Home » All My Posts » Wooing the Quran (3): Countering the Grand Delusion (Al Kahf, the Cave)

Wooing the Quran (3): Countering the Grand Delusion (Al Kahf, the Cave)

أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ   مَنْ حَفِظَ عَشْرَ آيَاتٍ مِنْ أَوَّلِ سُورَةِ الْكَهْفِ عُصِمَ مِنَ الدَّجَّالِ

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Whosoever memorizes the first ten verses of Surah Al-Kahf will be saved from (the trial of) Dajjal.”

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The above Hadith recorded by Muslim in his Sahih, though seemingly straightforward, has always dragged me towards its various nuances since I first became aware of it. There are of course some other versions of it; for instance, the one recorded by Abu Daud also relaters a narrator mentioning the last ten verses as well. There is yet another version which associates the word Fitnah with Dajjal thus rendering an associative phrase, meaning the trial of Dajjal (فتنة الدجال). Then there is always a great anthropomorphic baggage in the classical literature dealing with various descriptions of  End of Times and descriptions of anti-Christ.

However, it is needless to say that there is no way to corroborate or deny the specifics of doomsday predictions. As always, there have been conflicting attempts to amplify the applied domain of these accounts and on the other hand, the outright rejection as well.

So moving from an apriori assumption that the above prescription (in the Hadith) has been truly ascribed to the Prophet – and I do believe so – my readings of  this Surah  have always been overshadowed by the meta-narratives provided by this Hadith. As evident, its an extremely concise text and there are just three interlaced textual elements, that demand an interpretive exercise: 1) the nature and reality of Dajjal, 2) the contents of first and last ten verses of this Surah and 3) how memorizing these verses can guarantee protection against the trial of Dajjal, whatever that phrase means.

KahfSurah Al-Kahf (the Cave), the eighteenth chapter of the Quran, is an extended narrative with usual Quranic blend of interconnected thematic elements and an interactive dialogue while shifting its addressees. From the perspective of original addressees, it does not seem that the whole chapter is revealed in one big chunk, an observation that is also vindicated by the traditional accounts [1], reporting contexts of revelation for various components of texts. There are also subtexts, directly or indirectly intending to reassure Prophet’s psychological state (18:6), which was obviously stressed due to persistent denial of his community, as well as challenges and counter-questions in response to the supposedly extraordinary claims of revelation.

However, besides these context-dependant momentary digressions, the whole Surah is well-knitted in a singular recurring theme related to ontological dimension of this life, and what a particular ontic standpoint entails. Two interlinked, yet seemingly contrasting, facets of this theme are related to natural human responses to respective ontological perceptions, that is, the complete abandonment of this world or its outright embracement.

The former response is generally rooted in a perception, where the reality of this world is necessarily negated and therefore gives it a kind of meaningless or existential/ nihilistic outlook, and the latter is followed when all reality beyond this world is essentially denied.

In the narrative of people of the cave (18:9-26), Quran not only puts world-renunciation in its correct perspective, as an option to preserve one’s religious liberty and life, but also introduces the reader to the correct world-view, where life, death and resurrection is a necessary temporal cycle. An important subtextual peculiarity is how a lay-reader in general and the original recipients in particular are invited to see the bigger picture (18:22), rather than indulging in the usual mythological gossip crystallized due to burden of history [2].

On the other hand, in the story of Dhul-Qarnain (18:83-98), its the worldly power which has been rightly attributed to the mercy and blessings of Allah Almighty (18:98) rather than one’s own inherent capability and endeavours.

However, in my humble view, its the parable of two men (18:32:43) that elegantly presents the epic of this Surah’s thematic discourse. All subtle linguistic references help to draw attention of a receptive interlocutor towards various psychologies usually confronting ultimate questions regarding nature’s ultimate truths. The self-assured materialistic arrogance of the first man (18:34:36) rooted in a careful sceptic demeanour, as he soliloquises while entering his garden is aptly countered by the simple and direct rejoinder of his interlocutor (18:37-41), drawing him to a more plausible explanation of ultimate reality. The simile concluding the parable outlines the final ontological perspective, comparing the life of this world to the rain which is absorbed by the ‘earth’s vegetation’, which soon becomes the ‘dry stubble’, ultimately to be scattered away by the wind (18:45). 

To me, the most intriguing aspect of this Surah is how the ontological enquiry is essentially interwoven with the ethical enquiry, using the story of Moses and the wise man, popularly known as Khidr in Islamic tradition (18:60-82). What can be called a Quranic version of Euthyphro’s dilemma, the most essential question disturbing the most intelligent minds since antiquity is asked, that is, are there any moral standards independent of God’s will ? As far as I can dare to comment, the Quranic answer is an emphatic No [3].

Coming back to the so-called meta-narrative, the Hadith cited in the beginning renders itself to some interesting hermeneutics. For instance, since the root د ج ل  of the noun دجال means to dupe, deceive or cheat, we can speculate that the Prophetic guidance, no matter how vague (due to associated eschatology), is at least referring to a kind of illusory substantive.

The deceptive enterprise of this grand delusion is complex and multidimensional, that is, it is at once related to self-deception, the perpetual desire of this world and an inherent skepticism that has the power to sway one’s belief over the whole spectrum. The word حفظ, it seems,  is not merely memorizing as it is usually believed, rather more aptly connotative of preservation, safekeeping or compliance.

Therefore, as per Prophet’s advice, this beautiful chapter of Quran is our most reliable guard against the grandest of all delusions, that is, the life of this world (18:7, 18:104). Not only it limns this illusive enterprise but also provides the necessary armour to guard against it it.

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  1. The accounts of occasions of revelation can be seen in any traditional exegesis, for instance, Tabari or Ibn Kathir.
  2. For a very good survey of all these linguistic as well as historical intricacies, see Abul Kalam Azad’s Ashab-e-Kahf Aur Yajooj Majooj, which is not yet translated into English as per my knowledge.
  3. However, objectively speaking, the question has merely rendered itself to an epistemic enquiry, because, after all, the answer is only valid if one holds Quran to disseminate the ultimate truth. But this is not the space to discuss the epistemic validity of Quran, from a philosophical, and to some extent, historical perspective.

5 thoughts on “Wooing the Quran (3): Countering the Grand Delusion (Al Kahf, the Cave)

  1. Unfortunately, i could not pick after the first paragraph whatever you wanted to express. If it is a process of getting self-clarity then it may be a naive step in the process. I should say that i got an impression of self-dialogue through out. Moreover, i found so many big terms that became the hindrance to understand, one, whatever was going through in the mind of writer and second, what he wants to express e.g., thematic elements, ontological perceptions, ontological enquiry and ethical enquiry and etc.

  2. Thank you Brother Asim for you criticism. I agree with you that it is probably coming out more as a self-dialogue, rather than an enriching experience meant for the reader. But obviously, the ‘big terms’ mean (in the writer’s mind) what they usually mean in simple philosophical jargon and not presenting any new thesis, whatsoever. For instance, ‘ontological perception’ is how each of us perceive the reality around us, that is, the reality of this life. Ontological enquiry is simply how we question this perception and how Quran tweaks this perception by transforming our notion that this life is merely an illusion. The ethical enquiry is simply what we ought to do, or more specifically, what we are motivated to do according to a particular ontological perception.

    I hope that helps and please extend more criticism so I can clarify myself further and reduce the undesired verbosity. Jazak Allah.

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