THE rumour that Usama bin Laden (remember him?) fled Afghanistan to South Africa after 9/11, bought a bakkie, travelled to Beaufort West and assumed the name Ben Lategan is highly exaggerated.
More likely is the scenario that he fled together with his inner court to northwest Pakistan where – if he is still alive – skulks in a cave, or in the protective embrace of the mountainous “Taliban” tribes that President Parvez Musharraf, the CIA and the ISI have never been able to bribe, subdue or sideline.
Of course, there is also conspiracy – which in the case of Bin Laden is strong – that he was seen in a Gulf clinic receiving medical treatment after 9/11; that the Americans permitted him to escape, and that the neo-con warmongers in the White House actually allowed 9/11 to take place.
Whatever the truth (and who in the “war on terror” is ever going to tell it anyway) bin Laden has become a ghost, who together with Saddam Hussein is a tattered historical icon of George Bush’s miserable presidency. That the mujahidin – whose corps became later known as al-Qa’idah (or the “Base”), were originally recruited by Saudi Arabia and trained by the US to fight Russians – has been long, long forgotten.
I mean, wasn’t it Ronald Reagan – a Cold War Republican propounding apartheid was a better deal than communism – who proclaimed on the White House lawns that the mujahidin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan reminded him of America’s founding fathers?
The point – the irony – is that Usama bin Laden, and his fellow mujahidin, were actively recruited by the country that ended up hunting them down as “terrorists”. America’s greatest ally, the Saudi monarchy, was the most complicit, conveniently dispatching many of its angry young Wahhabi dissidents to Afghanistan via the CIA.
These mujahidin, who also originated from other parts of the Muslim world, proved to be doughty fighters. Unafraid of death on the battlefield, they thoroughly spooked the heroin-addled Russian conscripts with their bravado.
Interestingly, one of the figureheads of the war was the Palestinian ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam, the father of the “Afghan Arabs”, and said to be an influence on bin Laden. ‘Azzam was later assassinated in Peshawar (allegedly by the bin Laden camp) for issuing a fatwa that once the Russians were ejected from Afghanistan, a Muslim could no longer take sides.
There is also speculation that MOSSAD, fearing jihad being imported to Palestine, were part of the plot – it’s a case of pick your conspiracy theory.
Bin Laden’s role in Afghanistan was always destined to be different to that of the rank and file. The mujahidin agenda – chiefly drawn up by the US – needed royal endorsement, a big Saudi name and preferably a prince or two, to bolster the initiative.
Unfortunately (for the “conflict engineers” that is) not one of the thousands of pampered Saudi princes wanted to crease his Armani thawb or soil his sandals in the cause of US jihad. The mantle then fell to Usama bin Laden, a son of one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent businessmen – and a trusted friend of Washington.
The fall of the Soviets in 1989 was seen as a victory for Islam (and the end of the Cold War), papering over the cracks in Afghanistan, and the fallout of US interference in Iraq and Iran. For no sooner had the guns fallen silent, than there were several thousand mujahidin with nowhere to go.
Bin Laden – the wealthy benefactor – was the man who looked after many of them, al-Qa’idah originally being just a data-base of those who’d fought in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the jihad genie then popped out of the bottle. Much of the resultant Islamic “militancy” – deriving from the mujahidin’s “reformist” Wahhabi code – in central Asia and beyond can be ascribed to the US, and her allies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. They gave their proteges the impression they could defeat superpowers.
But the real turning point came in 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Usama bin Laden approached the Saudi monarchy, saying that al-Qa’idah was prepared to defend Saudi Arabia, and sort the Iraqis out. For contrary to Bushspeak, there was no love lost between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qa’idah figurehead.
That bin Laden’s offer was spurned is history. President Bush senior rallied an international alliance to defend Kuwait, and US forces landed on Saudi soil. This enraged bin Laden, who saw this as not only a slap in the face for the mujahidin, but an insult to Muslims – how could infidel boots tramp on hallowed Muslim soil?
Bin Laden, who had not been antagonistic to the Saudi monarchy up until then, changed his views. He also turned on the US, issuing his infamous death fatwas (in spite of not being qualified to make religious judgements). From then on, al-Qa’idah became seriously political, its agenda targeted at what it regarded as “rogue states” such as the US.
And this is a dimension of so-called “militant Islam” that is so often overlooked. More often than not, when faced with honest academic inquiry, most Islamist agendas boil down to political, rather than religious issues.
For example, the recent rise of the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt and Palestine has been chiefly because of the abject failure of Arab nationalism. That this has been a predominantly peaceful and law-abiding phenomenon has been completely ignored.
What has also been disregarded is that the aspirations of the movements have been specific to their communities only. Hamas has said time and again that its struggle is against Zionism, not the rest of the world. Hizballah has also stated that its agenda is local, not international. The Egyptian Brotherhood has no interest in liberating other countries.
But where al-Qa’idah differs significantly is that it is a trans-national “consciousness”, a paradigm that sees the world through the flaky prism of “them or us” – a revolution against dark forces. For unlike other movements, al-Qa’idah has no defined membership, no national borders, no written charters and few– if any – links with those who often claim to act in its name.
But how does one understand al-Qa’idah – or the abstract noun that operates under its umbrella? That, God-willing, will be the topic of our next column in which we will thoroughly examine the mutant ‘aqidah, or credo, of the man that is the ghost of Usama bin Laden.
Copyright Shafiq Morton
Monday, November 16, 2009
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.
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..."
"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.
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
HAVING been involved in Muslim radio for some time, I am often asked about the permissibility of music in Islam – and if permissible, to what degree. I am always surprised by these questions because music has been part of the Islamic ethos ever since the Prophet Muhammad (s) condoned the singing of songs, the beating of drums (and even dancing) at a wedding feast attended by his young wife, A’isha.
What is interesting here is that while the Prophet (s) may not have participated, he verbally approved of the above. It could be argued, then, that music in Islam evolved the very moment that the Prophet (s) intimated certain forms were permissible.
There are also scholars who argue that the Prophet (s) avoided instrumental music, but not because he thought that it was forbidden, but because he feared that it could affect his receiving of the Revelation. It seems to have been a matter of taste, because another prophet who also received Divine Revelation, Dawud (as), was renowned for his musicality.
Aboriginal traditions indicate that in the Americas, Africa and Europe, music originated with the human voice. Associated with ritual, it then progressed to instrumentational accompaniment. In Islam, as we will discuss later, the voice is the key – the Mercy of the 700 tongues given to the first prophet, Adam (as), by Allah Himself.
The common English word for melodic sound is “music”, but it is interesting to see that “music” is derived from the Arab word “musiqa”, which in turn is derived from the Greek. Linguistically, there are further links: for example, the modern guitar – a cousin of the Arabic “‘ud” – takes its name from the Persian “tar” (which is “awtar” in Arabic).
Music is, to put it simply, the art of combining sounds with a view to beauty, form, expression and emotional pleasure. Historically, music has always found its roots in devotion, a dynamic expression of consciousness that often reflects the inner longing of humankind for divine ecstasy.
Maulana Aqtab Siddiqui, an English Sufi, states that music is simply the longing of the human heart for the sounds of Angels, for the sweetness of the Afterlife. An old story relates that the prophet Ibrahim (as) bequeathed his vast herds of animals to the Angel Jibril just because he wanted to hear the singing of Heavenly Beings.
Professor Seyyed Hossain Nasr, one of the illustrious scholars of our time, writes that traditions of music in the Islamic cosmos are amongst “the richest in the world”. In fact, most strains of modern music: gospel, jazz, flamenco and even urban rap and hip-hop can trace their roots back to historical Muslim societies.
The ecstatic ululation of gospel (originating from Muslim African slaves) is little different to the states found in the ritualistic Middle Eastern Hadrat. The repeated patterns of jazz are hardly dissimilar to the melodic chants of introspective Sufi tariqahs. The modern-day choruses of the Ummayad flamenco (la-ilai-la-ilai) are distinct remnants of the kalimah, which articulates: la-ilaha-illallah (there is no god except God).
Even the pomp and splendour of military marching bands, with bagpipes and rolling drums, can trace their origins back to the red-robed Janissary forces of the Ottoman Empire.
And lastly, rap and hip-hop (deriving from all of the above) represent the “secular Qasidah” of the city ghetto, a sound that older generations frequently criticise as being semantically degrading and musically discordant, without ever bothering to read into its desperate metaphor.
But if music is permissible in Islam, how does one deem it Islamic? Perhaps the finest response comes from Imam al-Ghazali, the giant polymath and Sufi of the 12th century. He wrote that music inflamed the passions. However, if music drew the person nearer to Allah it was beneficial, but if it didn’t, it was detrimental. It has to be noted that Imam Ghazali was wise enough not to lay down absolutes!
Over the years I have learnt that Imam Ghazali’s approach has been the most appropriate. Too often, issues of halal and haram (especially in music) have been pre-determined by pure like or dislike, rather than any juristic principle. And too often, when assailed with new sound, the most convenient Muslim response has been to cry haram – even though the music may not be alien to Islamic theology.
I can remember airing Ahmed Tijani’s beautiful CD, The Names of Allah, on Voice of the Cape and being accused of playing “gospel”. It was as if I had betrayed Islam. Later, Tijani visited South Africa. He gave an on-air rendition of the Fatihah from the Qur’an that could have been delivered by a Mississippi Baptist choir: “Is that gospel, now?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.
To its great credit, our Muslim Judicial Council has desisted from issuing a fatwa on music. I like to think that its wise men have silently conceded to Imam Ghazali, thus leaving the door ajar that was left open by the Prophet (s) for Muslims to develop the lingua-franca of spiritually uplifting, and permissible music through ijtihad, or informed collective thought.
I agree with Seyyed Hossain Nasr who argues that as an Islamic art form, music falls under the category of Mercy and Beauty, and that Allah has written beauty upon the face of all things. The Prophet’s (s) Hadith that “Allah loves Beauty” serves to reinforce this idea. The lingua-franca of music is its beauty, or as the violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, commented when he heard Iranian classical music: “This music is the ladder between the soul and God.”
It is this connection to the Divine, through beauty and ecstasy, that Islamic music gains its currency. And the premier instrument is the Qur’an – an amazing compendium of metre, rhythm and rhyme – that almost “sings” its deeply profound message as it moves like a heartbeat from verse to verse. The miracle of the Qur’an is witnessed in as much the human voice, which is a Mercy from Allah, as it is in its words and message.
This is perhaps why the music of the masjid, the place of worship, is the human voice and the Qur’an; and why the market-place, the material world, expresses its awareness of Allah through the voice and instrument, its melodic timbre drowning out the jarring sounds of the dunya so that the senses can savour beautific splendour.
But what about contemporary music? Whilst music is historically devotional, it can also reflect the zeitgeist, or spirit, of a society. A good example is the Beatles’ 1960’s hit, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. It is a pleasant enough song, but – without criticising Lennon and McCartney – it does subconsciously reflect secular nihilism: a soul floating in a universe so stripped of sacred meaning that it can only fixate on whimsical objects.
The lyrics of a verse go: “newspaper taxis appear on the shore/waiting to take you away/climb in the back with your head in the clouds/and you’re gone”. But where to? I think the point is that there is no destination.
Those who pour scorn upon the musical tastes of our children four decades after Lucy in the Sky need to pause a little in their thoughts. If young peoples’ music is characterised today by obscenity, anger and angst then we should be taking note. Are we not willingly co-opted role players in a greedy generation that has, in its rush for wealth, declared war on God’s Creation – and in the process, poisoned His skies, polluted His oceans and sterilised His soil?
Perhaps the solution lies in a genuine return to the discipline of Islamic arts so that the subtle veils of the deepest realities of Islam can be fully lifted. Or, as Seyyed Hossain Nasr says: “Today more than ever before, the understanding of Islamic art is an indispensable key for the comprehension of Islam itself”. To that, I say amen: if music be the food of love, play on.
Copyright Shafiq Morton