Allah, Two Boys and a Dog
The following story from surah 18, The Cave, is somewhat typical of many of Allah’s tales: simple, surreal and out-of-time.
It could also be considered a parable, a long parable, a multi-verse parable with many mixed messages which serve to remind the reader what Islam is all about. The story revolves around a riddle to which only Allah has the answer.
The story about boys asleep in a cave “while their dog was stretching its paws in the yard” is the type of story that unbelieving adults might consider infantile, a childish boast. The story is reminiscent of the Rip-Van-Winkle tale, a children’s fable by Washington Irving about a man who falls asleep for twenty years. In Allah’s version, He causes as many as seven boys to fall asleep in a cave, leaving their dog outside, for perhaps three hundred years.
18:7 We have made everything on earth an adornment, in order to test them [and see] who of them is best in work.
18:8 And We shall reduce what is on it to barren dry soil.
18:9 Or did you think that the people of the Cave and al-Raqim (the mountain where the cave was) were the wonders of Our Signs?
18:10 When the youths took refuge in the Cave saying: “Our Lord, accord us from Yourself mercy, and guide us well in our affair.”
18:11 Then We sealed their hearing in the Cave for many years.
18:12 Then We roused them to learn who of the two parties was able to calculate the time they had lingered.
A verse hinting at the compass bearing of the entrance to the cave and how Allah can be either a trusted or a duplicitous guide. Then it starts to get a little weird.
I am deliberately skipping four verses here. In my opinion, the moral or point to this story can be found in verses 18:13-16 which are given at the end of this chronicle of sleeping boys and their dog.
18:17 And you might have seen the sun, when it rose, inclining from their Cave towards the right, and when it set, inclining to the left, while they were in an open space inside it (the Cave). That was one of Allah’s Signs. He whom Allah guides is well-guided; and he whom Allah leads astray, you will not find a friend to direct him.
After Allah has turned them this way and that way, he wakes them up and asks them to guess how long they have been asleep before sending one of them out to get something to eat.
18:18 You would think them awake, whereas they were sleeping. We turned them over to the right, then to the left, while their dog was stretching its paws in the yard. If you looked at them, you would have turned away from them in flight, and would have been filled with fear.
If Allah won’t tell the boys how long they have been asleep, revelation 18:19, He probably has a good reason.
18:19 Thus We roused them, that they might question each other. One of them said: “How long have you lingered?” They said: “A day or part of a day.” They said: “Your Lord knows best how long you have lingered. So send someone with this silver [coin] of yours to the city, and let him see what food is purest. Then let him bring you some provision thereof, and let him be gentle and let him apprise no one about you.
18:20 “Surely, if they learn about you, they will stone you or force you back into their religion; and then you will never prosper.”
Some people who came across the unknown number of sleeping or arguing lads wanted to encase them in a shrine of some type.
18:21 That is how We made them known [to people] so as to know that Allah’s Promise is true and the Hour is undoubted. As they were arguing among themselves concerning their affair, they said: “Build over them an edifice; their Lord knows best their condition.” Then those who prevailed over them said: “Let us build over them a mosque.”
Allah is not being deliberately vague in revelation 18:22 as to the number of boys because He does not know the answer. For an All-Knowing, All-Seeing All-Powerful god such as Allah this is not possible.
18:22 Some say: “[The sleepers were] three; their dog was the fourth of them”; and [others] say: “Five; their dog was the sixth of them”, interpreting the unseen. And they say; “Seven; their dog being the eighth of them.” Say (O Mohammad): “My Lord knows best their number; none knows them, save a few.” Do not then, dispute concerning them, except with reference to that which is clear to you, and do not question, concerning them, any of them.”
A couple of verses which may or may not have anything to do with this story:
18:23 And do not say of anything: “I will do that tomorrow,” [unless you add]:
18:24 “If Allah wills.” Remember your Lord, if you forget, and say: “Perhaps, my Lord will guide me to something closer to this in rectitude?”
Back to our sleepers:
18:25 And they lingered in their Cave three hundred years, and [some] add nine.
18:26 Say: “Allah knows best how long they lingered. His is the Unseen of the heavens and the earth. How clear is His Sight and His Hearing! Apart from Him, they have no protector, and He has no associates in His Sovereignty.”
So, what is the moral of this story?
In keeping with my understanding of the Koranic themes, it is about loyalty, keeping the faith, not mixing with those who believe in other gods; and if you do all that, Allah will look after you even if you have to seek refuge in a real or metaphorical cave. Here is what the boys and Allah had to say about the whole experience.
18:13 We relate to you their story in truth. They were youths who believed in their Lord and We increased them in guidance.
18:14 And We strengthened their hearts when they arose saying: “Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth. We will not call on any god besides Him. For then we would be uttering an enormity.
18:15 “These our people have taken other gods besides Him. Why do they not bring a clear authority for them? Who is, then, more unjust than he who invents lies about Allah?”
18:16 When you withdraw from them and what they worship, apart from Allah, take refuge in the Cave, and your Lord will extend to you some of His Mercy and prepare for you a suitable course in your affair.
“A popular attraction outside of Amman is the Kahf Al-Raqim or the Cave of the Seven Sleepers… it is located outside the village of Al-Raqim, 10 km east of Amman. Persecuted by the despotic rule of Trajan for monotheism, a group of pious youths took refuge in this cave. To preserve them, God put them to sleep, and when they revived 309 solar years later, they thought that they were only asleep for a day or so. Christianity was widespread by then, and when they were discovered God put them to rest forever.” Jordan Tourism Board