By Haider Hobbollah
Transcribed and translated by Syed Ali Imran (Canada)
Names and Place of Revelation
This chapter has been referred to by two names:
- A lam tara or A lam taray kayfa fa’ala rabbuka bi aṣḥāb al-fīl – this is how it appears in the traditions and also in the words of scholars
- The famous name is Sūrah al-Fīl which is obviously a reference to the story alluded to in the chapter
There is a consensus amongst the Muslims that this chapter is a Meccan and has 5 verses. It is also famously said that this chapter was the 19th chapter to be revealed, after Sūrah al-Kāfirūn and before Sūrah al-Falaq. The content of this chapter also very much makes it clear that it was a Meccan chapter. If such a strong consensus did not exist on the matter, it could have been possible for someone to say that it may have been revealed in Medina as well, for example at the time of the battle of Aḥẓāb in order to encourage and motivate the Prophet (p) by reminding him of what Allah (swt) did to those who tried to attack the Ka’ba. However, this is merely a presumption and there is nothing that points us to say there is a possibility this chapter may have been revealed in Medina.
Reasons for Revelation and Merits
A number of reports – including one from Imam Zayn al-‘Ābidīn – say that there was some conflict between the Quraysh and the Muslims. The polytheists asked Abū Ṭālib to ask the Prophet (p) whether he has been sent forth as a Prophet to just his own people (the Quraysh or the Arabs) or for all humans. The Prophet (p) replied that he was sent forth for both blacks and whites, and the Arabs and the ‘Ajam, the Persians and the Romans. The Quraysh were surprised and despised that – they feared that if this report reaches the Romans or the Persians, they will develop an interest towards our lands and will attack the Ka’ba. In this situation the chapter of Fīl was revealed.
As for the merits of reciting this chapter, we will suffice with one famous tradition[note]Nūr al-Thaqalayn, v. 5, pg. 668 – for further narrations on this chapter click here.[/note] which says:
من قرأ في الفريضة ألم تر كيف فعل ربك بأصحاب الفيل شهد له يوم القيامة كل سهل وجبل ومدر بأنه كان من المصلين وينادي يوم القيامة مناد: صدقتم على عبدي، قبلت شهادتكم له أو عليه، ادخلوا عبدي الجنة ولا تحاسبوه فإنه ممن أحبه وأحب عمله
Imām Ṣādiq (a) Whomever recites al-Fīl in his obligatory prayers, every plain, mountain and mud [land] will testify on the Day of Resurrection that he is from those who pray. On the Day of Resurrection, a caller will call: “You have spoken the truth about My servant. I have accepted your testimony for him. Bring him into Paradise, and do not try him, for he is from those who love Allah and loves their deeds.”
Relationship with Sūrah al-Quraysh
Is there a relationship between Sūrah al-Fīl and al-Quraysh as it appears subsequent to al-Fīl in the copy of the Qurān? Many Sunnī and Shī’ī scholars believe that both these chapters are one chapter in real, not two different chapters. We had mentioned this earlier in our discussion on Sūrah al-Inshirāḥ. There are a few arguments put forth for this position, we will mention a few of them quickly:
1) Firstly, scholars of the Qurānic sciences have said that these two chapters appeared in the codex of Ubay b. Ka’b without any separation – meaning without the Basmalah. We had responded to this in the past and have said that while this report does exist, there also exists a contradictory report saying that the codex of Ubay b. Ka’b did indeed have a separation between these two chapters. Hence, this is not a very strong argument for the claim.
2) Some Sunnī scholars have relied on a report which says, ‘Umar the 2nd caliph was leading the congregational prayers and he recited these two chapters without separating them with a Basmalah. If this report is reliable, it still does not necessitate that the two are one chapter, it is possible to say he made a mistake or that as per the famous opinion amongst the Ahl al-Sunnah which says the Basmalah is not part of any chapter then this act of ‘Umar does not indicate that the two chapters are one. All in all, even if we accept the view of the Ahl al-Sunnah granting probativity to the actions and words of the companions, this one mere act does not prove anything significant. As for those who do not even accept the probativity of the actions and words of the companions, this event means nothing.
3) A number of traditions in Shī’ī books indicate that the two chapters are in fact one. They are very few in number and the most famous one of them is a mursal tradition mentioned in Ṭabrisī’s Majma’ al-Bayān and also in al-Sharā’ī of Muḥaqqiq Ḥillī. Earlier scholars would say that since scholars have acted upon this tradition, its weakness does not impact its reliability. However a number of later and contemporary scholars have argued that this is not enough to prove its reliability, particularly since there is a contradictory mursal tradition in Tafsīr al-‘Ayyāshī where the Imam says, do not combine two chapters (sūratayn) in the Ṣalāt except Sūrah al-Fīl and Sūrah al-Quraysh, suggesting that the Imam did deem these two as separate chapters.
As we mentioned in our lessons on Sūrah al-Inshirāh, the most we can prove from these reports is that it is obligatory to recite these two chapters together in Ṣalāt as a matter of religious submission, not that they actually are one chapter.
4) A final argument says, if we connect the last verse of Sūrah al-Fīl with the beginning of al-Quraysh we will see that they are related. The verses would read as: Thus, making them like chewed-up straw so that the solidarity among the Quraysh remains.
There is a lot of discussion on this, and we will discuss this when we go through Sūrah al-Quraysh. In any case, there is no strong evidence suggesting they are one chapter, in fact there is evidence on the contrary suggesting they are two separate chapters. For example, the presence of the Basmalah between the two chapters in many of the Qur’ānic codices, traditions indicating they are two separate chapters, and also internal textual alibis suggesting they are not related since their patterns are different.
Theme of the Chapter
The chapter is essentially saying that Allah (swt) helps in ways that one least expects. Allah (swt) helps his believers and his religion whenever He sees it fit. Do not fear the enemies of Allah and His religion, rather have your hopes in the aid of Allah (swt). These are the general concepts mentioned in this chapter.
The Event of the Elephant
Before we begin the commentary on the verses, we need to first discuss what the event was exactly, especially given there have been numerous questions regarding it in contemporary times. We will mention the summary of what the historians, scholars of ḥadīth and exegetes have mentioned regarding the Aṣḥāb al-Fīl, the companions of the elephants, who have only been mentioned once in the Qur’ān, unlike other stories regarding groups of people who at times are mentioned multiple times.
The event took place in the Arabian peninsula, but there are three opinions on the year of its occurrence. Some say it was in 552 AD, before the birth of the Prophet (p), others say it 536 AD, and a third group of scholars believe it was around 570-571 AD. The last opinion the most famous opinion, given that the year became to be known as the Year of the Elephant and that the Prophet (p) was born in this very year. The historians say that the event became very famous in the Arab society, and that they would mention it in their poems.
As far as details of the event are concerned, one will find a lot of inconsistencies and differences in the reports. However, the general story can be summarized as follow:
There was a man by the name of Abraha al-Ashram, known as Abu Yaksūm. Some say he was the grandfather of Najāshī, the king of Abyssinia at the time of the Prophet (p), others say the Najāshī who was alive at the time of Abraha was the grandfather of the Najāshī who lived at the time of the Prophet (p) – these discussions do not concern us though. Abraha was the commander of an army sent forth by Najashī to Yemen to avenge the king of Yemen Dhū Nuwās who was persecuting the Christians – and one of these events have also been mentioned in Sūrah al-Burūj as Asḥāb al-Ukhdūd. The Romans who were aware of this persecution, asked Najāshī to send an army to Yemen to seek revenge from Dhū Nuwās.
The army was successful in taking over Yemen. Subsequently, Abraha had become the ruler over Yemen, though he was not ordered by Najāshī to take up such a role and Najāshī felt that Abraha may have left the folds of Christianity after taking over control. In order to convince Najāshī that he is still under his dominion and religion, he decided to build a large church, with the intention that large number of people from other pars of the world would come visit this church as a sort of pilgrimage. The name of the church has been pronounced in three different ways: Qalīs, Qulays, or Qullays – and Ibn ‘Āshūr believes the word Kanīs may have originated from here.
The Arabs began to feel uneasy with this new church and felt that it was a threat to their culture and religious practices, such as the annual Ḥajj in Makkah. In one report it says that one of the young Arab men decided to burn the church down in the middle of the night, and in another report, it says that a number of Arab men or a single man from Banī Kinānah defecated inside the church. Some reports allude that this was done intentionally, but others indicate it was unintentional. Abraha became aware of this and decided to attack the Ka’ba.
He gathered a large army, which also included some Arab tribes, such as Khath’am and ‘Akk. The army set forth towards Makkah. When they arrived at a place called Mughallas (or Mughammas), Abraha sent a delegation towards Makkah to inform them of his plans, which were to destroy the Ka’ba, but he was not planning on killing the residents. The Makkans all escaped towards the mountains when they realized that Abraha’s army was coming with elephants and that they would be unable to defend the Ka’ba. ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib and Shayba b. ‘Uthmān were the only two men left to defend the Ka’ba. At some point, ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib was given the report that Abraha’s army has stolen two hundred of his camels, so he went towards Abraha and he was informed that the chief of Quraysh is coming to meet him. When he arrived, Abraha was expecting a conversation about the Ka’ba, but instead he asked him for his camels that were stolen. Abraha began to belittle ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib saying you are the chief of your tribe and you have left your people behind simply to come and ask me about your camels?
The famous response of ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib has been recorded saying, “I am the owner of these camels and I have to protect them, while the House (i.e. Ka’ba) has its own Owner who will protect it.” Apparently Abraha released the camels and gave them back to ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib.
The next day, the lead elephant of the army, who was called Maḥmūd, stopped at the boundaries of Makkah and ceased moving forward, or turned around. At that time, an army of birds came forth, each carrying three stones – one stone in its beak and one in each of its claw. They began throwing the stones down, and the reports mention that the stones would hit the men with so much force that they would come out the other side of the body. In some reports it says everyone died, but other reports say many of them died, but others – included Abraha – escaped and returned back.
This is the rough summary of how the story has been narrated in the Islamic traditions. We want to address two questions over here:
1) What was the type of punishment sent on the Aṣḥāb al-Fīl?
The famous interpretation is that the birds came with stones and threw them at the army of elephants, killing them. However, at the down of the 20th century, Shaykh Muḥammad ‘Abduh put forth an interpretation that has become a point of contention until today. He said, Abraha and his army were killed due to a plague that was a result of microbes. He brings a historical alibi saying that the historians all confess that in this year there was a plague, or some other form of disease spread in the region. Shaykh ‘Abduh thus says, the word ṭayr could be a reference to mosquitoes or flies who were carrying microbes with them. These mosquitoes or flies came and transferred disease to this army which resulted in their death.
Some later scholars also put forth very different explanations of this chapter. For example, some say Fīl comes from the word Fall which is to break something, and hence the chapter is talking about those who break contracts and promises. It has nothing to do with the story of Abraha and his elephant army.
Shahīd Muṭahharī narrates a political interpretation[note]Pīrāmūn-i Inqilāb, pg. 16.[/note] from some groups of people as an example of an incorrect form of interpretation. He says some groups explain the chapter as follows: around the time when the Prophet (p) was born, there was a revolutionary group of Makkans who lived and fought against the colonial powers of the time. Once the Colonialists realized there is a group of revolutionaries residing in Makkah, they head towards the city to attack them. These revolutionaries attacked them like birds and destroyed the Colonialist army.
Aḥmad Subḥī Manṣūr, a famous Qur’āniite, believes there is no such story of Aṣḥāb al-Fīl, rather they are the People of Lūṭ. This chapter is referring to the punishment that was sent down on them which the Qur’ān describes elsewhere.[note][55:34] Indeed, We sent upon them a storm of stones, except the family of Lot – We saved them before dawn.[/note]
Another contemporary scholar says that this story occurred, but it has nothing to do with Abraha and the Romans and so on. Rather it was a battle between some of the Arab tribes and that some of these tribes did use elephants in their battles.
All of these newer interpretations began after Muḥammad ‘Abduh. ‘Abduh himself was critiqued by many scholars, most prominent of them being Sayyid Quṭb in his work Fī Ẓilāl al-Qurān, and as well as by Shaykh Muḥammad Jawād Maghnīyyah in his Tafsīr al-Kāshif. I will mention some of these critiques and add a few extra pointers myself:
1) If the matter was just of a plague and disease, then what makes this so special and what is Allah (swt) really consolidating the Prophet (p) with? The historical reports you yourself are referring to say the plague came in the Arabian Peninsula, not in the army of Abraha. If the plague had just spread in the army of Abraha then that would be a miracle, but if the plague was already there, others were also dying due to it and the army of Abraha was also affected by it, then what is so special about that?
2) A plague does not generally result in a state which would be described as eaten straw (‘aṣfin ma’kūl). There are a number of meanings of what ‘aṣfin ma’kūl means and we will mention them later, but generally speaking it could either be comparing the army to the state of the straw and grass after cattle has eaten it, or some have said it is referring to the animal droppings once the stray, grass or hay has been eaten. A plague does not cause the body to turn into a state which would make this comparison reasonable.
3) The most Shaykh ‘Abduh should have said is that it is possible for his interpretation to be valid, not that it is permissible for one to believe in this interpretation. The source of what justifies one’s belief in a possible interpretation is the prima-facie of the text. In this case the prima-facie of the words of the Qur’ān do not back up his interpretation, because the word ṭayr is not used for mosquitoes and flies in the Arabic language, even if they do fly. If a tradition says, “do not eat from the ṭayr such and such animal,” nobody understands mosquitoes or flies to be inclusive of the word ṭayr.
A point about Shaykh Muḥammad ‘Abduh: he is one of the most influential reformists in Islamic history over the last century and for researchers and students it is good to be familiar with his works and ideas. Many unique and strange interpretations and ideas that were put forth by scholars in the 60s and 70s can often be found in the works of Shaykh ‘Abduh. One of the main premises of Shaykh ‘Abduh was to fight against superstitions and to reconcile religious interpretations with science. One of his presumptions was also that the amount of details that speak about the unseen in religious texts that are authentic are very little. Hence, he always tried to interpret things in the most physical way possible. For example, if a tradition says it is recommended to place a small piece of iron on the stomach of a dead woman so that Shayṭān does not enter her, he would interpret it as, “so that germs do not enter her.”
The general idea that interpretations should be reasonable and within the general laws that govern the world and which we have experience with is not a wrong idea. The problem is in determining the limits and boundaries of it. For example, it is possible to say that if a report is given about something abnormal, something we do not experience within the general laws governing the world, then in order to attain assurance in it, we may require something more than just a mere report about it. For example, Shahīd Bāqir al-Ṣadr says in his discussion on tawātur that if someone brings an abnormal report, you will need a large number of people to give you a similar report for you to be sure about its occurrence – simply because the event itself is not something one experiences normally.
However, to say we will interpret everything in a physical way we are used to experiencing and then for the prima-facie of a text to be twisted to such an extent that it results in an interpretation like the one given by Shaykh ‘Abduh, then what is one’s justification for this?
Moving on, besides the discussion on the type of punishment, there are some questions that deal with the actual event itself:
2) What is the nature of the story mentioned in the chapter itself?
There are a number of important points posed here, which we must address.
1) Some have denied this event completely because they say it is against science.
I believe this statement itself is vague – what does it mean to be against science? How is it against science? There is a difference between saying science has not proven this incident and saying science has proven this incident did not take place. In the first case, yes, science hasn’t proven this incident and I am with you. However, there are many cases which science hasn’t been able to prove or explain yet, that does not mean they did not occur. You have to bring an argument showing that science has proven this event could not have taken place.
2) Some have denied this event by saying there were no elephants in Arabia, so how could there be an army of elephants? If they lived in Yemen, how could they survive given they do not have the appropriate nutrition to eat in that area? Not only were there no elephants, how could these elephants travel hundreds of kilometres from Yemen to Makkah through those desert terrains that elephants are not accustomed to?
This is a very valid question and much more precise than the previous question. It is possible to response to this in four ways:
- a) Yemen was an extension of the government of Abyssinia and elephants existed in Africa. It is possible for elephants to be sent from Africa; the traditions do not say that these were Yemeni elephants.
- b) The critic presumes that Abraha was coming with tens of thousands of elephants in his army. However, when you refer to the books of history, ḥadīth and tafsīr you will not find anywhere the mention of an “army” of elephants. Some reports indicate that there was only one elephant – named Maḥmūd – and it was leading the rest of the army in the front. Another report mentions three elephants, some say seven and the most that have been mentioned are twelve elephants. These are a very few elephants and it is possible for these elephants to have been living in Yemen and that they were being fed accordingly.
- c) Even if you look at the Qur’ān, it says Aṣḥāb al-Fīl, the companions of the elephant, not companions of the elephants. Yes, the word al-Fīl is a generic term and can include one or many elephants, but just like we say Aṣḥāb al-Jamal (companions of the camel) during the Battle of Jamal when we only intend that there was one camel in the battle and not an army of camel, likewise it is appropriate to use the term Aṣḥāb al-Fīl and only intend one elephant.
- d) The Arabs would generally fear elephants since it was an animal they were not very familiar with and this can be seen in some of their poems. It is possible that the army of Abraha who were originally from Abyssinia had brought an elephant or two over as a mascot and symbol of their identity. Perhaps this was a symbol of their strength, especially by placing an elephant at the front of their army. There are even stories of some armies using elephants in battles that took place in Europe, even before the birth of Jesus (a), so why could it not have happened in the Arabian Peninsula?
In the previous lesson we responded to two arguments that propose the event did not take place, namely: the event is against science and hence it did not take place, and secondly, the event itself is far-fetched due to absence of elephants in the region.
3) If this event had taken place, it would have been recorded by many non-Muslim historians, especially the Romans, yet we only find its mention in Muslim records.
Once again this is a valid question, especially given how large this event was. If the event was as it has been described, then it would have been natural for people to be speaking about it and narrating it for years to come. However, we have to question this premise: is it necessary for every single event that occurred in the Arabian Peninsula to have been recorded by the historians of the world? Is it not sufficient for the historians of the same region – they were Arabs and the Muslims – to have recorded the event?
For example, didn’t the Muslims rule the world for many centuries? Do you find the details of every major event that occurred during that period in Europe for example? You will not find such a thing. Perhaps you will find a mention of some event here and there, but there are many major events that occurred during these centuries in the East and the West, but the Muslim historians have not recorded it.
It is even more reasonable to believe that non-Muslim historians of the time would not have concerned themselves with everything that was happening in the Arabian Peninsula – a desert region – which they did not have much to do with either. Yes, if the event only appears in a few sources even in Arab and Muslim sources, then we are justified in doubting the occurrence of the event. If such an event was famous and popular amongst the Arab society and yet it was not transmitted and recorded extensively, that would definitely raise doubts.
Please note I am speaking about the actual occurrence of the event, not about its details. We can argue and be skeptical about some of the details as per our methodology, but there is no reason to doubt the actual event. Is it justified for us to be skeptical of Western historians who have written about events that occurred in their regions, but Muslim historians did not record them?
4) What is the point of bringing an elephant – even if it is just a few of them? The Arabs would have fled away even if they saw a large army itself without elephants, why would someone bother to bring an elephant?
I mentioned previously that it is possible for the army to have used elephants as a symbol of their strength and that it was an identity for themselves. This is not a very strong critique, but I am mentioning it just to give you an idea of the different attempts made to discredit the historical event.
5) This is against reason, because it does not make sense for someone to bring an army of elephants against the Quraysh who wouldn’t have had more than a hundred fighters.
This is what one of the critics has mentioned. We stated previously that there was no “army” of elephants and rather only a very few elephants. Secondly, this had nothing to do with the Quraysh specifically, and in fact the Arabs had many fighters in their society. They could have gathered hundreds of fighters if they wanted to – though the reports apparently mention the residents of Makkah were all scared and ran off into the hills and mountains.
6) Why were the companions of the elephant chastised? Were they not coming to break down something that was filled with idols? It was the symbol of idol worshipping and polytheism. In fact, Abraha was representing Christianity and if he was coming to attack the symbol of polytheism that is something good. How can Allah (swt) defend polytheism by punishing the Christian believers (who were the persecuted ones and the mention of their persecution is also mentioned in the Qur’ān in the story of Aṣḥāb al-Ukhdūd)?
This is not a new critique even though the critic presents it as if it is unique to him, rather you can find this discussion during the time of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī as well – though his response is not that great. The issue with this critique is that the person is presuming that Abraha was coming to get rid of the idols – the problem wasn’t with the idols, the problem was that he was coming to break down the Ka’ba which was built by Prophet Ibrahīm (a), who even the Christians and Jews have to pay respect to.
Even if the Ka’ba had been destroyed, idol worshipped would have still carried on and there were idols outside of the Ka’ba in other significant areas as well. Idols in that society are not necessarily associated with the Ka’ba. The critic has turned this into a contest of Christianity and polytheism when that is not the case at all. Abraha also did not want to destroy idols – no where is this mentioned.
We also mentioned earlier that it is possible Abraha was not even a very religious Christian or a Christian at all, and that he had only made a large church in Yemen to impress and convince Najāshī that he is still Christian and that he does not have to deem Abraha has a threat to his rule.
7) The Ka’ba has been destroyed and demolished many times, in fact Allah (swt) Himself has destroyed it numerous times by causing floods and heavy rains. So what is so significant about Abraha intending to demolish it such that Allah (swt) is not satisfied with it and He (swt) sends a punishment upon him and his army?
I feel this criticism attaches the importance of the Ka’ba to it being a mere building constructed with stones and bricks. This is not a valid presumption, because the Ka’ba in fact is not meant to be seen as mere building, rather it is a religious and deeply symbolic object that has significant spiritual impact on people and society – it is a symbol of the Abrahamic tradition. A flood does not destroy or damage any of that, even if the bricks or stones do break off. Whereas Abraha’s intention was to not just destroy the mere bricks of the Ka’ba such that people could have easily reconstructed it. Rather, the intention was to erase any trace, memory and symbolism the Ka’ba ever had from the minds of the people, and to alter their attentions towards the church he had built. Yes, the physical act itself is the same, but we cannot look at this situation from a pure physical perspective as that is over-simplifying the matter.
Let us for a moment presume all of these critiques are valid and the event is nothing but a superstition. Is that still enough to be a valid criticism against the Qur’ān, which is what most of these critics are intending to get at? Or does that mean we should understand the chapter in a symbolic manner? No – because the Qur’ān does not speak about Abraha, neither the Ka’ba, neither Makkah, nor does the Qur’ān mention that the Aṣḥāb al-Fīl came to Makkah, nor that they were Christians or that the Ka’ba was being protected by Allah (swt). None of these details are mentioned in the Qur’ān. All that the Qur’ān mentions is that there were a group of people known as the Aṣḥāb al-Fīl and that they were punished by Allah (swt) because of their evil plots. Who were they, where were they, what year did they live in – the Qur’ān is silent on all these matters. If you want to critique the Qur’ān, then none of those critiques are valid on the Qur’ān because all of them are taking details from historical events and reading the Qur’ānic verses through those details.
If someone wants to reject the historical details, they can do that, but none of that impacts the Qur’ān. We are the ones connecting the historical details with this chapter, and if you do not believe in the historical details or believe there are critiques on it, then do not accept it, but your rejection of the details does not impact the Qur’ān since it is has not made any claims about the details of the events.
These critiques are generally put forth by two groups: 1) those who are against the Qur’ān and believe the book is of no value – we have addressed them briefly already; and 2) those who put forth similar critiques against many of the stories mentioned in the Qur’ān, however they do not intend to discredit the Qur’ān rather they are claiming we have misunderstood the stories themselves. We have misunderstood the style in which the Qur’ān conveys its stories, we have presumed incorrectly that the Qur’ān is speaking of historical facts and realities when it speaks of these stories whereas that is not the case.
The second group of scholars believe the stories in the Qur’ān are not historical reports and records, they should not be understood in that manner. They are fictional, just like any other storyteller who tells a story and makes up a great many details which did not occur, but his intention is to convey a message to the audience. Or just like many movies, whether they are all fiction or even if some of them are based on true events, not all the details are accurate – and the intent behind these movies is to convey certain messages and themes to the audience.
There are a number of major scholars in whose works you will find some support for this position. I will mention their names here: 1) Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī in his Tafsīr al-Kabīr, 2) Abu Muslim Baḥr al-Isfahānī, 3) Nisābūri in Gharā’ib al-Qur’ān, 4) Muḥammad ‘Abduh in Tafsīr al-Manār and in other works, 5) ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī in his Tafsīr al-Mīzān, and 6) Shahīd Muṭahharī.
These scholars did not say that all the stories in the Qur’ān are imaginary and symbolic, rather they bring evidence for maybe one, two or three stories possibly being imaginary. For example, Abū Muslim and Muḥammad ‘Abduh say the verse [2:259] Or [consider such an example] as the one who passed by a township which had fallen into ruin – never occurred. No one passed by any such town and rather it is an imaginary example being given to remind people of what Allah (swt) will do on the Day of Judgement. Both of these scholars also believe that the story of Ibrahīm (a) and the birds is not real, it is an allegorical story.
As another example, ‘Āllāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī in a number of places in his Tafsīr as well as Shahīd Muṭahhari in some of his works, allude that the story of Adam, Eve, the tree, Iblīs, Paradise and the fall of Adam could possibly have been allegorical and not an actual event. If this was the case, there would be no need to even discuss topics like the infallibility of Adam since we would say the story is not real to begin with. They say this story could be pointing towards the philosophy of creation, trials and tribulations.
As it can be seen, this inclination towards deeming some stories of the Qur’ān as imaginary existed in the works of a handful of scholars. However, in the year 1948 an Egyptian scholar by the name of Muḥammad Aḥmad Khalafallah (d. 1991) who wrote a thesis titled, ‘The Narrative Art in the Holy Qur’ān’ (al-Fann al-Qiṣaṣī fī al-Qur’ān al-Ḥakīm). The supervisor was the famous scholar and writer Dr. Amīn al-Khawlī. When Khalafallah presented his thesis for defense, it caused a lot of controversy and he was accused of apostasy. In any case, the thesis was eventually published three times during his lifetime, one of them with the marginal notes of the famous Egyptian scholar Dr. Khalīl ‘Abd al-Karīm in support of Khalafallah’s arguments.
Khalafallah says I want to defend the Qur’ān from the criticisms Orientalists have put forth against the Qur’ān. One of these criticisms is that there is not one story in the Qur’ān that does not have a historical issue with it. In response to this criticism of the Orientalists, he argues that the Qur’ānic stories are not historical stories, rather the fact that they were not historical stories and more so allegorical – something the Arabs were not familiar with in terms of relaying historical stories – this itself was one of the miraculous aspects of the Qur’ān.
As mentioned already, this cause controversy and a number of critiques were also written against him. I will mention a few important ones:
- Fahd al-Rūmī in Itijāhāt al-Tafsīr fi al-Qarn al-Rābi’ ‘Ashr
- ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Khaṭīb in al-Qiṣaṣ al-Qur’ānī fī Manṭūqīhi wa Mafḥūmihi
- ‘Abd al-Jawād al-Ḥamṣ in Abāṭīl al-Khuṣūm ḥawl al-Qiṣaṣ al-Qur’ānī
- ‘Abd al-Qāṣim Ḥusaynī in Mabānī-yi Hunarī-yi Qiṣay-hāyi Qur’ān (Farsi)
- Shaykh Ḥādī Ma’rifat in many works, specifically Shubuhāt wa Rudūd ḥawl al-Qur’ān al-Karīm
The Qur’ānic stories are to be understood as literary devices, because the Qur’ān is not a book of history. Since the Qur’ān is not a book of history, events themselves, let alone their details, do not concern the book. On the contrary, given the Qur’ān is a book whose very miracle is in its literary devices, what it is concerned with is to attract and influence the audience towards its message. However, later Muslims and exegetes began to treat the Qur’ān as if it is the work of a historian and that it concerns itself with history – this is what led them into problems. In fact, the Orientalists themselves fell into the same fallacy since they began treating the Qur’ān as a book of history. If you were to look at the works of great fiction authors and they were to mention some story, you would not take those stories and discuss their historical veracity and argue against the contents of the book – that would be laughable.
He confesses that it is not necessary that there are no real stories in the Qur’ān, but the fact is that most of them are not. Sometimes, the complete event is not real, and at other times the event may be real, but the scenario the Qur’ān is depicting with its details is not real. If we were to explain his point more clearly in today’s context, we could give the example of the movies made on the lives of the Prophets (p) and Imams (a). The general stories are real, but no one can say all the details depicted in it are real. There is no way to produce a full-length film or a TV series without adding these details, they have to be added in order to give the scenario more substance and meaning. Khalafallah says the same thing has occurred in the Qur’ān.
He then says the stories in the Qur’ān are of three types:
1) Historical stories – these are stories whose basis has come from some historical event.
2) Allegorical stories – these are what fiction authors generally do, these events do not exist in reality, but they think and imagine a story for any given purpose. The basis of these stories is the imagination of the author.
3) Mythological stories – it was this third division which caused most controversy. Khalafallah believed there are stories in the Qur’ān that existed in the minds of the audience who believed these stories to be real even though they had no historical reality, yet the Qur’ān used these legends and myths to convey a certain point or it used it to argue against them.
For example, today some may critique someone on the pulpit for narrating certain events from the Battle of Karbala which they say did not happen historically speaking. The person may reply, I acknowledge that a certain incident did not happen historically speaking, but the masses believe in it and accept it, hence I will use it anyways to convey a certain point, for example the courage of Imam Ḥusayn (a), or the oppression on the Ahl al-Bayt (a) and so on. In fact, we know today many people use this exact same defense when it comes to narrating the events of Karbala. This is what Khalafallah means by mythological stories – he says what is wrong if the Qur’ān does this?
He brings nine verses from the Qur’ān as alibis:
1) [6:25] And among them are those who listen to you, but We have placed over their hearts coverings, lest they understand it, and in their ears deafness. And if they should see every sign, they will not believe in it. Even when they come to you arguing with you, those who disbelieve say, “This is not but legends of the former peoples.”
2) [8:31] And when Our verses are recited to them, they say, “We have heard. If we willed, we could say [something] like this. This is not but legends of the former peoples.”
3) [16:24] And when it is said to them, “What has your Lord sent down?” They say, “Legends of the former peoples,”
4) [23:83] We have been promised this, we and our forefathers, before; this is not but legends of the former peoples.”
5) [25:5-6] And they say, “Legends of the former peoples which he has written down, and they are dictated to him morning and afternoon.” Say, [O Muhammad], “It has been revealed by He who knows [every] secret within the heavens and the earth. Indeed, He is ever Forgiving and Merciful.”
6) [27:67-68] And those who disbelieve say, “When we have become dust as well as our forefathers, will we indeed be brought out [of the graves]? We have been promised this, we and our forefathers, before. This is not but legends of the former peoples.”
7) [46:17] But one who says to his parents, “Uff to you; do you promise me that I will be brought forth [from the earth] when generations before me have already passed on [into oblivion]?” while they call to Allah for help [and to their son], “Woe to you! Believe! Indeed, the promise of Allah is truth.” But he says, “This is not but legends of the former people” –
8) [68:10-15] And do not obey every worthless habitual swearer. [And] Scorner, going about with malicious gossip – a preventer of good, transgressing and sinful, cruel, moreover, and an illegitimate pretender. Because he is a possessor of wealth and children, when Our verses are recited to him, he says, “Legends of the former peoples.”
9) [83:10-13] Woe, that Day, to the deniers, who deny the Day of Recompense. And none deny it except every sinful transgressor. When Our verses are recited to him, he says, “Legends of the former peoples.”
He cites all of these verses and says all of them were revealed in Makkah. Even the verse from Sūrah al-Anfāl, he believes the specific verse within it was revealed in Makkah as the people of Medina never said that the stories of the Qur’ān were legends and myths of the former people. The people of Makkah very well knew that the stories were legends and myths, that they did not have historical realities. Khalafallah says, in all of these cases the Qur’ān not even once denies or rejects their claims that the stories are legends, tales and myths of the former people. If their claims were false, the Qur’ān would have at least condemned them for saying that the stories are legends and myths.
Even in [25:5-6] when the people say these verses of the Qur’ān are legends of the former people that have been written down in the past and are simply being dictated and reiterated, the Qur’ān responds to them by saying these are in fact revelations, but does not refute their claim that they are legends.
His conclusion is that the Qur’ān itself confesses – albeit through its silence – that there are legends and myths in it which do not point towards any real historical events and incidents. Most of these stories are in context of proving and emphasizing the Day of Judgement. One of the stories he believes is a complete superstition is the story of the people of the cave (Aṣḥāb al-Kahf). He said, it was merely a superstitious story that existed in the Arabian society and the Qur’ān simply used it to drive home a point against the polytheists.
Critique Against Khalafallah
A lot has been written against Khalafallah’s view, but we will only mention a few important ones here.
1) Khalafallah makes the presumption that all the verses that speak about the legends of the former people are in context of the Day of Judgement and that the Qur’ān is emphasizing the Hereafter through these legends. This very presumption is incorrect. Let us just look at three of these verses to demonstrate they have nothing to do with the Hereafter:
- a) Sūrah al-Qalam [68:10-15] has nothing to do with the Day of Judgement. At the end of the chapter there is some indication towards the Hereafter, but there is nothing in these specific verses that ties the notion of “legends of the former people” to the Hereafter.
- b) Sūrah al-Furqān [25:5-6] once again, the verses before and after have nothing to do with the Hereafter.
- c) Sūrah al-Anfāl [8:31] also has nothing before or after it that would lead us to conclude the verses are about the Day of Judgement.
2) Khalafallah says that the Qur’ān cites the statements of the polytheists who say these are legends and myths but did not refute their claims. This is not correct.
For example, if you look at Sūrah al-Qalam, it says when the verses are recited to them, they say these are legends of the former people. It is tantamount to saying, “when I tell them this is my book, they say it is X’s book.” This response itself can be understood as a refutation.
Or for example in Sūrah al-Muṭaffifīn it says woe to the deniers, those upon whom when Allah’s (swt) verses are recited, they say, these are the legends of the former people.
In [25:5-6] when the people say these are legends, Allah (swt) says these are not legends, rather they are verses that have been revealed by Him who knows all the secrets. In all of these examples we see an example of a response being given through the literary device of muqābalah (reciprocity).
3) There are places in the Qur’ān where it says that the stories being mentioned are true and real. For example, [3:62] Indeed, this is the true narration. Or in Sūrah al-Kahf which Khalafallah considers a superstitious story, it says [18:13] It is We who relate to you their story in truth.
4) What does the word myth or legend (asāṭīr) used in the Qur’ān mean? It could either mean a false or superstitious belief, that has no validity at all, or it could be derived from the word saṭr (a drawn out line) and usṭūrah is on the paradigm of uf’ūlah – just like ukẓūbah – which would mean the written down stories of the predecessors. This second meaning is more appropriate – hence the verse would not mean the superstitions and legends of the former people, rather the written down stories of the former people.
An alibi for this is the verse that says legends of the former peoples which he has written down – meaning the polytheists were accusing the Prophet (p) of having copied and written down the stories from previous books. The Qur’ān then rejects this accusation and says he did not copy and write down these stories from anywhere else, rather these are verses that were revealed by Allah (swt).
We want to mention that the Arabs – not including the Ahl al-Kitāb – were not very familiar with the stories of the previous Prophets (p), neither did they possess many books or libraries, the culture of reading and writing was almost non-existent. Unlike what the Jews possessed in Medina for example or Christians in Najran, they were people of knowledge and had books, they knew how to read and write. What the Arabs generally knew were stories of their grandfathers and some ancestors, they knew poetry, and the closest thing they had which was associated to Prophets (p) was the Ka’ba which by then had become a place for idols.
This is one of the reasons why the Prophethood of Muḥammad (p) is astonishing because he was sent amongst a group of people who did not care about Prophets (p), they did not know much about them, it was not part of their culture or tradition – unlike the Jews and Christians. Hence, when he was chosen as a Prophet (p) and began telling them stories of previous Prophets (p) a lot of this was new information for the polytheists of Makkah. This was used to drive home the point that Allah (swt) is the one who is granting Muḥammad (p) this knowledge. A number of verses even reiterate this point:
[3:44] That is from the news of the unseen which We reveal to you, [O Muhammad]. And you were not with them when they cast their pens as to which of them should be responsible for Mary. Nor were you with them when they disputed.
The verse is saying the Prophet (p) was not even present amongst them, so how could he have known the story? This is knowledge of the unseen granted to him through Revelation.
[28:44-46] (O Muhammad), you were then not on the western side when We bestowed this commandment (of Law), and you were not among its witnesses. Thereafter We raised up many a generation and a long time passed. You were then not even present among the people of Midian to rehearse Our verses to them. But it is We Who are sending news about that. Nor were you on the side of the Mount (Sinai) when We called out to Moses (in the first instance). But it is out of Mercy from your Lord (that you are being informed of all this) so that you may warn a people to whom no warner came before you. Maybe they will take heed.
These stories themselves astonished people of Makkah, they were shocked to see someone from amongst them coming to them with these stories and their details. This led them to ponder over how someone could have come with all this knowledge, who did he learn this from? This is in fact one of the arguments used to prove the Prophethood of Muḥammad (p).
[11:49] That is from the news of the unseen which We reveal to you, [O Muhammad]. You knew it not, neither you nor your people, before this. So be patient; indeed, the [best] outcome is for the righteous.
The next verse has been a subject of theological debate, but ignoring that, the prima-facie of it is important:
[10:94] So if you are in doubt, [O Muhammad], about that which We have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Scripture before you. The truth has certainly come to you from your Lord, so never be among the doubters.
The apparent meaning of the verse is saying to the Prophet (p) that if you yourself have any doubt with regards to any of the stories we have been revealing to you, then go to the scholars of the Banī Isrā’īl and ask them, for they had these stories written down in their works.
So the polytheists of Makkah were astonished by these detailed stories the Prophet (p) was bringing and they would have only had two choices: either acknowledge that he is a Prophet (p) or that he is plagiarizing and taking the stories from the scholars of the Banī Isrā’īl and the Ahl al-Kitāb. Hence, they say these are legends of the former peoples which he has written down, and the Qur’an refutes them by saying rather these were verses revealed to him by Allah (swt).
Hence another verse of the Qur’ān says:
[42:52] And thus We have revealed to you an inspiration of Our command. You did not know what is the Book
The word “book” in this verse has been understood by some to mean the Prophet (p) was illiterate who did not know how to read and write, so he could not have studied the books of the Ahl al-Kitāb and copied from them. As for those who believe the Prophet (p) was literate, they say this verse is implying that the Prophet (p) was not someone known to be associated with books, he is not someone known to have possessed books or someone who was known in society to be someone who studied books and works of others. The verse is saying that you were not someone known to be associated with books – or you did not know how to read and write – yet you brought forth all these detailed stories. A second verse is even more clear:
[29:48] And you did not recite before it any scripture, nor did you inscribe one with your right hand. Otherwise the falsifiers would have had [cause for] doubt.
So, the summary of this disputation between the Prophet (p) and the polytheists can be summarized as follows: The Prophet (p) comes forth with detailed stories and the polytheists are unfamiliar with these stories and are astonished by them. In response, they accuse the Prophet (p) of having copied and taken these stories from the books of the Ahl al-Kitāb who were known to possess the knowledge of these stories. The Qur’ān then responds to them by saying the Prophet (p) did not know how to read or write so how could he have copied these stories, or as per another interpretation, the Prophet (p) lived among you for forty-years and he was never known to be someone associated with books, reading and writing, so how could he have all of a sudden come forth with all these stories? In essence, the Qur’ān is saying your accusations is unreasonable and meaningless.
If all these stories were myths, legends and not real, what is the point of all this disputation and back and forth argumentation? In addition, if all these stories were myths and legends that are being used in context of proving the Day of Judgement – how do these really convince someone of the Day of Judgement? If the stories are made up, a person will not be able to prove the reality of the Day of Judgment. If these stories were not real, then why does Allah (swt) say he is making the heart of the Prophet (p) firm through them?
[11:120] And each [story] We relate to you from the news of the messengers is that by which We make firm your heart. And there has come to you, in this, the truth and an instruction and a reminder for the believers.
In conclusion, what Khalafallah has said, perhaps it can be accepted and agreed upon in a few exceptional cases just like Fakhr al-Rāzī or ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī have done; but, to make it a default principle professing that all or most of the stories are not real, then as we have shown, the arguments for it have flaws.
What we have seen through out the course of history of Qur’ānic sciences is that the scholars have spent extensive time analyzing the stories of the Qur’ān. Where did these stories take place, what historical records can we find for them, who are the individuals mentioned in some of the stories, and so on. Generally, you will not find extensive discussions analyzing the purposes of these stories and what lessons they are trying to convey. We always divide the stories of the Qur’ān by Prophets (p) – for example the story of Lūṭ, the story of Nūḥ, the story of Adam, the story of Mūsa and so on – this is because since scholars thought about these stories only as historical realities, each story has to have a protagonist and the details of those stories revolved around them.
On the contrary, you will not normally see these stories divided by their purposes and themes – for example stories on the theme of Tawḥīd, stories on the theme of the Hereafter, stories on the theme of sacrifice, stories on the theme of tawakkul (dependency) on Allah and so on. We need to spend more time on this so we can understand the message behind these stories
However, due to the debate and controversy caused after Khalafallah’s thesis, we began seeing a shift towards analyzing Qur’ānic stories through their themes and purposes – and we will touch upon this briefly in our next lesson.
Purpose of Stories in the Qurān
Before we discuss the general purpose of stories in the Qurān, we need to point out two overall approaches to these stories. One approach is historical and has existed for hundreds of years in the works of the exegetes. They say the Qurān is mentioning historical facts and we can refer to these stories as historical documents and determine what occurred and what did not occur in the past.
Some exegetes have gone to such extremities with this approach that they have spent a lot of time engaging in historical discussions in light of these verses, but these discussions have no value. For example, there are discussions investigating the name of Mūsa’s (a) mother – what do we have to do with her name? What purpose does it serve for us in our lives? We are not working for the city council where we have to find her name so we can record it for documentation purposes. Or for example there are discussions investigating the name of the dog that accompanied the people of the cave, or what was the type of tree Adam (a) ate from, was it an apple tree or something else.
If someone is a historian, then by all means they can go and investigate these things, but there is no reason to bring these discussions into one’s exegesis. The Qurān does not bother mentioning these details, so what purpose do they serve and how do they change anything about one’s understanding of the verses?
A second approach is one that became popular in the 20th century and exists even today. This approach says that the Qurānic stories are mentioned for us to take lessons, morals and admonitions from. These exegetes investigate the lessons one can take from any given story in the Qurān and how they can be made practical for us today. Often these exegetes will divide the stories of the Qurān based on their moral lesson – for example, stories on patience and stories on reliance on Allah (swt), instead of dividing them into Mūsa’s story or Nūḥ’s story.
They cite the last verse of Sūrah Yūsuf to make their point: [12:111] There was certainly in their stories a lesson for those of understanding.
In another verse it says: [7:176] …So relate the stories that perhaps they will give thought. This verse signifies that these stories are for people to think about. You can also see a stark difference between the Qurān and the Old & New Testament, where in the latter two you will often find details of historical events, while the Qurān is generally silent on those particular matters.
The overall purpose and lessons derived from the Qurānic stories can be divided into three:
1) General lessons which can be seen in most of the stories
2) Categorical lessons which are found in some of the stories
3) Implied lessons which are found in each story even though they may not be the main point the overall story is making. For example, in the story of Mūsa (a), when he meets the daughter of Shu’ayb (a), she says: [28:25] Then one of the two women came to him walking with shyness. She said, “Indeed, my father invites you that he may reward you for having watered for us.” Over here one can understand and derive aspects of chastity and modesty, particularly when she says, “my father invites you”, instead of saying “I invite you”, or “my sister and I invite you”, or “my father and I invite you.” There are many implied lessons that can be derived from every story of the Qurān which cannot be enumerated.
We will briefly go over the first two types – first, the general lessons and purposes that can be derived from these stories are as follows:
1) Proving the prophethood of Muḥammad (p) – we have alluded to this already in the previous lessons when critiquing Khalafallah and hence we will not repeat those points again.
2) These stories create hope and tranquility for the Muslims and believers, signifying their successful abode, as opposed to creating fear in the disbelievers, signifying their miserable fate. This is present in almost all stories of the Qurān. The stories are telling the Muslims, the stressful and challenging situations you are in have also fallen on the believers before you, yet at the end they were the successful and victorious ones.
For example, after recounting a number of stories, Sūrah Ḥud says [11:49] So be patient; indeed, the [best] outcome is for the righteous. In the same chapter, it later says [11:120] And each story We relate to you from the news of the messengers is that by which We make firm your heart.
Or in the story of Nūḥ, it says [29:14-15] And We certainly sent Noah to his people, and he remained among them a thousand years minus fifty years, and the flood seized them while they were wrongdoers. But We saved him and the companions of the ship, and We made it a sign for the worlds.
In the same chapter , references to many Prophetic stories is made and it concludes with the following verse:
[29:40] So each We seized for his sin; and among them were those upon whom We sent a storm of stones, and among them were those who were seized by the blast [from the sky], and among them were those whom We caused the earth to swallow, and among them were those whom We drowned. And Allah would not have wronged them, but it was they who were wronging themselves.
In fact, we see this same theme even in perhaps the most important story found in the Qurān, the story of Yūsuf (a) which the Qurān itself refers to as the best of stories. A young boy is betrayed by the closest of family members, thrown in a well, taken as a slave and the rest of the events that we know of until he himself becomes an authoritative figure in Egypt. At the end it was the brothers who came to Yūsuf (a) and sought his assistance while Yūsuf (a) was in a position of authority and success.
3) The Qurānic stories tell us that belief is going to put you on a road of challenges. The stories tell us that belief in the truth is not going to be a walk in the park, rather it will be filled with challenges, hardships and responsibilities. These stories imply that the philosophy of life is not that one be at ease all the time, free of any worry – something which we see the West often focusing on and turning it into a criterion for a successful life. Though these things are good, but the stories tell us that life is meant to be full of challenges and hardships, whereas ease and convenience are to be ultimately expected in the Hereafter. A believer is someone who takes these challenges on head-first in this world and does not disbelieve in Allah (swt), unlike many people who we see today when they do not find any ease and comfort in their lives they begin to disbelieve in Allah (swt).
[3:179] Allah would not leave the believers in that [state] you are in [presently] until He separates the evil from the good.
[2:214] Or do you think that you will enter Paradise while such [trial] has not yet come to you as came to those who passed on before you? They were touched by poverty and hardship and were shaken until [even their] messenger and those who believed with him said, “When is the help of Allah?” Unquestionably, the help of Allah is near.
[2:177] Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.
The stories show us that people are tested and through these hardships the evil ones are separated from the good ones. A person who is a believer does not reject Allah (swt) and His (swt) blessings when hardships befall him because he is looking at both the life of this world which is very short and as well as the everlasting life of the Hereafter. Whereas those who are quick to reject Allah (swt) at the mere sight of trials and tribulations, their sight is unable to look past this temporary world.
Is there a bigger test than the one we see in the story of Ibrahīm (a)? He is asked to slaughter his son and he has to submit to the commands of God – one of the major points of these stories is highlighting one’s submission to God’s Will. Likewise, the story of Nūḥ (a) who spent a lengthy period preaching the religion yet only a handful of people joined him. These stories tell us that we must continue with our responsibility, even if at times we may not be successful in what we are trying to achieve. In those cases, you should still not give up.
A believer sees this world like a school, where they are preparing and gaining as much as they can for the Hereafter. Just like in this world one attends school for a few years of their early lives, they go through the challenges and hardships of attending school, some even invest a lot of money in their education, all so they can have a comfortable life after school – this is because they are convinced of the positive results their hardships will result in at a later time.
4) Some scholars have pointed out another interesting purpose of these stories. They say, in context of the Prophet (p) having to address the disbelievers of his time, the Qurān cites a story from the past where previous Prophets (p) had to deal with similar arguments and troubles caused by the disbelievers. Through this, the Qurān essentially replies to the disbelievers at the time of Prophet Muḥammad (p) by referring to the responses given to similar to objections put forth by disbelievers of the past.
If you notice, the stories that are mentioned in the Qurān are very reflective of what was also taking place in Makkah between the Prophet (p) and the disbelievers, or even the Prophet (p) and the Muslims. I have not personally researched this claim too much, though I looked into a few examples that proponents have cited and they are definitely worth contemplating over. For example, they say, if you look at the story of Mūsa (p) in verses that were revealed in Makkah, they are generally about the conflict between Mūsa (a) and Pharaoh – as if Mūsa (a) is Muḥammad (p) and Pharaoh represents the disbelievers in Makkah. However, when you look at the story of Mūsa (a) in verses revealed in Medina, they are generally about Mūsa (a) and Banī Isra’īl – his followers.
5) One of the most important themes in all stories of the Qurān is the Oneness of Allah (swt) – there is no doubt about this. In Sūrah Ambiyā, after mentioning the stories of Mūsa (a), Hārūn (a), Ibrahīm (a), Lūṭ (a), Maryam (s), Ismā’īl (a), and Idrīs (a), it says: [21:92] Surely this nation of yours is one nation, and I am your Lord, so worship Me.
In other words, all the religions being propagated by previous Prophets (p) were the same religion as the one Prophet Muḥammad (p) was propagating, except that the earlier religions were altered and defaced by people. Islam is essentially rectifying and getting rid of the corruption that had occurred in previous religions and offering the criterion for measuring the truth – as it says in [5:48] And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it.
These are some of the general purposes of the stories in the Qurān. As mentioned earlier, there are also some stories that can be divided into specific categories. We will mention a few of them quickly:
1) The truth cannot be compromised for family relationships. For example, Sūrah al-Taḥrīm speaks about the relationship between some of the Prophets (p) and their wives who were not righteous. Or when Allah (swt) tells Nūḥ (a) that your son is not from your family – even though he was Nūh’s biological son. It shows that simply having a close family relationship with the Prophet (p) itself does not mean anything. The criteria for Allah (swt) is belief and righteousness. Unfortunately, this idea still exists in our communities where people may tend to think someone’s family relationship with someone influential is enough for their success.
2) Regretful consequences of pride and jealousy. For example, the story of Yūsuf (p) and his brothers, or the story of the two sons of Adam (a) where one kills the other due to jealousy and [5:31] he became of the regretful. Even the very story of Satan and Adam (a) is a good example of this because Satan does not prostrate to Adam (a) because of his pride. These stories indicate that one does not gain anything from jealousy, instead the jealous person will regret their actions and will become one of the losers.
3) Another category which multiple stories can fall under is the notion of submission and blind imitation to matters and that one’s ignorance to a matter does not necessitate its invalidity. This is an issue very prevalent today in modern times – if people do not understand a matter or are ignorant of it, they will say it is necessarily false and wrong. They essentially make themselves the criterion for truth, so if they do not understand anything, that means it is wrong. This is while Allah (swt) says [17:85] And mankind has not been given of knowledge except a little.
Verse 1 – A Lam Tara Kayfa Fa’ala Rabbuka Bi-Aṣḥāb al-Fīl
The chapter begins with a question, and this question can be understood in two ways:
1) It implies an affirmation where Allah (swt) is demanding a confession from the Prophet (p). We also addressed this type of question in our commentary on Sūrah al-Inshirāḥ.
2) It is a rhetorical question, which would mean the verse is saying, ‘you have definitely seen how your Lord dealt with the companions of the Elephant.’
In both cases, the presumption is that the audience knows the answer to the question, they understand the subject matter, and the questioner is putting forth the question to get a confession from the audience (which is the Prophet in this case) so that another point can be made subsequently.
What Does Tara Mean?
There is a discussion on the verb tara (lit. “you see”) which is from the noun ru’ya (to see, vision, sight). Was this seeing a physical seeing or another type of seeing? Did the Prophet (p) even see the event? If this chapter is talking about the story of the nation of Lūṭ (a) – which we earlier said was the opinion of the famous Qur’āniite Aḥmad Subḥī Manṣūr – then the Prophet (p) was not even born at the time. If the chapter is talking about the story of Abraha, even then the Prophet (p) was not born at the time of the event. So what does the verse mean when it says did you not see? A number of opinions are offered:
1) A number of exegetes – including ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī – have said that you can use the term “seeing” for any knowledge which is very clear and apparent for an individual. This is used very often in the Arabic language, for example they say, so and so person “saw” this opinion on a matter, or they “saw” this claim to be more correct – this does not mean they physically saw something, rather it means the matter was so clear and obvious to them that it is as if they physically saw it with their eyes. There are a number of verses which can be cited for this claim:
[58:7] Have you not seen that Allah knows what is in the heavens and what is on the earth?
Who has physically seen the knowledge of Allah (swt)? It is not possible to physically see His (swt) knowledge.
[2:243] Have you not seen those who left their homes in many thousands, fearing death?
[2:246] Have you not considered the assembly of the Children of Israel after [the time of] Moses?
[89:6] Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with ‘Ād?
In the above verses, Prophet Muḥammad (p) was not physically present at any of these events, yet the presumption is that knowledge with respects to these events is very clear and obvious, hence it is as if the event was physically seen.
Someone may say, given these verses are addressing the Prophet (p) directly it is possible that the Prophet (p) did indeed see these events, but his (p) seeing does not necessarily have had to be in the way we generally expect it to be. If that is the case, then what will we do with this verse: [71:15] Do you not see how Allah has created seven heavens in layers? This verse is addressing people in general, not just the Prophet (p) and it is speaking about “how” Allah (swt) created the seven heavens. No one has seen “how” Allah (swt) created the heavens, yet the convention is being used to indicate that the matter should be very clear and obvious to you.
[21:30] And have not the ones who disbelieved seen that the heavens and the earth were an integrated (mass), then We unseamed them, and of water We have made every living thing?
When did the disbelievers physically see this?
[17:99] And have they not seen that Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth is Ever-Determiner over creating the like of them?
We do not physically see the power of Allah (swt) to create anything, rather we have knowledge of the power of Allah (swt).
[29:19] And have they not seen how Allah starts creation, thereafter He brings it back again. Surely that is easy for Allah.
In all of these verses, the exegetes have said “seeing” means to know something which is very obvious and clear. Likewise, in the story of the companions of the elephants, the verse is saying, do you not know how Allah (swt) dealt with them – meaning it is so obvious and clear what happened to them.
2) Some other exegetes have said that though the Prophet (p) did not physically see the event, but by using this linguistic convention, Allah (swt) is actually asking him to address the elders of the community who did physically see the event. This is similar to the exegetical principle īyyāka a’nī wa isma’ī yā jārah (along the lines of, I speak to you yet my intended audience are those around you).
This interpretation requires one to take things into presumption which are not very apparent in the text itself, this is while the first interpretation is much more reasonable and does not require us to take such extraneous presumptions into consideration. As for the exegetical principle, it is a valid principle and is used colloquially too, but there needs to be some criterion to use it, not wherever you see the Prophet (p) being addressed.
3) Some of the mystics and those who have an affinity to mysticism hold the position that this verse is strictly addressing the Prophet (p). They say that the verse literally means seeing and this is a seeing through a mystical vision or through knowledge of the unseen. He (p) saw all the events, given his light was the first thing to be created and he (p) perceives everything that occurs in creation through knowledge by presence.
There is nothing wrong with this possibility, but after looking at the use of this linguistic convention in the Qurān, particularly when it also at times uses it to address other Muslims and disbelievers, we prefer the first opinion over this one.
What Does Kayfa Imply?
Kayfa signifies the “how-ness” of something and its meaning is very clear in this verse. The verse is not asking whether they know about how the actual event took place, rather it is alluding to the nature of how Allah (swt) dealt with them by ruining their evil plots.
The combination of Rabb (Lord) with the pronoun Ka (i.e. your Lord) conveys a feeling – and I do not have any evidence for this, but it feels this way – that the verse was revealed at a time where the Prophet (p) was being overwhelmed and overpowered by the disbelievers and hypocrites. Perhaps at a certain time there was a feeling amongst the Muslims where they felt they did not have the power to fight off the disbelievers and their plots, thinking they are too strong. Based on this feeling, the verse could even have been revealed in Medina, perhaps during one of the battles such as Aḥzāb, though as I said this is not evidence and all scholars have said this chapter was revealed in Makkah, but this is a type of feeling I get from this verse.
In other words, the verse is saying do not worry about your situation – did you not see what your Lord, the One who is always by your side, the One who assists and helps you at all times, did with those who wanted to destroy the Ka’ba and the people of Makkah believed there is no way to fight the army off?
The word aṣḥāb – companions – connected with elephants does not necessarily mean these people owned these elephants. Rather it could be a reference to them being recognized and symbolized by an elephant, which was a symbol of their power and strength.
Fakhr al-Rāzī and even some other exegetes have gone into a ta’wīlī discussion here and said since aṣḥāb comes from companionship, there is a type of condemnation of these people in the use of this word. This is because the verse is bringing these men down to the level of animals and saying they themselves were like elephants. In fact, these exegetes have said being the aṣḥāb of someone indicates they are lower in rank – for example when we say aṣḥab of the Prophet (p), the aṣḥāb are lower than the Prophet (p) – and in the phrase aṣḥāb al-fīl the Qurān is saying they were in fact even lower than the elephant.
This is a possibility, but there is no strong alibi for it because being from the aṣḥāb of someone or something does not always imply a person is lower in rank. For example, aṣḥāb al-sabt (companions of the Sabbath) were known as such because they become associated with the Sabbath. Furthermore, what will you do with this verse [68:48] Then be patient for the decision of your Lord, and be not like the companion of the fish [ṣāḥib al-ḥūt]. If Prophet Yūnus (p) is referred to as the companion of the fish, it does not mean he is lower in rank than the fish, rather it is simply due to the association he developed with it when he was inside the fish.
In fact, even the Prophet (p) himself is referred to as a ṣāḥib and it has nothing to do with him being lower in rank than the people in his community.
[34:46] …in no way is there any madness in your Companion…
[53:2] In no way has your companion erred, and in no way is he misguided.
[81:22] And in no way is your companion a madman.
In none of these verses does the word ṣāḥib or aṣḥāb in it of itself indicate anything negative. The Qurān uses the word for many other associations, such as Aṣḥāb al-Nār, Aṣḥāb al-Jahīm, Aṣḥāb al-Jannah, Aṣḥāb al-Kahf and so on. We see that the use of the word aṣḥāb is mostly employed to identify a group of people by that which they were associated with.
Verse 2 – A Lam Yaj’al Kayda-hum Fī Taḍlīl
This repetitive questioning leads to the understanding that there is an emphasis in getting a confession out of a person, confession to something they know about very well. This emphasis is important because it will signify the magnitude of the message that follows (the ruining of the army’s plots).
What is Kayd?
Many exegetes have said that kayd is any planning or plotting which is done in secrecy. If that is the case, then we must ask ourselves, what was so secret about the plans of the aṣḥāb al-fīl? We find in the historical reports that Abraha was very clear and open about his plan, so why does the verse call it a kayd?
Some have said, kayd in this verse is referring to the fact that Abraha wanted to destroy the Ka’ba under any circumstance anyways and not just because some one had disrespected the sanctity of the church he had built. He merely used that event as an excuse to carry out his plans, but otherwise he had plans to destroy the Ka’ba regardless.
However, we do not have to throw ourselves into this type of questioning and answering, because when we refer back to how the word kayd is used in the Arabic language, we do not see the condition of “secrecy” being understood in it. Kayd is simply “planning” – it is used in both positive and negative cases. For example, Allah (swt) uses it for Himself in the Qurān [86:16] But I am planning a plan. In that case, this verse simply means, did Allah (swt) not ruin their plans?
Taḍlīl and Iḍlāl are generally used in the same meaning, signifying the loss of direction and straying off a path. If that is the meaning we take, then what does it mean for their plan to be made astray? Their plan was to reach a certain conclusion, which was the destruction of the Ka’ba, and yet this goal was not achieved. Hence, their plan was made to go astray. This is what it means in [18:104] The ones whose endeavor errs away in the present life – meaning their efforts do not lead them to the conclusions they want to reach.
The word tadlīl has not been used in the Qurān except in this one chapter. In the Qurān you will find verbs and nouns morphed from the verbal noun iḍlāl, this is while taḍlīl over here does not mean anything different than iḍlāl. I will mention one reason that a number of scholars have mentioned – and this reason is something worth investigating further and deserves a masters or doctorate level thesis on it. Some scholars, for example Shahīd Muḥammad Ṣādiq al-Ṣadr, say that many of the ending nouns or verbs used in the Qurān are used simply for purposes of prose and rhyme. Otherwise, there is no special quality in the meaning of the word itself for which it is being used. We will not open up this discussion here and perhaps touch upon it in some other discussion, but as I mentioned, this is an important discussion to be had – is it really the case that the ending nouns or verbs in some verses do not have any specific meaning that differentiates it from another similar verb or noun, rather than it simply being due to rhythm?
In any case, this verse really signifies and magnifies the power of Allah (swt) in destroying the plans of the companions of the elephant. The verse does not say a lam yuḍil kaydahum (did Allah (swt) not make their plans go astray), rather it says yaj’al kaydahum fī taḍlīl (did Allah (swt) not place their plans in a path off course). The combination of yaj’al (to place) with the preposition fī (in) emphasizes the belittling of the army – did Allah (swt) not take their plans and put them in taḍlīl?
This combination is used in two other verses as well:
[40:25] And in no way can the plotting (kayd) of the disbelievers end except in (fī) error.
[40:37] And the plan (kayd) of Pharaoh was not except in (fi) ruin.
It is possible to say that this verse is essentially the ultimate point of this story. The message is that Allah (swt) destroyed and ruined the plans of the enemies who wished to destroy the Ka’ba. It is a message to the believers that Allah (swt) can ruin the plot of the disbelievers, so never lose hope in the assistance of Allah (swt).
Verse 3 – Wa Arsala ‘Alayhim Ṭayran Abābīl
This verse is either connected to the 2nd or the 1st verse – exegetes have mentioned both possibilities. If it is connected to the 2nd verse it will read as: Did He not make their stratagems go awry and send against them flocks of birds? But if it is connected to the 1st verse it will read as: Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the Men of the Elephant and send against them flocks of birds? Did He not make their stratagems go awry?
I believe it is apparent that it is connected to the 2nd verse and it is simply clarifying how Allah (swt) ruined the plots of the companions of the elephant.
The verb arsala – sent forth – also shows that this event was not just a simple natural occurrence, rather there was an intention behind it.
There is a discussion on the word ṭayr which is a singular noun for a genus, but plays the role of a plural, hence the word abābīl is a plural noun. For example, [51:24] Has the discourse about Ibrahīm’s honored (mukramīn) guests (ḍayf) come up (to your knowledge)? The word ḍayf is a singular, but because it plays the role of a plural, they have been described with a plural quality – mukramīn.
Since ṭayr is in its indefinite tense, the tanwīn further signifies the large quantity of birds that were involved in this event.
On the other hand, some scholars have said both ṭayr and abābīl are singular nouns. They bring the verb tarmī-him from the next verse as an alibi for this, which is a verb used for a singular pronoun, whereas if it was plural it would have used yarmūna-hum. However, this is a weak response since we are speaking of birds which are classified in Arabic grammar as non-intellectual beings and you would not use the verb yarmūna-hum for them ever, even if they are plural.
There is an opinion that says the ṭayr mentioned in the verse is not a reference to real birds, rather a certain creature is being called ṭayr simply because it flew. Otherwise it seems to be a creature that consciously knew what it was doing since it was able to aim and hit the men on the ground.
This possibility is difficult to defend grammatically; perhaps if the verse said tā’ir instead of ṭayr then maybe, but ṭayr in Arabic definitely means bird. As for the verses implying that this creature knew and understood what it was doing, this is not known, because the birds could have done what they did because of it being a type of miracle.
If this is indeed proven to be an instance of a miracle then this will also be a refutation of the Mu’tazalīs who believe miracles can only occur for a Prophet (p) and other than the Prophets (p) there is no such thing as a miracle. They do not believe in anything called karāmāt (supernatural wonders). Amongst the Shī’ī scholars who rejected anything known as karāmāt were Abū Muḥammad al-Nawbakhtī and Abū Sahl al-Nawbakhtī – both significant and influential Imāmī theologians as Najāshī has described them.
There are two opinions on what the word Abābīl means:
1) It is a description of the ṭayr
2) It is a name for the type of ṭayr
Those who say it is a description, they themselves are divided on what this description is:
- a) One group says Abābīl means a large group of birds, but they are not united, rather they are flying in multiple separate groups. The verse would mean that a group of birds came, threw stones and then flew off, then another group of birds came, threw stones and flew off and so on. This is a very popular opinion amongst Muslim scholars and they say this is why the present tense tarmī-him has been used as it signifies continuity of action, rather than using the past tense ramat-hum which could imply that a group of birds came all at once, threw stones and flew off.
- b) Some exegetes have said Abābīl is a combination of two words Abā and Bīl. Abā meaning father and Bīl meaning a type of spade or shovel – possibly taken from Persian. In other words, Allah (swt) sent forth a flock of birds who possessed beaks that looked like spades. This is a very strange explanation of the word and the proponent has not brought any alibi or evidence to back up his claim either.
As for those who say Abābīl is a type of bird, they are saying it is simply another type of bird like eagles, vultures, pigeons. This is also a very strange position to hold because we do not know to date what bird the Arabs would identify as Abābīl.
The Grammatical Position of Abābīl
As we have shown, most exegetes have said it is a quality and description for ṭāyr, hence it is also in the accusative state (manṣūb) like ṭāyr. Though it could also be taken as a circumstantial clause (ḥāl) and still be accusative.
Is the word Abābīl Arabic or Foreign?
1) Some have said this is a foreign word, not Arabic. Some say it is from a different language, while some others say it is a word which the Qurān itself coined and the Arabs had never heard of it before.
Some have even said this is in line with the fact that this chapter also uses other foreign words, such as Fīl and Sijjīl – both are foreign words. As such, this chapter uses the most foreign words in relation to the number of total words it has. Of course, there is an extensive discussion on whether the Qurān uses foreign words or not, what does it mean for a word to be Arabic and so on – we will not get into that discussion here.
2) Some say it is an Arabic word, but it is derived (mushtaqq) in meaning, not in its letters. Its meaning is derived from the word ibil (camel). When camels go out to eat or drink, you will not see a camel on its own, rather you will see them split up into multiple groups.
In any case, the word would be a plural and it does not have a singular form.
One final point that some contemporary exegetes have pointed out is that the chapter begins with the mentioning of an elephant which was a sign of power and strength and then contrasts it with birds that are not seen to be powerful. This is to highlight how Allah (swt) destroyed the plots of an army that was coming with an elephant, with a small animal like a bird. It is further belittling those who came to destroy the Ka’ba.
This is possible, but I do not understand the justification for it since we do not really know anything about these birds. Who said they were small birds to begin with? Perhaps they were big birds like falcons, hawks or vultures. Not to mention the fact that it is not known that the army was comprised of so many elephants, rather it seems there was only one elephant that was probably brought as a sign and mascot to show their strength and power.
Verse 4 – Tarmī-him Bi Ḥijāratin Min Sijjīl
Over here some exegetes have gotten into discussions of how the birds threw these stones, how the winds played a role and so on. We do not want to get into any of those discussions because they are nothing but mere speculations and discussions about unseen matters whose knowledge only Allah (swt) knows.
Stones of Sijjīl
What does sijjīl mean? There are a number of opinions:
1) The root word sajala means to send forth, so sijjīl is a quality referring to something that is sent forth. The meaning of the verse would be, the birds pelted the army with stones that were aimed towards them. The preposition min would be for elucidation (bayānīyyah), not for tab’īḍīyyah.
2) Sijjil is from tasjīl which means to record. The meaning of the verse would be, the birds pelted them with stones whose fate was already known and recorded in the Knowledge of Allah (swt) as a source of chastisement for the army.
Both of these meanings seem to be a little strange and difficult to accept.
3) Sijjīl means intense and strong and the verse means, the bird pelted them with stones that were strong and heavy.
4) Sijjīl is the sky and the verse means, the birds pelted them with stones that were being thrown at the army from the skies.
5) Sijjīl is a stone from hell – a fiery stone. This is why some exegetes have also said when the stones were hitting the army they were burning them to death.
6) Sijjīl is a stone that is mixed with clay – it is baked clay. They say the word is a Persian word from sang-gill meaning a stone of clay. This is a view held by a number of linguistics and also exegetes. Three alibis that are brought for this is when we look at the story of the people of Lūṭ (a) it says:
[11:82] So as soon as Our Command came, We turned it upside-down and rained on it stones of baked clay tiered (sijjīl) one on another.
[15:74] So We turned it upside-down, and We rained upon them stones of baked clay (sijjīl)
[51:31-33] Later, Abraham asked, “What is your mission, O messengers?” They replied, “We have actually been sent to a wicked people, to send upon them stones of baked clay (ṭīn).
Verse 5- Fa-Ja’ala-hum Ka ‘Aṣfin Ma’kūl
The conclusion of this attack was that they ended up like chewed-up straw. What does ‘aṣf mean? When you harvest the crops, the left-over leaves and stalks of plants are called ‘aṣf – they have no value, they have no weight, and can be blown away with he winds.
Another meaning is straw, which essentially implies the same meaning as the one mentioned above, that is, left over leaves and stalks or straw whose weight is so insignificant that they can be blown away by the wind with ease.
As for ma’kūl there are three possible meanings as well:
1) One meaning is simply put, something that has been eaten and chewed up. That would mean that the straws or leaves that are left on the ground which are then eaten up by animals, they become faeces and excrement – this is what it means to be ‘aṣf ma’kūl, belittling the army to a great extent.
‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī felt that this is not in line with the Qurānic etiquettes, but contrary to him, other scholars have said this is in fact an example of Qurān’s etiquettes, because the Qurān did not want to use explicit words for faeces and excrement, it referred to it as ‘aṣf ma’kūl. This is similar to the Qurān using the word furūj to refer to one’s private parts, or the verb taghashshā-hā in [7:189] to refer to sexual intercourse.
2) Ma’kūl is referring to those things who have the potential to be eaten. It does not literally mean it has been eaten, rather its worth is such that it should be eaten. The verse would mean, they were turned into straw or leaves that are normally eaten by wandering animals.
3) I want to add another possibility here which if correct it would spare us from the previous two possibilities. Consider a stack of straw or hay and you bring in your cattle to feed on it. Once they are done eating and leave, you come in – what do you see? You see that the hay is eaten up, and pieces are laying all over the place, even chewed up pieces or pieces that were stepped on and so on. You would consider this stack of hay or straw as ma’kūl (eaten). It is as if the verse is saying the birds pelted them with stones, and that act of theirs is similar to cattle coming and eating up hay, and once the birds left, the army looked similar to what hay looks like once cattle is done feeding on it.
In conclusion the chapter is painting a very intense picture of what happened with the army that was coming to destroy the Ka’ba. It says, O Prophet (p), did you not see what your Lord did with the Men of the Elephants? Did you not see how Allah (swt) destroyed all of their elaborate planning and plots, such that absolutely nothing was achieved? He (swt) sent forth multiple swarms of birds by His (swt) Will to attack this army with pellets of baked clay. After the attack all that was left was the destroyed army, which looked likes pieces of eaten hay and straw spread all over the place. The chapter shows the power of Allah (swt) and gives the believers hope in remaining steadfast on their mission at all times – because there is an absolute power that can come to their aid at any time.