Year of the Elephant

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The ʿām al-fīl (Arabic: عام الفيل‎, Year of the Elephant) is the name in Islamic history for the year approximately equating to 570–571 CE. According to Islamic resources, it was in this year that Muhammad was born.[1] 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,[2][3] marched upon the Ka‘bah in Mecca with a large army, which included war elephants, intending to demolish it. However, the lead elephant, known as 'Mahmud' (Arabic: مَـحْـمُـوْد‎, consonant letters: m-ħ-m-w-d),[4] is said to have stopped at the boundary around Mecca, and refused to enter. It has been theorized that an epidemic, perhaps caused by smallpox, or an outbreak of the plague of Justinian, could have caused such a failed invasion of Mecca.[5] The year came to be known as the Year of the Elephant, beginning a trend for reckoning the years in the Arabian Peninsula. This reckoning was used until it was replaced with the Islamic calendar during the times of ‘Umar.

Archaeological discoveries in Southern Arabia suggest that Year of the Elephant may have been 569 or 568, as the Sasanian Empire overthrew the Aksumite-affiliated rulers in Yemen around 570.[6][7][citation needed]

The year is also recorded as that of the birth of ‘Ammar ibn Yasir.[8]


According to early Islamic historians such as Ibn Ishaq, in honor of his ally, Negus Abraha built a great church at Sana'a known as al-Qullays, a loanword borrowed from εκκλησία "church".

Al-Qullays gained widespread fame, even gaining the notice of the Byzantine Empire.[1] The Arab people of the time had their own center of religious worship and pilgrimage in Mecca, the Kaaba.[1] Abraha attempted to divert their pilgrimage to al-Qullays and appointed a man named Muhammad ibn Khuza'i[citation needed] 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.[1]

Ibn Ishaq'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 honored 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.

[citation needed]

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 he did so by defecating in it.

Abraha, incensed, launched an expedition of sixty thousand men against the Ka‘bah at Mecca, led by a white elephant named Mahmud[9] (and possibly with other elephants - some accounts state there were several elephants, or even as many as eight[1][6]) 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 Kaaba 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". However according to Muhammad Asad this surah does not describe birds literally carrying small rocks, he instead, referencing Al-Zamakhshari and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi translates the above mentioned verses as:

(2)Thus, He let loose upon them great swarms of flying creatures (3) which smote them with stone-hard blows of chastisement pre-ordained[10]

Mohammad Asad the words used in this verse, namely the "stones of sijjil", denote "a writing and, tropically, something that has been decreed [by God]".[11] He further explains that this decree by god was a very sudden epidemic outbreak, which, according to Ibn Ishaq, caused fever (in arabic hasbah) and smallpox (arab. judari). This, as Asad concludes, points to the fact that the "stone hard blows of chastisement pre-ordained" were a very sudden virulent epidemic due to the fact that the word for fever "hasbah" primarily means "pelting [or smiting] with stones" in the famous arabic dictionary al-Qamous (القاموس) by Fairuzabadi.[12][13] The word ta'ir can denote any "flying creature, whether bird or insect (Taj al-'Arus)".[14]


According to Hadith, in al-Kafi Volume one, Imam Ali was born in the 30th year of the Elephant[15] and died in AH 40.[16]

Other sources[edit]

This event is referred to in the Qur’an, in Surah 105, Al-Fil (Arabic: الـفِـيـل‎, "The Elephant"), and is discussed in its related tafsir.

Some scholars have placed the Year of the Elephant one or two decades earlier than 570 CE,[17] with a tradition attributed to Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri in the works of ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-San‘ani placing it before the birth of Muhammad's father.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Hajjah Adil, Amina, "Prophet Muhammad", ISCA, Jun 1, 2002, ISBN 1-930409-11-7
  2. ^ "Abraha." Archived 2016-01-13 at the Wayback Machine Dictionary of African Christian Biographies. 2007. (last accessed 11 April 2007)
  3. ^ 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. Archived 2014-10-10 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ ʿAbdu r-Rahmān ibn Nāsir as-Saʿdī. "Tafsir of Surah al Fil - The Elephant (Surah 105)". Translated by Abū Rumaysah. Islamic Network. Archived from the original on 20 December 2010. 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.
  5. ^ Marr JS, Hubbard E, Cathey, JT (2015). "The Year of the Elephant". WikiJournal of Medicine. 2 (1). doi:10.15347/wjm/2015.003. Archived from the original on 26 May 2015.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
    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. Archived from the original on 4 September 2015.
  6. ^ a b William Montgomery Watt (1961). Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 7.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Azmayesh, Seyed Mostafa (2015). New Researchers on the Quran: Why and how two versions of Islam entered the history of mankind. United Kingdom: Mehraby Publishing House. p. 262. ISBN 9780955811760.
  9. ^ Kistler, John M. ; foreword by Richard Lair (2007). "The Year of The Elephant". War elephants. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 177. ISBN 978-0803260047. Archived from the original on 9 January 2016. The lead elephant, named Mahmud, stopped and knelt down, refusing to go further.
  10. ^ The Message 8f The Quran, by Mohammad Asad, Surah 105:2-3.
  11. ^ Ibid M. Asad, Commentary on Surah 102, see note 2. Lit., "with stones of sijjil". As explained in note [114] on 11:82, this latter term is synonymous with sijill, which signifies "a writing" and, tropically, "something that has been decreed [by God]": hence, the phrase hijarah min sijjil is a metaphor for "stone-hard blows of chastisement pre-ordained", i.e., in God's decree (Zamakhshari and Razi, with analogous comments on the same expression in 11:82).
  12. ^ Ibid. As already mentioned in the introductory note, the particular chastisement to which the above verse alludes seems to have been a sudden epidemic of extreme virulence: according to Waqidi and Muhammad ibn Ishaq - the latter as quoted by Ibn Hisham and Ibn Kathir - "this was the first time that spotted fever (hasbah) and smallpox (judari) appeared in the land of the Arabs". It is interesting to note that the word hasbah - which, according to some authorities, signifies also typhus - primarily means "pelting [or smiting"] with stones" (Qamus)
  13. ^ Al-Qamus Al-Muhit by Muḥammad Ibn-Jaʻqūb al- Fīrūzābādī.
  14. ^ Ibid. As regards the noun ta'ir (of which tayr is the plural), we ought to remember that it denotes any "flying creature", whether bird or insect (Taj al-'Arus). Neither the Qur'an nor any authentic Tradition offers us any evidence as to the nature of the "flying creatures" mentioned in the above verse; and since, on the other hand, all the "descriptions" indulged in by the commentators are purely imaginary, they need not be seriously considered. If the hypothesis of an epidemic is correct, the "flying creatures" - whether birds or insects - may well have been the carriers of the infection. One thing, however, is clear: whatever the nature of the doom that overtook the invading force, it was certainly miraculous in the true sense of this word - namely, in the sudden, totally unexpected rescue which it brought to the distressed people of Mecca.
  15. ^ "The birth of El Imam Ali related to the year of the elephant". Retrieved 24 July 2018.
  16. ^ Al-Islam, Thiqatu (2015). Al-Kafi (Second ed.). New York: Islamic Seminary Inc. p. 457. ISBN 978-0-9914308-6-4. Archived from the original on 27 October 2017.
  17. ^ Esposito, John L. (1995). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World: Libe-Sare. Oxford University Press. p. 154. ISBN 978-0195096149.
  18. ^ ibn Rashid, Mamar (16 May 2014). The Expeditions: An Early Biography of Muhammad. Translated by Sean W. Anthony. NYU Press. pp. 3–5. ISBN 978-0814769638.

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