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Explanation regarding Sūrah Fīl
Dr. Shehzad Saleem


Question: Upon examination of Islāhī’s commentary on Sūrah Fīl published in your journal, I had a few questions and concerns over the particular interpretation presented by him. The questions arose over the interpretation of two things:

1. The sūrah begins with the words alam tara (Have you not seen?) and this has been interpreted by Islahī as referring to the Quraysh who were being attacked while most commentators say it was the Prophet Muhammad (sws). With my little exposure to Arabic, I was confused about how the singular form of ‘you’ could be addressing the Quraysh?

2. The 4th verse begins with tarmīhim (you were pelting them). This has been interpreted as referring to the Quraysh while most commentators say it is in reference to the birds in the last verse. From my understanding of the opinions of the Arabs that I spoke to, it seems as though it would not make sense if it was the Quraysh because the subject/verb pattern implies the birds. Were it a reference to the Quraysh, the verb would have been conjugated as yarmūna for the masculine plural.

Could you comment on these points? Also, could you summarize the arguments Islāhī has given for his interpretation since they seem to be dispersed in the whole commentary, and I find it difficult to grasp them in totality?


Comment: First and foremost, it needs to be clarified that Islāhī’s commentary is based on the research carried out by his mentor Imam Farāhī (d:1930). I’ll first summarize his arguments. But before this is done, here is a gist of his interpretation, which, as you have read, is markedly different from the existing explanation1 of this sūrah.

In about 575 AD, Abraha, who was ruling Yemen at that time on behalf of king Negus of Abyssinia, attacked the Baytullāh with a sixty thousand strong army to demolish it. The Almighty decidedly helped the Quraysh in combating the forces of Abraha. 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 that totally destroyed the enemy in the valley of Muhassar, and their dead bodies were devoured by kites, vultures and crows.

Following, is a summary of the major arguments Farāhī 2 has presented in support of his explanation, as elaborated by Islāhī3.

1. The law of the Almighty is that He only helps a people who first put in all their efforts. It is against His principle that His people should sit in their houses, whilst He alone should win the battle for them. If this were true, then the Children of Israel would not have been punished for a similar attitude when they were left to wander for forty years in a desert. They had only said:

Go there, you [O Moses!] and your Lord, we will sit here. (5:124).

According to the law of the Almighty, which is clear from the Qur’ān, He helps only a people who set out to fulfill their obligations, however small in number they may be and however limited their resources may be. It is not that He will send His help if a people do not strive their utmost. The Quraysh won the Almighty’s help because they did all they could. The Almighty reinforced their weak defence by unleashing on the enemy a raging stone hurling wind 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 was 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; it was Allah who had hurled them. (8:17)

Consequently, it should be noted that in this sūrah also, while the verb ramā (to pelt) has been related to the people addressed, rendering the enemy as ‘straw eaten away’ has been attributed to the Almighty’s power.

2. The verb ramā (to throw) is not suitable to be used for the ‘dropping action’ of the birds. Ramā means to throw by the force of hand. The birds can drop stones held in their beaks and claws, but this cannot be termed Ramī. This verb can only be used when ‘the drop’ has the power of an arm, a string or a wind behind it.

3. ‘Sending forth birds on the enemies’ is a common metaphorical depiction of the state of utter decimation. The Arab poets in their odes make 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 complete destruction of the enemy they will get a chance to satisfy their hunger. Consequently, the last verse of the sūrah is a graphic 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.

4. The Almighty helped the Quraysh by unleashing a ravaging stone-hurling wind (Hāsib) on the enemy after the Quraysh had put in all their effort. This Hāsib has been reported by many eyewitnesses and historians like Ibn Hishām have recorded their observations. We, shall restrict ourselves to two examples only. The famous poet Abū Qays, while mentioning the power and glory of the Almighty, refers to this Hāsib in the following way:


يلفهم مثل لف القزم

فارسل من ربهم حاصب

Fa ursila min rabbihim hāsibun / Yaluffuhumu mithla laffil qazam


(Then the Almighty unleashed a stone-hurling wind on them which enwrapped them like rubbish.)

Similarly, Sayfī Ibn ‘Āmir has referred to a Hāsib and a Sāff, which is similar to a Hāsib, differing only in intensity:


جنود الاله بين ساف و حاصب

فلما اجازوا بطن نعمان ردهم

Falammā ajāzū batna nu‘māna raddahum /Junūdu’l ilāhi bayna sāfin wa hāsibi


(As soon as they advanced beyond the valley of Nu‘mān, the forces of the Almighty alighted among the Hāsib and Sāff and destroyed them)]

5. The claim that the Quraysh offered no resistance is not only against historical facts, but also against the known sense of honour and pride of the Quraysh. All historians agree that whichever routes the army of Abrahah traversed, the respective Arab tribe did not let them through without offering some opposition. They tolerated the humiliation of defeat rather than letting the enemy through easily with such an evil motive. The only exception were the Banū Thaqīf, who did not display the sense of honour shown by all the other tribes. Abū Righāl, a tribesman of the Banū Thaqī, revealed to the advancing army the way to Makkah. As a result, of this dishonourable act, the Banū Thaqīf were completely disgraced in the eyes of the Arabs and lost their respect. Abū Righāl met an equally dreadful fate: for a number of years, the Arabs pelted stones at his grave. It should be realized that when small tribes fought so gallantly, how could the Quraysh have acted in such a dishonourable way by letting the opponents achieve their goal unchecked? If they did what is generally maintained, why was only Abū Righāl condemned for a similar crime? The Quraysh have always been famous for their sense of honour. 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 losing the Baytullāh, what else did they have to live for?

6. A look at the prayer ‘Abdu’l-Muttalib 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 a person who is very disturbed and worried over a situation, yet is very hopeful of the Almighty’s help. There is not the slightest indication that these words were uttered by someone who had run away from the battlefield. If ‘Abdu’l-Muttalib had retreated in the mountains and prayed to the Almighty, it does not mean that he had withdrawn from the defence of the Baytullāh. On the contrary, his prayer is like a glorious martial song which has the scent of faith and trust in it. Consider how effectively it invokes 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?

     Now, I’ll try to answer the first part of your question regarding the pronouns used in addressing the Quraysh. I’ll just summarize the views of Farāhī who has dwelt in detail on this issue: He maintains that the addressees of this sūrah are the tribe of Quraysh. They are reminded of the favours they have been blessed with by the Almighty. They are reprimanded for their insolent behaviour and asked in a decisive tone to mend their ways. Consequently, the address alam tara (have you not seen?) is directed at the Quraysh and not at the Prophet (sws) as is generally understood.

In classical Arabic, as in many other languages, plural entities are addressed by singular pronouns to highlight that each and every person of a group is being addressed. Consequently, in this sūrah, instead of the plural forms of alam tarawna (have you [all] not seen?) and tarmūhum (you [all] pelted), the singular forms alam tara (have you not seen?) and tarmīhim (you pelted) are employed to create the affect of addressing each and every individual of the Quraysh. There are numerous examples of such usage in the Qur’ān. Some of them are given below:

Have you not seen that the ships sail through the sea by Allah’s Grace so that He may show you [all] His Signs? (31:31)

In this verse, the discourse begins with alam tara (have you not seen?) but later changes to plural in li yurīkum (so that He may show you [all]). The reason is that the singular pronoun is actually used for plural entities.

Similar is the case in the following verse:

Do you not see4 that Allah has created the heavens and the earth with truth? If he wills, He can remove you [all]5 and bring in your place a new creation! (14:19)

In the following verses, the address is plural first lā taqūlū (you [all] do not say) and then shifts to the singular alam ta‘lam (know you not) and then back to plural lakum (for you [all]). The reason is that the singular address is in fact directed at plural entities.

O you who believe! Do not say rā‘inā, but say unzurna6 Know you not that Allah is able to do all things? Know you not that it is Allah to Whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth? And besides Allah for you [all] there is neither any guardian nor any helper. (2:105-7)

In the following verses, the plural address ‘Shall I inform you [all]’ gives way to the singular ‘Do you not see’ on the same principle:

Shall I inform you [all]7 upon whom the devils descend? They descend on every lying, sinful person. Who give ear and most of them are liars. As for the poets, the erring ones follow them. Do you not see8 that they speak about every subject in their poetry? (26:221-6)




1. According to the conventional interpretation, the Quraysh did not face the attacking enemy and their chief ‘Abdu’l-Muttalib took them away to seek refuge in the nearby mountains. They left the Baytullāh in the custody of the Almighty, believing that He who is the Lord of the House shall Himself protect it. In their opinion, the birds had destroyed Abraha’s army by flinging stones on them.

2. Farāhī, Majmū‘ah-i-Tafāsīr, 1st ed., (Lahore: Faran Foundation, 1991), pp. 365-410

3. Islāhī, Tadabbur-i-Qur’ān 5th ed., vol. 9, (Lahore: Faran Foundation, 1993), pp. 555-66

4. alam tara

5. yudh hibkum

6. Both these words mean: ‘We beg your pardon’

7. unabbi’ukum

8. alam tara

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