Year of the Elephant
The ʿĀmu l-Fīl (Arabic: عام الفيل, Year of the Elephant) is the name in Islamic history for the year approximately equating to 570 CE. According to Islamic tradition, it was in this year that Muhammad (Arabic: مُـحَـمَّـد, consonant letters: m-ħ-m-d) was born. The name is derived from an event said to have occurred at Mecca: Abraha, the Abyssinian, Christian ruler of Yemen, which was subject to the Kingdom of Aksum of Ethiopia, marched upon the Ka‘bah in Mecca with a large army, which included one or more war elephants, intending to demolish it. However, the lead elephant, known as 'Mahmud' (Arabic: مَـحْـمُـوْد, consonant letters: m-ħ-m-w-d), is said to have stopped at the boundary around Mecca, and refused to enter. It has been theorized that an epidemic such as by smallpox could have caused such a failed invasion of Mecca. The year came to be known as the Year of the Elephant, beginning a trend for reckoning the years in the Arabian Peninsula used, until it was replaced with the Islamic calendar during the rule of ‘Umar.
Recent discoveries in Southern Arabia suggest that Year of the Elephant may have been 569 or 568, as the Sasanian Empire overthrew the Axumite-affiliated regimes in Yemen around 570. However, historians today believe that this event occurred at least a decade prior to the birth of Muhammad.
The year is also recorded as that of the birth of ‘Ammar ibn Yasir.
However, the Islamic narrative of this event is disputed by authorities including the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who documented Abara's life but made no mention of these events. Furthermore, the Arabian Peninsula is far from the appropriate place for African elephants, while the mountainous terrain of Northern Yemen and the desert road between Yemen and Mecca would make campaigning with them difficult. Nevertheless, throughout history the center of the Arabian Peninsula has been an isolated place, protected from foreign invasions. Interestingly, a very similar narrative in Armenia that took place in the 6th century can be found. This story was recorded by the Armenian bishop Sebeos.
Al-Qullays gained widespread fame, even gaining the notice of the Byzantine Empire. The pagan Arab people of the time had their own center of religious worship and pilgrimage in Mecca, the Ka‘bah. Abraha attempted to divert their pilgrimage to al-Qullays and appointed a man named Muhammad ibn Khuza'i to Mecca and Tihamah as a king with a message that al-Qullays was both much better than other houses of worship and purer, having not been defiled by the housing of idols.
Ibn Is-haq's Prophetic biography states:
|“||With Abraha there were some Arabs who had come to seek his bounty, among them Muhammad ibn Khuza`i ibn Khuzaba al-Dhakwani, al-Sulami, with a number of his tribesmen including a brother of his called Qays. While they were with him a feast of Abraha occurred and he sent to invite them to the feast. Now he used to eat an animal's testicles, so when the invitation was brought they said, "By God, if we eat this the Arabs will hold it against us as long as we live."
Thereupon Muhammad ibn Khuza'i got up and went to Abraha and said, "O King, this is a festival of ours in which we eat only the loins and shoulders." Abraha replied that he would send them what they liked, because his sole purpose in inviting them was to show that he honoured them.
Then he crowned Muhammad ibn Khuza'i, and made him emir of Mudhar, and ordered him to go among the people to invite them to pilgrimage at his cathedral which he had built. When Muhammad ibn Khuza'i got as far as the land of Kinana, the people of the lowland, knowing what he had come for, sent a man of Hudhayl called ʿUrwa bin Hayyad al-Milasi, who shot him with an arrow, killing him. His brother Qays who was with him fled to Abraha and told him the news, which increased his rage and fury and he swore to raid the Kinana tribe and destroy the temple.
Ibn Ishaq further states that one of the men of the Quraysh tribe was angered by this, and going to Sana'a, slipped into the church at night and defiled it; it is widely assumed that they did so by defecating in it.
Abraha, incensed, launched an expedition of forty thousand men against the Ka‘bah at Mecca, led by a white elephant named Mahmud (and possibly with other elephants - some accounts state there were several elephants, or even as many as eight)) in order to destroy the Ka‘bah. Several Arab tribes attempted to fight him on the way, but were defeated.
When news of the advance of Abraha's army came, the Arab tribes of the Quraysh, Banu Kinanah, Banu Khuza'a and Banu Hudhayl united in defense of the Ka‘bah. A man from the Himyarite Kingdom was sent by Abraha to advise them that Abraha only wished to demolish the Ka‘bah and if they resisted, they would be crushed. ‘Abdul Muttalib told the Meccans to seek refuge in the hills while he with some leading members of the Quraysh remained within the precincts of the Ka‘bah. Abraha sent a dispatch inviting Abdul-Muttalib to meet with Abraha and discuss matters. When Abdul-Muttalib left the meeting he was heard saying, "The Owner of this House is its Defender, and I am sure He will save it from the attack of the adversaries and will not dishonor the servants of His House."
The reference to the story in Qur’an is rather short. According to Surah al-Fil, the next day [as Abraha prepared to enter the city], a dark cloud of small birds named 'Ababil' (Arabic: أَبـابـيـل) appeared. The birds carried small rocks in their beaks, and bombarded the Ethiopian forces and smashed them like "eaten straw".
- Hajjah Adil, Amina, "Prophet Muhammad", ISCA, Jun 1, 2002, ISBN 1-930409-11-7
- "Abraha." Dictionary of African Christian Biographies. 2007. (last accessed 11 April 2007)
- Walter W. Müller, "Outline of the History of Ancient Southern Arabia," in Werner Daum (ed.), Yemen: 3000 Years of Art and Civilisation in Arabia Felix. 1987.
- ʿAbdu r-Rahmān ibn Nāsir as-Saʿdī. "Tafsir of Surah al Fil - The Elephant (Surah 105)". Translated by Abū Rumaysah. Islamic Network. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
This elephant was called Mahmud and it was sent to Abrahah from Najashi, the king of Abyssinia, particularly for this expedition.Archived December 20, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
- Marr JS, Hubbard E, Cathey, JT (2015). "The Year of the Elephant". Wikiversity Journal of Medicine. 2 (1). doi:10.15347/wjm/2015.003.
In turn citing: Willan R. (1821). Miscellaneous works: comprising An inquiry into the antiquity of the small-pox, measles, and scarlet fever, now first published; Reports on the diseases in London, a new ed.; and detached papers on medical subjects, collected from various periodical publi. Cadell. p. 488.
- William Montgomery Watt (1974), p.7
- Esposito (2003). The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, ISBN 0-19-512558-4, Oxford University Press
- "'ABRAHA , Ethiopia, Orthodox". www.dacb.org. Retrieved 2016-01-05.
- Moorhead, John; Moorhead, Senior Lecturer in History John (2013-11-26). The Roman Empire Divided: 400-700 AD. Routledge. ISBN 9781317861447.
- Kistler, John M. ; foreword by Richard Lair (2007). "The Year of The Elephant". War elephants. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 177. ISBN 0803260040.
[T]he lead elephant, named Mahmud, stopped and knelt down, refusing to go further.