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Debating over the Sleepers of the Cave

Tafsīr Sūrah al-Kahf – part 5

Verses 21-27

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

 

وَكَذَٰلِكَ أَعْثَرْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ لِيَعْلَمُوا أَنَّ وَعْدَ اللَّـهِ حَقٌّ وَأَنَّ السَّاعَةَ لَا رَيْبَ فِيهَا إِذْ يَتَنَازَعُونَ بَيْنَهُمْ أَمْرَهُمْ ۖ فَقَالُوا ابْنُوا عَلَيْهِم بُنْيَانًا ۖ رَّبُّهُمْ أَعْلَمُ بِهِمْ ۚ قَالَ الَّذِينَ غَلَبُوا عَلَىٰ أَمْرِهِمْ لَنَتَّخِذَنَّ عَلَيْهِم مَّسْجِدًا ﴿٢١﴾ سَيَقُولُونَ ثَلَاثَةٌ رَّابِعُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ وَيَقُولُونَ خَمْسَةٌ سَادِسُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ رَجْمًا بِالْغَيْبِ ۖ وَيَقُولُونَ سَبْعَةٌ وَثَامِنُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ ۚ قُل رَّبِّي أَعْلَمُ بِعِدَّتِهِم مَّا يَعْلَمُهُمْ إِلَّا قَلِيلٌ ۗ فَلَا تُمَارِ فِيهِمْ إِلَّا مِرَاءً ظَاهِرًا وَلَا تَسْتَفْتِ فِيهِم مِّنْهُمْ أَحَدًا ﴿٢٢﴾ وَلَا تَقُولَنَّ لِشَيْءٍ إِنِّي فَاعِلٌ ذَٰلِكَ غَدًا ﴿٢٣﴾ إِلَّا أَن يَشَاءَ اللَّـهُ ۚ وَاذْكُر رَّبَّكَ إِذَا نَسِيتَ وَقُلْ عَسَىٰ أَن يَهْدِيَنِ رَبِّي لِأَقْرَبَ مِنْ هَـٰذَا رَشَدًا ﴿٢٤﴾ وَلَبِثُوا فِي كَهْفِهِمْ ثَلَاثَ مِائَةٍ سِنِينَ وَازْدَادُوا تِسْعًا ﴿٢٥﴾ قُلِ اللَّـهُ أَعْلَمُ بِمَا لَبِثُوا ۖ لَهُ غَيْبُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ۖ أَبْصِرْ بِهِ وَأَسْمِعْ ۚ مَا لَهُم مِّن دُونِهِ مِن وَلِيٍّ وَلَا يُشْرِكُ فِي حُكْمِهِ أَحَدًا ﴿٢٦﴾ وَاتْلُ مَا أُوحِيَ إِلَيْكَ مِن كِتَابِ رَبِّكَ ۖ لَا مُبَدِّلَ لِكَلِمَاتِهِ وَلَن تَجِدَ مِن دُونِهِ مُلْتَحَدًا ﴿٢٧

21) And thus did We bring them to people’s attention that they might know that Allāh’s promise is true and that, as to the Hour, there is no doubt about it. They disputed among themselves about their affair, (some) said, ‘Erect an edifice over them – their Lord best knows them.’ Those whose (opinion) prevailed in the matter said, ‘We will raise a Masjid over them.’ (Some) say, ‘(They are) three, the fourth being their dog,’ and (others) say, ‘Five, the sixth being their dog,’ guessing at the unseen; and (yet others) say, ‘Seven, and the eighth is their dog.’ Say, ‘My Lord best knows their number, none knows them but a few,’ therefore do not argue about them except with clear knowledge, and do not ask any of them about them. And do not say of anything, ‘I will do it tomorrow,’ without (adding), ‘If Allāh wills,’ and remember your Lord when you forget and say, ‘May my Lord guide me closer to what is right.’ They remained in their cave three hundred years and (some) added nine more. Say, ‘Allāh knows best how long they remained; to Him are (known) the unseen things of the heavens and the earth; how clear His sight and how clear His hearing! There is none to be a guardian for them besides Him, and He does not allow anyone to associate in His rule.

 

وَكَذَٰلِكَ أَعْثَرْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ لِيَعْلَمُوا أَنَّ وَعْدَ اللَّـهِ حَقٌّ وَأَنَّ السَّاعَةَ لَا رَيْبَ فِيهَا إِذْ يَتَنَازَعُونَ بَيْنَهُمْ أَمْرَهُمْ ۖ فَقَالُوا ابْنُوا عَلَيْهِم بُنْيَانًا ۖ رَّبُّهُمْ أَعْلَمُ بِهِمْ ۚ قَالَ الَّذِينَ غَلَبُوا عَلَىٰ أَمْرِهِمْ لَنَتَّخِذَنَّ عَلَيْهِم مَّسْجِدًا ﴿٢١

21) And thus did We bring them to people’s attention that they might know that Allāh’s promise is true and that, as to the Hour, there is no doubt about it. They disputed among themselves about their affair, (some) said, ‘Erect an edifice over them – their Lord best knows them.’ Those whose (opinion) prevailed in the matter said, ‘We will raise a Masjid over them.’

The use of the word “athara” specifically means to become acquainted with something after having stumbled upon it. When someone is unaware of something and then stumbles upon it, if it intrigues him, he will look further and study it, and hence becomes acquainted with it. It becomes the route to acquiring ʿilm of it. In such a way, when the person went to the town, dressed as he was in clothes centuries old, speaking as he did in an ancient dialect, with that ancient silver coin perhaps minted with the face of a long dead king, the townspeople were intrigued, and wished to know more.

and that, as to the Hour, there is no doubt about it

The āyah alludes to the fact that the people at that time were doubting the occurrence of the Hour, or they were debating whether the resurrection would be bodily or in spirit, but with the emergence of the people of the cave, with their bodily preservation in a manner only divinely achieved, their doubts were addressed. An overarching wisdom of this occurrence, then, was to prove the Last Hour to these people.

They disputed among themselves about their affair

Soon after the youth were discovered, they died. It is not known exactly when, but many scholars have said that it was when the people found out about them and went back to their cave and saw all of them there.

After their death the people began to debate about them. The debate over them included topics such as whether they were actually awake for the entirety of the time or if they had been asleep, or if they had died and then been returned to life. Another matter they might possibly have debated is over their number, the length of time they slept for, or what they should do with them and build over them.

‘Erect an edifice over them – their Lord best knows them.’

In response to the debate over what should be done with them some suggested sealing the cave with them in it, and building an edifice in front of the mouth of the cave so that people would not be able to enter it, allowing for them to rest in peace.

Those whose (opinion) prevailed in the matter said, ‘We will raise a Masjid over them.’

Those in power won the argument and decided to build a Masjid over them.  In this āyah they are not being praised for this act due to the aḥadīth of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) which teach us that this was a historical practice he (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) condemned.

This āyah reminds us that we must understand revelation holistically; we cannot ignore the ḥadīth when explaining the Qurʾān and we cannot ignore the Qurʾān when explaining the ḥadīth as a practice such as this, if taken without the ḥadīth, may be replicated for its presence in the Qur’ān. However, as is narrated by ʿĀʾishah (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanha), Umm Salamah mentioned a church she had seen in Abyssinia and the images it contained. He (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said,

“When a righteous man – or a righteous servant – of theirs dies they build a mosque over his grave and they engrave those images. They are the worst of creation with Allāh.”[1]

ʿĀʾishah (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanha) is also reported to have said, ‘During the Messenger of Allāh’s (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) final illness, when it got severe he would pull a bordered garment of his over his face, and when it became hard to breathe, he would remove it. While in that state he said, “Allāh cursed the Jews and Christians, they took the graves of their Prophets as mosques,” he would warn against what they did. Were it not for that, his grave would have been left in the open but it was feared that it would be taken as a mosque.’[2]

Jundub b. ʿAbdullāh said that he heard the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) saying, five days before he passed away,

“Before Allāh, I clear myself of taking one of you as a close, dear friend since Allāh has taken me as a close friend just as He took Ibrāhīm as a close friend. Were I to take any person of my nation as a close friend, it would have been Abū Bakr. Of a surety, those before you would take the graves of their Prophets as mosques, but you, do not take the graves as mosques, I prohibit you from doing so!”[3]

Ibn Masʿūd (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) said that the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “Amongst the worst of people are those who will be living at the time of the Hour and those who take graves as mosques.”[4]

The aforementioned aḥadith clearly illustrate that the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) forbade building masjids on graves, or building on graves, walking on them, or praying towards them.

 

سَيَقُولُونَ ثَلَاثَةٌ رَّابِعُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ وَيَقُولُونَ خَمْسَةٌ سَادِسُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ رَجْمًا بِالْغَيْبِ ۖ وَيَقُولُونَ سَبْعَةٌ وَثَامِنُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ ۚ قُل رَّبِّي أَعْلَمُ بِعِدَّتِهِم مَّا يَعْلَمُهُمْ إِلَّا قَلِيلٌ ۗ فَلَا تُمَارِ فِيهِمْ إِلَّا مِرَاءً ظَاهِرًا وَلَا تَسْتَفْتِ فِيهِم مِّنْهُمْ أَحَدًا ﴿٢٢

(Some) say, ‘(They are) three, the fourth being their dog,’ and (others) say, ‘Five, the sixth being their dog,’ guessing at the unseen; and (yet others) say, ‘Seven, and the eighth is their dog.’ Say, ‘My Lord best knows their number, none knows them but a few,’ therefore do not argue about them except with clear knowledge, and do not ask any of them about them.

The future tense of “sayaqūlūna” implies that they will keep debating about it and the “waw” in “wa yaqūlūna” indicates that this is the maximum that has been surmised i.e. that there were three opinions in total over this matter.

The word “rajam” means to guess, speculate and to throw stones. “Rajam bi’l-ghayb”, then, conveys the image of a person standing with rocks in his hand, throwing them in every direction, trying to hit a target that is unknown and unseen. The phrase itself indicates that it is foolish, and possibly dangerous, as it could have unintended consequences such as hurting someone inadvertently.

Say, ‘My Lord best knows their number, none knows them but a few’

Ibn Kathīr said that Allāh mentioned three options, indicating that there is no fourth and explicitly negated the first two but did not negate the third. Therefore, Ibn ʿAbbās said, ‘I am one of the few. They were seven and the eighth was their dog.’ Taking this as an explanation, the meaning of ‘My Lord knows knows best their number’ would be Allāh does indeed know best and that number is seven, and not what you surmise. It is important to note that the number is alluded to here, not explicitly stated, because it is not the purpose of the story, the purpose is the lessons and benefits we derive from it. The point to be taken here is not to focus on the numbers and argue about them, thus missing the whole point of the story. What benefit is there really in knowing what their number was? There are even accounts of people arguing over the name of the dog. We need to be wise enough to know where the beneficial knowledge is and seek that. In matters of the unseen, we start where Allāh starts and stop where Allāh stops.

none knows them but a few,

That is, before Allāh alerted us to the answer. Shawkānī said that Allāh said “mā yaʿlamuhum” as opposed to “yaʿlamuhā” indicating ‘you don’t know much about them as people, let alone their number’.

therefore do not argue about them except with clear knowledge

There are two opinions about what this part of the āyah means

1) Clear knowledge is what Allāh put in the Qurʾān about them. Ibn ʿAbbās said that this verse means, ‘What We have revealed is enough for you, there is no need for you to argue any further.’

2) Clear knowledge is by expressing obvious facts that are clearly proven with confidence. Ibn Zayd said, ‘You clearly and definitively repudiate them by telling them that, “You don’t know, you have no firm knowledge in this.”’ Therefore, it serves as a an encouragement not to accept their spurious claims, to be confident in your revelation and a reminder that other cultures have copious amounts of details for this story, but it is based on speculation.

A constant theme of the verses we have studied so far is that we must not speak without knowledge.

and do not ask any of them about them.

Ibn ʿAbbās said, ‘Meaning do not ask the Ahlu’l-Kitāb.’ There is no need to go to them, as they cannot give you anything more that will benefit you. You have what you need in the Qurʾān. Their scripture is corrupted, so why rely on such knowledge?

An example to compare is the Qurʾānic account of Ibrāhīm (ʿalayhi al-Salām) with the Biblical; it is as if it is two different people being discussed.

We are supposed to bring a certain attitude to Allāh’s Book: we want to strengthen our hearts, our faith and better our practise. It is not to learn useless detail and facts and to concentrate on those.

 

وَلَا تَقُولَنَّ لِشَيْءٍ إِنِّي فَاعِلٌ ذَٰلِكَ غَدًا ﴿٢٣﴾ إِلَّا أَن يَشَاءَ اللَّـهُ ۚ وَاذْكُر رَّبَّكَ إِذَا نَسِيتَ وَقُلْ عَسَىٰ أَن يَهْدِيَنِ رَبِّي لِأَقْرَبَ مِنْ هَـٰذَا رَشَدًا ﴿٢٤

And do not say of anything, ‘I will do it tomorrow,’ without (adding), ‘If Allāh wills,’ and remember your Lord when you forget and say, ‘May my Lord guide me closer to what is right.’

This is in reference to the reason behind the revelation of these verses and that the answer to the questions came 15 days after the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) promised because he forgot to say in shā Allāh. Here, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is effectively being told that revelation does not come at his bidding, it comes when Allāh decides. If this is the case for the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) what then for us when we intend to do something or want something to happen?

We can also see that the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is not the author of the Qurʾān. If he were, he would have composed something as he promised, not going through the traumatic experience of waiting and having accusations hurled at him as result.

When the story came, it contained more detail than the Jews gave and contained corrects details of the story. This is, in fact, a miracle.

By saying in shā Allāh, we relegate our affairs to Allāh and trust in Him. This is good etiquette with Allāh. It is also of good adab not to say things you have no intention of doing.

and remember your Lord when you forget

Two general explanations of this āyah are that,

1) This sentence is connected to the previous, therefore it means: remember Allāh when you have forgotten to say in shā Allāh by saying it. Ibn ʿAbbās, al-Ḥasan and others said it means to say in shā Allāh when you remember.

2) It is the start of the new sentence, therefore it means remember Allāh with tasbīḥ and istighfār when you forget, thereby showing us how important it is to say in shā Allāh. Alternately, the dhikr that is being asked to be made when we forget to say it is the duʿā that follows, i.e. may Allāh grant me something better than the thing I forgot to say in shā Allāh for.

Ibn Kathīr points out that it is Shayṭān who makes you forget, so combat his whisperings by remembering Allāh as the later āyah:

“…and nothing made me forget to speak of it but the Shayṭān.”[5]

As such, when you make dhikr of Allāh, Shayṭān goes away or is weakened and therefore the cause for forgetfulness goes as well.

…and say, ‘May my Lord guide me closer to what is right.’

Many authorities said that this is something that Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is being asked to say: may Allāh grant me such signs and proofs that are greater than this – the Sleepers of the Cave – so that people will be guided aright through them.

 

وَلَبِثُوا فِي كَهْفِهِمْ ثَلَاثَ مِائَةٍ سِنِينَ وَازْدَادُوا تِسْعًا ﴿٢٥﴾ قُلِ اللَّـهُ أَعْلَمُ بِمَا لَبِثُوا ۖ لَهُ غَيْبُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ۖ أَبْصِرْ بِهِ وَأَسْمِعْ ۚ مَا لَهُم مِّن دُونِهِ مِن وَلِيٍّ وَلَا يُشْرِكُ فِي حُكْمِهِ أَحَدًا ﴿٢٦﴾ وَاتْلُ مَا أُوحِيَ إِلَيْكَ مِن كِتَابِ رَبِّكَ ۖ لَا مُبَدِّلَ لِكَلِمَاتِهِ وَلَن تَجِدَ مِن دُونِهِ مُلْتَحَدًا ﴿٢٧

They remained in their cave three hundred years and (some) added nine more. Say, ‘Allāh knows best how long they remained; to Him are (known) the unseen things of the heavens and the earth; how clear His sight and how clear His hearing! There is none to be a guardian for them besides Him, and He does not allow anyone to associate in His rule. (27) Recite what has been revealed to you of your Lord’s Book, no one can alter His words, nor will you ever find any safe haven[6] besides Him.

They remained in their cave three hundred years and (some) added nine more

The passage of time is measured either by the lunar or solar calendar. The Qurʾān is also addressing all of mankind so mentions the period of sleep according to both calendars.

Say, ‘Allāh knows best how long they remained…

Why is it that after stating how long they stayed, do we need to say that Allāh knows best? This is because other cultures mention different periods that they stayed there; for example the Christian stories would have them staying there 340 years or 370 or other figures, so this would be in response to their propositions. Hence the āyah emphasises that Allāh knows best, not you.  In this case , the length of time mentioned are Allāh’s words and not the quoted claims of others.

  • Another explanation proffered is that these figures were given by the Jews and Christians, but we Muslims say, ‘Allāh knows best how long they remained.’ This was the view of Qatādah and others.

how clear His sight and how clear His hearing!

Meaning that none can see or hear better than Him, as stated by Qatādah. This could also be understood as the imperative: Look to Allāh’s religion, and listen to His guidance.

There is none to be a guardian for them besides Him, and He does not allow anyone to associate in His rule

Mankind in general has no guardian besides Him. It could also mean that the Sleepers of the Cave had no one else besides Him. This is also a negation of the false gods and their possessing any power at all.

Recite what has been revealed to you of your Lord’s Book, no one can alter His words, nor will you ever find any safe haven[7] besides Him.

There is no cause for concern, the truth is with Allāh, not their corrupted scriptures or morals and values.

“Tilāwah” is to follow. Tilāwah can be done in word or deed. In word by reciting, and in deed by acting upon. So, in this context, recite and follow the Qurʾān. Take its ḥalāl to be ḥalāl and its ḥarām to be ḥarām.  The word is used in the same sense in

“Those who recite Allāh’s Book, keep up the prayer”[8]

This then serves as nice summary to what this story is all about – the Book will shelter you by doing its tilāwah like the cave sheltered them with metaphorical cave being the Qurʾān.

How does the Sūrah help protect against the Dajjāl?

The greatest fitna that mankind will face in this life is the fitna of the Dajjāl. The Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said,

“Between the creation of Ādam and the coming of the Last Hour, there will arise no creation that is more dangerous/more fitna than the Dajjāl.”[9]

The four main stories of the chapter cover falling into fitna in four areas:

Sleepers in the Cave: fitna in religion and istiqāmah (remain firm on Allāh’s religion)

Parable of the Garden: fitna in wealth and property, in the dunya

Mūsā with Khiḍr: fitna in knowledge

Dhū’l-Qarnayn: fitna in authority and dominion and each of these stories when studied shows us the way of absolution from those fitan.

The fitna of the Dajjāl is in exactly the same areas

Religion: he will oppress the believers, he will claim to be god and people will believe him.

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “I know more about the powers which the Dajjal will have than he will know himself. He will have two flowing rivers: one will appear to be pure water, and the other will appear to be flaming fire. Whosoever lives to see that, let him choose the river which seems to be fire, then let him close his eyes, lower his head and drink from it, for it will be cool, sweet water.”[10]

Wealth and dunya: The Dajjāl will have power over food and drink, if you believe in him you will get it, otherwise you will suffer drought, famine etc.

The Prophet (Sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “He will come to some people and call them and they will believe him and follow him. Upon his order, the sky will rain, and the earth will produce crops for these people. Their animals will graze on their land and return to them in the evening with large udders full of milk and their flanks full (stretched). Then, he will go to other people and call them, but they will refuse to believe in him. Without forcing them, he will leave. When wake up in the morning they will find that they are penniless and all their properties have been destroyed.”[11]

Knowledge: He will approach a Bedouin whose parents have passed away and will say to him, “Will you believe that I am your Lord if I bring your parents back to life?” The Bedouin will reply, “Yes.” The demons, that are accompanying the Dajjal, will assume the appearance of his parents and say to the Bedouin, “Oh son, believe in him and follow him, he is your Lord.’ The Bedouin will be deceived into believing the Dajjal.[12]

Safīnah reports that Allāh’s Messenger said, “The Dajjāl will ask: am I not your Lord, do I not give life and death?”[13]

Authority and dominion: His fitna will extend to the extent that the world will start following him, being deceived by him.

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “He will be followed by 70000 Jews of Aṣbahān wearing hoods or turbans.”[14]

Abū Hurayrah: The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “The Dajjāl will go down to Khūz (lands east of Iran) and Kerman (region in Iran) with seventy thousand (soldiers) whose faces look like flat beaten iron (like shields).”[15]

He will have huge numbers of followers amongst the Muslims and non-Muslims. He will lure women to him: The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said,

“The Dajjāl will make a stop at a place called Markanāh (near Taif, Saudi Arabia). On hearing about his arrival, most of those who go to him will be women, to the point that the men will be forced to tie their mothers, daughters, and sisters fearing they will go to him.”[16]

Source: www.islam21c.com

Notes:

 

[1] Bukhārī and Muslim

[2] Bukhāri and Muslim

[3] Muslim

[4] Aḥmad

[5] Al-Qur’ān, 18:63

[6] (Ibn ªshùr) multa¯ad: ism mak«n m»m»

[7] (Ibn ªshùr) multa¯ad: ism mak«n m»m»

[8] Al-Qur’ān, 35:29

[9] Muslim

[10] Bukhārī and Muslim

[11] Muslim

[12] Ibn Mājah – ṣaḥīḥ

[13] Aḥmad

[14] Muslim

[15] Aḥmad

[16] Aḥmad – ṣaḥīḥ

About Shaikh Abu Rumaysah Refi Shafi

Ustadh Abu Rumaysah Refi Shaafi was born and brought up in High Wycombe. He studies with Shaykh Haitham Al-Haddad and Shaykh Abu AbdiRahman Al-Libee. He graduated from Imperial College from the faculty of Computer Sciences. He is currently a Java Programmer Manager. He is the chairman for the WISE (Wycombe Islamic Society). He is very active in his local community especially with his Masjid and working with youth via Islamic Scouts He has translated a number of books such as The criterion between the friends of Allah and the friends of shaytan, The relief from distress (the dua of Yunus Alayhisalam, both by Ibn Taymiyyah and many others. He has also written an explanation of Surah Al-Faatiha called ‘The spiritual cure.’ He currently gives weekly circles in High Wycombe and Watford. He is also a Lecturer for MRDF.

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