Shaykh Walead explains the verses of Sura al Kahf that tell the story of the People of the Cave. He highlights the key lessons and significant themes it addresses.
The People of the Cave and reliance on Allah=Tawakkul – Shaykh Walead Mosaad
أَمْ حَسِبْتَ أَنَّ أَصْحَابَ الْكَهْفِ وَالرَّقِيمِ كَانُوا مِنْ آيَاتِنَا عَجَبًا
Or have you deemed that the companions of the cave and the inscription were, among Our signs, a wonder? (Sura al Kahf 18:9)
The story of the People of the Cave seems to be well known among the People of the Book, especially the Christians. Imam Ibn Ashur discusses why the Jews would know that story because although we call them Muslims, they were followers of Isa, peace be upon him.
Historians place these events at around 200-250 AD. This was a time when the Roman Empire was at its height. IT did not become Christian until Constantine. At that time the Empire was pagan.
The first 400 years of Christianity there was wide disagreement about the divinity of Isa, peace be upon him. The true followers of Isa, peace be upon him, recognized his prophethood and did not attribute divinity to him.
Were the Sleepers Christian?
Although some texts call them Christian, it is in the sense that they followed Christ and not the doctrine of the church that was established 100-150 years after them. However Christianity was established with its known doctrine when they woke up.
There was also wide disagreement about where they were located. Some say Greece. Some say Turkey. Some even mention Andalusia or Islamic Spain. We do not know for certain. There is a riwaya from Ibn Abbas that in the time of Muawiyya, during a campaign, they went north and were told, “This is the cave of the People of the Cave.”
Muawiyya, who was a leader at the time said he wanted to see it. Ibn Abbas advised him not to, saying that, “This is not for us.” Nonetheless he sent a group to the cave and a fierce wind prevented them from entering. And Allah knows best. But this is not important to the lesson of the story.
When Allah says, “Or have you deemed that the companions of the cave and the inscription were, among Our signs, a wonder?” it is formed as a question but is in fact a negation. Allah is pointing out the fact that there should not be a source of bewilderment seeing that He can bring the dead back to life, putting the young men to sleep for 309 years is not so wondrous, but is one more sign among the signs of Allah.
As for the word raqim (inscription), some have said that when the people of the cave, they became a fable or story. The people of their town wrote and inscription with their names on it and put it at the mouth of the cave. Another narration says it was the name of the dog that stood guard outside the cave. Again, we don’t know.
In verse ten Allah speaks about the most important aspect of the story. He says:
إِذْ أَوَى الْفِتْيَةُ إِلَى الْكَهْفِ فَقَالُوا رَبَّنَا آتِنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ رَحْمَةً وَهَيِّئْ لَنَا مِنْ أَمْرِنَا رَشَدًا
When the young men fled for refuge to the Cave and said: Our Lord! Give us mercy from Your presence, and shape for us right conduct in our plight. (Sura al Kahf 18:10)
This is the most important aspect of the story, which is that the Sleepers turned to Allah Most High in their direst moment of need and Allah rewarded them, not just in this life but also in the next. This dua is the dua of one who has nowhere to turn other than to Allah, and it is answered.
The Sleepers and Their Companion
As the story goes they were a group of young men who lived in this town. The Roman emperor at the time persecuted non-pagans and enforced outward declarations of allegiance to paganism and to sacrifice animals to pagan gods. The young men were among those who refused. One narration say they were summoned before the emperor and held their stance.
The emperor, due to them being young men, gave them time to think it over until he returned. They spoke among themselves about what to do, where should be turn? And one of them suggested that they hide in the cave. It is likely that they knew the cave already as a place of refuge much like the cave of Hira.
Regarding the dog, there are narrations that say the dog was theirs while other narrations says that it was a stray dog. When they were on their way to the cave it followed them, and they could not do anything to get rid of it. The dog followed them all the way there and stayed outside the mouth of the cave for the entire time.
Some have noted how amazing it is that most people don’t give much consideration to an animal these days, but by following and staying with these righteous people the dog is mentioned in the Qur’an – in the eternal, perfect speech of Allah for what seems like such a small act.
فَضَرَبْنَا عَلَىٰ آذَانِهِمْ فِي الْكَهْفِ سِنِينَ عَدَدًا
Then We sealed up their hearing in the Cave for a number of years. (Sura al Kahf 18:11)
Some of the mufassirun say the slept for 300 solar years, which equate to 309 lunar years. Others say that is the amount of time people say they slept, but that no one truly knows.
ثُمَّ بَعَثْنَاهُمْ لِنَعْلَمَ أَيُّ الْحِزْبَيْنِ أَحْصَىٰ لِمَا لَبِثُوا أَمَدًا
And afterward We raised them up that We might know which of the two parties would best calculate the time that they had tarried. (Sura al Kahf 18:12)
The two parties refer to the people outside of the cave who did not know what happened to them. Some say they went into the cave and never came out.
The Sealing of the Cave
In the narration with the Roman emperor it is said that they followed their tracks to the cave but never found them. Much like the Quraysh who followed the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, to a different cave but also did not find him.
It is said that the Roman emperor ordered his soldiers to go after them but that they could not cross the threshold. Something prevented them from entering.
At his point that narration says that the Roman emperor ordered that the cave be sealed. And that the cave was not opened again until 309 years later, by a shepherd who was looking for shelter for his sheep.
Allah then says:
نَّحْنُ نَقُصُّ عَلَيْكَ نَبَأَهُم بِالْحَقِّ ۚ إِنَّهُمْ فِتْيَةٌ آمَنُوا بِرَبِّهِمْ وَزِدْنَاهُمْ هُدًى
We will tell you their story in truth. They were young men who believed in their Lord, and We increased them in guidance. (Sura al Kahf 18:13)
In other words, no one besides Allah Most High truly knows their story.
وَرَبَطْنَا عَلَىٰ قُلُوبِهِمْ إِذْ قَامُوا فَقَالُوا رَبُّنَا رَبُّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ لَن نَّدْعُوَ مِن دُونِهِ إِلَـٰهًا ۖ لَّقَدْ قُلْنَا إِذًا شَطَطًا
We made firm their hearts when they stood forth and said: “Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth. We call unto no god beside Him, for then should we utter an enormity.” (Sura al Kahf 18:14)
Either they said this among themselves or they said it to the Roman emperor, which is more likely.
هَـٰؤُلَاءِ قَوْمُنَا اتَّخَذُوا مِن دُونِهِ آلِهَةً ۖ لَّوْلَا يَأْتُونَ عَلَيْهِم بِسُلْطَانٍ بَيِّنٍ ۖ فَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّنِ افْتَرَىٰ عَلَى اللَّـهِ كَذِبًا
Our people have chosen gods besides Him though they bring no clear proof. And who does greater wrong than one who invents a lie concerning Allah? (Sura al Kahf 18:15)
The Testing of Faith
In other words iman (faith) is not a blind belief and following. The pagans are challenged with the words: Show us that these things that you made and worship can harm or benefit you. Without clear proof, how can you justify this belief? For if you associate others with Allah or worship others beside Him, it is actually a lie against Allah.
وَإِذِ اعْتَزَلْتُمُوهُمْ وَمَا يَعْبُدُونَ إِلَّا اللَّـهَ فَأْوُوا إِلَى الْكَهْفِ يَنشُرْ لَكُمْ رَبُّكُم مِّن رَّحْمَتِهِ وَيُهَيِّئْ لَكُم مِّنْ أَمْرِكُم مِّرْفَقًا
And when you withdraw from them and that which they worship except Allah, then seek refuge in the Cave; your Lord will spread for you of His mercy and prepare for you a comfort and an aid. (Sura al Kahf 18:16)
The mufassirun say that these words were said by one of the Sleepers. Most likely their leader. Some mention that the leader’s name was Maximilian. Others mention that the one who was sent into town when they woke was named Malich or Malicha.
وَتَرَى الشَّمْسَ إِذَا طَلَعَت تَّزَاوَرُ عَن كَهْفِهِمْ ذَاتَ الْيَمِينِ وَإِذَا غَرَبَت تَّقْرِضُهُمْ ذَاتَ الشِّمَالِ وَهُمْ فِي فَجْوَةٍ مِّنْهُ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ مِنْ آيَاتِ اللَّـهِ ۗ مَن يَهْدِ اللَّـهُ فَهُوَ الْمُهْتَدِ ۖ وَمَن يُضْلِلْ فَلَن تَجِدَ لَهُ وَلِيًّا مُّرْشِدًا
And you might have seen the sun when it rose move away from their cave to the right, and when it set go past them on the left, and they were in the cleft thereof. That was (one) of the signs of Allah. He whom Allah guides, he indeed is led aright, and he whom He sends astray, for him you will not find a guiding friend. (Sura al Kahf 18:17)
Something about the topography of the cave. If a cave has a large opening it is called a kahf. If it has a small opening, as at Hira, it is called a ghar. A cave is defined as a opening or a break in a mountain. This cave was big enough for sunlight to reach inside the cave.
This verse shows that had the sun actually penetrated inside the cave it would have burnt them, it would have been unbearable. That means there was a shifting of the sun so that it would not cast sunlight upon the sleepers inside the cave. This is why Allah says: “That was (one) of the signs of Allah.”
The Priority of Religion
The People of the Cave were tried and tested in their faith to the degree that they could no longer exist and practice their religion. All the doors were closed. And that is one of the tribulations of the Dajjal; that people will be tried and tested in their faith or religion.
These verses, this story that Allah relates to us, serve as an example of where to put one’s priorities and how to go about doing it. The preservation of your religion, as the scholars say, is of the highest priority.
If you are in a situation where you cannot practice your religion it is incumbent upon you to find a situation where you can. You are not allowed to continue in that place. You have to leave. You have to find something different.
The Meaning of Hijra
Consider the Hijra of the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, and his Companions. The hijra of the people who left Andalusia after the Inquisition.
Many of these emigrations that have happened throughout history were of people who escaped to preserve their religion. Even the Jews left Andalusia for the same reason and only found sanctuary in the Muslim lands.
The Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, mentions in a hadith that the true muhajir, the one who emigrates, “is the one who emigrates from his sins.” In other words, from one’s own disobedience. That is a spiritual emigration.
It is to leave off and put aside all things for the sake of one’s religion. And to flee to Allah for the sake of Allah.
The People of the Cave serve as an example of this.