Ayah 1 – 2
This is one of the favors Allah did for the Quraysh. He saved them from the People of the Elephant who had tried to tear down the Ka`abah and wipe out all traces of its existence. Allah destroyed them, defeated them, thwarted their plans, made their efforts in vain and sent them back routed. They were people who were Christians, and thus, their religion was closer to the True Religion (Islam) than the idolatry of the Quraysh.
However, this was a means of giving a sign and preparing the way for the coming of the Messenger of Allah. For verily, he was born during that same year according to the most popular opinion. So the tongue of destiny was saying, “We will not help you, O people of Quraysh, because of any status you may have over the Ethiopians (Abyssinians). We are only helping you in order to defend the Ancient House (the Ka`abah), which We will honor, magnify, and venerate by sending the unlettered Prophet, Muhammad, the Finality of all Prophets.”
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala begins this Surah by asking,
أَلَمْ تَرَ كَيْفَ فَعَلَ رَبُّكَ بِأَصْحَـبِ الْفِيلِ
“Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the Owners of the Elephant?”
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala begins this Surah by saying, “Have you not seen..” because its direct address is not only to Rasoolullah sallalahu aalyhi wa sallam, but also to the Quraysh and other people of the entire Arabia. These were the people who had witnessed with their own eyes the event of the destruction of the people of the elephant, for it had occurred only about forty to forty-five years earlier, and the people of Arabia had continually heard it described by the eye-witnesses themselves so that they had become so certain of it as though they had seen it with their own eyes.
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala then says in Ayah 2,
أَلَمْ يَجْعَلْ كَيْدَهُمْ فِى تَضْلِيلٍ
“Did He not make their plot go astray?”
The word kayd is used for a secret plan meant to harm somebody. The question is, what was secret in this case? Sixty thousand troops together with several elephants had openly come from Yemen to Makkah, and they had kept no secret that they had come to destroy the Ka`abah.
Therefore, there was nothing secret about this plan. However, what was secret was the motive of the Abyssinians. They by destroying the Ka`abah, crushing down the Quraysh and intimidating the Arabians, wanted to take control of the trade route that led from south Arabia to Syria and Egypt. This motive they kept hidden, and instead proclaimed their intent that they wanted to destroy the Ka`abah, the principal House of Arab worship, in retaliation for the pollution of their cathedral by the Arabs.
Ayah 3 – 4
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says next,
وَأَرْسَلَ عَلَيْهِمْ طَيْراً أَبَابِيلَ – تَرْمِيهِم بِحِجَارَةٍ مِّن سِجِّيلٍ
“And He sent against them birds, in flocks (Ababil). Striking them with stones of Sijjil.”
Ababil means many separate and scattered groups whether of men or other creatures, which come from different sides successively. ‘Ikrimah and Qatadah say that these swarms of birds had come from the Red Sea side. Sa`id bin Jubair and ‘Ikrimah say that such birds had neither been seen before nor ever after; these were neither birds of Najd, nor of Hijaz, nor of Timamah (the land between Hijaz and the Red Sea).
lbn ‘Abbas says that their beaks were like those of birds and claws like the dog’s paw. ‘Ikrimah has stated that their heads were like the heads of the birds of prey, and almost all the reporters are agreed that each bird carried a stone in its beak and two stones in its claws. So the people of Makkah had these stones preserved with them for a long time.
Thus, Abu Nu`aim has related a statement of Naufal bin Abi Mu`awiyah, saying that he had seen the stones which had been thrown on the people of the elephant; they equaled a small pea seed in size and were dark red in color. According to Ibn `Abbas’s tradition that Abu Nu`aim has related, they were equal to a pine kernel, and according to Ibn Marduyah, equal to a goat’s dropping. Obviously, all the stones might not be equal but differing in size to some extent.
Ibn Hisham said, “Al-Ababil are the groups, as the Arabs do not speak of just one (bird).” He also said, “As for As-Sijjil, Yunus An-Nahwi and Abu `Ubaydah have informed me that according to the Arabs, it means something hard and solid.” He then said, “Some of the commentators have mentioned that it is actually two Persian words that the Arabs have made into one word. The two words are Sanj and Jil, Sanj meaning stones, and Jil meaning clay. The rocks are of these two types: stone and clay.”