The f ive verses of this sūrah were revealed in Makkah. The sūrah takes its name from the word al-f īl (the elephant) that occurs in its first verse. Describing what befell the Abyssinian army of Abrahah, which attacked Makkah in order to destroy the Ka’bah, in 571 CE, fifty days before the birth of God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, it warns against active opposition to God’s Religion.
- Have you considered how your Lord dealt with the people of the elephant?1
- This verse draws attention to what befell the Abyssinian army that attacked Makkah in an attempt to destroy the Ka’bah, under the command of Abrahah ibn Sabāh. The army had a number of war elephants. Abrahah had erected a great temple in San’ā, hoping to attract the Arab pilgrims from Makkah to his own territory.
- Did He not bring their evil scheme to nothing?
- He sent down upon them flocks of birds (unknown in the land),
- Shooting them with bullet-like stones of baked clay (an emblem of the pun- ishment due to them),
- And so He rendered them like a field of grain devoured and trampled.2
2. Unusual events come as signs of a new turning point in human history. The Makkans were not strong enough to defend Makkah and the Ka’bah against the army of Abrahah. They left Makkah for the surrounding mountains. So its real owner – God – defended it on the eve of the birth of God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings. He sent down on the army flocks of birds. As can also be understood from the word abābīl, translated here as birds, these were a species unknown in the Hijaz. According to reports, they were birds of different colors that carried stones of backed clay, one in their mouth and two in their claws. The stones penetrated deep into the bodies of Abrahah’s soldiers, entering from the head and slicing through their organs. This was a clear miracle (ar-Rāzī, Ibn Kathīr [Tafsīr], Hamdi Yazır). This event became so famous in Arabian history that the year when it took place came to be known as the Year of the elephant.