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The Sleepers of the Cave

Tafsīr Sūrah al-Kahf – part 3

Verses 9-15

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

أَمْ حَسِبْتَ أَنَّ أَصْحَابَ الْكَهْفِ وَالرَّقِيمِ كَانُوا مِنْ آيَاتِنَا عَجَبًا ﴿٩﴾ إِذْ أَوَى الْفِتْيَةُ إِلَى الْكَهْفِ فَقَالُوا رَبَّنَا آتِنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ رَحْمَةً وَهَيِّئْ لَنَا مِنْ أَمْرِنَا رَشَدًا ﴿١٠﴾ فَضَرَبْنَا عَلَىٰ آذَانِهِمْ فِي الْكَهْفِ سِنِينَ عَدَدًا ﴿١١﴾ ثُمَّ بَعَثْنَاهُمْ لِنَعْلَمَ أَيُّ الْحِزْبَيْنِ أَحْصَىٰ لِمَا لَبِثُوا أَمَدًا

9) Or do you think that the Companions of the Cave and the Inscription were one of Our wonderful signs? When the youths took refuge in the cave and said, “Our Lord, grant us Your mercy, and provide a right course for us in our ordeal.” So, in that cave, We sealed their ears for a number of years. Then We raised them up so that We might know which of the two parties was better able to calculate how long they had remained there.

There is a point about this story that is worthy of being stressed before we delve into it: it is about a group of young men. These young men were not scholars or mujahidun: they believed in one God, stood firm for that belief and Allāh praises them for being people of integrity. Allāh honoured these young people who stood up for their īmān in times of trial by immortalising their story in His book.

أَمْ حَسِبْتَ أَنَّ أَصْحَابَ الْكَهْفِ وَالرَّقِيمِ كَانُوا مِنْ آيَاتِنَا عَجَبًا

Or do you think that the Companions of the Cave and the Inscription were one of Our wonderful signs?

“Or do you” O Prophet “think that the Companions of the Cave and the Inscription were one of Our remarkable signs?” A remarkable sign it was, but not so astonishing in the scale of things when considering the might and greatness of Allāh, Most High. Many of His signs are far greater, such as the creation of the heavens and the earth, the alternation of night and day, the motion of the stars and planets. Indeed, one of the most remarkable of Allāh’s Signs is the Book, the Sunnah and wisdom that He gave the Messenger of Allāh.

This is an interesting way of starting a story, the word ‘or’ gives the impression of a choice being offered or a comparison. What is this choice?

The polytheists were thinking that this was an awesome story – youth running from persecution and taking refuge in a cave and sleeping for 300 odd years; a story to get the adrenalin flowing. ‘Or’ do you think that this story is amazing? It is relatively trivial when compared to other bigger miracles such as the Qurʾān already discussed in the opening verses, or life of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhī wa sallam)

أَوَلَمْ يَكْفِهِمْ أَنَّا أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ يُتْلَىٰ عَلَيْهِمْ ۚ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَرَحْمَةً وَذِكْرَىٰ لِقَوْمٍ يُؤْمِنُونَ ﴿٥١

Do they not think it is enough that We have sent down to you the Scripture that is recited to them? There is mercy in this and a lesson for believing people. [al-ʿAnkabūt :51]

The point being driven home is that you are asking about something which you think is amazing but ignoring what is more amazing such as life after death, paradise and hell. Not only this but if you think this is a great story, don’t just focus on superficial detail like how many sleepers there were; rather, take heed of the lessons learned from these stories. For example: the Quraysh rejected life after death but this story showes that resurrection is possible.

A second explanation is: ‘Or’ if you think that this is too much to believe – the greater signs of the creation of the heavens and the earth show that it is not. The One who is able to set all these amazing things in motion, can also do this.

Yet a third explanation is: ‘Or’ do you think you can catch him out by asking after this amazing event? There are other far greater events and signs out there, and each one is deserving of reflection and attention.

Structure:

The story is summarised in these opening verses, and then detailed in verses 13 onwards

إِذْ أَوَى الْفِتْيَةُ إِلَى الْكَهْفِ فَقَالُوا رَبَّنَا آتِنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ رَحْمَةً وَهَيِّئْ لَنَا مِنْ أَمْرِنَا رَشَدًا

When the youths took refuge in the cave and said, “Our Lord, grant us Your mercy, and provide a right course for us in our ordeal.”

When the youths took refuge in the cave,” fleeing from persecution in order to safeguard their īmān “and said,” turning to Allāh in ardent hope and need, “‘Our Lord, grant us mercy,” forgiveness, sustenance and safety, “directly from You,” so that they do not find us, “and provide” open the way to, and facilitate “a right course” that will keep us firm in your obedience, lead to Your good-pleasure and keep us away from disbelief “for us in our ordeal,’” so that throughout we remain guided aright and ensure that our final end is one of right guidance.

Fitya means young men, in the prime of their youth: the word indicates jamʿu qillah (small plural). It is the youth that often carry the banner of change, belief, and revolution. Ibn Kathīr observes this is why the majority of those who followed the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhī wa sallam) were the youth, most of the elders remained set in their ways.

Their energy should be channelled in a good way. We should never look down on youth who practise Islam, we should take pride in it and encourage it. Allāh’s Messenger (sall Allāhu ʿalayhī wa sallam) said:

“There are seven whom Allah will shade in His Shade on the Day when there is no shade except His Shade: a just ruler; a youth who grew up in the worship of Allah, the Mighty and Majestic; a man whose heart is attached to the mosques; two men who love each other for Allah’s sake, meeting for that and parting upon that; a man who is called by a woman of beauty and position (for illegal intercourse), but he says: ‘I fear Allah’; a man who gives in charity and hides it, such that his left hand does not know what his right hand gives in charity; and a man who remembered Allah in private and so his eyes shed tears.'”

Kahf means a large cave, whilst ghār is a small cave. As for al-Raqīm there are a number of opinions concerning what this refers to:

  • —an inscribed tablet containing the names of the Sleepers put on the cave;
  • —the valley in which they slept;
  • —the name of their city;
  • —name of their dog;
  • —the Sleepers of the Cave refers to one group of people, and al-Raqīm refers to completely different group of people: the three who were trapped in a cave by a fallen boulder and recorded in Bukhārī #2272 and Muslim #2743

Also read: Three Men and a Cave

That it refers to the inscriptions was the preferred opinion of Ṭabarī and ibn Kathīr amongst others.

We start the story by mentioning something about these youth that deserves our attention: their recourse to Allāh, making duʿā to Him and His answer The verse shows that at times of need, it is Allāh who should be resorted to, His aid sought and His mercy asked for. It shows that reliance, tawakkul, should be placed in Allāh alone. When we are in trouble or in difficulty, do two things: an action in this world and an action related to the hereafter. For instance, make your duʿā, have your tawakkul, but also put your effort in this life by fleeing to the cave. If you are ill, go to a doctor and make duʿā as well; if you need a job, prepare your CV, study what you have to, and make duʿā.

The details of this story are not mentioned for a very important reason: there is no need for them—a notion that will be stressed later in the story. But we understand that they are being persecuted and running away, and learn later on that the reason is their rejection of false gods. There is a great wisdom in trial and tribulation:

وَلَقَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا إِلَىٰ أُمَمٍ مِّن قَبْلِكَ فَأَخَذْنَاهُم بِالْبَأْسَاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَضَرَّعُونَ ﴿٤٢﴾ فَلَوْلَا إِذْ جَاءَهُم بَأْسُنَا تَضَرَّعُوا وَلَـٰكِن قَسَتْ قُلُوبُهُمْ وَزَيَّنَ لَهُمُ الشَّيْطَانُ مَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ ﴿٤٣

We sent messengers before you to many communities and afflicted their people with suffering and hardships, so that they could learn humility. If only they had learned humility when hardship came from Us! But no, their hearts became hard and Satan made their foul deeds alluring to them. [al-Anʿām 6:42-43]

The supplication employed here is a model for all of us to follow: asking Allāh for right guidance in all of our affairs. This has been taught to us by the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhī wa sallam) when he said in a supplication, “Whatever You ordain for us, make its conclusion be right guidance.”[1] In another ḥadīth it is reported that the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhī wa sallam) would supplicate, “Allāh, make the conclusion of all our affairs good, and save us from misery in this world and torment in the next.”[2] Islām is about action but we must never forget Allāh. From the greatest and most importance things to ask for are mercy and guidance—similar to asking for guidance in al-Fātiḥah.

The word raḥma used is an indefinite noun, as such imparting a sense of greatness and gravity to the word, or it is indefinite to indicate that they wanted all types of mercy from Allāh. Min ladunka has been mentioned first to specify and further emphasise that it was Allāh’s mercy they wanted, no one else’s. The words la nā and amrinā are mentioned before rashada for the purpose of ihtimām. The word ʿajab, remarkable, is the predicate to kāna, i.e. dhāt ʿajab, or the verbal noun has been used for emphasis, rendering it: truly astonishing.

The verse shows an example of people migrating for the sake of Allāh or fleeing from persecution in order to preserve and safeguard their īmān. This was done by the Prophet and the Companions in their migration from Mecca to Medina. It shows that it is permissible, in such cases, to isolate oneself from society, retreat to mountains, valleys, caves, and so on, when there is a need to do so. As Hudhayfah b. al-Yamān said,

“People used to ask the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhī wa sallam) about the good times, but I used to ask him about bad times fearing lest they overtake me. I asked, ‘Messenger of Allāh, we were in the midst of ignorance and evil, and then Allāh brought us this good (time through Islam). Is there any bad time after this good one?’ He replied, “Yes.” I asked, ‘Will there be a good time again after that bad time?’ He said, “Yes, but therein will be a hidden evil.” I asked, ‘What will be the evil hidden therein?’ He said, “(That time will witness the rise of) the people who will adopt ways other than mine and seek guidance other than mine. You will know (their) good points as well as (their) bad points.” I asked, ‘Will there be a bad time after this good one?’ He said, “Yes. (A time will come) when there will be people standing and inviting at the gates of Hell. Whosoever responds to their call they will throw them into the fire.” I said, ‘Messenger of Allāh, describe them for us.’ He said, “They will be a people having the same complexion as ours and speaking our language.” I said, ‘Messenger of Allāh, what do you suggest if I happen to live in that time?’ He said, “You should stick to the main body of the Muslims and their leader.” I said, ‘If they have no (such thing as the) main body and have no leader?’ He said, “Separate yourself from all these factions, though you may have to eat the roots of trees (in a jungle) until death comes to you and you are in this state.”[3]

فَضَرَبْنَا عَلَىٰ آذَانِهِمْ فِي الْكَهْفِ سِنِينَ عَدَدًا ﴿١١

So, in that cave, We sealed their ears for a number of years.

So, in that cave, We sealed their ears,” so that they fell asleep and would not be disturbed by noise “for a” large “number of years.”

They fell into a deep sleep, so deep that they lost consciousness of their surroundings, and could not even hear. The deepest, soundest sleep is when you lose the faculty of hearing because that is what disturbs sleep the most. It is in this respect that the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhī wa sallam) said about a person who slept through the night without praying, “Shayṭān has urinated in his ear.”[4]

This is part of Allāh’s mercy bestowed on them in response to their supplication. In such times of stress, fear and trial, He grants them a peaceful rest wherein they feel safe—for ʿadadan, lots and lots of years.

ʿAdadan is numbered, the point being that they were a large number of years that would need to be counted as opposed to a small number that would not. The actual number is mentioned later: three hundred with some adding nine.

ثُمَّ بَعَثْنَاهُمْ لِنَعْلَمَ أَيُّ الْحِزْبَيْنِ أَحْصَىٰ لِمَا لَبِثُوا أَمَدًا

Then We raised them up so that We might know which of the two parties was better able to calculate how long they had remained there.

Allāh says, baʿathnāhum: We brought them back or resurrected them. Being roused from sleep has been compared to being raised up after death. Sleep is the brother of death as mentioned in an authentic ḥadīth. The comparison holds when we understand that in the state of sleep, the rūḥ leaves our body, and we die, the rūḥ also leaves body. It reminds us that this story is a proof for the greater resurrection.

Who are the two parties? The view of the majority is that they are the people of the cave and the people of the city to which they went after awaking. Shanqīṭī said that the stronger view he says is what is indicated by the Qurʾān itself later on in this story that it was the sleepers themselves, one party saying one thing and the other another.

The wisdom of questioning each other in this way draws attention to the facts, thereby showing His knowledge and omnipotence and highlighting mankind’s inability and weakness.

نَّحْنُ نَقُصُّ عَلَيْكَ نَبَأَهُم بِالْحَقِّ ۚ إِنَّهُمْ فِتْيَةٌ آمَنُوا بِرَبِّهِمْ وَزِدْنَاهُمْ هُدًى ﴿١٣﴾ وَرَبَطْنَا عَلَىٰ قُلُوبِهِمْ إِذْ قَامُوا فَقَالُوا رَبُّنَا رَبُّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ لَن نَّدْعُوَ مِن دُونِهِ إِلَـٰهًا ۖ لَّقَدْ قُلْنَا إِذًا شَطَطًا هَـٰؤُلَاءِ قَوْمُنَا اتَّخَذُوا مِن دُونِهِ آلِهَةً ۖ لَّوْلَا يَأْتُونَ عَلَيْهِم بِسُلْطَانٍ بَيِّنٍ ۖ فَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّنِ افْتَرَىٰ عَلَى اللَّـهِ كَذِبًا ﴿١٥

We relate to you their story with the truth. They were youths who believed in their Lord and We increased them in guidance. We gave strength to their hearts when they stood up and said, “Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and earth; we will never call upon any god besides Him, for then we should have said something outrageous. These people of ours have taken gods besides Him; why do they not produce any clear authority in their support? Who could be more unjust than someone who concocts a lie against Allāh?”

نَّحْنُ نَقُصُّ عَلَيْكَ نَبَأَهُم بِالْحَقِّ ۚ إِنَّهُمْ فِتْيَةٌ آمَنُوا بِرَبِّهِمْ وَزِدْنَاهُمْ هُدًى ﴿١٣

We relate to you their story with the truth. They were youths who believed in their Lord and We increased them in guidance.

We will tell you their story in truth because you don’t know, implying that the stories that they have been hearing and are in vogue are not correct in their detail. Naḥnu, “We” has been brought to the beginning of the sentence to emphasise: We and We alone.

‘We increased them in guidance.’ If you take one step to Allāh, Allāh will take many more to you. Allāh’s Messenger (sall Allāhu ʿalayhī wa sallam) said,

“Allāh says: I am as My servant thinks (expects) I am. I am with him when he mentions Me. If he mentions Me to himself, I mention him to Myself; and if he mentions Me in an assembly, I mention him in an assembly greater than his. If he draws near to Me a hands length, I draw near to him an arm’s length. And if he comes to Me walking, I go to him at speed.’”[5]

How do we increase in īmān and guidance? It is far simpler than we might often think: turn to Allāh and do good deeds, each good deed which is sincere increases īmān. This is one of the verses proving that guidance and īmān can increase and decrease.

وَالَّذِينَ اهْتَدَوْا زَادَهُمْ هُدًى وَآتَاهُمْ تَقْوَاهُمْ

But Allāh has increased the guidance of those who follow the straight path, and given them awareness of Him. [47:17]

وَإِذَا مَا أُنزِلَتْ سُورَةٌ فَمِنْهُم مَّن يَقُولُ أَيُّكُمْ زَادَتْهُ هَـٰذِهِ إِيمَانًا ۚ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا فَزَادَتْهُمْ إِيمَانًا وَهُمْ يَسْتَبْشِرُونَ

When a sūrah is revealed, some say, ‘Have any of you increased in faith by it?’ It certainly does increase the faith of those who believe and they rejoice. [9:124]

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ السَّكِينَةَ فِي قُلُوبِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ لِيَزْدَادُوا إِيمَانًا مَّعَ إِيمَانِهِمْ

It was He who made His tranquillity descend into the hearts of the believers, to add faith to their faith. [48:4]

وَرَبَطْنَا عَلَىٰ قُلُوبِهِمْ إِذْ قَامُوا فَقَالُوا رَبُّنَا رَبُّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ لَن نَّدْعُوَ مِن دُونِهِ إِلَـٰهًا ۖ لَّقَدْ قُلْنَا إِذًا شَطَطًا

We gave strength to their hearts when they stood up and said, “Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and earth; we will never call upon any god besides Him, for then we should have said something outrageous.

Rabaṭnā is to make firm, used here in a metaphoric comparison to something that is tied and made firm. This is what allowed them to stand and firmly say what they said in the face of opposition. Allāh will strengthen the hearts of those who are obedient to Him so they can bear adversity with patience, for example:

وَأَصْبَحَ فُؤَادُ أُمِّ مُوسَىٰ فَارِغًا ۖ إِن كَادَتْ لَتُبْدِي بِهِ لَوْلَا أَن رَّبَطْنَا عَلَىٰ قَلْبِهَا لِتَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ

The next day. Moses’ mother felt a void in her heart – if We had not strengthened it to make her one of those who believe, she would have revealed everything about him. [al-Qaṣaṣ :10]

So there was something causing them unrest and worry and Allāh protected them. Before they were protected in this world from physical harm, Allāh protected their hearts from doubts and desires — the greatest importance is in keeping the heart sound.

They also uttered statements of two dimensions of Tawḥīd. ‘Our Lord’: Tawḥīd al-Rubūbiyyah, singling out Allāh with everything related to Him and His lordship over all. ‘We will never call’: Tawḥīd al-Ulūhiyyah; singling out Allāh with respect to everything related to us—that we worship none other than Him. Lan is a negation in future – we will never do it. What are they referring to? Duʿā as an example of any other type of worship.

Shaṭaṭ is going beyond the limits of what is right, in fact far beyond what is right: patently false, lie, concoction, and so on. This shows that they had been called to worship idols and openly refused.

Interestingly, they were not pointing fingers directly at others: rather they said, ‘If we said this we would be wrong’—a gentle and wise way of correcting or reprimanding someone. The most important thing to protect is your dīn.

هَـٰؤُلَاءِ قَوْمُنَا اتَّخَذُوا مِن دُونِهِ آلِهَةً ۖ لَّوْلَا يَأْتُونَ عَلَيْهِم بِسُلْطَانٍ بَيِّنٍ ۖ فَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّنِ افْتَرَىٰ عَلَى اللَّـهِ كَذِبًا ﴿١٥

These people of ours have taken gods besides Him; why do they not produce any clear authority in their support? Who could be more unjust than someone who concocts a lie against Allāh?”

They then proceed to talk amongst themselves: What is their evidence? Why don’t they prove their idolatry? How does this make sense?

One of the biggest sins is to speak about Islam without knowledge and evidence. The very nature of shirk is that there is no proof for it, and it does not make sound sense.

قُلْ هَلْ عِندَكُم مِّنْ عِلْمٍ فَتُخْرِجُوهُ لَنَا ۖ إِن تَتَّبِعُونَ إِلَّا الظَّنَّ وَإِنْ أَنتُمْ إِلَّا تَخْرُصُونَ

Say: have you any knowledge that you can show us? You follow only supposition, you tell only lies. [6:148]

One of the greatest sins is to lie about Allāh and speak about Him without knowledge.

قُلْ إِنَّمَا حَرَّمَ رَبِّيَ الْفَوَاحِشَ مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا وَمَا بَطَنَ وَالْإِثْمَ وَالْبَغْيَ بِغَيْرِ الْحَقِّ وَأَن تُشْرِكُوا بِاللَّـهِ مَا لَمْ يُنَزِّلْ بِهِ سُلْطَانًا وَأَن تَقُولُوا عَلَى اللَّـهِ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

Say: My Lord only forbids disgraceful deeds – whether they be open or hidden – and sin and unjustified aggression, and that you, without His sanction, associate things with Him, and that you say things about Him without knowledge. [al-Aʿrāf :33]

Ibn al-Qayyim argues that each item mentioned here increases in severity of sin over the previous, hence the greatest sin would be to speak about Him without knowledge.

This is the brief introduction that Allāh gives the story of the Sleepers of the Cave, after which He eloquently goes back in time in the story to how they ended up in that position in the first place. In the next article in the series we will likewise, inshāAllāh, reflect on the cause of their ordeal and what happened next.

[1] Aḥmad

[2] Aḥmad

[3] Bukhārī and Muslim

[4] Bukh«r» #3270 and Muslim #774 on the authority of ibn Masʿūd.

[5] Bukhārī

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.

One comment

  1. much needed reminder of the qu’raanic reprimand.

    ‘If we said this we would be wrong’

    gentle words and not the fingernpointing

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