The Incident of the Elephant
Abdul Muttalib was worried. The Yemen governor of the Abyssinian king Najashi had gathered his army to come and destroy Mecca. Najashi was jealous of the fact that people would go to Mecca to pray at the Ka’ba and he had made a great temple in San’a as a challenge to the Ka’ba. He had given all he had in order to make this temple as imposing and majestic as possible; making sure that the best ornaments of the time would decorate the building. He was being helped by the Byzantine Emperor in this endeavor. The emperor’s aim was to divert people from going to the Ka’ba and come and pray at this church instead. He spoke of this openly in the letter he wrote to Najashi: “O King! I had such a great church made for you that no church like it has been made for a king before. I will not stop until I have changed the Arabs’ mind to come and worship in this church.” 1
But of course it was not possible to stop people from coming to a place that had been founded on sincerity and faith with the lure of an alternative temple.
In short, people had not heeded his efforts. Besides, a man from the Kinanah tribe had heard that Abraha had had this church built in order to divert pilgrims from their route, and in an act of insult, he had soiled the inside and outside of the church, and then had heaped garbage in the middle of it. This had enraged Abraha and was the last straw, so he ordered his army to gather at once: “There is no doubt that the Arabs did this because they are aware that this will be an alternative to their house; I swear I will bring their Ka’ba down stone by stone.”
Such were the threats he kept making.2 2
He had also sent a letter to Najashi and asked him to send his great elephant named Mahmud in this campaign. He then prepared a 6000 strong-army and charged towards Mecca. There were elephants in his army as well. He himself was leading the elephant Mahmud that the Abyssinian king had sent. When they reached the place called Mughammis near Mecca, he ordered his forces to rest and sent Aswad ibn Maqsud and a platoon to Mecca for investigation. This platoon came close to Mecca and stole many precious items belonging to the Quraysh, Hudhayl and Tihama tribes, along with two hundred camels that belonged to Abdul Muttalib. The Quraysh, Hudhayl and Tihama tribes were thus informed about the threat that was now at their door.
But when they heard of the power of the army that was approaching, they understood that there was little they could do, and they started to wait in despair.
Subsequently, Abraha sent the following message to Abdul Muttalib with his man Hunata: “I have not come here to fight war with you; my reason for coming is to destroy the Ka’ba. If you do not stand in my way, I will not harm you.”
The messenger who gave Abdul Muttalib the news received an unexpected answer: “Neither do we seek to fight with him; nor do we have the means to do so, and this house is the house of Allah where certain things have been prohibited, and it is a reminder from Prophet Ibrahim. If it will be protected, it will be protected by Him; and if He will let it be destroyed, there is nothing we can do to stop it.”
Hunata asked Abdul Muttalib to come with him all the way to Mughammis. Abraha’s intentions were clear and when he set out to do what he wanted there seemed to be nothing, by way of argument or physical power, which could stop him. However, there was always hope for a situation that had not yet come to pass. Even in these circumstances, people were thinking of ways to stop him.
Abdul Muttalib looked for faces that he might know and then learnt that an old friend of his, Dhi Nafr, was there. His happiness was short lived because he learnt that Dhi Nafr was among Abraha’s slaves. Abdul Muttalib wanted to speak to Abraha and ask him to decide against the attack. He then turned to his friend: “O Dhi Nafr! Can you not find a way to dispel this calamity from above our heads?”
“What can a slave, who doesn’t know when he will be killed, do? There is nothing I can do in this state I am in,” replied Dhi Nafr, and then added: “Still, the stable- man who deals with the elephants is my friend. I can send word to him and then ask him to find a way to let you speak with the king so that you can put your case to him.”
There were still signs of hope and the stableman was told about the situation. Soon after, the stableman were in the presence of the king: “O King! This is the leader of Quraysh; he wants permission to speak with you. He is also the owner of Mecca caravans, he gives graciously to his guests, and he even sends food to the vultures living at the top of the mountains. Let him speak with you so you may hear what he has to say.”
The request was accepted. When Abraha saw Abdul Muttalib, a heavily built and handsome man, he welcomed him as an honored guest. He got up from the high place where he was sitting and came down to sit on the ground with Abdul Muttalib, and then asked with the help of his interpreter: “What is it that you need? What do you want from me?”
An unexpected answer was again on Abdul Muttalib’s lips: “I want you to give me back my two hundred camels.”
Abraha was shocked. What kind of leadership was this? Abraha had come with an army that was impossible to resist, he was shouting at the top of his lungs that he was going to lay the city to ruin, and this man was after his own possessions, without worrying about what was going to befall the city. He said: “To tell you the truth, I was at first quite taken by your stature,” and then added: “But as you speak, I understand that you are no such man. You are after the two hundred camels that I took from you, and you say nothing about the army that has come to bring down the house that represents you and your fathers’ religion.”
Abdul Muttalib did not lose his temper, and said with all sincerity: “I own only the camels; verily, that house also has an Owner who will protect it.”
In other words, what he meant was “You believe now that you can do anything you want; but it is not as easy as you think.” For no one could harm the weak who sought refuge in the real possessor of power and force, except for Allah the Almighty. Abdul Muttalib was trying to remind Abraha of this power.
“No one can protect it against me,” roared Abraha with fury.
Abdul Muttalib did not alter his attitude and in an assured manner said: “Well then, we’ll see, here is Him and here are you.”
What he meant was “If you challenge Him, then you will have to bear the con- sequences.”
The meeting got very tense. Abraha was greatly infuriated by Abdul Muttalib’s responses, and yet he gave him back his camels.
Abdul Muttalib returned to Mecca and gathered the people together to tell them about the gravity of the situation. He told people to go hide in the mountains in order protect themselves from harm. He then came to the Ka’ba with the prominent figures of Mecca. He held close to the mallet of the gate, and then they started to pray for hours on end to the Gracious Lord in order to be able to protect the house that had been entrusted to them by Prophet Ibrahim, peace be upon him, and then they too left the Ka’ba and went to the mountain top to wait.
In the meantime, Abraha had prepared his army and he had ordered them to march and demolish the Ka’ba. But there were those in his army who did not obey his orders. One of the stablemen for the elephants, Nufayl ibn Habib, had whispered to the ear of Mahmud the elephant, the prized gift from Najashi and from whom a lot was expected in the battle. He said: “Keep sitting where you are and do not get up! Then you can return safely to the place where you came from, for you are in a place where certain things have been prohibited by Allah.”
This man, who although was in Abraha’s entourage, carried the characteristics of a believer. He left the field having accomplished his mission, and then went to seek refuge in the mountain.
It is of course not known how Allah, the Maker of All Causes, will make certain things or people the causes for good outcomes. Mahmud indeed kept sitting in its place and did not stand up despite all efforts. They tried to at least change its direction, upon which it stood up and went galloping. They turned him in all directions, and the one direction it did not run towards was the direction of the Ka’ba. They tried to force the poor animal with all methods imaginable, but all to no avail. Mahmud was injured and was bleeding in many places.
Suddenly, they witnessed something that they were not at all expecting. From the direction of the coast, a black mass had formed and was now approaching them. When the mass approached them a little closer, they saw that it was a group of birds. These birds were coming towards them with great noise, and it appeared that they had chosen Abraha’s army, who had sworn war against the idea of Allah, as their tar- get. They were coming towards the army with little stones—the size of chickpeas— that they were carrying. Each was carrying three stones, one in their beaks and one in each foot. Each stone they dropped hit a soldier without a single miss, and the soldier that was hit would buckle down immediately. A great fear descended upon the army. They had never seen or heard of such a thing. The soldiers were running around screaming, going every direction of the compass and yet none were able to escape the stones. Abraha had taken his own share of the mayhem. The stone that had hit him as he tried to escape had caused his body to disintegrate, and he gave his last breath as he had turned back in his agony. In a very little while the army of Abraha, which no one dared to stand up against, was being defeated against those who had gained power by putting their trust in the One who is the possessor of all power. It was as if an unseen hand had swept Abraha’s army, like wiping the dirt off a table; and thus Abraha’s army was cleared out of Hijaz. This cleansing would be followed by another Divine cleansing; heavy rain started and the floods that ran af- ter cleared the land of all the corpses, washing them away to the sea. Thus, the army of the unbelievers that had opposed the cause of Allah would be cleared away completely from the lands of the Hijaz, transforming it into a livable space of peace, for it was soon, the Sultan of the Realms, peace and blessings be upon him, would come to honor these lands.