Representing 'al-Fil' [The Elephant]

By Khaled Malas
Submitted to Session P4862 (The Beast in Image, Text and Politics, 2017 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
All Middle East; Indian Ocean Region;
Medieval;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The siege of al-Fil [The Elephant], recounted in Qur’an 105, presents a cornucopia of encounters between marvelous strangers (beasts and foreign peoples) upon a holy land. It is spectacularly rendered in a manuscript illustration, today in the Special Collection of Oriental Manuscripts of the University of Saint Andrews (Ms. 32O). This Persian language manuscript, a compilation of two books translated from Arabic on the wonders of creation, was probably illustrated in India in the late seventeenth century. The illustration of the battle is organized concentrically, centering around a black square which we recognize as the Ka‘aba within a monumental Persianate mosque. Circumambulating around the mosque are eight elephants, their gaze fixedly upon the Ka‘aba. The elephants are surrounded by birds, some of them translucent rendering them particularly other-worldly.
Surat ‘Al-Fil’ represents a telling episode in the history of Pre-Islamic Arabia, and in the history of the Ka‘aba as a building and as a central image in the Islamic faith. With the sole exception of the Elephant all recognizable land animals in the Qur’an are native to the varied geographies of the Peninsula. The Elephant’s exceptional nature is central for its operation as a marvelous animal, destabilizing meanings and assumptions. The Elephant illustration from this manuscript potentially invites the viewer to reflect upon meanings of devotion and obedience to the divine sovereign whilst simultaneously evoking the horrible consequences and high penalty of apostasy.