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Sūrah Fil
Qur'anic Exegesis
Amin Ahsan Islahi
(Tr. by:Dr. Shehzad Saleem)

Central Theme, Arrangement and Relation with Previous Sūrah

The special feature in the topics of the Sūrahs Quraysh to Humaza is that it has been pointed out to the Quraysh that they have remained so possessed with the love of wealth and children that they have grossly failed to fulfil the rights of Allah as well as their own fellow beings. Inspite of this, they still claim to be the heirs of Abraham and Ismeal and the custodians of the Baitullaah built by them. Now in this Sūrah and it dual counter part, Sūrah Quraysh, which succeeds it, they are being cautioned that they have been blessed with peace and sustenance not because of their own efforts or that they were entitled to them, rather it is because of the Prophet Abraham’s invocation and the blessings of the House which he built that they have been bestowed with these favours. Therefore, instead of showing vanity, it is their obligation to worship the Lord of this House, who fed them in hunger and secured them against every kind of danger, as has been indicated in Sūrah Quraysh:

“Hence, they should worship the Lord of the House, who feeds them because of hunger and provides them with peace in fear.” (106:3-4)

The only difference between the two Sūrahs is that in Sūrah Feel an event bears witness to the Power and Might of Allah, which saved the Baitullaah from a great enemy while in Sūrah Quraysh, the Quraysh have been reminded of the fact that it is their association with the Baitullaah which accounts for the favours of peace and sustenance.

At the time when Abraham had settled his son Ismeal in Mecca, the land was not only scarce in food resources but was in a constant state of strife as well. Abraham had earnestly prayed to the Almighty to bless the land with peace and sustenance and the Almighty had fulfilled his wish. The progeny of Abraham benefitted from both these favours because of Baitullaah only, but later on pride and vanity made them indifferent to these blessings. They have been warned on their gratitude at many instances in the Qur’ān. In the Sūrahs of this last group, Sūrah Balad also discusses some important aspects of this attitude. For details, it can be consulted.

In this Sūrah the Quraysh have been reminded of a significant event which look place not long ago. The Almighty had helped them decidedly in combating the forces of Abraha who had attacked the Baitullaah 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 vaneguard 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 defence was indeed very frail and feeble, but the Almighty transformed it into a powerful outburst which totally destroyed the enemy, and their dead bodies were feasted by kites, vultures and crows.

Meaning of the Sūrah

Have you not seen how your lord dealt with the people of the elephant? Did he not foil their treacherous plan? And sent down against them swarms of birds?

You pelted them with clay stones. And Allah them like straw eaten away.

Explanation of the Sūrah

Alam tara kaifa fa’ala rabbuka bi ashaabil feel.

(Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the People of the Elephant?) (1)

The addressed words alam tara (Have you not seen?) are grammatically singular in nature but they are mostly, used to address plural entities, as if directed to every person individually in a group of people. Here the addressees are the Quraysh. They are being reminded about their recent past and are being inquired whether they had forgotten how their lord had dealt with the People of the Elephant? It should be kept in mind that the event which is being referred to, had taken place not long ago. The Prophet (sws) was born the same year the event took place. Therefore, there must have been people at the time of revelation of this Sūrah who must have witenessed it or at least heard about it so much by so many people that it had become for them no less than a directly observed reality. The words alam tara, therefore, seem very appropriate.

The Qur’ān has not mentioned any details regarding the People of the Elephant, as to who were they, where had they come from what and was the object of their march? The reason for this brevity is that the addressed people knew these details very well. Only their introduction by the words Ashaab-ul-Feel (People of the Elephant) was enough to indicate that Abraha, the Abyssinian ruler of Yemen whose troops also consisted of elephants was being referred to. It was the first time that the Arabs had encountered elephants in a war and to express the grimness of the event they remembered it by the above name.

Whether there was only a single elephant or several, both meanings can be construed from the words of the Qur’ān. But since the world ashaab (plural) has been used and not saahib, which is a singular word it is more likely that there were more than one elephant. Traditions also reinforce the fact that there was a whole battery of elephants with the army, which tremendously increased its strength and awesomeness.

Though some historians have regarded Abraha as a tolerant ruler,yet he does not deserve such a high opinion if his life is studied. He seams to be an opportunist, a traitor and highly prejudiced Christian. He had betrayed the ruler of Abyssinia and had actually used his army to bring Yemen under his own control. History bears witness to his taitorship: it is not possible to enlist all the details, yet it is a historical fact that after assuming control of Yemen he not only killed its Jewish king but also ruthlessly exterminated Judaism from the land.

His prejudice for Christianity made him obsessed with the idea of converting the Arabs into Christians. To execute his scheme he built a grand cathedral in San’aa, the capital of Yemen. He wrote to king Negus of Abyssinia, for whom he was deputising in ruling Yemen, that he had built a unique cathedral towards which he intended to divert the Arabs to offer their pilgrimage and demolish the Baitullaah. He then mad up a story that an Arab had isolated the sanctity of the cathedral, only to justify an attack on the Baitullaah. Considering the traditional bravery and courage of the Arabs it is very unlikely that something like this might have happened. Even if the episode is assumed to be true, a person’s individual misdeed is not enough to justify the exaction of revenge from a whole nation and go as far as razing down the Baitullaah. It is quite evident that only to inflame the Arabs and to gain the support of king Negus that this tie was given alot of air. He finally launched an attack on Mecca with a sixty thousand story army supported by a battery of elephants.

Alam yaj’al kaidahum fee tadhleel.

(Did He not foil their trecherous plan.) (2)

The Almighty aborted the scheme of Abraha which has been termed kaid (an evil plan) by the Qur’ān because to justify a vicious move a ridiculous allegation was invented, as has been indicated before. However, there are also some other reasons for calling this scheme an evil plane. Imam Farāhī (d: 1930) mentions them in his exegesis:

“1. He (Abraha) had attacked the Baitullaah during the forbidden months, because he believed that in these months the Arabs refrained from war and bloodshed.

2. He had tried to enter Mecca when the Meccans and other Arabs were performing the rites of Haj.

3. He had specially intended to launch his offensive during the stay of Minaa, when the Arabs would either be busy in offering sacrifice or would be returning home totally exhausted.” (“Majmu’ah-i-Tafaaseer-i-Farāhī”, Pg Ed )

To foil this evil contrivance, what the Almighty did, is deduced thus by Imam Farāhī:

“1. He did not let them penetrate beyond the valley of Muhassir

2. The Arabs used the stones of this valley to bombard their enemy, as shall be described later.

3. He let loose a haasib ( a stone hurling wind) on the enemy, which totally destroyed them.” (“Majmu’ah-i-Tafaaseer-i-Farāhī”, Pg Ed )

Many eye witnesses have reported this hassib and historians like Ibni Hashshaam have recorded their observations. Imam Farāhī has also discussed it in detail. We, shall restrict ourselves to two examples only. The famous poet Abu Qais while mentioning the Power and Glory of the Almighty refers to this haasib in the following way.

Fa ursila rabbihim haasibun
Yaluffuhum mithla laffil qazam

[“Then the Almighty unleashed a haasib on them which enwraped them like rubbish.”]

Similarly Saifee bin Amir has referred to a haasib and a saif, which is similar to a haasib, Differing only in intensity:

Falammaa ‘ajaazoo batna nu’maana zuddahum
Junoodu laailaaha baina saafiw wa haasibee

[“As soon as they advanced beyond Batan-i-Nauman the forces of the Almighty alighted among the haasib and saif and”]

Wa arsala ‘alaihum tairan abaabeel.

(And set down against them swarms of birds?) (3)

This is a metaphorical description of the final state of devastation and helplessness of Abraha’s army. The Almighty totally ravaged them and not a single sole survived to gather the dead; They remained scattered in the battle field. The Almighty sent forth on them carnivorous birds, which tore and ate their flesh and cleansed Mecca from their .’sending forth birds on the enemies’ is a common metaphorical depiction of their state of utter decimation. The Arab poets in their laudatory poems have after made use of this metaphor. They often extol their armies by saying that when they attack the enemy meat eating birds fly with them as if they know that after the enemy is completely destroyed they will get a chance to satisfy their hunger. In the old Testament, the episode of Daood (David) and Jaloot (Gollaith) has been narrated. It says that when the two faced eachother in combat and David assumed all the conceited remarks of Gollaith, Gollaith, replied irritably ‘ I shall feed the kites and crows with your meet today’. But David, by the Almighty’s help turned the tables on Gollaith.

The word abaabeel does not mean the swallows (the birds called abaabeel). The word means a pack of horses and also implies a swarm of birds. Grammarians differ whether the word is singular or plural. Some hold that it is the plural of ibbaalatun. In our opinion, here it has been used for the birds who had gathered to feed on the slain.

Arsala alaihum refers to the utter state of helplessness of the People of the Elephant, that no one remained to burry the dead: the birds feasted on the dead bodies with complete freedom.

Tarmeehim bihijaaratin min sijjeel. Fa ja’alahum ka’asfim ma’kool.

(You pelted them with stones of clay. And Allah made them like straw eaten away.) (4-5)

In the end, it has been indicated how the Almighty’s help had aided the believers in destroying their foes. The Meccan people have been addressed and told that while they were hurling stones on the enemy, the Almighty transformed this weak defence into a strong one and it become so effective that it virtually made them like straw devoured away.

Our commentators generally maintain that the Meccans did not face the attacking enemy and their leader Abdul Mutlalib took them away to seek refuge in the nearby mountains. They left the Baitullaah in the custody of the Almighty, believing that He who is the Lord of the House shall Himself protect it. In their consideration, the subject of the verb tarmee is tairan abaabeel ie the birds had destroyed Abraha’s army by flinging stones on them. There is a general consensus on this view, but due to various reasons it is absolutely incorrect. We indicate some of them:

(1) There is no doubt that the Quraysh had gone off in the mountains but this does not imply at all that they had completely withdrawn themselves from its defence.They had adopted a special war strategy due to their own weak position. Instead of facing a huge army in an open battle field they took refuge in the mountains and tried to impede the enemy attack by adopting the tacties of gueralla war fare. A similar strategy was adopted by the Muslims in the battle of Ahzaab when they defended the Holy land of Medina by digging a trench around it.

It would have been disasterous for them to engage the enemy in open warfare, for even if they had tried their best they could not have raised an army beyond twenty thousand, which was totally insufficient to fight a sixty thousand strong army aided with a battery of elephants. The Almighty helped them according to his principle that when a believer does his utmost in discharging his duty, he is aided by Divine Help.

(2) The claim that the Quraysh offered no resistance is not only against historical facts but also goes against the sense of honour and pride of the Quraysh. All historians agree that from whichever routes the army of Abraha traversed, the respective Arab tribe did not let them through without offering any opposition. They tolerated the humiliation of defeat than letting the enemy through easily with such an evil motive. The only exception was Banoo Thaqeef, who did not display the sense of honour shown by all the other tribes. Abu Righaal a tribesman of Bano Thaqeef revealed to the advancing army the way to Mecca. As a result of being dishonorable Bano Thaqeef were completely disgraced in the eyes of the Arabs and lost their respect. Abu Righaal met an equally dreadful fate: for a number of years the Arabs pelted stones at his grave. It should be realised that when small tribes fought so gallantly, how could the Quraysh act in such a dishonorable way by letting the opponents achieve their goal unchecked? If they did what is generally maintained, why was only Abu Righaal condemned for a similar crime? The Quraysh have always been famous for their sense of honour, as we have indicated before. Even in trivial affairs they had never shown any weakness which could stain their honour; how could they disgrace and dishonour themselves in an affair upon which depended their religious as well as political supremacy. After loosing the Baitullaah what else did they have to live for protecting themselves and hiding in the mountains. The view, therefore, cannot be accepted.

(3) Those who hold this view---and actually dishonour the Quraysh by doing so---maintain that the Sūrah conveys somewhat the following message: ‘The Almighty Himself is the Guardian of His House. Even if its custodians run away He Himself shall protect it. So when the Quraysh retreated in the mountains the Almighty employed Abaabeels to defend His House. The Abaabeels destroyed the enemy by hurling stones on them.’ If this is the lesson the Sūrah conveys, them it is totally against the laws of the Almighty. It is against His principle that His people should sit in their houses, whilst He alone should win the battle for them. If it were in accordance with this principle why were the childrens of Israel punished for a similar attitude when they were left to wander for forty years in a desert. They had only said:

“So their they hard fight, we will sit here.” (5:124).

According to the law of the Almighty which is clear from the Qur’ān, he helps only those who set out to fulfil their obligations, however small in number they may be and however limited their resources may be. Consequently, the responsibilities the Qur’ān has imposed on us in Sūrahs Baqarah, Tauba and Haj as regards protection and liberation of Baitullaah are that we should do all we can and the Almighty will help us. It is not that he will send his help if we do not strive our not most. The Quraysh procurred the Almighty’s help because they did all what they could. The Almighty reinforced their weak defence by unleashing on the enemy a raging stone hurling ward which reduced them to nothingness. In the battle of Badr too the Almighty lent his invisible hand of help when circumstances were no different as far as the defence of the Muslim army is concerned. The Almighty had transformed a handful of dust thrown at the enemy by the Prophet (sws) into a storm. The Almighty himself explained the nature of this event in the Qur’ān:

“And you did not hurl the stones on the enemy, but it was Allah who had hurled them.” (8:17)

(4) A look at the prayer Abdul Multalib had uttered while he was invoking the Almighty’s help shows that its words are overflowing with faith in the Almighty. They are the words of the person who is very disturbed and worried over a situation, yet he is very hopeful of the Almighty’s help. There is not the slightest indication that these words have been uttered by someone who has run enemy from the battle field. Those who have derived this meaning from the prayer can only be lauded for their subtle sense of appreciation. If Abdul Multalib had retreated in the mountains and prayed to the Almigthy, it does not mean that he had withrawn from the defence of the Baitullaah. A little deliberation shows that some of his words have the same grace of confidence in the Almighty as the prayer the Prophet (sws) had uttered admist the battle of Badr. Abdul Multalib’s prayer in like a glorious martial song which has the scent of faith and trust in it. Consider who effectively these completes invoke the Almighty’s help:

O Lord! A man protects his family, so protect Your people. Let not their cross and their strength overpower You. If You want to leave our qiblah at their mercy, then do as You please.

After such a display of honour and integrity, can someone be regarded as a deserter?

Therefore, in our consideration the view that the Quraysh had not faced the enemy and the birds had destroyed the enemy by flinging stones at them is totally baseless. The subject of the verb tarmee, we believe, is the tribe of Quraysh who have has been addressed by the words alam tara at the beginning of the Sūrah. This verb is not at all appropriate for birds. The birds can drop stones held in their beaks and claws, but this cannot be termed ramaa. Ramaa can only be used when ‘the drop’ has the power of an arm, a string or a wind behind it. Even the commentators who held the general view have also felt its inaptness. They had to ‘make up’ the interpretation that the birds dropped stones of the size of peas, which passed through the bodies of the elephant’s bodies. By this interpretation, they were able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the process, but in reality it cannot be termed ramaa.

Bi hijaaratin min sijjeel. Sijjeel is the Arabacized from of the Persian word sangi gul. It means . It has been indicated before that the Arab’s had a weak defence. The battle could have been termed hotly contested if it were fought by swords and spears and the two armies were arrayed in a battle field; if the enemy had elephants, the Quraysh at least had horses. This, as pointed out before, was not possible; so they opted to retreat in the mountains and impede the enemy advance by hurling stones at them. Obviously, this was a weak defence and just to show the weak nature of defense, the words bi hijaaratin min sijjeel have been used by the Qur’ān.

Fa ja’alahum ka’asfim ma’kool.

(And Allah made them like straw eaten away) (5)

This verse expresses how the Might and Power of the Almighty turned the tables on Abraha’s army. Since his people had strived to their utmost, he according to his law helped them and made their enemy like straw eaten away (ka’asfim ma’kool). To call something by the fate it shall finally meet is a common linguistic style of Arabic: ka’asfim ma’kool being an example.

It should be noted here that the verb ramaa has been related to the people addressed, but rendering the enemy into ‘straw eaten away’ has been attributed to the Almight’s power. The reason is that it was not possible for the Arabs alone to destroy their enemy. The Almighty helped them by unleashing a ravaging stone hurling wind on the enemy, when the Quraysh themselves were flinging stones on them in the valley of Mahassir. This haasib, as has been indicated before, was reported by many eye witnesses. It has also been mentioned earlier, that the Quraysh had adopted similar tactics in the battle of Ahzaab and then too ‘a wind’ was sent to help them.

Only one question now remains. If the actual fact is that the forces of Abraha had been destroyed by the stone hurling of the Quraysh and the Good sent haasib and not by the birds, who had only come to eat away the dead, them the verses should have had the following order: Tarmeehim bihijaaratim min sijjeel. Fa ja’alahum ka’asifim ma’kool. Wa arsala ‘alaihim tairan abaabeel (You pelted then with claystones. And Allah made then like straw eaten way. And sent down against them swarms of birds.). In Our opinion, the people who have raised this question are not aware of a certain rhetorical style of Arabic. In this style, just to project the consequences – good or bad – of a certain event, they are listed before expressing all the details. To express the swiftness in the acceptance of prayers this style has been adopted by the Qur’an at many places. The following verses of Sūrah Nooh clearly testify to this:

“Nooh cried: O my lord! they have disobeyed me and followed those O whose wealth and children only increased their loss; they contrived big evil schemes and seduced their nation by saying: do not ever renounce your gods; Forsake not Wadd nor Suw’a neither Yaguth nor Nasr [and O my Lord!] they have misled many and Thou only increase the wrongdoers in their wrong doing. Hence, because of their sins they were overwhelmed by the flood and cast into the fire. And they found none besides Allah to help them.

And Nooh said: O Lord! Leave not a single disbeliever in the earth. If you spare them they will mislead thy servants and beget none but wicked and ungrateful ones.” (71:21-27)

 If we reflect on the above verse, it becomes clear that just after the Prophet Noah had uttered the first sentence of his prayer, the fate of his nation has been depicted while the remaining prayer has been deferred though obviously they would have met this fate after the whole prayer. The only reason for this is that only to show the speediness in the acceptance of the prayer a certain sentence have been placed earlier. Likewise! in the present Sūrah just to depict the dreadful fate of the foes of Abraha the mention of sending down birds against them has been made before the mention of their destruction. Since the central theme of the Sūrah renders around recounting the favours of the Almighty on the Quraysh, rhetorical principles dictate that the dreadful fate of the enemies be portrayed first.

My teacher, Hameed Uddin Farāhī, has dealt at length with the various aspects of this Sūrah. Brevity has restricted me to omit many of his views which are very important as regards the explanation of the Sūrah. Among other details which present a fresh insight in the Sūrah, Maulana Farāhī considers the Ramee-i-Jamaraat as a symbolic representation of the ramee ‘done’ by the Quraysh on Abraha’s forces. I advise the readers to go through Maulana Farāhī’s interpretation of the Sūrah, which will also bring out the very delicate difference between his views and the ones held by his humble pupil.

Translated from Islahi’s “Tadabbur-i-Qur’ān”)

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