2.2 The Year of the Elephant
Abdul-Muttalib had his private grief, but a general grief was soon to befall all Mecca because from the south a great army was approaching it. Abraha, the Abyssinian, who with his troops had traveled hundreds of miles in order to pull down the Ancient House, led it. Abraha had invaded Yemen and subjugated its fierce highland people to his rule. On this expedition, however, he was not interested in the land for it was mostly desert, but only in one spot, Mecca, and one place, the Kaaba.
The Ancient House of Abraham and Ishmael had great repute among the Arabs. They traveled hundreds of miles from remote parts of the peninsula to visit it. Simple and austere, it had a strange spiritual beauty that drew men towards it. The church Abraha had built at great cost, using the finest marble, gold, and ivory could not compete with it, therefore the Ancient House had to be pulled down.
When the Arabs heard of this, two tribes, together with volunteers from other tribes, tried to block his way but were defeated. Against Abraha's great army, his war elephants, and javelin throwers they did not stand a chance. Abraha traveled on towards Mecca using an Arab captive as a guide.
As he approached Mecca, the Meccans rose to fight for their beloved Kaaba, the first house built on earth for the worship of Allah. But they soon learnt that they were no match for Abraha and his great host of trained soldiers with their war elephants.
Abraha sent a messenger to Abdul-Muttalib, the ruler of Mecca, saying that he had not come to fight them but only to pull down the Ancient House. If they offered him no resistance, he would spare their lives. Abdul-Muttalib with a delegation of Meccans went to see Abraha, hoping that through negotiations they would be able to save the Ancient House.
Abraha, impressed by the dignity and distinguished air of Abdul- Muttalib, offered to return the latter's camels that his soldiers had taken, but he would not hear of his request that the Kaaba be spared. Abdul- Muttalib and the delegation offered to give him one-third of the wealth of the Tihama region but Abraha refused. He had come from far richer lands and was not interested in taking money and returning; he had come to pull down the Ancient house. This House had a strange attraction to men and so long as it remained his church did not have a chance of stirring their hearts.
Exhausted and with a heavy heart, Abdul-Muttalib returned to tell the people of Mecca that all was lost and to flee for their lives to the mountain heights. When questioned what would become of the Ancient House, he said, “The Kaaba has Allah I to protect it.”
The name Allah had been used in the Arabic language long before the time of Mohamed, since the days of Abraham and Ishmael, who worshipped Allah alone. With the passage of time and the influence of other peoples the Arabs began to worship idols, but nominally they still admitted the existence of Allah, and said these were lesser gods.
After seeing the women and children conveyed to the safety of the mountains, Abdul-Muttalib took the men and went to pray by the Ancient House for the last time. They prayed with intense fervor, begging Allah to protect His House. Abdul-Muttalib kept clinging to the door of the Kaaba and praying until the last moment.
Abraha directed his great lead elephant towards Mecca. It would have been able to break down the walls of the Kaaba in no time. The elephant walked until it reached the boundaries of the Sacred City and then stopped as if turned into stone. Abraha and his soldiers did all they could to make it move but it would not budge, so they directed it towards AI-Sham. The elephant now began to move so they directed it towards the Kaaba again and again the elephant became like a granite boulder.
Suddenly in the sky there appeared birds in large numbers. Great flocks of birds covered the horizon like enormous black clouds. They swooped down upon Abraha and his men and kept pelting them with small sharp stones until many were stoned to death. Only a few were able to flee.
After the birds had done their work, Abraha and the remnants of his crushed army headed back towards Yemen where he died of shock and exhaustion.
Years later these holy verses from the Koran were to remind the Meccans, many of whom were old enough to remember, of the incident.
"Have you not seen what your Lord did to the people of the elephant? Did He not make their cunning go astray? And set upon them birds in great hordes to pelt them with stones of hard mud, making them like eaten-up leaves." (105:1-5)
They are both a warning that those who oppose Allah will come to grief and a reminder of the goodness of Allah to them in how He saved the Ancient House for them, when they stood unable to do anything.
After this miraculous incident the fame of the Kaaba spread wider, its attraction increased, and the Arabs came from all parts of the peninsula to visit the Sacred House. The total rout of the army that had come to destroy it served only to enhance its sanctity. It was the year 570 AD, and of such tremendous importance to the Arabs that they called it 'The Year of the Elephant.