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Surah al-Fil (No. 105: 'The Elephant')

Verses 1-5

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful.

أَلَمْ تَرَ كَيْفَ فَعَلَ رَبُّكَ بِأَصْحَابِ الْفِيلِ

Have you not regarded how your Lord dealt with the Companions of the Elephant? (105:1).

أَلَمْ يَجْعَلْ كَيْدَهُمْ فِي تَضْلِيلٍ

Did He not make their plots go awry, (105:2).

وَأَرْسَلَ عَلَيْهِمْ طَيْرًا أَبَابِيلَ

and send against them flocks of birds (105:3).

تَرْمِيهِمْ بِحِجَارَةٍ مِنْ سِجِّيلٍ

pelting them with stones of shale, (105:4).

فَجَعَلَهُمْ كَعَصْفٍ مَأْكُولٍ

thus making them like chewed-up straw? (105:5).

1. Rhetorical Questions

This expression

“Have you not regarded ...?” (al-Fil, 105:1).

instead of 'Do you not know...?' indicates that this is something so, obvious that it can almost be seen; it is well-known that the events of the Elephant occurred at about the same time as the Prophet's (S) birth, so, it is as if the Qur’an means to say that the occurrence of this event is so, certain that the Prophet can be asked about is as if he saw it with his own eyes!

And this expression suits the peculiarity of this event and the kind of fate suffered by the Army of the Elephant, which has no parallel in history. So, it is necessary to use a rhetorical question like this. And the Qur'an sometimes uses them in relation to realities clearly perceptible to human beings:

“Have you not regarded that Allah sends down water from the sky...?” (al-Hajj, 22:63).

and sometimes for subtle realities that are hidden from them:

“Have you not regarded that to Allah prostrates whoever is in the heavens and whoever is on the earth...” (al-Hajj, 22:18).

But the ultimate reason why Allah uses these rhetorical questions in both cases is so, that people will discover realities from them, like the unveiling of the spiritual realities that are with Him.

2. Pondering

In His words,

“Have you not regarded how your Lord dealt...' (al-Fil, 105:1).

Allah wants the audience to ponder on the way in which Allah acted, not with the mere fact of the action itself. This is because when simple-minded folk consider the destruction of the Army of the Elephant, this does not in itself have an effect on them or causes them to draw a moral lesson from it. When it comes to seeing the act itself, both intelligent and unintelligent observers are one and the same, but Allah wants those people with intellect to investigate and analyze these actions, and apply the lessons they learn from the past to what will happen in the future. This is the fundamental reason for Allah relating the accounts of earlier peoples, as Allah says:

“Travel over the land, and then observe how was the fate of the deniers.” (al-An'am, 6:11).

And we can see this command has three components: First, to travel; second, to observe; and third to draw a lesson from the kind of fate the deniers suffered.

3. The Expression “Your Lord”

The expression 'your Lord' addressed to prophets and other persons appears more than two hundred times in the Qur’an, even though to Allah belongs all existence equally, and this should be more fitting for the station of Lordship because His relation to the whole is more worthy than His relation to any one part. So, He cannot have eschewed this except for a good reason, such as how we find it in this surah: The context here is invoking the greatness of the Lord who exacts retribution upon His enemies in ways that no man can even conceive. So, saying 'your Lord' to the Prophet (S), with this dominant attribute in mind, should steady the latter's heart and the hearts of the believers who were with him.

It should not be forgotten the favour that this address shows to the Prophet (S) as well; directing it to him alone amongst all creatures is an act of great honour and kindness - great enough, surely, to relieve any worries caused by calling people to Allah!

4. The Word ‘Companion’

The word 'companion' (sahib) is usually used in the context of homogeneity (tajanus) in nature, such as a human being with other members of his species, whether they are of the same religion - or not:

“But they called their companion, and he took [a knife] and hamstrung [her].” (al-Qamar, 54:29).

“His companion said to him, as he conversed with him...” (al-Kahf, 18:37).

But using the term ‘companion’ to connect a human to non-thinking creature, such as 'the Companions of the Elephant' is only correct for rhetorical purposes, as is intended by this surah. Because of his rebelliousness, the rider of the elephant became like that animal in his violence, with the difference that the former wanted to destroy the Ka'bah intentionally and purposefully, while his mount only wanted to do so, as a result of the nature with which Allah had endowed it and as a result of its subjugation to His servants. It is even said that it refused to destroy the Ka'bah!

5. Reliance Only On Allah

Using the expression 'Companions of the Elephant' alludes to the fact that these renegades depended on material means for their success, such as bringing along a powerful and frightening war elephant! And their dependence upon this elephant also, justifies calling them its companions.

By contrast, in all the ups and downs of their lives, the believers depend only upon the Almighty and All-Powerful, as we understand from Allah's words;

“That is because Allah is the protector of the believers, and because the disbelievers have no protector.” (Muhammad, 47:11).

And what a difference there is between a true protector who defends His subjects, and someone who has no protector, or a protector who is unable protect him!

6. Plots

When Allah describes the actions of the disbelievers as plots (kayd), as He does here with regards to Abrahah and his army, this alludes to their moral decadence; as a plot is the use of cunning and treachery rather than a straightforward confrontation, in which case the act is even more distasteful! From this, we can know that this was not merely a matter of destroying the Ka'bah. In fact, they had evil intentions that were known only to Allah. For example, we know that they wanted to divert the pilgrims from the Ka'bah to Abrahah's own fake ‘Ka’bah’, which he had built in Yemen.

7. Plots Of The Disbelievers

The plots of the disbelievers are not something trifling; the Qur'an describes them:

“even if their schemes are such as to dislodge the mountains.” (Ibrahim, 14:46).

And the severity of these plots meant that they might cast feelings of fear and weakness into the hearts of the faithful, so, Allah must say something to remove these feelings. For example:

“Indeed, your Lord is ever watchful.” (al-Fajr, 89:14).

“Allah Indeed, defends those who have faith.” (al-Hajj, 22:38).

“O you who believe! If you help Allah, He will help you and make your feet steady.” (Muhammad, 47:7).

“Those who were before them schemed. Then Allah razed their edifice from the foundations.” (an-Nahl, 16:26).

“Their plotting shall come to naught.” (Fatir, 35:10).

And we find another example of this in the present surah: Their plots to misguide others were futile and did not succeed; things did not go as they intended despite their careful planning. Equally, their supplications in Hellfire will not have their intended effect of eliciting a response. Allah says:

“the invocations of the disbelievers only go awry.” (ar-Ra'd, 13:14).

It is interesting to note that here Allah says that it is their plots that went awry (dalal), but that the same expression is used for their own persons when Allah says

“nor those who are astray.” (al-Fatihah, 1:7).

Nothing comes from one who is astray (dall) except more error (dalal), whether in words or deeds, both at the time and in their final outcomes.

8. Attribution Of Actions

The Qur'an combines two statements in this surah and in doing so, solves the problem of how actions can be attributed to anyone besides Allah: And this is by distinguishing between an original owner of property (asil) and the one to whom it is entrusted (wakil); at the beginning of the surah, Allah attributes how He dealt with the Army of the Elephant to Himself:

“Did He not make their plots go awry,” (al-Fil, 105:2).

“send against them flocks of birds” (al-Fil, 105:3).

but then says that the birds were 'pelting them' and attributes the action to the birds. Clearly there is no contradiction between these two statements because there is no contradiction between a property having an indigenous owner while being in the care of another. And this principle applies in all instances where a being performs an action by Allah's leave, such as:

“Allah takes the souls at the time of their death” (az-Zumar, 39:42).

which goes with the verse

“You will be taken away by the angel of death, who has been charged with you.” (as-Sajdah, 32:11).

This is made even more explicit when Allah says:

“...you did not throw when you threw, rather it was Allah who threw.” (al-Anfal, 8:17).

Here, Allah unequivocally negates the effectuation of any action by the thrower himself, even though it emanated from him.

And everything that we have mentioned here should suffice to remove the peculiarity of some of the extraordinary things that appear from Allah's righteous servants, for these are in the same position as 'pelting them' after

“send against them flocks of birds” (al-Fil, 105:3).

9. Divine Will

This surah contains an exquisite contrast between the elephant and the flock of birds - which refers to the different groups of birds that attacked the army - for it is a contrast between a tiny bird and the largest land animal in the world; its great size did not avail it, nor did the mass of soldiers that surrounded it, so, long as it was the divine will that it should perish.

There is a lesson in this for all confrontations between the believers and others throughout history; no one can count on their numbers or preparations if Allah wishes to destroy them with even the simplest means, such as the wind, a thunderclap or a flock of birds.

10. Challenging The Lord

The Quraysh had been intent on worshipping idols since time immemorial; and this state of belief was no better in Allah's eyes than the state of desiring to ruin the Ka'bah. And yet He did not send upon them a similar punishment. Perhaps the crucial difference was the fact that the Army of the Elephant was opening and deliberately challenging the Lord of the Ka'bah rather than acting out of ignorance or some other shortcoming.

Not to mention the fact that Abrahah was committing aggression against the rights of other people - even sinners - for they were in a place of divine sanctuary and had security because of that. What more when there were righteous persons there such as Abd al-Muttalib, who left the affair of the Ka'bah to its protector, saying: 'as a man will protect his camel, so, you protect your possession! Their strength and their schemes never shall triumph against your stratagem.'

11. Birds Aware Of Divine Inspiration

The lethal pelting carried out by the birds was not something easy or simple; whence did they find these stones of shale? How did their attack reduce the enemy to chewed-up straw? Where did these flocks come from and where did they go? From all of these questions we know that these creatures have an awareness of and capacity to receive divine inspiration, in this they are like all other birds, as Allah has described in them the Qur'an:

“Have they not regarded the birds disposed in the air of the sky” (An-Nahl, 16:79).

What a shame it is that the birds in the sky are at Allah's disposal, but the sons of Adam who rebels against their Lord and challenges Him are not!

12. Psychological Warfare

The plan to attack the Ka'bah and destroy it did not depend solely upon bringing the elephant to Mecca; they could have just as easily attacked with horsemen and then destroyed it with tools instead. Rather, these men wanted to strike fear in the hearts of the people of Mecca with an animal they had not encountered before - the elephant. And this is a kind of psychological warfare that is commonplace in military conflicts. Nevertheless, Allah destroyed the army of the disbelievers, even with their terrifying beast. Therefore, no one should ever rely solely on military power so, long as the belief remains that

'”power, altogether, belongs to Allah.” (al-Baqarah, 2:165).

13. Different Types Of Punishment

Divine retribution in this world is proportional to the gravity of the crime, such that Allah varies the different kinds of punishment He sends down:

“So, We seized each (of them) for his sin: among them were those upon whom We unleashed a rain of stones, and among them were those who were seized by the Cry, and among them were those whom We caused the earth to swallow, and among them were those whom We drowned. It was not Allah who wronged them, but it was they who used to wrong themselves.” (al-’Ankabut, 29:40).

The essence of punishment is that the bodies of those punished took on different forms: There were those like trunks of palm trees uprooted from the ground

“so, that you could have seen the people lying about therein prostrate as if they were hollow trunks of palm trees” (al-Haqqah, 69:7).

and there were those who died in their homes without moving –

“and they lay lifeless prostrate in their homes.” (al-A'raf, 7:78).

But in the case of the Army of the Elephant, Allah describes a fate like no other:

“making them like chewed-up straw.” (al-Fil, 105:5).

Bits and pieces of crops that are blown away by the wind after their seeds have been consumed or eaten by worms, such that nothing remains of them, unlike someone who dies a corpse in his home. Perhaps the reason for this rare punishment amongst others is the fact that the army of Abrahah directly threatened the sanctity of Allah's sacred House, so, Allah effaced them from existence just as they would have effaced His house, which is the symbol of His divine unity.