105

 

The Message of the Quran

Muhammad Asad

 

AL-FIL (THE ELEPHANT)

THE HUNDRED-FIFTH SURAH
Total Verses: 5
MECCA PERIOD

 

Introduction

 

TAKING its name from the mention of the "Army of the Elephant"' in the first verse, this surah alludes to the Abyssinian campaign against Mecca in the year 570 of the Christian era. Abrahah, the Christian viceroy of the Yemen (which at that time was ruled by the Abyssinians), erected a great cathedral at Sana, hoping thus to divert the annual Arabian pilgrimage from the Meccan sanctuary, the Kabah, to the new church. When this hope remained unfulfilled, he determined to destroy the Kabah; and so he set out against Mecca at the head of a large army, which included a number of war elephants as well, and thus represented something hitherto unknown and utterly astounding to the Arabs: hence the designation of that year, by contemporaries as well as historians of later generations, as "the Year of the Elephant". Abrahah's army was totally destroyed on its march (see Ibn Hisham; also Ibn Sad I/1, 55 f.) - probably by an extremely virulent outbreak of smallpox or typhus (see note 2 below) - and Abrahah himself died on his return to Sana.

 

IN THE NAME OF GOD, THE MOST GRACIOUS, THE DISPENSER OF GRACE:

 

 

(1) ART THOU NOT aware of how thy Sustainer dealt with the Army of the Elephant? 1

 

(2) Did He not utterly confound their artful planning?

 

(3) Thus, He let loose upon them great swarms of flying creatures

 

(4) which smote them with stone-hard blows of chastisement pre-ordained, 2

 

(5) and caused them to become like a field of grain that has been eaten down to stubble 3 -

 

 

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1 Lit., "the companions (ashab) of the elephant" - see introductory note.

 

2 Lit., "with stones of sijjil". As explained in note 114 on 11:82, this latter term is synonymous with sijill, which signifies "a writing" and, tropically, "something that has been decreed by God]": hence, the phrase hijarah min sijjil is a metaphor for "stone-hard blows of chastisement pre-ordained", i.e., in God's decree (Zamakhshari and Razi, with analogous comments on the same expression in 11:82), As already mentioned in the introductory note, the particular chastisement to which the above verse alludes seems to have been a sudden epidemic of extreme virulence: according to Waqidi and Muhammad ibn Ishaq - the latter as quoted by Ibn Hisham and Ibn Kathir - "this was the first time that spotted fever (hasbah) and smallpox (judari) appeared in the land of the Arabs". It is interesting to note that the word hasbah - which, according to some authorities, siignifies also typhus - primarily means "pelting [or smiting"] with stones" (Qamus). - As regards the noun tta'ir (of which tayr is the plural), we ought to remember that it denotes any "flying creature", whether bird or insect (Taj al-Arus). Neither the Qur'an nor any authentic Tradition offers us any evidence as to the nature of the "flying creatures" mentioned in the above verse; and since, on the other hand, all the "descriptions" indulged in by the commentators are purely imaginary, they need not he seriously considered. If the hypothesis of an epidemic is correct, the "flying creatures" - whether birds or insects - may well have been the carriers of the infection. One thing, however, is clear: whatever the nature of the doom that overtook the invading force, it was certainly miraculous in the true sense of this word - namely, in the sudden, totally unexpected rescue which it brought to the distressed people of Mecca.

 

3 This passage is evidently continued in the next surah, which, according to some authorities, is part of the present one (see introductory note to surah 106).

 

 

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