By Dr. `Ali Muhammad As-sallabi
The story of the elephant and the coming of Abraha to destroy the Ka`bah is established both in the Qur’an and in the Sunnah, and its details are related in various history books. Abu Hatim related this story in some detail; A king in Yemen captured and tamed an elephant. That king was originally from Abysinia, and his name was Abraha. He built a church in Sinai, and called it Al-Qulais, claiming that he would be able to make Arab pilgrims congregate at Al-Qulais instead of at the Ka`bah, in Makkah. But he felt that he first needed to do away with his competition, which meant destroying the Ka`bah, so he made an oath to go to the Ka`bah and fulfill his goal of destroying it. He then set out with his army, clearly intending to go to the Ka`bah.
One of the kings of Himyar, Duh Naf ar, came out to fight Abraha; the latter defeated the former and took him as a prisoner. Upon being taken to Abraha, Dhu Nafar said, “O king, do not kill me, for keeping me alive (to help you) is better for you than killing me.” Abraha spared him, though he made sure to tie him up.
From Al-Maghmas, Abraha sent a man named Al-Aswad ibn Maqsud to the forefront of his army. Al-Aswad and those with him were met by the dwellers of Makkah, and were able to seize 200 camels that belonged to `Abdul-Muttalib.
Then Abraha sent Hunatah Al-Humairi to the people of Makkah, giving him the following instructions, “Ask for the most honorable one among them; then inform him that I have not come to fight, but only to destroy this House (i.e., the Ka`bah).” After Hunatah entered Makkah, he met `Abdul-Muttalib ibn Hashim and said, “Verily, the king has sent me to you, to inform you that he has not come to fight, unless you fight him; rather, he comes only to destroy this House. As soon as he accomplishes his mission, he will leave you.”
`Abdul-Muttalib said, “We will not fight him; we will free up all that lies between him and the house (i.e., we will not stand in his way, but will instead depart Makkah for a while). If Allah puts nothing in his way to stop him from reaching it, then, by Allah, we have no strength against him.”
`Abdul-Muttalib accompanied Hunatah back to the encampment of Abraha’ s army. `Abdul-Muttalib was a huge, muscular, and handsome man; so when Abraha saw him, he welcomed and honored him. Disliking both for `Abdul-Muttalib to sit with him on his bed, and for `Abdul-Muttalib to sit beneath him, Abraha descended to the carpet beneath the bed and sat down beside `Abdul-Muttalib.
– “O king’ said `Abdul-Muttalib, “You have taken a great deal of wealth from me, so return it to me.”
– “You indeed impressed me when I saw you, but I withdraw (that admiration) from you.”
– “And why?” asked `Abdul-Muttalib.
– “I have come to the House that is your religion and the religion of your fathers and that is your sanctuary and protection – for the purpose of destroying it. You do not speak to me about that, yet you speak to me about (a meager) 200 camels that belong to you!”
– “I am the lord of these camels,” said `Abdul-Muttalib. “This House has a Lord Who will defend it.”
– “He would not defend it from me,” said Abraha.
– “Then that is your affair,” said `Abdul-Muttalib.
Abraha issued a command, upon which ‘ Abdul-Muttalib’ s camels were promptly returned to him. `Abdul-Muttalib returned to the Quraish, informed them of what was happening, and ordered them to seek shelter in the mountain passes of Makkah. From Al-Maghmas, Abraha was poised to enter Makkah. He ordered his army to reload their supplies. His elephant was brought to him, and he had it loaded with supplies while it was standing on all fours.
When they were ready to proceed towards Makkah, the elephant was prodded into marching forward, but it stood still. It almost bundled itself up and knelt to the ground. They struck it with a pickaxe in the head, but it still refused to move even an inch forward. They tried again to make it move, but it stood there, motionless. They directed it back towards Yemen, and it raced in that direction; but no sooner did they make it face Makkah again than it stopped. The elephant then made its way to one of the mountains in that area.
As for the army, Allah sent from the sea birds like Balasan (starling birds). With each bird were three stones, two in its legs and one in its beak. The stones they carried were like chickpeas or lentils. When they flew over the army, they hurled the stones down upon them. If any person in the army was hit with a stone, he died, but not all of the people in the army were hit. Allah said:
Have you (O Muhammad) not seen how your Lord dealt with the owners of the elephant? (The elephant army which came from Yemen under the command of Abraha Al- Ashram intending to destroy the Ka`bah at Makkah). Did He not make their plot go astray? And sent against them birds, in flocks, striking them with stones of Sijjil (back clay) . And made them like an empty field of stalks (of which the corn has been eaten up by cattle). (Al-Fil 105: 1-5)
And Allah sent upon Abraha a disease in his body. His soldiers fled back towards Yemen, and (their body parts) were falling off in every land (they passed through). Abraha’s fingertips began to fall off. After each fingertip fell off, it was followed by a discharge of pus and blood. When he reached Yemen, he was like a young bird among those who remained from his companions, perhaps this refers to how few they were in number. And then he died.
Lessons from the Story
1) A sense of the inviolability of the Ka`bah is one of the most important of things that one should take away from this story. Even Arab polytheists from pre-Islamic times honored and sanctified the Ka`bah. The significance that the Ka`bah had in their minds is one of the remnants of Ibrahim’s religion that remained in Makkah even throughout the dark years of its history when polytheism was the dominant religion of its inhabitants.
2) The traitors of a nation ultimately bring disgrace upon themselves. Some Arabs volunteered to be Abraha’s spies; others agreed to guide him to the Ka`bah, so that he could then destroy it. Such people are cursed in this life and in the Hereafter.
3) No matter how strong and numerous the enemies of Allah are, they cannot withstand, not even for the smallest, minutest fraction of a nanosecond, the Might and Power of Allah He. It is He Who grants life, and He can take it away at any moment He pleases.
4) Many scholars – such as Al-Mawardi and Ibn Taymiyyah, may Allah have mercy on them both – maintain that the story of the elephant is one of the signs of the Prophethood of Muhammad. Ibn Taymiyyah said, “The events that took place during Abraha’ s attempted attack on Makkah occurred in the year during which the Prophet was born. Those who lived beside the House (i.e., the Ka`bah) were polytheists – they worshipped idols. This sign (the miraculous destruction of Abraha’ s army) did not take place for the sake of those who lived beside the Ka`bah at that time, but instead for the sake of the House itself, or for the sake of the Prophet who was born that year beside the House.
5) In remembering the story of Abraha, we should feel consolation and hope when we see the imperial designs of those who greedily look at our lands – and especially our holy lands – with hopes of conquest. Allah protected His House from the People of the Book when Makkah was inhabited by polytheists; now both Makkah and Al-Madinah are inhabited by Muslims, and so He certainly will defend and protect both holy lands from evildoers.
ـــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــــ As-Sirah An-Nabawiyyah by Abu Hatim As-Subti (pgs. 34-39); also refer to As-Sirah An~Nabawiyyah by Ibn Kathir (1/pgs. 30-37).  Al-Jawab As-Sahih (4/122).
Source: Taken with Modifications from the author’s “Noble Life of the Prophet”, translated by Faisal Shafeeq