Monday, December 12, 2011

The Koran and the Year of the Elephant

Scriptural literalists believe every word of their sacred texts is true historically as well as in every other way. For Christians and Jews, this means believing the sun was created four days after the earth as described in Genesis 1. And for Muslims, it includes believing in the battle of the elephant.

Surat Al-Fil, the chapter of the elephant (Koran 105), is considered to be an early Meccan sura and is one of the shortest in the Koran. Its text reads simply, "Have you seen what your Lord did to the owners of the elephant? Did not he ruin their plot when he sent flocks of birds to attack them with pellets of baked clay? He made them like the stalks of an empty corn field after its ears were devoured by the cattle."

This short video gives the version of the story first recorded by Muhammad biographer Ibn Ishaq and taught to millions of young Muslim children around the world. In 570 AD, the year of Muhammad's birth, Abraha was the governor of Yemen which was part of the Ethiopian Kingdom ruled by the Negus. With the Negus' permission Abraha built in Sana "the greatest cathedral in the world at that time" (Al-Qullays in Arabic, the word is from the Greek word for church "ekklesia"). Abraha's reason for building the church, according to Ibn Ishaq, was not to establish a house of worship but to divert Arab pilgrims from going to the Kaaba in Mecca. When an infuriated  Arab visitor from Mecca took revenge by urinating and defecating inside the church, Abraha decided to invade Mecca and destory the Kaaba. With a huge army that included elephants (although Ibn Ishaq says it was one elephant named Mahmud, other accounts give numbers varying from 13 to 1000), Abraha headed towards Mecca defeating every Arab tribe he met along the way. As he approached the city, his army was  suddenly attacked by flocks of thousands of birds who hurled pellets of hardened clay that caused their flesh to explode and destroyed the entire army. "Such was the victory bestowed by Allah, the All-Majestic, All Powerful, to the people of Mecca and such was the protection provided by him for his house the Kabaa in Mecca," concludes early expositor Ibn Kathir.

Apart from bringing back memories of Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds, the story poses the more basic question, Is is True? That question was recently discussed here on the Arabic program Daring Question.

In addition to Islam's default position that anything in the Koran is true simply because the Koran says so, Muslim scholars have argued the story must be accurate because we have no evidence of Meccans contradicting Muhammad when he first recited it as revelation from God. But the fact is that no contradiction of Muhammad was allowed at all, with writers and poets such as Asma bint Marwan killed simply for challenging him. There is no way of knowing, 14 centuries later, how the Meccans responded to Surat Al-Fil when they first heard it, because the voice of Islam is the only voice that remains from that time.

The description of the birds who attacked the army in the story suggests legend rather than fact. According to Ibn Ishaq and other Muslim historians, they had shoulders of dogs and each one carried three pellets with the bird's name written on each one.  Many temples in Greek and Hindu mythology have similar stories of deities magically protecting them from attacks by their enemies.

The most famous Byzantine historian of this era was a scholar who lived in Palestine named Procopius. His volumes give many details of the rule of  Abraha, but make no mention of a journey across the desert with an army containing elephants. Elephants graze most of the day and consume as much as 600 pounds of food and 60 gallons of water per day. They are not desert animals, and an elephant marching across the Arabian desert would require even more water. Although the Ethiopians used elephants for battle in areas where water and food was readily available, they never used them in the desert. The distance from Sana to Mecca is over 500 miles,  and it would have been highly unlikely for an army of elephants to cross that distance.

Apart from the issue of whether Surat Al-Fil is accurate historically, another interesting question is when it was written. Muslim scholars have always claimed it was an early Meccan sura, but this was during the time when the Negus of Ethiopia welcomed Muslim refugees sent by Muhammad from Mecca because of the hardships they were experiencing there (described here). The relationship between Muhammad and the Negus was good, with the Muslims enjoying his hospitality. It is difficult to relate this hospitality with Islam's rendition of the Negus building a temple in Sana to detract from the Kaaba and then sending an army to destroy it. Had his entire army been destroyed by Muhammad's machine-gun firing birds, why would the Negus turn around and welcome the Muslims as guests to live in his country for years?

An additional point is that the Quraysh of Mecca sent emissaries to Ethiopia in an attempt to persuade the Negus to repatriate the Muslims who were living there. If the Koranic story of the elephant had been given by Muhammad before that time, it stands to reason the emissaries would have used it to inform the Negis of what Muhammad said about them. There is no evidence, however, that this story was used in their arguments to the Negus.

What makes more sense is that this sura was written later in Medina, perhaps when Muhammad was preparing to invade the Christians of Tabuk. It was during the Medinan period that Muhammad began to demonize regional Christians in his preparations to attack them. What better way to motivate his army than to create a story of a Christian general who wanted to destroy the Kaaba but whose army was destroyed by the miraculous power of Allah!

There are additional problems with the Islamic account of the story. According to Ibn Ishaq, the Christian Abraha built his church to divert Arab pilgrims from Mecca to Sana for economic reasons. When the Arab defecated in the church, Abraha determined to attack the Kaaba both for revenge and to destroy the competition to his church. The problem is that Muslims, from ancient historians to those alive today, view history and religion from an Islamic perspective. The idea of a Haj, or pilgrimage to a holy location where one's sins will be forgiven, is a Muslim and not a Christian concept. It is true that Christians visit revered sites, but not for the reasons Muslims do. Christians also do not try to entice non-Christians to visit their sites. The idea that Abraha would build a pilgrim site to attract non-Christian pilgrims is not a Christian concept and has never happened throughout Christian history. As noted above, it is more likely the story was created to increase antagonism against Christians attacked by the Muslims at the end of Muhammad's life and in the decades following.

Although Muslim scholars claim that all the Arabs made pilgrimages to Mecca and its Kaaba, which they believe was built by Adam and restored by Abraham, non-Muslim history tells a different story. At least 21 regional cities are recorded as having temples called kaabas where people came for pilgrimages and religious practices. A Greek historian named Diodorus and other pre-Islamic historians described one such location in present day Tabuk in northern Saudi Arabia as being where "all the Arabs came for pilgrimage". The idea that Mecca was a famous religious center and that Abraha would come from Yemen to destroy its Kaaba because it provided competition to his church in Sana is nothing more than Muslim fiction.

Here is a short review of how Surat Al-Fil contradicts historical records:

1. Historians of the era including Procopius detail in history the reign of Abraha in Yemen. These details include how he came to rule, accounts of his wars, and his death in about 535 AD. They make no mention of his crossing the desert with elephants to attack Mecca, or of his death after being blitzed by Muhammad's magical birds.

2. These historians state that Abraha died about 545 AD, 25 years before Muslims claim he died during the year of Muhammad's birth, and that following his death his sons took over his kingdom. When the Persians invaded about 570 AD and defeated them, these sons had already been ruling many years.

3. The Muslim claim that Abraha built a cathedral to divert pilgrims from Mecca has no historical basis apart from the Quran-based claim of Muslim historians. Engravings found at Yemen's Dam of Marab, one of the eight wonders of the ancient world, detail various events of Abraha's kingdom, but none of them mention his cathedral or any attack against Mecca.

4. The Himyar Kingdom was at enmity with Abraha, and assisted the Persians in defeating him in 570 AD. The Himyars left extensive engravings of their battles with Abraha. Had he been killed by a magical bird attack following his raid against Mecca it is highly improbable this would not have been noted in their historical engravings. As can be expected, there is no mention of such an event.

5. The Ethiopian Kings of the time also left records of their territories and rulers. There is no mention in ancient Ethiopian history of Abraha attacking Mecca and dying as a result.

6. Ibn Ishaq is the only reference for the story as believed by Muslims. Even later Muslim historians acknowledge that Ibn Ishaq often exaggerated in some of the accounts he created surrounding Muhammad's life. These same historians, however, have no other source to authenticate the events described in Surat Al-Fil.

And here is a short list of why Muslim historians deliberately distorted the historical records concerning Abraha:

1. Their claim that he died during the year of Muhammad's birth gave added importance to the birth of Islam's Prophet.
2. The story created animosity against Christians, in preparation for the attacks carried out against them by Muslims beginning near the end of Muhammad's life.
3. The Koran says so.

For believing Muslims, "The Koran says so" is the most important reason of all. Very few have the courage to publicly question the historical accuracy of the Koran.


CH Martel said...

The book, "Satan's Trinity: Hitler, Stalin & Muhammad, is available at For the first time in history "HSM" appear together on a book cover. The idea behind the book is to make headway against the ludicrous idea that Muhammad should be conjoined with any religious leader/founder. This book uses the specific names of Hitler and Stalin to efficiently identify the nature of Muhammad and by extension Islam. It compares the personalities and approach of each man to such categories as; war, peace, sex, torture, slavery, women, their respective childhoods and deaths, the critical affects of geography and timing, each man’s anti-social and narcissistic personalities.

Anonymous said...


Jihad Series Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence

Does Jewish Law justify killing civilians?

TNinfidel said...

Anonymous and his dhimmi loonwatch website. What a load of crap. Hate to tell you buddy but Islam's actions speak for itself. People are discovering the truth about Islam. It will be exposed for the cancer it is.

Anonymous said...

What if they were Muslim

You will be dhimmi too in no time :P

Anonymous said...

Peaceful Christianity Turn the other cheek

Peaceful Rome parcel bomb

Mumtaz said...

I love Islam .Keep it up.

aemish said...

No offense, but I rather liken the importance you place in rebutting that elephants couldn't cross a desert to the Kindergarten paper Hillary referenced in seeking to debunk Obama's stated length of presidential ambitions..

Unacknowledged in the blog, and eclipsed again by the always-sensational Satan in the comment section, the only relevant elephant in this room was the one over by the BiGGeR PiCTuRe.

All of these ancient texts describe equally unimaginable events -- from the plagues of the Passover to feeding 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. To continually isolate Islam in your attempts to elucidate what YOU perceive as lunacy is disconcerting; not least because whatever recognition previously provided now appears completely disingenuous, but worse still it would seem that if you can't unabashedly manage to convince some random contestant to play The Christ Is Right with you, you would just as soon require them to forfeit participation in any game show at all. Or were we to deduce some other conclusion from the omnipresent Islamic insults. I mean you basically come right out and SAY 'Muslims aren't as intelligent as me because while I don't believe in army elephants I do believe in burning bushes'.

This can't be healthy. And it should handily be apparent to all how tacky and irrelevant ad hominems are.. I'm doing it right now! lol.. ppsh

To that end though, back to the issue at hand. While there was no interest in any elephants for me to be found, I did find a spark in the Mecca thing..

I found Genesis 21:17-19 so incredibly moving.. Particularly as a preface to Psalm 84's beautiful description of the Valley of Baca.

And whodathunkit? Muslims scholarly considering sources outside the Quran in support of their position might not be as elusive as Chupacabras after all.


Quotable Quotes: said...

I always appreciate your comments. I've never claimed to be a scholar or an expert, and in recent posts have been translating material from an Arabic TV show I like to watch. A month ago I - probably like you - had hardly heard of the Battle of the Elephants. I watch the show, I learn something new, and I post it.
I'm not sure where I said I believe in burning bushes or people walking on water. What I do suggest is that people who take Muhammad literally can find a lot of justification to do bad things. When I question whether the Koran is really from God, I'm suggesting it could be to everyone's benefit to ask the same questions I do.
I hope I don't convey that Muslims are less intelligent than I am, although I do suggest they do not have the freedom within their culture to publicly express the doubts and questions I believe many of them have.

aemish said...

I couldn't help but wrinkle my nose at my own abrasiveness as I just re-read it. You're a saint among men for being so kind in return :o)

I might have to start tying a string around my finger before commenting here..

And watching this show of yours. Sounds contemporary enough. A little ironic that you are tuning into a show to listen to Muslims debating the foundations of their religion and then blogging that they aren't, but, what the hay. Underneath it all, you're a good egg. :D

Anonymous said...

"I do suggest they do not have the freedom within their culture to publicly express the doubts and questions I believe many of them have."

First of all, there is no freedom and democracy in the islamic world, muftis/religious leaders like in saudi arabia or qatar are paid by dictators. They cant say anything unless given permission.

One islamic scholar in middle-east called for the death of Ghadafi yet he wouldnt call for the death of all the other dictators.

Once people are free to believe
whatever they want I am sure there will be more discussions about Islam.

I recommend this

Shabir Ally vs Mike Licona

Theist Vs Atheist Debate: "Does God Not Exist?"

Anonymous said...

"A little ironic that you are tuning into a show to listen to Muslims debating the foundations of their religion and then blogging that they aren't, but, what the hay. Underneath it all, you're a good egg"

I think QQ is christian ?

most of his arguments could be used against Christianity.

aemish said...

Yes, Anonymous. I believe he covered it quite succinctly here..

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Hai Baji said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
WhiteTimeReader said...

Dudes. Im guessing here's where Islam haters congregate. Just reminding you that this is a person with a clear negative view on Islam. So, beforw you make your decision and officially hate it, explore OTHER, CREDIBLE sources, other than this blog. If you read the quran Mr. BLOG PERSON, you would know much, much more. Pitiful really.

WhiteTimeReader said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
WhiteTimeReader said...

P.s. abraha attacked the kaaba before the birth of Mohammed (PBUH).

Nicholas said...

also the recorder shows up and works with digital voice recorder 3 what memory card its an audio recorder. Edit Recorded Messages. This is usually satisfactory for a drummer but may not be nearly as useful for the rest of the band. 24-Bit Digital Effects Processor.

ZAIGHAM said...

Islam says,
"To you your religion and to me mine."
So please stop all this blasphemy.

Eva said...

it is interesting how you have taken all this time to try and proof Qur'an wrong, just because what has happened doesn't fulfill what you expect to happen, doesn't particularly follow a law of physics or biology... first of all, why would Muhammad(a.s.) have to lie about something (that in your opinion there is no chance to be true) to the people that have lived this moment while he was not born yet...couldn't he just lie about something that no one could know? wouldn't that be easier? and on the other hand, why should your version of history be more reliable? why you take for granted what other historians say? you don't know for sure... you didn't live it?... and again, even your historians cannot give exact dates of what has happened... even them are unsure about the true year of Abraha's death... or other events of that time... as for not documenting the real events, I find more reasons in the people of Abrahas for hiding such a defeat, than in Muhammed(a.s.) choosing such a well known history by his people to lie about...

p.s. belief comes from the heart... you know how they say... the truth can hit you between the eyes and you still won't see it... but you are not neither the first not the last... and Allah knows best...

Muhammad Ahamd said...

The year of the elephant consisted of small birds holding small pebbles in their claws not pebbles with their names on it. All that you have said in this bog is wrong, no offense. I being a Muslim never heard a Muslim scholar say anything about pebbles with names on it. Secondly, the fact that no Arab contradicted this does not only include the Muslims but also includes the powerful non Muslims living in Mecca. Non of them contradicted this Surah or chapter. The birds were known as "ababeel" in Arabic, I am not sure what they are called in English. The comment on Islam being revealed as the cancer it is, is wrong.

The Muslims now do not follow the true teachings of Islam. Jihad does not consist of only killing people in the name of Allah. It has five types. This type of jihad, or jihad of the sword, is said to be one of the most lowest types of jihad. The upmost being jihad of one self, i.e to control ones natural faculties.

The Muslims now do not understand the true concept of jihad and are terrorising people. The Quran clearly states "there is no compulsion in [acceptence of religion] " chapter 2 verse 256. The life of Muhammad pbuh and the holy Quran never command us to go and kill people. The holy propeht and his companions never retaliated in Mecca when they were being prosecuted. They only attacked them when the non believers of Mecca came to attack the Muslims in Madinah.

Present day Muslims are like the Christians killing Jews in the crusade. Present day Christians condemn them by saying "they were not following the true teachings of Christianity".

I being a Muslim am supposed to believe in all the previous revealed books. But Allah says that none of them are in their true form now, they have been ultered.

The holy prophet pbuh didn't mary women because of personnel interest but because it was an Arabic custom in the old days that the leader is offered to mary noble women of other tribes. Once the holy prophet had married a women who was known as the most beautiful women in Arabia but he divorced her when she asked refuge of Allah from him (before the first night of their marriage).

The comment on Islam being a cancer is rediculous. How can something which converts bedouins and illiterates to the scholars of their time be cancer? How can something that preaches love for your neighbours and brothers be cancer? How can something which resolves the ongoing conflicts within a nation be cancer?

I believe Islam to be a true religion because of the fulfilment of many of the prophecies given by the holy prophet (pbuh). If you look at true Islam closely, not the terrorist view, then you yourself will be forced by your heart to praise it.

There are many sects of Islam which have different concepts about Islam. Some of the concepts that the wrong sects are forcing on their followers are rediculous. They are not following the true teachings of Islam. I wish that all the Muslims unite to merge all these sects to the one true sect of the original Islam.

There is too much about the truthfulness of Islam to be said here but I cannot type all of it here. I humbly request anyone who is going to say anything about Islam to please first have thorough search on it from both sides, i.e the vies of Islam portrayed by anti islamics and the view of Islam portrayed by Muslims.

Unknown said...

Please get educated. The majority of Muslims live in free countries where they can speak as they choose. You must be one of those ignorant people who thinks most Muslims are Arabs living in deserts! And please learn history and full details before speaking. Elephants can live in the desert and they can travel more than 500 miles especially with humans that are directing them somewhere. And Arabs at that time were very competitive and arrogant and being Christian had nothing to do with it. Plus one minute you are saying Abraha was the one who was involved and was killed the year Muhammad was born and the next minute you say it was negus and it was during the time Muhammad had followers in his land which would indicate it not being the year he was born. Please at least get your opinions straight, if you can't get facts,before you subject the world to them and confuse them worse than it sounds like you are.

aemish said...

@cookie~~ here we go. Welcome! I thought this blog died years ago. I feel like one of the astronauts on Interstellar :D

Mr Anderson Athus Bulyay said...

i found an animation of that event
see look thanks

aemish said...

You. Are. Awesome.

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