The People of the Elephant

According to traditional Muslim belief, there is an extraordinary story about a powerful military general's expedition to Mecca in the year the exalted prophet was born. This powerful leader, whose name was Abraha – king of Saba, Hadramawt and Yamen – is believed to have been killed by the Meccans, and his army humiliated when he launched an attack on the Ka'bah. As amazing as this story is, we observe that the Quran seems to mention this event as well, or so the traditionalists contend. Nonetheless, it would be vital to validate this event and determine its authenticity.

In the 700's AD onwards, there seem to have been two dominant forces within the Muslim geopolitical framework: The Abbasids (backed by remainders of the Sassanids/Persians/Zoroasterians) and the Ummaiyads or banu-Ummaiyah. Both groups are of Arab decent, notably from the Hijaz.

To assert their legitimacy, the bani-Hashim, who would later become the Abbasids, start to promote the the victory of the Arabs lead by Abdul-Muttalib against Abraha... The Abbasids officially base their claim to the caliphate on their descent from Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib: This alone is a clear indication as to why they would be inclined to promote an event such as this.

Abbasid Account

According to this story, Abraha, Governor or King of Yemen built a great church at Sanaa in honor of his ally the Negus, a Christian Abyssinian Emperor. The church gained widespread fame, even gaining the notice of the Byzantines. The pagan Arabs of the time had their own center of religious worship and pilgrimage in Mecca, the Kaaba. Abraha then proceeded to attempt to divert their pilgrimage to his new cathedral and is reported to have appointed and sent a Muhammad Khuza'i to Mecca and the Hijaz as a king with a message that his church was both much better than their house of worship and purer, having not been defiled by the housing of idols.

Abraha, incensed, launched an expedition of 40,000 men against the Kaaba at Mecca led by a white elephant (and possibly with other elephants) in order to destroy the Kaaba. Several Arab tribes attempted to fight him on the way, but were defeated.

Other sources state that Abraha's elephant couldn't make further steps into Mecca. Neither force nor dissuasion would make it advance towards Mecca. If they turned him towards Syria or Yemen, it would walk in haste but when he was turned towards the Kaaba, it would kneel on its knees as if it would adore the city that its master was intent on destroying.

As Abraha neared Mecca, he sent them an emissary, telling them that he would not fight them if they did not resist his destruction of the Kaaba. Abdul Muttalib, the chief of Quraysh, responded that he would defend his own property, but God would defend His house, the Kaaba, and withdrew with his people. The next day, as Abraha prepared to enter the city, swarms of birds carrying small rocks came and bombarded the Ethiopian forces; each man that was hit was killed, and they fled in panic, as Abraha died a horrible death. The tribes saw this as a sign of the Kaaba's holiness. According to the Abbasid account, this incident took place in 570 C.E. when the exalted Messenger was born; this year was commemorated as the "Aam-il Feel" (Year of the Elephant).

A Relatively More Realistic Scenario

Research conducted by Hamiduddin Farahi, Amin Ahsan Islahi and G.A.Parwez on the account of "Year of the Elephant" seems to be a bit less mystical. The Arabs had been alerted by some travelers about the enemy's capabilities. They hence were prepared to put up a good fight through various improvised tricks, which helped them scare the elephants. The beasts, in turn, panicked and trampled the enemy soldiers. The event carried such significance that the Arabs, in their Calendar, marked it "Aam-il Feel" as a point of reference in history.

Qadisiyyah, 636 AD: Elephants Confuse Arab Cavalry?

Let us go to a point in time when the Muslim civilization was expanding rapidly in its early stages. An extremely perplexing account in early Muslim conquests is that of the battle of Qadisiyyah. This battle was fought against the Sassanid/Pehlavi forces in 636 AD. The Persian army's war elephants terrified the Arab cavalry, and succeeded in creating mass confusion among the Arab fighters for two days straight. By the third day of battle, the Muslim army succeeded in frightening the Persian elephants through various improvised tricks. When an Arab warrior succeeded in slaying the lead elephant, the rest fled into the rear and trampled the enemy soldiers. The Arabs continued to advance their attacks during the night.

It seems rather strange that the Muslim army (that had overrun so many areas before advancing to Persia) was initially perplexed by war elephants in this way. The Arabs were lead by a tribe that had supposedly destroyed Abraha's elephant backed army. If they did, then why were they so terrified of war elephants as if they never saw such beasts in action before? Consider the fact that it took them three days to figure out how to tackle elephants! If they had fought an army with elephants before, they would have heard of stories that included the tricks they used to fight and defeat Abraha. The tactics used by the Arab army seem to have been improvised on the Qadissiyyah battle, and were certainly not rules of thumb. Why would they have not learned from the accounts from the battle of Mecca? Why does it seem that Qadisiyyah is where Arabs fought an army with elephants for the first time?

History of War Elephants

To add to the confusion, it would be worthwhile at this stage to first list some notable battles involving elephants. These battles include:

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331 BC, Battle of Gaugamela

326 BC, Battle of the Hydaspes River

317 BC, Battle of Paraitacene

316 BC, Battle of Gabiene

312 BC, Battle of Gaza

301 BC, Battle of Ipsus

280 BC, Battle of Heraclea

279 BC, Battle of Asculum

275 BC, Battle of Beneventum

262 BC, Siege of Agrigentum

255 BC, Battle of Tunis

252 BC, Siege of Panoramus

238 BC, Battle of Utica

238 BC, Battle of "The Saw"

239 BC, Battle of the Bagradas River

219 BC, Siege of Saguntum

218 BC, Crossing of the Alps and the Battle of Trebia

217 BC, Battle of Raphia

207 BC, Battle of the Metaurus

202 BC, Battle of Zama

190 BC, Battle of Magnesia

164 BC, Battle of Beth-zur

153 BC, Roman siege of Numantia (Spain)

149 BC, Siege of Carthage

108 BC, Battle of Muthul

46 BC, Battle of Thapsus

451 AD, Battle of Vartanantz

636 AD, Battle of al-Qādisiyyah

1214 AD, capture of Cremona by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor

1659 AD, Battle of Khajwa

1556 AD, Second battle of Panipat

1761 AD, Third battle of Panipat

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Are we missing something? Think and think again ... 570 AD! Where is the battle that took place at Mecca? We are told in traditional stories of how a tribe of bedouin turned an army backed by elephants into half eaten fodder! This battle should have been one of the decisive battles in the history of elephant warfare! Yet, the Islamic mark is made in elephant wars with the Battle of Qadisyyah.

"Aam-il Feel" is supposed to be the turning point in Mecca's history, and possibly the advent of Islam itself. Why would there be no mention of this battle when the Quraish tribe is supposed to have decisively won against Abraha's cavalry? Did he use any elephants at all? This is a paradigm shattering question that one is confronted with when the above arguments are presented.

Commemoration of Abraha's Expedition: No Elephants?

An inscription was recently discovered in Southern Arabia, that commemorates the expeditions lead by Abraha. This inscription seems to be telling a story quite to the contrary to the Arabian accounts. Following is the transcribed message and its translation.

Transcription:

"bi khayl Rahmanan wa masyha malikan Abraha Zybman malik Saba' wa Zuraydan wa Hadramut wa Yement wa r'a rab hamw twadam wa thamat satro zn satran k'ghazow ma'ndam ghazwatn rab'atan b'warkhan Zthbatan Kafa saadu kl bani amrm wa zaki malikn abjabar b ainam kadat wain w basharm bin hasahanm bainm san dam wa mardam wa hadaru qadami jayshan alia bani yamram kadat wail bi wad samrakh wa mardam wa sadam bi wad bi manhaj tarban wa zabahow wa sarw wa ghanamw zaisam wa makhdah malakin bi Halban wa dawn ka zalam maidam wrahanw wa badanahaw nwa sa'aham mw Amram Bin Mazran wa rahanamw bin haw wa sata khalafw ala ma'dam wa qafalw bin hal ( bi)n bi akhayal Rahmanan wa rakhaw zalan salthany w sathya ws."

Translation:

"With the power of the Almighty, and His Messiah King Abraha Zeebman, the King of Saba'a, Zuridan, and Hadrmaut and Yemen and the tribes (on) the mountains and the coast wrote these lines on his battle against the tribe of Ma'ad (in) the battle of al-Rabiya in the month of "Dhu al Thabithan" and fought all of Bani A'amir and appointed the King Abi Jabar with Kinda and Al, Bishar bin Hasan with Sa'ad, Murad, and Hadarmaut in front of the army against Bani Amir of Kinda. and Al in Zu Markh valley and Murad and Sa'ad in Manha valley on the way to Turban and killed and captured and took the booty in large quantities and the King and fought at Halban and reached Ma'ad and took booty and prisoners, and after that, conquered Omro bin al-Munzir. (Abrha) appointed the son (of Omro) as the ruler and returned from Hal Ban (Halban) with the power of the Almighty in the month of Zu A'allan in the year sixty-two and six hundred."

The above inscription raises a vital question in the account of Abraha's expedition. Where is the mention of the elephants he supposedly used? And if there were no elephants used, then why or how would the year of the exalted prophet's birth be commemorated as the "Year of the Elephant"? Was there really such an event or was it fabricated for some reason?

Now, let us try to imagine an elephant trying to make its way from Yamen to Mecca. Even horses are fragile enough that they have to be fed camel butter to keep cool and hydrated in the Arabian desert. Think of an elephant trying to brave the travel, especially when it feeds on tons of leaves and vegetation after every mile. Furthermore, an elephant stays in the shade or in pools of water, and even pours mud on itself to keep cool. The scorching hot sand is hardly something even the African desert elephant would be inclined to put on itself. If Abraha used elephants in his expedition, could they have survived in the harsh weather conditions of the Arabian desert? Simply put, to have elephants make their way from Yemen to Mecca would be quite an arduous task given the harsh conditions, all the more reason for the absense of elephants from the inscription being a vital indicator that no elephants were used.

Moreover, the expedition by Abraha ended with his victory and return to his capital according to the inscription. This is almost two decades before the alleged "Year of the Elephant". There is no mention of a second expedition in historic accounts, which means he must have fought and defeated every Arab tribe he came across. Further, it concludes that if the Meccans fought against Abraha at Mecca, they were decisively defeated by him.

The above inscription is irrefutable evidence that would send shivers down the spine of a traditionalist. Furthermore, Chapter 105 speaks of the "People of the Elephant" and certainly not Abraha's army. A logical question hence follows: Who were these mysterious people the Quran speaks of?

Quranic Evidence

In order to understand Chapter 105 of the Quran, one must resort to Tasreef: The science of extracting the context of a verse by examining other similar verses in the Quran. This is extremely necessary since traditional accounts seem to be, at best, laced with riddles. It can be observed that the style and tone of verses in Chapter 105 is extremely similar to other instances in the Quran. All these instances seem to be indicating different peoples living either in the same geographical location, or in close proximity. These peoples are none other than 'Aad, Thamud and the nation of Salih.

89:6 Ever considered what your Lord did to ‘Aad?

89:7 (City of) Irum, with the great columns?

89:8 The one which was like no other in the land?

89:9 And Thamud who carved the rocks in the valley?

and

54:16 Then see how was My Requital after My warnings!

54:18 The tribe of Aad had also belied the Message. Then see how was My retribution after My warnings! [7:65]

54:19 Behold, We sent raging winds upon them on a day of relentless misery.

54:23 Thamud also rejected the warnings. [Thamud and Saleh 7:73-79, 11:61-68, 26:141:158]

54:30 Then see how was My retribution after My warnings!

54:33 Lot’s folk rejected warnings. [11:69-83]

54:34 Behold, We sent a storm of fiery stones on them, except the family of Lot whom We saved at dawn. [51:32-34]

and

11:81 The visiting Messengers said, "O Lot! Behold, we are Messengers of your Lord. Never shall they follow your guidance nor shall be able to catch up to you. Depart then, with your household and followers, while it is yet night. Leave this land never to look back again. Except your wife for, what befalls the people will befall her as well. Their appointed time is the morning, and isn’t the morning near? (She stays behind because she has chosen to go along with the trends of the times. And she is among those who remain silent at the prevalent wrongdoing).

11:82 And so, when Our Command came to pass, We brought low the highly arrogant towns (Sodom and Gomorrah), and rained down upon them hard devastating rocks (from the volcano).

and

15:74 And We turned the towns upside down and showered upon them hard heated rocks.

15:75 Therein verily are lessons for those who read the signs.

15:76 And behold, those towns (Sodom and Gomorrah) stood by a road that still exists.

15:77 Verily, herein lies a message indeed for those who believe.

It can immediately be observed that the tone and propositional query style of verses 89:6-9, 54:16-34, 11:81-92 and 15:74-77 put together is identical to chapter 105. In fact Surat-ul Feel seems to be a wrap up for the accounts in the above mentioned chapters. Furthermore, the geographical area being spoken of in the above verses is that of the regions close to the Dead Sea, notably Petra, Sodom and Gomorrah.

From Whom did Nabataeans Inherit Petra?

As discussed in the previous section, the various verses in the Quran state that Thamud inherited the city of 'Aad. 'Aad were the people of the prophet Hud. These people were a powerful nation whose homes are still visible according to 41:15 and 29:38. Their main city as explained in 89:6-7 was Irum that featured great columns.

After their destruction, the Thamud took over the region; they used to carve homes in the mountains, and was a military community that boasted its might according to 53:50-51, 7:74, 85:17-18. Their homes are still stand according to 29:38. Since Sodom and Gomorrah is also mentioned, then the city of lofty columns and stone carved homes is none other than the location of Petra.

One can almost see light at the end of the tunnel, but an important question still remains: If Chapter 105 refers to the people who lived in the Petra, then how are they supposed to be “The People of The Elephant”? One would invariably have to start depending on archaeological evidence to connect the dots.

Columns with Elephant Heads in Petra?

Archaeologists, in 1921, published their survey of the remains of the city of Petra. In this publication, archaeologists discovered ruins of a large building was discovered that is now believed to be the royal court on the south side of the city. This building (and the city at large) features huge columns (89:7) that were decorated with elephant heads (105:1). The elephant colums and their story is yet to be studied in detail, but it seems clear that the symbol of the elephant was used as a symbol of might and power.

Be that as it may, recent excavations in Petra beside the Royal Court have revealed what used to be a public pool and surrounding gardens. Previously this area was thought to have been a market place, because it was wide and open. Another great feature of the city is that many of its monuments have been carved out in rocks. The builders of Petra seem to have a knack for stone carved monuments (89:9).

Petra (from the Latin word 'petrae', meaning 'rock') lies in a great rift valley east of Wadi 'Araba in Jordan about 80 kilometers south of the Dead Sea. Nabataeans moved into this area in the first three hundred years of the first millennium BC, and seem to have inherited such monuments as well. Perhaps these constructs were their inspiration to rise to greatness, and this could very well be the reason why this area and its mysterious people are mentioned so many times in the Quran. Their legends must have been popular throughout Arabia. Is it not this region and its past peoples that have been alluded to in Chapter 105 of the Quran all along?

Conclusion

We can successfully derive three extremely important conclusions with this discussion:

1) From the analysis in the paper, we can clearly see that "Aam-il Feel" is not 570 AD, but could very well be 636 AD when Arab forces defeated the elephant backed army of the Sassanids. The now-traditional account of "Aam-il Feel" is an Abbasid fabrication. It seems that in their selfish desire to legitimize their rule, they manipulated the facts of a historic battle to concoct an imaginary event, and even twisted the interpretation of a Quranic chapter to make this event look believable.

2) It is clear that the battle of Mecca, if it was ever fought against Abraha, ended in defeat for the Arabs in the 6th Century AD. The very name Mecca in classical Arabic means "destruction", so there is a possibility that Abraha left the city in ruins by the time he was through.

3) Further, if the above two points are the real deal, then the traditional translation of Chapter 105 of the Quran is grossly incorrect. It points to a different peoples in a different time and location of Arabia, notebly the region near the Dead Sea. This is the same region discussed in preceeding sections. Surat-ul Feel is indeed a wrap up for the accounts of 'Aad, Thamud and the nation of Salih throughout the Quran; the correct rendition would hence be as follows:

ألم تر كيف فعل ربك بأصحب الفيل

Did (you) not consider how your Lord dealt with the people of the elephant? [This is referring to the predecessors of those who lived in Petra. Remains of what archaeologists call "The Royal Court" was discovered near Petra in the mid 1900s, that was ornamented with columns bearing elephant heads. Elephants seem to have been used as a symbol of might and military power by these people. It seems that the entire region is being spoken of, including Aad/Thamud and Midean regions.]

ألم يجعل كيدهم في تضليل

Did not (His Requital) turn (them to naught) for their practices (that were consistantly) in gross error? [It is alleged that they were involved in various violations of human rights and other objectionable activities.]

وأرسل عليهم طيرا أبابيل

And (that your Lord first) sent upon them -one after another- (His) messengers: (Lot, Hud and Salih? Yet they cast His Warnings behind their backs as if they knew not!) [The use of the term “birds in flight” is definitely allegorical: Birds, such as pigeons, were used as messengers in ancient times for swift transport of letters/messages. One can call them the "high-speed courier service" of ancient times.]

ترميهم بحجارة من سجيل

(Hence, He ultimately) declared for them punishment from the inscribed (law of cause and effect!) [This is one of the most beautiful forms of expression, something so characteristic of the Quran. "Inscribed/marked stones fell on them" literally translates to "their own deeds came back to haunt them".]

فجعلهم كعصف مأكول

And so, turned them to (the likes of) fodder, consumed; (for only their remains can now be seen!) [Notice that فجعلهم points back to ألم يجعل ]

 

References

1. http://www.mnh.si.edu/EPIGRAPHY/e_pre-islamic/fig04_sabaean.htm

2. http://www.free-minds.org/articles/science/language.htm

3. http://www.dacb.org/stories/ethiopia/_abraha.html

4. http://nabataea.net/rcourts.html

5. http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Anthropology/Petra

6. John Keegan, Pimlico. History of Warfare. (1993) ISBN 0-679-73082-6

7. Ahmad, Shabbir. Quran as It Explains Itself, 2nd Ed. Galaxy Publications, USA, 2005

9. Bellamy, J. "A New Reading of the Namarah Inscription," Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1985, 105.1, 34

8 Tabarī, Abū Ja`far Muhammad. The Battle of al-Qādisiyyah and the conquest of Syria and Palestine. Edited and translated by Yohanan Friedmann. SUNY series in Near Eastern studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

 


By Max Q : (h_y_p_n_o_t_i_x_2000@yahoo.ca)

English