This is a transcript of the fourth, fifth and sixth lesson of the commentary on Sūrah al-Fīl given by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah.
Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2.
Purpose of Stories in the Qurān
Before we discuss the general purpose of stories in the Qurān, we need to point out two overall approaches to these stories. One approach is historical and has existed for hundreds of years in the works of the exegetes. They say the Qurān is mentioning historical facts and we can refer to these stories as historical documents and determine what occurred and what did not occur in the past.
Some exegetes have gone to such extremities with this approach that they have spent a lot of time engaging in historical discussions in light of these verses, but these discussions have no value. For example, there are discussions investigating the name of Mūsa’s (a) mother – what do we have to do with her name? What purpose does it serve for us in our lives? We are not working for the city council where we have to find her name so we can record it for documentation purposes. Or for example there are discussions investigating the name of the dog that accompanied the people of the cave, or what was the type of tree Adam (a) ate from, was it an apple tree or something else.
If someone is a historian, then, by all means, they can go and investigate these things, but there is no reason to bring these discussions into one’s exegesis. The Qurān does not bother mentioning these details, so what purpose do they serve and how do they change anything about one’s understanding of the verses?
A second approach is one that became popular in the 20th century and exists even today. This approach says that the Qurānic stories are mentioned for us to take lessons, morals and admonitions from. These exegetes investigate the lessons one can take from any given story in the Qurān and how they can be made practical for us today. Often these exegetes will divide the stories of the Qurān based on their moral lesson – for example, stories on patience and stories on reliance on Allah (swt), instead of dividing them into Mūsa’s story or Nūḥ’s story.
They cite the last verse of Sūrah Yūsuf to make their point: [12:111] There was certainly in their stories a lesson for those of understanding.
In another verse it says: [7:176] …So relate the stories that perhaps they will give thought. This verse signifies that these stories are for people to think about. You can also see a stark difference between the Qurān and the Old & New Testament, where in the latter two you will often find details of historical events, while the Qurān is generally silent on those particular matters.
The overall purpose and lessons derived from the Qurānic stories can be divided into three:
1) General lessons which can be seen in most of the stories
2) Categorical lessons which are found in some of the stories
3) Implied lessons which are found in each story even though they may not be the main point the overall story is making. For example, in the story of Mūsa (a), when he meets the daughter of Shu’ayb (a), she says: [28:25] Then one of the two women came to him walking with shyness. She said, “Indeed, my father invites you that he may reward you for having watered for us.” Over here one can understand and derive aspects of chastity and modesty, particularly when she says, “my father invites you”, instead of saying “I invite you”, or “my sister and I invite you”, or “my father and I invite you.” There are many implied lessons that can be derived from every story of the Qurān which cannot be enumerated.
We will briefly go over the first two types – first, the general lessons and purposes that can be derived from these stories are as follows:
1) Proving the prophethood of Muḥammad (p) – we have alluded to this already in the previous lessons when critiquing Khalafallah and hence we will not repeat those points again.
2) These stories create hope and tranquility for the Muslims and believers, signifying their successful abode, as opposed to creating fear in the disbelievers, signifying their miserable fate. This is present in almost all stories of the Qurān. The stories are telling the Muslims, the stressful and challenging situations you are in have also fallen on the believers before you, yet at the end they were the successful and victorious ones.
For example, after recounting a number of stories, Sūrah Ḥud says [11:49] So be patient; indeed, the [best] outcome is for the righteous. In the same chapter, it later says [11:120] And each story We relate to you from the news of the messengers is that by which We make firm your heart.
Or in the story of Nūḥ, it says [29:14-15] And We certainly sent Noah to his people, and he remained among them a thousand years minus fifty years, and the flood seized them while they were wrongdoers. But We saved him and the companions of the ship, and We made it a sign for the worlds.
In the same chapter , references to many Prophetic stories is made and it concludes with the following verse:
[29:40] So each We seized for his sin; and among them were those upon whom We sent a storm of stones, and among them were those who were seized by the blast [from the sky], and among them were those whom We caused the earth to swallow, and among them were those whom We drowned. And Allah would not have wronged them, but it was they who were wronging themselves.
In fact, we see this same theme even in perhaps the most important story found in the Qurān, the story of Yūsuf (a) which the Qurān itself refers to as the best of stories. A young boy is betrayed by the closest of family members, thrown in a well, taken as a slave and the rest of the events that we know of until he himself becomes an authoritative figure in Egypt. At the end it was the brothers who came to Yūsuf (a) and sought his assistance while Yūsuf (a) was in a position of authority and success.
3) The Qurānic stories tell us that belief is going to put you on a road of challenges. The stories tell us that belief in the truth is not going to be a walk in the park, rather it will be filled with challenges, hardships and responsibilities. These stories imply that the philosophy of life is not that one be at ease all the time, free of any worry – something which we see the West often focusing on and turning it into a criterion for a successful life. Though these things are good, but the stories tell us that life is meant to be full of challenges and hardships, whereas ease and convenience are to be ultimately expected in the Hereafter. A believer is someone who takes these challenges on head-first in this world and does not disbelieve in Allah (swt), unlike many people who we see today when they do not find any ease and comfort in their lives they begin to disbelieve in Allah (swt).
[3:179] Allah would not leave the believers in that [state] you are in [presently] until He separates the evil from the good.
[2:214] Or do you think that you will enter Paradise while such [trial] has not yet come to you as came to those who passed on before you? They were touched by poverty and hardship and were shaken until [even their] messenger and those who believed with him said, “When is the help of Allah?” Unquestionably, the help of Allah is near.
[2:177] Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.
The stories show us that people are tested and through these hardships the evil ones are separated from the good ones. A person who is a believer does not reject Allah (swt) and His (swt) blessings when hardships befall him because he is looking at both the life of this world which is very short and as well as the everlasting life of the Hereafter. Whereas those who are quick to reject Allah (swt) at the mere sight of trials and tribulations, their sight is unable to look past this temporary world.
Is there a bigger test than the one we see in the story of Ibrahīm (a)? He is asked to slaughter his son and he has to submit to the commands of God – one of the major points of these stories is highlighting one’s submission to God’s Will. Likewise, the story of Nūḥ (a) who spent a lengthy period preaching the religion yet only a handful of people joined him. These stories tell us that we must continue with our responsibility, even if at times we may not be successful in what we are trying to achieve. In those cases, you should still not give up.
A believer sees this world like a school, where they are preparing and gaining as much as they can for the Hereafter. Just like in this world one attends school for a few years of their early lives, they go through the challenges and hardships of attending school, some even invest a lot of money in their education, all so they can have a comfortable life after school – this is because they are convinced of the positive results their hardships will result in at a later time.
4) Some scholars have pointed out another interesting purpose of these stories. They say, in context of the Prophet (p) having to address the disbelievers of his time, the Qurān cites a story from the past where previous Prophets (p) had to deal with similar arguments and troubles caused by the disbelievers. Through this, the Qurān essentially replies to the disbelievers at the time of Prophet Muḥammad (p) by referring to the responses given to similar to objections put forth by disbelievers of the past.
If you notice, the stories that are mentioned in the Qurān are very reflective of what was also taking place in Makkah between the Prophet (p) and the disbelievers, or even the Prophet (p) and the Muslims. I have not personally researched this claim too much, though I looked into a few examples that proponents have cited and they are definitely worth contemplating over. For example, they say, if you look at the story of Mūsa (p) in verses that were revealed in Makkah, they are generally about the conflict between Mūsa (a) and Pharaoh – as if Mūsa (a) is Muḥammad (p) and Pharaoh represents the disbelievers in Makkah. However, when you look at the story of Mūsa (a) in verses revealed in Medina, they are generally about Mūsa (a) and Banī Isra’īl – his followers.
5) One of the most important themes in all stories of the Qurān is the Oneness of Allah (swt) – there is no doubt about this. In Sūrah Ambiyā, after mentioning the stories of Mūsa (a), Hārūn (a), Ibrahīm (a), Lūṭ (a), Maryam (s), Ismā’īl (a), and Idrīs (a), it says: [21:92] Surely this nation of yours is one nation, and I am your Lord, so worship Me.
In other words, all the religions being propagated by previous Prophets (p) were the same religion as the one Prophet Muḥammad (p) was propagating, except that the earlier religions were altered and defaced by people. Islam is essentially rectifying and getting rid of the corruption that had occurred in previous religions and offering the criterion for measuring the truth – as it says in [5:48] And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it.
These are some of the general purposes of the stories in the Qurān. As mentioned earlier, there are also some stories that can be divided into specific categories. We will mention a few of them quickly:
1) The truth cannot be compromised for family relationships. For example, Sūrah al-Taḥrīm speaks about the relationship between some of the Prophets (p) and their wives who were not righteous. Or when Allah (swt) tells Nūḥ (a) that your son is not from your family – even though he was Nūh’s biological son. It shows that simply having a close family relationship with the Prophet (p) itself does not mean anything. The criteria for Allah (swt) is belief and righteousness. Unfortunately, this idea still exists in our communities where people may tend to think someone’s family relationship with someone influential is enough for their success.
2) Regretful consequences of pride and jealousy. For example, the story of Yūsuf (p) and his brothers, or the story of the two sons of Adam (a) where one kills the other due to jealousy and [5:31] he became of the regretful. Even the very story of Satan and Adam (a) is a good example of this because Satan does not prostrate to Adam (a) because of his pride. These stories indicate that one does not gain anything from jealousy, instead the jealous person will regret their actions and will become one of the losers.
3) Another category which multiple stories can fall under is the notion of submission and blind imitation to matters and that one’s ignorance to a matter does not necessitate its invalidity. This is an issue very prevalent today in modern times – if people do not understand a matter or are ignorant of it, they will say it is necessarily false and wrong. They essentially make themselves the criterion for truth, so if they do not understand anything, that means it is wrong. This is while Allah (swt) says [17:85] And mankind has not been given of knowledge except a little.
Verse 1 – A Lam Tara Kayfa Fa’ala Rabbuka Bi-Aṣḥāb al-Fīl
The chapter begins with a question, and this question can be understood in two ways:
1) It implies an affirmation where Allah (swt) is demanding a confession from the Prophet (p). We also addressed this type of question in our commentary on Sūrah al-Inshirāḥ.
2) It is a rhetorical question, which would mean the verse is saying, ‘you have definitely seen how your Lord dealt with the companions of the Elephant.’
In both cases, the presumption is that the audience knows the answer to the question, they understand the subject matter, and the questioner is putting forth the question to get a confession from the audience (which is the Prophet in this case) so that another point can be made subsequently.
What Does Tara Mean?
There is a discussion on the verb tara (lit. “you see”) which is from the noun ru’ya (to see, vision, sight). Was this seeing a physical seeing or another type of seeing? Did the Prophet (p) even see the event? If this chapter is talking about the story of the nation of Lūṭ (a) – which we earlier said was the opinion of the famous Qur’āniite Aḥmad Subḥī Manṣūr – then the Prophet (p) was not even born at the time. If the chapter is talking about the story of Abraha, even then the Prophet (p) was not born at the time of the event. So what does the verse mean when it says did you not see? A number of opinions are offered:
1) A number of exegetes – including ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī – have said that you can use the term “seeing” for any knowledge which is very clear and apparent for an individual. This is used very often in the Arabic language, for example they say, so and so person “saw” this opinion on a matter, or they “saw” this claim to be more correct – this does not mean they physically saw something, rather it means the matter was so clear and obvious to them that it is as if they physically saw it with their eyes. There are a number of verses which can be cited for this claim:
[58:7] Have you not seen that Allah knows what is in the heavens and what is on the earth?
Who has physically seen the knowledge of Allah (swt)? It is not possible to physically see His (swt) knowledge.
[2:243] Have you not seen those who left their homes in many thousands, fearing death?
[2:246] Have you not considered the assembly of the Children of Israel after [the time of] Moses?
[89:6] Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with ‘Ād?
In the above verses, Prophet Muḥammad (p) was not physically present at any of these events, yet the presumption is that knowledge with respects to these events is very clear and obvious, hence it is as if the event was physically seen.
Someone may say, given these verses are addressing the Prophet (p) directly it is possible that the Prophet (p) did indeed see these events, but his (p) seeing does not necessarily have had to be in the way we generally expect it to be. If that is the case, then what will we do with this verse: [71:15] Do you not see how Allah has created seven heavens in layers? This verse is addressing people in general, not just the Prophet (p) and it is speaking about “how” Allah (swt) created the seven heavens. No one has seen “how” Allah (swt) created the heavens, yet the convention is being used to indicate that the matter should be very clear and obvious to you.
[21:30] And have not the ones who disbelieved seen that the heavens and the earth were an integrated (mass), then We unseamed them, and of water We have made every living thing?
When did the disbelievers physically see this?
[17:99] And have they not seen that Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth is Ever-Determiner over creating the like of them?
We do not physically see the power of Allah (swt) to create anything, rather we have knowledge of the power of Allah (swt).
[29:19] And have they not seen how Allah starts creation, thereafter He brings it back again. Surely that is easy for Allah.
In all of these verses, the exegetes have said “seeing” means to know something which is very obvious and clear. Likewise, in the story of the companions of the elephants, the verse is saying, do you not know how Allah (swt) dealt with them – meaning it is so obvious and clear what happened to them.
2) Some other exegetes have said that though the Prophet (p) did not physically see the event, but by using this linguistic convention, Allah (swt) is actually asking him to address the elders of the community who did physically see the event. This is similar to the exegetical principle īyyāka a’nī wa isma’ī yā jārah (along the lines of, I speak to you yet my intended audience are those around you).
This interpretation requires one to take things into presumption which are not very apparent in the text itself, this is while the first interpretation is much more reasonable and does not require us to take such extraneous presumptions into consideration. As for the exegetical principle, it is a valid principle and is used colloquially too, but there needs to be some criterion to use it, not wherever you see the Prophet (p) being addressed.
3) Some of the mystics and those who have an affinity to mysticism hold the position that this verse is strictly addressing the Prophet (p). They say that the verse literally means seeing and this is a seeing through a mystical vision or through knowledge of the unseen. He (p) saw all the events, given his light was the first thing to be created and he (p) perceives everything that occurs in creation through knowledge by presence.
There is nothing wrong with this possibility, but after looking at the use of this linguistic convention in the Qurān, particularly when it also at times uses it to address other Muslims and disbelievers, we prefer the first opinion over this one.
What Does Kayfa Imply?
Kayfa signifies the “how-ness” of something and its meaning is very clear in this verse. The verse is not asking whether they know about how the actual event took place, rather it is alluding to the nature of how Allah (swt) dealt with them by ruining their evil plots.
The combination of Rabb (Lord) with the pronoun Ka (i.e. your Lord) conveys a feeling – and I do not have any evidence for this, but it feels this way – that the verse was revealed at a time where the Prophet (p) was being overwhelmed and overpowered by the disbelievers and hypocrites. Perhaps at a certain time there was a feeling amongst the Muslims where they felt they did not have the power to fight off the disbelievers and their plots, thinking they are too strong. Based on this feeling, the verse could even have been revealed in Medina, perhaps during one of the battles such as Aḥzāb, though as I said this is not evidence and all scholars have said this chapter was revealed in Makkah, but this is a type of feeling I get from this verse.
In other words, the verse is saying do not worry about your situation – did you not see what your Lord, the One who is always by your side, the One who assists and helps you at all times, did with those who wanted to destroy the Ka’ba and the people of Makkah believed there is no way to fight the army off?
The word aṣḥāb – companions – connected with elephants does not necessarily mean these people owned these elephants. Rather it could be a reference to them being recognized and symbolized by an elephant, which was a symbol of their power and strength.
Fakhr al-Rāzī and even some other exegetes have gone into a ta’wīlī discussion here and said since aṣḥāb comes from companionship, there is a type of condemnation of these people in the use of this word. This is because the verse is bringing these men down to the level of animals and saying they themselves were like elephants. In fact, these exegetes have said being the aṣḥāb of someone indicates they are lower in rank – for example when we say aṣḥab of the Prophet (p), the aṣḥāb are lower than the Prophet (p) – and in the phrase aṣḥāb al-fīl the Qurān is saying they were in fact even lower than the elephant.
This is a possibility, but there is no strong contextual indicator for it because being from the aṣḥāb of someone or something does not always imply a person is lower in rank. For example, aṣḥāb al-sabt (companions of the Sabbath) were known as such because they become associated with the Sabbath. Furthermore, what will you do with this verse [68:48] Then be patient for the decision of your Lord, and be not like the companion of the fish [ṣāḥib al-ḥūt]. If Prophet Yūnus (p) is referred to as the companion of the fish, it does not mean he is lower in rank than the fish, rather it is simply due to the association he developed with it when he was inside the fish.
In fact, even the Prophet (p) himself is referred to as a ṣāḥib and it has nothing to do with him being lower in rank than the people in his community.
[34:46] …in no way is there any madness in your Companion…
[53:2] In no way has your companion erred, and in no way is he misguided.
[81:22] And in no way is your companion a madman.
In none of these verses does the word ṣāḥib or aṣḥāb in it of itself indicate anything negative. The Qurān uses the word for many other associations, such as Aṣḥāb al-Nār, Aṣḥāb al-Jahīm, Aṣḥāb al-Jannah, Aṣḥāb al-Kahf and so on. We see that the use of the word aṣḥāb is mostly employed to identify a group of people by that which they were associated with.
Verse 2 – A Lam Yaj’al Kayda-hum Fī Taḍlīl
This repetitive questioning leads to the understanding that there is an emphasis in getting a confession out of a person, confession to something they know about very well. This emphasis is important because it will signify the magnitude of the message that follows (the ruining of the army’s plots).
What is Kayd?
Many exegetes have said that kayd is any planning or plotting which is done in secrecy. If that is the case, then we must ask ourselves, what was so secret about the plans of the aṣḥāb al-fīl? We find in the historical reports that Abraha was very clear and open about his plan, so why does the verse call it a kayd?
Some have said, kayd in this verse is referring to the fact that Abraha wanted to destroy the Ka’ba under any circumstance anyways and not just because some one had disrespected the sanctity of the church he had built. He merely used that event as an excuse to carry out his plans, but otherwise he had plans to destroy the Ka’ba regardless.
However, we do not have to throw ourselves into this type of questioning and answering, because when we refer back to how the word kayd is used in the Arabic language, we do not see the condition of “secrecy” being understood in it. Kayd is simply “planning” – it is used in both positive and negative cases. For example, Allah (swt) uses it for Himself in the Qurān [86:16] But I am planning a plan. In that case, this verse simply means, did Allah (swt) not ruin their plans?
Taḍlīl and Iḍlāl are generally used in the same meaning, signifying the loss of direction and straying off a path. If that is the meaning we take, then what does it mean for their plan to be made astray? Their plan was to reach a certain conclusion, which was the destruction of the Ka’ba, and yet this goal was not achieved. Hence, their plan was made to go astray. This is what it means in [18:104] The ones whose endeavor errs away in the present life – meaning their efforts do not lead them to the conclusions they want to reach.
The word tadlīl has not been used in the Qurān except in this one chapter. In the Qurān you will find verbs and nouns morphed from the verbal noun iḍlāl, this is while taḍlīl over here does not mean anything different than iḍlāl. I will mention one reason that a number of scholars have mentioned – and this reason is something worth investigating further and deserves a masters or doctorate level thesis on it. Some scholars, for example Shahīd Muḥammad Ṣādiq al-Ṣadr, say that many of the ending nouns or verbs used in the Qurān are used simply for purposes of prose and rhyme. Otherwise, there is no special quality in the meaning of the word itself for which it is being used. We will not open up this discussion here and perhaps touch upon it in some other discussion, but as I mentioned, this is an important discussion to be had – is it really the case that the ending nouns or verbs in some verses do not have any specific meaning that differentiates it from another similar verb or noun, rather than it simply being due to rhythm?
In any case, this verse really signifies and magnifies the power of Allah (swt) in destroying the plans of the companions of the elephant. The verse does not say a lam yuḍil kaydahum (did Allah (swt) not make their plans go astray), rather it says yaj’al kaydahum fī taḍlīl (did Allah (swt) not place their plans in a path off course). The combination of yaj’al (to place) with the preposition fī (in) emphasizes the belittling of the army – did Allah (swt) not take their plans and put them in taḍlīl?
This combination is used in two other verses as well:
[40:25] And in no way can the plotting (kayd) of the disbelievers end except in (fī) error.
[40:37] And the plan (kayd) of Pharaoh was not except in (fi) ruin.
It is possible to say that this verse is essentially the ultimate point of this story. The message is that Allah (swt) destroyed and ruined the plans of the enemies who wished to destroy the Ka’ba. It is a message to the believers that Allah (swt) can ruin the plot of the disbelievers, so never lose hope in the assistance of Allah (swt).
Verse 3 – Wa Arsala ‘Alayhim Ṭayran Abābīl
This verse is either connected to the 2nd or the 1st verse – exegetes have mentioned both possibilities. If it is connected to the 2nd verse it will read as: Did He not make their stratagems go awry and send against them flocks of birds? But if it is connected to the 1st verse it will read as: Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the Men of the Elephant and send against them flocks of birds? Did He not make their stratagems go awry?
I believe it is apparent that it is connected to the 2nd verse and it is simply clarifying how Allah (swt) ruined the plots of the companions of the elephant.
The verb arsala – sent forth – also shows that this event was not just a simple natural occurrence, rather there was an intention behind it.
There is a discussion on the word ṭayr which is a singular noun for a genus, but plays the role of a plural, hence the word abābīl is a plural noun. For example, [51:24] Has the discourse about Ibrahīm’s honored (mukramīn) guests (ḍayf) come up (to your knowledge)? The word ḍayf is a singular, but because it plays the role of a plural, they have been described with a plural quality – mukramīn.
Since ṭayr is in its indefinite tense, the tanwīn further signifies the large quantity of birds that were involved in this event.
On the other hand, some scholars have said both ṭayr and abābīl are singular nouns. They bring the verb tarmī-him from the next verse as a contextual indicator for this, which is a verb used for a singular pronoun, whereas if it was plural it would have used yarmūna-hum. However, this is a weak response since we are speaking of birds which are classified in Arabic grammar as non-intellectual beings and you would not use the verb yarmūna-hum for them ever, even if they are plural.
There is an opinion that says the ṭayr mentioned in the verse is not a reference to real birds, rather a certain creature is being called ṭayr simply because it flew. Otherwise it seems to be a creature that consciously knew what it was doing since it was able to aim and hit the men on the ground.
This possibility is difficult to defend grammatically; perhaps if the verse said tā’ir instead of ṭayr then maybe, but ṭayr in Arabic definitely means bird. As for the verses implying that this creature knew and understood what it was doing, this is not known, because the birds could have done what they did because of it being a type of miracle.
If this is indeed proven to be an instance of a miracle then this will also be a refutation of the Mu’tazalīs who believe miracles can only occur for a Prophet (p) and other than the Prophets (p) there is no such thing as a miracle. They do not believe in anything called karāmāt (supernatural wonders). Amongst the Shī’ī scholars who rejected anything known as karāmāt were Abū Muḥammad al-Nawbakhtī and Abū Sahl al-Nawbakhtī – both significant and influential Imāmī theologians as Najāshī has described them.
There are two opinions on what the word Abābīl means:
1) It is a description of the ṭayr
2) It is a name for the type of ṭayr
Those who say it is a description, they themselves are divided on what this description is:
a) One group says Abābīl means a large group of birds, but they are not united, rather they are flying in multiple separate groups. The verse would mean that a group of birds came, threw stones and then flew off, then another group of birds came, threw stones and flew off and so on. This is a very popular opinion amongst Muslim scholars and they say this is why the present tense tarmī-him has been used as it signifies continuity of action, rather than using the past tense ramat-hum which could imply that a group of birds came all at once, threw stones and flew off.
b) Some exegetes have said Abābīl is a combination of two words Abā and Bīl. Abā meaning father and Bīl meaning a type of spade or shovel – possibly taken from Persian. In other words, Allah (swt) sent forth a flock of birds who possessed beaks that looked like spades. This is a very strange explanation of the word and the proponent has not brought any contextual indicator or evidence to back up his claim either.
As for those who say Abābīl is a type of bird, they are saying it is simply another type of bird like eagles, vultures, pigeons. This is also a very strange position to hold because we do not know to date what bird the Arabs would identify as Abābīl.
The Grammatical Position of Abābīl
As we have shown, most exegetes have said it is a quality and description for ṭāyr, hence it is also in the accusative state (manṣūb) like ṭāyr. Though it could also be taken as a circumstantial clause (ḥāl) and still be accusative.
Is the word Abābīl Arabic or Foreign?
1) Some have said this is a foreign word, not Arabic. Some say it is from a different language, while some others say it is a word which the Qurān itself coined and the Arabs had never heard of it before.
Some have even said this is in line with the fact that this chapter also uses other foreign words, such as Fīl and Sijjīl – both are foreign words. As such, this chapter uses the most foreign words in relation to the number of total words it has. Of course, there is an extensive discussion on whether the Qurān uses foreign words or not, what does it mean for a word to be Arabic and so on – we will not get into that discussion here.
2) Some say it is an Arabic word, but it is derived (mushtaqq) in meaning, not in its letters. Its meaning is derived from the word ibil (camel). When camels go out to eat or drink, you will not see a camel on its own, rather you will see them split up into multiple groups.
In any case, the word would be a plural and it does not have a singular form.
One final point that some contemporary exegetes have pointed out is that the chapter begins with the mentioning of an elephant which was a sign of power and strength and then contrasts it with birds that are not seen to be powerful. This is to highlight how Allah (swt) destroyed the plots of an army that was coming with an elephant, with a small animal like a bird. It is further belittling those who came to destroy the Ka’ba.
This is possible, but I do not understand the justification for it since we do not really know anything about these birds. Who said they were small birds to begin with? Perhaps they were big birds like falcons, hawks or vultures. Not to mention the fact that it is not known that the army was comprised of so many elephants, rather it seems there was only one elephant that was probably brought as a sign and mascot to show their strength and power.
Verse 4 – Tarmī-him Bi Ḥijāratin Min Sijjīl
Over here some exegetes have gotten into discussions of how the birds threw these stones, how the winds played a role and so on. We do not want to get into any of those discussions because they are nothing but mere speculations and discussions about unseen matters whose knowledge only Allah (swt) knows.
Stones of Sijjīl
What does sijjīl mean? There are a number of opinions:
1) The root word sajala means to send forth, so sijjīl is a quality referring to something that is sent forth. The meaning of the verse would be, the birds pelted the army with stones that were aimed towards them. The preposition min would be for elucidation (bayānīyyah), not for tab’īḍīyyah.
2) Sijjil is from tasjīl which means to record. The meaning of the verse would be, the birds pelted them with stones whose fate was already known and recorded in the Knowledge of Allah (swt) as a source of chastisement for the army.
Both of these meanings seem to be a little strange and difficult to accept.
3) Sijjīl means intense and strong and the verse means, the bird pelted them with stones that were strong and heavy.
4) Sijjīl is the sky and the verse means, the birds pelted them with stones that were being thrown at the army from the skies.
5) Sijjīl is a stone from hell – a fiery stone. This is why some exegetes have also said when the stones were hitting the army they were burning them to death.
6) Sijjīl is a stone that is mixed with clay – it is baked clay. They say the word is a Persian word from sang-gill meaning a stone of clay. This is a view held by a number of linguists and also exegetes. Three contextual indicators that are brought for this is when we look at the story of the people of Lūṭ (a) it says:
[11:82] So as soon as Our Command came, We turned it upside-down and rained on it stones of baked clay tiered (sijjīl) one on another.
[15:74] So We turned it upside-down, and We rained upon them stones of baked clay (sijjīl)
[51:31-33] Later, Abraham asked, “What is your mission, O messengers?” They replied, “We have actually been sent to a wicked people, to send upon them stones of baked clay (ṭīn).
These verses use the word sijjīl and ṭīn interchangeably to refer to what was sent upon the nation of Lūṭ (a).
Verse 5- Fa-Ja’ala-hum Ka ‘Aṣfin Ma’kūl
The conclusion of this attack was that they ended up like chewed-up straw. What does ‘aṣf mean? When you harvest the crops, the left-over leaves and stalks of plants are called ‘aṣf – they have no value, they have no weight, and can be blown away with the winds.
Another meaning is hay or straw, which essentially implies the same meaning as the one mentioned above, that is, leftover hay and stalks whose weight is so insignificant that they can be blown away by the wind with ease.
As for ma’kūl there are three possible meanings as well:
1) One meaning is simply put, something that has been eaten and chewed up. That would mean that the straws or leaves that are left on the ground which are then eaten up by animals, which then become feces and excrement – this is what it means to be ‘aṣf ma’kūl, belittling the army to a great extent.
‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī felt this is not in line with the Qurānic etiquettes. Contrary to him, other scholars have said this is, in fact, an example of the Qurān’s etiquettes, because the Qurān did not want to use explicit words for feces and excrement and referred to it as ‘aṣf ma’kūl. This is similar to the Qurān using the word furūj to refer to one’s private parts or the verb taghashshā-hā in [7:189] to refer to sexual intercourse.
2) Ma’kūl is referring to those things that have the potential to be eaten. It does not literally mean it has been eaten, rather its worth is such that it should be eaten. The verse would mean, they were turned into straw or leaves that are normally eaten by wandering animals.
3) I want to add another possibility here which, if correct, would spare us from the previous two possibilities. Consider a stack of straw or hay and you bring in your cattle to feed on it. Once they are done eating and leave, you come in – what do you see? You see that the hay is eaten up, and pieces are laying all over the place, even chewed up pieces or pieces that were stepped on and so on. You would consider this stack of hay or straw as ma’kūl (eaten). It is as if the verse is saying the birds pelted them with stones, and that act of theirs is similar to cattle coming and eating up the hay, and once the birds left, the army looked similar to what hay looks like once cattle is done feeding on it.
In conclusion, the chapter paints a very intense picture of what happened with the army that was coming from Yemen to destroy the Ka’ba. It says, O Prophet (p), did you not see what your Lord did with the companions of the elephant? Did you not see how Allah (swt) destroyed all of their elaborate planning and plots, such that they achieved absolutely nothing? He (swt) sent forth multiple swarms of birds by His (swt) Will to attack this army with pellets of baked clay. After the attack, the army was completely destroyed and looked likes pieces of eaten hay and straw spread all over the ground. The chapter shows the power of Allah (swt) and gives the believers hope in remaining steadfast on their mission at all times – because there is an absolute power that can come to their aid at any time.