Monday, November 16, 2009

The Cave of the Seven Sleepers

The Cave of the Seven Sleepers
The Ashab ul-Kahf

IT was a hot August afternoon in ‘Amman and Salim, sipping from his ever-present bottle of water, was driving Nader and me to one of the city’s greatest archeological treasures, the Cave of the Seven Sleepers. It is situated about 10 kilometres from the modern Jordanian capital and is next to the modern mosque of the village of Rajib on the road to Sabah.

According to the Jordanian archeologist, Rafiq ad-Dajani, “Rajib” is a localised version of the word “Raqim”, which is the word used in Surat ul-Kahf (The Chapter of the Cave) in the Qur’an that was revealed while the Prophet Muhammad (s) was in Mecca. It is generally believed to mean “inscription” and I had heard Jordanians calling the place Kahf ul-Raqim, the Cave of the Inscription.

Caves have played a significant and deeply symbolic role in divine history. In Jerusalem, for example, there is a grotto below the Dome of the Rock where the prophets Abraham and Zacharias are said to have made their devotions. This cave, rich in allegory, is called the “Well of the Souls”.

A cursory look at the stories of the prophets will reveal that they are strewn with spelaeological references. Abraham’s distinguished nephew, Lot, lived in a cavern near Bab udh-Dhra1 on the shores of the Dead Sea after the overturning of Sodom and Gomorrah. The prophet Ilyas (Elijah) hid in a cave in Samaria from King Ahab and the wiles of Queen Jezebel. While there, he passed on his spiritual secrets to his successor, al-Yasa’ (Elisha) – the youth from Sidon.

There is a version of the Qisas al-Anbiyyah (the Stories of the Prophets) that tells us Abraham, the great father of the prophets, was born in the same “Cave of Light” that Nuh (Noah) and Idris (Enoch) were brought into the world. This cave is said to be near Damascus at a place called Barza.

The authors of the Qisas say that Abraham was miraculously transported with his mother to this retreat, which was four days travel from his native city of Ur, so that the dictator Nimrod could not kill him. At the time the Babylonian tyrant was slaughtering all newly-born infants, terrified by a dream in which he had seen himself eclipsed by Prophetic light.

The bodies of many of the illustrious prophets have also been interred in caves. Shortly after Prophet Muhammad’s (s) death, his Companions located the unsullied bodies of Hud and Danyal (as) in underground chambers. Abraham (as) and his son Isaac lie in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron as does Yusuf, or Joseph, whose body historians believe was taken from Egypt to Palestine by Yush’a, or Joshua (as). Jews believe that the Cave of the Patriarchs is the portal to Heaven.

Then there is a tradition related by the Prophet Muhammad (s) about three men from previous times who took shelter in a cave for the night. A storm broke out, causing a rockfall to seal them inside. Each man indulged in tawassul, invoking the favour of his Creator through the stations of his good deeds and Allah – the most Merciful –opened the mouth of the cave by degrees until the men were able to escape being entombed.

Muslims, of course, will remember the cave of Hira on Jabl Nur (the Mount of Light) above Mecca where the Prophet Muhammad (s) performed seclusion and received his first Qur’anic revelation. Jabl Thawr is another locale resplendent with metaphor. It was near the summit of this mountain outside the Noble City that the Prophet (s) hid from the pursuing Quraish with Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, his most trusted Companion.

Some Shaikhs say that the Prophet (s) bestowed Abu Bakr (ra) with spiritual gifts during their time in this cave. The miracle of the spider-web, the pigeon’s nest and the mature acacia tree that grew overnight – and screened the men from their pursuers’ line of vision – is well known.

The tale of the Ashab ul-Kahf, however, is thematically representative of one of mankind’s oldest allegories – a scenario where a person falls into a supernatural slumber and then awakes years later largely unaware of what has happened. The prophetic historian, Ibn Kathir, reports that the prophet ‘Uzair (Ezra) and his donkey slept for one hundred years before being awoken, and that another messenger of Allah, Aramiyyah (Jeremiah), went into a similar repose for seventy years.

But back to the Sleepers of the Cave – where research reveals that historians cite versions of it in Greek, German, Jewish, Norwegian, Indian, Chinese and Slav traditions. In Europe, Catholics commemorate the event on the 27 July and in Sweden and Germany, it is believed that if it rains on that day, seven further weeks of rain will follow. The Orthodox Church honours the date towards the end of October.

The historian, Edward Gibbons, encounters the saga of the Sleepers in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” at the end of Chapter 33. Even the American author, Washington Irving, borrows from the sleeper’s theme in his 1820 novel, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in which the white-bearded Rip van Winkle is the central character.

During Byzantine times the tradition was known as the “Sleepers of Ephesus” and was a popular tale. In written form it can be traced back to the fifth century and the quill of the Syrian, James of Sarugh. It was brought to western eyes in Latin by a church deacon called Theodosius in 525 CE.

Gregory of Tours

Gregory of Tours, who gave a full account of the event in his “Gloria Martyrum” (the Glory of the Martyrs) a few years later, penned the better known version. Christian scholars concur that the first written account of the tradition must have been authored within a single generation of the event itself.

The Scriptural story mentions several popular youths who during the third century were employed at the royal palace in Ephesus, one of the outposts of the Roman Empire. This was during the brief reign of Decianus or Daqyanus, a tyrant who like the archetypal Nimrod and the Pharaoh, had insisted his subjects indulge in polytheism.

The tradition relates that after discovering the monotheistic belief of the city's key personnel, Daqyanus demands that they renounce their faith. There is an imperial standoff when the youths refuse to do so. Regarding the Companions as “special cases”, the Emperor delays a decision on their fate, and giving them a brief ultimatum, leaves Ephesus on business.

The God-fearing companions then give away their property to the poor except for a few silver coins and seek the refuge of a cave attended by a faithful dog. Upon returning from his journey, Daqyanus inquires after the young men who in the meantime have fallen into a deep sleep.

The persistent Emperor sends soldiers to find the youths and when it is reported to him that they are reposing in a cave, he sadistically orders his troops to seal them inside. Shortly afterwards two citizens of Ephesus, Theodore and Rufinus, write an account of the incident on a tablet and hide it amongst the stones – hence the cave being called Kahf ul-Raqim, the Cave of the Inscription.

Instead of dying a slow and agonising death, the young men remain in a heavenly slumber for about two hundred years. This until a shepherd looking for a shelter near the grotto proceeds to remove the rocks sealing the entrance. The activity is said to disturb the youths and they wake up, thinking that they have only been asleep for a short while.

They then decide to send one of their number, Yamliha (other sources cite Iamblicus, Malcus or Diomedes), to the nearby town to buy bread. Their companion is instructed to be careful and courteous, and not to attract any undue attention. Yamliha is dumbfounded to discover a changed landscape and that monotheism (previously outlawed) appears to be openly practised.

Of course, the desire of the Sleepers that they remain anonymous is wishful thinking. People disappearing for centuries, simply rubbing the sleep out of their eyes and then returning as if nothing had ever happened, cannot expect to pass unobserved.

Hidden treasure

Not surprisingly, the youth causes a great commotion when he tenders his now antique silver coins (with Daqyanus’ head on them) in the village bakery. People think he has discovered a hidden treasure and, since it is unlawful not to report any such finds to the authorities, Yamliha is dragged before the proconsul to explain who he is.

To his great distress, Yamliha cannot find any witnesses to prove that he is a prominent citizen of Ephesus. Finally, in fear and horror, he falls to his knees and pleads: “In God's name, tell me what I ask! Where is Emperor Daqyanus now, who yesterday was in this city?”

Marinus, the local bishop who had joined the curious throng, answers him: “My son, in the whole earth there is no Emperor called Daqyanus, only in olden times was there such a one.”

It soon becomes apparent to the crowd that something extraordinary is afoot. After much explanation, officials accompany Yamliha to the cave and find his wondrous tale the truth when the other youths appear, their faces described as being as fresh as “flowers at dawn”.

Some renditions of the story relate that the Raqim, the tablet describing the martyrdom of the Seven, is also discovered.

The Emperor, Theodosius II, is said to be overjoyed at the news of the Sleepers’ miraculous awakening. He had been facing a strong challenge to the creed of resurrection and the miracle of the Ashab ul-Kahf had eloquently silenced its detractors.

Most medieval versions of the story next relate that the Sleepers pass away after having met the Emperor. The joyful Byzantine monarch, desirous of building golden tombs for them, is told in a dream to bury them in the cave.

The Qur’an further mentions that there was debate as to whether a building or church be built over the cave. And here, the generic Arabic word “masjid” is used, with the majority deciding a place of worship (a masjid) be constructed over the Sleepers.

By 1600 CE, the tradition – once the spiritual cornerstone of the Unitarian Church – had been thrown into the trashcan of mythology by the Catholic Cardinal, Caesar Baronius. Legend or not, however, Christian accounts of the event show remarkable convergence with the Qur’anic version.

Interestingly, the English Qur’anic translator and scholar, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, emphatically locates the story within Jewish lore, as the Qur’anic Revelation had been an answer to questions posed by Rabbis to Muhammad (s). He writes:

"There is no reason whatsoever to doubt the truth of the tradition, which connects this chapter (Surat ul–Kahf), with three questions set by Jewish Rabbis..."

Pickthall continues:

"That being so it would be rash to identify the story with that of the Christian Seven Sleepers; it must belong, as the story of the ‘Two-Horned One” actually does, to Rabbinical lore".

While the Qur’an tantalisingly suggests that previous scholars conclude that there could have been three, five or seven sleepers (plus the dog), it does add somewhat cryptically:

"Those who know (the truth) about them are very few".

Today, though, consensus seems to be that there were Seven Sleepers. The great Prophetic scholar ibn Abbas (ra) reports that Sayyidina ‘Ali, the final of the four rightly guided Caliphs and one of the spiritually adept5 mentioned above, told him there were Seven Companions. The Qur’an also says that the Sleepers could have tarried in the cave for 300 solar years (or 309 lunar years) but that ultimately only Allah, the Omnipresent, really knows.

Direct response to a question

In fact, as we have indicated, the verses referring to the Cave (9-26) were sent down in direct response to a question by Jewish Arabs. In verse 23 Allah Himself tells the Muslims not to be lead astray from the truth of His message by impudent, uninformed scholars on how many had sojourned in the Cave.

In fact, Sayyidina ‘Ali (ra) reported to ibn ‘Abbas that Seven Companions plus the dog had resided in the Cave. He goes on to mention the names of the young men as: Yamliha, Makthalina, Mashlina, Marnush, Darbanush, Zazanush and Kaferstatyush.

As officers of court, Yamliha, Makthalina and Mashlina had sat on the right hand side of the King and Marnush, Darbanush and Zazanush on his left side. The name of the person, a shepherd, who had led them to the Cave, was Kaferstatyush.

The dog in the narrative is called Qitmir and there are scholars who say that he, together with the likes of the she-camel of Salih (as) and the pigeon of Noah, will be amongst the animals of Paradise. The symbolism of the watchful and faithful canine, sleeping with his forepaws stretched out towards the mouth of the cave, has inspired extensive commentary.

Ibn ‘Abbas also notes that the names of the Ashab ul-Kahf possess rukya, or spiritually protective capacities, for those who firmly believe in the Power and Oneness of their Creator. The Companions of the Cave are so beloved to Allah that invocation through the goodness of their names (obviously without worshipping them)will give relief from fire and oppressive authority. It will also cool the fever of a child, or ease a difficult pregnancy.

Scholars of tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis) unanimously confirm that because Surat ul-Kahf comments directly on the famous story, it abrogates all previous speculation about it. For Muslims, at least, the Holy Book confirms beyond any reasonable doubt that the event (whether Christian or Jewish in tradition) is not myth, and did actually happen.

Suddenly, Nader interrupted my train of thought. He pointed through the car window to a honeycomb of holes exposed in a limestone embankment cut away for road construction. “Shafiq, look, those are two thousand year-old Byzantine tombs.” Evidently, the whole neighbourhood had once been a burial ground.

The famous Cave is situated on a hill that is now on the outer fringes of ‘Amman’s ugly urban sprawl. There were few people around as we entered the dusty precincts of the Ashab ul-Kahf. The stumps of massive square stone pilasters indicated that a large Byzantine structure, presumably a church, must have once incorporated the Cave as a focal point of devotion.

A prayer-niche – a mihrab – and a small stone pulpit were built into the remains of an outer southern wall, but were not convincing in proportion. They seemed to be an architectural afterthought, possibly when the basilica was probably later changed into a mosque. In some ways, the structure was faintly reminiscent of the Grand Ummayad masjid in Damascus, also a converted Byzantine church.

On the roof of the Cave were the remnants of another mosque, the stubs of two weathered pillars framing its ancient, now knee-high prayer niche that today commanded a view over a truck yard, some ugly flats and the distant, shimmering countryside.

Upon returning home and further researching the matter, I discovered that the Jordanian archeologist, Rafiq ad-Dajani, and his journalist colleague, Muhammad Taisir Zibyan, concurred. In their famous dig of 1961, which re-established the importance of the site, they had found Byzantine coins dating back to the Emperor Justinian (517 - 527 CE).

More significantly, after removing soil debris from the roof of the cave, they had unearthed a mosque that had hitherto been hidden from view by centuries of silt. Apart from the prominent mihrab, they located the foundations of a small minaret, four Byzantine pillars, and an inscription stating that the mosque had been renovated by the son of Ahmad ibn Tulun.

According to their findings, this one-hundred square metre Byzantine church had probably been converted into a mosque by the Ummayad Khalifah, ‘Abd-ul Malik ibn Marwan, the same man who had built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in 685 CE.

Interestingly, the mouth of the Cave pointed south towards the Qiblah, or Mecca. The indented mihrab of the mosque on top of its roof confirmed this. I wrestled with my camera bag for a wide-angle lens. It was quite something to consider that the Seven Sleepers had faced Makkah long before the Prophet (s) had been ordered to change his prayer direction from Jerusalem.

Of course, there are those who will disagree that the Cave is located in Jordan. The Qur’anic translator, Yusuf ‘Ali, claims that it is in Turkey and argues that Ephesus, near the modern Turkish city of Izmir, is the place. His viewpoint, however, does not find much favour in the Arab-speaking world.

Whether this can be ascribed to the Arab’s inherent dislike of anything Turkish – as a consequence of having being colonised by the Ottomans – or the Turks preferring to honour Ephesus as the site, is difficult to ascertain. If the latter was the case, then the ‘Amman location would have been largely neglected for over five centuries.

Ephesus (or Tarsus) was formerly a sacred city and commercial centre that had housed one of the Grecian era’s Seven Wonders of the World, the spectacularly colonnaded temple of Artemis where the statue of the multi-bosomed moon goddess, Diana, had once attracted worshippers.

It is recorded that Saint Paul had spent three years preaching his gospel in Ephesus before moving on to Macedonia, and that the marauding Goths sacked the city in about 260 CE. It can be argued that during Byzantine rule Ephesus was regarded as of little importance. On the other hand, when the Sleepers defied the Emperor Daqyanus, ‘Amman (or Philadelphia) had been part of the Roman Decapolis for over a hundred years.

In 1928 an Austrian archeologist, Franz Miltner, discovered what he believed were the tombs of the Seven Sleepers in the floor of an old church in Ephesus. Yusuf ‘Ali, who published his first translation of the Qur’an in 1934, could have been convinced by Miltner’s claims.

He quotes the verse in Surat ul-Kahf that says:

"You would have seen the sun, when it rose, declining to the right from their Cave, and when it set, turning away from them to the left while they lay in the open space in the midst of their Cave..."

The venerable ‘Ali – who travelled to Ephesus – writes that if the youths lay facing north, the sun would not be able to penetrate the Turkish cave. His study is a thorough one, right down to the latitude of Ephesus, 38 degrees north. Yet the cave in Jordan, the one outside which I was standing, was nearly 1, 000 kilometres from Ephesus and faced southeast.

Long shadows

It was only when I returned to South Africa and processed my photos that I thought about the matter again. We had visited the Ashab ul-Kahf in mid afternoon and in one picture, the pillars near the mouth of the Cave were beginning to throw long shadows across the ground.

Looking towards the mouth of the Cave, the sun was starting to fall to my left shoulder, the western arc of the sunset. It was then that it struck me! If I faced the Cave, the sun would move from my right as it rose overhead and then drop to the left as it sank towards the horizon. This seemed to fit comfortably into the Qur’anic description.

But, it was not going to be as easy as that! I had also read opinion that located the Cave near Petra some 200 kilometers south of ‘Amman. This was probably because Petra (or Betra) is often known in Arabic as “Raqim.” The Nabateans, descendants of the people of prophet Salih (as), had carved huge tombs and inscriptions into the cliffs and caves of the red-hued wadi Musa. However, when I later visited Petra none of the local Badu seemed to be too impressed by the idea of the Seven Sleepers residing there.

Ephesus, on the other hand, had always been a popular destination for pilgrimage as St Paul had preached in the city. A ninth century writer even notes that visitors to the Turkish cave had been shown “seven incorrupt bodies”. A Russian pilgrim, Abbot Daniel, following the same route three centuries later had observed the same. These are curious details not included in ‘Ali's meticulously researched footnotes.

Nevertheless, it did make me think of a scriptural maxim: “faith without works is dead.” Certainly, to enhance spiritual focus, it would have been perfectly natural for Christianity to nurture a place of remembrance for the Sleepers, those pious youths who so dramatically reinforced the creed of the Resurrection.

And, even if Ephesus (or anywhere else) proved to be a disputed location, so what! Hussain, the illustrious grandson of the Prophet (s), is lovingly canonised in Cairo, Kufa and Mazaar Sharif. Shaikh Yusuf of Makasar, the great Indonesian saint, has graves in Cape Town, Sri Lanka and Lakiung. The prophet Yusha’ or Joshua (as) has three shrines (or maqams8) in Jordan, one on the Golan Heights and one in Palestine. If anything, the mercy and memory of these remarkable personalities has been enhanced.

In the case of the Sleepers it was so widespread a narrative that it should not come as a surprise to us that Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and even Tunisia, lay claims to the tradition as well. A cave in Damascus on Mount Qaysun, or Salera Hill, is situated in a profoundly historical neighbourhood. To this effect, an article in the Afghan Voice entitled “Folklore and Folk Music” notes that in order to reinforce their belief, rural people will often “localise” their religion.

The author writes that the story of the Sleepers in Afghanistan is a good example. While the accepted site of the cave may be in Jordan, or even elsewhere in the Middle East, one also exists near Maimuna in Afghanistan. It is watched over by a group calling themselves the sa’adat (the descendents of the Holy Prophet). Their story is oral tradition at its enchanting best. It is paraphrased thus:

Several young men

Several young men seeking heavenly truth are put into a divine repose by Allah to await the arrival of the final Revelation. They slumber on for 600 years until the archangel Jibril informs the Prophet Muhammad (s) about the pious Sleepers.

The Prophet (s) then orders his four closest Companions to “fly” to the cave. In the meantime, the Sleepers are awakened in preparation for the big moment. At a local bazaar they become bewildered when no one wants to accept their antiquated money.

The subsequent arrival of the Holy Prophet's noble Companions clears up the Sleeper's confusion as they are instructed in the tenets of Islam. They are offered the sanctuary of Madinah but instead look at each other and say: “What have we to offer when we have gained so much? Allah has preserved us to learn the true Message, so all that remains is Paradise.”

In so doing, the devout youths return to their cave with their faithful dog, and Allah in His wisdom, puts their bodies back to sleep and transports their souls to Paradise. The Companions occult themselves back to the Prophet (s) and inform him of the miracle they have just witnessed. He asks of them: “How many Sleepers were there?”

While the noble Prophet’s audience listens in wonderment, ‘Ali (ra) says there are four, Abu Bakr maintains there are five, ‘Umar insists there are six and ‘Uthman quietly reports that there are seven. To all of this the pensive Muhammad (s) simply replies:

“The ways of Allah are wondrous, and only He knows how many Sleepers there are. Only He knows when one will awaken. The world is full of seekers and only Allah knows their number and when they will arise.”

Imbued with entertaining mysticism and poetic licence, Afghani lore certainly does no harm to the central tradition.

From Yemen comes another compelling account of the Ashab ul–Kahf. On the slopes of Saber Mountain near Taiz is a village called al-Miqab where locals believe the Seven Companions resided. Chenini in Tunisia is yet one more appealing rural locality endowed with its own tradition of the Sleepers who grew to four metres in size.

“Shafiq, where must I stand?” Nader, who had by now got used to the eccentricities of travelling with a dreamy photographer, was already posing for a picture. A keen amateur photographer himself, he was becoming quite an expert at finding me camera angles.

We were now at the entrance of the Cave. To one side was an olive tree that had been planted amongst the ancient ruins. It had apparently regenerated from a much older stump. A weathered decorative frontage and sculpted pillars framed the doorway. The Cave itself was situated on a gently sloping ridge just below the expansive summit of one of ‘Amman’s innumerable hills.

Location of cave

If one considered that Kahf ul-Raqim was 10 kilometres south of the city, locating this particular cave in Roman times would have been almost impossible. It must have cost the despotic Daqyanus much in resources and men to find the youths.

Another cave very similar to the one in ‘Amman can be found near Umm Qais, an ancient Roman town that is called Gadara in the Bible. In this northwestern corner of Jordan is an underground chamber where Jesus is believed to have sheltered from the Romans. It is relatively unspoiled and gives one a good idea of how well camouflaged the Sleepers’ Cave would have been over 1, 600 years ago.

Entering the cool interior of the Cave I noticed that three barrel-vaulted recesses had been carved into the limestone. The rock was worn smooth and sometime in the past the chamber had been whitewashed, the remaining painted areas flaking off walls blackened by the smoke of ancient oil lamps. Now electrical fluorescent tubes illuminated the scene.

In the east and west recesses were sealed waist-high stone sarcophagi with Byzantine motifs. One had the old Christian octagon carved into its side, a sign that is frequently mistaken for the six-sided Star of David.

My notebooks (and photographs) remind me that there were four tombs and that the second crypt to the right had two holes crudely gouged into it. On top of it was a worn tablet with indistinct Kufic lettering. I noticed that it looked as if the tombs had been sealed in more recent times, ostensibly to prevent the overly inquisitive from prying them open.

And here was a conundrum – I could only see four graves or, at least, four large sarcophagi. Most Jordanian guidebooks confidently say there are eight tombs, even the information board in the cave! My brow furrowed. The sarcophagi were big – perhaps big enough to house more than one body?

I approached the tomb with the openings at its head and could see that a light bulb was theatrically illuminating the inside of the crypt. I bent down and in an eerie Masonic tapestry, saw several battered skulls on top of a pile of old bones.

Were these the remains of the Seven Sleepers, or just of those wishing to be interred near the Ashab ul-Kahf as a final blessing? It is agreed amongst Islamic scholars that a unique phenomenon of anyone blessed with Prophethood, sainthood, or genuine martyrdom, is that Allah forbids nature to decompose their corpse.

Eastern Christianity happily accords with this. Coptic monks will attest that the bodies of their ancient holy men entombed in their monasteries are whole and undefiled, and even after hundreds of years, still emit the sweet smell of musk.

In all likelihood, and considering the above-mentioned opinion of Islamic scholars, the bodies of the Companions of the Cave should still be as fresh as the day they passed away. The Qur’an itself declares that the Companions had been increased in Divine guidance through their faith, imbuing them with the kind of spiritual rank associated with sainthood.

Were the Seven still somehow in this Cave? I did catch a whiff of a heavenly fragrance as I stood up from the crypt, but then, a visitor could have placed ‘itr, or perfume, there. On the other hand, Brewer's Book of Phrase and Fable casually notes that the bodies of the Sleepers were taken by the Crusaders to the French city of Marseilles and then interred in a stone coffin in “Victor's church”.

There is another theory that the Seven Sleepers will awaken during the last days of the earth and will join forces with the Mahdi (an imam from the bloodline of Muhammad) and Jesus to fight the evil squads of Dajjal, the one-eyed anti-Christ. If this is the case, then scholars assert that the Sleepers could be in an “occultation” like Jesus, whom the Qur’an declares was not crucified but taken up to Heaven.

There is evidence, however, that the Prophetic Companions must have known something about the Cave. The early scholar ibn ‘Abbas (ra), who relies strongly on the accounts of ‘Ali (ra) and according to the Qur’anic exegete Qurtubi – his own experiences – is the most widely reported source. The fifth Caliph, Mu’awiyyah, is said to have been advised by ibn ‘Abbas not to look for the Sleepers' in case he incurred the wrath of Allah by disturbing them.

There is some mystery added to this, though, as a later Abbasid Caliph, Wathiqah (842 –847 CE) sent emissaries to seek out the cave, but with little success.

I asked Nader exactly why he thought this Cave was believed to be the maqam of the Sleepers. He explained that he had read the writings of the famous historian, al-Waqidi, who recorded that one of the Prophetic Companions, Sa’id ibn ‘Amr, had been sent by the Khalifah ‘Umar (ra) to join another famous Sahabi, ‘Ubaidah ibn Jarrah, who was then commander of the Muslim forces in Sham.

According to the account, Sa’id ibn ‘Amr wandered a little off his route and reached the district of Sabah one evening, encamping there for the night. He woke up for the dawn prayer and afterwards as he watched the sun rise over the hill, began to shout the takbir in a loud voice, “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! (God is Great, God is Great!)”

“This is Raqim Mountain, I know this is Raqim Mountain!” the excited Sa’id ibn ‘Amr is said to have proclaimed to his stunned fellow travellers. After taking them to the site of the Cave, the story then relates that the Sahabi then reached a city that many scholars assert is now modern ‘Amman.

Muhammad Taisir Zibyan, who researched and wrote about the matter forty years ago, further mentions that another Prophetic Companion, Ubada ibn Samit, located the Cave. This happened during the caliphate of Abu Bakr (ra) when ibn Samit was sent as an envoy to the Roman Emperor. In addition, the famous scholar Qurtubi mentions in his Qur’anic exegesis that ibn ‘Abbas (ra) visited the site of the Ashab ul-Kahf.

One of Salahuddin’s generals, Usama ibn Munkiyyaz, also writes about making salah in the cave of the Ashab ul-Kahf with thirty horsemen. In his memoirs entitled “I’tibar” he talks about a narrow opening in the chamber that he did not enter.

In the eastern transept of the Cave in ‘Amman is a small passage that ascends upwards to the roof of the grotto like a chimney. Zibyan is of the opinion that this is what ibn Munkiyyaz was referring to.

Serious interest revived

To my astonishment (at the time) Nader had told me that this historical site had been neglected for many years, even by the Muslims, and that only in 1963 had serious interest in it been revived when Dajani and Taisir had completed their famous dig. He said that the Jordanian government was now reviewing plans to renovate the entire complex.

I secretly hoped that this project would not become a monument to bad taste and spoil the unique spiritual character of Kahf ul-Raqim. On the positive side, though, cautious and considered restoration would preserve the Cave and its archeologically priceless environs for future generations. Ugly, modern buildings were already beginning to encroach on the site. How much had been destroyed already?

In a region where the journalist, historian and activist Sa’ud ibn Mahfudh estimates that there are nearly a 100, 000 ancient historical sites (many still unexplored), Jordanians are somewhat blase, if not sometimes downright dismissive, of their archeological heritage.

I remember visiting an old Ummayad palace located on the highway to the Queen Alia airport and noticing that its missing stones were to be found in the walls of nearby houses. This, of course, is nothing new. Civilisations are frequently built on, or with, the ruins of others before them. The Sulaimaniyyah masjid in Istanbul, for example, “borrowed” a column from Baalbek.

Inside the Cave – standing in the fajwah, or the space where the Sleepers would have rested – I began to think about the incredibly deep significance of the story of the Sleepers. In classical Qur’anic scholarship the mufasirin have discussed it at great length. Any ayah, any verse in the Qur’an is subtly layered with many levels of interpretation, and in this regard, the mystical Surat ul-Kahf is one of the most profound.

To this effect, a learned Shaikh once told me that each letter of the Qur’an was like a drop of dew. To us it would be a lifeless, tiny transparent bead of water – but for the pious each spherule would be a universe of colour and energy.

Numbers also enjoyed significance, and the deep symbolism of seven and the consensus that seven slept in the Cave sprang to mind. For Christianity the number has much resonance: the Seven days of Creation, the Seven Wise Men, the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Champions of the Faith are but a few obvious examples.

In Judaism the number seven enjoys weight as well. Rosh Hashana occurs in the seventh month of the Judaic calendar, Sukkot is a seven day festival, great Jewish historical events are said to be seven, Sabbath is on the seventh day of the week, and the Menorah (the traditional gold candleholder) has seven branches.

But, by acknowledging the authenticity of the story of the Seven Sleepers, the Qur’an allows it to be taken to unprecedented heights of metaphor. There are seven words11 in the utterance of faith “la ilaha ilallah Muhammadur Rasulullah,” seven major veils between the believer and Allah, seven verses in the opening chapter of the Qur’an, and seven gates to Heaven and Hell. The pilgrim circumbulates seven times around the Ka’bah, walks seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah, pelts the jamarat (the devil’s pillar) seven times and, even the human body has seven members.

Before I could get further entangled in my thoughts, Nader touched me on the elbow. “Come let’s go to the mosque, it’s almost time to pray ‘Asr.” We strolled to the mosque, and on the way stopped briefly to admire an ornate Byzantine tomb carved into the limestone. As we entered the mosque precincts, I noticed that in the toilet and ablution area, worshippers were competing for space with the imam’s chickens.

Copyright Shafiq Morton