The Year of the Elephant (in Arabic, عام الفيل, `Âm al-Fîl) is the name in Islamic history for the year approximately equating to 570 AD. According to Islamic tradition, it was in this year that Muhammad was born. The name is derived from an event said to have occurred at Mecca in which Abraha, the Pagan (or possibly Christian) ruler of the principality of Saba' in Yemen (although differing accounts make him either a viceroy of the Kingdom of Axum or as having broken away and styled himself King of Saba'), marched upon the Kaaba with a large army, which included one or more elephants, intending to demolish it. However, the elephant is said to have stopped at the boundary around Mecca, and refused to enter. The year came to be known as the Year of the Elephant, beginning a trend for reckoning the years in Arabia which was used until it was replaced with the Islamic calendar during the rule of Umar.
Recent discoveries in southern Arabia suggest that Year of the Elephant may have been 569 or 568, as Persians overthrew the Abyssinian regime in Yemen around 570. However, historians today believe that this event occurred at least a decade prior to the birth of Muhammad.[verification needed]
The year is also recorded as that of the birth of Ammar ibn Yasir.
According to early Islamic historians such as Ibn Ishaq, in honor of his ally the Negus (the Christian Abyssinian Emperor of the Kingdom of Axum), Abraha built a great church at Sanaa, known as Al-Qulais (a transliteration into Arabic of the Greek word ekklesia (εκκλησία), meaning church).
The church gained widespread fame, even gaining the notice of the Byzantines. The pagan Arabs of the time had their own center of religious worship and pilgrimage in Mecca, the Kaaba. Abraha then proceeded to attempt to divert their pilgrimage to his new cathedral and is reported to have appointed and sent a Muhammad Khuza'i to Mecca and the Hijaz as a king with a message that his church was both much better than their house of worship and purer, having not been defiled by the housing of idols.
Ibn Ishaq's Sirah Rasul Allah (Life of the Apostle of God) states:
|“|| With Abraha there were some Arabs who had come to seek his bounty, among them Muhammad ibn Khuza`i ibn Khuzaba al-Dhakwani, al-Sulami, with a number of his tribesmen including a brother of his called Qays. While they were with him a feast of Abraha occurred and he sent to invite them to the feast. Now he used to eat an animal's testicles, so when the invitation was brought they said, "By God, if we eat this the Arabs will hold it against us as long as we live."
Thereupon Muhammad ibn Khuza'i got up and went to Abraha and said, "O King, this is a festival of ours in which we eat only the loins and shoulders." Abraha replied that he would send them what they liked, because his sole purpose in inviting them was to show that he honoured them.
Then he crowned Muhammad ibn Khuza'i, and made him emir of Mudar, and ordered him to go among the people to invite them to pilgrimage at his cathedral which he had built. When Muhammad ibn Khuza'i got as far as the land of Kinana, the people of the lowland, knowing what he had come for, sent a man of Hudhayl called `Urwa bin Hayyad al-Milasi, who shot him with an arrow, killing him. His brother Qays who was with him fled to Abraha and told him the news, which increased his rage and fury and he swore to raid the Kinana tribe and destroy the temple.
Ibn Ishaq further states that one of the men of the Quraysh was angered by this, and going to Sanaa, slipped into the church at night and defiled it; it is widely assumed that they did so by defecating in it.
Abraha, incensed, launched an expedition of forty thousand men against the Kaaba at Mecca, led by a white elephant named Mahmoud (and possibly with other elephants - some accounts state there were several elephants, or even as many as eight)) in order to destroy the Kaaba. Several Arab tribes attempted to fight him on the way, but were defeated.
Abraha's elephant is supposed to have refused to cross the boundary of Mecca and sat down. It could not be persuaded otherwise, either by reason or violence. The accounts state that if the elephant was turned towards Syria or Yemen it would walk without hesitation, but when it was turned towards the Kaaba it would kneel on its knees as if it would adore the city that its master was intent on destroying[verification needed].
When news of the advance of Abraha's army came, the Arab tribes of Quraysh, Banu Kinanah, Banu Khuza'a and Banu Hudhayl united in defense of the Kaaba. A man from the Himyar tribe was sent by Abraha to advise them that Abraha only wished to demolish the Kaaba and if they resisted, they would be crushed. Shaiba ibn Hashim (also known as `Abdu'l-Muttalib) told the Meccans to seek refuge in the hills while he with some leading members of Quraish, remained within the precincts of the Kaaba. Abraha sent a dispatch inviting `Abdu'l-Muttalib to meet with Abraha and discuss matters. When `Abdu'l-Muttalib left the meeting he was heard saying, "The Owner of this House is its Defender, and I am sure He will save it from the attack of the adversaries and will not dishonor the servants of His House."
According to the Qur'an, the next day, as Abraha prepared to enter the city, a dark cloud of small birds appeared. The birds carried small rocks in their beaks, and bombarded the Ethiopian forces, who fled in panic. Abraha was seriously wounded and he retreated towards Yemen but died on the way. However, the animals of Abraha's army are said to have been spared, and the tribes saw this as a sign of the holiness of the Kaaba.