During the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad’s SAW grandfather, ‘Abdul Muttalib, there lived a powerful ruler named Abrahah in Yemen who built a grand cathedral in Sinai. It was so lavish that it was the only one of its kind during its time. Abrahah, who originally came from Abyssinia (Ethiopia and Eritrea today), wanted to show his achievement to his King, King Negus of Abyssinia.
So he wrote a letter to King Negus, “I have built a church for you, O King, unlike any other that has been built for any king before you. I shall not rest until I have diverted the Arabs’ pilgrimage to it.”
When the Arabs heard of this letter, one of the calendar intercalators, an Arab from the Kinanah tribe, became very angry. (Intercalators are people who adjusted the months for the Arabs during their time of ignorance, i.e. before Islam came to them through Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.) He was so angry that he made a trip to Abrahah’s cathedral, messed it up, and then returned to his country.
Abrahah was shocked to see his cathedral in a mess the next day and demanded to know who was behind this naughty scheme! After some investigative work, he found out that the unspeakable act was committed by an Arab man who came from Makkah. Not only was he from Makkah, but he was from the temple in Makkah where the Arabs went for pilgrimage and that he did what he did out of anger for the letter Abrahah wrote to King Negus.
Anger filled Abrahah’s heart and his rage made him vow to destroy the Ka’bah as a form of revenge and as a means to restore his pride. He set forth to Makkah with a large army, which included elephants!
When the army reached Mughammas, Abrahah sent an army of men ahead of them who then plundered and brought back 200 camels, among other stolen goods. These camels belonged to ‘Abdul Muttalib. Abrahah sent a messenger to the Quraish who informed them that despite the stolen camels and goods, they have not come to fight but only to destroy the Ka’bah. In order to avoid bloodshed, the chief man must come to Abrahah’s camp for a negotiation.
The Quraish did not have an official chief since the responsibilities have been shared between the houses of ‘Abd ad-Dar and ‘Abdul Manaf (in which ‘Abdul Muttalib was part of). Since the messenger was directed to ‘Abdul Muttalib’s house and his camels had been stolen, ‘Abdul Muttalib and one of his sons went to Abrahah’s camp with the messenger.
Now ‘Abdul Muttalib was someone Allah SWT had blessed with charisma. So when Abrahah saw him, it was not surprising that Abrahah was struck with awe and proceeded to treat him with great respect. He would not even let ‘Abdul Muttalib sit beneath him which was customary for others when having a meeting with Abrahah. However, a man of his stature could not let the army see another man sitting beside him on his royal throne either. So he got off his throne, sat on his carpet and made ‘Abdul Muttalib sit beside him on the carpet instead.
‘Abdul Muttalib requested for his 200 camels to be returned to him through Abrahah’s interpreter since neither men spoke the same language. Abrahah replied, “I was so pleased to see you; then I became displeased when I heard what you said. Do you wish to talk to me about these 200 camels of yours which I have taken, and say nothing about your religion and the religion of your forefathers which I have come to destroy?”
‘Abdul Muttalib said, “I am the owner of the camels. As for the Ka’bah, it has an owner Who will defend it.”
Abrahah was a proud ruler and did not like what he heard. He replied, “He cannot defend it against me!” ‘Abdul Muttalib merely said, “We shall see. Return my camels to me nevertheless.”
Abrahah gave orders for ‘Abdul Muttalib’s camels to be returned to him.
When ‘Abdul Muttalib returned to his people, he told them the news and advised them to take defensive positions on the peaks and in the passes of the hills surrounding Makkah for fear of the impending brutality that typically comes with war. Then he went to the Ka’bah with a number of Quraish people. He took hold of the metal knocker of the Ka’bah, and they prayed to God, asking for help against Abrahah and his army. After their prayers, they went to join the rest of the Quraish in the hills at points where they could see the Ka’bah and its surroundings from a distance.
The next morning, Abrahah and his army, together with the elephants they brought, were prepared to enter the town of Makkah and destroy the Ka'bah before returning to Yemen. Abrahah had his elephant loaded with supplies while it was standing on all four legs. As they started to march towards Makkah, Abrahah’s elephant stood still facing Makkah. It didn’t move. Instead, it almost bundled itself up and knelt to the ground. Its caretaker, upset and embarrassed with the elephant, hit its head roughly to make it move but it still would not move. When he couldn’t make the elephant budge after a few more attempts, he directed the elephant to turn around. To their surprise, the elephant raced in the opposite direction of Makkah, that is, towards Yemen. They turned it around again towards Makkah, and the same thing happened. It stood still and would not move towards Makkah.
Not long after this, the sky turned black accompanied by a strange sound. The blackness grew from the direction of the sea and they could see the darkening sky heavily populated with birds. Those who survived the event said that the birds flew like swifts, and each bird had 3 pebbles the size of dried peas; one in its beak and one between the claws of each foot. The birds swooped to and fro over the army, pelting as they swooped, and the pebbles were launched so hard that they pierced even coats of mail. As soon as a body was struck, its flesh began to rot; quick in some cases, more gradual in others.
Not everyone was hit. But all were frightened by the incident. What was left of the army returned in heavy disorder to Yemen. Yet of those, many died along the way. And many others, including Abrahah, died soon after their return to Yemen. The incident which took place that year was so momentous that the Arabs named the year “The Year of the Elephant”. After this event, the Arabs called the Quraish “the people of God” and held them in even greater respect than before because God had answered their prayers and saved Ka’bah from destruction. To this day, they are still honored, but for a different event that took place a few weeks later in that same year. This event would soon change the entire landscape of Makkah: the birth of Prophet Muhammad SAW, peace and blessings be upon him.
أَلَمْ تَرَ كَيْفَ فَعَلَ رَبُّكَ بِأَصْحَـٰبِ ٱلْفِيلِ
أَلَمْ يَجْعَلْ كَيْدَهُمْ فِى تَضْلِيلٍ
وَأَرْسَلَ عَلَيْهِمْ طَيْرًا أَبَابِيلَ
تَرْمِيهِم بِحِجَارَةٍ مِّن سِجِّيلٍ
فَجَعَلَهُمْ كَعَصْفٍ مَّأْكُولٍۭ
Have you (O Muhammad SAW) not seen how your Lord dealt with the companions of the elephant? Did He not make their plot go astray? And sent against them birds, in flocks, striking them with stones of Sijjil (hard clay). And He made them like eaten straw. (105:1-5)
The Noble Life of The Prophet (peace be upon him), Volume I, Dr. 'Ali Muhammad As-Sallaabee
Muhammad - His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, Martin Lings
The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, A. Guillaume