Tafseer : Surah al-Fil

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Surah-Al-Fil (The Elephent):

This surah is about a divine favour from Allah (SWT) and it is a miraculous event which was a forewarning of the advent of the Prophet (SAW) who was to be born. This event was known as the year of the Elephant and according to some scholars he (SAW) was born 50 days after this event, although it is accepted he was born in that year.

Our Story starts hundreds of years earlier, perhaps thousands, in the Yemen. The people of Saba’ who are from the original Arabs had great bounties from Allah (SWT), but didn’t show gratitude – rather they showed arrogance. Allah (SWT) destroyed their famous dam which, as a gift from Allah, was the source of their plentitude, thus causing flooding leading to their ruin and their forced migration. The tribes of Saba’ scattered throughout the area reaching as far as Syria, Iraq, Hijaz and other parts in Yemen.

If we fast forward, one of these tribes (the tribe of Jurham) meet up with Hajar and Ismail in Bekka after the water of zamzam appeared.  They negotiated with Hajar to live there and benefit from the water, to which Hajar agreed. Ismail grew up in that tribe and married a Jurhamite woman – their children are Must’arab as they became Arabs, Ismaeil being non-Arab.  As Ismail grew up his father, Ibrahim, came and they constructed the Ka’ba.  After their passing the Jurham looked after the Ka’ba but after time they became corrupt and were ousted by Khuza’a, another Arab tribe living in the vicinity.  As Jurham left they buried much treasure and riches from the Ka’ba in the well of Zamzam and covered it up.

It was during the time of Khuza’a that idols were introduced.  The descendents of Ismail lived on the periphery of Makkah.  From them we know Adnan as the earliest grandfather of the Prophet with precision. From his descendants was Qussay who married the daughter of the leader of Khuza’a and regained control of the Ka’ba for the descendants of Ismail and gathered them back to the sacred precincts – he is known as mujam’a and Quraysh. Anyone from his lineage is known as Qurashi (some say this is from Fihr who comes later in the lineage).  The name Quraysh is said to come from Qirsh (shark) because it is ferocious and strong and because it eats and is not eaten, beats and is not beaten (Ibn Abbas). Anyone descending from Qussay (or to some Fihr) is considered to be Quraishi.

The Story now switches back to Yemen, because not all of the Arabs had left Yemen and their story continues. One of their leaders was a good man called Dhu Nuwas, but he turned evil. There was a young Christian man called Faymioon who had been taken as a slave and when the people saw his miracles they became Christian, much to the annoyance of their king, Dhu Nuwas. When they would not leave their religion he had them killed in ditches – they say up to 20,000.  This is known as the story of Ashabul Ukhdood – Surah al-Burooj.  One of them, named Daws, managed to escape and went to the Byzantine leader who was also a Christian and explained the story. He said that they were too far away but wrote a letter to the Najashi in Abyssinia who was much closer.  He sent an army 70,000 strong to fight Dhu Nuwas. The army had two generals – Abraha al-Ashram and Aryat. They were victorious and took control each ruling together. They came into continual conflict and they both had two armies who were due to engage but Abraha suggested having a mubaraza (one on one dual) instead. It is said that Aryat was well-built, handsome and a good general whereas Abraha was the opposite. Aryat struck Abraha a blow with his lance with slice his face but Abraha’s slave stabbed and killed Aryat. Thus Abraha became the undisputed leader but the blow to his face gave him a cleft and that is how he got his name al-Ashram.

Najashi found out what had occurred and swore to give Abraha no respite until he trode on the soil of yemen and removed Abraha’s forelock. Abraha heard about this and sent a messenger with a leather bag containing the soil of Yemen and his forelock which he cut-off. Najashi forgave him and allowed him to stay. In honour of Najashi, or trade, or fame (or all) he set about building a mega church. He tried to entice the Arabs to come there instead of the Ka’ba, but a young man from Kinana,  Nufayl al-Hadrami defecated in the church and this infuriated Abraha who vowed to demolish the Ka’ba.

He informed the Najashi and got a huge elephant (named Mahmood) and 8 to 12 smaller elephants before marching towards Makkah.  Arab tribes along the way either took a stand and were killed, joined Abraha or just helped him and stayed out.

The rest of the story is quite well known.  Abraha usurped cattle along the way including 200 camels belonging to Abdulmuttalib (grandfather of the Prophet (SAW)) and as he camped close to Makkah he requested the audience of Abdulmuttalib to inform him of his plan.  Due to Abdulmuttalib’s good looks, and reverence, Abraha got off his seat and sat on the floor next to Abdulmutallib.  When asked to speak Abdulmuttalib requested his camels.  Abraha was shocked and sad that he held Abdulmuttalib in such high esteem and questioning why Abdulmuttalib would be interested in camels when his Ka’ba, the revered sanctuary was about to be destroyed.  Abdulmuttalib responded with the famous lines that, I am the lord of the camels and need to look after them, indeed the Ka’ba has a Lord and he will look after it.  Abdulmuttalib returned, held on to the Ka’ba and made duah before making the Makkans leave the sanctuary for the hills overlooking.

Abraha marched on the Ka’ba but the elephant, Mahmood, would not move closer to the Ka’ba.  When it was turned around it got up to move but when facing the Ka’ba it would kneel down, despite their stabbing of it.

Allah sent celestial creatures, these birds were not seen before or after and were around the size of a swallow.   They carried baked clay, larger than a lentil and smaller than a chickpea, one in each claw and one in its beak.  Upon the stones was the name of the person who would be struck by them. They would pierce his helmet, the soldier and the ride they were on. The “birds” were sent in
droves and after the person died their corpse looked like the leaves of crops which have been devoured and trampled.

Each man died and Abraha fell ill and from the illness his limbs would fall off and by the time he reached Sana’ he was just a blob and he died. A messenger was sent to an-Najashi and the stone was still suspended on his head and after he had delivered the message the stone killed him. This established a prominence for Quraysh as Allah(SWT) saved them and no other tribe managed to stand against Abraha. This lay the path for the Prophet (SAW).

This was not a victory for Quraysh or a loss for the Christians (who were closer to the truth than the polytheists) but a victory for the House of Allah (SWT).  Allah now reminds the Quraysh about this great blessing, some of them would have witnessed it or certainly their fathers would.  It was something within their lifetime and it was such a big event they named their year after it.



أَلَمْ تَرَ كَيْفَ فَعَلَ رَبُّكَ بِأَصْحَابِ الْفِيلِ – 105:1

Have you not considered,

[O Muhammad], how your Lord dealt with the companions of the elephant?

  • Alam-thara ( أَلَمْ تَرَ ) : Have you not seen
  • Kaifa ( كَيْفَ ) : How
  • Fa-ala-rabbuka ( فَعَلَ رَبُّكَ ) : (How) your lord dealt
  • Bi-as-sahabi-fiil ( بِأَصْحَابِ الْفِيلِ ) : With the companions of the elephant
    • Bi : With
    • Sahabi (صْحَابِ) : The term aṣ-ṣaḥābah (Arabic: الصحابة‎ meaning “the companions”, from the verb صَحِبَ meaning “accompany”, “keep company with”, “associate with”) refers to the companions, disciples, scribes and family of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. This form is definite plural; the indefinite singular is masculine sahabi (ṣaḥābī), feminine sahabia (ṣaḥābīyat).
    • Fil ( الْفِيلِ ) : The elephant

أَلَمْ يَجْعَلْ كَيْدَهُمْ فِي تَضْلِيلٍ – 105:2

Did He not make their plan into misguidance?
  • Alam ( أَلَمْ ) : Did not
  • Yajalu ( يَجْعَلْ ) : He(Allah SWT) make
  • kaidahum-fi-thadleel ( كَيْدَهُمْ فِي تَضْلِيلٍ ) : Their plan for astray/misguided

وَأَرْسَلَ عَلَيْهِمْ طَيْرًا أَبَابِيلَ – 105:3

And He sent against them birds in flocks,

  • Wa-arsala ( وَأَرْسَلَ ) : And he sent
  • Alaihim ( عَلَيْهِمْ ) : Against them
  • Thaiyran-ababeel ( طَيْرًا أَبَابِيلَ ) : Birds (in) flocks

تَرْمِيهِم بِحِجَارَةٍ مِّن سِجِّيلٍ – 105:4

Striking them with stones of hard clay,

  • Tharmeehim ( تَرْمِيهِم ) : Striking them
  • Bihijarathin-min-sijjeel ( بِحِجَارَةٍ مِّن سِجِّيلٍ ) : With stones of hard/baked clay

فَجَعَلَهُمْ كَعَصْفٍ مَّأْكُولٍ – 105:5

And He made them like eaten straw.

  • Fajalahum ( فَجَعَلَهُمْ ) : Then he made them
  • Ka-asfin ( كَعَصْفٍ ) : Like straw
  • Ma-koool ( مَّأْكُولٍ ) : Eaten up


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