Abraha, the year of the elephant, and the location of Mecca in Tom Holland’s “In the Shadow of the Sword”

So I’ve finished reading Holland’s book on the origins of Islam and I have to say I am not very impressed. I’ve revised my goals a bit and I will no longer be doing a point-by-point refutation of his book since much (as Holland himself admits) is speculatory, far too broad to refute directly and simply does not require much work to see why he is wrong in his main ideas. The origins of Islamic law and its development is also covered in the book (though rather amateurishly), but that will be discussed in a separate post as it is far too big and too important not to have a post on its own.

The location of Mecca

One of the main arguments in Holland’s book which I would like to refute is his ideas on the ‘original’ location of Mecca. Holland believes that the current Mecca, located near Yathrib, South arabia, is not the original place of its existence. It was actually in Palestine, and subsequently there was a great conspiracy by the Ummayyads to move the location and hide all the proof of its previous place of standing.

Most of his supporting points are not new and have been found in older (often times outdated) works such as those of the late Patricia Crone. There is currently a growing library of early Islamic inscriptions that help us place the early Muslim community within the vicinity of Mecca[1], unfortunately however they cannot be used to prove that Mecca was inhabited by the early Muslims as Holland does state that Muslims did somehow end up in Medina, thus the inscriptions would be the result of existence of a Medinan Muslim community and not necessarily a Meccan one. My positive argument for the original location of Mecca being correctly identified by the Islamic tradition will thus be a little less direct, consisting of two parts:

1. Pre-islamic inscriptions indirectly identifying the location of Mecca (this post)

2. The absurdities of Holland’s argument. (next post)

Part 1: Pre-islamic inscriptions indirectly identifying the location of Mecca

‘Am al-Fil: The year in which the Yemenite Christian king Abraha is said to have tried to attack Mecca to destroy the Ka’ba, in an attempt to divert pilgrimage from the Meccan shrine to his own great cathedral in Yemen[2]. The name, meaning “Year of the Elephant”, refers to Abraha’s usage of war elephants in his army which he led towards the Quraysh at Mecca.

The story is alluded to in the Qur’an in Surah al-Fil and its continuation, Surah Quraysh:

1 Do you not see how your Lord dealt with the army of the elephant? 2 Did He not utterly confound their plans? 3 He sent ranks of birds against them, 4 pelting them with pellets of hard-baked clay: 5 He made them [like] cropped stubble.

1 [He did this] to make the Quraysh feel secure, 2 secure in their winter and summer journeys. 3 So let them worship the Lord of this House: 4 who provides them with food to ward off hunger, safety to ward off fear.

The story alluded to here is undoubtedly the events in the Year of the Elephant. Commentators are absolutely unanimous in this regard[3]. One may still doubt whether these Qur’anic passages really do allude to ‘Abraha’s march towards Mecca. However, there is non-Qur’anic pre-islamic poetry that reports the same story that Muslim exegetes provide in their explanation of these verses. For example, in the kitaab al-hayawaan by al-Jahiz, a poem by Abu Qays Sayfi praises God for His help on “the day of the elephant of the Abyssinians”[3], recalling that the elephant simply stopped dead in his tracks and would not advance despite being tortured. Then “God sent a wind bringing a shower of pebbles (ḥāṣib) from above”[4]. Rubin notes that the vocabulary of the poem is distinctly unqur’anic[5]. Infact, the poem has different themes to that of the Qur’anic account: The Qur’an, as with recounting other pre-islamic occurrences, spins it into a cautionary tale and rhetorical prose to convince the audience of the magnificence of God.

To scholars, this indicates that Abu Qays’ poetry is independent from the Qur’an. It is very likely that the poem is pre-islamic.

It is important to note that the same poet also identifies this incident with “Abu Yaksum”[6] – none other than Abraha himself. This is significant- there is already enough similarity between the pre-islamic poem and Surah al-fil to realize that they are talking about the same event (due to an elephant being involved and an army being wiped out by stones from the sky). Thus, it obviously follows that both versions of the story (Qur’anic and pre-islamic) are speaking about an attack on the Quraysh by the Yemenite king Abraha.

What I would like to drive home at this point is that now we have Arabic poetry originating decades after the death of Abraha, authored by and for the Arabs which were contemporary with the incident, if not from the following generation. The Quranic account is independent from the poem, providing an added level of attestation to the historical account; again, written for Arabs that would have probably been children of those who lived even as Abraha led a campaign against Mecca. The story is both early and multiply attested. If we ignore the miracle story, there is little reason for a historian to deny that the expedition occurred*.

Other supporting evidence can be found in South Arabian inscriptions depicting war elephants[7]:

fig 2 and 3 abraha elephants

The inscriptions are significant because Abraha’s army would be the only one in the area to parade war elephants[8].

From this discussion, we can infer that:

1. The Qur’an is reporting a pre-Islamic event that must have actually happened some time during Abraha’s reign, meaning that the generation before the Prophet’s own[9].

2. Abraha campaigned with war elephants in the South Arabian region.

After establishing these two points, it is now possible to see how Holland’s assertions do not coincide with the historical facts presented here.

Mecca in Palestine?

Holland places the ‘original’ location of Mecca in Mamre, Palestine. Palestine in the 6th century was situated in Byzantine land. The corollary? That Abraha must have attacked the Byzantine empire some time in the 6th century.

One only needs to be slightly familiar with 6th century byzantine and arabian history to know how this is plain and simply false. We can understand why the expedition of the elephant is absent from pre-islamic jahili written tradition (plainly due to the fact that the writing was comparatively rare in the first place), however an attack on the Palestine would have been recorded at least by Roman sources. Procopius, a byzantine historian living in Palestine during the reign of Abraha records his ascent to power over the Himyarites, as well some of his wars and political exploits during his reign[11]. Abraha’s supposed attack on Palestine goes unmentioned, however, his promise to Justinian to attack the Persians does not.

I believe in this case we can make a good argument from silence. Had the attack happened, Procopius would have written about it, if not some other roman historian.

Besides Procopius’s account, Abraha campaigning against the Byzantines simply seems unlikely. The latter is was a regional superpower sharing the same religion as that of Abraha, so unlike Islam’s conquest of Roman lands, there is no theological motive to challenge a natural alliance. This explains why Abraha aligned himself with the Byzantines against the Persians at one point[12].

On the other hand, an attack on a south arabian Mecca simply seems much more plausible. Inscriptions indicating Abraha’s political and military might over this area are well known, some of which have been reproduced in this article. There is also the Murayghan inscription, reporting of an expedition sent by Abraha towards Taraban, 100km north of Ta’if[13], which is in the vicinity of the traditional location of Mecca.


Tom Holland’s proposal that Mecca was originally located at Mamre, Palestine cannot be correct because it contradicts known facts surrounding the expedition of the elephant. As there is good evidence for the expedition, it would entail that the Himyarite king marched against the Byzantines, which contradicts what we see in Roman historical records and also goes against common sense.

The next post in this series will insha’allah expose some of the dubious methods with which Holland draws his conclusions. I actually do believe that this next post will provide a stronger argument, as it draws from common objections (and not those of an amateur blogger, ie. me) against Crone’s (and therefore Holland’s) theories on early Islam. I did want to do something “different” though, and as far as I am aware the argument presented in this blog post is a novel one.


[1] A very useful web page collating these inscriptions is www.islamic-awareness.org/History/Islam/Inscriptions/

[2] For an overview of the traditional story, see “The Message of the Qur’an”. Muhammad Asad. See intro to Surah al Fil. Other reasons are proposed for the motives of the campaign, one of which is that some Arabs went and defiled the cathedral in Yemen which incited ‘Abraha’s anger. 

[3] See entry for Abraha. Rubin, Uri. Encyclopaedia of Islam, 3rd ed. 

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid. “These and other verses that al-Jāḥiẓ considers genuinely pre-Islamic (al-Jāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, 7:197–9) are indeed free of Qurʾānic vocabulary and style—even the description of the divine punishment lacks Qurʾānic phrases”

[6] ibid. It must be noted that the name is not Qur’anic, meaning that the poet must have had non-Qur’anic sources. This adds to the likelyhood of the poem being of Jahili origin.

* Scholars such as Rubin, Conrad and Robin have all argued for or have assumed the historicity of the campaign.

[7] Les Compagnons de l’Éléphant (Aṣḥāb al-Fīl ). Christian Robin. Published in Les origines du Coran, le Coran des origines. 2015. p47. I have roughly translated from french and edited in the captions.

[8] ibid.

[9] That of Abd Al-Muttalib- indeed, he is present in the traditional story of the expedition.

[10] See Brill’s Encyclopedia of Islam. Abraha marched against Persia

[11] Procopius, Histories of the Wars, Vol 1 and 2 accessable here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16764/16764-h/16764-h.htm

[12] ibid

[13] F.E Peters. Muhammad and the Origins of Islam. p88


I’m currently reading…

Salaam Alaykum everyone.

This is just a post letting anyone who cares that I’m still writing, it’s just that the last semester has been a very hectic one. Now that winter break is here, I should have time to get back to writing again, even though Ramadan and other commitments have admittedly taken much of my free time. I thought I’d begin a new project that’s more serious than anything I’ve done so far. I’m going to be tackling Tom Holland’s revisionist theories on the origins of Islam. As far as I am aware, there hasn’t been any thorough rebuttals of his work (though many of his ideas are quite… imaginative to say the least). I do not intend this to be a post detailing a refutation of his book (this will come later insha’allah – and it would probably be far longer than this).

In the Shadow of the Sword

What do I think about it so far? Without dwelling on the condescending tone with which Holland writes about Muslims and Muslim scholars and their (so-called) pseudo-academic attitude towards early Islamic history, I have to say that the writing style is quite engaging. I find the arguments far less agreeable.

On Hadith

To justify his revisionism, Holland attacks his only obstacle to touting his own vision of early Islam: Hadith criticism.

The arguments therein are basically repeats of what Schacht proposed many years ago, and accepting the logic of Holland’s argument entails that we accept the following:

Muslim traditionalists and jurists, who sometimes risked their very lives for their craft, were generally dishonest and had no qualms in tacking their own rulings with isnaad chains to justify them.

To quote Holland himself:

“What the jurists of the early Caliphate had succeeded in pulling off, by means of ‘a fiction perhaps unequaled in the history of human thought’, was the ultimate lawyers’ tricks: a quite breathtaking show of creativity and nerve” (In the Shadow p36)

It seems Holland does not realize that he is asking us to believe in something more difficult to accept for the objective observer than the traditional Muslim seerah (excepting miracle stories). Here’s why: Holland asks us to trust Schacht to be right (In the Shadow p36) about Hadith. It is then somewhat problematic that Schacht’s own criterion for determining the origination date of a certain Hadith – the ‘common link method’- brings us certain Hadiths, such as the Hadith of following the Imam in prayer[1] where the “common link” (and therefore the originator according to Schacht) is often a companion of the Prophet (ص ) or even the Prophet himself.

I also want to highlight the credulity required to believe that religious scholars are generally dishonest- is there any doubt that religion is at the very least one of the primary influences in the lives of most of the early fuqahaa’? If not, why would they even need to ascribe Hadith to the Prophet, unless the society they were in saw him as a very important person? If it can be accepted that these religious scholars did see religion as an important part of their life, is there anywhere in Islam where attributing false sayings to the Prophet is justified (other than through coercion)? After all, does the Qur’an not say that to “invent about Allah untruth” is “a manifest sin” (4:50)?

I also think it’s hard to believe that there was a mass-corroboration between the early Caliphate and the scholars of the law, given that many early prominent traditionalists (ie. hadith scholars) and jurists were said to be staunchly apolitical. This is from the reading of several books I’ve come across, though I will have to investigate this counter-point further before I can judge its validity.

For now though, I’ll keep reading, insha’allah.

[1] See On Schacht’s Origins of Muhammad Jurisprudence, p 156

A new Arabic papyrus dating within 12 years of the Prophet Muhammad

بسم الله

In 2014 Islamic historian Fred Donner gave a talk on an very curious papyrus page dating from the very early Islamic era. The letter is of tremendous interest for reasons I will mention in this post.

Papyrus E17861

The text is a personal letter talking about the distribution of a sum of money among relatives. It opens with the customary بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم (in the name of God, the Rahman, the Raheem). The sender and the addressees (which are of great interest) are mentioned at the start of the text. The letter itself talks about the distribution of 26 dinars among family members and close acquaintances. Different people mentioned in the letter are assigned various amounts.

The letter is very important because known early Islamic figures, including none other than Umar Ibn Al Khattaab are the addressees and subjects of the letter.


Dating the manuscript:

The manuscript is very likely to belong to earlier than twelve years after the death of the Prophet, possibly while the Prophet(ص ) himself was alive. 

The clues which betrays its extremely origin is primarily the writing style employed within the letter itself. The script is decidedly early Islamic, all other documents from this era show the style of writing in this text.

For example, the letter ع is written in the early script.

early ain

Note that the early ع is made up of straight lines- this is easy to write for anyone creating an inscription on rock or other hard materials. The sculptor simply has to strike two lines. When pen and paper became more common, it was actually easier to write the later form of the ع- the scribe would not have to lift his pen off the paper. The two ‘teeth’ that used to make up the top half of the ع became joined into a loop.

Other examples of early Arabic letters in comparison to later ones can be found below:


According to Donner, the earlier style of writing was very typical during the first Islamic century, and therefore the writing of the papyrus took place almost certainly before the 700s.

Can the date of the parchment be pushed earlier? Yes: The sender of the letter is one Rashid ibn (unclear) al Hadhrami, and the addressees are named below in the order they are listed in the letter:

1. Uthman Ibn Muslim

2. Tamlik ibn (unclear)

3. Umar ibn Al Khattab

The fact that Umar Ibn Al-Khattab’s name appears (the name is very specific: it is unlikely that this is “another” Umar given that his full title is written) is significant in determining the date. Umar began his rule two years after the death of the Prophet in 634CE and died in 644CE. As the letter is addressed to him, it was obviously written before his death.

The sender assigns a single dinar to Umar, and interestingly enough does not give any honorary titles such as “Amir al Mu’mineen.” Could this letter then be before Umar became caliph? Why was he being given a petty sum by a family member or acquaintance for general upkeep- would being given charity be fitting for a community leader?

Does a date earlier than the time Umar became caliph make sense of the fact that he is not given any “caliphal” titles, and how Umar is assigned 1 dinar for general expenses? Personally, I do find this convincing. That would mean the letter is at latest two years after the death of the Prophet. However, because the letter is obviously from one of Umar’s acquaintances, it may be that there would be no reason to write formal titles.

What is more enigmatic is that further down in the document, we find the name “Umm Kulthum”. Is this the same Umm Kulthum, the daughter of the Prophet? Given that the name is uncommon, and if we keep in mind that the letter was sent to Umar’s circle, this does not seem unlikely. If it is indeed true, then the Prophet was definitely alive when this letter was written, because Umm Kulthum died during his lifetime.

Among the people mentioned in the letter is “Umm Abban”. Could this be the daughter of Uthman Ibn Affan, the third caliph? There is also an “Asma” mentioned. Though the name is common, could this be the Asma the daughter of Abu Bakr? By themselves, these names are not particularly special. It is the knowledge that the letter is to Umar and those around him leads us to believe that ‘Asma’ could be the Asma of Islamic tradition, or that Umm Abban is indeed the same one who was the daughter of Uthman.

Radio carbon dating and the problem of forgery

The clues discussed above put the letter at a very early date beyond doubt. For the writing style to have been imitated by a later forger would require someone with the knowledge of early Islamic paleography, and paleography was not a science that was studied by the ancients. A forger simply would not know how to write a document like this with extreme accuracy. Moreover, there is no real purpose this document could serve for the forger. It does not really make any religious or political point. It is simply a distribution of a small sum of cash between friends and family. Its language does not contain any later quirks of Islamic writing- there is no prayers for God’s pleasure on the companions, it does not glorify any of the companions at all.

This is why it was surprising that the papyrus was assigned a carbon dating of around the 9th century. There is no good reason to believe that the letter is a forgery. According to Donner, the carbon dating is inaccurate, and it is possible the letter could also have been contaminated by other material. Papyrus dating can be difficult to perform correctly or accurately for various reasons. He has had more samples sent out to different laboratories for further testing.


Despite the letter being quite early it does not really tell us much, due to its very mundane nature. What is significant though is that it gives strong corroboration to the Islamic tradition on the existence of individual companions of the Prophet Muhammad.


The source of this article is a lecture given by Fred Donner which is available at echo recordings (the link does not work very well- if it does not work for you, try embedding it into a html file and then viewing it. Link). I would like to express my appreciation for the effort he has exerted in finding and studying the manuscript and I await any updates on the papyrus.

I’m currently reading…


“The Canonization of Islamic Law” by Ahmed El Shamsy.

This is a great book! It’s a new theory on the development of Islamic Law during the earliest centuries of Islam. I’ve gotten through 1/3rd of it so far, my current chapters are exploring the reasons for the rise and entrenchment of Shafi’ism in Arabian lands.

It certainly did answer some of my questions I had after reading Motzki’s excellent monologue on the Origins of Islamic Law. For example, why was ra’y, that is, “analogical reasoning”, so much more common in early Islamic law in comparison to Hadith? What seems to be the answer is because of the lack of a set methodology in determining authentic traditions out of dubious ones. Instead, when Jurists debated, they both took the common sources between them – usually the Qur’an and very well known Hadith, and then poked at each other’s positions to see whether their ra’y made sense.

I think perhaps the lack of an authentication process was also the driving force behind Imam Malik – the founder of the earliest of the four Sunni madhdhabs – choosing to simply use the practice in Medina as the rule of law when it came to rulings in Fiqh. The people of Medina were of the very town of the Prophet, naturally not only their rulings but also their methodology was, atleast to Imam Malik, closest to that of the Prophet.

We see that it is later on there is a strong focus on Hadith as a source of Islamic Law. Ofcourse, it is clear that this does not warrant Schacht’s conclusions on the authenticity of Hadith… but we might get to that later.

Though this book is very well written, it’s also quite dense- I will most definitely have to give it a reread after I’m finished.