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Summary of question
What is the interpretation and reward of reciting chapter al-Fil of the Holy Quran?
What is the interpretation and reward of reciting chapter al-Fil of the Holy Quran?
Concise answer
The Prophet of Islam (S) and Muslims in Mecca were an absolute minority and pagans would pressurize them because of their beliefs. In many verses of the Holy Quran, God Almighty has supported the Holy Prophet (S) and Muslims and has warned pagans for their actions. The chapter al-Fil of the Quran is in fact an account of a historical event having been revealed to assure the Holy Prophet (S) and to announce that God supports him. History holds that Abraha and his elephant riding army who had come to fight God and had aimed the destruction of Ka'ba were destroyed by a divine miracle. Now you we let you the Prophet who is dearer and more transcendent than Ka'ba to Us, to know that We support you as well and We will punish your opponents.
Detailed Answer
The chapter al-Fil of the Quran was revealed in Mecca[1] and reports the divine miracle to preserve Ka'ba and destroy Abraha's army. Abraha was the commander of a big army who stepped forward to destroy Ka'ba and in fact fight God of Ka'ba. God destroyed them with stones carried by small birds.[2]
In some Quranic resources a tradition has been narrated from Imam Sajjad (PBUH) telling why this chapter was revealed. We will cover this tradition in brief as follows:
Abu Talib told the Holy Prophet (S): O my cousin! Have you been sent to all humans or just for your own tribe? He said:"No, I have been sent to all humans; white and black, Arab and non-Arab, I swear to God that I invite all white and black people to this religion, and everyone who are in mountains or on sea, I invite Persia and Rome."
The Holy Prophet's words (S) reached Quraysh and surprised them. They addressed Abu Talib: "Do you not listen to what your cousin says?" We swear by God that if people of Persia and Rome hear his words they would kidnap us from our lands and would tear down Ka'ba. This was the occasion where God revealed chapter al-Fil following what Quraysh said that the people of Persia and Rome would destroy Ka'ba.[3]
At the beginning of this chapter God says: "Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with the possessors of the elephant?" [4] Here a question arises that why God has started this chapter with an estefham-e enkari [a type of question which is not a real question rather it means the opposite meaning with an emphasis on it][5]. In response it can be said that the verse is about to receive a confession to the above-mentioned issue; God treated Abraha and his army that way; now you Prophet (S) you are Our messenger and Our confidant and you are endeavoring in Our path so We support you as well and you should not be intimidated by your enemies.[6]
In addition, it seems that "alam tara [which literally means have you not seen…]" should not be literally translated; since it happened years before his prophecy and it has been even said that holy Prophet (S) has been born in that year. Therefore, interpreters of the Quran have interpreted "alam tara" into "alam ta'lam "meaning "Have you not considered…?"[7]. It may be put this way because the news of this event was absolutely true and known by everyone, knowledge of what needs sighting; that is why the verse uses the verb "see".[8]
Final verses of the chapter explain how God Almighty has destroyed the enemy through a miracle-like event. "And send down (to prey) upon them birds in flocks, Casting against them stones of baked clay, So He rendered them like straw eaten up?" [9]
Unlike what is popular among ordinary people, Ababil was not the name of those birds rather it means flocks of them; that means God sent the birds in blocks. [10]
Sijjil means stone and mud[11]. It can mean that stones with mud attached to them were used to bombard Abraha's army. It can also mean that those stones were used because the birds had flown from the sea to Abraha's army.[12]
The Reward for Reciting Chapter al-Fil
About the reward for reciting this chapter, Imam Sadeq (S) has said:"Anyone who recites chapter al-Fil in his obligatory prayers, in the hereafter every desert, mountain and sandy area would testify that he has been among those who said prayers. And a caller would call that: "You were right about My servant. I accept your testimony about him, guide him to the heavens and do not reckon him; because he is among those whom I like them and I like their deeds." [13]
However it is prudent to say that many jurisprudents have said that chapter al-Fil does not suffice solely in prayers, rather it should be recited after al-Hamd along with chapter Quraysh; because these two chapter are considered as a single chapter if recited in prayers.[14]

[1]  Moghniyah, Mohammad Javad, Tafsir al-Kashef, vol.7, p. 609, Dar ul-Kotob al-Eslamyie, Tehran, first impression, 2003, Yaghvi, Hussein bin Masood, Ma'alem at-Tanzil fi Tafsir al-Quran. Research by: al-Mahdi, Abd ar-Razzaq , vol.5, p.304, Dar Ehya at-Torath al-Arabi, Beirut, first impression, 1999
[2]  For more information about the story of Abrahe see: 25063 The story of elephant riders; a miracle by idols or the lord of Ka'ba
[3]  Fetal Neishabouri, Muhammad bin Ahmad, Rowzat al-Wa'ezin wa Basirat al-Motta'ezin, vol.1, pp.54-55, Razi Publications, Qom, first impression, 1996
[4]   Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with the possessors of the elephant?
[5]  Tabataba'ee, Seyyed Muhammad Hussein, al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Quran, vol.20, p.361, Daftare Entesharate Eslami, Qom, 5th impression, 1996
[6]  Moghnie, Mohammad Javad, Tafsir al-Kashef, vol.7, p.610, Dar al-Kotob al-Eslamyia, Tehran, first impression, 2003
[7] Tabarsi, Fazl bin Hassan, Majma' ul-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Quran, introduction, Balaghi, Mohammad Javad, vol.10, p.824, Naser Khosro, Tehran, third impression, 1993; Balkhi, Moqatel bin Sulayman, Tafsire Moqatel bin Suleyman, research by: Shahate, Abdollah Mahmoud, vol.4, p.847, Dar Ehya' at-Torath, Beirut, first impression, 2003
[8]  Makarem Shirazi, Naser, Tafsire Nemoune, vol.27, p.335, Dar ul-Kotob al-Eslamyie, Tehran, first impression, 1993; Fakhr al-Din Razi, Mohammad bin Omar, Mafatih al-Ghayb, vol.32, p.289, Dar Ehya' at-Torath al-Arabi, Beirut, third impression, 1999
[9]  Quran al-Fil no.3-5
[10]  Shobbar, Seyyed Abdollah, Tafsir al-Quran al-Karim, p.566, Dar ul-Balghate len-Nashr wa at-Taba'a, Beirut, first impression, 1991; Ibn Qutaybe, Abdollah bin Moslem, Tafsir-e Gharib ul-Quran, p.471, a work by al-Helal Library, Beirut, Bita
[11]  Ameli, Ebrahim, Tafsir Ameli, research by:Ghaffari, Ali Akbar, vol.8, p.667, Sadooq Publications, Tehran, 1982, Feiz Kashani, Molla Mohsen, Tafsir us-Safi, research by: A'lami, Hussein, vol.5, p.376, al-Sadr Publications, Tehran, second impression, 1994
[12]  Tafsir-e Nemoune, vol.27, p.337; Majma' ul-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Quran, vol.10, p.824
[13]  Sheikh Sadooq, Sawab ul-A'mal wa Eghab ul-A'mal, an-Nass, p.126, Dar ash-Sharif ar-Razi len-Nashr, Qom, second impression, 1985; Deylami, Hassan bin Mohammad, A'lam ud-Din fi Sefat el-Mo'menin, p.385, 'Aal ul-Bait (Peace be eupon the) Institute, Qom, first impression, 1987
[14]  Imam Khomeini, Tozih ul-Masa'el (with annotations), compiled by Bani Hashemi Khomeini, Seyyed Mohammad Hussein, vol.1, p.543, Entesharate Elsami, Qom, 8th impression, 2003
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