In the Shade of the Quran (part 30)

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  • In the Shade of the Quran (part 30)

  • Surah 105 al Feel

    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful!


    Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the people of the Elephant? Did He not cause their treacherous plan to be futile, and send against them flights of birds, which pelted them with stones of sand and clay? Thus He made them like devoured dry leaves.


    This surah refers to a widely famous incident in the Arabian Peninsula which took place before the commencement of the Islamic message. The incident shows very clearly how Allah protected the Holy land, which He willed to be the focal point of the last enlightenment, the cradle of the new ideology, from where it was to begin its blessed and holy march to exterminate Ignorance from all corners of the world and to establish in its place Allah's infallible guidance. The various reports on this incident relate that after the Abyssinians had expelled the Persians from Yemen and established their rule there, the Abyssinian governor of Yemen, Abrahah, built a superbly luxurious church in his area giving it the name of the Abyssinian emperor at the time. He did this after he had witnessed the love and enthusiasm of Yemeni Arabs - which were the same as those felt all over the Arab land - to the Ka'ba, the Holy Mosque at Makka; with the aim of making them forsake their attachment to the Mosque of Makka and turn instead to his new luxurious church.

    But the Arabs did not turn away from their Holy House. They believed themselves to be the descendants of Abraham and Ishmael who built the House. For them, this fact was a source of pride in line with their tradition of taking pride in their forefathers. Besides, vain and hollow as they were, their beliefs were, in their eyes, better and more profound than those of the people of earlier revelations (Jews and Christians). They knew how the latter beliefs were conflicting and futile.

    As a result, Abrahah made up his mind to pull down the Ka'ba in order to achieve his objective of turning the Arabs away from it. He therefore marched at the head of a great army equipped with elephants. In the front was a very big elephant which enjoyed special fame among Abrahah's men. The news of Abrahah's march and his objective travelled in the Arab land and there spread among the Arabs very strong feelings against the destruction of their Holy House. A nobleman of the royal family of Yemen, called Thu Nafar, tried to stop the Abyssinian governor, calling on his people and other Arabs to fight Abrahah and defend the Holy House. Some Arab tribes joined him in a battle against Abrahah which Thu Nafar lost before he was taken prisoner. Later, while Abrahah was on his way, he was attacked by Nafeel ibn Habab Al Khath'ami, who had mobilised two Arab tribes as well as troops from other supporting tribes, but Abrahah won the battle again and captured Nafeel. Nafeel then agreed to act as a guide for Abrahah to show him the way in the Arab land. When the Abyssinian governor approached Ta'if,' a number of its leaders went to him to say that the House he wanted to pull down was in Makka and not at Ta'if. They did this in order that he would not destroy the house they had built for their idol "Al-Lat". They also provided him with a guide to show him the way to the Ka'ba.

    Then on arrival at Al-Mughammas (a valley mid-way between Ta'if and Makka), Abrahah despatched one of his commanders to Makka where he looted some belongings of the Quraish and other Arabs, including two hundred camels which belonged to Abdulmuttalib ibn Hashim, the chief of Makka and the Prophet's grandfather. Quraish, Kinana, Huthail and neighbouring Arab tribes gathered to fight Abrahah but then they realised that they stood no chance of winning, so they did not proceed. Then Abrahah sent a messenger to Makka to meet its chief and convey to him that the governor of Yemen did not come to fight the Makkans but to pull down the House; if they left him to accomplish what he had come for, he would be pleased not to cause any bloodshed. Abrahah also ordered his messenger to bring with him the Makkan chief if the latter did not propose to fight. When the messenger communicated his master's message to Abdulmuttalib, the latter said:

    By God, we do not want to fight him and we have no power to resist him. This is God's sacred House, built by His chosen friend, Abraham. If He protects it against him, it is because the House is His, and if He leaves it to him to destroy, we cannot defend it.

    Abdulmuttalib then went with the messenger to Abrahah. Ibn Ishaq said that Abdulmuttalib was a most handsome, charming and attractive person. When Abrahah saw him he felt much respect for him. He felt that Abdul Muttalib was too noble to sit beneath his royal bed but at the same time he did not wish to be seen by the Abyssinians sitting with him on his royal bed, so he came down and sat with Abdulmuttalib on the carpet. Then Abrahah ordered his interpreter to ask his guest what he wanted. Abdulmuttalib said he wanted to request the king to give him back his two hundred camels which were looted by his commander. Abrahah ordered his interpreter to tell Abdulmuttalib on his behalf:

    I admired you when I first saw you but when I spoke to you I was disappointed. Do you come to talk to me about two hundred looted camels and forget about the House which is an embodiment of your and your forefathers' religion and which I have come to destroy? You did not even say a word to persuade me to spare it.

    Abdulmuttalib said: I am only the master of my camels, but the House has its own Lord who is sure to protect it.

    Abrahah snapped, "It cannot be defended against me". The Makkan chief said: "You take your chance!" Abrahah returned his camels to him. Abdul Muttalib went back to the Quraish and told them of his encounter with the Abyssinian commander and ordered them to leave Makka and seek shelter in the mountains surrounding it. Then he went with a few personalities of the Quraish to the Ka'ba where he held the ring on its door in his hand. They all prayed hard to Allah for his help and protection of the House. Abdulmuttalib is reported to have recited the following lines of poetry in his prayer:

    Our Lord, a creature protects his property, so protect Yours. Let not their cross and their might ever overcome Your might. If You are leaving them to destroy our House of worship, then You surely have something in mind.

    Abrahah, on the other hand, ordered his army to march with the elephants to complete their mission, but just outside Makka the renowned big elephant sat down and refused to go any further. The soldiers exerted all efforts to persuade the elephant to enter the city but their efforts were in vain. This incident is a fact acknowledged by the Prophet. When his she-camel, Al-Qaswa', sat down some distance away from Makka, on the day when the Hudaibiyah peace agreement was concluded, the Prophet said to those of his companions who claimed she had become mulish, that she had not and that mulishness was not part of her nature. "But", the Prophet added, "she has been prevented by the same will which debarred the Elephant from entering Makka". On the day of the conquest of Makka, the Prophet said:

    Allah protected Makka against the Elephant but He allowed His messenger and the Believers to conquer it. Its sanctity today is the same as yesterday. Let those who hear this convey it to those absent.

    Then Allah's will to destroy the Abyssinian army and its commander was fulfilled. He sent groups of birds to stone the attackers with stones of sand and clay, leaving them like dry and torn leaves, as the Holy Qur'an tells. Abrahah suffered physical injuries. The remainder of the army carried him on their way back to Yemen but his limbs began to separate from the rest of the body and he started losing one finger after another, until they arrived at Sana'a. Abrahah died after his chest was broken apart, according to various reports. Versions relating to this event vary with regard to the description of those groups of birds, their size and the nature of stones and the manner of their effect. Some of these versions add that smallpox and measles broke out in Makka in that year. Those who are inclined to limit the scale of miracles and imperceptible phenomena and who seek to explain all events as resulting from the operation of familiar natural phenomena, prefer to explain this event as an actual outbreak of smallpox and measles among the army. They further explain that "the birds" could have been flies or mosquitoes carrying germs. The word "bird" in Arabic refers to all that flies. Imam Muhammad 'Abduh, explaining this surah in his commentary on the thirtieth part of the Qur'an, says:

    On the second day the epidemic of smallpox and measles broke out among the soldiers. Ikrimah said: "It was the first time smallpox had appeared in the Arab land". Yakoub ibn Utbah said: "That was the year when measles and smallpox appeared in Arabia. The diseases had an almost unparalleled effect on their bodies: their flesh began falling apart. The soldiers and their commander were horror-stricken and ran away. Abrahah was also hit; his flesh continued falling off his body, finger by finger, until eventually his chest broke and he died at Sana'a. This is what different reports have mentioned and what is logically acceptable. This holy surah shows us that the smallpox and measles were produced by solid stones carried and thrown on the soldiers by colossal groups of birds which are usually carried by winds. It is in line to believe that those birds referred to in the surah were a kind of fly or mosquito which carries the germs of some diseases, and that the stones were of dried and poisonous clay which the wind carried and which might have stuck to the legs of those birds. When this clay touched any organism, it penetrated deep into it and then caused complications of wounds and injuries which upset the whole body, leading to the dropping off of the flesh. Many kinds of these powerless birds are, as a matter of fact, the most efficient troops of Allah, which He uses for the destruction of whomsoever He wills. That little organism called now a days "germ" is within this classification. It gathers in big groups, the number of which is unknown except to the Creator. It is not essential for the manifestation of Allah's might that the birds should be as big as mountain tops, or of a certain shape or colour, and it is not essential for this manifestation that we should know the size of those stones and the way they work. For Allah has troops of all kinds: "In everything He has a sign attesting to His Unity", as the saying goes.

    There is no force in the universe but is subject to His power. To that tyrant (Abrahah) who wanted to destroy the House, Allah sent birds carrying smallpox and measles. Both he and his people were destroyed before entering Makka. That was a grace and a blessing from Allah bestowed on the neighbours of His sanctuary in spite of their polytheism. Allah wished to protect His House until He sent the one who would protect it with the force of faith and ideology, that is, the Prophet. At the same time, it was a punishment from Allah inflicted on His enemies, the people of the Elephant, who wanted to destroy the House without any reason to justify their action.

    This can be taken as a basis for understanding this surah. Nothing else can be accepted without logical explanation, even if it is authentically reported. The Divine power would be exhibited more strikingly when those who manifested their might by recruiting elephants (the biggest four legged animals) should be destroyed and crushed by a tiny animal invisible to human eyes. For the wise, this is certainly greater, more fascinating and miraculous.

    Neither this assumption (of smallpox or measles resulting from clay infected with germs of these diseases) advanced by the well-versed Imam, nor the opposite one described in some narratives, that the stones (thrown by the birds) split the heads and bodies of the Abyssinians and went through in them to tear their bodies apart leaving them like remnants of dry leaves - neither of the two explanations outweighs the other in manifesting Allah's might and neither needs be taken as a better explanation of the event. To me, both are the same with regard to their possibility and the exhibition of Allah's power. Whether the natural phenomena known and familiar to man operated to destroy the people Allah willed to be destroyed, or His purpose was accomplished through some Divine rules and phenomena of which man has no knowledge, are in my view exactly the same.

    The Divine rules of nature are not circumscribed by the boundaries of man's knowledge or what is familiar to him. For man knows of the Divine rules of nature only a fraction which Allah has put before him and which is proportionate to his capacity of understanding and thought nourished by his experience through the ages. Hence, the so-called miracles are part of the rules of nature laid down by Allah, but they are miracles only when measured by human knowledge and experience.

    Hence, there is no need for unease or doubt when faced with a supernatural event. Nor is there any need to seek an explanation for it, if the reports mentioning it are authentic, or if there are enough reasons, based on what is in the texts, to suggest that it was supernatural and did not comply with known natural laws. That a certain event should run according to familiar natural laws is not, in my opinion, less significant or less effective than its following supernatural laws. The natural rules familiar to men are in fact miraculous when weighed in the measures of man's powers and abilities. Sunrise is a miracle, though it occurs every day, and the birth of every child is superhuman in spite of its happening every minute. It anyone wants to challenge this, let him try to devise a birth! The employment of birds of any kind to carry ground stones infected with germs of smallpox and measles, then to throw them at that particular place and time, to afflict the raiding army with these epidemics at the moment when the army was about to overwhelm the city and destroy the House, is indeed a great miracle. That Allah's will should have been realized in that way would comprise several miracles with each as a clear manifestation of Allah's might and will. Had that course been followed, it would not have been less significant or less striking than sending a certain kind of bird, carrying unfamiliar kinds of stones, to afflict human bodies with a peculiar sort of affliction at that particular time. The two courses are the same; both are supernatural and superhuman.

    As for the event in question, the opinion advocating an unfamiliar, superhuman course carries more weight. This opinion visualises that Allah sent groups of unfamiliar birds, carrying strange stones which caused extraordinary affliction to human bodies. To accept this opinion does not necessitate the acceptance of those narratives which describe the birds in a most striking and fascinating way, similar to descriptions of other incidents which betray exaggeration.

    The general tone. of this surah and the circumstances of the event tend to support this opinion. Allah had a scheme for the House: He wanted to preserve it as a refuge for mankind where everyone finds peace, and to make it a gathering point for the followers of the new faith to march out in security in a free land, not subject to any external force or to any tyrannical government which might try to smother the new message in its cradle. Allah also wanted to make this event a permanent lesson, clear to everyone in all ages, so much so that in this surah He reminds the Quraish even after the Prophethood' of Muhammad (peace be on him) of this grace He bestowed on them, and gives it as an example of how He protects His sanctuaries and preserves them. There is no need for any attempt to impart a familiar image to this event that is exceptional and singular in essence and circumstances. This is all the more so especially when we take into consideration the fact that what we know of smallpox and measles and their effects on man does not fit in with what was reported of the effects of the incident on the bodies of the soldiers and their commander. Neither of the two diseases causes the falling off man's limbs, finger by finger and organ by organ, and neither of them causes the breaking up of one's chest. The Qur'an's narrative suggests very clearly that this is what happened: "Thus He made them like devoured dry leaves". Moreover, the reports of Ikrimah and Yakoub ibn 'Utbah do not state that smallpox hit the army. Neither report says anything more than that smallpox broke out that year for the first time in the Arabian peninsula. Neither of the two men suggested that Abrahah and his army particularly fell victims to this epidemic. Besides, if the army only was hit with the disease while the Arabs around remained safe - that is, if the birds were meant to hit only the army - then this is again preter natural. Since the event is in any case supernatural, why trouble our selves in limiting it to a certain explanation only because this explanation is based on what is familiar to human senses?

    The motives of the rational school of which Imam Muhammad 'Abduh was the leading thinker, to limit the field of the supernatural and the imperceptible to our senses when explaining the Holy Qur'an, are commendable and understandable. This school tried to explain such events within the bounds of the known and familiar natural laws. It was confronted with the superstitious trend which tightened its grip on the minds of the masses at that time. Moreover, it was facing a flood of legends and Thalmudic narratives with which books explaining the Qur'an were over burdened, while the fascination with modern technology and science and doubt in the principles of religion was reaching its zenith. The rational school tried, therefore, to preserve the place of religion taking the standpoint that whatever it says is compatible with reason. Hence, this school strived to keep religion pure from any association with any kind of legend and superstition. It also tried to establish a religious mentality which understood the natural laws and recognised that they were constant and infallible, and which attributed all human and universal functions and operations to these natural laws. This mentality is in essence the Qur'anic mentality. For the Qur'an refers men to the natural laws as they constitute the permanent and infallible rule which organizes individual operations and diverse phenomena.

    But resisting the pressures of superstition on the one side and fascination with technology on the other left their stamps on that school. It became extra cautious, tending to make the familiar natural laws the only basis of the Divine Laws of nature. Hence the Qur'anic explanations of Sheikh Muhammad 'Abduh and his two disciples Sheikh Rasheed Rida and Sheikh Abdul Qadir Al-Mughrabi show clearly a strong desire to reduce the greater number of miracles to only the more familiar of Allah's natural laws rather than the supernatural. They explain some of these miracles in a way that would be in line with what is called "rational", and they are excessively cautious in accepting what is imperceptible to human senses.

    But with this understanding and appreciation of the environmental factors behind this trend of the rational school, it may be noted that it has gone too far in overlooking the other side of the comprehensive concept which the Qur'an aims to implant in the minds of the Muslims. This is that Allah's will and power are absolute, limitless and go far beyond the universal rules and laws He ordained, whether familiar to man or not. This absoluteness does not accept the human mind as a final arbiter. Neither does it accept the limits of the human mind as binding in such a way as to classify as probable only what may be acceptable to human reason, and to demand "rational" explanations for all which may be unacceptable to it. This demand is frequently stated by the advocates of this school. Moreover, the Divine laws of the universe are not only those familiar to man. Indeed, what is familiar to man is only a fraction of these laws. Both these and the unfamiliar laws are the same in manifesting the greatness of the Divine power and the exactness and precision of Allah's designs.

    Nevertheless, we must be well guarded against superstition and at the same time reject any unfounded legend with conscious moderation, so that we do not succumb to the influence of particular environments nor be motivated by the need to resist a common tradition of a certain age.

    There is a safe rule for approaching the Qur'anic texts which may be appropriately stated here, viz, we cannot approach what the Qur'an states with prejudiced minds and preconceived ideas, whether generally or in relation to the subject matter of the statements under study. The opposite is the right way: WE MUST APPROACH THE QUR'ANIC STATEMENTS IN ORDER TO DERIVE OUR CONCEPTS AND FORMULATE OUR IDEAS FROM THEM. What the Qur'an states is final as it is. For what we call "reason" and its adjudication on what the Qur'an relates of events in the universe or in the history, in the world of man or of the imperceptibles, is no more than the net result of our finite human existence and experiences. Although this reason is, in essence an absolute force, not subject to, or limited by individual experiences or events, yet, it is, after all, confined to our human existence. This existence does not reflect "The Absolute" as this belongs to Allah. The Qur'an comes from Allah, the Absolute. Hence, it is binding on us in the sense that whatever it states is the basis of our very "rational" concepts. Then, no one can say about a certain statement of the Qur'an: "It is unacceptable to reason, so a logical explanation must be sought for it," as the advocates of the rational school frequently say. This does not mean that we should accept superstitions, it only stresses that human reason is not the arbiter of what the Qur'an states. When the expressions of a Qur'anic text are clear and straightforward, they determine how our reasons should approach it in order to formulate our views concerning its subject matter as well as regarding other universal facts.

    Now we proceed to discuss the surah itself and try to understand the significance of the story. Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the people of the Elephant?

    It is a question which draws attention to the wonders involved in the incident itself and stresses its great significance. The incident was so well known to the Arabs that they used to consider it a sort of beginning of history. They used to say, "This incident happened in the Elephant year", and, "That event took place two years before the Elephant year", or, "This dates to ten years after the Elephant year". It is well known that the Prophet was born in the Elephant year itself. This is perhaps one of the fascinatingly perfect arrangements of the Divine will.

    The surah then is not relating to the Arabs something they did not know. It is a reminder of an event well known to them, aiming at achieving something beyond the actual remembrance of it. After this opening note, Allah goes on to tell the rest of the story in the form of a rhetorical question: "Did He not cause their treacherous plan to be futile? ", which means that the designs of the people of the Elephant were useless, incapable of achieving anything at all. They were like someone who lost his way and thus could not get to his own destination. Perhaps this is a reminder to the Quraish of the grace Allah bestowed on them when He protected and preserved the House at the time when they felt too weak to face the mighty aggressors, the people of the Elephant. Such remembrance may make them feel their disgrace when they persist in denying Allah after He has helped them out of their weakness. It may also curb their conceit and heavy handedness in their treatment of Muhammad and the few believers who supported him. Allah destroyed the powerful aggressors who wanted to pull down His House and sanctuary. Allah then may destroy these aggressors who try to persecute His messenger and suppress His message. The Qur'an superbly portrays how the defeat of the aggressors' designs were brought about: And send against them flights of birds, which pelted them with stones of sand and clay. Thus He made them like devoured dry leaves

    The birds were flying in groups. The Qur'an uses a Persian term, "sijjeel", which denotes "stone and clay" to describe the substance with which the birds struck the aggressors. The dry leaves were described as ''devoured'' to denote that insects or other animals had eaten them. It is a vivid image of the physical shattering of the Abyssinian soldiers when they were stricken with these muddy stones. There is no need to go into such explanations as that it was an allegorical description of their destruction with smallpox or measles.

    The significance of this event is far reaching and the lessons deduced from mentioning it in the Qur'an are numerous. It first suggests that Allah did not want the polytheists to take the responsibility of protecting His House, in spite of the fact that they held it in deep respect and sought security in being its neighbours. When He willed to preserve the House and made it clear that He Himself was its protector who looked after it, He left the polytheists to be defeated by the Abyssinians. The Divine Will then directly intervened to repel the aggression and preserve the sacred House of Allah. Thus the polytheists did not have the chance to hold the protection of the House as a 'favour they did to Allah' or as "an act of honour". If they did, they would have been prompted by the fanatic impulses of Ignorance. This point gives considerable weight to the argument that the Divine Will of destroying the aggressors was accomplished through preternatural rules.

    This direct intervention by Allah to protect the Holy House should have prompted the Quraish and the rest of the Arabian tribes to embrace Islam, the Divine religion, when it was conveyed to them by the Prophet. Surely, their respect and guardianship of the House, and the paganism they spread around it, should not have been their reason for rejecting Islam ! Allah's reminder to them of this event is a part of His campaign against them and His drawing attention to their amazingly stubborn attitude.

    The event also suggests that Allah did not allow the people of earlier revelations, represented in this case by Abrahah and his army, to destroy the sacred House or to impose their authority over the Holy land, even when it was surrounded by the impurity of polytheism and the polytheists were its custodians. Thus the House remained free from any human authority, safe against all plottings and designs. Allah preserved the freedom of the land in order that the new faith would grow up there completely free, not subjected to the authority of any despot. Allah revealed this religion as the force which keeps under its fold all other religions and all mankind and takes over the leadership of humanity. This was Allah's will concerning His House and religion. It was accomplished long before any human being knew that the Prophet, who was to convey the new message, was born in the same year. We feel contented and reassured when we realize this aspect of the significance of the event. We know the wicked ambitions of international crusading forces and world Zionism concerning the Holy lands. We realize that these forces spare no effort toachieve their wicked ambitions. But we are not worried. For Allah who protected His House against the aggression of the people of earlier revelations when its custodians were polytheists will protect it again, if He wills, and will protect Medina the city of His Messenger against the plottings and designs of the evil doers. The third aspect the event refers to concerns the reality of the Arabian situation at the time. The Arabs did not have any role to play on the face of the earth; they did not even have an identity of their own before Islam. In the Yemen they were subjugated by either the Persians or the Abyssinians. If they had any government of their own it was under the protection of the Persians. In the north, Syria was subject to the Byzantine rule which was either direct or in the shape of an Arab government under the protection of the Byzantines. Only the heart land of the Arabian Peninsula escaped foreign rule. But this also was in a state of tribalism and division which deprived it of any weight in world power politics. Tribal war could drag on for forty years or more, but neither individually nor as a group did these tribes count as a power in the eyes of the neighbouring mighty empires. What happened with regard to the "Elephant" aggression was a correct assessment of the real force of these tribes when faced with a foreign aggressor.

    Under Islam the Arabs had, for the first time in history, an international role to play. They also had a powerful state to be taken into consideration by the world powers. They possessed a sweeping force that destroys thrones, conquers empires, and brings down the false deviating and ignorant leaderships in order to take over the leadership of mankind. But what facilitated these achievements for the Arabs for the first time in their history was that they forgot their Arabism. They forgot the racial urges and fanaticism. They remembered that they were Muslims, and Muslims only. They carried the message of a forceful and all-comprehensive faith, which they delivered to humanity with mercy and compassion. They did not uphold any sort of nationalism or factionalism. They were the exponents of a Divine idea which gives mankind a Divine, not earthly, doctrine to be applied as a way of life. They left their homes to struggle for the cause of Allah alone. They were not after the establishment of an Arab empire under which they may live in luxury and conceit. Their aim was not to subjugate other nations to their own rule after freeing them from the rule of the Byzantine or the Persians. It was an aim clearly defined by Rabaie ibn Amir, the Muslims' messenger to the Persian commander, when he said in the latter's headquarters:

    Allah ordered us to set out in order to save humanity from the worship of creatures and bring it to the worship of Allah alone, to save it from the narrowness of this life so that it may look forward to the broadness of the life hereafter, and from the oppression of other religions so that it may enjoy the justice of Islam. Then, and only then, did the Arabs have an identity, a power and a leadership. But all of these were devoted to Allah alone. They possessed their power and leadership as long as they followed the right path. But when they deviated and followed their narrow nationalistic ideas, and when they substituted for the banner of Islam that of factional bonds, they came under subjugation by other nations. For Allah deserted them whenever they deserted Him; He neglected them as they neglected Him.

    What are the Arabs without Islam? What is the ideology that they gave, or they can give to humanity if they abandon Islam? What value can a nation have without an ideology which it may present to mankind? Every nation which assumed the leadership of humanity in any period of history advanced an ideology. Nations which did not, such as the Tartars who swept over the east, or the Berbers who crushed the Roman Empire in the west, could not survive for long. They were assimilated by the nations they conquered. The only ideology the Arabs advanced for mankind was the Islamic faith which raised them to the position of human leadership. If they forsake it they will no longer have any function or role to play in human history. The Arabs should remember this well if they want to live and to be powerful and to assume the leadership of mankind. It is Allah who provides guidance for us lest we go astray.

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