Commentary on Surah al-Fil – Part 1

This is a transcript of the first lesson of the commentary on Sūrah al-Fīl given by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah over six lessons. Click for Part 2.

Names and Place of Revelation

This chapter has been referred to by two names:

  • A lam tara or A lam tara kayfa fa’ala rabbuka bi aṣḥāb al-fīl – this is how it appears in the traditions and also in the words of scholars
  • The famous name is Sūrah al-Fīl which is obviously a reference to the story alluded to in the chapter

There is a consensus amongst the Muslims that this chapter is a Meccan and has 5 verses. It is also famously said that this chapter was the 19th chapter to be revealed, after Sūrah al-Kāfirūn and before Sūrah al-Falaq. The content of this chapter also very much makes it clear that it was a Meccan chapter. If such a strong consensus did not exist on the matter, it could have been possible for someone to say that it may have been revealed in Medina as well, for example at the time of the battle of Aḥẓāb in order to encourage and motivate the Prophet (p) by reminding him of what Allah (swt) did to those who tried to attack the Ka’ba. However, this is merely a presumption and there is nothing that points us to say there is a possibility this chapter may have been revealed in Medina.

Reasons for Revelation and Merits

A number of reports – including one from Imam Zayn al-‘Ābidīn – say that there was some conflict between the Quraysh and the Muslims. The polytheists asked Abū Ṭālib to ask the Prophet (p) whether he has been sent forth as a Prophet to just his own people (the Quraysh or the Arabs) or for all humans. The Prophet (p) replied that he was sent forth for both blacks and whites, and the Arabs and the ‘Ajam, the Persians and the Romans. The Quraysh were surprised and despised that – they feared that if this report reaches the Romans or the Persians, they will develop an interest towards our lands and will attack the Ka’ba. In this situation the chapter of Fīl was revealed.

As for the merits of reciting this chapter, we will suffice with one famous tradition1 which says:

من قرأ في الفريضة ألم تر كيف فعل ربك بأصحاب الفيل شهد له يوم القيامة كل سهل وجبل ومدر بأنه كان من المصلين وينادي يوم القيامة مناد: صدقتم على عبدي، قبلت شهادتكم له أو عليه، ادخلوا عبدي الجنة ولا تحاسبوه فإنه ممن أحبه وأحب عمله

Imām Ṣādiq (a) Whomever recites al-Fīl in his obligatory prayers, every plain, mountain and mud [land] will testify on the Day of Resurrection that he is from those who pray. On the Day of Resurrection, a caller will call: “You have spoken the truth about My servant. I have accepted your testimony for him. Bring him into Paradise, and do not try him, for he is from those who love Allah and loves their deeds.”

Relationship with Sūrah al-Quraysh

Is there a relationship between Sūrah al-Fīl and al-Quraysh as it appears subsequent to al-Fīl in the copy of the Qurān? Many Sunnī and Shī’ī scholars believe that both these chapters are one chapter in real, not two different chapters. We had mentioned this earlier in our discussion on Sūrah al-Inshirāḥ. There are a few arguments put forth for this position, we will mention a few of them quickly:

1) Firstly, scholars of the Qurānic sciences have said that these two chapters appeared in the codex of Ubay b. Ka’b without any separation – meaning without the Basmalah. We had responded to this in the past and have said that while this report does exist, there also exists a contradictory report saying that the codex of Ubay b. Ka’b did indeed have a separation between these two chapters. Hence, this is not a very strong argument for the claim.

2) Some Sunnī scholars have relied on a report which says, ‘Umar the 2nd caliph was leading the congregational prayers and he recited these two chapters without separating them with a Basmalah. If this report is reliable, it still does not necessitate that the two are one chapter, it is possible to say he made a mistake or that as per the famous opinion amongst the Ahl al-Sunnah which says the Basmalah is not part of any chapter then this act of ‘Umar does not indicate that the two chapters are one. All in all, even if we accept the view of the Ahl al-Sunnah granting probativity to the actions and words of the companions, this one mere act does not prove anything significant. As for those who do not even accept the probativity of the actions and words of the companions, this event means nothing.

3) A number of traditions in Shī’ī books indicate that the two chapters are in fact one. They are very few in number and the most famous one of them is a mursal tradition mentioned in Ṭabrisī’s Majma’ al-Bayān and also in al-Sharā’ī of Muḥaqqiq Ḥillī. Earlier scholars would say that since scholars have acted upon this tradition, its weakness does not impact its reliability. However a number of later and contemporary scholars have argued that this is not enough to prove its reliability, particularly since there is a contradictory mursal tradition in Tafsīr al-‘Ayyāshī where the Imam says, do not combine two chapters (sūratayn) in the Ṣalāt except Sūrah al-Fīl and Sūrah al-Quraysh, suggesting that the Imam did deem these two as separate chapters.

As we mentioned in our lessons on Sūrah al-Inshirāh, the most we can prove from these reports is that it is obligatory to recite these two chapters together in Ṣalāt as a matter of religious submission, not that they actually are one chapter.

4) A final argument says, if we connect the last verse of Sūrah al-Fīl with the beginning of al-Quraysh we will see that they are related. The verses would read as: Thus, making them like chewed-up straw so that the solidarity among the Quraysh remains.

There is a lot of discussion on this, and we will discuss this when we go through Sūrah al-Quraysh. In any case, there is no strong evidence suggesting they are one chapter, in fact, there is evidence, on the contrary, suggesting they are two separate chapters. For example, the presence of the Basmalah between the two chapters in many of the Qur’ānic codices, traditions indicating they are two separate chapters, and also internal textual contextual indicator suggesting they are not related since their patterns are different.

The Theme of the Chapter

The chapter is essentially saying that Allah (swt) helps in ways that one least expects. Allah (swt) helps his believers and his religion whenever He sees it fit. Do not fear the enemies of Allah and His religion, rather have your hopes in the aid of Allah (swt). These are the general concepts mentioned in this chapter.

The Event of the Elephant

Before we begin the commentary on the verses, we need to first discuss what the event was exactly, especially given there have been numerous questions regarding it in contemporary times. We will mention the summary of what the historians, scholars of ḥadīth and exegetes have mentioned regarding the Aṣḥāb al-Fīl, the companions of the elephants, who have only been mentioned once in the Qur’ān, unlike other stories regarding groups of people who at times are mentioned multiple times.

The event took place in the Arabian peninsula, but there are three opinions on the year of its occurrence. Some say it was in 552 AD, before the birth of the Prophet (p), others say it 536 AD, and the third group of scholars believe it was around 570-571 AD. The last opinion the most famous opinion, given that the year became to be known as the Year of the Elephant and that the Prophet (p) was born in this very year. The historians say that the event became very famous in Arab society and that they would mention it in their poems.

As far as the details of the event are concerned, one will find a lot of inconsistencies and differences in the reports. However, the general story can be summarized as follow:

There was a man by the name of Abraha al-Ashram, known as Abu Yaksūm. Some say he was the grandfather of Najāshī, the king of Abyssinia at the time of the Prophet (p), others say the Najāshī who was alive at the time of Abraha was the grandfather of the Najāshī who lived at the time of the Prophet (p) – these discussions do not concern us though. Abraha was the commander of an army sent forth by Najashī to Yemen to avenge the king of Yemen Dhū Nuwās who was persecuting the Christians – and one of these events have also been mentioned in Sūrah al-Burūj as Asḥāb al-Ukhdūd. The Romans who were aware of this persecution asked Najāshī to send an army to Yemen to seek revenge from Dhū Nuwās.

The army was successful in taking over Yemen. Subsequently, Abraha had become the ruler over Yemen, though he was not ordered by Najāshī to take up such a role and Najāshī felt that Abraha may have left the folds of Christianity after taking over control. In order to convince Najāshī that he is still under his dominion and religion, he decided to build a large church, with the intention that a large number of people from other parts of the world would come visit this church as a sort of pilgrimage. The name of the church has been pronounced in three different ways: Qalīs, Qulays, or Qullays – and Ibn ‘Āshūr believes the word Kanīs may have originated from here.

The Arabs began to feel uneasy with this new church and felt that it was a threat to their culture and religious practices, such as the annual Ḥajj in Makkah. In one report it says that one of the young Arab men decided to burn the church down in the middle of the night, and in another report, it says that a number of Arab men or a single man from Banī Kinānah defecated inside the church. Some reports allude that this was done intentionally, but others indicate it was unintentional. Abraha became aware of this and decided to attack the Ka’ba.

He gathered a large army, which also included some Arab tribes, such as Khath’am and ‘Akk. The army set forth towards Makkah. When they arrived at a place called Mughallas (or Mughammas), Abraha sent a delegation towards Makkah to inform them of his plans, which were to destroy the Ka’ba, but he was not planning on killing the residents. The Makkans all escaped towards the mountains when they realized that Abraha’s army was coming with elephants and that they would be unable to defend the Ka’ba. ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib and Shayba b. ‘Uthmān were the only two men left to defend the Ka’ba. At some point, ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib was given the report that Abraha’s army has stolen two hundred of his camels, so he went towards Abraha and he was informed that the chief of Quraysh is coming to meet him. When he arrived, Abraha was expecting a conversation about the Ka’ba, but instead, he asked him for his camels that were stolen. Abraha began to belittle ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib saying you are the chief of your tribe and you have left your people behind simply to come and ask me about your camels?

The famous response of ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib has been recorded saying, “I am the owner of these camels and I have to protect them, while the House (i.e. Ka’ba) has its own Owner who will protect it.” Apparently Abraha released the camels and gave them back to ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib.

The next day, the lead elephant of the army, who was called Maḥmūd, stopped at the boundaries of Makkah and ceased moving forward, or turned around. At that time, an army of birds came forth, each carrying three stones – one stone in its beak and one in each of its claw. They began throwing the stones down, and the reports mention that the stones would hit the men with so much force that they would come out the other side of the body. In some reports it says everyone died, but other reports say many of them died, but others – included Abraha – escaped and returned back.

This is the rough summary of how the story has been narrated in the Islamic tradition. We want to address two questions over here:

1) What was the type of punishment sent on the Aṣḥāb al-Fīl?

The famous interpretation is that the birds came with stones and threw them at the army of elephants, killing them. However, at the dawn of the 20th century, Shaykh Muḥammad ‘Abduh put forth an interpretation that has become a point of contention until today. He said Abraha and his army were killed due to a plague that was a result of microbes. He brings a historical contextual indicator saying that the historians all confess that in this year there was a plague or some other form of disease spread in the region. Shaykh ‘Abduh thus says the word ṭayr could be a reference to mosquitoes or flies who were carrying microbes with them. These mosquitoes or flies came and transferred disease to this army which resulted in their death.

Some later scholars also put forth very different explanations of this chapter. For example, some say Fīl comes from the word Fall which is to break something, and hence the chapter is talking about those who break contracts and promises. It has nothing to do with the story of Abraha and his elephant army.

Shahīd Muṭahharī narrates a political interpretation2 from some groups of people as an example of an incorrect form of interpretation. He says some groups explain the chapter as follows: around the time when the Prophet (p) was born, there was a revolutionary group of Makkans who lived and fought against the colonial powers of the time. Once the Colonialists realized there is a group of revolutionaries residing in Makkah, they head towards the city to attack them. These revolutionaries attacked them like birds and destroyed the Colonialist army.

Aḥmad Subḥī Manṣūr, a famous Qur’āniite, believes there is no such story of Aṣḥāb al-Fīl, rather they are the People of Lūṭ. This chapter is referring to the punishment that was sent down on them which the Qur’ān also describes elsewhere.3

Another contemporary scholar says that this story occurred, but it has nothing to do with Abraha and the Romans and so on. Rather it was a battle between some of the Arab tribes and that some of these tribes did use elephants in their battles.

All of these newer interpretations began after Muḥammad ‘Abduh. ‘Abduh himself was critiqued by many scholars, most prominent of them being Sayyid Quṭb in his work Fī Ẓilāl al-Qurān, and as well as by Shaykh Muḥammad Jawād Maghnīyyah in his Tafsīr al-Kāshif. I will mention some of these critiques and add a few extra pointers myself:

1) If the matter was just of plague and disease, then what makes this so special and what is Allah (swt) really consolidating the Prophet (p) with? The historical reports you yourself are referring to say the plague came in the Arabian Peninsula, not in the army of Abraha. If the plague had just spread in the army of Abraha then that would be a miracle, but if the plague was already there, others were also dying due to it and the army of Abraha was also affected by it, then what is so special about that?

2) A plague does not generally result in a state which would be described as eaten straw (‘aṣfin ma’kūl). There are a number of meanings of what ‘aṣfin ma’kūl means and we will mention them later, but generally speaking it could either be comparing the army to the state of the straw and grass after cattle has eaten it, or some have said it is referring to the animal droppings once the straw, grass or hay has been eaten. A plague does not cause the body to turn into a state which would make this comparison reasonable.

3) The most Shaykh ‘Abduh should have said is that it is possible for his interpretation to be valid, not that it is permissible for one to believe in this interpretation. The source of what justifies one’s belief in a possible interpretation is the prima-facie of the text. In this case, the prima-facie of the words of the Qur’ān do not back up his interpretation, because the word ṭayr is not used for mosquitoes and flies in the Arabic language, even if they do fly. If a tradition says, “do not eat from the ṭayr such and such animal,” nobody understands mosquitoes or flies to be inclusive of the word ṭayr.

A point about Shaykh Muḥammad ‘Abduh: he is one of the most influential reformists in Islamic history over the last century and for researchers and students it is good to be familiar with his works and ideas. Many unique and strange interpretations and ideas that were put forth by scholars in the 60s and 70s can often first be found in the works of Shaykh ‘Abduh. One of the main agendas of Shaykh ‘Abduh was to fight against superstitions and to reconcile religious interpretations with science. One of his presumptions was that the number of details that speak about the unseen in religious texts that are authentic is very little. Hence, he always tried to interpret things in the most physical way possible. For example, if a tradition says it is recommended to place a small piece of iron on the stomach of a dead woman so that Shayṭān does not enter her, he would interpret it as, “so that germs do not enter her.”

The general idea that interpretations should be reasonable and within the general laws that govern the world and which we have experience with is not a wrong idea. The problem is in determining the limits and boundaries of it. For example, it is possible to say that if a report is given about something abnormal, something we do not experience within the general laws governing the world, then in order to attain assurance in it, we may require something more than just a mere report about it. For example, Shahīd Bāqir al-Ṣadr says in his discussion on tawātur that if someone brings an abnormal report, you will need a large number of people to give you a similar report for you to be sure about its occurrence – simply because the event itself is not something one experiences normally.

However, to say we will interpret everything in a physical way we are used to experiencing and then for the prima-facie of a text to be twisted to such an extent that it results in an interpretation like the one given by Shaykh ‘Abduh, then what is one’s justification for this?

Moving on, besides the discussion on the type of punishment, there are some questions that deal with the actual event itself:

2) What is the nature of the story mentioned in the chapter itself?

There are a number of important points posed here, which we must address.

1) Some have denied this event completely because they say it is against science.

I believe this statement itself is vague – what does it mean to be against science? How is it against science? There is a difference between saying science has not proven this incident yet and saying science has proven this incident did not take place. In the first case, yes, science hasn’t proven this incident and I am with you. However, there are many cases that science hasn’t been able to prove or explain yet, that does not mean they did not occur. You have to bring an argument showing that science has proven this event could not have taken place or that it indeed did not take place if you want to deny the occurrence of this event.

2) Some have denied this event by saying there were no elephants in Arabia, so how could there be an army of elephants? If they lived in Yemen, how could they survive given they do not have the appropriate nutrition to eat in that region? Furthermore, how could these elephants travel hundreds of kilometres from Yemen to Makkah through those desert terrains that elephants are not accustomed to?

This is a very valid question and much more precise than the previous question. It is possible to respond to this by collectively mentioning four points:

a) Yemen was an extension of the government of Abyssinia and elephants existed in Africa. It is possible for elephants to be sent from Africa; the traditions do not say that these were Yemeni elephants.

b) The critic presumes that Abraha was coming with tens of thousands of elephants in his army. However, when you refer to the books of history, ḥadīth and tafsīr you will not find anywhere the mention of an “army” of elephants. Some reports indicate that there was only one elephant – named Maḥmūd – and it was leading the rest of the army in the front. Another report mentions three elephants, some say seven and the most that have been mentioned are twelve elephants. These are very few elephants and it is possible for these elephants to have been living in Yemen and that they were being given the appropriate nutrition – this is not far-fetched at all.

c) Even if you look at the Qur’ān, it says Aṣḥāb al-Fīl, the companions of the elephant, not companions of the elephants. Yes, the word al-Fīl is a generic term and can include one or many elephants, but just like we say Aṣḥāb al-Jamal (companions of the camel) during the Battle of Jamal when we only intend that there was one camel in the battle and not an army of camel, likewise it is appropriate to use the term Aṣḥāb al-Fīl and only intend one elephant.

d) The Arabs would generally fear elephants since it was an animal they were not very familiar with and this can be seen in some of their poems. It is possible that the army of Abraha that was originally from Abyssinia had brought an elephant or two over as a mascot and symbol of their identity. Perhaps this was a symbol of their strength, especially by placing an elephant at the front of their army. There are even stories of some armies using elephants in battles that took place in Europe, even before the birth of Jesus (a), so why could it not have happened in the Arabian Peninsula?

We will discuss a third question in the next lesson, God-willing.

Click for Part 2.


  1. Nūr al-Thaqalayn, v.  5, pg. 668 – for further narrations on this chapter click here.
  2. Pīrāmūn-i Inqilāb, pg. 16.
  3. [55:34] Indeed, We sent upon them a storm of stones, except the family of Lot – We saved them before dawn.

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