Thursday 30 July 2020

Sürah Al-Fīl - The Elephant: Exegesis 105th Chapter of Qur'an

Sürah Al-Fīl is the 105th surah with 5 ayahs, part of the 30th Juzʼ  of the Holy Qur'an. The Sürah derives its name from the word.

This Sürah Al-Fil and the next one Sürah Qurayshboth form a pair about their subject-matter according to almost all of Quranic Scholars. The first surah in the current pair(105 & 106) warns the Quraysh, about the Incident of the Elephant, to fear God, while the second surah urges them to keep in mind the favors they enjoy, because of the Baytullah and consequently to give up rebelliousness against God and worship Him only.

In this Sürah the Quraysh are reminded of a significant event of their history: the Almighty had helped them decidedly in combating the forces of Abrahah, who attacked the Baytullah with a sixty thousand strong army to demolish it. It was not easy for the Quraysh to face such a big army in the open, whose vanguard consisted of elephants. They had therefore sought refuge in the nearby mountains and had defended the holy land by hurling stones at the advancing enemy. This defense was indeed very frail and feeble, but the Almighty transformed it into a powerful outburst which destroyed the enemy, and their dead bodies were feasted upon by kites, vultures and crows.

Let us now read the verse by verse translation and exegesis / tafseer in English. You may also listen tafsir by Nouman Ali Khan at the end of the post:

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ 
"In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful"

اَلَمۡ تَرَ كَيۡفَ فَعَلَ رَبُّكَ بِاَصۡحٰبِ الۡفِيۡلِؕ‏ 
    ( 1 )   Have you not considered, [O Muhammad], how your Lord dealt with the companions of the elephant?

Though the address apparently is directed to the Prophet (peace be on him), its real addressees are not only the Quraish but all the people of Arabia, who were well aware of the event. At many places in the Quran the words alam tara (have you not seen) have been used, and they are meant not to address the Prophet (peace be on him) but the people in general. (For example, see (Surah Ibrahim, Ayat 19); ( Surah Al-Hajj, Ayats 18, 65); (Surah An-Noor, Ayat 43); (Surah Luqman, Ayats 29, 31); (Surah Fatir, Ayat 27); (Surah Az-Zumar, Ayat 21). Then, the word seeing has been used here to signify that in and around Makkah and in the vast country of Arabia, from Makkah to Yemen, there were many such people still living, who had witnessed with their own eyes the event of the destruction of the people of the elephant, for it had occurred only about forty to forty-five years earlier, and the people of Arabia had continually heard it described by the eye-witnesses themselves so that they had become so certain of it as though they had seen it with their own eyes.

Here, Allah has not given any detail as to who were the people of the elephant, where from they had come and what was the object of their march, for all these things were well known among the people.

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi Explanation:
The address is apparently to the Prophet (sws); however, the real addressees are the people of the Quraysh. Addressing single entities in this way is used when the attention of every person from among the addressees is needed individually. In parlance it is called: khitab ghayr mu‘ayyan (unspecified address). The addressees of this surah were aware of this incident. Many people in Makkah and its whereabouts were alive at that time who had witnessed this incident. For the rest, it was concurrent news and they had certain knowledge of it as if they themselves had seen it. For this reason, the Qur’an has not mentioned any details of it. Only its introduction by the words “People of the Elephant” was enough to indicate that Abrahah, the Abyssinian ruler of Yemen was referred to. He had attacked the House of God with a vast army whose troops also consisted of huge elephants.

According to the research of Imam Hamid al-Din Farahi (d. 1930), Abrahah had attacked the Baytullah with nine elephants and a sixty thousand strong army to demolish it. It was not easy for the Quraysh to face such a big army in the open. They had, therefore, sought refuge in the nearby mountains and had defended the holy land by hurling stones at the advancing enemy. This defence was indeed very frail and feeble but the Almighty transformed it into a powerful outburst which took the shape of a terrible stone-hurling storm (hasib) that totally destroyed the enemy in the valley of Muhassar, and their dead bodies were devoured by birds. (For details, see: Farahi, Nizam al-Qur’an, 444). The famous poet Abu Qays refers to this hasib in the following way: (Then the Almighty unleashed a hasib on them which enwrapped them like rubbish.)

اَلَمۡ يَجۡعَلۡ كَيۡدَهُمۡ فِىۡ تَضۡلِيۡلٍۙ‏ 
    ( 2 )   Did He not make their plan into misguidance?

The word kayd is used for a secret plan meant to harm somebody. The question is what was secret in this case? Sixty thousand troops together with several elephants had openly come from Yemen to Makkah, and they had kept no secret that they had come to destroy the Kabah. Therefore, there was nothing secret about this plan. However, what was secret was the motive of the Abyssinian. They by destroying the Kabah, crushing down the Quraish and intimidating the Arabians, wanted to take control of the trade route that led from south Arabia to Syria and Egypt. This motive they kept hidden, and instead proclaimed their intent that they wanted to destroy the Kaabah, the principal House of Arab worship, in retaliation for the pollution of their cathedral by the Arabs.

Literally, fi-tadlil means: led their plan astray, but idiomatically leading a plan astray means bringing it to nought and rendering it fruitless. At one place in the Quran, it has been said: But the disbelievers’ plot (kayd) ended in vain. (Surah Al-Momin, Ayat 25), At another: And that Allah does not lead to success the plan (kayd) of deceivers. (Surah Yousuf, Ayat 52). The Arabians described Imra ul-Qais by the epithet of al-malik ad-dalil (the king who lost and wasted), for he had lost the kingdom left by his father.

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi Explanation:
The word “plot” refers to the lame excuse Abrahah had made up to attack the Ka‘bah. It is evident from various historical narratives that he had made up a story that an Arab had violated the sanctity of the cathedral built by him at Ṣan‘a by relieving himself in it. Hence, in order to avenge this he was attacking the Ka‘bah. This tale was concocted in order to inflame the Arabs and to gain the support of king Negus of Abyssinia. As a result, an army of sixty thousand gathered for this attack on Makkah. This was merely a treacherous scheme. The real purpose was to raze to the ground the House of God and to divert the Arabs to offer their pilgrimage to the cathedral he had built in San‘a, the capital of Yemen. This whole scheme was concocted by him out of a frenzied prejudice for his religion in order to convert the Arabs into Christians. (For details, see: Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wa al-nihayah, vol. 2, 170)

وَّاَرۡسَلَ عَلَيۡهِمۡ طَيۡرًا اَبَابِيۡلَۙ
    ( 3 )   And He sent against them birds in flocks,

Ababil means many separate and scattered groups whether of men or other creatures, which come from different sides successively. Ikrimah and Qatadah say that these swarms of birds had come from the Red Sea side. Saeed bin Jubair and Ikrimah say that such birds had neither been seen before nor ever after; these were neither birds of Najd, nor of Hijaz, nor of Timamah (the land between Hijaz and the Red Sea). lbn Abbas says that their beaks were like those of birds and claws like the dog’s paw. Ikrimah has stated that their heads were like the heads of the birds of prey, and almost all the reporters agree that each bird carried a stone in its beak and two stones in its claws. Some people of Makkah had these stones preserved with them for a long time. Thus, Abu Nuaim has related a statement of Naufal bin Abi Muawiyah, saying that he had seen the stones which had been thrown on the people of the elephant; they equaled a small pea seed in size and were dark red in color. According to Ibn Abbas’s tradition that Abu Nuaim has related, they were equal to a pine kernel, and according to Ibn Marduyah, equal to a goat’s dropping. Obviously, all the stones might not be equal but differing in size to some extent.

تَرۡمِيۡهِمۡ بِحِجَارَةٍ مِّنۡ سِجِّيۡلٍ‏ 
    ( 4 )   Striking them with stones of hard clay,

Literally, bi hijarat-im-min sijjil means stones of sijjil type. Ibn Abbas says that sijjil is the Arabic version of the Persian sang and gil, and it implies the stones made from clay and become hard when baked. The Quran also confirms the same. In (Surah Houd, Ayat 82) and ( Surah Al- Hijr, Ayat 74), it has been said that stones of baked clay (sijjin were rained on the people of Lot, and about the same stones in (Surah Adh-Dhariyat, Ayat 33), it has been said that they were the stones made from clay (hijarat-im min tin).

Hamid-ad-Din Farahi, who in the present age has done valuable work on the research and determination of the meaning and content of the Quran regards the people of Makkah and other Arabians as the subject of tarmihim in this verse, who are the addressees of alam tara. About the birds he says that they were not casting stones but had come to eat the dead bodies of the people of the elephant. A resume of the arguments he has given for this interpretation is that it is not credible that Abdul Muttalib should have gone before Abrahah and demanded his camels instead of pleading for the Kabah, and this also is not credible that the people of Quraish and the other Arabs who had come for Hajj, did not resist the invaders and leaving the Kaabah at their mercy had gone off to the mountains. Therefore, what actually happened was that the Arabs pelted the army of Abrahah with stones, and Allah by sending a stormy wind charged with stones, destroyed it completely; then the birds were sent to eat the dead bodies of the soldiers. But, as we have already explained in the Introduction, the tradition does not only say that Abdul Muttalib had gone to demand his camels but it says that he did not demand the camels at all but tried to dissuade Abrahah from attacking the Kabah. We have already explained that according to all reliable traditions, Abrahah’s army had come in Muharram when the pilgrims had gone back and also it was beyond the power of Quraish and other Arab tribes living in the surrounding areas to resist and fight an army 60,000 strong. They had hardly been able to muster a force ten to twelve thousand strong on the occasion of the Battle of the Trench (Ahzab) with the help of the Arab pagans and Jewish tribes then how could they have mustered courage to encounter an army, 60,000 strong? However, even if all these arguments are rejected and the sequence of the verses of Surah Al-Feel only is kept in view, this interpretation is seen to go against it. If it were so that the stones were cast by the Arabs and the people of the elephant were rendered as chaff, and then the birds came to eat their dead bodies, the order would be this: You were pelting them with stones of baked clay, then Allah rendered them as chaff eaten up, and then Allah sent upon them swarms of birds. But here we see that first Allah has made mention of sending swarms of birds; this is immediately followed by tarmihim bi-hijarat-im min-sijjil (which were pelting them with stones of baked clay); and then at the end it is said that Allah made them as straw eaten up.

Muhammad Asad Explanation:
Lit., "with stones of sijjil". As mentioned in 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, signifies also typhus - primarily means "pelting [or smiting"] with stones" (Qamus). - As regards the noun ta'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 be 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.

فَجَعَلَهُمۡ كَعَصۡفٍ مَّاۡكُوۡلٍ‏ 
    ( 5 )   And He made them like eaten straw.

The word asf as used in the original has already occurred in verse 12 of Surah 55. Ar-Rahman: dhul-asf warraihan: and corn with husk as well as grain. This shows that asf means the outer covering of seeds, which the farmer throws away after the grain has been separated from it. Then the animals eat it, and some of it falls down in the chewing and some is trampled under the hoofs.

Ibn Kathir Explanation:
(And He made them like `Asf, Ma'kul.) Sa`id bin Jubayr said, "This means straw, which the common people call Habbur.'' In a report from Sa`id he said, "The leaves of wheat.'' He also said, "Al-`Asf is straw, and Al-Ma'kul refers to the fodder that is cut for animals.'' Al-Hasan Al-Basri said the same thing. Ibn `Abbas said, "Al-`Asf is the shell of the grain, just like the covering of wheat.'' Ibn Zayd said, "Al-`Asf are the leaves of vegetation and produce. When the cattle eat it they defecate it out and it becomes dung.'' The meaning of this is that Allah destroyed them, annihilated them and repelled them in their plan and their anger. They did not achieve any good. He made a mass destruction of them, and not one of them returned (to their land) to relate what happened except that he was wounded. This is just like what happened to their king, Abrahah. For indeed he was split open, exposing his heart when he reached his land of San`a'. He informed the people of what happened to them and then he died. His son Yaksum became the king after him, and then Yaksum's brother, Masruq bin Abrahah succeeded him. Then Sayf bin Dhi Yazan Al-Himyari went to Kisra (the king of Persia) and sought his help against the Abyssinians. Therefore, Kisra dispatched some of his army with Sayf Al-Himyari to fight with him against the Abyssinians. Thus, Allah returned their kingdom to them (i.e., the Arabs of Yemen) along with all the sovereignty their fathers possessed. Then large delegations of Arabs came to him (Sayf Al-Himyari) to congratulate him for their victory. We have mentioned previously in the Tafsir of Surat Al-Fath that when the Messenger of Allah approached the mountain pass that would lead him to the Quraysh on the Day of Al-Hudaybiyyah, his she-camel knelt down. 

Then the people attempted to make her get up but she refused. So, the people said, "Al-Qaswa' has become stubborn.'' The Prophet replied: (Al-Qaswa' has not become stubborn, for that is not part of her character. Rather, she has been stopped by He Who restrained the Elephant (of Abrahah).) 

Then he said:(I swear by He in Whose Hand is my soul, they (the Quraysh) will not ask me for any matter (of the treaty) in which the sacred things of Allah are honored except that I will agree with them on it.) Then he beckoned the she-camel to rise and she stood up. This Hadith is of those that Al-Bukhari was alone in recording. 

It has been recorded in the Two Sahihs that on the Day of the conquest of Makkah, the Messenger of Allah said:(Verily, Allah restrained the Elephant from Makkah, and He has given His Messenger and the believers authority over it. And indeed its sacredness has returned just as it was sacred yesterday. So, let those who are present inform those who are absent. ) This is the end of the Tafsir of Surat Al-Fil, and all praise and thanks are due to Allah.

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi Explanation:
This is a graphic description of the final state of devastation and helplessness of Abrahah’s army. The Almighty totally ravaged them and not a single soul survived to gather the dead. They remained scattered in the battle field and carnivorous birds tore and ate their flesh.

Yusuf Ali Explanation:
A field, from which all the corn has been eaten up and only straw with stalks or stubble is left, is a field dead and useless. And such was the army of Abraha,-dead and useless. Another possible rendering would be: "like eaten straw and stubble found in the dung of animals". The meaning would be the same, but much more emphatic.

The lesson to be drawn is twofold. For the Pagan Quraish of Makkah it was: Allah will protect His own; if you persecute the holy Prophet, he is greater than the mere building of the Ka'ba: will not Allah protect him? For men in all ages it is: 'a man intoxicated with power can prepare armies and material resources against Allah's holy Plan; but such a man's plan will be his own undoing; he cannot prevail against Allah'.

You may now like to listen to tafsir of Sürah Al-Fīl by Nouman Ali Khan:

You may refer to our Reference Page "114 Chapters (Sūrahs) of the Holy Qur'an" for translation, explanation and exegesis of other chapters of the Qur'an.

You may also refer to our Reference Pages for knowing more about Islam and Quran.
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Reading the Holy Quran should be a daily obligation of a Muslim - Reading it with translation will make it meaningful. But reading its Exegesis / Tafsir will make you understand it fully.

An effort has been made to gather explanation / exegesis of the surahs of the Holy Qur'an from authentic sources and then present a least possible condensed explanation of the surah. In that:
  • The plain translation has been taken from the Holy Quran officially published by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. [1]
  • The exegesis of the chapters of the Holy Quran is mainly based on the "
In order to augment and add more explanation as already provided by [2], additional input has been interjected from following sources: 
In addition the references of  other sources which have been explored have also been given above. Those desirous of detailed explanations and tafsir (exegesis), may refer to these sites.

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