In the year 570, Yemen was ruled by an Abyssinian regent named Abrahah. Abrahah built a Christian Cathedral in the city of San’a, and he had hopes that it would replace Mecca as a center of pilgrimage. He used marble taken from the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace, he built crosses of gold and silver, and the pulpit was made of ivory. All of this aroused anger in the tribes of the region, who had no intention of replacing the Ka’bah, the sanctuary that Abraham and Ishmael had built. One day, a relative of the Quraysh (the ruling tribe in Mecca) walked into the cathedral and defiled it by defecating on the floor.
Abrahah was furious when he heard this and swore he would not rest until he destroyed the Ka’bah. He set out for Mecca with a large military force that included an elephant. The Arabs had heard stories about elephants, and they were alarmed.
As Abrahah’s army marched, some Arab tribes north of San’a tried to stop him, but he chased them off and captured their leader, Nufayl. In exchange for his life, Nufayl agreed to be their guide.
When they reached the outskirts of Mecca the army stopped, and Abrahah sent out a plundering party which, among other things, stole two hundred camels that belonged to Abdul Muttalib (whose grandson, Muhammad, would be born later that same year). The leaders in Mecca held a war council, and realized it would be futile to resist the huge invading army. They could only leave the matter up to God and trust that He would protect His Ka’bah.
Meanwhile, Abrahah sent a messenger to Abdul Muttalib. The message said that Abrahah had not come to fight the people of Mecca, but only to destroy the Ka’bah. If he wished to avoid bloodshed, he should come to the Abyssinian camp.
Abdul Muttalib came, and Abrahah asked if there was anything he wanted. Abdul Muttalib replied, ‘I want you to return my camels.’ Abrahah was surprised at this request, and expressed amazement and disappointment that Abdul Muttalib cared about his camels but not about his religious sanctuary. Abdul Muttalib responded that he was the owner of the camels, but the Ka’bah had its own owner, and He would defend it. “He cannot defend it against me,” Abrahah said. “That remains to be seen,” Abdul Muttalib said. “But give me my camels.” So Abrahah gave orders for the camels to be returned.
Abdul Muttalib then returned to Mecca and advised everyone to withdraw into the nearby hills. He and his family went to the Ka’bah and prayed. Then they joined the others in the hills at places where they could watch the events in the valley.
In the morning, Abrahah brought his army, led by the elephant, to the border of Mecca. But Nufayl, their reluctant guide, had spent his time studying the words of command that the elephant’s trainer used. As everyone faced Abrahah, waiting for the command to advance, Nufayl whispered into the elephant’s ear the command to kneel.
To everyone’s dismay, the elephant knelt before Mecca. The trainer gave him new orders, but God had made Nufayl’s command imperative. They tried prodding and beating him, but he would not get up. He would not move, until the army turned about and began walking back toward Yemen. He then arose and walked away with them.
Abrahah then ordered everyone to turn back toward Mecca, but the elephant just knelt again. Then a great noise was heard and a wave of darkness came up from the sea and blackened the sky. God had sent a great flock of birds, all of them carrying stones in their talons and beaks. They swept over the troops and pelted them with the stones, which fell with such force that they tore through armor and killed many men instantly. The army fled in terror. Nufayl managed to slip away into the hills, and the elephant and his trainer were spared. Abrahah himself was severely wounded. They managed to get him back to San’a where he died a horrible death.
After that day, the Arabs began to call Abdul Muttalib’s tribe (i.e., the Quraysh), “The People of God”, for God had answered their prayers and fought at their side against the enemy.
To hear more stories from our spiritual and religious Traditions, and to explore their hidden inner meaning, you will want to read SYMBOLS, MEANING, AND THE SACRED QUEST: Spiritual Awakening in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Stories