This new Meccan surah promises to be an interesting one.  The synopsis in my translation indicates it is more narrative in nature.  I have noticed that the Qur’an does not use many stories; it is much more sermonic.  Because of that, I hate to say, it is a different and slightly more laborious form of literature than what most Westerners may prefer, as story-based as our culture is.

Before the surah launches into its first story, the first eight ayahs mention Allah is testing people’s hearts. What is it about the nature of Allah that requires a “test” to determine a person’s heart (18:7)?  Does He not know already?  Is this all one big game to Him?  Is the heart’s inclination not a reality until the event, thus it must take place?  I am hoping for the last option.

The Companions of the Cave

Next we have the story of the Companions or Sleepers of the Cave.  This is a most interesting story!  The tale, which certainly is told as a parable with a bigger point, tells of three or four or seven young men and a dog who are fleeing oppression at the hands of pagan worshipers and seek refuge in a north-facing cave.  God keeps them there undetected as if a wall had been built obscuring the cave and causes the youths to fall into a deep sleep.  They sleep for what seems like only hours or days but what turns out to be hundreds of years, maybe three or twelve hundred years or longer.  Hungry, they send one of the men down into the city to inconspicuously buy food.  However, his antiquated dress, speech and money draw attention. The people of the city, then, decide a great move of God has taken place at this cave and plan to build a place of worship there.  Then the people argue amongst themselves over the number of youths had been in the cave and for how long.

It turns out this story was originally Christian, not Islamic.  Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali states that the great chronicler of ancient Roman history Edward Gibbons first told the story in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Ali describes the original story this way:

The bare Christian story (without the spiritual lessons taught in the Qur’an) is told in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (end of chapter 33). In the reign of a Roman Emperor who persecuted the Christians, seven Christian youths of Ephesus left the town and hid themselves in a cave in a mountain near by. They fell asleep, and remained asleep for some generations or centuries. When the wall which sealed up the caves was being demolished, the youths awoke. They still thought of the world in which they had previously lived. They had no idea of the duration of time. But when one of them went to the town to purchase provisions, he found that the whole world had changed. The Christian religion, instead of being persecuted was fashionable: in fact it was now the State religion. His dress and speech, and the money which he brought, seemed to belong to another world. This attracted attention. The great ones of the land visited the Cave, and verified the tale by questioning the man’s Companions. When the story became very popular and circulated throughout the Roman Empire, we may well suppose that an Inscription was put up at the mouth of the Cave.

Ali opines that Christians would have posed this story to Muhammad at some point asking him to weigh in on how many youth had been in the cave and for how long as a way to discredit him.  Muhammad then takes the story and makes a larger, grander point from the story.

Kahf Al-Raqim, the cave today

The point now becomes that it is foolish to argue over the minor points of this all important story and miss the life-changing message of God hidden in this parable.  How long did they stay?  Only God knows (18:26)!  Restrain the hubris that makes you think you too can know the mind of God.  Much more important than “how many?” or “how long?” is that God did protect the youth from death and awaken them again to a life that was safer and better than what it had been when they fell asleep.  It is like they were living a whole new life.  As you can guess, the original Christian story was taken as an analogy about Resurrection.  At least some Muslims take the story the same way as well, as is clear from Abdel Haleem’s translation of ayah 21:

In this way We brought them to people’s attention so that they might know that God’s promise [of resurrection] is true and that there is no doubt about the Last Hour, [though] people argue among themselves.

From an artistic and literary point of view, this story is superb!  It is also a truly great message for religious people to bear in mind!  We have a God who will protect us through oppressive times, who will make death seem only like a night’s sleep, and who will raise us again to a life superior to what we now know.  In the mean time, embrace a “generous orthodoxy” that allows for varying views of the minor points of the story, hanging on firmly to the main point.

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