War elephants vs. bird army

The 105th surah of the Quran relates a battle outside Mecca between Yemeni war elephants and a flock of birds.

War elephant statue
Khalili Collections, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO, via Wikimedia Commons

The year of Muhammad’s birth (about 570 CE) in Islamic tradition is known as the Year of the Elephant. It received this name from a battle that supposedly took place that same year, a battle that began with an ambitious Yemeni Christian and his war elephant Mahmud, and ended with an enormous flock of bombarding birds.

(This may go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. As with all stories in scripture, the historicity of this event is lost in the mists of time – and yet still hotly debated today.)

Abraha was a former Roman slave who seized power in the south of the Arabian Peninsula – in what is today Yemen. He was Christian, and built a large church in Yemen to compete with the local site of extreme religious interest, the Kaaba. (Yup, the Kaaba predates Islam by several centuries – it was originally a site of worship for Bedouin tribes.) The ruins of that church, Al-Qalis, are still visible today:

Al-Qalis ruins
العمري, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

(Al-Qalis, incidentally, is thought to be where mosaic tiling entered Arabian architecture: its decorations were later looted for the Great Mosque of Mecca.)

When his attempt to divert worshippers didn’t work, Abraha launched a physical assault. He marched an army to Mecca, intending to destroy the Kaaba. The army was led by a war elephant named Mahmud, and some accounts say that Abraha’s forces included many more beasts.

(Historically speaking, there’s little to no evidence that war elephants were in use in the Arabian Peninsula at the time… but pretty much every story is improved by the presence of elephants.)

When the army arrived at the gates of Mecca, Mahmud stopped and refused to enter. And then the army came under assault. Historically, this was probably an opposing army, but in Islamic tradition the true heroes were a flock of birds. They flew over the invaders, either dive-bombing them or bombarding them with small rocks / clay pellets. Abraha fled, and Mecca was saved.

A short surah in the Quran describes the event as follows:

Have you not considered, [O Muhammad], how your Lord dealt with the companions of the elephant?
Did He not make their plan into misguidance?
And He sent against them birds in flocks,
Striking them with stones of hard clay,
And He made them like eaten straw.


Fifty days later, in this Year of the Elephant, Muhammad was born and the history of the Arabian Peninsula (and the world) changed.

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