Abraha (Al-Ashram) [40 yrs before the Prophet] أبرهة الأشرم
After the incident of the burning alive of Christians in the Trenches during the first century before the Hijrah of our Prophet (6 CE), at the hands of a Jewish king Abu Nuwas, a solitary survivor escaped to the Romans and sought their help. The emperor wrote to Najashi the Christian king of Abyssinia to look into the matter. Najashi sent two of his commanders, Aryat and Abraha, with a large force to Yemen. They overcame the resistance of Dhu Nuwas who ultimately drowned himself in the sea, and established their own rule. After some time the two commanders quarreled among themselves and decided to settle the matter by a dual. Abraha emerged alive from the encounter and became the sole viceroy. But gradually he usurped power and became the de facto ruler of Yemen. He found that the Arabs venerated the Holy House of Ka`aba and made pilgrimage to it. He thought he would replace it with another in Yemen itself. He built a tall, massive and beautiful cathedral there and began to prevent the people from traveling to Makkah. This angered the Qahtani and `Adnani tribes, one of whom entered the cathedral in secret and defiled it. According to some, it was a Qurayshi who did it. This angered Abraha who vowed that he would travel to Makkah and destroy the Ka’bah.
He started out with a huge army that had elephants in its retinue (according to some accounts only one), and overcoming separate resistances of the Arab tribes enroute arrived at Makkah. He encamped a few kilometers outside the town. One of his raiding parties captured a huge number of camels, two hundred of which belonged to `Abd AL-Muttalib, the grandfather of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. In the meantime, Abraha sent word to the Makkans that he had nothing against them and would spare them if they would not interfere in his attempt. The Quraysh found themselves too weak against the 60,000 plus Abraha’s army and decided not to resist.They sent `Abd AL-Muttalib as their envoy to Abraha. When he presented himself, Abraha was much impressed by his handsome figure and imposing personality. But he was surprised that instead of seeking to save the Ka’bah, and the ancient religion that went with it, `Abd AL-Muttalib only spoke about the release of his two hundred camels. When he let `Abd AL-Muttalib know his feelings, he replied that he was the owner of the camels and so was seeking their release. As for the House, it had its own owner (meaning God) who would defend it if He thought it fit. So Abraha returned him his camels and the Quraysh emptied the town dispersing in the mountains.
The next day when Abraha tried to enter the town the elephant refused. Whenever they urged it forward towards Makkah, it held its ground; but when its face was turned away from Makkah, it moved. While they were trying to induce the elephant to move forward, flights after flights of birds started arriving from the sea side. They had three pebbles with them: two held in the claws and one in the beak. They dropped them on Abraha’s army which came down powerfully piercing their heads. By the next day, small pox and measles broke out amongst them: first time seen in the Arabian Peninsula. Soon the army was in a medley and scrambling for safety. Many ran helter and skelter and lost their lives in the desert. Abraha himself, whose flesh, beginning with the fingers, had begun to fall apart, withdrew and managed to reach Yemen. But soon he too died. According to some reports, the people of the elephant were destroyed in the valley of Muhassir where the pilgrims are forbidden to stay while returning from `Arafat.
Pre-Islamic Arab poetry is replete with the theme of Abraha and his army. That was the year in which the Prophet was born.
The Brill version of the Encyclopedia of Islam states that the story of Abraha is folk-lore, but evades saying how exactly the man died. The article, which lays great stress on an inscription, written perhaps several years before Abraha’s Makkan adventure, concludes by saying, “From here onward reliable sources are silent..” The words “reliable sources”, a catchword for rejection of that which does not meet foregone Western conclusions, is loosely used here. That, kings and rulers are pretty fond of getting their names written in extolling terms is well- known. How reliable then are the ancient stone inscriptions of this nature? And this one is not even complete. Who knows the events of a town than the dwellers of the town themselves? The event is well-reported in Arab literatur.
Perhaps influenced by the Orientalists, some “modern” commentators (e.g., Sir Sayyid Ahmad, Hameeduddin Farahi) have tried to give the Qur’anic verses new interpretations. But their long-drawn arguments are weak. Thousands of people, including Jews and Christians, aged fifty and above would have been alive when Surah Al-Fil came down. They would have been ten years old or above. They were eager to find the smallest possible flaw in the Qur’an in order to disprove it. Had the incident not occurred, they would have protested, “Muhammad, We were alive, while you were in the womb. We never witnessed any such thing.”
When the Prophet (saws) reached Hudaybiyyah in 6H, his camel sat down and would not rise despite best efforts. He remarked, in effect: Let her alone, for none has held her but He who had made the elephant refuse to move in the direction of the Haram. Similarly, when the Prophet entered Makkah triumphant he remarked: “It was Sahih who had prevented the elephant of Abraha from entering the city, and it is He who has subdued it for His Messenger and the believers. But now its consecration is being restored, so it is as consecrated from now on as it was yesterday.” The reports are in Sahih compilations.
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- Abd AL-Muttalib