7 – The Year of The Elephant

At that time the Yemen was under the rule of Abyssinia, and an Abyssinian named Abrahah was vice-regent. He built a magnificent catherdal in San’a’, hoping thereby to make it supersede Mecca as the great place of pilgrimage for all Arabia. He had marble brought to it from one of the derelict palaces of the Queen of Sheba, and he set up crosses in it of gold and of silver, and pulpits of ivory and ebony, and he wrote to his master, the Negus: “I have built thee a church, O King, the like of which was never built for any king before thee; and I shall not rest until I have diverted unto it the pilgrimage of the Arabs.” Nor did he make any secret of his intention, and great was the anger of the tribes throughout Hijaz and Najd. Finally a man of Kinanah, a tribe akin to Quraysh, went to San’a’, for the deliberate purpose of defiling the church, which he did one night and then returned safely to his people.

When Abrahah heard of this be vowed that in revenge he would raze the Ka’bah to the ground; and having made his preparations he set off for Mecca with a large army, in the van of which he placed an elephant. Some of the Arab tribes north of San’a’ attempted to bar his way, but the Abyssinians put them to flight and captured their leader, Nufayl of the tribe of Khath’am. By way of ransom for his life, he offered to act as guide.

When the army reached Ta’if, the men of Thaqif came out to meet them, afraid that Abrahah might destroy their temple of al-Lat in mistake for the Ka’bah. They hastened to point out to him that he had not yet reached his goal, and they offered him a guide for the remainder of his march. Although he already had Nufayl, he accepted their offer, but the man died on the way, about two miles from Mecca, a place called Mughammis, and they buried him. Afterwards the Arabs took to stoning his grave, and the people who live there still stone it to this day.

Abrahah halted at Mughammis, and sent on a detachment of horse to the outskirts of Mecca. They took what they could on the way, and sent back their plunder to Abrahah, including two hundred camels which were the property of ‘Abd al-Muttalib. Quraysh and other neighboring tribes held a council of war, and decided it was useless to try to resist the enemy. Meanwhile Abrahah sent a messenger to Mecca, bidding him to ask for the chief man there. He was to tell him they had not come to fight but only to destroy the temple, and if he wished to avoid all bloodshed he must come to the Abyssinian camp.

There had been no official chief of Quraysh since the time when their privileges and responsibilities had been divided between the houses of ‘Abd ad-Dar and ‘Abdu Manaf. But people had their opinion as to which of the chiefs of the clan was in fact if not by right the leading man of Mecca, and on this occasion the messenger was directed to the House of ‘Abd al-Muttalib who, together with one of his sons, went back with the messenger to the camp. When Abrahah saw him he was so impressed by his appearance that he rose from his royal seat to greet him and then sat beside him on the carpet, telling his interpreter to inquire if he had a favor to ask. ‘Abd al-Muttalib replied that the army had taken two hundred of his camels and he asked that they should be returned to him. Abrahah was somewhat surprised at the request, and said that he was disappointed in him, that he should be thinking of his camels rather than his religion which they had now come to destroy. ‘Abd al-Muttalib replied: “I am the lord of the camels, and the temple likewise hath a lord who will defend it.” “He cannot defend it against me,” said Abrahah. “We shall see,” said ‘Abd al-Muttalib. “But give me my camels.” And Abrahah gave orders for the camels to be returned.

‘Abd al-Muttalib returned to Quraysh and advised them to withdraw to the hills above the town. Then he went with some of his family and others to the Sanctuary. They stood beside him, praying to God for His help against Abrahah and his army, and he himself took hold of the metal ring in the middle of the Ka’bah door and said: “O God, thy slave protecteth his house. Protect Thou Thy House!” Having thus prayed, he went with the others to join the rest of Quraysh in the hills at points where they could see what took place in the valley below.

The next morning Abrahah made ready to march into the town, intending to destroy the Ka’bah and then returned to San’a’ by the way they had come. The elephant, richly caparisoned, was led into the front of the army, which was already drawn up; and when the mighty animal reached his position his keeper Unays turned him in the same way as the troops were turned, that is towards Mecca. But Nufayl, the reluctant guide, had marched most of the way in the van of the army with Unays, and had learned from him some of the words of command which the elephant understood; and while the head of Unays was turned to watch for the signal to advance, Nufayl took hold of the great ear and conveyed into it a subdued but intense imperative to kneel. Thereupon, to the surprise and dismay of Abrahah and the troops, the elephant slowly and deliberately knelt himself down to the ground. Unays ordered him to rise, but Nufayl’s word had coincided with a command more powerful than that of any man, and the elephant would not move. They did everything they could to bring him to his feet; they even beat him about the head with iron bars and stuck iron hooks into his belly, but he remained like a rock. Then they tried the stratagem of making the whole army turn about and march a few paces in the direction of the Yemen. He at once rose to his feet, turned round and followed them. Hopefully they turned round about again, and he also turned, but no sooner was he facing Mecca than again he knelt.

This was the clearest of portents not to move one step further forward, but Abrahah was blinded by his personal ambition for the sanctuary he had built and by his determination to destroy its great rival. If they had turned back then, perhaps they would all have escaped disaster. But suddenly it was too late: the western sky grew black, and a strange sound was heard; its volume increased as a great wave of darkness swept upon them from the direction of the sea, and the air above their heads, as high as they could see, was full of birds. Survivors said that they flew with a flight like that of swifts, and each bird had three pebbles the size of dried peas, one in its beak and one between the claws of each foot. They swooped to and fro over the ranks, pelting as they swooped, and the pebbles were so hard and launched with such velocity that they pierced even coats of mail. Every stone found its mark and killed its man, for as soon as a body was struck its flesh began to rot, quickly in some cases, more gradually in others. Not everyone was hit, and amongst those spared were Unays and the elephant, bull all were terror-stricken. A few remained in the Hijaz and earned a livelihood by shepherding and other work. But the main part of the army returned in disorder to San’a’: Many died by the wayside, and many others, Abrahah included, died soon after their return. As to Nufayl, he had slipped away from the army while all attention was concentrated on the elephant, and he made his way unscathed to the hills above Mecca.

After that day Quraysh were called by the Arabs “the people of God”, and they were held in even greater respect than before, because God had answered their prayers and saved the Ka’bah from destruction. They are still honored, but rather on account of a second event -no doubt not unconnected with the first- which took place in that same Year of the Elephant.

‘Abd Allah, the son of ‘Abd al-Muttalib, was not in Mecca at the time of the miracle of the birds. He had gone for trade to Palestine and Syria with one of the caravans; and on his way home he had lodged with his grandmother’s family in Yathrib, and there he had fallen ill. The caravan went on without him to Mecca and when it brought the news of his illness ‘Abd al-Muttalib sent Harith to accompany his brother home as soon as he should be well enough to travel. But when Harith arrived at the house of his Yathrib cousins they answered his greetings with commiserations, and he knew at once that his brother was dead.

There was great grief in Mecca when Harith returned. Aminah’s one consolation was the unborn child of her dead husband, and her solace increased as the time of her delivery drew near. She was conscious of a light within her, and one day it shone forth from her so intensely that she could see the castle of Bostra in Syria. And she heard a voice say to her: “Thou carriest in thy womb the lord of this people; and when he is born say: ‘I place him beneath the protection of the One, from the evil of every envier’; then name him Muhammad.”[1]

Some weeks later the child was born. Aminah was in the home of her uncle, and she sent word to ‘Abd al-Muttalib, asking him to come to see his grandson. He took the boy in his arms and carried him to the Sanctuary and into the Holy House, where he prayed a prayer of thanksgiving to God for this gift. Then he brought him once more to his mother, but on the way he showed him to his own household. He himself was shortly to have another son, by Aminah’s cousin Halah. At the moment his youngest son was the three-year-old ‘Abbas who now met him at the door of his house. “This is thy brother; kiss him,” he said, holding out to him the new-born babe, and ‘Abbas kissed him.

[1] I.I. 102

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