shouted Nufayl’s name to show them the way to Yemen. But he was not to be found. The army perished in the wilderness.
As for Abrahah, Allaah afflicted him with a disease on his skin. His fingertips fell off, one after the other. By the time he returned to San’aa -capital of Yemen- his skin looked like a newly hatched chick. He finally died when his chest split and his heart fell out.
This story is what Allaah referred to in His noble Book:
Have you (O Muhammad) not seen how your Lord dealt with the Owners of the Elephant?
Did He not make their plot go astray?
And sent against them birds, in flocks,
Striking them with stones of Sijjîl.
And made them like an empty field of stalks (of which the corn has been eaten up by cattle).
Notes and References:
 Descending from Makkaah to Ta’if is a day journey from Makkah. But the return journey is half of a day. See Mu’jamul Buldaan by Yaaqoot bn Abdillaah Al-hamawee.