Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies


Abraha and Muhammad: some observations apropos of chronology and literary topoi in the early Arabic historical tradition1

Lawrence I. Conrad

In has long been known that the chronological scheme commonly transmitted by the early Arabic sources for events of the latter half of the sixth century A.D. poses a number of major problems. These are sufficiently important to raise serious doubts about the reliability of the traditional chronological framework for the last years of the Jāhilīya in general. A key problem is that of the date for 'Ām al-fīl, the ‘Year of the Elephant’, so called after the expedition of Abraha into the Hijāz in that year. The early Arabic literary tradition does not specifically date this event: it simply maintains, first, that Muammad was born in the Year of the Elephant, and second, that he was summoned to act as God's Prophet at the age of forty. Considered together, the many reports to this effect imply―based on the prevailing view that the mab'ath is to be dated to approximately A.D. 610―that both the expedition of Abraha and the birth of Muhammad occurred in about A.D. 570.


1 This study is based upon presentations made at the 195th Annual Meeting of the American Oriental Society, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 15 April 1985, and at the Oriental Institute, Oxford University, 29 May 1986. I am grateful to the participants at these meetings for their comments and suggestions.