Surah al-Kahf, the 18th surah in the noble Qur’an, has long attracted unusual amount of commentary and exegesis. Its three main narratives — concerning the People of the Cave, Moses (a) and the mysterious servant of God, and the travels of Dhu al-Qarnayn — are somewhat enigmatic and thus seem to demand interpretation.
At first glance, the three main narratives (and the brief embedded parable of the two gardeners following the first story) do not appear to be part of any larger story. Each seems to stand by itself. But would their meanings really remain unchanged if their orders were reversed — or if one or more of the stories were removed and placed in a different surah? Intuitively, sensitive readers know they would not. And this intuition is sound. As elsewhere in the Qur’an, the order is divinely-ordained. It’s there for a reason. So when we see these three mysterious stories placed together in a certain order, we should ask ourselves how they relate to each other. Why did Allah (swt) choose to put these stories together in this way and invite us to interpret them? What message is He conveying to us?
Before offering a tentative answer to that question, I will entertain another question: who am I to do this kind of interpretive work? Surah al-Kahf has elicited commentary from a great many trained and qualified Islamic scholars. I am not one of them. But I am, like only a few of the best-known commentators (Muhammad Asad comes to mind), someone who discovered the truth of Islam independently, from outside the tradition. My training in critical thinking and literary interpretation, along with utterly undeserved divine guidance that has left me awestruck and grateful, led me to Islam, and to accepting the Qur’an as the authentic and well-preserved scripture. So maybe Allah (swt) wanted a collector of advanced degrees in literature to try to come to terms with the meaning of His words. If not, and/or if I err in my interpretations, I seek His forgiveness.
Before we begin, it is also worth noting the penultimate ayah in Surah al-Kahf,
Say, “If all the sea were ink for my Sustainer’s words, the sea would indeed be exhausted ere my Sustainer’s words are exhausted! And [thus it would be] if we were to add to it sea upon sea.” (18:109 – Muhammad Asad’s translation).
The “sea upon sea” image, which echoes the “meeting of the two seas” in the story of Moses (a) and God’s Servant, warns us against restrictive interpretations. The Qur’an (like the created universe of signs, also authored by God) is a bottomless ocean of meaning. All of us who fish there must remember that we will never be more than humble fishermen, and our catch will never amount to more than a grain of sand from beaches that stretch to infinity.
That said, one does not need to be a structuralist literary critic to see that each of the three main stories in Surah al-Kahf juxtaposes two binary oppositions. The first and most obvious is justice vs. injustice. The second, trickier opposition is ordinary time vs. extraordinary time.
These two radically different ways of experiencing time may parallel the distinction between the two modes of prophetic revelation. Extraordinary time is reminiscent of tanzil or the complete instantaneous descent of the entire book of revelation “outside of time,” as happened in the Cave of Hira’ atop Jabal al-Nur (the Mountain of Light); whereas wahy involves the piecemeal revelation of the ayat over many years, often in response to questions or problems facing the Prophet (pbuh) and his community, and so takes place in more ordinary, linear, biographical time.
In the first story of Surah al-Kahf, the People of the Cave are fleeing injustice and persecution. Forced to leave civilization and strike out across the wilderness, they grow exhausted and seek shelter in a cave, where they fall asleep. Upon awakening, they discover that centuries have passed, and the time of persecution has ended. This extraordinary dilation of time corresponds to the end of persecution and injustice.
Allah (swt) emphasizes in this surah that the point of this story is not its petty details, but its moral allegory,
[And in times to come] some will say, “[They were] three, the fourth of them being their dog,” while others will say, “Five, with their dog as the sixth of them” — idly guessing at something of which they can have no knowledge — and [so on, until] some will say, “[They were] seven, the eighth of them being their dog.”
Say, “My Sustainer knows best how many they were. None but a few have any [real] knowledge of them. Hence, do not argue about them otherwise than by way of an obvious argument, and do not ask any of those [storytellers] to enlighten you about them…” (18:22).
And [some people assert], “They remained in their cave three hundred years”; and some have added nine [to that number] (18:25).
Say, “Allah knows best how long they remained [there]. His [alone] is the knowledge of the hidden reality of the heavens and the earth: how well does He see and hear! No guardian have they apart from Him, since He allots to no one a share in His rule!” (18:26).
So let us not quarrel over petty details like Bani Isra‘il in Surah al-Baqarah; let us go straight to the moral allegory. Which is: the time of persecution and injustice will end, and God’s righteous servants will be rewarded.
But that isn’t always obvious, is it? The righteous often suffer, and the evil ones prosper, do they not? Yes, but only in ordinary time, this-worldly time, time as we normally experience in the dunya. The breakdown of ordinary time, symbolized in the story by the awakening from centuries of sleep, reveals God’s ultimate justice.
In a sense, the People of the Cave have awakened from illusion into reality. The world in which evil was in power and good on the run evaporates when they wake up from their epochal slumber.
Elsewhere, the Qur’an tells us that when we live, we sleep; and when we die, we awaken. Life in this dunya is only a dream — sometimes an unpleasant dream featuring the worst kind of injustice. Allah (swt) has kindly and mercifully revealed that this apparent injustice is an evanescent illusion, and that when we awaken to Reality at death (or, if we are so blessed, before death) we will see that time as we ordinarily experienced in the dunya obscured the full Reality which is perfect divine justice. Like the sleepers of the Cave, we will awaken to a whole new world, in which apparent injustice is only a thread in the larger fabric of divine justice.
This reminder of divine justice is repeated (in case we missed it) in the succeeding verses of Surah al-Kahf that relate the brief parable of the two gardeners. One is proud, boastful, arrogant, rich, and powerful; the other, humble, poor, and more just. Why has Allah (swt) blessed the first more than the second? As it turns out, He hasn’t, when the fullness of time is taken into account: a calamity destroys the rich, arrogant man’s garden, leaving him wishing he too had been a humble and devoted servant. Likewise, the calamity of death will destroy all of our wealth, pomp, and power — a much worse catastrophe for the wealthy, pompous, and powerful (who are deeply attached to their pride and worldly goods) than for the poor, humble, and devout. And death, like the calamity in the parable, represents a rupture in which the illusion of life in ordinary time, in the dunya, is annihilated, and full truth (including divine justice) revealed.
The same interplay between justice-injustice and ordinary-extraordinary time arises in the story of Moses and the mysterious figure identified by tradition as al-Khidr, the Green One (a). The action begins as the ordinary flow of time is broken, “Moses said to his servant, ‘I shall not give up until I reach the junction of the two seas, even if I [have to] spend untold years [in my quest]” (18:60). The word translated as untold years is huqub, meaning a very long, indefinite length of time; and the junction of the two seas (majma‘ al-bahrayn) repeats the earlier image of “sea upon sea,” an image of infinity (the sea is already an image of oceanic limitlessness, and doubling it emphasizes that quality). So Moses’ words suggest a movement out of ordinary time and into extraordinary time, a kind of time that is of extremely long duration if not infinite, eternal or limitless.
In the middle of the long journey, Moses’ servant suddenly remembers that at their last stop, he witnessed a miracle: their fish (presumably dead and packed along for a meal) suddenly came alive and swam through the earth back to the ocean. But God made him forget the miracle, and they trudged on — until suddenly he remembers it.
Which raises the question: do we all witness miracles — signs of God, or ayat — yet somehow “forget” them? Is this process of witnessing-then-forgetting linked to a sort of rupture or rending (khariq al-ada’) in the fabric of our normal, linear journey through ordinary time, from past to future?
Moses and his servant return to the spot where the miracle happened and find al-Khidr (a), the wisdom-teacher, waiting for them. Then Moses and al-Khidr set off on the famous journey during which al-Khidr commits three acts of apparent injustice. The third — rebuilding a wall for stingy, rude, inhospitable townspeople — causes Moses, for the third and last time, to break his vow of silence and object to al-Khidr’s apparent injustice. So ends their association, and the story, after al-Khidr explains the hidden justice concealed beneath his apparently unjust acts.
Al-Khidr’s third apparently unjust act, rebuilding the wall, contrasts ordinary time (as experienced moment-to-moment by Moses, the time it takes to rebuild the wall) with extraordinary or epochal time (the long-term time experienced by the always-slowly-crumbling wall, and perhaps by al-Khidr as well, who seems blessed with a God’s-eye view in which ordinary time is largely illusory). The moral allegory, once again, is that the apparent injustice we witness in ordinary linear time experienced in the dunya is, in the larger sweep of things, more apparent than real. In the larger view, the long-term view, the God’s-eye view, the outside-of-time view, the view that we will see in the afterlife — and that only a few unusually blessed servants of God are allowed to see in this life — injustice is illusory, and justice always ultimately prevails.
Dr. Kevin Barrett is a US-based journalist, commentator, and radio broadcaster. He presents the TruthJihad radio program as well as manages the VeteransToday website. Part II of this article will appear in the next issue of CI.