Surah al-Kahf is replete with enduring and ever-fresh lessons and signs. What follows is a brief discussion of two of them.
First: Islam is as much a social development and reform as a personal experience
Though the surah (chapter) is called al-Kahf, the Cave, the message presented therein is that the successful and complete implementation of the Islamic message is not compatible with the notions of caves, monasticism, strict asceticism, isolation and excessive idealism.
This is so because Islam is a religion of concrete action, deeds, comprehensive excellence, culture and civilization. It is as much a collective training, development and mission, as an individual endeavor and experience. Hence, such concepts as jama’ah (collectiveness and congregation), brotherhood, justice, accountability, integrity, kindness, philanthropy and being generally useful and beneficial to others, are paramount in Islam.
To be a true Muslim means to be constantly a doer of good, to become its embodiment at all levels of moral and spiritual life, and to become a source and conduit of all righteousness and virtue to others. Islam was never meant to be a religion of an abstract philosophy, a bombastic oratory, and impractical ideals and standards.
That is why Islam is so called, which means submission of one’s total being to the Will and Authority of Almighty Allah, the Creator and Master of the universe. Islam as a complete code of existence also means to live life not according to our shallow and manipulative wills and plans, but according to the absolute Will and Plan of our Creator and the Creator and Overseer of life.
Thus, when the People of the Cave (ashab al-kahf), or Cave Sleepers, went to the cave, they did so not because they so wanted or planned, but because they were forced to flee for refuge from their disbelieving folk. So risky and treacherous was the situation wherein they had lived that they in the end had to run away, so as to preserve their faith and save their lives.
Having been completely aware of what was happening, and why, and why they had ended up in the cave, they both calmly and purposefully surrendered their case to Allah, the Disposer of all affairs: “Our Lord! Bestow on us mercy from Yourself, and facilitate for us our affair in the right way!” (al-Kahf, 10).
Even after they had settled themselves in the cave, the Cave Sleepers knew that if their people came to know of them, they would have stoned them to death or abused and harmed them, trying to turn them back to their polytheistic beliefs and practices, in which case never would they have become successful (al-Kahf, 20).
Before escaping to the cave, the Cave Sleepers seem to have been very active, openly living and promoting the tawhidic (monotheistic) message of Islam against the phenomenon of polytheism and its diverse manifestations and degrees. Once in the cave, they knew that their new lifestyle was only due to a necessity and wasn’t by any means an ideal or a mandatory one. They knew, furthermore, that it was provisional in nature and that Allah, their Lord, will soon open a way for them from His mercy, will increase them in guidance, and will make easy for them their difficult situation.
Nonetheless, the case of the Cave Sleepers Almighty Allah used for attaining a potentially higher set of objectives and meanings, that is, a spiritual purification and enrichment of the people and their societal religious and also moral reform on the basis of the former. Allah thus reveals that “thus We made their case known (to the people), that they might know that the Promise of Allah is true, and that there can be no doubt about the Hour (al-Kahf, 21).
For this reason did the case of the Cave Sleepers commence secretly in the cave but ended most publicly and most assertively, so much so that the people of their city disputed among themselves about their case and about how best to commemorate and preserve their extraordinary legacy for posterity. Constructing a building over them was suggested, among other things. However, those who won their point, as a result of the intense dispute, said: “We verily shall build a place of worship (masjid) over them”(al-Kahf, 21).
That way, as well as by way of revealing the Qur’an and its surah al-Kahf, the case of the Cave Sleepers and the numerous at once spiritual and civilizational portents associated with it became immortalized forever. Thus, their supplications had been answered and Allah facilitated for them their affair in the most appropriate and fruitful manner.
Similarly, the case of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his prophethood started in a cave, Cave Hira’. He, too, neither wished nor planned to willingly reside – albeit temporarily — there, but was forced indirectly by the ignorance, confusion, corruption, oppression, injustice and wickedness of his era. He knew all too well that there was more to human life and existence in general than what had been served on the platters of existing cultures and civilizations. But what was that?
As a sign of his desperate seeking of answers, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was inclined to intermittently flee to the Cave, striving in the process to further nurture and preserve the purity of his blessed soul, and the clarity as well as rationality of his intellect. However, having received the first revelation in the Cave, and with that his “appointment” as the final messenger of Allah to mankind, assigned to convey to all people the final revelation of Islam as a complete worldview and a total way of life, he left the Cave and never returned to it again.
Yet, when the city of Makkah and many of its citizens refused to free themselves from the “caves” and “entrapments” of their ignorance, superstitions, falsehood and sin, the Prophet (pbuh) had to seek other alternatives and allow Islam to be fully implemented. Islam’s full potential had to be realized, its message optimized, and its light allowed to fully glow and be liberally experienced and lived.
The spiritual, intellectual and cultural “caves” and “entrapments” of Makkah proved a hindrance, eventually driving away the Prophet (pbuh) and his followers. However, when the city of Yathrib (a collection of loosely interrelated settlements) with most of its population accepted Islam and welcomed the Prophet (pbuh) and their fellow Muslim brethren from Makkah, a new hope with endless possibilities was suddenly found. Islam as a religion of comprehensive social development and reform programs, plus total culture and civilization, in addition to a continuous personal spiritual, moral and intellectual enhancement and growth, finally found its home.