The Story of the Elephants

The story behind Sura "Al Fil" or "The Elephant" of the Holy Quran.

It was year 570. The Arabs named that year as the Year of the Elephants. Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) was about to be born. This big incident of the elephants surrounding the Kaaba in Mekkah would be remembered for years to come by the Arabs.

Today, we know about this because of a very small chapter in the Holy Quran called the Elephant. So, let us find out.

Sura or chapter Al Fil:

The Elephant

In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

[105:1] HAVE YOU not considered how your Lord dealt with the Army of the Elephant?

[105:2] Did He not confound their stratagem and send against them flocks of birds which pelted them with clay-stones, [105:5] so that they became like the withered stalks of plants which cattle had devoured?

[Reference: Chapter 105 of the Holy Quran. Translated by Dawood, N.J.. The Koran (Penguin Classics) (pp. 421-422). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.]

In order to understand the above sura, chapter 105 of the Holy Quran, we go back in history and look at things in context.

The incident of the elephants took place in Mekkah during the time of chief Abdul Muttalib, who would be the grandfather of Prophet Muhammad SAWS. Abdul Muttalib was the chief of the subtribe called Banu Hashim, which was a subtribe of the dominating tribe called the Quraish of that region at time in year 570. The people of that time knew about the higher power and this incident just confirmed that. The atmosphere before the birth of Prophet Muhammad SAWS was building up and there was an expectation and anticipation of the coming of a prophet. Prophet Muhammad SAWS would be born shortly after this incident.

The story of the elephants is preceded by another story called “The story of the people of the Ditch.”

The story of the people of the ditch:

A few years before the year 570, there was a tyrant king in nearby Yemen named Dhu Nawaz, who wanted to convert people to be Jews by force. In that time, a young boy was sent to learn magic by his parents under the instruction of Dhu Nawaz from an old magician when Dhu Nawaz was afraid that the old magician would die with his knowledge, but instead of going to the magician, the young boy found a pious Christian, who was able to heal people. This appealed to this boy much more than learning magic, he became a student of him. As their healing stories became known to the people, so did their faith, Christianity. The tyrant king was going to kill them.

They tried to kill the young boy in various ways but they failed, they asked him why were they unable to kill him. The young boy explained that they would be able to kill him if they said they were killing him in the name of his Lord, and he requested that incident be witnessed by people. The king Dhu Nawaz agreed, but after that, thousands of people became Christians, and Dhu Nawaz decided to kill them all by throwing them into a long ditch of fire. He killed 20,000 people in one day, amongst them were infants, mothers and fathers. A story so horrifying does not just get forgotten, people of that time knew about this incident. A man somehow escaped and he went all the way to Rome to seek shelter under the Christian King of Rome.

The Christian King of Rome was very upset, he wrote a letter to the Christian King of Abyssinia, which was the neighboring country of Yemen. Abyssinia is present day Ethiopia and it was under Rome. King Najashi of Abyssinia was to cooperate and aid in the matter, a war against Yemen was declared. An army of 70 thousand soldiers from Ethiopia attacked Yemen under the leadership of General, Ariat. Dhu Nawaz had no chance, he walked into the water and committed suicide.

However, as Yemen was taken over by Najashi’s army, the General Ariat was too tough on the army of Najashi, conflict arose, another general, Abraha, stood up against Ariat, the army was divided. The two generals decided to settle this in a dual instead of involving the entire army. Abraha ended up killing General Ariat. Najashi was very angry. Abraha wrote to him apologizing and told him that as an apology he would build the biggest Church in that region and drive people from worshipping in Kaaba to that new Church. Najashi accepted his apology. During that time before Islam, people of all faiths used to come to the Kaaba for annual pilgrimage and in other times of the year for worshipping and rituals.

Abraha became the new ruler of Yemen. He built a beautiful and massive church and demanded people to worship there instead of Kaaba. People had problems with that. They had their loyalty to the Kaaba for years, they could not just do that. One day, one of the Arabs went and did his nature’s call inside of the Church and that was all it took. Abraha was very upset, he decided to level Kaaba with an army of elephants.

The story of the elephants:

Abraha’s army had massive sized elephants. These types of elephants were called the Mahmud. These elephants are bigger than any other elephants. When Abraha and his massive army of elephants were coming to attack Kaaba, many of the local tribes gave their lives trying to stop Abraha’s army in an attempt to protect the Kaaba, but it was all in vain. The army was unstoppable. When they finally came near Kaaba, all of the surrounding tribes refused to cooperate with them about food, finding directions or with anything else. One traitor named Abu Rogal decided to help them, but he died shortly after. To this day, the Arabs call traitors “the brother of Abu Rogal” and Abu Rogal’s grave is marked to this day.

As the army camped with a plan to attach the Kaaba the next day, they took 200 of Chief Abdul Muttalib’s camels. Abdul Muttalib went to meet Abraha. Chief Abdul Muttalib was a tall and handsome man and there was something about his appearance that made Abraha to come down form his high throne and sit with the Chief to discuss. Abraha was expecting Abdul Muttalib to beg him to leave or he was expecting some kind of negotiation from Abdul Muttalib, but instead, Abdul Muttalib only talked about his own livestock and requested that his camels be returned. Abraha was disappointed at such request. He asked why was it that Abdul Muttalib showed no concerns about protecting the Kaaba. Abdul Muttalib replied, that he was only the owner of the camels, he was responsible for them, but the Kaaba has its own owner, who will look to its protection. What an amazing answer! People that lived around the Kaba knew about the superior owner of the Kaaba, but people from other places thought it was just a building.

Abraha told Abdul Muttalib to warn his people to stay away from the area the next day, and that he and his army would demolish Kaaba the next day. The people of that area vacated and went to the nearby mountains to watch. Abraha had nothing against the people, he just wanted to destroy the Kaaba. Many people came from the surrounding area and crowds gathered. An incident so big was known to the people and people would talk about it for the years to come.

Abraha and his massive army of elephants approached the Kaaba the next day. But all the elephants acted strangely, they would not go towards the Kaba for some strange reason, they beat the elephants with chains, but nothing worked. As they continued to try for a long time, there appeared a black cloud in the far horizon, but soon they realized that it was no ordinary cloud, it was a big flock of birds that was coming towards the Kaaba. The name of the birds was Ababil. Each of the birds carried stones of dried clay in their beaks and paws. They flew over the army of the elephants and dropped the clay-stones on them that pierced their skins, a heavy rain fell on them right after, the clay melted and the elephants were stuck in that clay, they could not move, they could not go anywhere, and the clay-stones pierced the skins of the army also, they were infected and they all died including the elephants. These birds, the clay-stones and the rain all were sent by God to protect the Kaaba. It was an amazing miracle witnessed by the people of that region. And the remains of the elephants’ bones remained there for some time after.

So, that is the story and the story behind the story. This blog is a very brief version of these stories, there are more details to these captivating stories. The miracles that happened during the times of the prophets, including during Moses’s (AS) time and during Jesus’ (AS) time, seem like fairy tales today to many of us, but they did happen, even though it is hard to believe after so many years. People that witnessed those miracles had no choice but to believe. For us, it is our faith that we carry with us.

This small sura of the Holy Quran reminds us of the history, it describes the power of God, and the background of this sura helps us to be more compassionate. We learn to be more compassionate from the story of the people of the ditch as well, how sad that was. Their tyrant king, Dhu Nawaz, did not get away with it, but even so, it is sad. We have to be tolerant towards other religions and religion cannot be imposed upon others. In Holy Quran God says, there shall be no compulsion in religion. There are oppressions that happen in the name of religion, but religion is God’s to protect.

We find peace in knowing that God will deal with the unjust people and the tyrant leaders. From chapter 85 of the Holy Quran called “Al Buruj” or “The Constellations”:

The Constellations

In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

[85:1] BY THE heaven with its constellations! By the Promised Day! By the Witness, and that which is witnessed!

Cursed be the diggers of the trench with its consuming fire as they sat around it to witness what they did to the faithful! Nor did they avenge themselves on them for aught but that they believed in God, the Almighty, the Praised One, who has sovereignty over the heavens and the earth. And God is the Witness of all things.

[Reference: The Holy Quran 85: 1-9 translated by Dawood, N.J.. The Koran (Penguin Classics) (p. 411). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.]

Wishing everyone peace.

Thanks for reading!



The Holy Quran mentions about the people of the ditch and the diggers of the ditch in Chapter 85, "Al Buruj" or "The Constellations" in verses 4 - 9.

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