History in the light of Poetry: Interpreting the Quran

History in the light of Poetry: Interpreting the Quran

The story mentioned in Surah al-Fil (The Elephant) can be dismissed as myth or understood as history, if the poetry of that period is taken into account

The text of the Quran mentions a number of historical incidents about different nations and peoples. There are reflections on what happened to different peoples and nations at different points of time. Pharaoh, Namrud, the people of Hadd, Thamud, Aadd and others have been mentioned in the Quran. The reason Allah makes a mention of these people is to teach lessons to people who are living now.
This column is an attempt to see how the poetry of a particular period can guide us in understanding the history of a people, thereby arriving at a particular interpretation of a historical incident mentioned in the Quran. In this column, we will try to understand Surah al Fil (The Elephant) which talks about Abraha’s attempt to demolish the Ka’ba (The House of Allah) and the subsequent response of the people of Makka.
Generally, the exegetes say that the Makkan people did not put up a defence against the attack of Abraha which happened around fifty years before the birth of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). However, Imam Hamid ud Din Farahi has something else to say. For understanding and interpreting a historical incident like Abraha’s attack on the Ka’ba, Imam Farahi digs the archives of poetry that Arabs wrote about this incident and accordingly develops the interpretation that I am going to talk about. Needless to mention, poetry, in this interpretation, becomes a material for history and from it is born a new interpretation that is unlike any other prevalent interpretations of Surah al Fil.
“Have you not seen, O Prophet, how your Lord dealt with the Army of the Elephant? Did He not frustrate their scheme? For He sent against them flocks of birds that pelted them with stones of baked clay, leaving them like chewed-up straw” (Surah al Fil).
It is said that Abraha, a king from a neighbouring country, wanted to demolish the Ka’ba and so he, along with his army which had horses and elephants as their transport, marched towards Makka. The Makkan people, according to some narratives, chose not to fight against the king as he was more powerful and better equipped in comparison with the Makkan people. Abdul Muttalib, the grandfather of Prophet Mohammad, is said to have made a prayer to Allah which said, “Oh Allah! Ka’ba is your own house and you alone can protect it”. With this prayer, it is reported that the people of Makka left their homes and went to neighbouring mountains so as to escape the army of Abraha.
According to this narrative, when Abraha reached Makka, he was surprised to find the town empty. The tradition further states that “Tayran Ababeel” (flock of birds) mentioned in Surat al Fil came in huge number and struck the army of Abraha with huge stones, thereby not allowing him and his army to touch the Holy Ka’ba. Most of the exegetes of the Holy Qur’an interpret this short Sura of the Quran with this story in the background.
Contrary to the way the historical incident concerning Abraha and his designed attack on Ka’ba is generally interpreted, Imam Hamid ud Din Farahi attempts a unique method of interpretation and exegesis of this chapter of the Quran. According to Farahi, the Makkan people did not leave the city; they rather decided to defend the house of God. Farahi digs out the evidence of Makkan people’s defence against Abraha from the poetry that Arabs wrote about the incident, thereby using poetry as data for his research on the subject. How authentic is the data that Farahi has collected in the form of poetry is the job of historians working on the subject; what, however, interests the writer of this article is that the poetry written in a particular period of time is definitely a reflection of the history, society, religion, culture and economy of the people living in that period.
According to Farahi, the Makkan people defended the Ka’ba; subsequently, with the help from God, they won the battle against Abraha. Let’s see how Imam Farahi works out the intersection between poetry, history, and the interpretation of Surat al Fil with regard to the hypothesis whether Makkan people decided to be the defenders of Ka’ba or they simply left it to the protection of God.
As stated above, Farahi’s method and approach of understanding the historical incident mentioned in this chapter is unique as he digs out from the archives of Arab literature the evidence that suggests that Arabs fought for the protection of Allah’s house and Allah sent hordes of big birds for their help and for clearing the rotten dead bodies of Abraha’s army. A look at the literary data explored by Imam Farahi would be in place here.
The chapter begins with a question: “Have you not seen, O Prophet, how your Lord dealt with the army of the Elephant?” This question itself is an evidence of the fact that Arabs at the time of Prophet Mohammad knew about this incident, had a memory of this incident, and might have been even discussing the way this particular event unfolded in the recent past. In other words, Allah not only reminds the Arabs of this particular event but He also reminds them how He helped them in a hopeless situation when a powerful king like Abraha wanted to demolish the House of God. It is, therefore, an address to the Quraish and the people of Makkah as they are the ones who had in the recent past witnessed the attack of Abraha and they knew how Allah had helped them. The question arises: who was Abraha and where did he come from? Why, in fact, did he want to demolish the Ka’ba? Surat Fil does not answer these questions; rather, there is only a hint and a gentle reminder regarding the attack of Abraha. The details are, however, found in some weak and authentic traditions and narratives about this incident.
According to Imam Farahi, the narratives regarding Arabs not defending themselves against Abraha and his design of demolishing Ka’ba are all unauthentic and untrustworthy. All such narratives end at Ibn Ishaq, who would quote from Jewish sources and would thus end up with unreliable narratives. Moreover, such a narrative paints a poor image of Arabs who were, otherwise, brave and of strong character.
When we study Arab poetry, traditions and worldview, we find that 1) even before the arrival of Prophet Mohammad, Ka’ba had a very important place in their worldview, in their socio-economic life, and so they would not have left it undefended; 2) Abdul Mutalib was a man of honour, so how could he accept some camels from Abraha and leave Makka without defending the House of God; 3) tribes from neighbouring countries would attack Makka from time to time and Makkan people would leave no stone unturned in the defence of the city and the House of God therein. Evidence to this effect is found in abundance in Arab poetry.
Imam Farahi has collected literary material in support of his argument that Abdul Muttalib and his people defended themselves against Abraha’s attack. Here is some of the literary evidence that Imam Farahi shares with us in his research on the subject.
A poet by the name of Zur Rumma mentions Abraha and the battle Makkans fought against him in these words: “waa barahaistadat susurremahina/ jiharanwaasnuna al ujajaakdar” which means, “Our swords did hunt Abraha in the broad daylight/ when pillars of thick dust had risen in the air”. He further talks about the battle saying, “ tanhalahu Amru fa shakkaziluhu/ bi nafizatin bukhla’awalkhailutasbiru” which means, “ Omar broke his ribs open with his sword when our brave fighters stood firm on the ground”. Zur Rumma’s couplets clearly indicate that Arabs fought a battle with Abraha and gusts of strong wind blew as a form of divine help during this battle.
Most historians are of the opinion that the attack of Abraha took place during the Hajj days. Arab poetry does testify to it, as, for example, Ikrama bin Hashim bin AbdManaf makes a mention of it in these couplets: “Oh Allah! Send your curses upon Aswad bin Maqsud who took away the camels meant for sacrifice on Eid, stopped them between Hira, Sabir and Baid, and then handed them over to some slaves. Oh Allah! Bereave him of your protection. You are the praised one.” While in these couplets we may see camels of sacrifice being stolen by Abraha’s men, what, however, it also indicates is that Arab tribes must have engaged Abraha from different sides of Makka as it was the time of Hajj and the Makkan people, as the custodians of Ka’ba, could never have thought of leaving Ka’ba undefended. These verses may also suggest that if one Makkan tribe would have suffered at the hands of Abraha’s army, others must have engaged them very effectively from other sides as the two couplets mentioned before suggest.
There is some literary evidence which satirises those Arab tribes who supported Abraha, for example, “wafarratsaqeefunilalatiha/ bi manqalibilkhayib al khasiri” which means “Saqif ran away towards its idol La’t like the one who has lost everything and has suffered defeats”. This couplet and many other poems of that time satirise the tribe of Saqif for siding with Abraha. The question is: if the Makkan people ran away to mountains without defending Ka’ba, why is the tribe of Saqif being satirised for siding with Abraha? It means that barring the tribe of Saqif, the other tribes of Makka chose to stand against the invasion of Abraha and his army.
Another question that Imam Farahi settles with the help of poetry is regarding the nature of striking the army of Abraha with stones (by Tay’ran Ababeel). Imam Farahi classifies the traditions about Tayr’an Ababeel into two groups, of which the first one says that 1) they were birds of prey and were very huge, 2) the birds ate the flesh of dead bodies of Abrah’a army, 3) Ashab e Fil were stoned from all the sides, 4) the stones caused leprosy to the army of Abraha, and 5) Abraha’s men did not die at one single place, they rather died along multiple routes. The second tradition says that 1) the birds struck Ashab e Fil with stones, 2) stones were in their beaks and claws, 3) the stones pierced through the bodies of men and then through elephants, 4) Abraha’s men died wherever they were struck by the stones, and 5) a flood came and swept away all the dead bodies.
Saifi bin Aamir comments on the incident in this couplet : “qumu fa sallurabbakumwata’awazu bi arkanhazal bait ba’in al ahashabi/ fa indakummin hubala’unmussadiqun/ gada tabiyak sumhadiilkata’ibi” which means, “Pray to your Lord in standing position and seek protection in the House that is among mountains/ Because Allah showered upon you such blessings which proved all His promises true on the day when Abu Yaksum (Abraha) was leading his army (against you)”. He further says, “When they (Abraha’s army) crossed Bat’ni Nu’man, the army of Allah appeared between Saaf and Hasib and defeated them. They (Abraha’s army) returned unsuccessfully while only a few of them could meet their families”. Another literary evidence to this effect is found in what some unknown Arab poet says while addressing Abraha: “Now where do you run to when Allah is chasing you? Ashram (Abraha) is destined to suffer defeat. He will not be successful.” Abdul Muttalib prays on the mount of Hira saying: “Oh God! Man protects his own family. You also protect your own people. Their cross and power should not prevail upon Your power; if you want our Qibla (Ka’ba) to be under their control, then do what You want to do.”
Nafil bin Habib Khas’ami Jahili, a poet who was an eyewitness to the war, says: “Bring back your camels, Ruwaina!/ Thy sight shall bring coolness to my eyes/ If only you could see what we saw beside Mahsab/ But you can’t see it now/ Why do people ask Nufail only?/ Sounds as if I have committed an act of corruption/ I praised Allah when I saw the birds coming (Tayran Ababeel)/ while they were striking (Abraha’s army) with stones.” There are many more literary references that point to what happened when Abraha invaded Makka, as is being pointed to in Surat al Fil, a small chapter of the Quran having five ayats only.
As the literary value of the Qura’nic language is of classic standards, good readers of the Quran would find it a rewarding thing if they familiarise themselves with classical Arabic poetry, so that meanings and usage of words which were in fashion at that time can be easily understood. Imam Farahi’s method of interpreting key Quranic words with the help of Arab poetry is quite helpful in this regard. Using poetry as data and evidence for exegesis and analysis would be also helpful in clearing doubts about certain things that, otherwise, have been only pointed to without any details. The crux of Farahi’s analysis is that God came to the rescue of Arabs only when they stood up for their own rescue; otherwise, the dominant narrative suggests that Arabs watched the invasion of Abraha like mute spectators, a claim which goes against the Arab ethos and sensibility of those times which prided on bravery, honour, chivalry and Muru’at. For meaning-making, analysis, and tracing the use of words, Imam Farahi’s exegesis of the Quran, Nizam al Quran, makes use of poetry as data/ evidence, thereby preparing the reader for a deep engagement with the text of the Quran.

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