The Holy Quran – Chapter: 18: Al-Kahf
(Revealed before Hijrah)
Date of Revelation
According to Ibn ‘Abbas and Ibn Zubair, the whole of this Surah was revealed at Mecca (Manthur). Almost all the commentators of the Quran appear to be agreed upon this point. ‘Abdullah bin Mas‘ud’s report shows that it was revealed in the early days of the Meccan period. He says that Bani Isra’il, Kahf and Maryam are among those Surahswhich were revealed very early in the Prophet’s ministry (Bukhari). According to some authorities, however, the present is one of those Surahs which were revealed not piecemeal but in one whole. Anas reports that this Surah was revealed in one whole and was guarded by 70,000 angels (Manthur, vol. 4, p. 210). This hadith should not be understood to mean that some chapters of the Quran enjoyed a greater protection than others at the time of their revelation. The traditions which say that so many angels descended for the protection of such and such chapters do not speak of their protection at the time when they were being revealed but after they had been revealed. In fact, every chapter deals with a particular subject. Sometimes a chapter contains prophecies on the fulfilment of which depends the very truth of the Quran. Sometimes these prophecies pertain to physical changes, at others to the actions of men. The prophecies which pertain to the actions of men are of particular importance due to the fact that those whose punishment they predict exert themselves to the utmost of their power to escape it. As such prophecies generally are made in unusually adverse circumstances, their fulfilment appears to be highly improbable and is brought about only by a combination of extraordinary circumstances. So if a Surah contains a certain prophecy which powerful nations have to exert themselves to render nugatory, the angels who control and superintend the direction of the affairs of the world are instructed to create conditions which may lead to its fulfilment. It is evident that the schemes and machinations of the opponents of a Prophet who makes the prophecy are proportionate in scope and intensity to the greatness of the prophecy and proportionately comprehensive are the means employed by God to frustrate those plans and plots. Since the direction of the affairs of the world is entrusted to angels and since they carry it out under divine laws, a correspondingly large number of them are appointed to guard the subject matter of a Surah which contains prophecies of the highest import. The angels are directed to take such steps as are necessary for the fulfilment of those prophecies.
In short, the guarding of the Surahs by angels does not mean their protection when they are being revealed to a Prophet of God. The real work of guardianship begins after they have been revealed and continues till the time when the prophecies mentioned therein are fulfilled. As regards immunity of Quranic revelation from satanic or human interference, every chapter, every verse, every word, even every letter and vowel-point of the Quran is equally safe and under Divine protection and no particular part of it enjoys this protection in greater measure than others.
As the present Surah contains prophecies about the destruction of such powerful nations as Gog and Magog and about the nullification of Christian false propaganda against Islam, thousands of angels have been on duty to bring about the fulfilment of these mighty prophecies from the very day when the Surah was revealed.
Western scholars assign this Surah to the sixth year of the Holy Prophet’s ministry at Mecca, but most probably it was revealed in the 4th or 5th year of the Call.
Connection with the Preceding Surah
According to Muslim commentators of the Quran, the connection of this chapter with the previous one consists in the three questions that the Jews had asked the Holy Prophet about human soul, the Dwellers of the Cave and Dhul-Qarnain. The answer to the first question, they say, was revealed in Surah Bani Isra’il, whilst answers to the second and third questions were revealed in the present chapter (Muhit). But this view does not accord with actual facts. The present Surah deals with some other important subjects besides the account of the Dwellers of the Cave and of Dhul-Qarnain e.g. the parable of two men (vv. 33-44) and the Isra’ or Spiritual Journey of Moses (vv. 61-83). As to why this Surah contains these accounts along with the account of the Dwellers of the Cave and of Dhul-Qarnain, these commentators have no answer to give. Wherry, however, remarks in his “Commentary on the Quran”, that ‘this chapter might be called the chapter of wonderful stories.’ But this very novel explanation of the reverend gentleman is as far from truth as that given by some Muslim commentators. These far-fetched explanations, in fact, are born of a lack of proper realization by these gentlemen of the real significance and purpose of the Surah. As a matter of fact, on the basis of some traditions of doubtful authenticity the idea had got into their heads that the Jews had put three questions to the Holy Prophet which this Surah seeks to answer. So they came to entertain this baseless notion and made no attempt to ponder over and understand the contents of the chapter.
It is incredible that an event should have been mentioned in the Quran at length merely because the Jews had asked the Holy Prophet certain questions about it. The Quran, being a perfect code of laws, was bound to discuss all important questions bearing on human morals, Divine worship, spirituality, social relations, political economy, etc., whether or not the Prophet was asked a question regarding any one of them. If the incidents referred to above had any bearing on any of these subjects, they were bound to be mentioned and discussed in any case; if not, the Quran would not have referred to them, no matter how many questions the Jews might have asked. It is also not reasonable to suggest that these incidents have been mentioned together in the Quran because the Jews happened to inquire about them at the same time. Questions about widely different subjects may be asked at the same time in one meeting and they may be answered in the order in which they are asked in the same meeting; but it is unwise to think that questions must necessarily be answered together in a religious Scripture whose address is not confined to one country or age, irrespective of the fact whether these questions have any bearing on one another. The commentators of the Quran seem to have grievously erred in this regard.
It should also be remembered that the Quran anticipated and replied to all legitimate objections. It did not wait for any question to be asked before answering it. While dealing with a particular subject, the Quran invariably seeks to remove all possible doubts and misgivings to which a discussion of that subject is likely to give rise and which are incidental to it. It leaves alone all matters of passing interest because its Message is not for one particular people but for all peoples and all times. Hence there could be no place in it for the discussion of subjects which concern only one people or one particular period. While dealing with a particular subject it answers only those objections which spontaneously flow from a discussion of it and not the objections which may have been raised by a certain people at the time when it was being revealed. The fact is that this chapter specifically deals with Christianity and the Christian people. There are on record certain sayings of the Holy Prophet which show that he too believed that the present Surahparticularly related to Christians. He is reported to have said, “Whosoever learns by heart the first and the last ten verses of Surah Al-Kahf will become immune from the evil influence of the Dajjal or Antichrist” (Musnad, vol. 6, pp. 446, 449).
As a matter of fact the reports upon which the commentators have based their conclusions possess no reasonable basis. Most of these have been attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas who was only about four years old at the time when the Meccans are supposed to have sent their deputation to the Jews at Medina and the latter had suggested to them that they should ask the Prophet the aforesaid three questions. These reports are also contradictory of each other and even a hurried and casual perusal of them leaves no doubt about their being manifestly baseless and absurd. Either the Jews themselves knew the answer to the question which they are reported to have asked the Holy Prophet about the human soul or they did not. If they knew it, how could the truth of the Prophet be proved on the basis of an answer which they themselves knew? If they did not know it then how could they know that the one given by the Prophet was correct?
All these facts taken together unmistakably show that the above-mentioned reports about the Holy Prophet having been asked the three questions were the product of some inventive genius and were later passed on as true and genuine traditions.
After having demonstrated the falsity of the above-mentioned reports, it is necessary to add a few words to show the connection of this chapter with the preceding Surah.
In chapter An-Nahl, the prophecy had been dealt with at some length that the Holy Prophet would meet with severe opposition from Jews and Christians. This subject was further elaborated in Surah Bani Isra’il in which it was stated that he would be taken to regions where he would live among Jews and would establish new contacts with them and later meet with opposition from both Jews and Christians and in the end would conquer them. Surah Bani Isra’il also mentioned a vision of the Prophet which embodied a prophecy that he would conquer the promised Holy Land of the Jews and alluded to two revolts of the Jews foretold in the book of Deuteronomy. The first revolt took place after the time of David, as a consequence of which the Jews were expelled from their native land. They repented of their sins and their homeland was restored to them. But they relapsed into iniquity and defied God’s commandments and revolted for the second time in the time of Jesus. This second defiance of a Prophet of God brought upon them severer punishment. Their holy places were destroyed and they were exiled from their beloved land of promise. These prophecies had also mentioned the conditions and circumstances through which the first part of the Israelites—the Jews—had to pass. A description of their condition, however, gave rise to an obvious question, viz. when Christians who form the second part of the Mosaic Dispensation have been spared the punishment with which the Jews who were its first part were afflicted, does it not follow that Christians are the inheritors of the Divine blessings and favours promised to the Jews? This question having been dispensed with, there remained one more question to be answered, viz. why are Muslims warned to be on their guard lest they incur Divine displeasure by following in the footsteps of the Jews, and what does this warning portend and what has the future in store for them? These two very natural and pertinent questions have been answered in the present chapter and some light has also been shed on the vicissitudes through which the Christian Faith was to pass. Mention has also been made of how Muslims would behave and make themselves the object of Divine wrath by imitating the iniquitous ways of the Jews. An answer has also been supplied to yet another question viz. what connection is there between these matters and the story of the Dwellers of the Cave, and of Dhul-Qarnain and Gog and Magog, the parable of two gardens and the Isra’ (Spiritual Ascension) of Moses? The answer which the Surah under comment gives to this question is that these parables describe in metaphorical language the rise and fall of Christian nations and also the hardships and tribulations that Muslims had to suffer from them on account of their own iniquities.
The Dwellers of the Cave are those early Christians who suffered untold persecution for the sake of their religion and upon whom God bestowed great material and spiritual blessings and favours as a reward for their sacrifices. The incidents mentioned in this chapter had happened long before the time of the Holy Prophet because the successors of those early Christians had forsaken the path of truth by the time he made his appearance. A brief account of the Dwellers of the Cave or early Christians is given to point to the fact that when Jews incurred Divine displeasure by their persistent rejection of truth, God chose these early Christians for the bestowal of His favours. But when later Christians departed from the path of virtue and took to iniquitous ways and practices, they too forfeited Divine favours. This subject has been described in the parable of “two gardens”. The “two gardens” symbolized the two periods of the progress and prosperity of the Mosaic Dispensation, viz. (a) the period of prosperity of the Jewish people and (b) the period of the progress and advancement of Christian nations. Or they symbolized the two periods of the Christian people, the one before the time of the Holy Prophet and the other in our own time. Surah Bani Isra’il contains an account of the favours which God bestowed upon the Jews and the present Surah deals with the great material progress and advancement made by Christian nations.
After this, the Surah proceeds to say that when the Israelites abused the possession of these “two gardens” and consigned to oblivion God’s great blessings and began to look down upon their cousins, the Ishmaelites, and became spiritually so depraved as to think that God’s blessings were not so many Divine favours but rewards which they had themselves earned and therefore richly deserved as of right, then God heard the supplications of the despised and oppressed Ishmaelites and destroyed the gardens belonging to the Mosaic Dispensation, i.e. God broke the power of both Jews and Christians and chose the Ishmaelites, who were looked down upon, for His favours and gave them gardens better than those He had given to Jews and Christians.
In order to expand the subject and give it more clarity, the Isra’ (Spiritual Journey) of Moses has been mentioned after the parable of the “two gardens”. This Spiritual Journey of Moses describes in metaphorical language the great material and moral progress that his followers were to make just as the phenomenal progress of the followers of the Holy Prophet has been described in his own Isra’, mentioned in Surah Bani Isra’il. This Isra’ of Moses describes in detail when and how this great advancement would commence and where it would stop and when the Israelites would become deprived of Divine favours which would be transferred to the House of Ishmael. After this we are told that the Ishmaelites, after having become heirs to God’s favours, would in their turn incur His displeasure by defying His commandments and would receive severe punishment at the hands of Christian peoples—the second misguided part of the Mosaic Dispensation. The depraved followers of the Holy Prophet would be punished by Gog and Magog who would, at one time, spread over and dominate the entire world. In order to show that these nations lived also even in the time of the Holy Prophet but that God in His own infallible wisdom had kept them in a state of dormancy and had stopped them from spreading over the world, the Surah has mentioned the causes that hindered their progress. Towards the end of the Surah, mention is made of one, Dhul-Qarnain, who stood in the way of the domination of the whole world by Gog and Magog. Thus light is thrown on the material and spiritual condition of Christians both in the early stages of their faith and in the Latter Days when power, wealth and material prosperity would make them depart from the path of truth and righteousness. The Dwellers of the Cave symbolize early Christians in the period of their weakness, and Gog and Magog represent them in the heyday of their glory in our own time. Gog and Magog are Christians only in name, being quite strangers to the real spirit of their religion. The Surah closes with an assurance to the followers of Islam that God would break and shatter the forces of irreligiousness unleashed by Gog and Magog and would bring about the deliverance of Muslims by means of a second Dhul-Qarnain. This second Dhul-Qarnain is the Holy Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement.
In short, the Surah deals with two epochs of Christianity. In the first epoch the Christians led a life of virtue and righteousness and in the second they have given themselves up entirely to the pursuit and acquisition of material wealth and worldly gains. In between these two periods of Christianity’s spiritual glory and its decline and degradation the Islamic Dispensation was established and we are told that when Muslims abandoned the path of virtue and adopted satanic ways, their political power would suffer a great eclipse at the hands of Christians. Later, however, Islam would emerge unscathed from this travail. This prophecy is being fulfilled in our own time.
Such is the close connection that exists between the present Surah and the preceding one, particularly the connection between the opening verses of this Surah and the closing verses of the previous Surah. The preceding Surahended with the words, All praise belongs to Allah Who has taken unto Himself no son and Who has no partner in His Kingdom and this Surah opens with the warning that destruction shall overtake a people who propose a son for God. Similarly, the previous Surah commended as men of knowledge those who worship and glorify God and have firm faith in His promises and denounced as ignorant and deprived of all true knowledge those who assign a son to God. Moreover, while in the previous Surah true knowledge was defined and explained, the present Surah defines and explains what constitutes ignorance and lack of true knowledge. Another connection between the closing verses of the last Surah and the opening verses of the present Surah is that whereas the closing verses of the preceding chapter categorically denied the existence of any partner in God’s Kingdom, in the opening verses of this Surah the Holy Prophet is commanded to warn those who, in the pride of their power, wealth, and means, think that these things are everlasting and that they are immune from Divine punishment. The fourth connection between these two chapters consists in the fact that while the former chapter closed with the words, And extol His glory with all glorification, the Surah under comment opens with severe condemnation and castigation of those who assign a son to God. The Prophet is reported to have said that whosoever reads the first and the last ten verses of Surah Al-Kahf would be protected against the evil influence of the Dajjal or Antichrist (Musnad). This hadith shows that the Prophet understood that this Surah was a special antidote against the mischief of the Dajjal who, however, has not been mentioned in it by name. The first ten verses, the recital of which is recommended as a safeguard against the mischief of the Dajjal, speak of a people “who assign a son to God”, and they are no other than the present-day Christians. The last ten verses of the Surah speak of a people who have devoted their entire time, energy and effort to the acquisition of material wealth and who are so engrossed in their mechanistic inventions and discoveries as to think that they can fathom even the very secret of creation. But the greater their inventions and discoveries the more mortifying is their realization that there is no limit to the secrets of nature and no end to God’s great and wonderful works. This description also applies to Christian nations of the west today. The Surah thus constitutes a sort of commentary on the ideas, beliefs, ambitions and doings of these nations. So when the chapters immediately preceding and following this Surah deal primarily with the Christian Faith and the great material progress and prosperity of its followers, it clearly follows that when the Holy Prophet declared the recitation of the first and last ten verses of this Surah as an infallible safeguard against the mischief of the Dajjal, by Dajjal he meant present-day corrupt Christian nations. These verses embody a severe indictment of their belief in Jesus as Son of God and of their materialistic tendencies. Thus Christian nations are certainly the Dajjal or Antichrist of the Holy Prophet’s traditions.
The subject matter of the Surah may briefly be stated as follows: God has revealed the Quran in order to remove the errors that had crept into previous heavenly Scriptures. It warns those who ascribe a son to God that by so doing they incur God’s displeasure.
These people hate Islam, but their beginning is not like their end. In the beginning they were very weak and were subjected to bitter persecution. God had mercy on them and delivered them from their trials and tribulations and put them on the road to progress and prosperity. But when they grew rich and prosperous, they became involved in idolatrous practices and instead of turning to God, they turned to the world and were entirely lost in it. Muslims are warned to take a lesson from these people and to be on their guard particularly against three evils in the day of their power and glory, viz. (a) remissness in Divine worship; (b) excessive love of wealth and worldly possessions; and (c) a life of ease and luxury.
The glory and power of Christian nations and degradation and poverty of Muslims are then graphically depicted in “the parable of two men”, one rich and the other poor. The rich man—Christian nations—would be proud of his riches while the poor man would turn to God. Pride and conceit would come to grief in the long run and circumstances beyond human control would bring about the rich man’s decline and fall.
The Surah proceeds to give some details of those great changes which were revealed to Moses in his vision. Moses was told in his vision that the development and progress of his Dispensation would fall far short of the great heights which another and a later Dispensation would attain. This later Dispensation would bring to perfection and completion the teaching which the Mosaic Dispensation had left incomplete and Islam would emerge triumphant from the ashes of a declining and decadent Christendom.
After having dealt with the decline and fall of Christian nations and the rise of Islam, the Surah describes the conditions which would follow the triumph of Islam. We are told that a time would come when Muslims would also turn their backs upon religion and would become entirely engrossed in the pursuit of material wealth and power. To punish them for their sins God would once again grant success and prosperity to Christian nations which for a time had been restrained from advancing into southern and eastern regions. Then would come great destruction upon the world and all nations would become divided into two hostile camps and wedded to two opposite ideologies. Sin and iniquity would prevail and injustice and tyranny become rampant. When things came to such a pass God would create circumstances which would finally check the seemingly irresistible onrush of the flood threatening to engulf the entire world. While dealing with this subject the Surah clearly hints that the same people would play an important part in arresting and stopping this flood as had once before broken the political power of Gog and Magog—true followers of the Holy Prophet.
In fact, the Surah is complementary to, and has a deep and beautiful connection with, its predecessor—Surah Bani Isra’il. Its subject matter and the incidents mentioned therein do not lack cohesion as some commentators have mistakenly inferred but, in fact, possess an exquisite order.