The Holy Qur'an

Commentary on a verse of the Holy Quran “The Dwellers of the Cave”

THE REVIEWOF RELIGIONS COMMENTRY ON A VERSE OF THE HOLY QURAN THE DEWELLERS OF THE CAVE “Dost thou think that the Companions of the Cave and the Inscription were a wonder among Our Sings?” (18 : 10). The verse declares the Dwellers of the Cave to be no novel or out of the ordinary thing but as only one of the so many Signs of God. There was nothing about them which might be considered a departure from the ordi- nary laws of nature. It is, however, very regrettable that while according to this verse the Dwellers of the Cave were no object of wonder but were only a Sign of God, many Commentators of the Quran have woven fantastic legends around them. Who were those Dwellers of the Cave, where did they live and what were the conditions and circumstances under which they had to live, are some of the questions that have agitated the minds of Commentators for hundreds of years. A good clue to the solution of these baffling questions is to be found in some of the stories related by Muslim historians, Ibn Ishaq being most prominent among them. These stories are summarized below:- Ibn Ishaq relates that when idolatry first found its way among Chris- tians, those of them who were strict monotheists being sorely distressed over the condition of their co-religionists renounced their company. This happened in the time of the Roman Emperor Decius, who was a great persecutor of Christians. Some Christian young men who refused to worship idols were arrested and brought before him. He asked them to think over and revise their attitude and himself went on a journey. Instead of sub- mitting to the Emperor’s command they sought safety in flight and took refuge in a cave. On his return from the journey the Emperor orderd these young men to be brought before him. They feared that they would be found out and killed. So they prayed long and fervently in the cave and had hardly finished their prayer when they fell into a deep sleep. Their belong- ings lay beside them and their dog kept watch at the entrance of the cave. The search for them brought their pursuers to the mouth of the cave but no one could muster enough courage ot enter it. The Emperor was counselled to raise a well before its mouth. He accepted the advice and the mouth of the cave was sealed up. (Ma’ani, vol. 5, p. 16). There is another story to the effect that a disciple of Jesus arrived in a town of which the ruler had commanded that every new-comer, before entering the town, should prostrate himself before the idol at its entrance. The disciple refused to carry out the king’s command. On the contrary, he began to preach against idol-worship which led to many inhabitants of THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS the town becoming Christians. One day, as the result of a scuffle between the king’s son and the owner of a hammam (bath) the former was killed. The owner of the hammam fled. Some young men who had embraced Chris- tianity, apprehending arrest, also fled and alongwith a landlord, who too had embraced Christianity, took refuge in a cave. The story then proceeds as narrated above by Ibn Ishaq (Ma’ani, vol. 5, p. 19). Ibn ‘Abbas is reported to have said that he was with Mu’awiya in an expedition against the Romans when they saw the cave in which c_iJt_»vs^l (Dwellers of the Cave) were believed to have lived. Mu’awiya sent some of his men to enter the cave but a strom suddenly arose and prevented them from entering it. According to another narration Ibn ‘Abbas is reported to have said that he had even seen the remains of Jwl^u^i which seemed to be 300 years old (Manthur, vol. 4. pp. 22, 214). According to Abu Hayyan there is a cave in Spain which is supposed to contain the dead bodies of the Dwellers of the Cave and also of their dog. Ibn Abi.Attiyya also claims to have seen the cave where according to him the corpses of.*—’-*fLl&l have remained for four or five hundred years. He writes that there are to be found near Granada the ruins of a town which is called the town of Decius. It contains very weired tombs built of stones (Muhit vol. 6, p. 102). Identical accounts have been given by Ibn Kathir and by ‘Abd al- Razzaq and Ibn Hatim in Durri Manthur (vol. 4, p. 224). Some Commenta- tors of the Quran have gone so far as to give even the names of the Dwellers of the Cave. For instance, Ibn ‘Abbas, has given the names of these people and their number. The memorable story of the “Seven Sleepers”, as told by Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, provides an important clue to the solution of the mystery that surrounds the Dwellers of the Cave. “When the Emperor Decius”, says Gibbon, “persecuted the Christians, seven noble youths of Ephesus concealed themselves in a spacious cavern in the side of an adjacent mountain, where they were doomed to perish by the tyrant, who gave orders that the entrance should be firmly secured with a pile of huge stones. They immediately fell into a deep slumber, which was mirac- ulously prolonged, without injuring the powers of life, during a period of one hundred and eighty-seven years. At the end of that time, the slaves of Adolius, to whom the inheritance of the mountain had descended, removed the stones, to supply materials for some rustic edific; the light of the sun darted into the cavern, and the seven sleepers were permitted to awake. After a slumber, as they thought, of a few hours, they were pressed by the calls of hunger and resolved that Jamblichus, one of their members, should secretly return to the city to purchase bread for the use of his companions. THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS The youth could no longer recognize the once familiar aspect of his native country; and his surprise was increased by the appearance of a large cross, triumphantly erected over the principal gate of Ephesus. His singular dress and obsolete language confounded the baker to whom he offered an ancient medal of Decius as the current coin of the empire; and Jamblichus, on the suspicion of a secret treasure, was dragged before the judge. Their mutual inquiries produced the amazing discovery that almost two centuries had elapsed since Jamblichus and his friends had escaped from the rage of a pagan tyrant. The bishop of Ephesus, the clergy, the magistrates, the people, and, it is said, the Emperor Theodosius himself, hastened to visit the cavern of the Seven Sleepers, who bestowed their benediction, related their story, and at the same instant peaceably expired” (chapter 33). The story of the Dwellers of the Cave may also be taken to apply to Joseph of Arimathaea and his companions. According to William of Mal- mesbury, Joseph was sent to Britain by St. Philip and having been given a small island in Somersetshire there constructed with twisted twigs the first Christian church in Britain, afterwards to become the Abbey of Glaston- bury. According to another account Joseph is said to have wandered into Britain in the year 63 AD. According to the legends which grew up under the care of the monks the first Church of Glastonbury was a little wattled building erected by Joseph of Arimathaea as the leader of the twelve apos- tles sent over to Britain from Gaul by St. Philip (Enc. Brit., 10th edition & 13th edition, under Joseph of Arimathaea & Glastonbury). All these accounts may appear to be no more than picturesque legends or later interpolations or they may belong to the realm of poetry rather than genuine tradition but they do not seem to be completely devoid of all reality and are not without an undercurrent of truth. Anyhow, they possess a deep and far-reaching significance. Joseph of Arimathaea may or may not have gone to England or that country may or may not be “the cave” under discussion, but the story of the Dwellers of the Cave does symbolize the story of the early persecution and later rise and expansion of Christianity. Our recent research, however, assigns the catacombs at Rome rather than Glastonbury as the site of “the cave” and a study of early Christianity lends great weight to this research. Accounts of the Dwellers of the Cave given above by Ibn Ishaq and other historians also seem to substantiate and reinforce this recent theory. From these accounts the following facts unmistakably emerge:— 1. That early Christians _were believers in the Unity of God and that they suffered great persecution for their beliefs. THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS 2. That some of these Christians fearing persecution and death took refuge in a cave in the time of a king variously known as Dacyuse, Dacyanuse or, in Latin, Decius. 3. That the persecutors of these Christians were idol-worshipers who sought to compel them to worship their own idols and offer sacrifices to them. 4. That these young men came out of the cave in the time of a king named Nandusis or, as Gibbon says, Theodosius. Now it is a well-known historical fact that early Christians had to suffer untold persecutions at the hands of the idolatrous Roman Emperors for their belief in the Oneness of God. This persecution began as early as in the time of the notorious Emperor Nero who is said to have set fire to Rome and fiddled while that great seat of learning and civilization was burn- ing. It continued intermittently till the regin of the Emperor Constantine who became converted to Christianity and made it the religion of the State. According to Tacitus Nero inflicted most inhuman tortures upon Christians in order to shift the blame for the burning of Rome on to them. He caused them to be hanged, burned alive and thrown to hungry dogs. Even St. Peter is said to have met his death at this cruel Emperor’s hands. Tertullian states that Peter was crucified under Nero, and Origen adds that at his own request he was crucified head downwards. Early in the third century the grave of Peter and Paul was shown in the Vatican and their relics were moved to the catacombs in 258 A.D. Among the tombs to be lately dis- covered in the catacombs are some of those disciples whose names have been mentioned in the Gospels and with whom Peter is said to have stayed (Enc. Brit., Every Man’s Encyclopaedia, & Gibbon’s Roman Empire, under Peter, Catacombs & Nero, and story of Rome by Norword Young). The persecution continued in the reign of Domitian. But it was not only tyrants like Nero and Domitian who persecuted Christians but great and virtuous princes like Tarjan and Marcus Aurelius also punished these unoffending people with death, exile and imprisonment. They had, however, a brief respite of about forty years after which their persecution again began with renewed fury under the Emperor Decius. This time the persecution was so severe that compared with it the former condition was a state of perfect freedom and security. Decius wanted to restore the reli- gion and institutions of ancient Rome and with this object in view he began a systematic extermination of Christianity. The edicts of Diocletian in 303 A.D., however, surpassed all anti-Christian measures. By these edicts Chris- tian churches in all the provinces of the empire were demolished, all their sacred books were publicly burnt and the property of the Church was confiscated and Christians were put out of the protection of the land THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS (Gibbon’s Roman Empire). To save themselves from this most cruel and inhuman persecution the helpless Christians had to seek refuge in concealment and from a study of the catacombs at Rome it appears that they proved havens of safety for them. These catacombs which have been referred to in the Quran as “the cave” were admirably suited to the needs of Christians who had to remain in concealment for long intervals. They had built schools and chapels and also buried the dead bodies of their saints and holy men in them. Though some of the statements as to the employment of the catacombs in times of persecution may have been somewhat exaggerated we have clear evidence that they were used as places of refuge from the fury of the heathen, in which the believers — especially the bishops and clergy, who would natur- ally be the first objects of attack — might secrete themselves until the storm had blown over. This was a purpose for which they were admirably adapted both by the intricacy of their labyrinthine passages, in which anyone not possessing the clue would inevitably be lost, and the numerous small cham- bers and hiding places at different levels which might be passed unperceived in the dark by pursuers. As a rule also the catacombs had more than one entrance, and frequently communicated with a sand quarry; so that while one entrance was carefully watched, the pursued might escape in a totally different direction by another. These catacombs have several stories which are connected with each other by a vast labyrinth of narrow galleries, interspersed with small chambers, excavated at successive levels. These dark narrow and lybyrinthic galleries have gone on for hundreds of miles. Padris Marchi has estimated the length of the galleries at from 800 to 900 miles and the number of interments at between 6,000,000 and 7,000,000. Martigny’s estimate is 587 miles and Northcote’s lower still, at not less than 350 miles (Enc. Brit., 9th edition, under Catacombs). From the inscriptions on the tomb-stones in the catacombs it appears that the early Christians were strict monotheists. There is not a single word on the inscriptions which indicated that they believed in Jesus as God or the son of God. He has been represented only as a shepherd or a Prophet of God, which he really was. Nor has Mary, his mother, been mentioned as anything more than a pious woman. The story of the tribe of the Prophet Jonah and that of Noah’s flood find repeated and prominent mention in the inscriptions and engravings. This clearly shows that early Christians regarded the Old Testament with greater respect than do present-day Christians. It also appears that Christians who took refugee in the cata- combs kept dogs at their entrance which would announce the approach of strangers by their barking. To be brief, the account of the Dwellers of the Cave constitutes a representation of the history of early Christians and shows how they con- THE REVIEW OF RELISIONS ducted a vigorous campaign against idolatry and polytheistic beliefs and suffered untold persecutions for their successors ended by disowning almost all the fundamental doctrines of their Faith. The position of “the cave”, however, is of secondary importance, though from the facts narrated above its description as given in v. 18 applies more fully and in greater detail and exactness to the catacombs at Rome than to any other place. Similarly, very strange and widely divergent accounts of f^Pt—’< (the Inscription) have been given by Commentators. According to some it was a tablet of lead or copper or a slab of stone on which the names of the Dwellers of the Cave, their ancestry, etc., were inscribed. Some say it was the name of the town or village from which they came or the name of the mountain or valley in which that "cave" was situated, yet according to others it was the name of their dog or the coin which they used. Leaving aside the mental wanderings of Commentators, these two words — "cave" arid "inscription" - represent the two most prominent aspects of the Christian Faith, viz., that it began as a religion of entire engrossment in woldly affairs, a religion of business and trade in a world of writings and inscriptions. Commentary of the Holy Quran Vol. II — part I, page 1486 - 90. ***** ***** OUR GOD IS OUR PARADISE Our God is our paradise. Our highest delight is in our God for we have seen Him and have found every beauty in Him. This wealth is worth procuring though one might have to lay down one's life to procure it. This ruby is worth purchasing though one may have to lose oneself to acquire it. Oh ye, who are bereft, run to this fountain and it will satisfy you. It is the fountain of life that will save you. What shall I do, and how shall I impress the hearts with this good news, and by beating what drum shall I make the announcement that this is your God, so that people might hear? What remedy shall I apply to the ears of the people so that they should listen (Kashti Nooh, p. 30). The Promised Messiah.