Surah al-Kahf (The Cave ) 18 : 83

وَيَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَن ذِى ٱلْقَرْنَيْنِ ۖ قُلْ سَأَتْلُوا۟ عَلَيْكُم مِّنْهُ ذِكْرًا


 Muhsin Khan
 Yusuf Ali
Quran Project
And they ask you, [O Muhammad], about Dhul-Qarnayn. Say, "I will tell you something about him."

1. Lessons/Guidance/Reflections/Gems

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Explanatory Note

This final passage of the sūrah is mainly concerned with Dhu’l-Qarnayn and his three journeys, to the east, west and the central areas, as well as his erection of a strong barrier to prevent Gog and Magog from getting through.

The story of Dhu’l-Qarnayn begins as follows: “They will ask you about Dhu’l- Qarnayn. Say: I will give you an account of him.’” (Verse 83) Speaking about the reasons that led to the revelation of this sūrah, Muĥammad ibn Isĥāq mentions a report attributed to Ibn `Abbās, the Prophet’s cousin and Companion. The report mentions that the Quraysh sent al-Nađr ibn al-Ĥārith and `Uqbah ibn Abī Mu`ayţ to ask the Jewish rabbis in Madinah about Muĥammad, outlining for them their terms of reference. The Quraysh elders told the two men to describe Muĥammad in detail to the Jewish rabbis and to report to them truthfully what he advocated. “The Jews,” said the Quraysh elders, “are the people of early Scriptures and they have a wealth of knowledge about prophets which is not available to us.”

In Madinah, the two men from the Quraysh put their questions to the rabbis and solicited their honest opinion about Muĥammad. The rabbis told them to ask Muĥammad three questions. “If he gives you satisfactory answers, then he is a prophet and messenger of God. If he has no answer to give, then he is fabricating whatever he says. You may do what you like with him. Ask him about a group of young people about whom there was a strange story in ancient times, and let him tell you what happened to them. Ask him also about a man who travelled all over the place and went to the far east and far west. The third question you should ask him is to tell you about the spirit.”

Al-Nađr and `Uqbah travelled back to Makkah and told their tribesmen that they had brought the answer to their problem with Muĥammad. When they told them of the advice of the Jewish rabbis, they went to the Prophet and put the three questions to him. The Prophet told them that he would answer them the following day. Apparently he did not qualify the promise by saying, ‘God willing’, as he should have done and as Muslims should always do. As a result nothing was revealed to him for fifteen days, nor did the angel Gabriel meet him during this period. The people of Makkah began to spread a fresh propaganda campaign, saying: ‘Muĥammad has promised to give us an answer on the morrow, and now it has been fifteen days since we asked him, without him giving us any reply to our questions.’

The Prophet was very sad at this delay in revelation and he was much distressed by what the people of Makkah said about him. Then the angel Gabriel came down revealing this sūrah, The Cave, which tells him in its early verses not to grieve too much for his people if they refuse to listen to him. It then proceeds to answer the questions put to him, relating the stories of the young men and the traveller of old times. He also gave the Prophet the answer to the third question about the spirit, which occurs in Sūrah 17, The Night Journey.

Another report by Ibn `Abbās tells of the reason for the revelation of the verse giving the reply to the question about the spirit. This mentions that the Jews themselves put the question to the Prophet: “Tell us about the spirit, and how the spirit inside the body can be tortured, when the spirit belongs to God?” As nothing about the spirit had been revealed to him, he could not answer them. Gabriel then came down to him with the verse stating: “Say: The [knowledge of the nature of the] spirit belongs to my Lord alone. You [mankind] have been granted but little knowledge.” (17:85)

Since there are several reports about the immediate reason behind the revelation of this sūrah, we prefer not to go into these, limiting our discussion to the Qur’ānic text, which provides us with true and accurate information. On the basis of this text we realize that a question was asked about Dhu’l-Qarnayn, but we do not know for certain who put the question. Knowing the questioner will not add anything about the import of the story. We will now discuss the text.

The Qur’ānic text does not mention anything about the personality of Dhu’l- Qarnayn or where and when he lived. This is typical of Qur’ānic stories. The intention is not to provide historical accounts, but to learn the lessons that may be derived from the stories mentioned. In most cases, these lessons can be drawn without the need to define time and place.

Documented history refers to a king called Iskandar, or Alexander Dhu’l-Qarnayn. It is also certain that the person to whom the Qur’ān refers by the name Dhu’l- Qarnayn is not the Greek king, Alexander, for he was a pagan worshipping idols, while the Qur’ān speaks about someone who believed in God’s oneness and in resurrection and the life to come. In his book, Al-Āthār Al-Bāqiyah `an al-Qurūn Al- Khāliyah, al-Bīrūnī mentions that Dhu’l-Qarnayn, about whom the Qur’ān gives us this account, was a king of Ĥimyar in Yemen. This is based on the fact that his name begins with ‘Dhu’, which is typical of Ĥimyarī kings. His actual name was Abū Baler ibn Afrīqish. He travelled at the head of his army along the southern Mediterranean coast, passing through Tunisia and Morocco and building the town of Afriqiya. Thus the whole continent was named after him. He was nicknamed Dhu’l-Qarnayn because he reached as far as the two furthest points in relation to the sun.

This view may be correct, but we have no means of verifying it. It is not possible to undertake research based on documented history with the aim of establishing the real personality of Dhu’l-Qarnayn of whose history the Qur’ān gives us a glimpse. The same applies to most historical accounts given in the Qur’ān, such as those concerning the people of the prophets Noah and Hūd, or the Thamūd, etc. History itself is only a recent addition, compared to the length of human life on earth. Great events took place in the periods preceding what history reports, and these remain unknown to historians. Hence, we cannot refer to them for answers.

Had the Torah remained intact, without distortion or addition, it would have been a reliable source of information concerning some of these events. But the Torah has been mixed with legends that have, without doubt, no foundation. It has been infused with reports that have, most certainly, been added to the original text revealed by God. Hence, the Torah cannot be treated as a reliable source for the historical accounts it contains. Thus, the only source left for us is the Qur’ān, since God has guaranteed its preservation in its original form and its protection against any distortion. It is indeed the only source for its historical accounts.

Needless to say, it is wrong to try to evaluate the Qur’ān with reference to history. There are two obvious reasons for this. The first is the fact that history is a recent creation which has missed countless events in mankind’s progress. The Qur’ān tells us some of these events which remain totally unknown to history and historians. Secondly, even though history may record some of these events, it remains the product of human beings. Thus, it suffers from the shortcomings of human action, such as imperfection, error, distortion, etc. In our own time, when means of communication and facilities of verification have become available in plenty, we find the same piece of news or the same incident reported in a variety of ways, each looking at it from a particular angle, and giving it a different interpretation. It is out of such heaps of confusion that historical accounts are made, regardless of what may be said about research and verification.

Hence, whatever is said about referring to history in order to evaluate the accounts given in the Qur’ān cannot be admitted on the basis of the scientific rules adopted by people, let alone by Islam which states clearly that the Qur’ān is the final arbiter. Such reference to history cannot he advocated by a believer in the Qur’ān or in scientific research. It is no more than useless polemic.

Some people, then, asked God’s Messenger about Dhu’l-Qarnayn, and God revealed to him what this sūrah contains about his history and actions. We have no source other than the Qur’ān to give us further information. Hence, we will not try to expand or elaborate, because that would not be based on any accurate information. Commentaries on the Qur’ān provide many accounts and plenty of information, but none of these has any reliable basis. Hence, they should be approached very cautiously, particularly because they include Israelite reports and other legends.

2. Linguistic Analysis

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Frequency of Root words in this Ayat used in this Surah *

3. Surah Overview

4. Miscellaneous Information

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5. Connected/Related Ayat

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6. Frequency of the word

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7. Period of Revelation

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This is the first of those Surahs sent down in the third stage of Prophethood in Makkah. We have already divided the life of the Prophet at Makkah into four stages in the introduction to Surah 6: al-An’am (The Grazing Livestock). According to that division, the third stage lasted from the fifth to the tenth year of Prophethood. What distinguishes this stage from the second and the fourth stages is that during the second stage, the Quraysh mainly resorted to ridiculing, scoffing, threatening, tempting, raising objections and making false propaganda against the Prophet and his followers. But during the third stage they employed the weapons of persecution, man handling and economic pressure, so much so that a large number of the Muslims had to emigrate from Arabia to Abyssinia. Those who remained behind were besieged in Shi’ib Abi Talib along with the Prophet and his family. To add to their misery, a complete social and economic boycott was applied against them. The only redeeming feature was that there were two personalities, Abu Talib, who was the uncle of the Prophet and his wife Khadijah. Their personal influence had been conducive to the support of two great families of the Quraysh. However, when in the tenth year of Prophethood these two persons died, the fourth stage began with such severe persecution that the Prophet and all his companions were forced to emigrate from Makkah.

It appears from the theme of the Surah that it was revealed at the beginning of the third stage when in spite of persecutions and opposition the migration to Abyssinia had not yet taken place. That is why the story of ‘The Sleepers of the Cave’ has been related to comfort and encourage the persecuted Muslims and to show them how righteous people in history have been preserving their faith.

8. Reasons for Revelation

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This Surah was sent down in answer to three questions which the polytheists of Makkah in consultation with the People of the Book (the Jews and the Christians) put to the Prophet. These were:

1.         Who were ‘The Sleepers of the Cave?’

2.         What is the real story of Khidr?

3.         What do you know about Dhul-Qarnain?

These three questions and their stories related to the history of the Christians and the Jews and were unknown in the Arabian Peninsula (Hijaz), so they were being used to test the divine knowledge revealed to the Prophet. However, God informed the Prophet of the complete answer to these questions and also employed the stories in the conflict between Islam and unbelief.

The questioners were told that the ‘Sleepers of the Cave’ believed in the same doctrine of Monotheism (Tawhid) which was being put forward in the Qur’an and that their condition was similar to that of the persecuted Muslims of Makkah. Also, the persecutors of the Sleepers of the Cave behaved in the same way as the disbelievers of Quraysh towards the Muslims. This particular story was a warning to the chiefs of Makkah, who were persecuting the small newly formed Muslim community. Additionally, the Prophet was instructed not to compromise with the persecutors nor consider the chiefs to be more important than his own followers. Likewise, the chiefs too were admonished and informed not to be distracted by the temporary life of this world but seek the eternal life of the hereafter.

9. Relevant Hadith

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10. Wiki Forum

Comments in this section are statements made by general users – these are not necessarily explanations of the Ayah – rather a place to share personal thoughts and stories…

11. Tafsir Zone


12. External Links

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