Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 18, “The Cave,” verses 1-59

Sura 18, “The Cave,” another Meccan sura, occupies a unique place in Muslim piety. Muhammad said that one who memorized the first ten verses of this chapter (or, in some versions, the last ten) would “be secure against the Dajjal” – the Islamic version of the anti-Christ. Another ahadith has him saying that if a Muslim recites Sura 18 on Friday, “it will illuminate him with light from one Friday to the next.” Another version says that one who does this will be “immune for 8 days from all fitnah [upheaval, sedition] that will happen.” It also contains, as we shall see, some key material for Islamic folklore and Sufi mysticism.

According to Ibn Ishaq, this chapter was revealed after the pagan Quraysh sent an emissary to the Jewish rabbis of Medina, asking them about Muhammad’s prophetic claims. The rabbis responded: “Ask him about three things which we will tell you to ask, and if he answers them then he is a Prophet who has been sent (by Allah); if he does not, then he is saying things that are not true, in which case how you will deal with him will be up to you. Ask him about some young men in ancient times, what was their story. For theirs is a strange and wondrous tale.” That story is in verses 9-26.

The rabbis continued: “Ask him about a man who travelled a great deal and reached the east and the west of the earth. What was his story?” That story is in verses 83-98. “And ask him about the Ruh (soul or spirit) — what is it? If he tells you about these things, then he is a Prophet, so follow him, but if he does not tell you, then he is a man who is making things up, so deal with him as you see fit.” So this sura is offered, at least in this view, as a validation of Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet.

Verses 1-8 serve as an introduction, praising the Qur’an, in which there is no “crookedness” (v. 1). Maulana Bulandshahri comments: “This means that there are neither iniquities nor muddling of words in the Qur’an. There is also no shortage of eloquence in it, nor any discrepancies.” Allah has made it clear in order to warn the unbelievers of his impending terrible punishment (v. 2), as well as to warn those who say Allah has begotten a Son (v. 4) – that is, the Christians, as well as the Jews who, according to 9:30, claimed that Ezra was the son of God.

Allah consoles Muhammad for his grief over the unbelievers’ obstinacy (v. 6), and reminds him that the attractions of this life are merely a test (v. 7).

Then verses 9-26 tell the story of the “companions of the Cave and of the Inscription” (Al-Kahf and Ar-Raqim, v. 9). Al-Kahf is the cave in which the young men slept for 300 or 309 years (v. 25, with the difference being the discrepancy between the solar and lunar calendars), miraculously protected by Allah. There is no agreement on the meaning of Al-Raqim; some say it refers to a nearby valley or mountain, while Anas and Sha‘bi contend it was the name of their dog, who was with them and is mentioned in verses 18 and 22. Sa‘id bin Jubayr said it was “a tablet of stone on which they wrote the story of the people of the Cave, then they placed it at the entrance to the Cave” – hence, “the Inscription.”

These were, according to Ibn Kathir, “boys or young men” who were “more accepting of the truth and more guided than the elders who had become stubbornly set in their ways and clung to the religion of falsehood.” They acknowledge the oneness of Allah and reject the idols of their people; Allah protects them from the idolaters by sheltering them in the cave (vv. 14-16).

Although the young men remained in the cave for three centuries, when they were asked how long they had been there, they answered: “We have stayed (perhaps) a day, or part of a day” (v. 19). Allah “turned them on their right and on their left sides” (v. 18) – presumably to preserve their bodies from decay while they slept, for, says Ibn Abbas, “If they did not turn over, the earth would have consumed them.” Their dog, meanwhile, was “stretching forth his two fore-legs on the threshold” (v. 18) – in other words, he wasn’t precisely inside the cave, so that he wouldn’t keep angels from entering it. “He was sitting outside the door,” explains Ibn Kathir, “because the angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog, as was reported in As-Sahih, nor do they enter a house in which there is an image, a person in a state of ritual impurity or a disbeliever, as was narrated in the Hasan Hadith.” Bukhari records that tradition, in which Muhammad says: “Angels do not enter a house wherein there is a dog or a picture of a living creature.” Nevertheless, continues Ibn Kathir: “The blessing they enjoyed extended to their dog, so the sleep that overtook them overtook him too. This is the benefit of accompanying good people, and so this dog attained fame and stature. It was said that he was the hunting dog of one of the people which is the more appropriate view, or that he was the dog of the king’s cook, who shared their religious views, and brought his dog with him.”

This is an adaptation of the Christian story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (although the Qur’an is less sure of their number – see v. 22), who are revered as saints in Byzantine Christianity. These are young men who sought refuge in a cave from the pagans in the pre-Christian Roman Empire, were miraculously protected, and who woke up after the Empire had been Christianized. (Ibn Kathir, however, thinks the story is pre-Christian, since the Jewish rabbis know of it and ask Muhammad about it as one of their tests of his prophethood.)

In verses 27-44, after a brief invocation of the gardens of Paradise (vv. 27-31), there comes an extended parable about a man who valued the things of this world more than obedience to Allah. The message is the same as that of Luke 12:15-21: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Then verses 45-59 repeat warnings of the impending Day of Judgment (v. 49). Satan’s refusal to bow down to Adam is recalled again, and Allah warns people not to follow Satan in his disobedience (v. 50). Here Satan is identified as one of the jinns, as opposed to his identification as an angel elsewhere – see the discussion of 7:11-25. Those whom the unbelievers have associated as partners with Allah will be of no avail on that Day (v. 52). Allah has sent messengers, but the unbelievers scoff at them (v. 56). They will be destroyed (v. 59).

Next week: The astonishing story of Moses and Al-Khidr, “The Green Man.”

(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)