Asalaamu alaikum my dearest sisters,
I have just went over the tafseer with my husband mashaAllah of surah al-fil. I want so much to share it with you, so please, leave your sons and daughters up to their sleeping or bring them with you (depending what time it is inshaAllah), make a cup of tea, and sit down and join me inshaAllah…Tafseer of Surah al-Fil
The story is set in the year 570 a.d. in a land called Yemen which was under the rule of King An-Najashi of the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia. He sent two of his governors to govern Yemen, Abrahah and Aryat. They, however, bickered and fought over the right to the land, until one of them finally said,
“There is no need for our two armies to fight. Instead let us fight each other (in a duel) and the one who kills the other will be the ruler of Yemen.”
And so, the match begin. Behind each man was a channel of water (to keep either from fleeing). Aryat gained the upper hand and struck Abrahah with his sword, splitting his nose and mouth, and slashing his face. But `Atawdah, Abrahah’s guard, attacked Aryat and killed him. Thus, Abrahah returned wounded to Yemen where he was treated for his injuries and recovered. He thus became the commander of the Abyssinian army in Yemen.
The King was furious. He wrote to Abrahah, blaming him for what had happened (between him and Aryat) and threatened him, saying that he swore to tread on the soil of Yemen and cut off his forelock. To win over the heart of the king, Abrahah sent a messenger with gifts and precious objects to An-Najashi to appease him and flatter him, and a sack containing soil from Yemen and a piece of hair cut from his forelock. He said in his letter to the king,
“Let the king walk upon this soil and thus fulfill his oath, and this is my forelock hair that I send to you.”
When An-Najashi received this, he was pleased with Abrahah and gave him his approval.
Abrahah then wrote to An-Najashi saying that he would build a church for him in Yemen the like of which had never been built before. He began to build a huge church in San`a’, tall and beautifully crafted and decorated on all sides. The Arabs called it Al-Qullays because of its great height, and because if one looked at it, his cap would be in danger of falling off as he tilted his head back. Abrahah force the Arabs to make their pilgrimage to this magnificent church, just as they had performed pilgrimage to the Ka`bah in Makkah.
The Quraysh were infuriated by it, so much so that one of them journeyed to the church and entered it one night. He then relieved himself in the church and ran away. When its custodians saw what he had done, they reported it to their king, Abrahah, saying;
“One of the Quraysh has done this in anger over their House in whose place you have appointed this church.”
Upon hearing this, Abrahah swore to march to the Ka`bah and destroy it stone by stone. Then, on an extremely windy day, a group of young men from the Quraysh entered the church and started a fire in it . The church caught on fire and collapsed to the ground.
Angered and challenged, Abrahah prepared himself and set out with a huge and powerful army so that none might prevent him from carrying out his mission. He took along a great, powerful elephant that had a huge body the like of which had never been seen before. This elephant was called Mahmud and it was sent to Abrahah from An-Najashi, particularly for this expedition. He had eight other elephants with him.
His intention was to use this big elephant to demolish the Ka`bah. He planned to do this by fastening chains to the pillars of the Ka`bah and placing the other ends around the neck of the elephant. Then he would make the elephant pull on them in order to tear down the walls of the Ka`bah all at one time.
When the Arabs heard of Abrahah’s expedition, they considered it an extremely grave matter. They held it to be an obligation upon them to defend the Sacred House and repel whoever intended a plot against it. Thus, the noblest man of the people of Yemen and the greatest of their chiefs set out to face Abrahah’s army. His name was Dhu Nafr. He called his people, and whoever would respond to his call among the Arabs, to go to war against Abrahah and fight in defense of the Sacred House. He called the people to stop Abrahah’s plan to demolish and tear down the Ka`bah. So the people responded to him and they entered into battle with Abrahah, but he defeated them.
The army continued on its way until it came to the land of Khath`am where it was confronted by Nufayl bin Habib along with his people, the Shahran and Nahis tribes. They fought Abrahah but he defeated them and captured Nufayl bin Habib. Initially he wanted to kill him, but he forgave him and took him as his guide to show him the way to Al-Hijaz.
When they approached the area of At-Ta’if, its people went out to Abrahah. They wanted to appease him because they were afraid that Abrahah might also destroy their place of worship, which they called Al-Lat. So, they meet Abrahah with gifts. Abrahah was kind to them and they sent a man named Abu Righal with him as a guide.
When they reached a place known as Al-Mughammas, which is near Makkah, they settled there. Then Abrahah sent his troops on a foray to capture the camels and other grazing animals of the Makkans, which they did, including about two hundred camels belonging to `Abdul-Muttalib.
After that, Abrahah sent an emissary named Hanatah Al-Himyari to enter Makkah, commanding him to bring the head of the Quraysh to him. He also commanded him to inform him that the king will not fight the people of Makkah unless they try to prevent him from the destruction of the Ka`bah. Hanatah went to the city and he was directed to `Abdul-Muttalib bin Hashim, to whom he relayed Abrahah’s message. `Abdul-Muttalib replied,
“By Allah! We have no wish to fight him, nor are we in any position to do so. This is the Sacred House of Allah, and the house of His Khalil, Ibrahim, and if He wishes to prevent him (Abrahah) from (destroying) it, it is His House and His Sacred Place (to do so). And if He lets him approach it, by Allah, We have no means to defend it from him.”
So Hanatah told him,
“Come with me to him (Abrahah).”
And so `Abdul-Muttalib went with him. When Abrahah saw him, he was impressed by him, because `Abdul-Muttalib was a large and handsome man. So Abrahah descended from his seat and sat with him on a carpet on the ground. Then he asked his translator to say to him,
“What do you need?”
`Abdul-Muttalib replied to the translator,
“I want the king to return my camels which he has taken from me which are two hundred in number.”
Abrahah then told his translator to tell him,
“I was impressed by you when I first saw you, but now I withdraw from you after you have spoken to me. You are asking me about two hundred camels which I have taken from you and you leave the matter of a house which is (the foundation of) religion and the religion of your fathers, which I have come to destroy and you do not speak to me about it”
`Abdul-Muttalib said to him,
“Verily, I am the lord of the camels. As for the House, it has its Lord Who will defend it.”
“I cannot be prevented.”
“Then do so.”
Abrahah returned `Abdul-Muttalib’s camels to him. `Abdul-Muttalib then returned to his people and ordered them to leave Makkah and seek shelter at the top of the mountains, fearful of the excesses which might be committed by the army against them.
Daylight came, and Abrahah prepared to enter the sacred city of Makkah. He prepared the elephant named Mahmud. He mobilized his army, and they turned the elephant towards the Ka`bah. At that moment Nufayl bin Habib approached it and stood next to it, and taking it by its ear, he said,
“Kneel, Mahmud! Then turn around and return directly to whence you came. For verily, you are in the Sacred City of Allah.”
Then he released the elephant’s ear and it knelt, after which Nufayl bin Habib left and hastened to the mountains. Abrahah’s men beat the elephant in an attempt to make it rise, but it refused. They beat it on its head with axes and used hooked staffs to pull it out of its resistance and make it stand, but it refused. So they turned him towards Yemen, and he rose and walked quickly. Then they turned him towards Sham and he did likewise. Then they turned him towards the east and he did the same thing. Then they turned him towards Makkah and he knelt down again.
At that moment, Allah sent against them the birds from the sea, like swallows and herons. Each bird carried three stones the size of chickpeas and lentils, one in each claw and one in its beak. Everyone who was hit by them was destroyed, though not all of them were hit. They fled in panic along the road asking about the whereabouts of Nufayl that he might point out to them the way home. Nufayl, however, was at the top of the mountain with the Quraysh and the Arabs of the Hijaz observing the wrath which Allah had caused to descend on the people of the elephant.
Thus, the Kaa’bah was saved and the invading army of Abrahah was destroyed and defeated.
In the words of Dr. Tareq Sweidan, “People tend to see events and miss the big thing. Very few people see the big picture.” To see the secret of this surah, one has to look at the trend of the story as a whole rather than focus on particular events. I, myself did not realize the secret until I read the tafsir in Syed Qutb’s Fi Zilal.
The secret theme of Al-Fil is Qada’ and Qadar (Allah’s Decree and Destiny). And the biggest lesson of the surah is that Allah has determined destiny of all mankind and the paths of history, and his plan is the best of all plans.
Let’s look back at the story…
When Abrahah’s army began the offense, they were obstructed right from the beginning. First, at homeground, the people of Yemen tried to stop the procession. Then, on their way to Mekah, they were attacked by the allied troops of Shahran and Nahis. Imagine this in the Arab Peninsula of 570a.d. The arab tribes were knowdn for their constant disputes. Yet, on that day, they decide to join hands against Abrahah for the defense of what they find gravely important to them. Yet, troops after troops, Allah made Abrahah’s army defeat them. Why did Allah made them defeated?
Then, finally, he came to the outskirts of Mekah, ready to attack. And there, he called for Abdul Muttalib for a final negotiation. And, Abdul Muttalib said some very nice, poetic words, that the house of Allah has its protector and He will protect it.
You might be fooled by this statement and start thinking that the moral of story is that Allah will protect His possesion from Islam’s enemy. Yes, of course, that is true. But, what Abdul Muttalib did was wrong. He should fight as much as he could. Every muslim should fight in every he could against the challenges of this world. You can’t sit still and do nothing in the face of oppression and say that Allah destined everything, so let’s just wait. That’s not the way it works in Islam. You have to change yourself before Allah will give you victory. You have to struggle.
And so, Abrahah attacked and he lost, by the will of Allah, who sent downs birds carrying stones that crushed the army one by one, like dried leaves eaten by worms.
Now, remember: Abrahah was a Christian. The Arabs were polytheist. Who, would you say is closer to Islam?
So why did Allah let the Arabs win over the Christians? Also, why did resistance after resistances against the army were failed?
Let’s look again. Who saved the Kaabah? Allah, right? At Mekah itself, no one defended the Kaabah. The city was vacated, empty, free for Abrahah to come in. The people of Yemen and the tribes of Shahran and Nahis fought, but were also defeated. So, basically no man can say they save the Kaabah. Allah did not let the Arabs win over the Christians. Allah did not let anyone win. He saved the Kaabah by his own divine power.
Why is this important and what is its implications in the history?
First of all. Since no man can claim that victory, no man can claim that they had the right religion or beliefs. When Prophet Muhammad s.a.w came to Mekah, the Quraisy cannot say that their religion is right because God did not kill them or made them defeated by Abrahah. The true fact is, they never defended the city. In fact, they ran and vacated the city. The same for the Christians. So, both had no right to say to Muhammad s.a.w that they are on the straight path because God defended them.
Secondly, there were two major powers at that time. The Persians and Rome. The Kingdom of Abyssinia was also part of the Christian empire. Mekah and its surrounding Arab Lands were however un counquered. They were simple rules by seperate Arab clans and tribes. This is an important fact. If Abrahah had won, Mekah would be ruled by King Najashi. Therefore, trade and law and everything would be restricted. Mekah needs to be free from any rule for Prophet Muhammad s.a.w to preach Islam. Arabia needs to be free of any major rule, for Madinah to be an Islamic State.
SubhanAllah…Amazing, right? Allah basically has primed Arabia specifically for the coming of His last messenger. The land needs to be just right for His message.
This is big picture of Surah al-Fil. That Allah has determined the best for all of us. That sometimes when we feel sad or down with life’s challenges, we need to remind ourselves, that maybe there’s something in the future that we do not expect or see. The sadness could good for us. To prepare us for some big thing in the future. Each and everyone of us has some life experiences where only now do we understand why certain things happened to us in the past. When we look back, we would think to ourselves, “Oh…so that’s why Allah let that happen to me..”. Subhanallah…
May Allah guide us and make us strong always… Ameen..
* This tafseer is extracted from Tafsir Ibn Kathir and Fi Zilal Al-Qur’an by Syed Qutb
* For the full tafseer (Part 1 of this entry) click here