The Sleepers in the Cave

 

Surah 18 (Al-Kahf/The Cave): 10–12

10. A group of young (Christian) men resolved to escape persecution; they betook themselves to the Cave – in a mountain nearby – where they expressed their invocatory prayer.

‘O Allah, our Creator’, they prayed, ‘extend to us of Your Mercy, what will help us endure our tribulation, and direct us to a course of action determining what You commend for us of future events’.

11. We, in response, struck them deaf and induced them to sleep for a number of years.

12. Then We roused them and provoked them to activity so that We would see which of the two arguing parties would come closer to the exact length of time they remained dormant, as a marvel of Allah correlative with Resurrection.

[Al-Muntakhab, 1985]

 

This story is a variation on a Christian legend, the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. The earliest known teller of the story was Bishop Stephen of Ephesus (448-451). The oldest extant written version exists in a homily of Jacob of Serugh (451-502) , although it likely developed from the second century Paralipomena of Jeremiah (4 Baruch) story of Abimelech the Cushite sleeping through the Babylonian Captivity. In Jacob’s version, a group of Christian youths fleeing persecution by the Roman Emperor Decius (249-251), take shelter in a cave, whereupon they fall asleep, under the care of a ‘watcher’, presumed to be an angel. Miraculously when they awaken more than a century has passed and they discover to their amazement that whilst they had slumbered, the empire that once had persecuted them had adopted Christianity as its official religion.

 

The Qur’an version of the story occurs in {18.9-26}. A telling trace of the original story that can still be seen include a reference to the sleepers having money, with one being told by his colleagues: ‘So send one of you with this money of yours into the city and let him observe which of them has the purest food and bring you some provision therefrom. Let him be discrete and make no one aware of you’. The money is completely irrelevant to the Qur’an’s retelling of the story, for there is no subsequent reference to this expedition to obtain food. In the original Seven Sleepers story, though, it is the fact that the youths’ coins bore the image of their long-deceased persecutor, that provides the means whereby they discover from the town’s merchants how long they had been asleep and acts as a symbol of Christianity’s ultimate triumph over paganism and worldly wealth.

 

Another tell-tale clue of the Qur’an’s borrowing from Jacob of Serugh may be seen in its description of the boy’s guardian, not as an angel but as a dog, ‘stretching forth, his paws at the threshold’ of the cave. This detail is somewhat surprising since Islamic tradition generally regards dogs as unclean animals that should not be allowed in the home. Gabriel Said Reynolds explains this innovation to the story by referring to Jacob’s metaphorical description of the youths as sheep and Decius as a wolf. Expanding upon this metaphor, he suggests, it makes sense that the sheep should be protected by a sheepdog, which as an outdoor working dog is presumably exempt from the opprobrium due to dogs kept as pets.

 

The Qur’an notes that those who came later to build a place of worship over the site of the miracle disagreed over the number of the sleepers, some saying they were three, plus a dog, others that they were five plus a dog and yet others seven (the number given by Jacob of Serugh) plus a dog. Having drawn attention to this disagreement, the Qur’an refuses to resolve it: ‘Say ‘My Lord knows best their number. None know them save a few’.’ The number of sleepers of course makes absolutely no difference to the story, but in suggesting that there is a correct, albeit secret, answer the Qur’an makes it clear that it is presenting the story of the sleepers as a factual event and not as a mere parable.

 

The solitary sleeper

A similar, but unrelated, supernaturally induced hibernation also appears in relation to a single anonymous individual and his donkey at {2.259}. The individual concerned had come across a ruined town and, reflecting upon it, had wondered aloud how God could resurrect life after death. His subsequent long sleep is obviously a metaphor for the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day, whereas that of the sleepers in the cave, appears to be more of an encouragement to confidence in the ultimate triumph of the godly.

 

In common with the Qur’an’s practice of producing the same form of words in different stories, in both passages, God poses exactly the same unanswerable question to the sleepers of the cave and the solitary sleeper, upon their first being awoken: ‘How long hast thou tarried?