Commentary on Surah al-Fil – Part 2

This is a transcript of the second and third lesson of the commentary on Sūrah al-Fīl given by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah over six lessons.

In the previous lesson we responded to two arguments that propose the event did not take place, namely: the event is against science and hence it did not take place, and secondly, the event itself is far-fetched due to the absence of elephants in the region.

3) If this event had taken place, it would have been recorded by many non-Muslim historians, especially the Romans, yet we only find its mention in Muslim records.

Once again this is a valid question, especially given how large this event was. If the event was as it has been described, then it would have been natural for people to be speaking about it and narrating it for years to come. However, we have to question this premise: is it necessary for every single event that occurred in the Arabian Peninsula to have been recorded by the historians of the world? Is it not sufficient for the historians of the same region – they were Arabs and the Muslims – to have recorded the event?

For example, didn’t the Muslims rule the world for many centuries? Do you find the details of every major event that occurred during that period in Europe for example? You will not find such a thing. Perhaps you will find a mention of some event here and there, but there are many major events that occurred during these centuries in the East and the West, but the Muslim historians have not recorded it.

It is more reasonable to believe that non-Muslim historians of the time would not have concerned themselves with everything that was happening in the Arabian Peninsula – a desert region – which they did not have much to do with either. Yes, if the event only appears in a few sources even in Arab and Muslim sources, then we are justified in doubting the occurrence of the event. If such an event was famous and popular amongst the Arab society and yet it was not transmitted and recorded extensively, that would definitely raise doubts.

Please note I am speaking about the actual occurrence of the event, not about its details. We can argue and be skeptical about some of the details as per our methodology, but there is no reason to doubt the actual event. Is it justified for us to be skeptical of Western historians who have written about events that occurred in their regions, but Muslim historians did not record them?

4) What is the point of bringing an elephant – even if it is just a few of them? The Arabs would have fled away even if they saw a large army itself without elephants, why would someone bother to bring an elephant?

I mentioned previously that it is possible for the army to have used elephants as a symbol of their strength and that it was an identity for themselves. This is not a very strong critique, but I am mentioning it just to give you an idea of the different attempts made to discredit the historical event.

5) This is against reason, because it does not make sense for someone to bring an army of elephants against the Quraysh who wouldn’t have had more than a hundred fighters.

This is what one of the critics has mentioned. We stated previously that there was no “army” of elephants and rather only a very few elephants. Secondly, this had nothing to do with the Quraysh specifically, and in fact, the Arabs had many fighters in their society. They could have gathered hundreds of fighters if they wanted to – though the reports apparently mention the residents of Makkah were all scared and ran off into the hills and mountains.

6) Why were the companions of the elephant chastised? Were they not coming to break down something that was filled with idols? It was the symbol of idol worshipping and polytheism. In fact, Abraha was representing Christianity and if he was coming to attack the symbol of polytheism that is something good. How can Allah (swt) defend polytheism by punishing the Christian believers (who were the persecuted ones and the mention of their persecution is also mentioned in the Qur’ān in the story of Aṣḥāb al-Ukhdūd)?

This is not a new critique even though the critic presents it as if it is unique to him, rather you can find this discussion during the time of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī as well – though his response is not that great. The issue with this critique is that the person is presuming that Abraha was coming to get rid of the idols – the problem wasn’t with the idols, the problem was that he was coming to break down the Ka’ba which was built by Prophet Ibrahīm (a), who even the Christians and Jews have to pay respect to.

Even if the Ka’ba had been destroyed, idol worshipping would have still carried on and there were idols outside of the Ka’ba in other significant areas as well. Idols in that society are not necessarily associated with the Ka’ba. The critic has turned this into a contest of Christianity and polytheism when that is not the case at all. Abraha also did not want to destroy idols – nowhere is this mentioned.

We also mentioned earlier that it is possible Abraha was not even a very religious Christian or a Christian at all, and that he had only made a large church in Yemen to impress and convince Najāshī that he is still Christian and that he does not have to deem Abraha has a threat to his rule.

7) The Ka’ba has been destroyed and demolished many times, in fact, Allah (swt) Himself has destroyed it numerous times by causing floods and heavy rains. So what is so significant about Abraha intending to demolish it such that Allah (swt) is not satisfied with it and He (swt) sends punishment upon him and his army?

I feel this criticism attaches the importance of the Ka’ba to it being a mere building constructed with stones and bricks. This is not a valid presumption, because the Ka’ba in fact is not meant to be seen as mere building, rather it is a religious and deeply symbolic object that has significant spiritual impact on people and society – it is a symbol of the Abrahamic tradition. A flood does not destroy or damage any of that, even if the bricks or stones do break off. Whereas Abraha’s intention was to not just destroy the mere bricks of the Ka’ba such that people could have easily reconstructed it. Rather, the intention was to erase any trace, memory and symbolism the Ka’ba ever had from the minds of the people, and to alter their attentions towards the church he had built. Yes, the physical act itself is the same, but we cannot look at this situation from a pure physical perspective as that is over-simplifying the matter.

Let us for a moment presume all of these critiques are valid and the event is nothing but a superstition. Is that still enough to be a valid criticism against the Qur’ān, which is what most of these critics are intending to get at? Or does that mean we should understand the chapter in a symbolic manner? No – because the Qur’ān does not speak about Abraha, neither the Ka’ba, neither Makkah, nor does the Qur’ān mention that the Aṣḥāb al-Fīl came to Makkah, nor that they were Christians or that the Ka’ba was being protected by Allah (swt). None of these details are mentioned in the Qur’ān. All that the Qur’ān mentions is that there were a group of people known as the Aṣḥāb al-Fīl and that they were punished by Allah (swt) because of their evil plots. Who were they, where were they, what year did they live in – the Qur’ān is silent on all these matters. If you want to critique the Qur’ān, then none of those critiques are valid on the Qur’ān because all of them are taking details from historical events and reading the Qur’ānic verses through those details.

If someone wants to reject the historical details, they can do that, but none of that impacts the Qur’ān. We are the ones connecting the historical details with this chapter, and if you do not believe in the historical details or believe there are critiques on it, then do not accept it, but your rejection of the details does not impact the Qur’ān since it has not made any claims about the details of the events.

These critiques are generally put forth by two groups: 1) those who are against the Qur’ān and believe the book is of no value – we have addressed them briefly already; and 2) those who put forth similar critiques against many of the stories mentioned in the Qur’ān, however they do not intend to discredit the Qur’ān rather they claim we have misunderstood the stories themselves. We have misunderstood the style in which the Qur’ān conveys its stories, we have presumed that the Qur’ān is speaking of historical facts and realities when in fact that is not the case.

The second group of scholars believe the stories of the Qur’ān are not historical reports and records, they should not be understood in that manner. They are fictional, just like any other storyteller who tells a story and makes up a great many details that did not occur, but his intention is to convey a message to the audience. Or just like many movies, whether they are all fiction or even if some of them are based on true events, not all the details are accurate – and the intent behind these movies is to convey certain messages and themes to the audience.

There are a number of major scholars in whose works you will find some support for this position. I will mention their names here: 1) Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī in his Tafsīr al-Kabīr, 2) Abu Muslim Baḥr al-Isfahānī, 3) Nisābūri in Gharā’ib al-Qur’ān, 4) Muḥammad ‘Abduh in Tafsīr al-Manār and in other works, 5) ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī in his Tafsīr al-Mīzān, and 6) Shahīd Muṭahharī.

These scholars did not say that all the stories in the Qur’ān are imaginary and symbolic, rather they bring evidence for maybe one, two or three stories possibly being imaginary. For example, Abū Muslim and Muḥammad ‘Abduh say the verse [2:259] Or [consider such an example] as the one who passed by a township which had fallen into ruin – never occurred. No one passed by any such town and rather it is an imaginary example being given to remind people of what Allah (swt) will do on the Day of Judgement. Both of these scholars also believe that the story of Ibrahīm (a) and the birds is not real, it is an allegorical story.

As another example, ‘Āllāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī in a number of places in his Tafsīr as well as Shahīd Muṭahhari in some of his works, alludes that the story of Adam, Eve, the tree, Iblīs, Paradise and the fall of Adam could possibly have been allegorical and not an actual event. If this was the case, there would be no need to even discuss topics like the infallibility of Adam since we would say the story is not real to begin with. They say this story could be pointing towards the philosophy of creation, trials and tribulations.

As can be seen, this inclination towards deeming some stories of the Qur’ān as allegorical existed in the works of a handful of scholars. However, in the year 1948 an Egyptian scholar by the name of Muḥammad Aḥmad Khalafallah (d. 1991) who wrote a thesis titled, ‘The Narrative Art in the Holy Qur’ān’ (al-Fann al-Qiṣaṣī fī al-Qur’ān al-Ḥakīm). The supervisor was a famous scholar and writer Dr. Amīn al-Khawlī. When Khalafallah presented his thesis for defense, it caused a lot of controversy and he was accused of apostasy. In any case, the thesis was eventually published three times during his lifetime, one of them with the marginal notes of the famous Egyptian scholar Dr. Khalīl ‘Abd al-Karīm in support of Khalafallah’s arguments.

Khalafallah says I want to defend the Qur’ān from the criticisms Orientalists have put forth against the Qur’ān. One of these criticisms is that there is not one story in the Qur’ān that does not have a historical issue with it. In response to this criticism of the Orientalists, he argues that the Qur’ānic stories are not historical stories, rather the fact that they were not historical stories and more so allegorical – something the Arabs were not familiar with in terms of relaying historical stories – this itself was one of the miraculous aspects of the Qur’ān.

As mentioned already, this caused controversy and a number of critiques were also written against him. I will mention a few important ones:

  • Fahd al-Rūmī in Itijāhāt al-Tafsīr fi al-Qarn al-Rābi’ ‘Ashr
  • ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Khaṭīb in al-Qiṣaṣ al-Qur’ānī fī Manṭūqīhi wa Mafḥūmihi
  • ‘Abd al-Jawād al-Ḥamṣ in Abāṭīl al-Khuṣūm ḥawl al-Qiṣaṣ al-Qur’ānī
  • ‘Abd al-Qāṣim Ḥusaynī in Mabānī-yi Hunarī-yi Qiṣay-hāyi Qur’ān (Farsi)
  • Shaykh Ḥādī Ma’rifat in many works, specifically Shubuhāt wa Rudūd ḥawl al-Qur’ān al-Karīm

Khalafallah’s Argument

The Qur’ānic stories are to be understood as literary devices because the Qur’ān is not a book of history. Since the Qur’ān is not a book of history, events themselves, let alone their details, do not concern the book. On the contrary, given the Qur’ān is a book whose very miracle is in its literary devices, what it is concerned with is to attract and influence the audience towards its message. However, later Muslims and exegetes began to treat the Qur’ān as if it is the work of a historian and that it concerns itself with history – this is what led them into problems. In fact, the Orientalists themselves fell into the same fallacy since they began treating the Qur’ān as a book of history. If you were to look at the works of great fiction authors and they were to mention some story, you would not take those stories and discuss their historical veracity and argue against the contents of the book – that would be laughable.

He confesses that it is not necessary that there are no real stories in the Qur’ān, but the fact is that most of them are not. Sometimes, the complete event is not real, and at other times the event may be real, but the scenario the Qur’ān is depicting with its details is not real. If we were to explain his point more clearly in today’s context, we could give the example of the movies made on the lives of the Prophets (p) and Imams (a). The general stories are real, but no one can say all the details depicted in it are real. There is no way to produce a full-length film or a TV series without adding these details, they have to be added in order to give the scenario more substance and meaning. Khalafallah says the same thing has occurred in the Qur’ān.

He then says the stories in the Qur’ān are of three types:

1)  Historical stories – these are stories whose basis has come from some historical event.

2) Allegorical stories – these are what fiction authors generally do, these events do not exist in reality, but they think and imagine a story for any given purpose. The basis of these stories is the imagination of the author.

3) Mythological stories – it was this third division that caused the most controversy. Khalafallah believed there are stories in the Qur’ān that existed in the minds of the audience who believed these stories to be real even though they had no historical reality, yet the Qur’ān used these legends and myths to convey a certain point or it used it to argue against them.

For example, today some may critique someone on the pulpit for narrating certain events from the Battle of Karbala which they say did not happen historically speaking. The person may reply, I acknowledge that a certain incident did not happen historically speaking, but the masses believe in it and accept it, hence I will use it anyways to convey a certain point, for example, the courage of Imam Ḥusayn (a), or the oppression on the Ahl al-Bayt (a) and so on. In fact, we know today many people use this exact same defense when it comes to narrating the events of Karbala. This is what Khalafallah means by mythological stories – he says what is wrong if the Qur’ān does this?

He brings nine verses from the Qur’ān as alibis:

1) [6:25] And among them are those who listen to you, but We have placed over their hearts coverings, lest they understand it, and in their ears deafness. And if they should see every sign, they will not believe in it. Even when they come to you arguing with you, those who disbelieve say, “This is not but legends of the former peoples.”

2) [8:31] And when Our verses are recited to them, they say, “We have heard. If we willed, we could say [something] like this. This is not but legends of the former peoples.”

3) [16:24] And when it is said to them, “What has your Lord sent down?” They say, “Legends of the former peoples,”

4) [23:83] We have been promised this, we and our forefathers, before; this is not but legends of the former peoples.”

5) [25:5-6] And they say, “Legends of the former peoples which he has written down, and they are dictated to him morning and afternoon.” Say, [O Muhammad], “It has been revealed by He who knows [every] secret within the heavens and the earth. Indeed, He is ever Forgiving and Merciful.”

6) [27:67-68] And those who disbelieve say, “When we have become dust as well as our forefathers, will we indeed be brought out [of the graves]? We have been promised this, we and our forefathers, before. This is not but legends of the former peoples.”

7) [46:17] But one who says to his parents, “Uff to you; do you promise me that I will be brought forth [from the earth] when generations before me have already passed on [into oblivion]?” while they call to Allah for help [and to their son], “Woe to you! Believe! Indeed, the promise of Allah is truth.” But he says, “This is not but legends of the former people” –

8) [68:10-15] And do not obey every worthless habitual swearer. [And] Scorner, going about with malicious gossip – a preventer of good, transgressing and sinful, cruel, moreover, and an illegitimate pretender. Because he is a possessor of wealth and children, when Our verses are recited to him, he says, “Legends of the former peoples.”

9) [83:10-13] Woe, that Day, to the deniers, who deny the Day of Recompense. And none deny it except every sinful transgressor. When Our verses are recited to him, he says, “Legends of the former peoples.”

He cites all of these verses and says all of them were revealed in Makkah. Even the verse from Sūrah al-Anfāl, he believes the specific verse within it was revealed in Makkah as the people of Medina never said that the stories of the Qur’ān were legends and myths of the former people. The people of Makkah very well knew that the stories were legends and myths, that they did not have historical realities. Khalafallah says, in all of these cases the Qur’ān not even once denies or rejects their claims that the stories are legends, tales and myths of the former people. If their claims were false, the Qur’ān would have at least condemned them for saying that the stories are legends and myths.

Even in [25:5-6] when the people say these verses of the Qur’ān are legends of the former people that have been written down in the past and are simply being dictated and reiterated, the Qur’ān responds to them by saying these are in fact revelations, but does not refute their claim that they are legends.

His conclusion is that the Qur’ān itself confesses – albeit through its silence – that there are legends and myths in it which do not point towards any real historical events and incidents. Most of these stories are in the context of proving and emphasizing the Day of Judgement. One of the stories he believes is a complete superstition is the story of the people of the cave (Aṣḥāb al-Kahf). He said, it was merely a superstitious story that existed in the Arabian society and the Qur’ān simply used it to drive home a point against the polytheists.

Critique Against Khalafallah

A lot has been written against Khalafallah’s view, but we will only mention a few important ones here.

1) Khalafallah makes the presumption that all the verses that speak about the legends of the former people are in context of the Day of Judgement and that the Qur’ān is emphasizing the Hereafter through these legends. This very presumption is incorrect. Let us just look at three of these verses to demonstrate they have nothing to do with the Hereafter:

a) Sūrah al-Qalam [68:10-15] has nothing to do with the Day of Judgement. At the end of the chapter, there is some indication towards the Hereafter, but there is nothing in these specific verses that ties the notion of “legends of the former people” to the Hereafter.

b) Sūrah al-Furqān [25:5-6] once again, the verses before and after have nothing to do with the Hereafter.

c) Sūrah al-Anfāl [8:31] also has nothing before or after it that would lead us to conclude the verses are about the Day of Judgement.

2) Khalafallah says that the Qur’ān cites the statements of the polytheists who say these are legends and myths but did not refute their claims. This is not correct.

For example, if you look at Sūrah al-Qalam, it says when the verses are recited to them, they say these are legends of the former people. It is tantamount to saying, “when I tell them this is my book, they say it is X’s book.” This response itself can be understood as a refutation.

Or for example in Sūrah al-Muṭaffifīn it says woe to the deniers, those upon whom when Allah’s (swt) verses are recited, they say, these are the legends of the former people.

In [25:5-6] when the people say these are legends, Allah (swt) says these are not legends, rather they are verses that have been revealed by Him who knows all the secrets. In all of these examples, we see an example of a response being given through the literary device of muqābalah (reciprocity).

3) There are places in the Qur’ān where it says that the stories being mentioned are true and real. For example, [3:62] Indeed, this is the true narration. Or in Sūrah al-Kahf which Khalafallah considers a superstitious story, it says [18:13] It is We who relate to you their story in truth.

4) What does the word myth or legend (asāṭīr) used in the Qur’ān mean? It could either mean a false or superstitious belief, that has no validity at all, or it could be derived from the word saṭr (a drawn outline) and usṭūrah is on the paradigm of uf’ūlah – just like ukẓūbah – which would mean the written down stories of the predecessors. This second meaning is more appropriate – hence the verse would not mean the superstitions and legends of the former people, rather the written down stories of the former people.

An alibi for this is the verse that says legends of the former peoples which he has written down – meaning the polytheists were accusing the Prophet (p) of having copied and written down the stories from previous books. The Qur’ān then rejects this accusation and says he did not copy and write down these stories from anywhere else, rather these are verses that were revealed by Allah (swt).

We want to mention that the Arabs – not including the Ahl al-Kitāb – were not very familiar with the stories of the previous Prophets (p), neither did they possess many books or libraries, the culture of reading and writing was almost non-existent. Unlike what the Jews possessed in Medina for example or Christians in Najran, they were people of knowledge and had books, they knew how to read and write. What the Arabs generally knew were stories of their grandfathers and some ancestors, they knew poetry, and the closest thing they had which was associated to Prophets (p) was the Ka’ba which by then had become a place for idols.

This is one of the reasons why the Prophethood of Muḥammad (p) is astonishing because he was sent amongst a group of people who did not care about Prophets (p), they did not know much about them, it was not part of their culture or tradition – unlike the Jews and Christians. Hence, when he was chosen as a Prophet (p) and began telling them stories of previous Prophets (p) a lot of this was new information for the polytheists of Makkah. This was used to drive home the point that Allah (swt) is the one who is granting Muḥammad (p) this knowledge. A number of verses even reiterate this point:

[3:44] That is from the news of the unseen which We reveal to you, [O Muhammad]. And you were not with them when they cast their pens as to which of them should be responsible for Mary. Nor were you with them when they disputed.

The verse is saying the Prophet (p) was not even present amongst them, so how could he have known the story? This is knowledge of the unseen granted to him through Revelation.

[28:44-46] (O Muhammad), you were then not on the western side when We bestowed this commandment (of Law), and you were not among its witnesses. Thereafter We raised up many a generation and a long time passed. You were then not even present among the people of Midian to rehearse Our verses to them. But it is We Who are sending news about that. Nor were you on the side of the Mount (Sinai) when We called out to Moses (in the first instance). But it is out of Mercy from your Lord (that you are being informed of all this) so that you may warn a people to whom no warner came before you. Maybe they will take heed.

These stories themselves astonished people of Makkah, they were shocked to see someone from amongst them coming to them with these stories and their details. This led them to ponder over how someone could have come with all this knowledge, who did he learn this from? This is in fact one of the arguments used to prove the Prophethood of Muḥammad (p).

[11:49] That is from the news of the unseen which We reveal to you, [O Muhammad]. You knew it not, neither you nor your people, before this. So be patient; indeed, the [best] outcome is for the righteous.

The next verse has been a subject of theological debate, but ignoring that, the prima-facie of it is important:

[10:94] So if you are in doubt, [O Muhammad], about that which We have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Scripture before you. The truth has certainly come to you from your Lord, so never be among the doubters.

The apparent meaning of the verse is saying to the Prophet (p) that if you yourself have any doubt with regards to any of the stories we have been revealing to you, then go to the Ahl al-Kitāb and ask them, for they had these stories written down in their works.

So the polytheists of Makkah were astonished by these detailed stories the Prophet (p) was bringing and they would have only had two choices: either acknowledge that he is a Prophet (p) or that he is plagiarizing and taking the stories from the scholars of the Ahl al-Kitāb. Hence, they say these are legends of the former peoples which he has written down, and the Qur’an refutes them by saying rather these were verses revealed to him by Allah (swt).

Hence another verse of the Qur’ān says:

[42:52] And thus We have revealed to you an inspiration of Our command. You did not know what is the Book

The word “book” in this verse has been understood by some to mean the Prophet (p) was illiterate who did not know how to read and write, so he could not have studied the books of the Ahl al-Kitāb and copied from them. As for those who believe the Prophet (p) was literate, they say this verse is implying that the Prophet (p) was not someone known to be associated with books, he is not someone known to have possessed books or someone who was known in society to be someone who studied books and works of others. The verse is saying that you were not someone known to be associated with books – or you did not know how to read and write – yet you brought forth all these detailed stories. Another verse is even more clear:

[29:48] And you did not recite before it any scripture, nor did you inscribe one with your right hand. Otherwise the falsifiers would have had [cause for] doubt.

So, the summary of this disputation between the Prophet (p) and the polytheists can be summarized as follows: The Prophet (p) comes forth with detailed stories and the polytheists are unfamiliar with these stories and are astonished by them. In response, they accuse the Prophet (p) of having copied and taken these stories from the books of the Ahl al-Kitāb who were known to possess the knowledge of these stories. The Qur’ān then responds to them by saying the Prophet (p) did not know how to read or write so how could he have copied these stories, or as per another interpretation, the Prophet (p) lived among you for forty-years and he was never known to be someone associated with books, reading and writing, so how could he have all of a sudden come forth with all these stories? In essence, the Qur’ān is saying your accusations are unreasonable and meaningless.

If all these stories were myths, legends and not real, what is the point of all this disputation and back and forth argumentation? In addition, if all these stories were myths and legends that are being used in the context of proving the Day of Judgement – how do these really convince someone of the Day of Judgement? If the stories are made up, a person will not be able to prove the reality of the Day of Judgment. If these stories were not real, then why does Allah (swt) say he is making the heart of the Prophet (p) firm through them?

[11:120] And each [story] We relate to you from the news of the messengers is that by which We make firm your heart. And there has come to you, in this, the truth and an instruction and a reminder for the believers.

In conclusion, what Khalafallah has said, perhaps it can be accepted and agreed upon in a few exceptional cases just like Fakhr al-Rāzī or ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī have done; but, to make it a default principle professing that all or most of the stories are not real, then as we have shown, the arguments for it have flaws.

What we have seen throughout the course of the history of Qur’ānic sciences is that scholars have spent extensive time analyzing the historical stories of the Qur’ān. Where did these stories take place, what historical records can we find for them, who are the individuals mentioned in some of the stories, and so on. Generally, you will not find extensive discussions analyzing the purposes of these stories and what lessons they are trying to convey, instead we normally tend to divide the stories of the Qur’ān by Prophets (p) – for example, the story of Lūṭ, the story of Nūḥ, the story of Adam, the story of Mūsa and so on. This is because we are treating these stories as historical realities, hence each story has to have a protagonist and the details of those stories revolve around them.

On the contrary, you will not normally see these stories divided by their purposes and themes – for example, stories on the theme of Tawḥīd, stories on the theme of the Hereafter, stories on the theme of sacrifice, stories on the theme of tawakkul (dependency) on Allah and so on. We need to spend more time on this so we can understand the message behind these stories

However, due to the debate and controversy caused after Khalafallah’s thesis, we began seeing a shift towards analyzing Qur’ānic stories through their themes and purposes – and we will touch upon this briefly in our next lesson.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.