Companions of the Cave – language, chauvinism & Quraan commentary


سَيَقُولُونَ ثَلَاثَةٌ رَابِعُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ وَيَقُولُونَ خَمْسَةٌ سَادِسُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ رَجْمًا بِالْغَيْبِ وَيَقُولُونَ سَبْعَةٌ وَثَامِنُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ قُلْ رَبِّي أَعْلَمُ بِعِدَّتِهِمْ مَا يَعْلَمُهُمْ إِلَّا قَلِيلٌ فَلَا تُمَارِ فِيهِمْ إِلَّا مِرَاءً  ظَاهِرًا وَلَا تَسْتَفْتِ فِيهِمْ مِنْهُمْ أَحَدًا

وَلَبِثُوا فِي كَهْفِهِمْ ثَلَاثَ مِائَةٍ سِنِينَ وَازْدَادُوا تِسْعًا

قُلِ اللَّهُ أَعْلَمُ بِمَا لَبِثُوا لَهُ غَيْبُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ أَبْصِرْ بِهِ وَأَسْمِعْ مَا لَهُمْ مِنْ دُونِهِ مِنْ وَلِيٍّ وَلَا يُشْرِكُ فِي حُكْمِهِ أَحَدًا

They will say [that there were] three [companions] the fourth being their dog. Others will five and their dog being their sixth. They but guess at the unknown. Others say seven and their eighth being their dog. Say, “My Cherishing Lord knows their number best.” None but a few knows them. So do dispute about them except for what is plain and apparent and do not enquire about them from any of them [unbelievers]….. [al-Kahf : 22]

They stayed in their cave for 300 years and increased 9. Say, “Allāh knows best how long they stayed…” [al-Kahf : 25-6]


Listening to the Jumu‘ah [Friday] talk, some thoughts which I had pondered on before, came to the fore. I wish to share some words on language issues and their broader context, and discuss some aspects which our attitude to knowledge reveal.


Respecting languages should work both ways


Having heard the desecration of Muḥammad into MO-HA-MID for the umpteenth time on a famous talk-radio station, I wrote to express my disappointment. When it comes to Italian or French names, the presenters take care to correctly pronounce the foreign name. Yet when it comes to Arabic names, which are far more numerous than those named in any single European language, any haphazard pronunciation will do. I did not mention that the presenter in question whom I was addressing is African, at least in terms of DNA, not Caucasian.  The station replied that they would note this for the future. Ha! Don’t hold your breath.

Conversely I find it symptomatic of the tribal chauvinism of some Muslims, as well as their academic laziness, that the entire history and geography of mankind magically conforms to their traditional language, whichever it may be. This may unfortunately include Arabic in itself for an Arab chauvinist, or Arabic vocabulary where an Arabic word is used by a non-Arab.


Someone told me that he had listened to a speech of a world famous scholar. He spoke on how Muslim explorers had apparently named a host of countries in the world. The examples cited seemed sensible enough, but I objected to Madagascar being al-Madīnah al-Aṣghar in origin. The grammar is incorrect. Had it been the case, it would have been al-Madīnah aṣ-Ṣughrā. The look of horror on the brother’s face, that I could DARE to have a different opinion, as well as his pious exclamation, “But that is what so-and-so said!” speaks volumes on the mentality of a good proportion of Muslims. By the way, you are welcome to do your own research on the etymology of Madagascar.   


Getting back to Friday, the classical commentators of the Qurān were generally monolingual. Based on their time and place, and when Arabic was the world language in terms of academia, trade, politics, literature etc, it was only practical and obvious that they would record the Greek names of the Companions of the Cave [“Seven Sleepers,” as the Christians call them] in an Arabicised form, amenable to their audience.


I would ask, why is it that a millennium later, Muslim scholars who are born in western lands would still not have the aptitude to pronounce the tyrant Emperor’s name as Decius instead of Diqyānūs? Is it really practical to give the name of one of the Sleepers as Miksalmīnā to a western Muslim, or would Maximillian make more sense? Are we lazy and chauvinistic, or is it just that we have as yet not worked on the balance of holding firmly onto our religion, whilst according our host countries and their cultures their respect?


Majority commentary, Qataadah and Greek records


The Qurān is a book of guidance, not a story book. It does not discuss historical details. I would not dare comment on Allāh’s Word based on my unsubstantiated opinion, but fail to see the validity of the extremism amongst Muslims. On the one hand, there are those who expect the Qurān to comply with their theories. These people lose sight of the Qurān being the absolute truth, and worship sciences whose absolutes today is discredited the next generation. If Allāh wills, I shall write one day on my discussion with a Muslim physicist in regards infinite parallel universes.


 On the other hand, some confine their minds to a single tradition. Findings from science, history, geography etc are of less than zero relevance to them, even when these fields are used as mere supporting evidence to an existing orthodox view in Islām, NOT primary proof. Any deviation from a school’s thought is disrespect to the instructors and pious predecessors. That is the problem of holding the middle ground amongst extremists. To the former, I am Neanderthal idiot, to the latter a disrespectful rebel verging on heresy.


 The commentary of Qatādah – Allāh’s mercy be upon him – appealed far more to me than the majority opinion when we studied the story of the Companions of the Cave as students.  


They majority view is that, “They stayed in their cave for 300 years and increased 9” means that they stayed for 300 solar equivalent to 309 lunar years in the cave. Qatādah however opined that the Verse is actually quoting the speculation of the unbelievers, just as they were quoted in regards their number speculation. Both the numbers and years are guesses in the unknown, hence the next Verse, Say, “Allāh knows best how long they stayed…”


Why I prefer Qataadah


  • Decius ruled 249 -251. So there is no harm with the Greek dating of 250.
  • If 300 is absolute, they awoke in 550.
  • This is a mere 2 decades before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam.
  • The Commentators explain that the story had been revealed in response to the unbelievers testing the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam with an incident so ancient, that the time and place had been lost to history. How is 20 years ancient lost history?
  • The way Qatādah explains the speculation and that Allāh knows best, has a better logical flow that appeals to me.

All that being said, I can be wrong and 309 is clear and correct!

What then, is my point?


Deterioration in Muslim thinking


The point of this article is not to espouse my acceptance of Qataadah’s commentary, but to ask the reader to ponder over some points:


  • The early commentators disagreed with Qatādah but mentioned his view with equal respect.
  • Today it is not mentioned at all. 309 is mentioned as an absolute, with no difference.
  • To me this but an example of the narrowing of Muslim thinking and inability to be open to differing opinions. A single monolithic narrative is the imperative and the diversity of the earliest Muslims is null and void.
  • The above Verses clarify that the unbelievers should not be our point of reference. “…do not enquire about them from any of them.” Thus the Greek period of 180 years for them having slept is not a fact which can be used to interpret the Qurān. However, when the Greeks have a complete historical record of when the pagan Decius and believer Theodosius II ruled, can the historical Greek record not be utilised as supporting evidence for an existing view within Islām?
  • My aim is to point out the forgotten middle path. Do we keep being in two groups, one worshipping science, the other living in an intellectual vacuum? Think about it. 

One response

  1. […] had previously written about a tendency of some Muslims to reproduce history and geography in their own cultural baggage. […]

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