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Cave and its Caveats – Individual or Generational Hypersomnia?

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Cave and its Caveats – Individual or Generational Hypersomnia? 

From the outset it must be made clear to the reader that the current topic is about the legend of Seven Sleepers which is addressed and clarified for its actuality in Quran in its eighteenth chapter – Al-Kahf (‘The Place of Refuge’ or ‘The Cave’). For those who try to validate this legend as it stands in the folklore from Quran need to take note that in Quran there is no mention of an actual extended sleep of the said Cave Dweller and has only a mention of their ears being sealed, and that too for a limited duration, while there is no reference to sealing of their eyes –So We sealed up their ears (to cut them off from the outside world) in their Place of Refuge for (only) a number of years (18:11.). If taken literally, one can only become deaf by sealing of ears whereas metaphorically it means isolation. If there was reference to actual sleep, then at least allegorically eyes would have been sealed instead of the ears. On the contrary, Quran mocks the legend pushers – You might think them wary while they are dormant and asleep [as a nation] (18:18). Emphasis is on – You might think so, while they were not, rather they were living in isolation from the rest of the world. 

Maulana Muhammad Ali in the preamble to the said chapter in his English Translation and Commentary of Quran writes: 

This chapter deals entirely with the Christian religion and the Christian nations, and that is the reason for giving it the name The Cave. The distinctive characteristic of Christianity is its institution of monkery, which required for its practice such corners of solitude as caves. The story of the Dwellers of the Cave is in fact the story of the Christian religion, whose first condition was one of dwelling in caves in perfect seclusion, but whose last condition is that of material engagements in trade and industry, hinted at in the word raqim or inscription… the second and the third sections [of the chapter] deal with a certain story of Christian youths who sought refuge in a cave, but the, story has evidently beneath it a deeper significance, and contains prophetical reference to the later history of Christianity itself.[1] 

The details of the legend are captured by Edward Gibbon, Esq. in his book – HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (With notes by the Rev. H. H. Milman, 1782 (Written), 1845 (Revised), Volume Three – Chapter XXXIII: Conquest Of Africa By The Vandals.—Part II)[2]

Among the insipid legends of ecclesiastical history, I am tempted to distinguish the memorable fable of the Seven Sleepers;{footnote 43} whose imaginary date corresponds with the reign of the younger Theodosius, and the conquest of Africa by the Vandals. {footnote 44} When the emperor Decius persecuted the Christians, seven noble youths of Ephesus concealed themselves in a spacious cavern in the side of an adjacent mountain; where they were doomed to perish by the tyrant, who gave orders that the entrance should be firmly secured by the a pile of huge stones. They immediately fell into a deep slumber, which was miraculously prolonged without injuring the powers of life, during a period of one hundred and eighty-seven years. At the end of that time, the slaves of Adolius, to whom the inheritance of the mountain had descended, removed the stones to supply materials for some rustic edifice: the light of the sun darted into the cavern, and the Seven Sleepers were permitted to awake. After a slumber, as they thought of a few hours, they were pressed by the calls of hunger; and resolved that Jamblichus, one of their number, should secretly return to the city to purchase bread for the use of his companions. The youth (if we may still employ that appellation) could no longer recognize the once familiar aspect of his native country; and his surprise was increased by the appearance of a large cross, triumphantly erected over the principal gate of Ephesus. His singular dress, and obsolete language, confounded the baker, to whom he offered an ancient medal of Decius as the current coin of the empire; and Jamblichus, on the suspicion of a secret treasure, was dragged before the judge. Their mutual inquiries produced the amazing discovery, that two centuries were almost elapsed since Jamblichus and his friends had escaped from the rage of a Pagan tyrant. The bishop of Ephesus, the clergy, the magistrates, the people, and, as it is said, the emperor Theodosius himself, hastened to visit the cavern of the Seven Sleepers; who bestowed their benediction, related their story, and at the same instant peaceably expired. The origin of this marvellous fable cannot be ascribed to the pious fraud and credulity of the modern Greeks, since the authentic tradition may be traced within half a century of the supposed miracle. James of Sarug, a Syrian bishop, who was born only two years after the death of the younger Theodosius, has devoted one of his two hundred and thirty homilies to the praise of the young men of Ephesus. {footnote 45}Their legend, before the end of the sixth century, was translated from the Syriac into the Latin language, by the care of Gregory of Tours. The hostile communions of the East preserve their memory with equal reverence; and their names are honorably inscribed in the Roman, the Abyssinian, and the Russian calendar. {footnote 46} Nor has their reputation been confined to the Christian world. This popular tale, which Mahomet might learn when he drove his camels to the fairs of Syria, is introduced as a divine revelation, into the Koran. {footnote 47} The story of the Seven Sleepers has been adopted and adorned by the nations, from Bengal to Africa, who profess the Mahometan religion; {footnote 48} and some vestiges of a similar tradition have been discovered in the remote extremities of Scandinavia. {footnote 49} This easy and universal belief, so expressive of the sense of mankind, may be ascribed to the genuine merit of the fable itself. We imperceptibly advance from youth to age, without observing the gradual, but incessant, change of human affairs; and even in our larger experience of history, the imagination is accustomed, by a perpetual series of causes and effects, to unite the most distant revolutions. But if the interval between two memorable aeras could be instantly annihilated; if it were possible, after a momentary slumber of two hundred years, to display the new world to the eyes of a spectator, who still retained a lively and recent impression of the old, his surprise and his reflections would furnish the pleasing subject of a philosophical romance. The scene could not be more advantageously placed, than in the two centuries which elapsed between the reigns of Decius and of Theodosius the Younger. During this period, the seat of government had been transported from Rome to a new city on the banks of the Thracian Bosphorus; and the abuse of military spirit had been suppressed by an artificial system of tame and ceremonious servitude. The throne of the persecuting Decius was filled by a succession of Christian and orthodox princes, who had extirpated the fabulous gods of antiquity: and the public devotion of the age was impatient to exalt the saints and martyrs of the Catholic church, on the altars of Diana and Hercules. The union of the Roman empire was dissolved; its genius was humbled in the dust; and armies of unknown Barbarians, issuing from the frozen regions of the North, had established their victorious reign over the fairest provinces of Europe and Africa. 

{footnote 43} [The choice of fabulous circumstances is of small importance; yet I have confined myself to the narrative which was translated from the Syriac by the care of Gregory of Tours, (de Gloria Martyrum, l. i. c. 95, in Max. Bibliotheca Patrum, tom. xi. p. 856,) to the Greek acts of their martyrdom (apud Photium, p. 1400, 1401) and to the Annals of the Patriarch Eutychius, (tom. i. p. 391, 531, 532, 535, Vers. Pocock.)]

{footnote 44} [Two Syriac writers, as they are quoted by Assemanni, (Bibliot. Oriental. tom. i. p. 336, 338,) place the resurrection of the Seven Sleepers in the year 736 (A.D. 425) or 748, (A.D. 437,) of the aera of the Seleucides. Their Greek acts, which Photius had read, assign the date of the thirty-eighth year of the reign of Theodosius, which may coincide either with A.D. 439, or 446. The period which had elapsed since the persecution of Decius is easily ascertained; and nothing less than the ignorance of Mahomet, or the legendaries, could suppose an internal of three or four hundred years.]

{footnote 45} [James, one of the orthodox fathers of the Syrian church, was born A.D. 452; he began to compose his sermons A.D. 474; he was made bishop of Batnae, in the district of Sarug, and province of Mesopotamia, A.D. 519, and died A.D. 521. (Assemanni, tom. i. p. 288, 289.) For the homily de Pueris Ephesinis, see p. 335-339: though I could wish that Assemanni had translated the text of James of Sarug, instead of answering the objections of Baronius.]

{footnote 46} [See the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists, Mensis Julii, tom. vi. p. 375-397. This immense calendar of Saints, in one hundred and twenty-six years, (1644-1770,) and in fifty volumes in folio, has advanced no further than the 7th day of October. The suppression of the Jesuits has most probably checked an undertaking, which, through the medium of fable and superstition, communicates much historical and philosophical instruction.]

{footnote 47} [See Maracci Alcoran. Sura xviii. tom. ii. p. 420-427, and tom. i. part iv. p. 103. With such an ample privilege, Mahomet has not shown much taste or ingenuity. He has invented the dog (Al Rakim) the Seven Sleepers; the respect of the sun, who altered his course twice a day, that he might not shine into the cavern; and the care of God himself, who preserved their bodies from putrefaction, by turning them to the right and left.]

{footnote 48} [See D’Herbelot, Bibliotheque Orientale, p. 139; and Renaudot, Hist. Patriarch. Alexandrin. p. 39, 40.]

{footnote 49} [Paul, the deacon of Aquileia, (de Gestis Langobardorum, l. i. c. 4, p. 745, 746, edit. Grot.,) who lived towards the end of the eight century, has placed in a cavern, under a rock, on the shore of the ocean, the Seven Sleepers of the North, whose long repose was respected by the Barbarians. Their dress declared them to be Romans and the deacon conjectures, that they were reserved by Providence as the future apostles of those unbelieving countries.] 

The said book lays out the prevailing myth about Seven Sleepers and also makes presumptive guesses about the Prophet’s knowledge about it. According to the legend as quoted by Gibbon, they slept for a period of one hundred and eighty-seven years, a view which likely was held at the time of Prophet Muhammad as well. Quran extends the time period of ‘sleep’ to three hundred by solar calendar or three hundred and nine years by lunar calendar. Not only Quran corrects the duration of sleep it also refutes their number of seven as a conjecture, and replaces it with a few young men(18:13). Additionally, Quran in its narrative switches between describing the Sleepers living in their Place of Refuge for (only) a number of years (18:1), and the generational slumber of early Unitarian Christians over several centuries – And they (- the early Christians) stayed in this Place of Refuge three hundred years [by a solar calendar] and extended (their stay) another nine (years) [if counting by lunar calendar] (18:25).Further, Quran adds a dog to the account indicating their communal living and gives the northward direction of the mouth of the cave which can be ascertained by the relative rising and setting of the sun in the Northern Hemisphere, which in itself points to Christianity in Europe and their signature pet, the dog. 

This legend of Seven Sleepers has its roots in both Christian and Jewish sources and as reported in Muslim sources was one of the questions that was repeatedly put to Prophet Muhammad by his opponents. He was challenged about the details of the story of the Cave Dwellers, now famously known as the "Seven Sleepers of Ephesus", as a test of his prophethood. Such line of questioning to the Prophet might have been part of the allegations that since the Prophet was plagiarizing the older scriptures and himself being unlettered, he might not know of this tale of the Sleepers and would thus be left exposed by his own claims. 

Muhammad Asad in his translation and commentary – “The Message of the Holy Quran”, in the footnote to verse 8 of chapter 18 gives a detailed analysis of the legend: 

…As regards the story of the Men of the Cave as such most of the commentators incline to the view that it relates to a phase in early Christian history – namely, the persecution of the Christians by Emperor Decius in the third century. Legend has it that some young Christians of Ephesus, accompanied by their dog, withdrew into a secluded cave in order to be able to live in accordance with their faith, and remained there, miraculously asleep for a great length of time (according to some accounts, referred to in verse 25 of this surah, for about three centuries). When they finally awoke – unaware of the long time during which they had lain asleep – they sent one of their company to the town to purchase some food. In the meantime the situation had changed entirely: Christianity was no longer persecuted and had even become the official religion of the Roman Empire. The ancient coin (dating from the reign of Decius) with which the young man wanted to pay for his purchases immediately aroused curiosity; people began to question the stranger, and the story of the Men of the Cave and their miraculous sleep came to light. 

As already mentioned, the majority of the classical commentators rely on this Christian legend in their endeavour to interpret the Qur'anic reference (in verses 9-26) to the Men of the Cave. It seems, however, that the Christian formulation of this theme is a later development of a much older oral tradition – a tradition which, in fact, goes back to pre-Christian, Jewish sources. This is evident from several well-authenticated ahadith (mentioned by all the classical commentators), according to which it was the Jewish rabbis (ahbar) of Medina who induced the Meccan opponents of Muhammad to "test his veracity" by asking him to explain, among other problems, the story of the Men of the Cave. Referring to these ahadith, Ibn Kathir remarks in his commentary on verse 13 of this surah: "It has been said that they were followers of Jesus the son of Mary, but God knows it better: it is obvious that they lived much earlier than the Christian period – for, had they been Christians, why should the Jewish rabbis have been intent on preserving their story, seeing that the Jews had cut themselves off from all friendly communion with them [i.e., the Christians]?” We may, therefore, safely assume that the legend of the Men of the Cave – stripped of its Christian garb and the superimposed Christian background – is, substantially, of Jewish origin. If we discard the later syncretic additions and reduce the story to its fundamentals – voluntary withdrawal from the world, agelong “sleep” in a secluded cave and a miraculous “awakening” after an indeterminate period of time – we have before us a striking allegory relating to a movement which played an important role in Jewish religious history during the centuries immediately preceding and following the advent of Jesus: namely, the ascetic Essene Brotherhood (to which, as I have pointed out in note 42 on 3:52, Jesus himself may have belonged), and particularly that of its branches which lived in self-imposed solitude in the vicinity of the Dead Sea and has recently, after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, come to be known as the “Qumran community”. The expression ar-raqim occurring in the above Qur’an-verse [18:9] (and rendered by me as “scriptures”) lends strong support to this theory. As recorded by Tabari, some of the earliest authorities – and particularly Ibn ‘Abbas – regarded this expression as synonymous with marqum (“something that is written”) and hence with kitab (“a writ” or “a scripture”); and Razi adds that “all rhetoricians and Arabic philologists assert that ar-raqim signifies [the same as] al-kitab". Since it is historically established that the members of the Qumran community – the strictest group among the Essenes – devoted themselves entirely to the study, the copying and the preservation of the sacred scriptures, and since they lived in complete seclusion from the rest of the world and were highly admired for their piety and moral purity, it is more than probable that their mode of life made so strong an impression on the imagination of their more worldly co-religionists that it became gradually allegorized in the story of the Men of the Cave who "slept" – that is, were cut off from the outside world – for countless years, destined to be "awakened" after their spiritual task was done. 

But whatever the source of this legend, and irrespective of whether it is of Jewish or Christian origin, the fact remains that it is used in the Qur'an in a purely parabolic sense: namely, as an illustration of God's power to bring about death (or "sleep") and resurrection (or "awakening'); and, secondly, as an allegory of the piety that induces men to abandon a wicked or frivolous world in order to keep their faith unsullied, and of God's recognition of that faith by His bestowal of a spiritual awakening which transcends time and death. [2a]

However, Maulana Muhammad Ali in his English Translation of the Holy Quran with Explanatory Notes” (edited by Zahid Aziz), in foot note for verse 25 in the same chapter 18, makes a case for Christian history as the source of the same legend: 

The history of Christianity, which runs like an undercurrent in the story of the Companions of the Cave, finds a clear expression now. There is no tradition that the Companions of the Cave remained in the Cave for three hundred years, but Christianity itself remained in a Cave for full three hundred years. It is a fact that Christianity rose to power with the conversion of Constantine, and at the same time it lost its purity with the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, which was promulgated in 325 C.E. It is, moreover, now almost agreed that Jesus Christ was born in 6–5 B.C. So if he began his ministry at the age of thirty, the Christian religion may be said to have been born at about 25 C.E., and thus exactly after three hundred years it lost its purity by the promulgation of the Trinitarian doctrine, emerging at the same time as a State religion. Thus it remained in the Cave for three hundred years. As to adding nine years, to convert solar years to lunar years three years have to be added to every hundred years, and to the three centuries another nine years are thus added.[3] 

Assertions of both commentators of Quran seem equally valid and complementary, as both extrapolate their opinions based upon history and its moral lessons. 

The topic at hand is not to discuss the wholesome message of the Quran, for which reader is encouraged to refer to the English Translation and Commentary of Quran by Maulana Muhammad Ali, but to address the myth that pervades about duration of the sleep of cave dwellers, which is alleged to be about three hundred years. As the legend stands, there were no eyewitnesses to the actual sleep and according to Gibbon the story was resurrected after about fifty years of the alleged incident. Before one even goes into its discussion one has to keep in mind certain fundamentals in Quran, one of which is: 

21:34. And We have not assigned to any human being before you [– Muhammad] an unusually prolonged life…[4] 

With the age for all humans normalized in the stated verse, lets visit the verses that are often quoted in support of the said legend, which when read for their actuality, bring to fore the discussion of an era, rather than lives of a few individuals alone. 

Right from the get go, Quran challenges the readers who place unnecessary weight to this story and focus on the legend rather than its moral roots: 

18:9. Do you think that the People of the Place of Refuge and of the Inscriptions [Arabic: Raqim] were a wonder among Our signs?[5] 

SIDE NOTE: Maulana Muhammad Ali in his commentary to the stated verse explains – The Cave stands for the Christian institution of monkery, this being the distinctive characteristic which it assumed soon after its birth. Raqim means an inscription or a tablet with a writing upon it. The Inscription contains a prophetical reference to an aspect of the Christian religion quite opposed to its first aspect of growth in the Cave. Inscription (or Advertisement) is, in fact, as prominent a feature of the business activities of the Christian nations of today as the Cave was a feature of their religious activities in the early days. The Quran seems to have chosen the epithets to designate the Christian nations by indicating their most prominent characteristics in their early and their latter days.[6] 

Quran then outlines the basis of taking up of Refuge by the Companions of the Cave, which was their seeking of mercy against either their persecution or their abandoning of a polytheistic society: 

18:10. (Recall the time) when the young men betook themselves to the Place of Refuge and said (in prayer), `Our Lord! grant us mercy from Yourself and provide for us right course in our affair (setting all things right for us).'[7] 

SIDE NOTE: It is against similar kind of persecution of the virtuous, that Jesus and his mother, Mary, too were given refuge before: 

23:50. And We made the son of Mary and his mother a sign, (and a model of virtue), and We gave them both refuge upon a worth-living lofty plateau abounding in (green and fruitful) valleys and springs of running water.[8] 

So too were the Muslims of Makkah given refuge in Medina: 

8:26. And (recall the time) when you were only a few and were looked upon as weak in the land, you were afraid lest the people should take you by storm, but He provided you refuge (in Madînah) and strengthened you with His help and provided you with good and pure things so that you might give thanks.[9] 

The symbolism of Cave also fully manifested for the Prophet himself when he under similar circumstances was accompanied by a Companion, Abu Bakr, and the two Companions of the Cave found refuge only three miles from their native town Makkah, only to escape their persecution and away from relentless polytheism: 

9:40. If you do not help him (- the Prophet), then (know) Allâh has already helped him when those who disbelieved turned him out (from Makkah with only one companion); he being the second of the two when they were both in the cave (of Thaur); and when he said to his companion (- Abû Bakr), ‘Grieve not (about me). Surely, Allâh is with us.’ Then Allâh sent down His Shechinah (- peace and tranquility) upon him, and helped him with troops which were not visible to you, and He humbled the word of those who disbelieved to the lowest, and it is the word of Allâh alone which is the supermost (and so prevails). Allâh is All-Mighty, All-Wise.[10] 

Their prayers for a right course were thus accepted, for which: 

18:11. So We sealed up their ears (to cut them off from the outside world) in their Place of Refuge for (only) a number of years.[11] 

Note, the choice of metaphorical words in the above verse, their ears were sealed thus indicating their limited communication and involvement with outside world, not their eyes, had it been their sleep. Additionally, by any stretch of imagination and linguistics, a number of years can be interpreted as at the most as no more than 'some years' or 'a few years', but cannot be centuries and neither does Quran endorse such an extended period of lives for individuals. 

Finally, after a number of years, the time of their cave dwelling came to an end when enough tribulations had passed. The Cave Dwellers were aroused from their inactivity and then there stood two distinct groups, of the believers and the disbelievers: 

18:12. Then We raised them up (for making certain efforts) that We might distinguish as to which of the two groups [–those in the ‘Cave’ and the rest] had made better use of the time they had stayed there according to its rightful requirement.[12] 

With the above gist of background to the legend, Quran then takes a more detailed view of questions being raised about the legend surrounding the Muslim followers of Jesus, probably the early Unitarian Christians[13] or Ebionites[14], the followers of previous revelations, who obviously followed a monotheistic faith: 

18:13. We relate to you their true story. They were a few young men who believed in their Lord and whom We had led from guidance to guidance. 

18:14. And We strengthened their hearts when they stood up (in the cause of God) and (said), `Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth. Never shall we call upon any god apart from Him (for in that case) we would certainly be uttering a preposterous thing far from the truth. 

18:15. `These people of ours have taken to them (for worship) other gods apart from Him. Why do they not bring any clear proof and authority in support (of their belief). (Infact they have no such proof,) Who can be more unjust than the person who forges a lie against Allâh?'[15]  

SIDE NOTE: From the above verses it becomes obvious that the Cave Dwellers were Muslims. Their ‘Kalima Shahada’ was similar to current Muslims except that for them it was the Prophet Jesus. ‘Kalima Shahada’ is the fundamental oath of a Muslim. It identifies the source of belief (Allah) and the messenger of the time (in our case, Prophet Muhammad). According to Quran, this is a declaration of Believers since eternity – the believers in Allah and the followers of the prophet of the time, the Muslims, the submitting ones:

5:111. And when I inspired the disciples [of Jesus], (saying): Believe in Me and in My messenger [– Jesus], they said: We believe. Bear witness that we have surrendered (unto Thee) "we are Muslims [– the submitting ones]".[16] 

The next verse has parallels to historical persecution and exile of the righteous, the Muslims, away from their homes, same as Israelites out of Egypt, the Companions of the Prophet out of Makkah and in the current instance, the Companions of the Cave: 

18:16. (They said one to another), `So (now) when you have left them and that which they worship apart from Allâh, you should take shelter in the Place of Refuge. (If you do so) your Lord will extend to you His mercy and will provide some ease for you in (this) affair of yours.'[17] 

SIDE NOTE: The Cave Dwellers essentially emigrated away from polytheism and their prayer – Our Lord! grant us mercy (18:10), underpins a moral law: 

9:20. Those who believe and emigrate (for the sake of God) and strive hard for the cause of Allâh with their possessions and their persons, have the highest rank with Allâh and it is these who are the triumphant. 

9:21. Their Lord gives them good tidings of great mercy from Him and of good pleasure and of Gardens obtaining lasting and abundant bliss for them. 

9:22. They shall abide therein for ever and ever. Indeed Allâh is He with Whom there awaits a great reward (for them).[18] 

If geographically the legend is about the Middle East, then apparently the cave or the chamber where refuge was taken up was fit for human habitation for an extended period of time as its entrance faced north and was shielded from the heat of the sun. It also apparently had a courtyard thus indicating a habitability of the place:

18:17. And (O people!) you could see the sun when it rose, inclining to the right of their (spacious) Place of Refuge, and when it set declining to their left, while they were in the open space of this (refuge of theirs); this was one of the signs of Allâh. He alone is rightly guided whom Allâh guides. As for the person whom He forsakes, you will find no helper, no guide, for him.[19] 

Next, Quran addresses the nature of the ‘sleep’ in the legend: 

18:18. You might think them wary while they are dormant and asleep [as a nation]. We shall make them turn over (now) to the right and (then) to the left while their dog is (present with them) stretching its paws forward on the threshold in the courtyard. If you had become aware of their (true) state you would have turned back from them in fright and you would have surely been filled with great awe of them.[20] 

SIDE NOTE: Maulana Muhammad Ali comments on this verse – What is related in this section is clearly applicable to the story of the seven sleepers, as also to the later history of Christianity. In the first case, the meaning is that the youths, who fled for fear of persecution and betook themselves to a cave, slept for some time with a dog at the door of the cave. The whole scene was rather awe-inspiring: a dark cave, in some distant and uninhabited part of the country, with some men sleeping in it and a dog at the door. Applied to the history of Christianity the statement is equally true. In this case it should be borne in mind that ruqud (“asleep”) also means inactive or stagnant. Similarly aiqaz (“awake”) means vigilant or wary. The turning about to the right and to the left, which signifies an uneasy condition while sleeping, may be used as expressing the activities of a man or a nation. Thus there may be a reference here to the lethargy in which the Christian nations remained for a long time, and to their subsequent going about in the world in all directions. It may also be noted that Europeans are generally fond of dogs.[21] 

Here, the Quran switches to address the entire early Christianity rather than only a few individuals of the legend. The key to understand as to what they were doing in their state of cave is in the elaboration that Quran exposes to the proponents of the legend – You might think them wary i.e. living a purposeful monastic life, while factually they are dormant and asleep in their stay. In this Quran draws attention to the stagnant living of the dwellers, the whole of Christianity locked away in monasteries with limited activity, both physically and spiritually, because Quran nowhere endorses a monastic life cut off from the challenges of daily life: 

57:27. Then We caused a series of Our Messengers one after the other to follow them closely in their footsteps, and we caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow them, and We gave him (- Jesus) the Evangel. And We placed compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him, but as for monasticism they invented it themselves, We did not enjoin it upon them. (They started monastic life) to seek Allâh's pleasure, but they did not observe it (as faithfully) as it should have been observed. Yet We duly rewarded such of them as (truly) believed but many of them were transgressors.[22] 

Even if for the sake of the argument the stated verse is limited to Cave Dwellers alone, their limited activity is obvious in – We shall make them turn over (now) to the right and (then) to the left i.e. they were not doing much or it could even implicate a state of restlessness in which there is constant changing of postures and stance. Not only that, they even had a pet, who too seems bored by the sedentary life of the cave. Their dog like any other dog in a dwelling did what the dogs do most i.e. lay facing the entrance of the den – while their dog is (present with them) stretching its paws forward on the threshold in the courtyard. Reference to the dog also draws attention to tradition of keeping and breeding dogs in monasteries, e.g. the famous St. Bernard[23], a mastiff for its size and its guarding instincts. Then for sure, if one stumbled on such a dog – you would have turned back from them in fright and you would have surely been filled with great awe of them. 

Their living was so much out of place of civilized norms, almost like a hippie colony, that any wanderer who might have stumbled upon their monastic dwelling might have been awe struck by their unusual living style – If you had become aware of their (true) state you would have turned back from them in fright and you would have surely been filled with great awe of them. Maybe the visitor might have startled the snoozing dog as well, hence a reference to fright. If shifting on their sides was so important to prove their sleeping posture and incidentally also to prevent pressure sores for three hundred years, then why aren't other bodily functions addressed, if nothing else, the effects of starvation and the kidneys shutting down from lack of water, the matters of bowel and bladder? Contrary to the legend, Quran also tells us that mouth of the cave was not sealed as the dog sat at its entrance and any wanderer to that cave would had seen it all. Every refuge has a life, every colony has a term. In case of the Companions of the Cave: 

18:19. And (just as We made them dormant) We raised them (to life from the state of lethargy). So that they questioned one another. One of them asked, `How long have you remained (dormant)?' (Some of them) said, `We have remained (in this state of inactivity) a day or a part of a day.' (Others) said, `Only your Lord knows best (the time) you have remained so. Now send one of you with these silver coins of yours to the city, he should see which of its (inhabitants) has the best and purest food and let him bring for you provisions from it. And let him be courteous and let him not at all apprise anyone about you.[24] 

SIDE NOTE: In terms of life of nations, Quran uses the term ‘day’ in equivalence to a thousand years: 

22:47. And they (- the disbelievers) demand of you to expedite (their) punishment. Allâh will not fail His promise. (Remember however that) one day with your Lord is (sometimes) equal to one thousand years by your counting.[25] 

32:5. He plans the scheme from the heaven (and sends it) to the earth, then it shall ascend to Him in (the course of) a day the duration of which is a thousand years according to your computation (in this world).[26] 

Exactly, it was after about a thousand years from time of the First Council of Nicea (325 AD) [27], whence doctrine of Trinity took hold that Christianity awoke to its Renaissance[28] a thousand years later in the fourteenth century. Of note is that Renaissance itself means ‘rebirth’ in French[29]. 

In the verses discussed so for there is a description of a subsistence living of a community cut off from the world, where one loses track of time especially when there are no deadlines to meet, no time pressures or need to keep track of time. Of note is the use of words We raised them, which is different from 'awoke them' if they were physically sleeping that we see in case of Ezekiel who had a vision. 

SIDE NOTE: Elsewhere in Quran the metaphorical perception of time, such as a day, is addressed as equal to a hundred years. Also note the use of the similar words – then He raised him

2:259. Or consider the case of him (- Ezekiel) who passed by a town (- Jerusalem as it was left in desolation by Nebuchadnezzar) and it had fallen in upon its roofs. He said, ‘When will Allâh restore this (town) to life after its destruction?’ So (in his vision) Allâh kept him in a state of death for a hundred years, then He raised him (to life). Then (God) said, ‘How long have you stayed (in this state of death)?’ He replied, ‘I may have stayed a day or a part of a day (in this state).’ (God) said, ‘(Yes this too is correct) but (as you have witnessed in your vision) you have stayed for a hundred years. Now look at your food and drink, they have escaped the action of time, and look at your donkey (too, years have not passed over it). And (We have made you visualise all this) that We may make you a sign to the people. And look at the (dead) bones how We set them together and then clothe them with flesh.’ Thus when the fact of the matter became clear to him, he said, ‘I know that Allâh is the Possessor of full power to do all that He will.’ [30]

Additionally, a question can be raised as to how the Sleepers sustained themselves prior to sending out someone to get food. Answer to that we find in the case of Mary, who, like the Sleepers, was living in an isolated chamber in the temple apparently cut-off from the outside word, and she too was provided food by Divine means: 

3:37. So her Lord accepted her (- Mary) with a gracious acceptance and made her grow into an excellent form and assigned her to the care of Zachariah. Every time Zachariah visited her in the chamber he found with her provisions. He said, `From where do you get all this, O Mary?' She replied (with all conscientiousness), `It is from Allâh.' Verily, Allâh provides whomsoever He will without measure.[31] 

Doubting provision of food for the Cave dwellers while they were temporarily cut-off from their persecutors is to doubt one of the fundamental attribute of Allah: 

11:6. There is not a single moving creature on the earth but its sustenance rests with Allâh. He knows its permanent lodging place and its temporary sojourn. Everyone is governed by a clear law.[32] 

The next verse has parallel implications for the Companions of the Prophet in Makkah, some of whom had already migrated to Ethiopia, and the rest were to exile to Medina in the near future. After their relocation away from Makkah, they were to face further pressures and threats to revert: 

18:20. `(For) if they come to know of you they will condemn you or make you revert to their faith (by force) and in that case (that you revert to their faith), you will never attain your goal and prosper ever.'[33] 

The above verse is heavily prophetic about the events that unfolded thereafter with incessant attacks on Medina by the Makkans. Had the Muslims not resisted and instead reverted due to pressure – you will never attain your goal and prosper ever, i.e. they would not have left any of their future indelible imprints in the history, where the Persian, Byzantine and African empires were forever transformed in the next couple of decades under their rule and the message of Islam spread from East to West of the then known world: 

25:10. Blessed is He Who is pleased to assign to you (at the time of the Final victory of the Muslims) better than that (garden they devise for you) gardens (of Mesopotamia) served with running streams (rivers like Euphrates, Tigris and Jihûn and Sihûn), and will also assign to you palaces (of the Persian and Byzantine Emperors, and also the treasures of Chosroes and Caesars would be placed at your feet).[34] 

Continuing from earlier flow of verses: 

18:21. That is how We let (other people) know about them (- their intentions and the real state of their affairs), that people might know that the promise of Allâh is true and that as to the (coming of the promised) hour there is no doubt about it. And (recall the time) when the people (that followed) argued among themselves about their affairs and they said, `Build a monument over them;' their Lord knows them best. Those (of them) who won their point said, `We will certainly build a mosque (- place of worship) over them.'[35] 

In this verse Quran points out that as far as the details were concerned, the proponents themselves are unsure of their own legend – And (recall the time) when the people (that followed) argued among themselves about their affairs and they said, `Build a monument over them;'. The legend obviously arose from Christian sources as Christians traditionally erect Churches in memory of their saints. With the succinct moral of the story, Quran then mocks the prevailing aimless details and polemics of the legend: 

18:22. Guessing at random (- about them) some say, `(They were) three, their dog being the fourth,' while others say, `(They were) five and their dog being the sixth.' Yet there are others who say, `(They were) seven and their dog being the eighth.' Say, `My Lord knows best their real number. None knows them except a few.' So do not argue about them save with arguing on known premise (which is) overpowering and seek no legal order concerning them from anyone of them, (from those who make random guesses).[36] 

SIDE NOTE: Of note is that Quran is using the above hair-splitting discussions of the legend pushers to alert Muslims to avoid such kind of nonsense in their own faith, which ironically are all too often practiced in Islam of our times. Many a times, while reading Quran, one misses the forest for the trees. While narrative of the Companions of the Cave has a much broader moral purpose in Quran, superficial readers dwell on the tale in itself as an end, rather than why Quran cares mentioning it to begin with. Similar shunning of being caught in unnecessary details in matter of faith is also mentioned elsewhere in Quran about the slaughtering the cow by the Israelites, who were mere asked to eliminate their historical deity worship of cow by symbolically slaughtering of it, but they sliced and diced a simple directive: 

2:67. (Recall) when Moses said to his people for their own good, ‘Verily, Allâh commands you to slaughter a cow.’ They said, ‘Do you make a mockery of us?’ He said, ‘I seek refuge with Allâh from being (one) of the ignorant.’ 

2:68. They said, ‘Pray for us to your Lord to make clear to us what (kind of a cow) it is.’ He replied, ‘Says He, “It indeed is a cow neither too old nor too young, (but) of middle age, in between.” Now do as you are commanded.’ 

2:69. They said, ‘Pray for us to your Lord to make clear to us of what colour it is.’ He replied, ‘Says He, “It is a cow fawn of colour, is intensely rich in tone, very pleasing to the beholders”.’ 

2:70. They said, ‘Pray for us to your Lord to make clear to us what it (- the cow in question) is (definitely like); for (all such) cows are much alike to us, and we shall indeed, if Allâh will, be guided to the right goal.’ 

2:71. He said, ‘He (- God) says, “It is indeed a cow neither broken in to plough the land nor to water the tillage, perfectly sound (without any blemish), no spot on her”, (she is of one colour).’ They said, ‘Now you have (after all) brought the exact truth (with the necessary description).’ So they slaughtered her, though they had no mind to do it.[37] 

The next two verses are misattributed to some conjectures, that when the Prophet was asked about the said legend, he told the questioners that he will reply the next day, and apparently no revelation in the matter came for a while. Besides their general implication for every Muslim, these verses were a pointer to the Prophet’s upcoming migration to Medina and an advice to him before he discloses it: 

18:23. And never say of anything, `I am going to do it tomorrow,' 

18:24. Unless (you add to it) `God willing.' And remember your Lord whenever you forget (and make a mistake) and say, `I hope my Lord will guide me to a course even shorter than this to the right path (leading to success).[38] 

SIDE NOTE: Still, the above verses have much larger implications and they refocus the mind of a believer to the first chapter of Quran, where it is mentioned: 

1:5. (Lord!) You alone do we worship and You alone do we implore for help.

1:6. Lead us on the exact right path till we reach the goal,

1:7. The path of those on whom You have bestowed (Your) blessings, those who have not incurred (Your) displeasure, and those who have not gone astray.[39] 

Referring to the length of stay in the legend, without endorsing it Quran states: 

18:25. And they (- the early Christians) stayed in this Place of Refuge three hundred years [by a solar calendar] and extended (their stay) another nine (years) [if counting by lunar calendar]

18:26. Say, `Allâh knows best how long they stayed. To Him belong the hidden realities in the heavens and the earth. How clear He sees and how well He hears! They have no helper beside Him. He lets none associate with Him and share His judgment.[40] 

Moral implications of the narrative of Companions of the Cave: Drawing from the examples of the Companions of the Cave, the persecuted Muslims in Makkah then and even in the present are roused in the following verses. For each Muslim it is Allah, the ‘Place of Refuge’, the Quran which acts as its Reminder and the Prophet as the example to find that ultimate Refuge with Allah. Requisite for such a Refuge is finding the righteous companions, seekers of the Refuge, in this very world. Sifting through the legend, Quran then makes a prophecy to the Muslims against the persecuting Makkans, that history bears witness for its fruition in next couple of decades. While interpreting prophecies in Quran, one has to bear in mind that in its prophecies metaphors are used quite extensively and the prophecies not only give tiding of a future event, but also lay down the principle that govern those prophecies to be repeated for all mankind: 

18:27. And recite (to these people) what is revealed to you of the commandment of your Lord. There is none who can change His words [i.e. prophecies], and you will find no refuge apart from Him [i.e. ‘Place of Refuge’ for a Muslim is Allah alone]

18:28. And keep yourself attached to those [i.e. seek Companions of the Cave] who call upon their Lord morning and evening, constantly seeking His pleasure [– i.e. the attributes of those who have sought Refuge with Allah], and do not let your eyes turn away from them to pursue the glamour of the present life and do not follow him whose heart We have declared unmindful of Our remembrance; who follows his evil inclinations, and whose affair exceeds all legitimate limits [i.e. a Muslim is not to wander away from his Refuge with Allah]

18:29. And say, `It [– The Quran] is the truth from your Lord, therefore let him who wishes (it) believe (in it) and let him who wishes (otherwise) disbelieve (in it).' (But let everyone remember,) We have prepared for the unjust a fire whose (flaming) enclosure will surround (and fumes envelope) them. If they cry for water, they shall be helped with water (boiling) like molten lead, which will scald their faces. How dreadful the drink and how dismal is (the Fire as) a resting place! 

18:30. But those who believe and do deeds of righteousness [i.e. who have sought Refuge with Allah] (should know that) We surely do not suffer the reward of those who do good deeds to be lost. 

18:31. It is these for whom there await the Gardens of Eternity served with running streams (to keep them green and flourishing). There they shall be adorned with bracelets of gold and wear green robes of fine silk and rich brocade. They will be reclining in these (Gardens) upon raised couches. How excellent the reward! and how beautiful the resting place! [41] 

SIDE NOTE: The prophecies came to their fruition when Mad'ain, the Capital of Persian Empire fell to the Muslim armies during the reign of Caliph Umar – In the month of Safar, 16 A.H., corresponding to March, 637 A.D., Sa'd entered Mad'ain and while thus marching through the town in triumph, he had on his lips that prophetic verse of the Quran : "How many the gardens they left, and springs and crops and magnificent mansions and luxuries in which they lived! Even so; and We gave them as a heritage to another people" (44 : 25-28) . It was without doubt a clear sign of Divine might that a small nation, looked upon with contempt and whose envoy was sent back with a basket of dust on his head — that such an insignificant nation overthrew a most mighty empire with no more than 30,000 men. Silver, gold and diamonds, the spoils of war, when collected, made a considerable heap. One-fifth, including the Chosroes' robes and ornaments and a highly precious carpet inlaid with diamonds, was sent to Madinah. Fifteen years before, when the Prophet was running away for his life from Makkah to Madinah and a price was set on his head, dead or alive, a certain man named Suraqah had gone out in search of the precious fugitive. It so happened, however, that every time Suraqah came within reach of the Prophet his horse stumbled and fell. Seeing that some hidden Power protected the Prophet, the pursuer repented of his conduct and on bended knees asked for pardon. But he had more than a pardon. “Suraqah," said the Prophet, "I see the gold bracelets of the Chosroes on thy wrists." And lo! the spoils that came to Madinah actually included a pair of the Persian king's gold bracelets. Suraqah was immediately sent for and made to wear them, and the joy of the faithful knew no bounds when they saw the prophecy of their beloved Master come out so literally true.[42] 

Of note is that when the above stated spoils of war reached Medina – When Umar beheld the enormous riches brought as spoils, tears came to his eyes. On being asked what made him weep at that moment of joy, the Caliph said: “I fear lest this wealth and comfort should ultimately cause the ruin of my people.” [43] Essentially, Umar reflected the above stated verse – and do not let your eyes turn away from them to pursue the glamour of the present life and do not follow him whose heart We have declared unmindful of Our remembrance; who follows his evil inclinations, and whose affair exceeds all legitimate limits (18:28). 

Quran in its account lays to rest the legendary aspects of the story, while it fully expounds the moral lessons. Of note is that those who insist on three hundred years of physical sleep miss the dog about which nowhere it is mentioned to have slept for the same period and there is no mention of him to turn over (now) to the right and (then) to the left to avoid any pressure sores. The duration of 'slumber' in Quran at times can be judged by the aging of the accompanying animals, which only proves its metaphorical use of time frame: 

2:259. Or consider the case of him (- Ezekiel) who passed by a town (- Jerusalem as it was left in desolation by Nebuchadnezzar) and it had fallen in upon its roofs. He said, ‘When will Allâh restore this (town) to life after its destruction?’ So (in his vision) Allâh kept him in a state of death for a hundred years, then He raised him (to life). Then (God) said, ‘How long have you stayed (in this state of death)?’ He replied, ‘I may have stayed a day or a part of a day (in this state).’ (God) said, ‘(Yes this too is correct) but (as you have witnessed in your vision) you have stayed for a hundred years. Now look at your food and drink, they have escaped the action of time, and look at your donkey (too, years have not passed over it). And (We have made you visualise all this) that We may make you a sign to the people. And look at the (dead) bones how We set them together and then clothe them with flesh.’ Thus when the fact of the matter became clear to him, he said, ‘I know that Allâh is the Possessor of full power to do all that He will.’[44] 

If the donkey was not one hundred years older, then neither was Ezekiel. If the dog was not three hundred years older, then neither were the Companions of the Cave. If the Muslims are stuck in the legends as above with their superficial readings and without understanding the moral message that Quran brings out in its narratives, then it will be a clear endorsement of doubters in the Quran: 

25:5. They (also) say, ‘(This Qur’ân consists of) fables of the ancients that he has got written down and now they are read out to him morning and evening.’[45]


[1]English Translation of the Holy Qur’ân, edition 2002, by Maulana Muhammad Ali

[2a]Al-Kahf–Verse 18:8, Footnote 7: Muhammad Asad
[3]Al-Kahf–The Cave: Footnote for verse 18:25: Muhammad Ali – Zahid Aziz
[4]Al-Ambiya – The Prophets: Nooruddin
[5]Al-Kahf– The Place of Refuge: Nooruddin
[6]Al-Kahf–The Cave: Footnote for verse 18:9: Muhammad Ali – Zahid Aziz
[7] Al-Kahf– The Place of Refuge: Nooruddin
[8]Al-Muminun – The Believers: Nooruddin
[9]Al-Anfal – The Voluntary Gifts: Nooruddin
[10]Al-Taubah – The Repentence: Nooruddin
[11]Al-Kahf– The Place of Refuge: Nooruddin
[13]Wikipedia: Unitarians. Link:

[14]Wikipedia: Ebionites. Link:

[15]Al-Kahf– The Place of Refuge: Nooruddin
[16]Al-Maidah – The Food: Marmaduke Pickthall
[17]Al-Kahf– The Place of Refuge: Nooruddin
[18]Al-Taubah – The Repentence: Nooruddin
[19]Al-Kahf– The Place of Refuge: Nooruddin
[21]Al-Kahf – The Cave. Verse 18:18, Footnote a (18): Muhammad Ali – Zahid Aziz
[22]Al-Hadid – The Iron: Nooruddin
[23]“Sometime between 1660 and 1670, the monks at Great St. Bernard Hospice acquired their first St. Bernards—descendants of the mastiff style Asiatic dogs brought over by the Romans—to serve as their watchdogs and companions. (The earliest depiction of the breed was in two paintings done by well-known Italian artist Salvatore Rosa in 1695.)” Link: 
[24]Al-Kahf– The Place of Refuge: Nooruddin
[25]Al-Hajj – The Pilgrimage: Nooruddin
[26]Al-Sajdah – The Prostration: Nooruddin
[27]Wikipedia: First Council of Nicea. Link:

[28]Wikipedia: The Renaissance: Link:

[29]Oxford Dictionary. Link:

[30]Al-Baqarah – The Cow: Nooruddin
[31]`Al Imran – Family of Amran: Nooruddin
[32]Hud – Hud: Nooruddin
[33]Al-Kahf– The Place of Refuge: Nooruddin
[34]Al-Furqan – The Standards of True and False: Nooruddin
[35]Al-Kahf– The Place of Refuge: Nooruddin
[37]Al-Baqarah – The Cow: Nooruddin
[38]Al-Kahf– The Place of Refuge: Nooruddin
[39]Al-Fatihah –The Opening: Nooruddin
[40]Al-Kahf– The Place of Refuge: Nooruddin
[42]‘The Early Caliphate’ by Maulana Muhammad Ali, p. 80-81.
ibid, p. 81.
[44]Al-Baqarah – The Cow: Nooruddin
[45]Al-Furqan – The Standards of True and False: Nooruddin