Fifty days before Muhammad sallallahu 'alaihi wasallam was born, an event occurred which every person in Makkah would remember for the rest of their life. Before that time the Arabs paid little attention to the passage of years, although each month was recognized by the new moon. From that year onwards the Arabs would refer to events as being either before ‘The Year of the Elephant’ or after it.
At that time Yemen was under the rule of the Negus of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and an Abyssinian Christian named Abrahah was viceroy there. Abrahah noticed that at a certain time of the year, people from all over Yemen, indeed all Arabia, would go to Makkah. He asked the reason and was told that these people went for pilgrimage to the Holy House at that city.
Abrahah hated the idea of his own country being less important, he also wanted to impress his king, so he decided to build a magnificent church in San'a. The church was made of very fine marble, with crosses of gold and silver and pulpits of ivory and ebony.
Ibn Ishâq in al-Sîrah al-Nabawiyyah states:
“Then Abraha built the "Qulais" in San'a, it was a church that people never saw its like in their time, then he wrote to the Abyssinian king; "I built for you O king, a church that no king had before you, and I'll not stop until I make the Hajj - that the Arabs perform to Ka’bah - shifted to it..."
Then he ordered the people to pay homage to his church instead of the Ka'bah. Abrahah bragged so much of his intention to lure pilgrims away from the Ka’bah that word spread like the fury of a violent sandstorm throughout Arabia. As could be expected the Arabs were enraged by the whole affair to the extent that a man from the tribe of Kinaanah, a branch of the Quraysh, was so incensed by the audacity of Abrahah that he set out for San’a determined to defile the church. When he reached San’a, night had fallen so he crept unseen into the church and defiled it with trash and filth. Having accomplished his mission he left undetected.
When Abrahah heard of this he was furious. He vowed that in revenge he would raze the Ka'bah to the ground. He gathered a large army of 60 thousand warriors. The army also had 9 or 13 elephants as a sign of might, the biggest of which Abrahah selected for himself. Immediately, orders were issued and they set out for the long march across the hot and sandy desert towards Makkah. Not far out of San’a the army encountered resistance from a small band of Arabs, but they were greatly out numbered and fled. Their leader, Nufayl, from the tribe of Khathan, was captured and in fear for his life, offered to guide Abrahah and his soldiers on to the Ka’bah. The news of Abrahah's march to destroy the Ka’bah reached Ta'if ahead of their arrival, so a delegation from the Thaqif, fearing Abrahah might mistake their temple of Al Lat for Ka’bah, rode out to meet him and offered to be Nufayl's co-guides, and Abrahah accepted. At a place called Mughammis, a few miles outside Makkah, Abrahah decided to strike camp and it was there that Nufayl died and was buried. The people of Arabia took to stoning the grave of Nufayl, a tradition that is alive to this day.
The army of Abrahah halted at a place near Makkah, called Mughammis. A party was sent to the outskirts of the Holy City which looted and plundered all the way. The booty included 200 camels that belonged to Abdul Mutthalib which were sent to Abrahah.
The people of Makkah were aware of what was happening. Although they fought among themselves but there was no organized military force of the Makkans. Abdul Mutthalib, together with other Qurayshi chieftains and chiefs from neighbouring tribes met together to discuss how they might best defend their beloved Ka’bah. After much deliberation all concluded that Abrahah's army was so great in number that they did not stand a chance against him. They decided not to fight.
Meanwhile Abrahah sent a messenger to Makkah to talk with their chief. He was to tell him that they had not come for bloodshed but just to destroy their Holy Temple. Abdul Mutthalib, together with one of his sons, went to meet Abrahah at his bidding. Abrahah was so impressed with Abdul Mutthalib’s noble bearing that he got up to greet him and inquired whether he had any favour to ask. Abdul Mutthalib demanded that his 200 camels be returned to him. Abrahah was astonished. He said that he was disappointed in the chief who was more concerned with his personal property rather than the religion he had come to destroy. Abdul Mutthalib replied, "I am the lord of the camels, the Temple likewise has a Lord Who will defend it."
"He cannot defend it against me!" was the arrogant answer.
"We shall see," said Abdul Mutthalib, "but give me my camels."
Then he returned to his people and advised them to go into the hills surrounding Makkah. But before going, he, with some others went to the Ka'bah and prayed to Allah, for he used to pray to Allah, "O Allah! Your slave protects his house; protect You, Your House."
The next morning Abrahah made ready to march into town to destroy the Ka'bah. The army was ensembled, the elephants got ready. When he reached Muhassar Valley, between Muzdalifah and Mina, the leading elephant, Mahmood, knelt down and refused to go forward. Whenever they directed it northwards, southwards or eastwards, the elephant moved quickly but when directed westwards towards the Ka‘bah, it knelt down and did not move.
This was the clearest of signs not to progress any further. But Abrahah was blinded by his determination to destroy the Holy Ka'bah.
Suddenly the sky grew dark and there was a great wave of birds above their heads. The birds were like swallows or sparrows and each carried 3 pea sized stones of baked clay, one in their beaks and two in each of their claws. The birds swooped over the army pelting them with stones. Each stone found its mark. As soon as the stone hit a person or animal, his flesh began to rot; slowly in some cases and in others with immediate effect. The army ran helter skelter from where they had come. Many died on the way, and others died after reaching Yemen. Abrahah himself was in a miserable state. He did not die instantly, the stones that hit him brought about a painfully slow death that caused his bones to crumble, collapsing his ribs agonizingly. He died an excruciating death soon after reaching San'a.
Allah says in Surah Al-Feel (The Elephant):
In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the owners of the Elephant? Did He not bring their stratagem to naught; And send against them swarms of flying creatures, Which pelted them with stones of baked clay, And made them like green crops devoured (by cattle). (105: 1-5)
The Makkans returned safely to their homes. After that the Quraysh were called "The People of Allah" because Allah had answered their prayer and saved the Ka'bah from destruction. News of the Elephant Event reached the most distant corners of the then civilized world, and their honour greatly increased. Allah had honoured the polytheists against the Christians which was a sort of Sign from Allah as to whom he would favour in the days to come. The Elephant Event riveted the world’s attention to the sacredness of Allah’s House, and showed that this House had been chosen by Allah for its holiness. It followed then if any of its people claimed prophet hood, it would be in accord with the outcome of the Elephant Event. This was the year AD 570 and it was named "The Year of the Elephant".