The People of the Cave
This is an inspiring story from Surah Al Kahf in the Qur’an.
The incident is set against the backdrop of a society that was deeply immersed in idol worshipping and other false beliefs. Deviation from the established pagan practices was not tolerated, and anyone caught breaching this belief system faced dire consequences, including physical torture and death.
The protagonists in this story are a small number of youths, who were the sons of rulers and noblemen. They are described as being in the stage of fityah, which is the age where boys begin to develop muscles and other physical characteristics of manhood. By today’s estimate, this means that they were in their late teens or early twenties, in the physical prime of their lives: an age where most young men are indulging in the pleasures of the material and worldly life.
They were of the elite class, and accustomed to lives of comfort and luxury. Even so, they realized that their townspeople were immersed in wrongful practices by worshipping other than Allah. Unlike their elders, they recognized the truth and secretly shunned the false gods and customs that their elders upheld. For this, Allah increased their faith and guided them.
We narrate unto you (O Muhammad SAW) their story with truth: Truly! They were young men who believed in their Lord (Allah), and We increased them in guidance. (Qur’an 18:13)
Scholars relate that each year, the townspeople would assemble in a festival, during which time they would worship, offer sacrifices and prostrate to their idols. During one such event, these youths could no longer bear the situation around them. According to reports, the first of them decided to disassociate from these pagan rituals, and sat under the shade of a tree away from the revelry. Shortly after, a second youth followed suit, and another. These youths were strangers to each other, but by a wondrous synchronicity engineered by Allah, they were united.
There are certain catalysts which place people at spiritual crossroads: the moment of truth. At such turning points, souls will recognize each other be drawn to other similar souls. Themu’min will identify with another mu’min, the wrongdoer will gravitate towards other wrongdoers, and the soul of the pure hearted will be repulsed from the soul of the corrupt. There is a hadith which states that:
Souls are like recruited soldiers. Those that recognize each other will come together, and those who do not recognize each other will turn away from each other. [Muslim]
Each of the youths had originally kept their belief in Allah concealed for fear of repercussions, but within their secret assembly, they confessed their rejection of idolatry and affirmed their belief in Allah. From that day, they met regularly to worship Allah in secret. During this time, Allah strengthened their faith for the events which would unfold:
We made their hearts firm and strong (with the light of Faith in Allah and bestowed upon them patience to bear the separation of their kith and kin and dwellings, etc.) (Qur’an 18:14)
Eventually, word of their activities reached the palace and they were summoned before their King. When questioned by the King, they refused to succumb to him, but instead, tried to invite the King to the path of Allah. The Qur’an relates:
“… when they stood up and said: “Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, never shall we call upon any ilah (god) other than Him; if we did, we should indeed have uttered an enormity in disbelief. These our people have taken for worship aliha (gods) other than Him (Allah). Why do they not bring for them a clear authority? And who does more wrong than he who invents a lie against Allah.” (Qur’an 18:14 – 18:15)
The King rejected their call to Islam, and punished them in the manner customary for that era. They were stripped of their fine clothing and elegant ornaments, and were given the night to “repent” from their ways.
The Escape and the Long Sleep
According to Shari’ah, it is permissible for one to seclude oneself from the people, for the sake of fleeing religious persecution and for safeguarding one’s belief in Allah. With Allah’s might, the youths managed to escape captivity during the course of the night. Allah guided them to the safety of a cave:
(The young men said to one another): “And when you withdraw from them, and that which they worship, except Allah, then seek refuge in the Cave, your Lord will open a way for you from His Mercy and will make easy for you your affair (i.e. will give you what you will need of provision, dwelling, etc.).” (Qur’an 18:16)
The Qur’an also says:
(Remember) when the young men fled for refuge (from their disbelieving folk) to the Cave, they said: “Our Lord! Bestow on us mercy from Yourself, and facilitate for us our affair in the right way!” (Qur’an 18:10)
The King ordered his men to give chase, but Allah concealed the youths from their sight. This is similar to an incident centuries later, when Muhammad SAW and his Companion, Abu Bakr RA hid in the cave of Thaur to escape the Quraish idolators, and Allah protected the two from the vision of their pursuers.
Once clear from the reaches of the enemy, sleep overcame the youths. Allah caused them to enter into a slumber in the narrow chamber of the cave, a miraculous sleep that lasted for centuries.
The mouth of the cave faced north, and the Qur’an describes that the sun would rise on the right and set on the left. Allah in His wisdom also caused them to turn from side to side during their sleep.
Even their dog achieved fame and was mentioned in the Qur’an. He had positioned himself at the threshold of the cave, similar to the post of a guard dog, stretching his forelegs as he slept. There is a famous hadith stating that the angel of rahmah or mercy does not enter into a dwelling which contains dogs or images of animate beings, but in the tafsir by Ibn Kathir, he concluded that as the dog was at the entrance of the cave rather than inside it, this would not have prevented angels of mercy from entering.
As for the number in the group, the Qur’an says:
(Some) say they were three, the dog being the fourth among them; (others) say they were five, the dog being the sixth, guessing at the unseen; (yet others) say they were seven, the dog being the eighth. Say (O Muhammad SAW): “My Lord knows best their number; none knows them but a few.” So debate not (about their number, etc.) except with the clear proof (which We have revealed to you). And consult not any of them (people of the Scripture, Jews and Christians) about (the affair of) the people of the Cave. (Qur’an 18:22)
By the power of Allah, the men were neither disturbed by outsiders nor swallowed by the ground; “however, had you looked at them, you would certainly have turned back from them in flight, and would certainly have been filled with awe of them.” (Qur’an 18:18)
One year faded into the next. Generation replaced generation, nations rose and fell, and still the young men continued sleeping until Allah roused them.
Once awake, the disoriented young men realized they had lost track of time, and wondered how long they had been there. One of them suggested perhaps a day or a part thereof, but they agreed that only Allah knew the exact duration. Of this, the Qur’an says:
And they stayed in their Cave three hundred years, and add nine. (Qur’an 18:23) By some interpretations, this means 300 solar years, but if one were to use the basis of lunar years to calculate the duration, it would total 309 years. However, the Qur’an also says:
Say: “Allah knows best how long they stayed. With Him is (the knowledge of) the unseen of the heavens and the earth.” (Qur’an 18:24) Again, Allah is telling us that the actual length of time is not of consequence for us, as this is part of the unseen knowledge only held by Allah.
Practical considerations such as obtaining food then had to be addressed. One of them was assigned to buy good and lawful food from town with some silver coins that they had on hand. They warned him to exercise extreme caution to avoid discovery, for fear that the townspeople would stone and assault him, or worse, pressure him to renounce Islam. This is described in Quran 18:19 and 18:20.
The King and the rest of the disbelievers who had persecuted them had died several generations earlier, but the youth did not know this as he carefully headed towards the town. He struggled to find his bearings. The landscape and buildings were unfamiliar. According to Ibn Kathir, he was confused and momentarily doubted himself, but quickly pulled himself together, convinced of his sanity and that things had changed indeed from the “previous night”.
He tried to buy some food with his coins, but the seller did not recognize the currency nor the markings on it. The coins were passed from person to person, all of whom were baffled and unable to identify their origin. He told the townspeople where he was from and the ruler at that time, and his story was so implausible that he was brought to face the Governor to explain himself.
The Governor, who was Muslim, listened to the youth’s tale. The Governor and the townspeople were so amazed by what they heard that they asked to meet the rest of the group. By Allah’s will, the society by then had adopted monotheistic belief in Allah, therefore, the youth’s personal safety was no longer under threat.
And So It Ends
This was not a Hollywood ending, with splendor and celebrations as the people rejoiced. It was a joyful meeting, however, the townspeople were in such awe that the youths were in danger of being venerated and worshipped. The youths did not want the townspeople to be led astray and start worshipping them instead of Allah.
It is related by some reports that Allah caused the youths to fall asleep and then die, before such an abomination occurred.
It was also said that the physical proof of the young men, being physically intact after centuries of sleep, was to provide proof to to some people of that time who denied the Resurrection. This evidence was then provided to them for them to witness with their own eyes, and will stand as witness for them or against them as to which path they chose to believe thereafter. Allah knows best.
As a monument, the townspeople eventually agreed to build a place of worship above where they died.
And similarly, We caused them to be found that they [who found them] would know that the promise of Allah is truth and that of the Hour there is no doubt. [That was] when they disputed among themselves about their affair and [then] said, “Construct over them a structure. Their Lord is most knowing about them.” Said those who prevailed in the matter, “We will surely take [for ourselves] over them a masjid.” [18:21]
Reflections for Us:
This story shows that age and status are not impediments to worship. The heroes of this story were extremely young and were born into a life of luxury, unlike the majority of humankind who only think of God when they are elderly or close to death. Instead of frittering their lives away on decadent pleasures, these young men dedicated their youth, time, energy and even their lives in the worship of Allah.
Also, certain details have been omitted from the story, such as the exact time and location of these events, the number of the youths and the length of their sleep. This story reminds us that if Allah had wanted us to have certain information, He would have relayed it. In the absence of such information, we have to accept that certain unseen knowledge is only known to Allah and that it is not appropriate for us to debate, conjecture or discuss these issues any further.
The story of their awakening is one for the mankind until the Day of Judgment. The lesson is that if you elevate Allah in your heart and hold tight to your faith, Allah will take care of you, support you and give you victory against all the odds, and in all situations, no matter how unlikely or bizarre. Like all Quran’ic stories, the main themes are belief, iman and yakin(certainty of faith). If we trust in Allah, He will be there for us, and will give us support.
May Allah enable us and give us such faith, the one that enables us to ride the high wave to overcome the huge obstacle any calamity or hardship with complete support from Allah to us. Ameen.
Written by Muslim Footsteps