This Surah was revealed in the very early stage at Makkah.
Major Issue, Divine Law and Guidance:
• An example of Allah's saving His house (Al-Ka'bah) by destroying an army of 60,000 with elephants, through a flock of birds.
In this Surah, Allah's punishment which was inflicted on the people of the elephant is referred to and described very briefly because it was an event of recent occurrence, and everyone in Makkah and Arabia was fully aware of it. That's why the Arabs believed that the Ka'bah was protected in this invasion, not by any god or goddess, but by Allah Almighty Himself. Then Allah Alone was invoked by the Quraish chiefs for help, and for quite a few years, the people of Quraish, having been impressed by this event, had worshipped none but Allah. Therefore, there was no need to mention the details in Surah Al-Feel, but only a reference to it was enough.
History of attack on Ka'bah and how Allah saved it
According to Arab historians, the Abyssinian army that invaded Yemen had two commanders, Aryat and Abraha. Aryat was killed in an encounter, and Abraha took control of the country; then somehow he persuaded Negus (the Abyssinian king) to appoint him his viceroy over Yemen. Abraha was the slave of a Greek merchant of the Abyssinian seaport of Adolis, who, by clever diplomacy, had come to wield great influence in the Abyssinian army occupying Yemen. After the death of the king, his successor was reconciled to accept him as his vicegerent of Yemen. Through passage of time, Abraha became an independent ruler of Yemen. He acknowledged the sovereignty of the Negus only in name and portrayed himself as his deputy.
After stabilizing his rule in Yemen, Abraha turned his attention to the objective which from the very beginning of this campaign had been, before the Byzantine empire and its allies, the Abyssinian Christians. This was to spread Christianity in Arabia and to capture the trade that was carried out through the Arabs between the eastern lands and the Byzantine dominions. The need for this increased because the Byzantine struggle for power against the Sasanian empire of Iran had blocked all the routes of the Byzantine trade with the East.
To achieve this objective, Abraha built in Sana, the capital of Yemen, a magnificent cathedral called by the Arabian historians, Al-Qalis. After completing the building, he wrote to king Negus, saying: "I shall not rest until I have diverted the Arabs pilgrimage to it. So, in 570 or 571 A. D., he took 60,000 troops and 13 elephants (according to another tradition, 9 elephants) and set off for Makkah. According to Muhammad bin Ishaq, when he was within three miles of Makkah at a place called 'Al- Mughammas’, Abraha sent his vanguard, who brought him the plunder of the people of Tihamah and Quraish, which included two hundred camels of Abdul Muttalib, the grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Then, he sent his envoy to Makkah with the message that he had not come to fight the people of Makkah, but only to destroy the House (i. e. the Ka'bah). If they offered no resistance, there would be no cause for bloodshed. Abraha also instructed his envoy that if the people of Makkah wanted to negotiate, he should bring their leader to him. The leader of Makkah at that time was Abdul Muttalib. The envoy went to him and delivered Abraha's message. Abdul Muttalib replied: "We have no power to fight Abraha. This is Allah's House. If He wills, He will save His House." The envoy asked him to come with him to Abraha. He agreed and accompanied him to Abraha. Abdul Muttalib was such a dignified and handsome person, that when Abraha saw him, he was much impressed; he got off his throne and sat beside him on the carpet. Then, he asked him what he wanted. Abdul Muttalib replied that he only wanted the king to return his camels which he had taken. Abraha said: "I was much impressed when I saw you, but your reply has brought you down in my eyes; you only demand your camels, but you say nothing about this House which is your sanctuary and the sanctuary of your forefathers." He replied: "I am the owner of camels, therefore, I am requesting you to return them. As for the House, it has its own Owner; He will defend it." When Abraha said that He would not be able to defend it against him, Abdul Muttalib said that it rested be tween Him (Allah) and him (Abraha). With this, Abdul Muttalib left Abraha who had returned his camels to him.
One thing which becomes evident from this narration, is, that the tribes living in and around Makkah did not have the power to fight such a big force and save the Ka'bah. Therefore, obviously, the Quraish did not try to put up any resistance. The Quraish on the occasion of the Battle of the Trench (Ahzab) had hardly been able to muster ten to twelve thousand men in spite of the alliance with the pagan and Jewish tribes; they could not have resisted an army of 60,000 strong.- Muhammad bin Ishaq says that after returning from the camp of Abraha, Abdul Muttalib ordered the Quraish to withdraw from the city and go to the mountains
along with their families for fear of a general massacre. Then, he went to the Ka'bah along with some chiefs of the Quraish and holding the iron ring of the door, prayed to Allah Almighty. Ibn Hisham, in his book 'Life of the Prophet,' has cited the prayer of Abdul Muttalib:
"O Allah, a man protects his house, so protect Your House; Let not their cross and their craft tomorrow overcome Your craft. If You want to leave them and our Qiblah to themselves, You may do as You please. My Lord, I do not cherish any hope from anyone against them except You. O my Lord, protect Your House from them. The enemy of this House is Your enemy. Stop them from destroying Your settlement."
After making this supplication Abdul Muttalib and his companions also went off to the mountains. The next morning Abraha prepared to enter Makkah, but his special elephant, Mahmud, which was in the forefront, knelt down. It was beaten with iron bars, goaded, but it would not get up. When they made it face south, north, or east, it would immediately start off, but as soon as they directed it towards Makkah, it knelt down. In the meantime swarms of birds appeared carrying stones in their beaks and claws and showered these on the troops. Whoever was hit would start disintegrating. Ibn 'Abbas says that whoever was struck by a pebble, would start scratching his body resulting in breaking of the skin and falling off of the flesh. In another tradition, Ibn 'Abbâs says that the flesh and blood flowed like water and bones in the body became visible. The same thing happened with Abraha too. Nufail bin Habeeb, whom they had brought as guide from the country of Khatham, was searched out and asked to guide them back to Yemen, but he refused and said: "Now where can one flee when Allah pursues? The split nose (Abraha) is the conquered; not the conqueror."
According to Sayyidah Umme Hani and Sayyiduna Zubair bin Al-Awwam, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "The Quraish did not worship anyone but Allah, the One and Only, for ten years. The Arabs describe the year in which this event took place as ‘Am Al-Feel (the year of the elephants). It was the same year when the Prophet of Allah, Muhammad (peace be upon him) was born.
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Around 571 ac, the Abyssinians organized an army in Yemen to raid Makkah and destroy the Ka¢bah, God’s holy house. The army included a number of elephants, which were to be used in combat for the ﬁrst time in Arabia.
The news left the Arabs of Makkah despondent, totally unpre- pared to resist such an attack. Many of them took ﬂight to the mountains, leaving the Ka¢bah as well as their own homes to their fate. For the Christian Abyssinians, the whole campaign was a mis- guided and pointless one. There was no justiﬁcation for it, since they had a cathedral in Sana¢a, where they used to worship, and could have left the Arabs to worship at the Ka¢bah.
The expedition ended in tragedy. The Abyssinian army was attacked by a barrage of stones thrown by birds ﬂying overhead, reminiscent of those thrown at the people of Lot whose town had disappeared under the ground.
Historians say that, on the way back to Sana¢a, the Abyssinian army, including its chief Abrahah, was wiped out by a plague of smallpox. The surah records this historic event in the following words:
Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with the people of the elephant? Did He not confound their stratagem and send against them ﬂocks of birds which pelted them with clay-stones? (1–4)
Historians also say that Prophet Muhammad was born in that
year, known to the Arabs as ‘the Year of the Elephant’. His birth was, therefore, a good portent for the future prosperity and security of the Quraysh, referred to in the following surah, as a prelude to the advent of Islam and its rise from Makkah, the mother of all towns, to all corners of the globe.
أَلَمْ تَرَ كَيْفَ فَعَلَ رَبُّكَ بِأَصْحَابِ الْفِيلِ
أَلَمْ يَجْعَلْ كَيْدَهُمْ فِي تَضْلِيلٍ
وَأَرْسَلَ عَلَيْهِمْ طَيْرًا أَبَابِيلَ
تَرْمِيهِم بِحِجَارَةٍ مِّن سِجِّيلٍ
فَجَعَلَهُمْ كَعَصْفٍ مَّأْكُولٍ