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This surah was revealed in Makkah at a time when the hostility of the Quraysh, and their fear and hatred of Islam and of the Prophet, were at their height. They adopted every measure to stop the Prophet from preaching and the people from listening to him; soon they would plot to kill him: there are hints in the surah that the command to emigrate to Madinah is imminent.

At the root of the Quraysh’s fear was that they would lose their prestige as the guardians of the Ka`bah. They depended heavily on the pilgrimage to Makkah, which made it an economic hub in the region, and the source and focus of their power and authority over the Arabs. The Quraysh believed that if the Prophet’s preaching was successful, it would mean an end to the attraction of Makkah as a centre of pilgrimage. Man’s ignorance of what is in store for him, his continual misjudgement of the true importance and worth of what he has, in himself and in all that is around him, is the dominant concern of the surah. The Quraysh had not the least inkling that, with the victory of Islam, Makkah would become the greatest centre of pilgrimage in history – in many of the world’s languages, people say of a place ‘this is the mecca for such-and-such’ to mean ‘this is the place everyone turns to for such-and-such’. And indeed, from every part of the earth, millions direct their attention to Makkah for the very reason that the Quraysh feared that they would cease to do so: belief in Allah.

The Jews and Christians of Arabia, as people of the Book, had some knowledge of the true religion, but it did not serve to enlighten their hearts or their conduct. They too were hostile to Islam and chose to side with the Quraysh against the Messenger of Allah. They used their confused and contested (also often fabricated) knowledge of their own traditions to put questions to the Prophet. They intended thereby to trip him up and to prove him false. We have examples in this surah of such questions and the answers that came in the revelation of the Qur’an. The answers demonstrate that the people of knowledge among the people of the Book were, in reality, people of ignorance, an ignorance produced by their ways of seeking knowledge and by the base purposes for which they used the little they acquired.

The final outcome for man of what he is – the value of all that he has and has done, all that he has seen and felt, and thought and understood – is at every moment touched and encompassed by the Unseen. The believers are those described, in Surat al-Baqarah and elsewhere, as yu’minuna bi-l-ghayb: they believe in the Unseen. For that reason, they are enabled to remain wary, anxious guardians of their dependence on the mercy of Allah, and so cannot be long distracted from that by events and outcomes. They strive to be vigilant, mindful, prayerful. They strive to remember that this life, whatever it yields of good or ill, is transient. They try to accept that they cannot rely upon the endurance of any knowledge or power or wealth or contentment that is in their grasp. Nor can they rely on such conditions to produce good, either in this life or the eternal life, except if Allah has willed and enabled that. It may happen, for a part or the whole of a lifetime, that the believers experience dangers, insecurities, losses and hardships, that they do not find wealth or fame or power or any form of success or contentment. But these conditions, no less than their opposites, are likewise, at every moment, touched and encompassed by the Unseen, and the believer is the one who entrusts his deliverance, in this life and the next, to Allah. The principal concern of this surah is to focus our hearts on this fundamental reality – the absolute distinction between human knowledge and power and divine knowledge and power. Only Allah encompasses the Unseen. To believe in Allah bi-l-ghayb means, among other things, to believe in the victory of good even while we do not know the ta’wil of events, their full meaning or reality. The reality of events does not reside in their actuality, in how they are presented in time and place. This is comparable to how the meaning of words – except for primitive cries of pleasure or pain and the like – does not reside in their actuality as letters and sounds, even though we can neither catch nor convey meaning without letters and sounds arranged in intelligible structures.

Allah’s Messenger,  salla l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam, is the model for Muslims of how to live with belief of this calibre: he himself and his Companions and, for all time, his followers, are educated into faith bi-l-ghayb through the Qur’an, its narratives and parables, its warnings and exhortations. So we see this quality of faith lived out in many places in the Book, notably in Surah Yusuf and Surah Yunus. But in Surat al-Kahf,  it is presented with a special intensity that shakes and focuses the heart. The Prophet,  salla l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam, strongly commended reading and pondering this surah.

An overview of the surah may help clarify the arrangement of its major elements:

  1. 1–8. Introduction of the principal theme.

Affirmation that this revelation is from Allah and its guidance is not crooked, i.e., it is straight and consistent, so human lives can be lived in conformity with it, leading to the reward of paradise. The reproach of the people of the Book, who fabricate the tremendous (and absurd) falsehood that Allah has a son. The Prophet’s grieving in his heart that they do not believe in the Qur’an but instead challenge it with their own knowledge. The severe consolation that everything that is in the world is a trial of the worth of human understanding and conduct then is reduced to sterility.

  1. 9–31. The refuge of the persecuted young men in the cave.

The Prophet had been challenged about this. Here the truth is revealed about the young men finding refuge from persecution in a cave. They pray for help and guidance. The miracle is recounted of their long sleep in the cave, how they emerged from it, astonished and astonishing to others. Then, the pointless disputation of sects among the people of the Book about how many the young men were and how long they stayed in the cave. Knowledge of that is only with Allah. The useful knowledge is that the young men were saved from their plight on account of right belief and right conduct; the rest is mere contention and conjecture among rival sects, yielding neither secure nor useful knowledge. Emphatic description of the different fate hereafter of those who believe and those who do not. Those who believe know not to claim knowledge of the Unseen – which must include (as well as events in the far past) planned future events – and they remember to say ‘if Allah has willed’.

  1. 32–59. Neighbouring vineyards: the transience of all this-worldly goods.

Contrasted attitudes of two vineyard owners: one measures his prosperity as greater than his neighbour’s and attributes it to himself, and conjectures that if at all there is a hereafter he will deserve there something even better (misbelief entails the errors of self-love and self-delusion). The other counsels him to remember that all is owed to Allah, hopes for himself that Allah will give him better, and warns his neighbour of the transience of human prosperity. The arrogant one’s vineyard is blighted; he is desperate and without resource or rescue. This cues a powerful evocation of the transience of human affairs by analogy with seasonal growth and fall. Then, recurrent themes of the Qur’an: the creation of man and the high dignity bestowed on him; the choice between, on the one hand, faith and right conduct and its outcome in the Garden, and on the other self-proud autonomy with denial of answerability hereafter and its outcome in the torment of the Fire; the Prophets and Messengers bring hope to the former but must also warn the latter; their guidance is straight (not crooked) but the unbelievers disbelieve as though they desired the fate of the unbelieving townships; Allah is forgiving and merciful, yet (since His mercy must include justice, otherwise there would be no appreciation of how different lives have been lived) when their time comes, the guilty shall face punishment.

  1. 60–82. The journey of Musa, `alayhi s-salam, to the boundary of human knowledge.

Despite the clear lessons from the story of the young men in the cave, these verses have been interpreted through reckless (and, in some respects, pernicious) conjectures. That the one in the role of teaching is named Khadir is sound knowledge, because it comes from the Prophet himself, salla l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam; the rest is speculation. Khadir-like figures feature in the folklore of many traditions, and it may be that the Prophet was challenged about him by the people of the Book, though this is not explicit in the surah.

The invoking of the Last Day cues the final section of the surah, which is a powerful indictment of self-proud, self-righteous autonomy, forgetful that no human could so much as grow a blade of grass if the whole universe, and its immeasurable extent in time and space, had not been created first and prepared for that possibility. Those in this state of mind think themselves powerful and clever, great winners in the struggle of life. They are, in reality, the greatest of losers: Shall we inform you who shall be, by their deeds, the greatest losers: those whose effort goes awry in the life of the world, and still they think that they are doing good work. This seems to us a near-exact description of the inward and outward condition of modern civilisation: its beliefs, structures and purposes are so awry as to threaten the very continuance of life on earth; structures and purposes for which the good in human nature is irrelevant, with the shared, mutual concerns that used to lighten and dignify human effort made a thing for the social history museum. Yet its leaders insist that theirs is the best (or only) way, that they are only doing good, that if some things have turned out wrong they can only be put right from within the same beliefs, structures and purposes that caused them to go awry. Can there be a greater punishment in this life than to live in such a state of ignorance hardened with arrogance? Yet, like Dhu l-Qarnayn’s barrier of rock hardened with molten metal, this life-destructive attitude must one day be brought low.

The surah ends with the reminder that the whole of creation would not suffice to exhaust the knowledge of God. It closes on an expression of perfected humility and purified, strengthened faith, in words that the Messenger is commanded to address to humankind: Say: I am only a mortal like yourselves. My Lord has inspired in me that your God is only the One God. Whoever has good hope of the encounter with his Lord, let him do good deeds, and let him associate none in the worship due to his Lord.

Many have let themselves stray into speculations about Khadir that have no support or authority in the religion. Some have gone so far as to claim that Khadir is a saint and because he is the teacher of Allah’s Messenger, `alayhi l-salam, a saint must have higher rank with Him than His Prophets and Messengers, deeper knowledge, higher powers and authority to do what the law (conveyed by the Messengers) forbids. The actions that Khadir does, by which Musa is outraged or perplexed, are of a kind that happens in the normal course of actual events: moored boats do get damaged – for example, by falling branches or rocks; young lads trip and fall and can break their necks; almost-exposed treasures can become again fully hidden from a variety of causes; people everywhere do good deeds without expectation of payment. These deliberate actions by Khadir are presented to Musa, in the way that they normally present to us, that is, without their ta’wil: we do not understand why they happen as and when they do and are too often unwilling to endure that not-understanding. Knowledge of the ta’wil of events is in the gift of God; it is, by its very nature, from and of the Unseen. Just as we do not fully grasp the reasons and causes for the harms that befall us, we also do not fully grasp the reasons and causes for the good that people become capable of and that we benefit from, and we do not know when they may become good. (Hence the need to reserve judgement, to be forgiving, to continue presenting the way of Islam to people to the extent possible: how long did Nuh, `alayhi l-salam, hold on to hope for his persecutors?) Call to mind the perplexity of Allah’s Messenger, salla l-lahu `alayhi wa-sallam, his tormenting himself that polytheists and people of the Book reject the Qur’an. Then, call to mind the strength and sincerity of soul of those believers around him who held to their faith despite persecution and the fear of being killed. May we say that the ta’wil of this, as of this surah taken as a whole, is that the Messenger and His Companions, men and women, are being made ready for the command of hijra, and then jihad, and then victory – and made ready to a degree such that victory cannot bring about the ruin of their souls?

  1. 83–98. Conquest with religious humility: the story of Dhu l-Qarnayn.

It is explicit that the Prophet was asked about this conqueror. For Dhu l-Qarnayn, his Lord made a road for him to travel the ends of the earth as a conqueror and establish security and justice in place of insecurity and injustice. Given power to punish or show kindness, he chooses punishment for the wrong-doers and kindness for the rest. Asked for protection by a people terrorised by the raids of Gog and Magog, who fight only to spread fear and ruin, he refuses payment in tribute, preferring what Allah has already given him. He organises the people and builds a mighty barrier of rock and molten metal, impenetrable to raiders. He knows that this great feat of engineering flows, through his determined will intelligently ordered administration and action, from the mercy of Allah, and that it will not last forever: This is a mercy from my Lord, but when the promise of my Lord comes to pass, He will bring it down. This too is a consolation for him, albeit severe: human beings are fit for more than they can ever build or achieve in this life – it is no small matter that the angels are commanded to prostrate before man (see v. 50).

  1. 99–110. The threat and promise of the hereafter, which is Unseen