The people of the cave: a historical investigation
By: Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani
The location of the cave of the Ashab al-Kahf has been an issue of much conflict amongst the Ulama and researchers. Where is the cave situated in which Ashab al-Kahf slept for over 300 years? Some researchers have reported it to be in the city Ephesus, Turkey. Some have named a cave in Spain to be the cave of Ashab al-Kahf, and others have claimed it to be in Jordan, Syria, or Yemen. But a Jordanian researcher, Muhammad Taysir Zibyan, who was the editor of the magazine Al-Shari`ah, arrived in Pakistan in 1976, where he visited Darul Uloom in order to meet my father (Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani). It was there that he stated with great determination and full confidence that this cave has been discovered on a mountain near Amman. He further stated, “I have written an article to verify this.”
In view of the proof and evidence he presented at that time, it seemed conceivable that the cave of the Ashab al-Kahf is most probably situated there.
Brother Zibyan has now passed away, but has safely stored away his investigations in a book called Location of Ashab al-Kahf’s Cave, published by Darul Ii’tisaam.
When did the incident of the People of the Cave take place?
After briefly relating the incident of Ashab al-Kahf, the Qur’an also states that the people of that time decided to construct a mosque (at this site).
According to the Holy Qur’an’s usual pattern , it does not state the historical or geographical details as to where or in which period this incident took place. Therefore, commentators and historians have disclosed their different views on the basis of historical narrations.
Most researchers are inclined towards the fact that this incident took place some time after the divine ascension of Isa `alayhi al-salam from 100 AD to 300 AD. At that time, in this region, the reign of power was in the hands of an idol-worshiping Nabti king. But the effects of the Christian religion, which started off in Palestine, were gradually advancing towards this region.
Some youngsters became devotees of this religion on the basis of these very effects. Then in the period in which these auspicious souls were absorbed in deep sleep, the followers of Christianity gradually freed this region from the Nabti rulers and succeeded in forming their own rule. The citizens here also accepted Christianity.
It is known from some narrations that after learning about Ashab al-Kahf, the reigning king arrived at the cave to visit them but found them to be deceased. There is no mention of them being deceased in other narrations.
This same incident has been narrated in some Christian narrations with little difference. It has been stated that the very first detailed narration of this incident was written in an article in the year 521 AH by an Iraqi soothsayer named Yaqub. This article was written in Syriac, then it was translated into Greek and Latin. According to him, this incident took place in Ephesus located in Asia Minor in the year 250 AD. There were seven people of the cave, and after spreading the word of Allah’s complete power, returned to sleep in the cave. (Britannica, 1950)
Because Yaqub Sarughi stated that they “returned to sleep,” a lot of people hold the belief that Ashab al-Kahf are still living and will arise again near Qiyamah.
Location of the cave of Ashab al-Kahf
It has been narrated in some Christian sources that this incident took place near the city Ephesus in Turkey (the Islamic name for Ephesus is Tarsus). A cave in that city has said to be the cave of Ashab al-Kahf. Maybe the reason for Muslim commentators and historians identifying the place of Ashab al-Kahf in Ephesus is on the basis of these Christian sources.
A narration by Abdullah ibn Abbas radiyallahu `anhu from Tafsir Ibn Jarir states, “The cave of Ashab al-Kahf is situated near ‘Ila’ in Jordan.”
Many scholars of today have given preference to the fact that the cave is situated in Jordan on the basis of this narration and other evidence. Hadhrat Mawlana Hifz-ur-Rahman Suharwi has written a detailed account on this subject in Qasas al-Qur’an and, in the light of the relevant historical geographical proof, has proclaimed it is correct that the cave is actually in Jordan. Hadhrat Mawlana Sayyid Sulayman al-Nadwi has stated in Ardh al-Qur’an that the old city of Parra in Jordan is the Raqeem.
My honorable father, Hadhrat Mawlana Muhammad Shafi, and Mawlana Abul-Kalam Azad are also inclined towards the cave being in Jordan.
The result to their research is that the actual name of the famous historical city Parra was Raqeem. The Romans changed the name to Parra, and this cave is situated somewhere near there.
But in 1953, Brother Zibyan somehow came across the fact that there is a certain cave in Amman, situated on a mountain, in which are some graves and corpses and that there is also a mosque on this site. Hence, he set out in search for this cave with one of his companions. But because this was somewhat off the common path, they had to cover some kilometers of rough land but were finally successful in reaching the cave. Brother Zibyan reports:
“We were standing in front of a pitch black cave which was situated on a far away fallow land on a bare mountain. It was dark to such an extent that we found it difficult to enter. A shepherd let us know that there were some graves inside the cave containing old bones. The opening of the cave was in the south and there were two pillars on both sides, which had been made from a large rock. Suddenly my eyes fell on the carvings on the two pillars. Some Byzantine inscriptions were visible. The cave was covered by stones and debris. At a distance of about 100 meters, there was a small village named Rajeeb.”
Brother Zibyan continued his research and approached the department of archaeological findings. Finally, an archaeologist named Rafiq Dajani concluded, after a lot of research, that this is in fact the cave of Ashab al-Kahf.
Hence, in 1961, they began their excavation and research, and continued to discover such evidence which proved this conclusion correct. The following are a few of these :
1. The opening of this cave is in the south, and the following ayah justifies this:
You would see the sun, when it rose, turning away from their Cave towards the right; and when it set, it bypassed them towards the left, and they were (lying) in the hollow thereof. (Qur’an, 18:17)
The location of this cave is such that the sunshine never enters it at any time, but passes from the left and right when the sun sets and rises. And there is a spacious hollow inside the cave where the wind and light easily reach.
2. It has also been mentioned in the Qur’an that the villagers had in mind to construct a mosque on top of this cave. Accordingly, after removing the debris and rocks, a mosque was discovered directly above the cave, which had been constructed from old Roman style stone. Archaeologists have said that the mosque was made from stone and originally a place of worship in a Byzantine form, and was later converted into a mosque during the time of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan.
The polytheist king due to whose tyranny and oppression the Ashab al-Kahf sought shelter in the cave was, according to the theory of modern day researchers, the Roman emperor Trajan, who remained ruler from 98 AD till 117 AD. It is a well known fact that he used to subject rejectors of idolatry to severe hardships. It has been historically authenticated that in 106 AD, Trajan conquered the region of east Jordan and constructed the stadium of Amman.
According to modern day researchers, the king during whose reign the Ashab al-Kahf stirred was called Theodosius II and he lived in the beginning of the 5th century.
Upon the initial discovery of the cave, many coins were found scattered within, of which several are indeed from Trajan’s era which greatly supports the belief that this is the very cave of the Ashab al-Kahf.
What is “Raqeem”?
The Holy Qur’an has termed the Ashab al-Kahf as اصحاب الكهف و الرقيم (“…the people of Kahf and Raqeem”). What is “Raqeem”? Various opinions have been stated in its commentary, but the opinion of modern day researchers is that “Raqeem” is the name of the village in which these people originally resided. The cave is situated at a 100 meters distance from this point in a small village called Rajeeb. It is the opinion of Rafiq Dajani that this is an altered form of the name Raqeem, because the Bedouins of this area pronounce the ق as ج and the م as ب . Therefore, the ruling body of Jordan later officially titled this village as Raqeem. Several early scholars of geography have also indicated the village of Raqeem as being situated near Amman at one time. Therefore, the renowned geographer Abu Abdallah Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Muqaddasi, has stated in his book Ahsan al-Taqasim fi Ma’arifat al-Aqalim:
“Raqeem is a city in east Jordan, close to Amman, in which a cave has been constituted together with several human corpses which are not altogether devoid of flesh.”
Apart from this, Allamah Yaqut Hamawi (ra) has also issued forth a statement in a commentary based upon Raqeem :
“In the suburbs of Damascus there is an Arabic state called Balqaa, and within it dwells a place close to Amman which these people regard as that of Kahf and Raqeem.”
Brother Zibyan has made several statements from which it can be apprehended that the Muslims of the earlier eras believe the certain cave belonging to this area to be the very cave of Ashab al-Kahf. It has been narrated in regard to Hadhrat Ubada Ibn Samit radiyallahu `anhu that Hadhrat Abu Bakr radiyallahu `anhu sent a convoy to the Roman emperor. During this journey, on the route leading to Syria and Hijaz, he encountered a mountain named Jabal-ur-Raqeem in which there was a cave containing several corpses not totally devoid of flesh. In a commentary of Tafseer al-Qurtubi it has also been narrated in regard to Hadhrat Abbas radiyallahu `anhu that he too encountered this cave and declared it to be the very cave of Ashab al-Kahf.
In Futuh al-Sham, Waqidee has narrated a lengthy account in relation to Hadhrat Saeed ibn Aamir. He was dispatched to Syria for participation in Jihad, but whilst proceeding along the way he forgot the route. After wandering about fruitlessly, he reached the mountain named Raqeem, and after careful scrutiny perceived it to be that of the Ashab al-Kahf. He informed his companions of his find and stated that this is the cave of the Ashab al-Kahf. Therefore, they performed prayers within it and entered the city of Amman.
However, in the case of such an ancient incident it is very difficult to arrive at a final conclusion in regards to the correct location. But there is no doubt in the fact that up till this moment in time, out of the several sites the cave has been rumored to be located in, together with the large amount of circumstantial evidence discovered in relation to the cave, [the extent of evidence found for the site near Amman, Jordan is not found for any of the other sites.]
Brother Zibyan has even compared this cave with the cave of Ephesus [in Turkey] and this comparison further confirms this hypothesis.
Our visit to the Cave near Amman, Jordan
This cave is situated seven miles south of the city of Amman. The central highway that stretches from Aqabah until Amman is at a distance of three kilometers from it. We reached this place at approximately nine o’clock in the evening. A road has now been constructed to enable cars to reach the peak of the mountain. After leaving the car, one slightly ascends to an expansive area in which there are several pillars belonging to an old fashioned construction. After crossing this area is the mouth of the cave and on its floor is a door post constructed out of broad stone.
To enter the cave one must descend approximately two steps. Upon reaching this stage the cave is divided into three sections. One section stretches straight from the mouth in a northward direction, a second section branches off towards the east on the right hand side, and a third section branches off towards the west on the left hand side. In the eastern and western sections are eight constructed graves resembling coffins. On the eastern section is a grave with a small hole. If one peers into the hole, a human corpse can be clearly seen. If it is dark the attendant of the cave lights a candle and the inner view can be clearly observed.
But the section that stretches straight to the north from the south is mainly flat; and regarding this, Brother Zibyan’s opinion is that this is the Fajwah referred to in the Qur’an:
و هم في فجوة منه
“…and they were (lying) in the hollow thereof.” (Qur’an, 18:17)
According to Rafiq Dajani, when the excavation and clearing work commenced in 1961, a jaw of an animal was discovered lying around with one incisor and four molars intact. According to the thoughts of Brother Zibyan, this was the jaw belonging to the dog of Ashab al-Kahf.
Furthermore, on this site a great number of coins belonging to the Roman era, Islamic era, Ottoman era, together with a clay bowl, a pearl necklace, a copper comb, and rings were also discovered lying scattered around. All of these things have now been gathered and placed on display in a cabinet and maintained within the northern wall of the cave which we have observed ourselves.
In the eastern section of the cave is a small tunnel ascending upwards which resembles a chimney that expels smoke. This tunnel enters and leaves through the roof of the cave. A boulder was perceived to be buried in the upper opening of this tunnel.
Usama Ibn Munqidh, a general belonging to Sultan Salahuddin Ayyubi’s army, coincidentally writes in hisKitab al-I’tibar, “I, together with 30 horsemen, entered this cave and performed prayers here, but there was a narrow tunnel that we did not enter.”
Brother Zibyan is of the opinion that this is that very passage.
After the cave was cleaned out and examined, several passages of writing were discovered on the walls in Greek and Kufic but the writing was not legible.
Upon exiting from the cave, a round patch can be seen in the nearby area. The attendant has disclosed that at the time of the discovery of the cave, the trunk of an olive tree was flourishing. Rafiq Dajani has stated that this olive tree is one belonging to the era of the bedouins and nearby is a cave with a roof. When the excavation and clearing out initially commenced, the nearby elderly folk reported that this olive tree, until twenty years ago, was blooming and they used to consume its produce.
The walls of an ancient mosque together with its niche can be clearly noticed, elevated several feet above the cave. At the time Brothers Zibyan and Rafiq Dajani initially reached the cave, the mosque could not be noticed. After excavating and clearing out the cave, the mosque was unveiled.
This mosque is 10 meters in length and 10 meters in width. During the time the excavation work was being done, four pillars fashioned in the mode of the Roman era were discovered and several copper coins were discovered from the era of the Roman emperor Justin (517 AD – 527 AD). A small chamber, equivalent to one and a half meters, was also revealed whose roof was probably employed for the call to prayer. Several clay jugs were also discovered nearby which were probably used to perform ablution. An inscription was also perceived here, and it is evident from its inscript that this mosque was renovated during the time of Abu ‘l-Jaysh Khumarawayh (d. 895 AD), the son of Ahmad ibn Tulun. The experts have deduced from this entire collection that at first the Romans built a place of worship on this site. However, during the Islamic reign (possibly in the time of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan), it was converted into a mosque but the Muslims did not supplement its length or width.
At this time, the Jordan Department of Ancient Relics and the Department of Property focused specific attention with regards to this cave’s preservation. In addition, a new mosque was built nearby, an easier route was constructed for the comfort of visitors, and signs were installed inside the cave.
In any case, the venture to [the site made mention of] in the great Qur’anic revelation is one of life’s most memorable experiences.