Who were the As’hab-e-Kahaf? Some sources (missionary sources) on the WWW said that it is a Christian tale transformed and used by the Qur’an without serious validation?
Is that true?
Out of the three incidents related in Surah Kahaf, the story of As’hab-e-Kahaf (people of the cave) is the first one. Apparently Quraish asked the question but Qur’an used it for its own purpose of admonition. Why did the Quraish ask this question? What was the importance of As’hab-e-Kahaf for Quraish or for either of the other two groups — Jews and Christians — who were the direct and the first addressees of the Qur’an? In case the incident relates to the history of any one of these groups, we would be safe in assuming that they would have actually instigated the question.
Although there are many incidents of people who slept for hundreds of years in a cave or some place like that, in history, the one that comes really close to the narrative of the Qur’an is that which is mentioned in the Christian religious history as ‘The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus’. In this case, it was actually Christians who instigated the question as hypothesized above. In fact it is this Christian background of the incident which makes it more likely that the Qur’an has referred to the same incident. So in our opinion these Sleepers of Ephesus are the ones mentioned by the Qur’an as As’hab-e-Kahaf. However, it should always be kept in mind that the Qur’an has not specifically mentioned that the As’hab-e-Kahaf were actually the Sleepers of Ephesus, so we should also avoid saying that our opinion is final and the incident we found out to be as that of the As’hab-e-Kahaf is exactly the one which the Qur’an has mentioned. We should always talk about it in terms of our own understanding and knowledge, as the door for further research is always open. Now I shall briefly relate the incident according to the Christian tradition.
Ephesus, a very famous city and port on the western shores of Asia Minor, was founded in the eleventh century BC (Its remains, a big tourist attraction, are in Turkey). Afterwards it became very famous for the temple of moon goddess Diana, which was one of the old wonders of the world. This goddess was widely worshipped and the Roman Empire also accepted it as one of its goddesses. This particular incident took place in the reign of Caesar Decius (249-251 A.D), who was famous for his cruelty on Christian converts, because till that time Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire and Christians were being persecuted by the Romans. These were seven young men who had converted to Christianity. Decius called them and warned them against this act, when they admitted to have belief in one God, giving them three days to convert back to their old religion. Taking advantage of this period they fled from the city and went to the nearby hills. On the way to the hills a dog started following them. Reaching there they found a cave and hid themselves there, while the dog remained at the opening of the cave. Tired, they fell into sleep. When they woke up, almost one hundred and ninety six years had passed and it was the reign of Caesar Theodosius II (408-450 A.D). Christianity had become the state religion. At this time there was a heated debate going on among the people about life after death and resurrection. Caesar was worried about this trend. When these seven sleepers woke up at this time they started asking themselves about the duration of their sleep. They thought they had slept only for a few hours. Feeling hungry they sent one of their companion to the market with a few coins to buy some food, warning him to be cautious and not to reveal his identity. When that companion reached the market he was surprised to see every thing changed, and when he gave the shop keeper the coins he had, the shop keeper was amazed to see a two hundred year old coin. He inquired about it. The companion whose name was Jean told him that it was his own money. The dispute reached the high official of the city. He told Jean that the coin was two hundred years old. Jean was dumbfounded. Then he revealed that it was a matter of only yesterday that he and his six companions fled the city due to fear of Decius’ persecution. Hearing this the people gathered around him were amazed and went towards the hills where the rest of the men were hiding. Finally it became clear that they were people belonging to the reign of Decius. Caesar Theodosius II also came to visit them. After this these seven men went back to their cave and died. Viewing this, the people accepted the fact that indeed there is life after death. Afterwards, a shrine was built on the cave by Caesar in their memory.
This is the incident as explained in the Christian tradition. However, one thing should be kept in mind that the Qur’an has neither mentioned their number nor the time period during which they slept. The Qur’an has only stated the versions of different people. The reason is that the Qur’an is neither interested in their number nor in the time period during which they slept. The Qur’an has stated this incident not in response to the question asked, but for its own purpose of admonition. Admonition to Quraish, Jews and Christians. So all the criticism in regard of their number or time period is uncalled for.
Now, if anyone is of the opinion that the incident never took place or that the Qur’anic narrative of the incident is unfounded, the burden of proof lies on him. I would like to stress once again that the Qur’an has not mentioned who these people were. The point that the Qur’an wants to make through this narrative is to encourage the Muslims – who, at that time were being severely oppressed by the leaders of Quraish – by telling them that when God decides to save a people from the persecution of another, then no one can harm them, irrespective of the odds against them.
(Primary source of information for this piece of writing is Moudoodi’s Tafheem-ul-Quran, vol. III)