18. Al-Kahf (The Cave)
Al-Kahf (The Cave) takes its name from the ninth verse, where the People of the Cave are mentioned. It consists of 110 verses. This sūrah was revealed in the Makkan period of the Messenger’s mission, at a time when the polytheists had begun to escalate their opposition to the preaching of Islam. Searching for a way to stop this preaching, the Makkans occasionally made contact with the People of the Book, in particular with the Jews in Madīnah and neighboring lands, in order to get from them questions they could put to the Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings. This sūrah apparently was revealed in response to questions about the People of the Cave; the story of Moses, upon him be peace, and his companion (reported to have been Joshua); and Dhu’l-Qarnayn. It also contains the parable of two friends who owned vineyards. It is as if this sūrah has drawn a road map for us to follow in the preaching of Islam.
In the Name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate.
1. All praise and gratitude are for God, Who has sent down on His servant the Book and has put no crookedness in it (so that it is free from contradiction and inconsistency, and anything offensive to truth and righteousness).
2. (He has made it) unerringly straight, to warn of a stern punishment from Him and give the believers who do good, righteous deeds the glad tidings that for them is an excellent reward (Paradise),
3. Abiding therein forever,
4. And to warn those who say: “God has taken to Him a child.”1
As has been generally accepted by Qur’ānic commentators, the Companions of the Cave, whose exemplary story will be told in the following verses, were among the monotheistic followers of Jesus. The fact that the sūrah begins by rejecting the notion of Divine fatherhood may be meant to underline the truth of this view.
5. Of that they have no knowledge (on which to base such an assertion), nor did their forefathers. Dreadful as a word is (that assertion) coming out of their mouths.2 Indeed they speak nothing but falsehood.
6. Yet it may be that you (O Muhammad) will torment yourself to death with grief, following after them, if they do not believe in this Message.3
7. We have surely made whatever is on the earth as an ornament for it (appealing to humanity), so that We may try them (by demonstrating it to themselves) which of them is best in conduct.
8. Yet, We surely reduce whatever is on it to a barren dust-heap (and will do so when the term of trial ends).
9. Or do you reckon the People of the Cave and the Inscription4 as something strange among Our signs (manifesting the truth, and too extraordinary to believe)?
10. (Events came to the point) when the young men5 took refuge in the cave and said: “Our Lord! Grant us mercy from Your Presence and arrange for us in our affair what is right and good!”
11. Then We drew a veil over their ears (causing them to go into a deep sleep) in the cave for a number of years.
12. Then We raised them up (and dividing into two groups, they discussed how long they had remained in that state). We willed to make known which of the two groups were (more consciousness of time with the events in it, and therefore) better in computing for what period they had remained (in this state).
13. It is We who relate to you their exemplary story with truth. They were young men who believed in their Lord, and We increased them in guidance (so they adhered to the truth more faithfully).
14. And We strengthened their hearts, (and a time came) when they rose up (against association of partners with God and other injustices in the society), and they proclaimed: “Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, and we never invoke any deity apart from Him; if we did so, we would certainly have uttered an enormity (a monstrous unbelief).
15. “These people of ours have adopted deities other than Him, although they cannot bring any clear authority for them. And who is more in the wrong than he who fabricates falsehood against God?”
16. (Events developed to the point that they had to leave their society. They discussed what they should do and concluded:) “And now that you have withdrawn yourselves from them and all that they worship instead of God, then seek refuge in the Cave. Your Lord will lay out for you of His mercy, and He will arrange for you in your affair a comfort and support.”
17. (They entered the Cave and fell into a deep sleep.) You would have seen the sun, when it rose, moving away from their Cave to the right, and when it set, turning away from them to the left, while they lay in a spacious hollow in the Cave. That was one of God’s signs.6 Whoever God guides, he alone is rightly guided; and whoever He leads astray, you will never be able to find for him any friend and guardian to guide him to the right way.
18. You would have thought them awake though they were asleep. We caused them to turn over to the right and the left, and their dog lay outstretching its two forelegs on the threshold. Had you come upon them unprepared, you would certainly have turned away from them in flight, and would certainly have been filled with awe of them.7/8
19. Such being their state, We raised them up so they began to ask questions of one another. One who spoke said: “How long have you stayed?” They (some among them) answered: “We have stayed a day, or part of a day.” The others said: “Your Lord knows better how long you have stayed. Now (we must deal with our hunger. So) send one of you to the city with this coin of yours: let him see what food is most pure there (and so lawful), and bring a supply from it. But let him behave with utmost care and guarded courtesy, and by no means make anyone aware of you.
20. “Indeed, if they should find you out, they will stone you to death or turn you back to their way of belief and life by force; then you will never attain prosperity ever hereafter.”9
21. And in this way, We disclosed them to the people so that they might know that the promise of God is true, and that there can be no doubt about (the coming of) the Last Hour.10 When they (the people) disputed about their affair, they said: “Build a structure over them (to hide them, and leave them to their rest). Their Lord knows best about them.” Those who prevailed (in the long-disputed matter) said: “We will most certainly build a place of worship over them.”11
22. (Instead of reflecting on the lesson to be learnt from the People of the Cave, people concentrate their interest on the details of the event.) Some will say they were three, the dog being the fourth among them; and some will say they were five, the dog being the sixth – all guessing at random at (something related to) the Unseen. Still others will say: “They were seven, the dog being the eighth.” Say (O Messenger): “My Lord knows their number better; it is but few that know (the truth about) them.” So do not argue about them, being content with what is obvious (to you through Revelation), nor ask any of them (who argue even among themselves) to give you an opinion about them.12/13
23. And do not say about anything (you intend), “I will do it tomorrow,”
24. Without (adding), “If God wills.”14 And remember and mention Him (straightaway) should you forget (to do so, when expressing an intention for the future). And say: “I hope that my Lord will guide me to what is nearer to right conduct than this (forgetfulness of mine).”15
25. And they stayed in their Cave three hundred (solar) years, and added nine (for lunar years).
26. Say: “God knows better how long they stayed. To Him belongs (absolute dominion and full knowledge of) the unseen of the heavens and the earth.16 How perfect is His seeing and how perfect is His hearing! And they have apart from Him no guardian, and He allots to no one a share in His absolute authority.
27. Recite (and teach) that which has been revealed to you from the Book of your Lord. There is none who can change His words (whatever the unbelievers may say or desire), and you will never find, apart from Him, any refuge.
28. And keep yourself patient, along with those who invoke their Lord morning and evening, seeking His “Face” (His eternal, good pleasure, and the meeting with Him in the Hereafter); and do not let your eyes pass beyond them, desiring the beauties of the life of this world (by the participation of those of leading positions among people in your assemblies). And pay no heed to (the desires of) him whose heart We have made unmindful of Our remembrance, who follows his lusts and fancies, and whose affair exceeds all bounds (of right and decency).17
29. And say: “The truth from your Lord (has come in this Qur’an).” Then, whoever wills (to believe), let him believe; and whoever wills (to disbelieve), let him disbelieve. Surely, We have prepared for the wrongdoers a Fire, its billowing folds encompassing them. If they beg for water, they will be given water like molten metal that scalds their faces. How dreadful a drink, and how evil a couch to rest on!
30. Surely, for those who believe and do good, righteous deeds – We do not leave to waste the reward of any who do good deeds, aware that God is seeing them.
31. Those are they for whom are Gardens of perpetual bliss through which rivers flow, adorned therein with armbands of gold, and they will dress in green garments of fine silk and rich brocade; they recline there upon thrones.18 How excellent a reward, how lovely a couch to rest on!
32. Set forth to them the parable of two men: for one of them, We had made two vineyards and surrounded both with date-palms, and placed between them a field of grain.
33. Each of the two vineyards yielded its produce, without failing in anything. We had also caused a stream to gush forth between the two.
34. So the man had fruit (in abundance), and one day he said to his companion, while he was conversing with him: “I am more than you in wealth, and mightier in manpower (children and those working for me).”
35. He went into his vineyard while wronging himself (in his vain conceit). He said: “I do not think that this will ever perish.
36. “Nor do I think that the Last Hour will ever come. Even if (it should come, and) I am brought back to my Lord, I will surely find something even better than this as a resort.”19
37. His companion said to him, while he was arguing with him: “Do you (expressing such ingratitude) disbelieve in Him Who created you from earth, then out of a mere drop of seminal fluid, then fashioned you into a perfect man?
38. “But (for my part I believe that) He is God, my Lord, and I do not associate with my Lord any partner.
39. “If only you had said, on entering your vineyard, ‘Whatever God wills (surely has and surely will come to pass); there is no strength (to achieve anything) save with God.’ Though you see me with less wealth and offspring than you (I have no complaint at all, for it is God Who does as He wills, and He is All-Compassionate toward His servants).
40. “It may well be that my Lord will give me something better than your vineyard, and send on it (your vineyard) a calamity from heaven, so that it becomes a barren waste.
41. “Or its water comes to sink (so deep) into the ground, that you will never be able to seek it out.”
42. And (as it happened) his produce was encompassed by ruin, and he set to wringing his hands with grief over all that he had spent on it, when it was now all ruined on its trellises, and he was saying: “Oh, would that I had never associated anyone with my Lord as partner!”
43. And he had, apart from God, none, no troop of men, to help Him, nor could he be of any help to himself.
44. For thus it is: all power to protect belongs to God, the True. He is the Best for reward, and the Best for the outcome.
45. And strike to them a parable of the present, worldly life: (it is) like water that We send down from the sky, and the vegetation of the earth mingles with it (flourishing abundantly). Then it turns into dry stubble which the winds scatter about. God is absolutely able to do all things.20
46. Wealth and children are an adornment of the present, worldly life, but the good, righteous deeds (based on faith and) which endure are better in the sight of your Lord in bringing reward and better to aspire for.
47. (Bear in mind) the Day when We set the mountains in motion, and you see the earth denuded, and We raise to life and gather them together (all those who are content with themselves, deluded by the charms of the world), leaving out none of them.
48. They are arrayed before your Lord (Whom they disregarded in the world), all lined up (without discrimination of wealth or status as in the world, and they are told): “Now, indeed, you have come to Us (divested of all worldly things) as We created you in the first instance – though you used to suppose that We had not appointed for you a meeting with Us.”
49. And the Record (of everyone’s deeds) is set in place; and you will see the disbelieving criminals filled with dread because of what is in it, and they will say: “Alas, woe is ours! What is this Record? It leaves out nothing, be it small or great, but it is accounted!” They have found all that they did confronting them (in the forms thereof particular to the Hereafter). And Your Lord wrongs no one.
50. And (recall) when We said to the angels, “Prostrate before Adam!” and they all prostrated, but Iblīs did not; he was of the jinn (created before humankind, from smokeless, scorching fire), and transgressed against his Lord’s command.21 Will you, then, take him and his offspring for guardians (to rely on and refer your affairs to) rather than Me, when they are an enemy to you? How evil an exchange for the wrongdoers!
51. I did not make them (Iblīs and his offspring) witnesses to the creation of the heavens and the earth, nor of the creation of their own selves, nor did I (being absolutely beyond need) ever take as helpers those that lead (humankind) astray.22
52. The Day (will come when) He will say, “Now call upon all those whom you alleged to be My partners.” Thereupon they will invoke them, but they will not respond to them, and We will place between them an unbridgeable gulf.
53. And the disbelieving criminals will see the Fire and know certainly that they are bound to fall into it, and they will find no way of escape from it.
54. Assuredly We have set out in diverse ways for humankind in this Qur’ān all kinds of parables and comparisons (to help them understand the truth); but humankind is, above all else, given to contention.
55. What is there to keep people from believing when guidance has come to them, and from imploring their Lord for forgiveness – unless it be that they follow the way of the (sinful) people of olden times (as if wishing for their fate to come upon them), or the punishment (which they did not believe in but asked their Prophet, in derision, to bring down upon them) comes and confronts them? (Then, indeed, they would have no opportunity to implore forgiveness or hope for relief.)
56. We send the Messengers (not as bearers of punishment) but as bearers of glad tidings (of prosperity in return for faith and righteousness) and warners (against the evil consequences of misguidance), whereas those who disbelieve contend on the basis of falsehood in order to refute the truth thereby; and they take My Revelations and that (the punishment) of which they are warned in mockery.
57. Who is more in the wrong than he who has been reminded of his Lord’s Revelations and signs, yet turns away from them and forgets all that his hands have forwarded (to the reckoning in the future life). Surely, over their hearts We have laid veils (made up of their ill-intention, wrongdoing, and arrogance, which caused them to lose the ability to believe,) so that they do not grasp (the Qur’ān with faith and understanding), and in their ears, a heaviness (so they do not hear the Qur’ān). And if you call them to guidance, they will never even then accept guidance.
58. Your Lord is the All-Forgiving, having infinite Mercy. If He were to take them immediately to task for what they have earned, surely He would hasten on the punishment for them; but for them is an appointed time-limit, beyond which they will never find an escape (from God’s punishment).
59. And (that was the case with) all those townships that We destroyed when they were given to wrong. We had surely appointed a time fixed for their destruction.
60. (Now relate to them, O Messenger, the experience of Moses) When Moses said to his (young) attendant: “I will not give up (journeying) until I reach the junction of the two seas, though I may march on for ages.”
61. When they reached the junction of the two (seas), they forgot their fish, and it took its way amazingly through the sea as in an underground channel.
62. So when they had passed further on, Moses said to his attendant: “Bring us our morning meal; assuredly we have endured much fatigue in this journey of ours.”
63. He (the servant) said: “Would you believe it? When we betook ourselves to that rock for a rest, I forgot about (our cooked) fish – and none but Satan caused me to forget to mention it (to you) – and it took its way into the sea in an amazing way.”
64. He (Moses) said: “That is what we have been seeking!” So they retraced their footsteps.
65. And they found (there) one of Our servants to whom We had granted a mercy as a grace from Us and taught a special knowledge from Our Presence.23
66. Moses said to him: “May I follow you so that you may teach me something of the knowledge of guidance which you have been taught?”
67. He said: “You will never be able to have patience with being in my company.
68. “How could you be patient about something that you have never encompassed in your knowledge?”24
69. He (Moses) said: “You will find me patient, if God so wills and allows me to, and I will not disobey you in anything.”
70. (Al-Khadr) explained: “Well, if you go with me, do not ask me concerning anything (that I may do) until I myself make mention of it to you.”
71. So they set forth25 until, when they embarked on the boat, he (al-Khadr) made a hole in it. He (Moses) said: “Have you made a hole in it in order to drown its people (who would be using it)? You have certainly done an awful thing!”
72. He said: “Did I not tell you that you would never be able to bear patiently with my company?”
73. He (Moses) said: “Do not take me to task because I forgot, and do not overburden me in my affair (in what you ask of me).”
74. So they went on until, when they met a young boy, he (al-Khadr) killed him. (Moses) said: “Have you killed an innocent soul (not in lawful retaliation but) without his having killed anyone? Assuredly you have done a horrible thing!”
75. He said: “Did I not tell you that you would never be able to have patience with being in my company?”
76. (Moses) said: “If I should ever question you about anything after this, keep me no more in your company. You have already received (full) excuse from me.”
77. So they went on until when they came upon the people of a township, they asked its people for food, but they refused them hospitality. They found there a wall which was on the verge of tumbling down, and he (al-Khadr) restored it. (Moses) said: “If you had wished, you could have taken payment for it.”
78. He (al-Khadr) said: “This is the parting of ways between me and you. I will tell you the meaning of what you were unable to bear patiently.
79. “As for the boat, it belonged to some destitute people who worked on the sea – and I wished to damage it, for there was a king after them who was seizing every boat by force.
80. “And as for the young boy, his parents were believers, and we feared lest he should oppress them with rebellion and unbelief.
81. “So we wished that their Lord would grant them in his place one better than him in purity and nearer in affection (to his parents).
82. “And as for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the city, and beneath it was a treasure belonging to them. Their father had been a righteous man. So your Lord willed that they should come of age and bring forth their treasure as a mercy from your Lord. I did not do this (any of the actions that you witnessed) of my own accord. This is the meaning of all (those events) with which you were unable to have patience.”26/27
83. And they ask you (O Messenger) about Dhu’l-Qarnayn.28 Say: “I will recite to you a mention of him (quoting the Almighty).”
84. We surely established him with power in the land, and for everything (that he rightly purposed), We granted him a way (the just means appropriate to just ends).
85. One such way he followed,
86. Until, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he saw it setting in a spring of hot and black muddy water,29 and nearby he found a people. We said: “O Dhu’l-Qarnayn! You can either punish them or you can treat them with kindness. (Which way will you choose?)”
87. He said: “As for him who does wrong (by disbelieving in Him, or associating partners with Him and oppressing others), we will punish him; and then he is brought back to his Lord, and He punishes him in an indescribable manner.
88. “But as for him who believes and does good, righteous deeds, for him the recompense of the best is due, and we will speak to him an easy word of Our command (we will charge him with easy tasks).”
89. Then he followed another way,
90. Until, when he reached the rising-place of the sun and found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no shelter against it.
91. So it was (such was their state and the extent of Dhu’l-Qarnayn’s power). We assuredly encompassed all concerning him in Our Knowledge.30
92. Then he followed another way,
93. Until, when he reached (a place) between two mountain-barriers, he found before them a people who scarcely understood a word.
94. They said: “O Dhu’l-Qarnayn! Gog and Magog31 are causing disorder in this land. May we pay you a tribute so that you set a barrier between us and them?”
95. He said: “What my Lord has established me in (the power that He has granted me on this earth) is better (than what you offer). So help me with strength (manpower), and I will set a strong rampart between you and them.
96. “Bring me blocks of iron.” Then, after he had filled up (the space between) the two steep mountain-sides, he said: “(Light a fire and) work your bellows!” At length, when he had made it (glow red like) fire, he said: “Bring me molten copper that I may pour upon it.”
97. And they (Gog and Magog) were no longer able to surmount, nor were they able to dig their way through (the barrier).
98. Dhu’l-Qarnayn said: “This is a mercy from my Lord. Yet when the time of my Lord’s promise comes, He will level it down to the ground; and my Lord’s promise is ever true.”
99. On that day, We will leave people to surge like waves on one another;32 and the Trumpet will be blown, then We will gather them all together.
100. And on that Day, We will place Hell before the unbelievers, plain to view,
101. Those whose eyes are veiled from My Book and any remembrance of Me, and who cannot bear to hear (them).
102. Do they who disbelieve reckon that they can (rightly and justifiably) take any of My servants as guardians (to own and protect them) besides Me? Assuredly, We have prepared Hell to welcome the unbelievers.
103. Say: “Shall We inform you who are the greatest losers in respect of their deeds?
104. “Those whose endeavor has been wasted in this world (because it is directed only to this-worldly ends, and so it is bound to be wasted hereafter also) but who themselves reckon that they are doing good.”33
105. They are those who disbelieve in the signs and Revelations of their Lord, and in the meeting with Him. Hence, their deeds have come to nothing, and on the Day of Resurrection, We will not accord to them any weight.
106. That will be their recompense – Hell – because they have disbelieved and taken My signs and Revelations and My Messengers in mockery.
107. Surely for those who believe and do good, righteous deeds, their welcome is Gardens of the highest level of Paradise.
108. Therein will they abide, without desiring any change therefrom.
109. Say: “If all the sea were ink to write my Lord’s words (the acts, decrees, and manifestations of all His Names and Attributes), the sea would indeed be exhausted before my Lord’s words would be exhausted, even if We were to bring the like of it in addition to it.”
110. Say: “I am but a mortal like you, but it is revealed to me that your God is the One and Only God. So, whoever is looking forward to meeting his Lord, let him do good, righteous deeds, and let him not associate any partner in the worship of His Lord.”
1. It is clear that in the early years of Islam, some among the Jews and Christians supported the Makkan polytheists in their hostilities. The previous sūrah ends by declaring that God has not taken to Himself a child, and this sūrah begins by declaring the same truth. By pronouncing that God has not taken to Himself a child, the Qur’ān is saying that God has no offspring, and it categorically rejects the polytheists who claim that He has taken angels for daughters; the Christians who assert that Jesus is the son of God; and the claim of some Jews that Ezra is the son of God.
2. The original word translated as forefathers means fathers, as well, and also implies the Fathers of the Church who established the Christian creeds. The usage of word in Dreadful as a word is (that assertion) coming out of their mouths, also implies this. Those Fathers did not base their claim that Jesus was the son of God on any knowledge, and their followers have tragically done nothing more than blindly imitating them. Their assertion is mere words uttered out of ignorance and myth-making.
As pointed out in note 1 above, the verses also reject the polytheists’ assertion that God has taken angels for daughters.
3. Any Prophet is, in a way, obsessed with how he is to perform his duty. To this end, he considers all circumstances and does everything permitted. Many Prophets lived and died with only a handful of people, or less, accepting their Message. However, they did not lose heart, weaken in resolve, or resort to means not permitted by God, like violence, terror, or deception, despite having to suffer every kind of hardship and torture of the most pitiless sort. Every Prophet conveyed God’s Message to his people without becoming weary or daunted. The harsh reactions of people could not hinder a Prophet from his duty.
The communication of the Divine Message was the most essential characteristic of God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings. We are troubled whenever we are hungry or thirsty, or when we have difficulty in breathing; but he was troubled if a day passed when he could not find someone to whom he could convey the Divine Message. There was nobody left in Makkah whom he had not invited in public or in private to God’s path. He had called some, like Abū Jahl, who was extremely stubborn, at least fifty times. He was so concerned about the guidance of people, and so physically pained by unbelief, that God advised him in this verse to take care of his health.
4. According to some of the interpreters of the Qur’ān, ar-Raqīm (translated here as Inscription) is the name of the district where the Cave is located. Others are of the opinion that it is the epitaph which was placed at the Cave as a monument to the People of the Cave.
5. The word used to mean young (fatā) has a special meaning and usage in Islamic literature. Its infinitive form, futuwwah, meaning youth and chivalry, is a composite of virtues, such as energy, revolutionary vigor, heroism, generosity, munificence, modesty, chastity, trustworthiness, loyalty, mercifulness, knowledge, humility, and piety.
Futuwwah also signifies an altruistic character that enjoys helping others, wishing no one any harm. It is an important, indispensable dimension of good conduct and a significant aspect of humanity.
Derived from fatā meaning young man, futuwwah has become a symbol of rebellion against all kinds of evil and of sincere servanthood to God as the way to attain true freedom.
Some have summed up the descriptions made for futuwwah in the following cardinal virtues, in addition to those mentioned above:
- Forgiving when one is able to punish.
- Preserving mildness and acting mildly and gently when one is angry.
- Wishing well for all, including one’s enemies, and doing good.
- Always being considerate of the well-being and happiness of others first, even when one is needy.
The signs of one being a fatā (young, chivalrous one) are that their spirit, which was created with the potential to accept Divine Unity and Islam, has utmost conviction of Divine Unity and urges them to live according to the requirements of this conviction, and that, without being captivated by carnal or bodily desires, they live a pure, spiritual life, always aiming to please God in all acts, thoughts, and feelings. It is not possible for one who cannot be saved from the temptations of their carnal soul, from Satan, from bodily appetites, or from a love of the world and the attachment to worldly life, to climb up toward the peak of futuwwah (Key Concepts, 1: 81–83).
6. The position of the cave was such that God protected the young men from sunlight and protected their skin tone from changing and their clothes from fading. Although they remained in the Cave for many years asleep, when they awoke, nothing about them had changed; they had not even grown beards. This shows that either they entered a death-like sleep or that God guarded their bodies against any changes; this situation, whichever scenario is correct, should be investigated by science, as there will be some beneficial factors hidden in this event. The fact that they remained asleep for a long time without suffering any alterations in their appearance is an exceptional sign of God.
7. It can be understood from this verse that their eyes were open. The Almighty caused them to turn from their right to their left and from their left to their right, preventing sores on the body, and the eventual decay of both their bodies and their clothes. Such movement prevented their bodies from becoming weak and listless. The sight of a number of people lying down, yet with their eyes open—people who are repeatedly turning over, inside a cave in a mountainous area, and who are guarded by a dog—, would surely have presented an awesome spectacle. Thus, it is highly probable that there were other factors that would cause fear in those who saw them.
8. Who were these young men, and where did their experience actually take place? Before proceeding to answer this question, we should remember that the Qur’ān is not a history book, and that it recounts past, exemplary events in the most proper way to guide people to the pillars of the Religion, to establish these pillars in the minds and hearts of people. It does not usually mention the names of the people involved, nor does it designate time or place. Similar events may well have taken place, and may take place, in other places at other times.
According to considerably more reliable narratives, as the message of Jesus, upon him be peace, spread across neighboring lands, six youths from the royal class of the Romans in Syria-Jordan region gave up idol-worship, accepting God as the only Deity and their True Lord. It was the years when the followers of Jesus’ faith were being subjected to great tortures and persecutions. The Emperor Trajan (98–117 CE) had issued a decree that any follower of Jesus, upon him be peace, would be tried as a traitor and sentenced to death. He was visiting the region when these six youths openly and fearlessly proclaimed their faith in his presence, saying that the Lord of the heavens and the earth was their One and only True Lord. The emperor gave them three days’ respite to revert to their old faith. But they managed to leave the city secretly in 112 CE. A shepherd from a neighboring village joined them, with his dog following them up to the cave, despite their efforts to dissuade it. They took shelter in a deep cave, with the dog sitting at its mouth. Soon they fell into a deep sleep.
There are different views about which cave it was in which they took shelter. In 1963, near the village Rajīb, 80 kilometers from Amman, the capital of Jordan, a cave was excavated. When this cave was discovered, Rafiq Wafā al-Dujānī wrote his book entitled Iktishāfu Kahfi Ahl al-Kahf (Discovery of the Cave of the People of the Cave). It was then seen that the cave and its neighboring land correlates with the Qur’ānic description.
Due to the fact that the question about the People of the Cave arose from some Jews who lived during the Prophet’s time, some commentators, like Ibn Kathīr, present another opinion that the People of the Cave lived before the time of Jesus, upon him be peace, even though similar events may have taken place after Jesus, upon him be peace. There are several caves in the world, each of which is claimed to have belonged to the People of the Cave. As we pointed out above, the Qur’ān is not a history book and it usually recounts past, exemplary events for its main purposes. So what is important is that we should draw the intended lessons from them.
9. Since the Qur’ān is never concerned with events for their own sake, it does not go further in narrating what happened in the city. But the words used enable the reader to guess what might have happened.
This was at a time when Christianity had long ago been accepted as the official creed of the Roman Empire, and the Christians were fiercely divided on the question of life after death. Many people refused to believe in the Hereafter, at least in the bodily resurrection. The Emperor was keen to find some means whereby he could persuade the people to give up this denial. He was so concerned about the matter that, on one occasion, he earnestly prayed to God to show a miraculous sign that would make people believe in the bodily resurrection and afterlife. It was under such circumstances that the People of the Cave awoke from their sleep. According to the narratives, the one who was sent to the city went to a shop to buy bread and paid for it with an ancient silver coin. There was an altercation as the man was trying to pay with a three-hundred year old coin, and this drew a crowd. The crowd, amazed, took the man to the governor. The things that he saw in the city confused the young man. Everything had changed. The city they had had to leave was now a Christian city, Christianity having been adopted as the official creed of the Empire. He reported his story to the governor (or, according to another account, to the Emperor Theodosius the Younger (418–450 CE)). Greatly amazed, the governor (or the Emperor) followed the young man to the Cave, followed by a crowd. Seeing that the words of the young man were true, they marveled at God’s power and providence. At that point, God took their souls from the Cave, and belief in revival after death, a matter over which the people had been disputing for many years, was firmly planted in the hearts of the people.
10. The experience of the People of the Cave is significant in two important ways: One is that God has promised that He will make successful those who believe in Him sincerely and strive in His way, helping His Word to prevail, even if they are weak and oppressed at the beginning. This is a matter over which people have been disputing since the time of Adam, and over which the People of the Cave rose against the ruler and his people. While the People of the Cave themselves remained in the Cave, their resistance on behalf of their faith ended in victory. The second point is, as in the case of the man whose experience is narrated in 2: 259, who remained dead for a hundred years and then was raised to life by God as a sign for the people (so that they might understand how He created them and how He will restore them to life after their death) that the experience of the People of the Cave became a manifest sign for the coming of the Last Hour and the Resurrection, over which there had been a fierce controversy until the time they awoke.
11. Despite this manifest sign, many did not refrain from doubting the Resurrection and the afterlife, and even disclosed their denial of, at least, their doubts about God by saying, “their Lord,” not “our Lord.” This shows that if one does not have a sincere intention to believe, one can refuse to believe, even in the face of miracles.
12. This verse shows that at the time of the revelation of this sūrah, a number of stories were in circulation about the People of the Cave among the People of the Book – i.e., the Christians and the Jews who had persuaded the Makkan polytheists to ask the Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, about them. Rather than concentrating on the lessons this experience teaches, they only debated about its details, such as the number of the men and how long they had remained in the Cave. Those who said they were three, the dog being the fourth among them, or that they were five, the dog being the sixth, or that they were seven, the dog being the eighth, were the People of the Book. The verse using the tense denoting the near future should not mislead us. It points to the fact that people will keep arguing about their number, just as they argued following the death of the People of the Cave. The Qur’ān orders the believers to be intent primarily on the lessons given and not to ask anybody from among the People of the Book about these matters.
There is a subtle point here concerning the number of men in the cave in this Qur’ānic narrative. Naturally, it is not forbidden to investigate into details, without restricting the historical events to the details. Verse 19, which informs us of the men’s conversation concerning how long they had remained in the Cave, mentions one person who asked about how long they had been there, with two different groups expressing their opinions. It uses the plural form in reference to these two groups. In Arabic, the plural is applicable to at least three persons. Therefore, we can conclude that there were two groups of at least three people, plus the man who posed the question, making at least seven People of the Cave, with the dog being the eighth. In addition, this last verse (22) does not criticize those who say they were seven, the dog being the eighth, for guessing at random at (something related to) the Unseen, while it does criticize the others who say they were three and those who say they were five.
13. By narrating the experience of the People of the Cave, the Qur’ān also dispels the false belief that the apparent complex of causal relationships, which people call “laws of nature,” is unalterable. What we call the laws of nature are, in fact, the usual ways in which God lets things happen. He is not bound by any such laws. He can cause someone to remain asleep for hundreds of years and then rouse him, while preventing this long period from having any effect on that person’s age, appearance, or health.
The Reasons Why God Has Created Natural Laws and Causes
In the next world, the realm of Power, God will execute His Will directly without the ‘medium’ of causes, so that everything will happen instantaneously. The Divine Name, the All-Wise, requires that in this world, which is the realm of Wisdom, Divine Power should operate from behind the veil of causes and laws. The following reasons may be given for this:
- Opposites are mingled in this world: truth with falsehood, light with darkness, good with evil, white with black, and so on. In this world, God tests humankind, in whose nature there are ingrained inclinations towards both good and evil, to mark out whether we will use our free will and other faculties in the way of truth and goodness or not; and in order that our potential may develop and that we may attain perfect humanity, Divine Wisdom has required that the veil of causes and laws should be drawn before the operations of Divine Power. If God had so willed, He could train the planets with His “Hands” in a way that would be observable by us, or He could have them administered by angels whom we could see openly, and we would then not be speaking of the laws of causes, such as gravity. Or, in order to communicate His Commandments, He could, without sending any Prophets, speak to each individual directly; or, in order to compel us to believe in His existence and Oneness, He could write His Name with stars on the skies. But in this case, human earthly existence would be meaningless.
- Like the two sides of a mirror, existence has two aspects or dimensions, one visible and material: the realm of opposites and (in most cases) imperfections, and the spiritual realm which is transparent, pure and perfect. There can be, in the material dimension, events and phenomena which appear disagreeable to human beings. Those who are unable to perceive the Divine Wisdom behind all things may go so far as to criticize the Almighty for those disagreeable events and phenomena. In order to prevent this, God has made natural laws and causes a veil to fall before His acts. For example, so that people should criticize neither God nor His angel of death for the loss of their beloved ones or for their own death, God has placed between Himself and the phenomenon of death (among other “agents” or “causes”) diseases and “natural” disasters.
- Again, on account of the essential imperfection of this world of test and trial, people encounter and suffer from many deficiencies and shortcomings. In absolute terms, whatever God does or decrees is good, beautiful, and just. Injustice, ugliness, and evil arise from the errors and abuses of humankind. For example, a court may pass an unjust sentence on you; but you should know that Destiny permitted that judgment because of a crime which had remained hidden. Whatever befalls people is usually because of self-wronging, an evil they themselves have done. However, those who lack the sound reasoning and judgment necessary to understand the Divine Wisdom behind events and phenomena may attribute the apparent ugliness or evil, and the imperfections and shortcomings that they experience in this worldly life, directly to God. But God is absolutely free from any kind of defect or imperfection.
- Therefore, to prevent people from ascribing to God the ugliness and evil they encounter in life, His Glory and Grandeur have required that natural causes and laws should be a veil before His acts, while belief in His Unity demands that any kind of creative power should not be ascribed to those causes and laws.
- If God Almighty were to act in the world directly, without the “medium” of causes and laws, humankind would not have been motivated and enabled to develop scientific knowledge, and to live free from fears and anxieties. It is thanks to the fact that God acts from behind natural causes and laws that human beings are able to observe and study patterns in phenomena. Otherwise, each event would be perceived as a miracle. The regularity within the flux and mutability of events and phenomena makes them comprehensible to us, therefore awakening in us the desire to wonder and reflect; this is a principal factor in the establishment of sciences. It is for the same reason that we are able, to some degree, to plan and arrange our affairs in advance. Consider how complicated life would be if we had absolutely no idea at all whether or not the sun would rise tomorrow!
- God has absolute beauty and perfection; all His Names are absolutely beautiful without any defect. If He manifested His Names and Attributes directly, without the “medium” of causes and laws, we would not be able to endure them; and more than that, lost in these manifestations, we would not be able to know Him. It is impossible for us to know something that is infinite. It is only by putting a limit to a thing that we can recognize it. The Almighty manifests His Names and Attributes and His Perfections from behind causes and laws, and by degrees within the confines of time and space, so that the world and life might have a regularity with which we can build a connection by perceiving and reflecting. The gradual manifestation of the Divine Names and Attributes is also a reason for our curiosity and wonder about them.
These four constitute only some of the reasons why God acts through the “medium” of natural laws and causes.
14. Although human beings are free to make plans for the future and endowed with the necessary equipment to do what they plan, what they will do in the future, even in the present, is not dependent on their willpower exclusively. There are many other factors that must be taken into consideration. No one knows whether they will be able to do what they have planned and intended. In fact, no one knows what lies in store even one minute later. Nor does anyone have the absolute power to do whatever they will. In addition, one does not know for sure whether what they intend to do is for their own good. So, we must do what we should according to God’s Will and commands, taking the necessary measures and making the required preparations, placing our trust in God, and then referring to Him whether our intention will be realized or not.
15. This part of the verse should not only be taken in connection with the previous one. Although it is evident that it demands that, in case we forget to refer the realization of our future intentions to His absolute Will, we should mention him when we remember, this verse should also be viewed in a more general sense in the light of the following, and other similar, Divine declarations:
And do not be like those who are oblivious of God and so God has made them oblivious of their own selves (59: 19).
Those who keep from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety: when a suggestion from Satan touches them – they are alert and remember God, and then they have clear discernment (7: 201).
Remember and mention your Lord within yourself (in the depths of your heart), most humbly and in awe, not loud of voice, at morning and evening. And do not be among the neglectful (7: 205).
16. According to some commentators, the People of the Cave took refuge in the Cave in 112 ce during the reign of Trajan. They argue that the Qur’ānic statement, God knows better how long they stayed, is a confirmation that they stayed 300 (solar) years, with 9 more for lunar years, that is, 300 solar or 309 lunar years, and that this is a statement answering those who put forth different opinions. However, God knows best the truth for, to Him belongs (absolute dominion and full knowledge of) the unseen of the heavens and the earth. We must remain intent on the lessons to be drawn from historical events, and not become distracted by details, the knowledge of which will not assist us in learning or applying those lessons.
17. God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, nearly tormented himself to death with grief over those who rejected faith in the Qur’ān. People’s prosperity in both worlds lay in faith in the Qur’ān and its rejection would bring their doom. So, without showing any trace of weariness, he called people to it. However, the chieftains in Makkah implored him to dissociate himself from the “lowly” believers as a condition for their participation in his teaching circles. The Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, categorically rejected such demands. This verse condemns such demands and emphatically expresses that no follower of the Qur’ān can repulse a believer.
18. In the past, kings used to wear bracelets or armbands and garments of the finest silk and brocade. What people usually yearn for in the name of the worldly happiness is such royal prosperity. So the verse presents the enjoyment in Paradise in the terms of that prosperity, which is the greatest that people can imagine. However, the verse can also be taken with its literal meaning, without forgetting that the garments mentioned are particular to Paradise.
19. This is a very typical mood of many worldly people. They attribute whatever they have in the world to themselves. Because of this, they do not like anyone else, for example, the poor and the needy, to have any share in it. They are so puffed up by their worldly things that they deceive themselves into believing that God is their Lord in particular, and He is ready to welcome them under any circumstances. Such people are usually ignorant upstarts with crude manners.
20. After the experience of the People of the Cave, the parable of the two men is significant on two points. One is that a religious movement, or faith movement, which is based on sincerity, altruism, self-sacrifice, and trust in God, usually requires donations from its followers. Even though those followers do not have considerable wealth, they prefer the continuation of the movement to a prosperous life. This movement usually encounters fierce opposition from those in power and the self-indulgent, capital-owning segment of society. With the sole aim of living a luxurious worldly life, those wealthy ones do not wish to accept a power above them that will interfere with their way of earning and spending and, therefore, prefer a life outside the fold of the Divine Religion. So great are their successes and attainments in their own eyes that they identify their prosperity with happiness in Paradise and cannot see any real reason to strive for Paradise in the Hereafter.
Another point to which the parable draws our attention is that among those who lead the faith movement, or rather those who have taken part in it in the later stages and who have not had to bear any misfortunes, there may appear some who have tasted the riches of the world and who are attached to the worldly life at the cost of the goals of the faith movement. Such people attribute their attainments to their own abilities, consciously ignoring God as the sole Giver of all that one has. They forget thankfulness and gradually take a prosperous worldly life as the sole aim of their existence, remaining in oblivion of the other life. When they are reminded of Paradise, they are in a mood in which they see their worldly prosperity as being identical with Paradise and, even worse, they regard themselves as the only ones who deserve Paradise. This is the stage where a civilization founded upon the pillars of the faith movement begins to decline. So, by telling the parable of the two men, the Qur’ān both urges the believers to spend in God’s cause, for the sake of reforming themselves as well as the society, and warns both these and the other believers, who have managed to carry the movement to the stage of founding a civilization, against the corruption which comes with being defeated by the charms of the world.
21. This means that Satan was not of the angels, as the Qur’ān openly declares that the angels are sinless, always doing what they are commanded by God and never disobeying Him (16: 49–50; 66: 6). Satan belongs to the species of jinn, which, like humankind, have free will and can either obey or disobey God.
If it is asked why God also ordered him to prostrate before Adam, upon him be peace, after having made the same order to the angels, the answer is: the prostration of the angels was an action signifying that they affirm the degree of knowledge and superiority of Adam, upon him be peace, and the fact that he deserves the vicegerency of the earth. Among the angels, there are many that are charged with life on the earth and aiding humankind in many aspects of their lives. Therefore, their prostration also means that God commanded them to help humankind to perform our duty on the earth. Those angels are also the representatives of the earthly creatures in God’s Presence, and humans are the masters of these creatures. Satan, who belongs to the jinn, is an earthly creature who has duties toward humankind. When our Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, took the oath of allegiance from the jinn in the valley of Batn an-Nakhlah, he wanted them to appear to his community either in their own form or in other agreeable forms, not in the forms of harmful animals like dogs and scorpions. He also warned his community, saying: “When you see any vermin in your house, say to it three times: ‘For the sake of God, leave here!’ For it may be from your jinn friends. If it does not leave, it is not from the jinn. Then you are permitted to kill it, if it is harmful.” The jinn who gave allegiance to God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, promised him: “If your community recites basmalah (the formula In [and with] the Name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate) before anything they do, and cover all their dishes, we will touch neither their food nor their drink.” We do not know how they eat of our food, or drink of our beverages. Another Tradition says: “(When you have relieved yourselves) do not clean yourselves with bones and dried pieces of dung, for they are among the foods of your jinn brothers.” (at-Tirmidhī, “Tahārah,” 14; al-Bukhārī, “Manāqib al-Ansār,” 32; Muslim, “Salām,” 139, 140) All these Traditions show that there is an important relation between humankind and the jinn, and this relationship is a requirement of human earthly life, which is why God also ordered Satan to prostrate before Adam, upon him be peace. But he refused and, despite being eternally excluded from God’s Mercy, he was granted respite until the Day of Judgment as a dimension of humankind’s being tested on the earth, and he was given the ability to whisper to humankind in order to mislead us.
The verse also mentions Satan’s offspring. This may mean either that Satan has a wife and begets children or, as mentioned in 17: 64, that he has a share in the children of human beings, or both. Some human beings become like Satan.
22. What right do Iblīs and his offspring – satans (devils) – have to be taken as guardians, whom humankind should obey and refer their affairs to, seeing that they themselves are created beings in absolute need of God and not their own masters? Neither the satans of humankind nor of the jinn, in fact, no created being, has the right to impose his rules and views upon others. Such a being is not even his own master; nor does he play the least part in his coming into existence, the choice of his family, brothers and sisters, the place and date of his birth and death, or his color and physique. Therefore, he has no right to impose his rules and views upon others.
23. As we know, the Prophet Moses, upon him be peace, is one of the five greatest Messengers (42: 13) to whom God granted a Book as a guidance for all aspects of people’s lives. As God’s Last Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, stated, once one from among Moses’ community asked him if there was any of God’s servants on whom He bestowed more knowledge than him. The Almighty informed him of the existence of one of His servants on whom He bestowed a special mercy and special knowledge from His Presence (al-Bukhārī, “Kitāb at-Tafsīr,” 18).
This means that that servant’s knowledge was not of the kind which everyone can possess. Even the Prophet Moses, upon him be peace, did not have it. In reports from the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, that servant was called al-Khadr or al-Khidr. Al-Khadr, which must have been a title he had been given, means “the green one’” and the name signifies life. As quoted in note 2: 120 from Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, human life consists of five degrees, and al-Khadr possesses the second degree of life, which is free to some extent from the necessities of our life. He can be present in different places at the same time. The revival of the cooked fish implies al-Khadr’s special mission and represents enduring life.
Existence does not consist in only the visible, material world. Beyond it, like the appearances in facing walls of mirrors, there are many other worlds or dimensions of existence, each inner one being more refined than the outer one before it. Although we accept that Moses, upon him be peace, and his attendant traveled on the earth until reaching a point where two seas met, this journey had a spiritual aspect and, therefore, was like a spiritual journey toward God. So the point Moses, upon him be peace, and his young servant reached signifies the junction of the material and spiritual worlds. The revival of the fish suggests that they had just entered the field of al-Khadr, where everything is enduringly alive in some way. This journey is truly a tiring one. In order to attain some of the knowledge that had been specially given to al-Khadr, Moses, upon him be peace, had to make this journey, a journey which corresponds to the spiritual journey to God Almighty.
According to some reports from God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, the young, virtuous servant (fatā, for the meaning of which see note 5 in this sūrah) was Yūshā (Joshua) son of Nūn, who would later succeed the Prophet Moses, upon them be peace.
24. These verses are stating that the knowledge taught to al-Khadr is not of the kind which had been taught to Moses, upon him be peace, up until that point. That was because the Prophet Moses, upon him be peace, was a Messenger whose mission was to guide or lead people in life according to God’s commandments. That is, he was the leader or guide of (his) people living on the earth: he was responsible for their guidance, and they were a people greatly varied in intelligence and understanding. Guiding people in life and teaching them how to live according to God’s commandments in order to please Him is the greatest mission, and the knowledge inherent in this is the most valuable and important of all. As for al-Khadr, although it has not been established if he was a Prophet or a saintly person, God’s referring to Himself using the first plural form of noun while mentioning him (one of Our servants to whom We had granted a mercy as a grace from Us and taught a special knowledge from Our Presence – verse 65 above), and al-Khadr’s using the same form in explaining his actions (verse 81 below) and referring them to God (verse 82), suggest that, even though not in the special sense of the concept, he was also a Messenger or an envoy with special mission. However, he had knowledge on some special matters which we will examine in the following verses; these do not interest the majority of people and they are not compulsory to learn. For this reason, it was not a defect on the part of Moses, upon him be peace, that he did not have such knowledge, nor did the fact that al-Khadr had the knowledge mean that he was superior to Moses, upon him be peace. The Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, sheds light on this matter, saying: “Al-Khadr told Moses: ‘I have a kind of knowledge that you do not have; and you have a kind of knowledge that I do not have.’ ” (al-Bukhārī, “Kitāb at-Tafsīr,” 18).
25. It is highly interesting that there is no mention of Moses’ young attendant after Moses, upon him be peace, met with al-Khadr, and that just the two of them made the mysterious journey. When we take into consideration Moses’ experience in its totality and the identity of al-Khadr, along with the knowledge given to him, we can conclude that this journey did not take place in the corporeal realm. Many people can have dream-like experiences while awake, which are called mushāhadah (vision, witnessing). The spirit enters the incorporeal realm of “forms,” “ideas,” or “symbols” (‘al-‘Ālam al-Mithāl), and has a vision of some truths. This vision resembles true dreams, with the exception that dreams are experienced while asleep, whereas people have such a vision or experience while awake. Like dreams, the mushāhadah is quite brief. Although there may be other people next to the one who is having such an experience or vision, they remain unaware of it. For this reason, while Moses, upon him be peace, and al-Khadr had this mysterious journey, Moses’ young attendant did not accompany them, even though he was with them.
So, the journey that Moses, upon him be peace, and al-Khadr took resembles the spiritual vision we have just described. However, God favors even common believers with such visions. Therefore, Moses, upon him be peace, and al-Khadr may have made this mysterious journey in the incorporeal realm of forms or ideas with both their spirits and bodies; their bodies had temporarily gained the degree of refinement of the astral body, energetic form, or envelope of the spirit (see Appendix 12). There is resemblance between this journey and the Ascension of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, as well as that of Jesus’ being taken from the world; the differences being that this journey may have been made in the world of ideas or forms. The Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, made the Ascension in all the higher dimensions or worlds of existence with his spirit and his body, which became so refined as to be almost identical with the “astral” body of the spirit. After the Ascension, he preferred to return to the world to continue to guide people and to complete the preaching of Islam. As for the Prophet Jesus, upon him be peace, since his mission as a Messenger had ended, he was taken from the world with his spirit and body, which also became identical with the astral body of his spirit and remained in “heaven” where he had been elevated. (God knows best.)
26. Any event which takes place in life has an apparent meaning and reason pertaining to the people involved in it, and a true meaning and reason pertaining to Divine Destiny. Destiny takes into consideration both the whole of creation and events from the time of Adam, upon him be peace, to the Last Day, and each individual person and event at the same time. It never wrongs anybody: it always does justice, and this justice usually dwells on mercy. Whatever good reaches one, it is because of the Divine Mercy, although a person has little share in it; but whatever one suffers is completely due to one’s own errors. However, the Almighty forgives many of His servants’ errors and never hastens to punish; He gives respite so that people may mend their ways. But if He punishes a servant, it is absolutely what that servant deserves. As Said Nursi reminds us, a court may pass a sentence on us because of a crime we did not commit and thus carry out an injustice; but Destiny allows this sentence to be passed on us because of another crime which we did commit, yet which has remained unknown.
We understand from the Prophet Moses’ experience with al-Khadr that the latter’s mission is in connection with the inner, true meaning and reasons of events. But we judge according to the apparent reasons; this does not mean that we are not obliged to investigate the truth. But we cannot judge according to future expectations. Even if we have foreknowledge about something which will take place in the future, this cannot be a basis for our judgment. For this reason, those events may, as pointed out above, have taken place in the world of forms or ideas in which the Prophet Moses, upon him be peace, journeyed in the company of al-Khadr. According to the religious rules and laws that God has laid down for our worldly life, Moses, upon him be peace, was right to make his objections. But what al-Khadr did was not wrong; his mission pertained to the world of Destiny. God may have desired to teach Moses, upon him be peace, the true nature of Destiny and the true meaning of events, many of which people are unable to grasp. Whatever God does is absolute justice, and everyone gets what they deserve. Moreover, God is the All-Compassionate and overlooks many of His servants’ errors (42: 30, 34).
27. By recounting the experience of the Prophet Moses, upon him be peace, with al-Khadr after the stories of the People of the Cave and the orchards of the two men, the Qur’ān is suggesting that for a faith movement, spiritual profundity and discovery of the inner meaning of existence and events are important.
28. There are different views about the identity of Dhu’l-Qarnayn. It is not of great importance who he really was in history. What is important is what the Qur’ān intends to teach by this narration.
Like al-Khadr, it is not certain whether Dhu’l-Qarnayn was a Prophet or not, but God’s referring to Himself with the first plural form of the noun while narrating His speech to him (verse 86 below) can be seen as an allusion to Dhu’l-Qarnayn having a special mission. The expression of the Divine Revelation with the word “say” also suggests Messengership, if it is not used to mean inspiration; while when it is expressed with the verb “reveal,” it can suggest Messengership, Prophethood, or sainthood. For example, God’s revelation to a bee (16: 68) is Divine guidance and direction, while it is inspiration when it is sent to someone like Moses’ mother, who was not a Prophet or Messenger (28: 7). However, what is clear concerning Dhu’l-Qarnayn is that, as reported by ‘Ali, the beloved close companion of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, and fourth Caliph, he was a righteous servant of God who loved and was loved by God (Yazır, 5: 3279).
29. The Qur’ān, which was revealed fourteen centuries ago, and is valid until Judgment Day, pursues four main purposes: it seeks to establish in minds and hearts the Existence and Unity of God, Prophethood, bodily Resurrection, and the worship of God and justice. It addresses all times and places, and it is aimed at all levels of understanding. It is an accepted fact that the people of average understanding in every community, in every age, constitute its great majority. Therefore, in order to guide everyone to the truth and to its basic purposes, the Qur’ān considers the level of that majority, who usually follow eye-perceptions. However, this never means that it ignores the existence of knowledgeable ones among humankind. So, it uses such styles that an ordinary person with average intellect can benefit from the Qur’ān, while prominent scientists, no matter in which field of science they have expertise, can also benefit from it. It sometimes uses symbolic language and frequently resorts to metaphors, allegories, comparisons, and parables. Those who are well-versed in knowledge (3: 7) know how to approach the Qur’ān and benefit from it, and they conclude that the Qur’ān is the Word of God.
So, by the setting-place of the sun, he saw it setting in a spring of hot and black muddy water, the Qur’ān means that Dhu’l-Qarnayn marched a long way toward the west and went as far as the point where he (probably) saw a sea or ocean, appearing like a spring. The description of the sea or ocean as a spring of hot and black muddy water suggests that he had reached that point in the hottest days of summer when vaporization was at its greatest.
The expressions the setting-place of the sun and the rising-place of the sun (verse 90 in the sūrah ) also denote that Dhu’l-Qarnayn made long military trips toward the east and west.
30. Verses 89–91 mean that Dhu’l-Qarnayn went forth eastward and, conquering one land after another, he reached the farthest territory of the then civilized world. Those living in that territory were primitive people who had no clothes or buildings to protect them from the sun. God Almighty does not inform us of how Dhu’l-Qarnayn treated them. However, it may be inferred from the verses that being a beloved servant of God and a just, righteous conqueror equipped with every kind of correct means to attain all correct ends, Dhu’l-Qarnayn may have invited them to the right path and they may have made some advances in the way of civilization. The observations of some Western writers on the changing power of Islam can give us a clue in this respect.
Below are the impressions of the influence of Islam on native Africans, as written by a Westerner in the nineteenth century:
As to the effects of Islam when first embraced by a Negro tribe, can there, when viewed as a whole, be any reasonable doubt? Polytheism disappears almost instantaneously; and magic, with its attendant evils, gradually dies away. The general moral elevation is most marked; the natives begin for the first time in their history to dress, and neatly. Squalid filth is replaced by some approach to personal cleanliness; hospitality becomes a religious duty; drunkenness, instead of the rule, becomes a comparatively rare exception…chastity is looked upon as one of the highest, and becomes, in fact, one of the commoner virtues. It is idleness that henceforward degrades, and industry that elevates, instead of the reverse. Offences are henceforward measured by a written code instead of the arbitrary caprice of a chieftain – a step, as everyone will admit, of vast importance in the progress of a tribe. The Mosque gives an idea of architecture at all events higher than any the Negro has yet had. A thirst for literature is created and that for works of science and philosophy, as well as for commentaries on the Qur’ān (al-Ezzati, quoting from B. Smith, Muhammad and Muhammadism, 111-112, 117-118, 231).
And Isaac Taylor, in his speech delivered at the Church Congress of England about the effects and influence of Islam on people, said the following:
When Muhammadanism [an inaccurate name for Islam given by some Westerners as the result of an incorrect comparison of Islam with Christianity – AÜ] is embraced, paganism, fetishism, infanticide and witchcraft disappear. Filth is replaced by cleanliness, and the new convert acquires personal dignity and self-respect. Immodest dances and promiscuous intercourse of the sexes cease; female chastity is rewarded as a virtue; industry replaces idleness; license gives place to law; order and sobriety prevail; blood feuds, cruelty to animals and slaves are eradicated… Islam swept away corruption and superstitions. Islam was a revolt against empty polemics… It gave hope to the slave, brotherhood to mankind, and recognition to the fundamental facts of human nature. The virtues which Islam inculcates are temperance, cleanliness, chastity, justice, fortitude, courage, benevolence, hospitality, veracity and resignation… Islam preaches a practical brotherhood, the social equality of all Muslims. Slavery is not part of the creed of Islam. Polygamy is a more difficult question. Moses did not prohibit it. It was practiced by David and it is not directly forbidden in the New Testament. Muhammad limited the unbounded license of polygamy. It is the exception rather than the rule… In resignation to God’s Will, temperance, chastity, veracity and in brotherhood of believers, they (the Muslims) set us a pattern which we should do well to follow. Islam has abolished drunkenness, gambling and prostitution, the three curses of the Christian lands. Islam has done more for civilization than Christianity. The conquest of one-third of the earth to his (Muhammad’s) creed was a miracle (Ezzati, 235–237).
31. Gog and Magog (Ya‘jūj and Ma‘jūj in the Qur’ān) are also mentioned in the Bible (Genesis, 10: 2; Chronicles, 1: 5; Ezekiel, 38: 2; 39: 6; John, 20: 8). They were wild tribes that probably inhabited the north-eastern region of Asia. They constantly carried out raids against civilized lands, overrunning the primitive people found on the way. The Mongols that invaded the Muslim lands and reached as far as the Central Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries were regarded as Gog and Magog by both the Muslims and the Europeans. The Qur’ān states that the strong rampart which Dhu’l-Qarnayn built would collapse, and that those peoples would invade the civilized world once more before the end of time (18: 98; 21: 96). Reports from God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, regard this invasion as one of the signs of the approach of the Last Hour. Bediüzzaman Said Nursi remarks that like the locusts that fly in great swarms and, then, after destroying crops and vegetables, disappear, Gog and Magog are wild peoples that invade the civilized world at times and then disappear (Şualar [The Rays], 453–454).
32. It is clear that Dhu’l-Qarnayn made great conquests toward the west, east and north-east, throughout the civilized world, as far as the “natural” limits, such as the sea, deserts and mountain ranges. By recounting his conquests after the narration of the Prophet Moses’ journey with al-Khadr, which followed the stories of the People of the Cave and the orchards of the two men, the Qur’ān is referring to a “natural” outcome. What is more important than this is that a faith movement can and must be represented by perfect, righteous people. In particular, those who lead it after the Last Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, must be true, perfect successors to the mission of the Messengers, except that they are not Prophets and they do not receive Revelation that came to the Prophets.
There have also been different opinions concerning where the rampart which Dhu’l-Qarnayn constructed was located. Some have suggested that it was built among the mountains in the range between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea; while others suggested that the rampart was the Iron Gates near Bukhara, which stood between Transoxiana and Mongolia; and still others suggest that the rampart was the Great Wall of China. What is of interest in this respect is that it was a barrier which kept the wild, aggressive tribes of Gog and Magog from attacking the civilized world. For centuries, there was no such barrier. However, if the latest assaults of Gog and Magog were not the Mongol invasion on the great part of the Muslim world and eastern Europe in the 13th century, then, as suggested by the Qur’ān (verse 99 in this sūrah, and 21: 96) and Prophetic reports, the civilized world will witness the greatest destruction of all human history at some time in the future. If we understand that the word sadd (barrier) in verse 94 also means a spiritual barrier, it is possible to think that prior to this latest destruction, a spiritual barrier will have been erected.
Some Prophetic Traditions say that memorizing (and reciting on every Friday) ten verses from the beginning or end of this sūrah may enable one to be safe from the corruption and evils of the Dajjāl (the Anti-Christ, in the Christian tradition)— the man, or collective personality or movement, expected to appear toward the end of time, which will try to eradicate Islam from the social life of Muslims (Muslim, “Salāt al-Musāfirīn,” 257). So the stories narrated in this sūrah must have close relevance to, or implications for, the world-wide events that are expected before the end of time.
33. This verse contains a great threat and several warnings. First of all, if a person thinks that he or she is doing good, this does not mean that he or she is actually doing good. What is good is that which is acceptable to God and, therefore, what God has declared to be good. So, doing good depends on knowledge – that is, knowing what pleases God in every case, and doing it in the way approved by Him. This requires either having the knowledge, insight, sagacity, and ability to distinguish good and evil in all cases, or in following a true guide who has these characteristics.
The first part of the verse has several meanings.
- Unbelievers and/or polytheists can do some useful things for the worldly life. But their being of use with respect to the afterlife depends on true belief. So, whatever unbelievers and/or polytheists do is bound to be wasted with respect to the afterlife.
- If there are true believers who form a formidable community and strive in God’s cause, whatever unbelievers do to defeat them is bound to be in vain.
- Throughout history, unbelievers may, at times, have –or have had—the upper hand against the believers. However, the end always belongs to the believers.