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The Year of the Elephant  
Diverting the Pilgrimage to Yemen  
The Wisdom of Abdul-Muttalib  
Divine Support Saves Mecca  

 The Year of the Elephant
(adapted from Abu Ishaq)

In the year that the Holy Prophet {S} was born, the following event took place. In Yemen there lived a Christian king, Abraha, who marched on Mecca with his elephants in order to destroy the Kaba. This came about in the following way: the Negus, the Christian Emperor of Abyssinia, was a friend and supporter of Abraha of Yemen and honored him in many ways. Abraha was very happy at this, and prepared a lavish feast for his subjects and made many sacrifices, gave food to the poor and the dervishes and had churches built in many cities of Yemen.

In the capital city of San’a he built the greatest church of all, in honor of the Negus. It was such a splendid and beautiful building that all who saw it were stricken with wonder and doubted that such a marvel could be the work of mere mortals. It took four years to complete, and the building was named al-Qullays. By the time it was finished it was already famed far and wide.

Abraha then sent the Negus of Abyssinia a letter, saying: “The Lord has forgiven the Emperor and pardoned Abraha for his failings; I have therefore built a cathedral in the name of the Negus the likes of which the world has never seen before.” He included a drawing of this building with his letter and sent it to the Negus. The Negus received the letter and was very pleased, and praised Abraha for his good work. The fame of this church spread, and Christians from all over came to see it. Everyone was stunned, for they had never seen such a church. The Christians brought sacrificial animals, and gifts and donations came from neighboring lands. Even the Byzantine Emperor heard of this marvelous building, and wishing to add a good deed to his name, he sent precious gifts for the decoration of the church: paints and gold and marble.

For Abraha he sent a Byzantine robe of honor; He also wrote a letter to the Negus in which he said: “There is a trustworthy subject living in the province of Yemen, and he has built a church in your name of such splendor as there is no other in the world. Let this church become a center of worship and pilgrimage for all Christians, and let Abraha be its caretaker and governor of the whole province of Yemen.”

The Negus was extremely pleased when he received this letter, and he himself wrote to Abraha, congratulating him and expressing his pleasure through robes of honor and a crown for his head, as well as giving him his freedom and making him the future ruler upon the Yemeni throne. Abraha, full of joy, wrote back to the Negus, saying, “I have heard that the Arab tribes of Mecca have a building made of stone, and they call it the ‘house of God’. They go there every year and perform the rites of pilgrimage and they pray there, and make their sacrificial offerings, and it is a great and busy center of worship, as it is of commerce.

“Now, the church I have built is ten, no, one hundred times better than that square building. I have a mind to order the people of Yemen to come to my church and perform all their worship and their sacrifices in it. I’m thinking also of ordering those Arab tribesmen to leave off their pilgrimage to that building at Mecca and come here instead, so that this building will be remembered by all the world as that of the Emperor, and his fame will last for all times to come.”

When the Negus read these words, he was even more delighted and he ordered Abraha to tell all the people living in Yemen, whether they be Christians, Jews, or Arab tribesmen, to perform their worship in the new church from now on, and to conduct all their rites there.

Diverting the Pilgrimage to Yemen 5

Now, among the tribesmen of Arabs there were two brothers. The elder brother was named Muhammad Khuza’i, the younger brother Qays. They were both noble and esteemed among the Arabs. For some reason or other they traveled to the province of Hijaz. With kith and kin they entered the country of Yemen where Abraha received them with honors in a most friendly manner, and informed them of his wish to divert the annual pilgrimage from the sanctuary of Mecca to the grand cathedral at San’a.

He called Muhammad Khuza’i to him and showed him great favor, clothed him in a robe of honor and gave him a crown, declaring him king over Mecca and the Hijaz. With that he sent him to Mecca to tell the Arabs to make their Hajj to Abraha’s great church in Yemen from now on, and to leave off worship of the Kaba. His church, he said, was much better than their house of worship, for they had filled it up with idols, thereby defiling it, while his church was unspoiled. In all it was a much more suitable place for making the pilgrimage to. “Go, and deliver this message to the Arabs,” he said.

Muhammad Khuza’i and his brother and clan promptly set out for Mecca. Abdul-Muttalib was the chief of the tribes of Quraysh and Kinana at Mecca. When Muhammad arrived at Mecca, he went in to the Bani Kinana, and began telling them about his claim to be their chief. This proposal offended them. Now there was one person among the tribe of Hudhayl, by name ‘Urwa bin Hayyad who was a very skilled marksman. Him they sent to meet with Muhammad Khuza’i. ‘Urwa struck him down with an arrow, and Qays, his brother fled back to Yemen, and informed Abraha of what had happened. Abraha, enraged, said, “No need to send anyone there, I will go there myself with an army, and destroy the place, and whomever I find of the Bani Kinana, I will slay them all. Whether they like it or not, I will force them to come worship at my church!” So Abraha set about to array his troops.

Meanwhile, the Bani Kinana had sent one of their men to Yemen to have a look at that marvelous church. He arrived and stood gazing at the building from outside, but not going in. They could tell he was not a Christian, so they asked him, “Who are you and where are you from?” He told them, “I am a tribesman, and I have heard the news of a great church that was built here in Yemen, so I have come to see it for myself, so that I might bring the Arab tribes here for the pilgrimage.” Abraha was informed of this, and he said, “Let the man inside the church and show him everything, don’t prevent him from looking around.”

So they took the Bedouin into the church, and here he saw things he had never seen before in all his life, such exquisite paintings set with precious gems, gilded crosses and crucifixes embellished with rubies, garnets and pearls, suspended from golden chains, sumptuously decorated and of priceless, inestimable wealth. The sight of this glory made him speechless, he stood still for a long while and at last began to weep. He then turned to the guardians of the church and said, “Please permit me to stay in this church overnight, I wish to spend the night therein, all by himself.” Towards the morning he felt a need and emptied his bowels, and smeared the filth all along the altar and the pulpit of the church. Then he asked the doorkeepers to let him out, and he left and was quickly gone.

When the people assembled in the morning to pray, they saw what had happened in their church, and they sent word to Abraha, their king. “This Arab who stayed in the church last night, he did this, and he was sent by those Arabs in Mecca to do it.” Abraha flew into a rage and swore a holy oath that he would not return to Yemen before he had not totally destroyed the holy house of the Arabs, and defiled it with filth.

Now, the Negus had an elephant whose name was Mahmud. It was battle-proven, and when placed amidst the troops it would never step on any of the soldiers. It was always victorious, and there was no greater and more sweet-natured elephant in all of Abyssinia than he. The other elephants feared him and weakened before him, and followed his lead. Wherever Mahmud the elephant turned to go, there all the other elephants would direct their course. Abraha possessed thirteen Abyssinian elephants that he had brought to Yemen. Abraha now wrote a letter to the Negus, explaining to him what the Arab had done to the church, and he asked the Negus to send him the elephant Mahmud. Abraha lined up the elephants, assembled his fighters and set out for Mecca with the intention of destroying the Kaba.

Abraha marched towards Mecca and when he entered the region of Hijaz, he was confronted by Dhu Nafr a very valiant fighter who had seen many battles. He was a native of the region of Hamir in the Kingdom of Yemen and he was a close friend of Abdul-Muttalib. He met Abraha’s forces with an army of twelve thousand men and they engaged in battle. This time Abraha won the battle, and Dhu Nafr was taken prisoner. Abraha wanted to have him killed, but Dhu Nafr pleaded for his life. He said, “What good is it to you if you spill the cupful of blood coursing in my veins? As you know, my name is well-known among the Arabs – it is better if you spare me and keep me as your prisoner, I may yet be of use to you and render you valuable service.” So Abraha spared him and set a watch over his prisoner of war, then he marched on towards Mecca.

Near to the city he came to a camp of tent dwellers. There was a man of the Bani Khath’am, Nufayl bin Habib. The tribe of Khath’am was divided into two groups, one of them Shahran and the other Nahis, and they were a tribe of 50,000 households. Their leader was Nufayl, and he led an army of 1,000 men against Abraha. Abraha won the upper hand and took Nufayl prisoner. He wanted to put him to death, but Nufayl pleaded with him and said, “Oh Abraha, as you know I am the leader of 50,000 households. If you spare my life, these 50,000 homes will be your faithful servants. The ways through this desert are difficult; you need a guide through this terrain. If you spare me, I will guide you to Mecca and on to the Kaba.” Abraha saw that he had a point, and spared his life.

The heads of the tribes, hearing of the fate of both Dhu Nafr and Nufayl, grew afraid and nobody else dared stand in Abraha’s way. Thus he advanced as far as the area of Ta’if. The leading tribe there was the Bani Thaqif, and their leader was Mas’ud bin Mu’attib. They welcomed Abraha with gifts and offerings, paying homage to him and submitting to his superiority. Abraha also presented them with gifts and asked for a guide to lead him to Mecca. They sent with him a man from the Bani Thaqif called Abu Righal and he went ahead of them, showing them the way to Mecca. Thus they arrived before the city and set up their camp at a place known as Mughammas. There Abu Righal died, and to this day his grave can be seen at Mughammas. It is a custom among all the Arabs to throw stones at his grave every time they pass by, so that there is a huge pile of stones over it.

The Wisdom of Abdul-Muttalib 5

When Abraha and his army were seen to be approaching Mecca, all the townspeople gathered round Abdul-Muttalib, Muhammad’s r grandfather. They said, “What shall we do? We cannot fight against Abraha; what shall we do?” Abdul-Muttalib answered them, “There is only one thing to be done: everyone betake himself and his sons and daughters into the hills surrounding Mecca and hide them there. This Kaba here is Allah’s house: we will leave it in His care, for He is mightier than we are. Either He will let the enemies take and destroy it, or He will keep it from them, and defend it from their forces. It is in His hands, and He does as He pleases.” So spoke Abdul-Muttalib.

While they were yet engrossed in their deliberations, Abraha selected an advance party of 5,000 men and sent them towards Mecca. He appointed al-Aswad bin Mafsud as their chief and Abraha ordered him to plunder and pillage the outskirts of Mecca, and to take what ever he pleased of men and animals, but on no account should he enter the city itself.

So, al-Aswad bin Mafsud took his men to the environs of the town. They rounded up whatever they found of horses, sheep, camels and cattle and took the shepherds hostage as well. Among the animals they drove off were 200 camels belonging to Abdul-Muttalib. They brought the captive shepherds before Abraha who asked them, “What preparations have the people of Mecca made? Are they intending to fight or are they going to ask for quarter?” The shepherds replied, “The people of Mecca are not intending to fight at all. They are giving up the city to the king, for this is what Abdul-Muttalib advised them to do.”

Present among the Arab tribesmen in Abraha’s army there was a man from among the nobles of Yemen, named Hunata. To him Abraha turned and said, “You go to the people of Mecca and tell them that I take no pleasure in spilling the blood of the Meccans. All I am interested in is destroying the Kaba, which is here. This is what I have come for, and to this end I have sworn a binding oath. Let them have no fear; they are safe. Bring to me their leader so that I might see what sort of person he is.”

Hunata went then and informed Abdul-Muttalib of what Abraha wanted, and he brought him before the king. It was evening before the soldiery arrived, and Abdul-Muttalib spent that night together with the two prisoners. One of them, Dhu Nafr was Abdul-Muttalib’s good friend. Abdul-Muttalib said to him, “Is there no way you can use your influence?” He answered, “I have no power over anything, I am a prisoner, and every day I must fear for my life. But there is one person I know although I have not told Abraha about this, but I am acquainted with one of the servants here, and he is a friend of mine, a good man, by name Unays. I will send to him and commend your case to him strongly, so that he will inform the king of your standing with the Arabs, and that he may treat you accordingly.”

For Abdul-Muttalib was a very highly respected man, and none among the Arabs enjoyed greater regard than he; he was known to stand by his word, and he was a model of generosity. Every time he slaughtered a camel, he would distribute its meat among men, break up the bones and throw them to the dogs, and the offal he would take to the mountains where the birds and the wild beasts could feed on them. He therefore was called, ‘he who feeds men and wild beasts’. Dhu Nafr told Unays about Abdul-Muttalib and his high reputation, and sent him to Abraha, so that he might inform him. Hearing about this noble Arab, Abraha sent for him, and in the morning Abdul-Muttalib was brought before Abraha.

Abraha was seated upon his royal throne. Now Abdul-Muttalib was most impressive and dignified in his person, and perceiving this, Abraha found it unsuitable for Abdul-Muttalib to be seated beneath him. He also thought it imprudent for him to sit beside him on his throne, so he descended from his throne and sat with him upon the carpet. He greeted him with all tokens of respect and looked him over. His dignity and appearance pleased him very much. He asked his interpreter to translate for him, and he was much taken by Abdul-Muttalib’s conversation. In his heart he conceived the intention not to destroy the Kaba for the sake of Abdul-Muttalib, and not to raze the city.

He let the interpreter ask Abdul-Muttalib what favor he would ask of him, promising him to fulfill whatever it was. Abdul-Muttalib answered, “Yesterday they plundered and took away my two hundred camels; these I want returned to me.” Abraha felt sad hearing these words from
Abdul-Muttalib, and said to himself, “What a pity! This person apparently has not the wits to match his looks; his arrangements are not wise; here I am come with a mighty army to destroy that on which depends the whole fame and pride of Mecca. He could have asked for me to spare it, I would have granted it him for his sake; instead he asks me only for his 200 camels! If I went away and left the Kaba intact, he would get back his two hundred camels in any case!” This he told the interpreter to tell Abdul-Muttalib. To this Abdul-Muttalib answered, “This house does not belong to me. It has an owner, and He knows very well how to guard and defend it. He has no need of my protection, if He likes He will save it, if He likes He will let it be destroyed. That is none of my concern. All I want are my camels, they are my rightful property, let the king return them to me.” So Abraha had the camels returned to him, and he led them back towards Mecca.

He said to the people of Mecca, “Go, go out and hide in the hills! Leave the city, and leave the (holy) house, leave it in the hands of Him who owns it!” So all the men took their families and went out into the hills. Abdul-Muttalib also took his sons and went to the hills. The next morning Abraha set out and approached the town. At Mina he stopped and enquired what the inhabitants of the city were up to. He was told that they had all left town, and no one was left. Then Abraha ordered the elephant Mahmud and the other elephants to march into the town and to tear down the Kaba, the houses of Mecca and to devastate the whole city without harming a single soul. Then they should retreat and go back to where they came from.

Divine Support Saves Mecca  5

They led the elephant Mahmud towards the city, but when it was about to set foot across the city limit, it stopped, and nothing they did could move it. They beat it about the head, stuck hooks into its belly; no force could sway him. Seeing the elephant Mahmud stopped, all the other elephants stopped dead in their tracks as well.

Then Allah ordered the Ababil birds to fly against them. They came down by the sea. Each one of the birds carried three little bits of mud or stone, like peas or lentils, one in its beak and one in each claw. They came flying towards Mecca and hovered over the army. By the leave of Allah, a wind rose up from Hell and turned those bits of mud into stone, as clay is baked. While these stones were red-hot and glowing, they pelted the army of Abraha. No sooner they fell upon a man that they burnt their way into his body, so that he swelled up and burst. Some were hit and died on the spot; others withdrew and fled in panic and disarray. Some made it back all the way to their country, there to die.

Only the ones who were not touched by these stones survived. Abraha was hit on his head by a stone, and his whole body swelled, and he suffered greatly the whole journey back to Yemen where he died, in terrible agony. As for the elephants, they too fled and Allah had mercy on them and spared them, leading them into safety. Abdul-Muttalib returned to Mecca and sent word to the Meccans to come back to their city, all danger now being over. On account of these events Abdul-Muttalib’s reputation grew even more, and they now knew for sure that the Kaba was the house of the Lord, and that Allah destroyed any who dared to go against it.

This event is mentioned in the Holy Quran in these words:

Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim. Hast thou not seen how thy Lord did with the Men of the Elephant? Did He not make their guile to go astray? And he loosed upon them birds in flights, hurling against them stones of baked clay and He made them like green blades devoured.                                                  (The Elephant)




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