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Surah Al-Kahf is the 18th Surah of the Quran. Comprised of 110 verses and translating to "The Cave", it is considered by many to be among the most important Surahs in the entire Quran. That is not to say that any Surah in the Quran is unimportant or inconsequential. However, few can rival the contents of Al-Kahf when it comes to doctrine, spirituality, guidance, and even storytelling. In fact, Surah Al-Kahf is so rich in content that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ himself commanded his followers to read it every Friday.
To this day, Muslims are encouraged to read and recite Surah Al-Kahf every Friday. But what exactly do they have to gain from doing so? We're going to be answering that question in this article, drawing on the Prophet Muhammad's ﷺ personal commandments and the writings of respected Islamic scholars for evidence. We'll also be discussing the contents and history of Surah Al-Kahf, in order to give you an in-depth understanding of this most glorious Surah.
Before we look at the contents of Surah Al-Kahf and the benefits of reading it every Friday, let us take a moment to discuss the circumstances in which it was revealed to the prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Although we don't know the exact date Surah Al-Kahf was revealed, we do know that it is a Meccan Surah. This means it was received by Muhammad ﷺ in the early days of his prophethood, before he and many of his followers were exiled to Medina.
Muhammad's ﷺ residence in Mecca actually played a crucial role in the coming forth of this Surah, moreso than in the coming forth of any other Surah from the Meccan period. In the days and weeks prior to the revelation of Surah Al-Kahf, animosity towards Muhammad from non-believers increased tenfold. The idol worshippers of Mecca sought to undermine him at every turn. Often, they attempted to catch him out by asking him about obscure and intricate Jewish and Christian stories that he could not possibly have been familiar with were he not a messenger of Allah. Much to the chagrin of his aggressors, Muhammad ﷺ was able to answer their questions through the unmatched knowledge and mercy of Allah. However, this did little to convince them of his prophethood. Muhammad ﷺ must, the non-believers argued, be obtaining this information from a third, and notably undevine, party.
In one final attempt to unmask Muhammad ﷺ as a fraud, the non-believers traveled to Yathrib, which would, ironically, become Medina some time later. In Yathrib, Muhammad's ﷺ aggressors met with Jewish doctors and rabbis. They explained their situation to the Jews, stressing their doubts regarding Muhammad's ﷺ prophethood and doing everything they could to paint him as a liar and a threat to Jewish traditions. Siding with the non-believers in their mission to defame Muhammad, the Jewish doctors and rabbis are said to have told them:
"They [the rabbis] said, 'Ask him about three things which we will tell you to ask, and if he answers them then he is a Prophet who has been sent; if he does not, then he is saying things that are not true, in which case how you will deal with him will be up to you. Ask him about some young men in ancient times, what was their story for theirs is a strange and wondrous tale. Ask him about a man who traveled a great deal and reached the east and the west of the earth. What was his story and ask him about the Ruh (soul or spirit) – what is it? If he tells you about these things, then he is a Prophet, so follow him, but if he does not tell you, then he is a man who is making things up, so deal with him as you see fit."
Upon their return to Mecca, the non-believers tracked down Muhammad ﷺ and asked these questions as instructed. To the surprise of nobody, Muhammad ﷺ did not have immediate answers to the three questions put to him. Nor should he have, even if he were a prophet. After all, his knowledge of such matters came from Allah and he could not receive information regarding them without praying. After explaining this to his aggressors, Muhammad ﷺ vowed he would have in-depth answers to all three of their questions the following day. Crucially, Muhammad ﷺ did not add "Inshallah" - translating to "God willing" or "if God wills" - to his promise. As such, when the next day arrived, he had to concede that he had not received revelation regarding the stories outlined by the Jews in Yathrib. Naturally, many of his followers were disheartened by this and grew suspicious of him. Meanwhile, his critics rejoiced, believing they had finally unmasked Muhammad ﷺ as a fraud and vanquished Islam from Mecca and, therefore, the world. One can only imagine, then, how dismayed his aggressors were when he reemerged two weeks later with Surah Al-Kahf upon his lips.
When the non-believers sought the assistance of the Yathrib Jews in derailing the spread of Islam, they were told to ask Muhammad ﷺ about three traditions which were uniquely Jewish and Christian. In Surah Al-Kahf, Muhammad ﷺ presented four stories which largely answered their questions. You'll find a summary of each of the stories of Al-Kahf below.
The first and, arguably, most memorable story outlined in Surah Al-Kahf is that of The People of the Cave. Those who are familiar with Jewish and Christian scripture may recognize The People of the Cave as The Seven Sleepers. The general consensus among Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scholars is that The Seven Sleepers is indeed the story the Yahtrib Jews advised the Meccan non-believers to ask Muhammad ﷺ about. The People of the Cave tells the story of "some youth who were of old". Fearing persecution for their religious beliefs, they took refuge in a cave outside the Ancient Greek city of Ephesus. Once they were safely hidden in the cave, Allah placed them into a slumber which lasted several hundred years. A small portion of the story of the People of the Cave as told by the Quran reads as follows:
"[The youths said to one another], 'And when you have withdrawn from them and that which they worship other than Allah, retreat to the cave. Your Lord will spread out for you of His mercy and will prepare for you from your affair facility.' And [had you been present], you would see the sun when it rose, inclining away from their cave on the right, and when it set, passing away from them on the left, while they were [laying] within an open space thereof. That was from the signs of Allah . He whom Allah guides is the [rightly] guided, but he whom He leaves astray - never will you find for him a protecting guide. And you would think them awake, while they were asleep. And We turned them to the right and to the left, while their dog stretched his forelegs at the entrance. If you had looked at them, you would have turned from them in flight and been filled by them with terror. And similarly, We awakened them that they might question one another. Said a speaker from among them, 'How long have you remained [here]?' They said, 'We have remained a day or part of a day.' They said, 'Your Lord is most knowing of how long you remained. So send one of you with this silver coin of yours to the city and let him look to which is the best of food and bring you provision from it and let him be cautious. And let no one be aware of you.'"
-Quran, 18:16 - 19
The Quran's full account of the People of the Cave takes up a significant portion of Surah Al-Kahf. Although the Quran never states the exact number of youth who were holed up inside the cave, we can safely assume the story is that of the Seven Sleepers of Christian tradition. The parallels between the two accounts are two similar for anybody to argue that the Yathrib Jews were referencing a different "strange and wondrous tale".
In advising the non-believers of Mecca, the Jewish authorities of Yathrib told them to ask Muhammad ﷺ about "a man who traveled a great deal". This is a rather vague description and could have been in reference to a number of Jewish and Christian tales. In fact, it may be that the Jews were intentionally vague. In theory, their lack of clarity would have allowed his aggressors to claim they were thinking about a different story involving "a man who traveled a great deal", even if he had successfully recounted such a story. Muhammad ﷺ may not have suspected such a tactic, but Allah certainly did. For that reason, He revealed not one, but two stories concerning well-traveled men in Surah Al-Kahf.
The first of these stories follows Dhul al-Qarnayn. Translating to "He of the Two Horns", Dhul al-Qarnayn is the name given to an unspecified though righteous king. He was an extensive traveler and spent much of his life exploring the world. On the last leg of his journey, Dhul al-Qarnayn discovered a society which had long been oppressed by the evil people of Gog and Magog. Desperate for release from their aggressors, the people of this society pleaded with Dhul al-Qarnayn to build a wall between their world and Gog and Magog. A portion of Surah Al-Kahf describes the ensuing events as follows:
"They said, 'O Dhul-Qarnayn, indeed Gog and Magog are [great] corrupters in the land. So may we assign for you an expenditure that you might make between us and them a barrier?' He said, 'That in which my Lord has established me is better [than what you offer], but assist me with strength; I will make between you and them a dam. Bring me sheets of iron' - until, when he had leveled [them] between the two mountain walls, he said, 'Blow [with bellows],' until when he had made it [like] fire, he said, 'Bring me, that I may pour over it molten copper.' So Gog and Magog were unable to pass over it, nor were they able [to effect] in it any penetration. [Dhul-Qarnayn] said, 'This is a mercy from my Lord; but when the promise of my Lord comes, He will make it level, and ever is the promise of my Lord true.'"
-Quran, 18:94 - 98
As well as relating the thrilling tale of one of history's greatest adventurers - and, indeed, his greatest feat - the above Quranic extract comes with a warning for all mankind. After successfully erecting the requested barrier between Gog and Magog and the rest of the world, Dhul al-Qarnayn tells his disciples that Allah will one day "make it level". This serves as a reminder that the wall protecting us from the heinous ways of Gog and Magog will one day cease to exist. Its abolishment is considered to be one of the first signs of the impending apocalypse and the arrival of the Day of Judgment.
Dhul al-Qarnayn is not the only seasoned traveler remembered in Surah Al-Kahf. The Surah also tells a story from the life of the prophet Moses, known in Islam as Musa. Moses' journey as outlined in Surah Al-Khaf begins in another tale from his life which is not included in the Surah. In that tale, Moses lectures the Children of Israel and boasts that he is the most learned man in the world. Unsurprisingly, Moses' pride did not sit well with Allah, who was quick to chastise the prophet. Allah reminded Moses that his knowledge came from Him and could just as easily be taken away from Him. Subsequently, Allah commanded Moses to travel to the two seas. There, he would find a man who was more knowledgeable than he. And so Moses set off on his journey, just as Allah had instructed him. It is this journey that is related in Surah Al-Khaf. A portion of Moses' story as told by Surah Al-Khaf reads as follows:
"And [mention] when Moses said to his servant, 'I will not cease [traveling] until I reach the junction of the two seas or continue for a long period.' But when they reached the junction between them, they forgot their fish, and it took its course into the sea, slipping away. So when they had passed beyond it, [Moses] said to his boy, 'Bring us our morning meal. We have certainly suffered in this, our journey, [much] fatigue.' He said, 'Did you see when we retired to the rock? Indeed, I forgot [there] the fish. And none made me forget it except Satan - that I should mention it. And it took its course into the sea amazingly'. [Moses] said, 'That is what we were seeking.' So they returned, following their footprints. And they found a servant from among Our servants to whom we had given mercy from us and had taught him from Us a [certain] knowledge. Moses said to him, 'May I follow you on [the condition] that you teach me from what you have been taught of sound judgment?'"
-Quran, 18:60 - 66
The journey made by Moses in the above extract is often described as being one of knowledge. While it is indeed true that Moses traveled far and wide in hopes of obtaining greater wisdom, the journey discussed in Surah Al-Khaf is also one of retribution. Before setting out on his journey, Moses exhibited great pride when he boasted to be the most intelligent man on Earth. He also displayed a notable lack of respect for Allah when he failed to attribute his intelligence to Him. By accepting Allah's reproach and traversing the land as commanded, Moses reaffirmed his loyalty to his creator and redeemed himself in the eyes of Allah.
The stories of Moses, Dhul al-Qarnayn, and the Seven Sleepers are discussed in great detail in Surah Al-Khaf. Together, they make up the bulk of the Surah's content. However, there is also an oft-overlooked story in Surah Al-Khaf which we would be remiss not to mention here. The story is that of a man who owned two beautiful gardens. The Quran speaks of the man's immense pride and disregard for anything but his gardens and the renown they brought him, saying:
"And present to them an example of two men: We granted to one of them two gardens of grapevines, and We bordered them with palm trees and placed between them [fields of] crops. Each of the two gardens produced its fruit and did not fall short thereof in anything. And We caused to gush forth within them a river. And he had fruit, so he said to his companion while he was conversing with him, 'I am greater than you in wealth and mightier in [numbers of] men.' And he entered his garden while he was unjust to himself. He said, 'I do not think that this will perish - ever. And I do not think the Hour will occur. And even if I should be brought back to my Lord, I will surely find better than this as a return.'"
-Quran, 18:32 - 36
In the above extract, Allah clearly states that the man's gardens were a gift from Him. Their beauty had nothing to do with the man himself and everything with Allah's decision to bestow good fortunes upon him. Blinded by pride, the misguided gardener failed to understand this, even as his friend pleaded with him to acknowledge Allah as the giver of all things. As such, the Quran goes on to tell us that Allah destroyed the man's gardens as punishment for his arrogance. Only then did he understand the importance of respecting Allah and acknowledging Him as the source of all things.
A recurring theme in the stories of Al-Kahf is powerful men being reprimanded by Allah for their arrogance. The man who owned two beautiful gardens saw his wealth taken from him by Allah. Meanwhile, Moses boasted of his unsurpassed intelligence, only to be chastised by Allah and commanded to travel the Earth until he found a man who was more intelligent than he. The inclusion of these stories in Surah Al-Kahf is no accident. As well as warning the rest of the world against the dangers of pride, these stories served to remind Muhammad of what awaited him if he failed to attribute his power and knowledge to Allah. He already did that once when he promised to answer the questions of the non-believers on the morrow, without following his promise with "Inshallah". As this was his first transgression of this kind, Muhammad faced the relatively minor punishment of being embarrassed and conceding a temporary victory to his enemies. However, the stories of Surah Al-Kahf no doubt dissuaded him from making such a prideful error again. And as if those stories weren't enough, Surah Al-Kahf also includes a personal reproach of Muhammad. It reads:
"And never say of anything, 'Indeed, I will do that tomorrow,' except [when adding], 'If Allah wills.' And remember your Lord when you forget [it] and say, 'Perhaps my Lord will guide me to what is nearer than this to right conduct.'"
-Quran, 18:23 - 24
Although this commandment was directed towards and, therefore, most relevant to Muhammad, it was also intended as a commandment for all of his followers. As such, today's Muslims are encouraged to precede any declarations of intent with the word "Inshallah".Only by doing so can we remind ourselves that even the most carefully laid plans cannot come to fruition without the will of Allah.
Surah Al-Kahf is among the most commonly recited Surahs in the Quran. This is largely due to its wide-ranging content, which contributes significantly to core Islamic doctrine and traditions. However, its popularity can also be traced back to Muhammad's very specific commandments that Surah Al-Kahf should be read and recited by all capable Muslims every Friday. One Hadith recalling Muhammad's fondness for this particular Surah goes as follows:
"Abu Sa'id Al-Khudri reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said 'Whoever recites Surat al-Kahf on Friday will have a light between this Friday and the next.'"
There is also a long-standing Islamic tradition that memorizing Surah Al-Kahf in its entirety is one of the most surefire ways to protect oneself from the deceptions of the Anti-Christ and all of his false promises. It is important to remember, however, that it is not enough to simply read or memorize Surah Al-Kahf. Islamic scholars are in agreement that to fully experience the benefits of the Surah, one must fully understand it. This means reading it repeatedly and taking notes. When necessary, one should also seek out commentaries on Surah Al-Kahf to ensure they develop the most comprehensive understanding of its contents.
Although all Surahs of the Quran are of incredible importance, it's difficult to think of one which contributes more to the doctrine and traditions of Islam than Surah Al-Kahf. It speaks of an old Christian story, that of the Seven Sleepers, from which the Surah also takes its name. This alone would render Surah Al-Kahf mammothly significant, as it bridges the gap between Muslims and Christians. Of course, Surah Al-Kahf doesn't stop there. It goes on to detail the building of the wall between mankind and Gog and Magog, warning us that it will one day come tumbling down as a sign of the impending Day of Judgment. The Surah also warns of the dangers of pride, telling us that even prophets can fall victim to it. In doing so, Surah Al-Kahf eradicates the idea that prophets are without flaws, thus humanising Muhammad and making his teachings more accessible. Finally, Surah Al-Kahf introduces the commandment of remembering Allah when making plans, through the declaration "Inshallah". Today, this is a cornerstone of the Muslim religion. Surah Al-Kahf's contributions to Islam as we know it cannot be understated. Nor can the benefits of reading and reciting its contents, particularly on a Friday. In doing so, one will secure Allah's favor for the week ahead. That is, of course, God willing.