Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 18: The Cave

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn. 

This surah tells four interesting stories: the story of the Sleepers of the Cave, the parable of the luscious gardens, the story of Moses and the holy man, and the story of Dhu l’Qarnayn, “the two-horned one.”  I will briefly summarize each of these stories.

The story of the Sleepers of the Cave is about a group of devout young monotheists who left their polytheistic culture for religious reasons.  They took refuge in a cave, sort of like monks.  They had a dog to guard the entrance.  These young men then fell asleep, and slept for 300 years, sort of like Rip Van Winkle.  When they woke up and re-emerged, their culture had changed to monotheism, much to their delight.

The parable of the luscious gardens tells of two men whom God blessed with really nice gardens.  One of the men, seeing that his garden produced more fruit than the other, became arrogant and did not give due credit to God, so God destroyed his garden.

The story of Moses and the holy man tells of a time when Moses decided to take a journey to “the place where the two seas meet.”  However, Moses’ servant accidentally lost their fish, and the fish somehow scooted across land to the sea, and swam away.  Hungry and demoralized, Moses and his servant headed back toward home.  While traveling, they met a holy man.  Moses asked if he could accompany this holy man, and learn from him.  The holy man said, “You will not be able to bear with me patiently,” meaning Moses would lack the proper insight and context to understand the holy man’s actions.  Moses said he would be patient, so they traveled together.

Just as the holy man predicted, he did some things that baffled and upset Moses.  When they reached the sea and set off in a boat, the holy man punched a hole in the boat.  A little later, the holy man killed a boy.  Then they arrived in a town where the people refused to give them hospitality.  Instead of retaliating, the holy man fixed one of the walls in the town for free.  When Moses and the holy man parted company, the man explained the context of his actions, so they made more sense (except for killing the boy—his explanation for that one seems a bit thin).

Finally, the surah tells the story of Dhu l’Qarnayn, or “the two-horned one.”  This is not the devil.  Some believe it is Alexander the Great.  The identity of the two-horned one is a subject of scholarly debate.  Anyway, Dhu l’Qarnayn was a person to whom God gave great power—to judge among people, to build strong fortifications, etc.

At the end of the surah is this poetic passage: “If the whole ocean were ink for writing the words of my Lord, it would run dry before the words were exhausted.”  This suggests that God has a lot more stories and insights in mind than can be revealed in any holy book.  There are just too many stories.

The Sleepers of the Cave

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