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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ashab al-Kahf - The Companions of the Cave

In the most recent Catholic-Muslim dialogue this was delivered by our
Islamic Scholar. I just want all of you to know this.

Ashab al-Kahf - The Companions of the Cave

For Discussion in Catholic-Muslim Dialogue of Western Region,

I. The Story in the Qur’an:

“Do you find the Companions of the Cave and al-Raqim[i][i]
so wondrous, among all Our other signs? When the young men sought
refuge in the cave and said, ‘Our Lord, Grant us Your mercy, and make
easy for us a good way out of our ordeal,’ We sealed their ears (with
sleep) in the cave for years. Then We woke them so that We make clear
which of the two parties best understand the reason they stayed there
such a long time.

“We tell you their true story.[ii][ii] They were young men
who believed in their Lord, and We gave them more and more guidance.
We gave strength to their hearts when they stood up and said, ‘Our
Lord is the Lord of the heavens and earth. We shall never call upon
any god other than Him, for that would be an outrageous thing to do.
These people of ours have taken gods other than Him. Why do they not
produce clear evidence about them? Who could be more unjust than
someone who makes up lies about God? Now that you have left such
people, and what they worshipped instead of God, take refuge in the
cave. God will shower His mercy on you and make for you an easy way
out of your ordeal.’

You could have seen the (light of the) sun as it rose,
moving away to the right of their cave, and when it set, moving away
to the left of them, while they lay in the wide space inside the cave.
This is one of God’s signs: those people God guides are rightly
guided, but you will find no protector to lead to the right path those
He leaves to stray. You would have thought they were awake, though
they lay asleep. We turned them over, to the right and the left, with
their dog stretching out its forelegs at the entrance. If you had seen
them, you would have turned and run away, filled with fear of them.

“In time We woke them, and they began to question one
another. One of them asked, ‘How long have been here?’ and (some of
them) answered, ‘A day or part of a day,’ but then (others) said,
‘Your Lord knows best how you have been here. One of you go to the
city with your silver coins, find out where the best food is there,
and bring some back. But be careful not to let anyone know about you:
if they found you out, they would stone you or force you to return to
their religion, and then you will never prosper.’ In this way We
brought them to the 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. But (instead of giving thought to this) they
began disputing among themselves.

“(Some) said, ‘Construct a building over them: their Lord
knows best about them.’ Those who prevailed said, ‘We shall build a
place of worship over them.’ (Some) say, ‘The sleepers were three,
and their dog made four,’ others say, ‘They were five, and their dog
made six’ – guessing in the dark – and some say, ‘They were seven, and
their dog made eight.’ Say (Prophet), ‘My Lord knows best how many
they were.’ Only a few have real knowledge about them, so do not
argue, but stick to what is clear, and do not ask any of these people
about them; do not say of anything, ‘I will do that tomorrow,’ without
adding, ‘God willing,’ and, whenever you forget, remember your Lord
and say, ‘May my Lord guide me to be closer to what is right.’ (Some
say), ‘The sleepers stayed in their cave for three hundred years,’
some added nine more. Say (Prophet), ‘God knows best how long they
stayed.’ His is the knowledge of all that is hidden in the heavens and
earth – How well He sees! How well He hears! – and they have no one to
protect them other than Him; He does not allow anyone to share His
rule.” (The Qur’an, Surah al-Kahf 18:9-26)[iii][iii]

II. The Historical Background of the Revelation of this Story:

The Surah al-Kahf was revealed to the Prophet towards the middle
period of his preaching in Makkah (between the 5th and 10 year after
beginning his mission). During this period the Quraish (leading tribe
of Makkah) escalated their opposition to the Prophet. They subject his
followers to ruthless torture and severe economic deprivation. Some
Muslims at this time migrated to Abyssinia. The Quraish then
introduced a severe economic and social boycott against the Prophet
and his followers, and forced them to confine themselves to the hilly
side of Makkah, called Shi’b Abi Talib. This boycott continued for
about three years.[iv][iv]

It is reported that this Surah was revealed around this period in
response to some questions posed by the Makkan polytheists. After
consulting with some People of the Book (Jews and Christians) they put
these questions to the Prophet:

1. Who were the Companions of the Cave?

2. What is the true nature of the story of Prophet Moses’
encounter with Khidr?

3. What is the story of Dhu al-Qarnain?

All these stories pertained to the Jewish and Christian history and
were not much known to the people in the Arabian peninsula. The People
of the Book selected these stories carefully so as to test whether or
not any extraordinary source of knowledge was available to Prophet
Muhammad – peace be upon him.

God revealed these stories to the Prophet –peace be upon him- not only
to give answers the questions raised but also to build the morale of
Muslims and help them get some lessons for their own particular

III. The Themes of the Surah al-Kahf:

The Surah begins with the following words:

“Praise be to God, who sent down the Scripture to His servant and
placed no crookedness in it. (He made it) straight, giving warning of
severe punishment from Him and giving good news to the believers who
do good deeds that theirs will be an excellent reward where they shall
abide forever.” (Al-Kahf 18:1-3)

There are several authentic Ahadith (plural of Hadith – saying of
Prophet Muhammad) that mention the power and affects of this Surah on
its faithful readers. It is mentioned that this Surah brings Sakinah
(comfort and peace of the heart); it gives to its readers the light
that will shine for them in this life and in the eternal life. It is
also mentioned that those who will remember this Surah and pay
attention to it will be saved from the Trials of Dajjal (the Deceiver
or Anti-Christ). Muslims generally recite this Surah every Friday.

When we reflect on this Surah we see that the Surah
mentions four main stories in some details and in the middle of these
stories it also refers to the story of Iblis (the Devil) who refused
to obey God’s command to honor Adam and instead became the enemy of
all human beings. The four main stories of this Surah are:

1. Story of the Companions of the Cave

2. Story of the owner of two gardens

3. Story of Prophet Moses –peace be upon him- with a mysterious
teacher (The Qur’an does not mention the name of this person, but he
is generally known as the angelic figure, Khidr – peace be upon him)

4. Story of the king Dhu al-Qarnain (meaning ‘the one of two
horns’ probably referring to his vast eastern and western kingdoms.
The Qur’an mentions only his title without identifying him with his
real name)

The theme of all these stories is one and the same. They all tell us
about the trials of life. People are tested by different trials and
Devil is there is to mislead them and make difficult their path of
success and salvation.

1. The story of the Companions of the Cave tells about the trials
of faith. It tells us how the people of faith are tested and tied in
different ways, but those who remain firm and patient are protected by

2. The story of the owner of the two gardens is basically the
story of trials of wealth and riches. It tells us that wealth and
riches could be very tempting and deceiving and often take people away
from the right path.

3. Prophet Moses –peace be upon him- had to learn some lessons
from an angelic figure known as Khidr. This story tells us about the
Trials of Knowledge. We may think that we know everything; but no one,
even God’s prophets, can grasp all the mysteries of the events in this
world. Knowledge requires a lot of patience and humility and ultimate
knowledge belong to God alone.

4. The Story of Dhu al-Qarnain tells us about a great king who
had to deal with all kind of people. He moved fast from one direction
to another direction. He met good people as well as rebellious groups
in his kingdom. People of diverse backgrounds and languages used to
live in his domain. This righteous king wherever he went he did good
things. He was powerful, intelligent and resourceful. He was also
humble and devout. He did not charge his subjects excessive taxes for
any projects that he performed. The power and authority did not
corrupt him. This is the story of the trials of power and position.

The Surah ends with these words:

“Say, ‘Shall we tell you who the biggest losers are according to their
actions? It is those whose efforts are lost in this world and they
think that they are doing well.’ They disbelieve in their Lord’s
message and deny that they will meet Him. Their deeds come to nothing
on the Day of Resurrection; We shall give them no weight. Their
recompense will be Hell because they disbelieved and made fun of My
message and My messengers. But those who believe and do good deeds
shall have as a gift the Gardens of Paradise. They shall remain there
forever, never wishing to leave. Say, ‘If the ocean were ink for
(writing) the words of my Lord, it would run dry before those words
were exhausted’ – even if We were to add another ocean to it. Say
(Prophet), ‘I am only a human being, like you, to whom it has been
revealed that your God is One. Anyone who hopes to meet his Lord
should do good deeds and give no one a share in the worship due to his
Lord.” (Al-Kahf 18:103-110)

IV. Some Remarks on the Qur’anic Style of this Story:

What the Qur’an omits about this story? The Qur’an deliberately omits
almost everything that a historian of this story will be interested to
know.[v][v] The Qur’an does not tell us:

1. The dates and the time period when this happened.

2. The geographical location of the cave.

3. The names of the companions of the cave.

4. The race or religion of the companions of the cave.

5. Their exact number.

6. Exactly how long they were in the cave.

It is, however, interesting to note that while the Qur’an has not
given us some of the specifics of this story, it has remarkably told
us all its important elements, ‘who, what, where, why?’

The Qur’an has told us:

1. The Companions of the cave were young people.

2. They were together and were supporting each other.

3. They had deep faith in One God and were under threat to be
killed for their faith.

4. They were at a loss that their fellow countrymen could not see
the folly of their beliefs.

5. They took refuge in a cave.

6. They were deeply devout. The Qur’an mentions their sincere
prayers to their Lord

7. They had full trust in their Lord.

8. God helped them in a mysterious ways and gave them full protection.

a. The cave received the warmth of the sunlight, but in such a
way that they were not discovered or seen from outside.

b. God made them turn sides, like a mother keeps turning her
little baby in the crib

c. Their dog was in front of the cave

d. The scene was frightening for the outsider, so that no one
could enter the cave.

9. When they woke up they did not know how long they slept.

10. They sent one of them to buy some food for them; but they did not
want to be discovered because they were afraid that their countrymen
would kill them and force them to abandon their religion.

11. God made them wake up at a particular time so that people may
learn some lessons:

a. God’s promise is true

b. The resurrection will take place.

12. People did not learn the lesson but kept arguing what kind of
monument to build for their honor. God tells the Prophet and the
Believers that they should not argue about the unnecessary details of
this story; they should learn its basic message.

V. Some lessons to learn:

It seems that the Qur’an has abstracted this story from its
particularities and has universalized it for all people and for all
times. The story could be of people of any time or place. It could be
the story of the people of any faith; but it has a message and this
message should be learned. The message is:

1. There is only one God. Stay firm on this faith.

2. Do not give up your faith under hardship or trials

3. God has unique ways to help those who are sincere and faithful

4. Time and history are all in the power of God and God has total
control over them.

5. Material power is not permanent; it is the spiritual that will abide.

6. People of truth are found in all places and times; truth is
not the exclusive property of any one group or nation.

7. God tests people. Those who suffer are not necessarily bad
people and those who prosper are not necessarily good people.

8. The truth will ultimately succeed.

9. God’s promise of help and support is true.

10. The Resurrection will definitely take place.