Year of the Elephant

By the Editors of the Madain Project

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The Year of the Elephant (عام الفيل), known in Arabic as the Amu ul-Fil, is the name in Islamic history for the year approximately equating to 570 CE. According to Islamic tradition, it was in this year that Muhammad was born. The year came to be known as the Year of the Elephant, beginning a trend for reckoning the years in the Arabian Peninsula used until it was replaced with the Islamic calendar during the rule of Umar.

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Abraha, in Islamic tradition, is believed to have launched an expedition of forty thousand men against the Ka‘bah at Mecca. The Christian ruler of Yemen, which was subject to the Kingdom of Aksum of Ethiopia, marched upon the Kaaba with a large army led by a white elephant named Mahmud (and possibly with other elephants - some accounts state there were several elephants, or even as many as eight) intending to demolish it the Ka‘bah. However, the lead elephant known as Mahmud is said to have stopped at the boundary around Mecca, and refused to enter. Several other Arab tribes attempted to fight him on the way, but were defeated.

This event is referred to in the Qur’an, in Surah 105, Al-Fil (Arabic: الـفِـيـل‎, "The Elephant"). The reference to the story in Qur’an is rather short. According to Surah al-Fil, the next day [as Abraha prepared to enter the city], a dark cloud of small birds named 'Ababil' (Arabic: أَبـابـيـل‎) appeared. The birds carried small rocks in their beaks, and bombarded the Ethiopian forces and smashed them like "eaten straw".

circa 570 CE

Mecca at the time, the artistic illustration of the boundary wall that Mahmud (lead elephant) might have refused to cross. Some scholars have placed the Year of the Elephant one or two decades earlier than 570 CE, with a tradition attributed to Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri in the works of ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-San‘ani placing it before the birth of Muhammad's father.

Location and Dating

circa 570 CE

Traditionally a small valley, the Wadi-i Muhassar (وادي محسر), is said to be the stage of Abraha's destrucion, where his army was decimated by the Ababīl birds. Wadi Muhassar, also known locally as the Valley of Fire (وادي النار), is situated between Mina and Muzdalifah. The valley is located some ten kilometers east of the city of Mecca. It is reported to be the location where the army of Abraha was destroyed as they marched towards Makkah, as mentioned in Surah al-Fil. It is a Sunnah to walk briskly through this area when crossing between the Muzdalifah and Mina.

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