Story of Youth of the Cave

By Sayyid Qutb
Muslim Intellectual — Egypt

After its brief opening, Surat Al-Kahf (The Cave, Surah 18) speaks about the people of the cave, depicting the effect faith has on believers: giving them reassurance and inner peace. Hence, they prefer it to all material riches and pleasures. When they find it hard to live as believers within their community, they seek refuge in a cave where they receive God’s care and protection and enjoy His grace.

There are countless reports that speak about the sleepers in the cave, and just as many versions of their story. However, we have no use for any of these; we will confine ourselves to what the Qur’an tells us about them as it is the only source that provides true information.

There may be other reports that have found their way into books of commentary on the Qur’an, but we will disregard all these as they lack proof of authenticity. In this we rely on good counsel, because the surah contains an order prohibiting argument concerning the people of the cave and reference to any source other than the Qur’an in trying to establish the truth about them.

It is reported that the reason for the revelation of this story and that of Dhul-Qarnayn, related later in the surah, is that the Jews persuaded the people of Makkah to put to the Prophet questions concerning them, and also concerning the spirit.

It is also said that the people of Makkah themselves asked the Jews to prepare some questions for them to test whether Muhammad was a true Prophet. This may be partially or totally true, especially since the account giving the history of Dhul- Qarnayn begins with, {They will ask you about Dhul-Qarnayn. Say: I will give you an account of him.’} (Al-Kahf 18: 83) But no reference is made to any question about the people of the cave. We leave this point aside and proceed to discuss the story as it is related, since it is clearly relevant to the main theme of the surah.

The structure of the story begins with a short summary before its narration in detail. It is shown in a series of scenes with some gaps left in between. Nevertheless, all omissions are clearly understood.

The story begins as follows:

{Do you think that the people of the cave and the inscription were a wonder among Our signs? When those youths took refuge in the cave, they said: ‘Our Lord! Bestow on us Your grace, and provide for us right guidance in our affair.’ So We drew a veil over their ears in the cave, for a number of years, and then We awakened them so that We might mark out which of the two parties managed to calculate the time they had remained in that state.} (Al-Kahf 18: 9-12)

This sums up the whole story showing its main lines and features. We learn from it that the people of the cave were youths, whose number is not mentioned, and that they went to the cave to isolate themselves from their community because they believed in God. We also learn that they were made to sleep in the cave for a number of years, which is not stated here, before they were aroused from their long slumber.

We are told of two groups arguing about them, so they were awakened to make clear which of the two groups calculated their stay in the cave better. We are clearly told that, strange as their history is, it is not particularly marvelous among the miracles and signs given by God. Indeed there are numerous things that are much more marvelous and miraculous in the universe than the story of the cave people.

Those youths are referred to in the surah as {the people of the cave and the inscription}. A cave is a natural chamber in a mountain or under rocky ground, while the inscription refers, most probably, to the record of their names which was, perhaps, the one hung at the entrance of the cave, where they were eventually found.

After this summary which heightens our interest in the story, the surah begins by stating that the account about to be given is the whole truth concerning their affair:

{We shall relate to you their story in all truth. They were young men who believed in their Lord, so We increased them in guidance.

We put courage in their hearts, so that they stood up and said: ‘Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth. Never shall we call upon any deity other than Him. If we did, we should indeed have uttered an enormity!

These people of ours have taken for worship deities other than Him, without being able to show any convincing proof of their beliefs. Who does more wrong than he who invents a lie about God?

Hence, now that you have withdrawn from them and all that they worship instead of God, take refuge in the cave. God may well spread His grace over you and make fitting arrangements for you in your affairs.’} (Al-Kahf 18: 13-16)

This is the first scene. Those believing youths were increased in guidance in order to be able to manage their affairs with their community. Along with this increased guidance, {We put courage in their hearts,} to make them solid in their attitude, firm in their belief in the truth, proud of the faith they had chosen.

Then we are informed that {they stood up,} which signifies a movement indicating resolve and firmness. {They stood up and said: ‘Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth.} (Al-Kahf 18:14) He is indeed the Creator, Lord and Sustainer of the whole universe.

{Never shall we call upon any deity other than Him.} (Al-Kahf 18:14) For He is the One without partners of any sort. We make this pledge, because if we were to call upon anyone else, {we should indeed have uttered an enormity!} (Al-Kahf 18:14) We would have gone beyond all proper limits and be in total error.

They now turn to the prevailing situation among their people and express their rejection of it. They are clear that what their people do has no foundation whatsoever:

{These people of ours have taken for worship deities other than Him, without being able to show any convincing proof of their beliefs.} (Al-Kahf 18:15)

Indeed any faith should be founded on solid evidence of the truth. Only with such evidence can it have its say to turn people’s hearts and minds to its argument. Without such proof, it is utter fabrication. What is worse is that such falsehood is asserted in relation to God Himself: {Who does more wrong than he who invents a lie about God?} (Al-Kahf 18:15)

Up to this point the attitude of the youths appears to be clear, open and straightforward. They are resolute in their adoption of the faith, betraying no hesitation whatsoever. Indeed they are shown to be very strong physically and mentally, and strong in their faith and in their rejection of the way followed by their community.

Here they are talking about two vastly different ways of life. There can be no meeting point between the two, and there can be no participation by these young believers in the life of their community. They had no choice but to flee in order to protect their faith. They are not prophets able to present to their community the true faith, calling on them to accept it. They are simply a group of young people who have been able to discern the right path out of a bleak, unbelieving environment.

Should they have stood up in public to declare their faith, they might well not have been able to withstand the pressure on them to abandon it. Nor could they resort to pretense and avoidance, appearing to concur with their people while worshipping God in secret. Furthermore, it appears that, most probably, their secret was found out. Hence they had no option but to flee, seeking God’s protection and support.

They preferred life in the cave to all the attractions that their society offered.

As the young believers came to the conclusion that they had to leave their homes and families and live in a cave to protect their faith, they immediately put this decision into effect:

{Hence, now that you have withdrawn from them and all that they worship instead of God, take refuge in the cave. God may well spread His grace over you and make fitting arrangements for you in your affairs.} (Al-Kahf 18:16)

The surprise here is great indeed. These young believers who have abandoned their people and families, forsaking all the pleasures of this life and preferring instead to sleep rough in a small dark cave, begin to sense God’s grace. They feel it coming, easy, comforting, abundant, limitless. It is spread over them to change the quality of their life in the cave: {God may well spread His grace over you.} (Al-Kahf 18:16)

Thus, the cave becomes like a wide expanse, where God’s grace is bestowed in abundance to change their whole outlook on life and bring about comfort and contentment. The solid, rocky walls of the cave are made to overlook a wide horizon, and loneliness in the cave is totally dispelled, for God has spread His grace over their young hearts and He takes care of them, arranging something for their comfort.

This is an aspect of what faith can do to a person. All appearances undergo a fundamental change. All that people may value and all their concepts with regard to life and happiness do not matter. When a human heart is full of faith, it sees a totally different world, where God’s grace imparts reassurance and genuine happiness.

Hence whatever turn events may take will be accepted, because the total result is comforting and fitting for one’s life in this world and in the life to come: {God may well spread His grace over you and make fitting arrangements for you in your affairs.} (Al-Kahf 18:16)

With these young people proceeding to the cave, the story moves on to the next scene. Now we see them settled in the cave, overtaken by sleep:

{You might have seen the sun, on its rising, incline away from their cave on the right, and, on its setting, turn away from them on the left, while they lay in a space within.

That was one of God’s signs. He whom God guides is indeed rightly guided, but for him whom He lets go astray you can never find any protector who would point out the right way.

You would have thought that they were awake, when they were certainly asleep. And We turned them over repeatedly, now to the right, now to the left; and their dog lay at the cave’s entrance, with its forepaws outstretched.

Had you come upon them, you would have certainly turned away from them in flight, and would surely have been filled with terror of them.} (Al-Kahf 18:17-18)

This is a remarkable scene. Not only do we see how the young men looked and what they were doing, we have a picture full of life, with the sun rising, but deliberately moving away from their cave. The word used here, ‘inclining away’, imparts a sense of deliberate action taken for a particular purpose. Again when it is time for the sun to move in the other direction before it sets, it turns away to the left so that their cave remains unseen. All the while, they lay in a space within.

Before completing its description of the scene, the surah makes a familiar Qur’anic comment which draws people’s attentions to a particular aspect of faith that is relevant at that particular point: “That was one of God’s signs.” (Al-Kahf 18:17) It was indeed a great sign, something highly remarkable. They were put in a cave where they could not see the sun, nor its rays. It gave them neither light nor warmth. They remained in their position, alive but motionless.

{He whom God guides is indeed rightly guided, but for him whom He lets go astray you can never find any protector who would point out the right way.} (Al-Kahf 18:17)

There is a certain divine law that determines which people may receive God’s guidance and which are left in error. When a person looks at God’s signs and accepts what they indicate, that person finds God’s guidance in accordance with His law. Hence, he is ‘indeed rightly guided.’ (Verse 17) But whoever turns his back on these signs and refuses to understand the message they impart is bound, according to God’s law, to go astray. Hence he is left in error and will have none to guide him.

The surah goes on to show the young people asleep in their cave. They are turned from one side to another in their very long slumber. Anyone looking at them would think them awake when they were fast asleep. Their dog remains at the entrance to the cave, stretching his forepaws like dogs normally do when they rest. He takes the position normally taken by a guard dog. The whole scene would fill any onlooker with terror so as to put them to flight. He would find people looking as though they were awake but in reality were asleep, unable to wake or move. This was all God’s arrangement, protecting them, until the time He chose for their awakening.

Suddenly things change totally:

{Such being their state, We awakened them; and they began to question one another.

One of them asked: ‘How long have you remained thus?’

They answered: ‘We have remained thus a day, or part of a day.’

They said ‘Your Lord knows best how long you have remained thus. Let, then, one of you go with these silver coins to the town, and let him find out what food is purest there, and bring you some of it. But let him behave with great care and by no means make anyone aware of you. For, indeed, if they should come to know of you, they might stone you to death or force you back to their faith, in which case you would never attain to any good!} (Al-Kahf 18:19-20)

The element of surprise is always used in Qur'anic stories in order to enhance the effect. Here the scene portrays the youths as they wake up after their long slumber. They do not realize how long they have been asleep. They rub their eyes and begin to ask one another about what have happened.

One turns to the others asking how long they have been asleep for, just like anyone rising after having slept for many hours. He must have felt that this time his sleep has been unduly long. The answer he has received from his friends is indefinite: {We have remained thus a day, or part of a day.} (Al-Kahf 18:19)

But then they realize that to determine the length of their sleep is of no consequence. They leave that point aside, just like a believer should do in any matter of no specific importance. They turn to something more practical. They are hungry and have some money. Their discussion takes a different turn:

{They said: ‘Your Lord knows best how long you have remained thus. Let, then, one of you go with these silver coins to the town, and let him find out what food is purest there, and bring you some of it.’} (Al-Kahf 18:19)

The most natural reaction in the circumstances! One is to go to the city to bring back the best food available for them.

They are however in an unusual position, and they have to be extra careful. They must not allow their people to find them out or discover their hiding place. For that would bring certain disaster. The people in authority in the city would stone them to death for their apostasy.

These young men worship God alone, associating no partners with Him, while their people are pagans. Hence they are sure to kill them or at least to torture them until they renounce their belief in God and turn back to the faith of their community. These are the only options their people would consider. Hence the young believers re-emphasize their advice to their friend who was going to the city to bring the food:

{But let him behave with great care and by no means make anyone aware of you. For, indeed, if they should come to know of you, they might stone you to death or force you back to their faith, in which case you would never attain to any good!} (Al-Kahf 18: 19-20)

Indeed no one who turns back to unbelief in God and associates partners with Him could ever attain any good result. How could it be possible when he has incurred the greatest loss through disbelieving in God’s oneness?

We are given here a panoramic view of the whole scene. The youths are apprehensive, unaware of how much time have lapsed or how many years they have remained in their cave. Indeed generations have passed by, and the city from which they have departed have gone through great changes. The tyrants they fear have been removed from power.

Yet the story of the young people who had fled in order to maintain their faith had been reported from one generation to another, with people differing as to their faith and what they believed in, as well as the exact timing of their escape. The awaking sleepers were totally unaware of all these events.

The surah however allows the curtain to fall over this scene only to raise it again showing a totally different picture, with a time lapse between the two. We understand that the present population of the city believe in God. They are so thrilled to discover the young believers through the one who is sent to fetch food.

The people in the city somehow ascertain that he is one of the young men who have fled from the tyranny of the unbelievers a long time ago.

We need to stretch our imaginations somewhat to realize the magnitude of the young men’s surprise as they hear from their friend what have happened during their sleep. He assures them that the city has experienced a great change since their departure. There is now nothing in the new society that they could not accept.

Indeed all that they have once known in that city is now totally different. They themselves have belonged to a generation that have long since gone. To the present people in the city, they are a marvel. Hence they would not be treated like ordinary human beings. They are totally unrelated to the present generation. Their relatives, friends, ties, concerns, feelings, habits and traditions have either been severed or undergone radical change. They are no more than a living memory, not real people. Therefore, God has spared them all that could result from their joining this new generation and thus caused them to die.

All this is left to our imagination. The surah portrays the final scene, when they are allowed to die. The people are standing outside the cave, disputing among themselves about their faith, and how to preserve their memory for future generations. It moves directly to outline the moral of this remarkable story:

{In this way have We drawn people’s attention to their case, so that they might know that God’s promise is true and that there can be no doubt as to the Last Hour. The people disputed among themselves as to what happened to them. Some of them said: ‘Erect a building (in their memory.) God knows their case best.’ Those whose opinion prevailed in the end said: ‘Indeed, we must surely raise a house of worship (in their memory.)’} (Al-Kahf 18: 21)

The lesson here is clear. The end those young people has met shows a real, tangible example of how resurrection takes place. The people in the city have felt the full impact of resurrection and realized, as they could never have done otherwise, that God’s promise in respect of resurrection after death will come true and that the Last Hour is certain to come. This is all seen in the awakening of those sleepers from their long sojourn in the cave.

Some people suggest that they should commemorate them: {Erect a building (in their memory.)} (Al-Kahf 18: 21) The building thus erected would not determine their faith, as the people who have discovered them do not know what faith exactly the sleepers have followed: {God knows their case best.} (Al-Kahf 18: 21) It is He alone who knows their faith.

But the people who enjoy authority in the city decide differently. {Those whose opinion prevailed in the end said: ‘Indeed, we must surely raise a house of worship (in their memory.)’} (Al-Kahf 18: 21) That is the way followed by Jews and Christians who used to erect temples over the graves of their saints and divines. Some Muslims today imitate their action in clear defiance of the Prophet’s teachings. In condemning this practice, the Prophet once said: “May God curse the Jews and the Christians for they erected temples at the graves of their prophets and saints.” (Related by Ibn Kathir in his commentary on the Qur'an and by Al-Bukhari)

Again the scene is brought to a close and another is shown with people in debate about the sleepers in the cave. This is only natural as people normally relate reports and news, adding something here and omitting something there. They may invent some details here or there, one generation after another. Thus a simple story is told in different ways as time passes. Hence, dispute about the number of youth in the cave continued for a long time:

{Some will say, ‘They were three, the fourth of them being their dog,’ while others will say, ‘Five, with their dog being the sixth of them,’ idly guessing at the unknown. Yet others will say, ‘They were seven, the eighth of them being their dog.’ Say: My Lord knows best how many they were. None hut a few have any real knowledge of them.

Hence, do not enter into argument about them, except on a matter that is clear, nor ask anyone of these people to enlighten you about them.’} (Al-Kahf 18: 22)

All such disputes about their number are useless. It is all the same whether they are three, five, seven or even more. Their case is left to God who knows all their details. They are also known to the few who realize the facts about the whole event, or who know its true report. There is no need, then, to go into any argument about their number, as the moral of their story may be drawn regardless.

The Qur’an directs the Prophet not to engage in any dispute over the issue and not to question any party over their case. This is consistent with the Islamic approach which spares the human mind of all useless debate. A Muslim should not pursue anything that he cannot establish through true knowledge. This event, which took place a very long time ago, belongs to God’s knowledge which is perfect. Hence, let us leave it there.

Submission to God's Will 

In connection with the prohibition of dispute about unknown events of the past, an order is given not to pre-judge the future or its events.

It is impossible for man to know what may happen in the future. Hence, he should not give any definite judgment of it:

{Never say about anything, ‘I shall do this tomorrow,’ without adding, ‘if God so wills. ’ Should you forget, then call your Lord to mind and say, ‘I pray that my Lord will guide me even closer than this to what is right.’} (Al-Kahf 18:23-24)

Every action a human being does or omits to do, indeed every breath a human being takes, is subject to God’s will. The curtains hiding the future are stretched in full so as to hide everything beyond the present moment. Our eyes cannot discern what is behind that curtain, and our minds are finite, no matter how advanced our knowledge may be. Hence a human being must never say that he is definitely doing something tomorrow unless he attaches his intention to God’s will. This is because tomorrow belongs to the realm that lies beyond the reach of human perception. As such, it is known only to God. Hence, we do not make any assertion about it.

This does not mean that man should be fatalistic, giving no thought to the future and making no plans for it. He should not live for the present moment, cutting himself off from his past and future. No, this is not what the directive implies.

Rather, what is implied is that every human being must make an allowance for what God may will in his case. He may intend to do whatever he wants, always seeking God’s help, feeling that His will is in full control of everything. It may well be however that God may decide something different to what he intends. Should God help him to put into effect what he intends, then all well and good. But if God’s will moves in a different direction, he should not despair or be sad. All matters belong to God at the beginning and at the end.

What this means in practice is that every person should think and plan as they wish, but they must always remember to rely on God’s help and guidance. They should realize that they only have the faculties of thinking and deliberation God has given them. This should not lead to laziness or disinterestedness. On the contrary, it should give us more strength, confidence, reassurance, and resolve.

Should events reveal that God’s will has moved in a direction different to what we have planned, we should accept this with contentedness and reassurance. We submit to God’s will, because it is beyond our knowledge until God makes it known.

This is the method Islam instils into the minds of its followers. Hence a Muslim does not feel alone when he plans or thinks of the future. Neither does he show any conceit or arrogance when he succeeds, nor is he overtaken by depression and despair when he fails. In all situations, he remembers God, feeling stronger for relying on Him, expressing gratitude to Him for his success, pleased with whatever God’s will may determine.

{Should you forget, then call your Lord to mind.} (Al-Kahf 18: 24) This is what a Muslim should do when he forgets to relate his intentions to God’s will. He should remember God and renew his reliance on Him. He should also hope to remain always conscious of God, turning to Him in all situations and all future actions, always saying: {I pray that my Lord will guide me even closer than this to what is right.} (Al-Kahf 18: 24)

This short prayer indicates that it is not so easy to always turn to God in all affairs. Hence the prayer to try always to maintain it and improve on one’s situation.

The Duration of Their Sleep

With all that has been said and told, we have still not been informed of the duration of the sleepers’ stay in their cave. Now we are told for certain:

{So they stayed in their cave three hundred years, and [some] add nine years more. Say:

‘God knows best how long they remained there. His alone is the knowledge of the secrets of the heavens and earth. How well does He see and hear!’} (Al-Kahf 18:25-26)

This is the truth of the length of their stay in the cave, given to us by the One who knows all secrets in the heavens and the earth. Well indeed He sees and hears. Perfect is His knowledge. His statement puts an end to the matter, leaving no room for dispute.

A final comment is added about the whole story in which we see faith in God’s oneness clearly apparent in all its details: {No guardian have they apart from Him; nor does He allot to anyone a share in His rule.} (Al-Kahf 18: 26)

A further comment is added in the form of a directive to the Prophet to recite what God has revealed to him, as it represents the final word, and the truth that admits no falsehood whatsoever. He should seek refuge with Him, for no one can provide any shelter other than He.

When the young men of the cave sought His protection, He spread His grace over them and provided them with His guidance:

{Recite whatever has been revealed to you of your Lords book. There is nothing that could alter His words. You shall find no refuge other than with Him.} (Al-Kahf 18: 27)

This ends the story of the people of the cave. It is preceded and intermingled with directives. Indeed stories are given in the Qur’an to add emphasis to such directives. The Qur’an maintains perfect harmony between its directives and the way they are presented in the context of the story.

Taken with slight modifications from the author's In the Shade of the Quran.First Published in March 2014


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