The Sleepers in the Cave

There is a particular story in the Qur’án which until now has made no sense to me. I’ve only had one idea of what it could mean. Today, however, I was struck with an idea which, true or not, excited me enough to write it down – which also reminded that I wanted to say something about how I go about interpreting:

Rational plausibility

When I attempt to interpret Scripture for myself, I use a method which I call “rational plausibility”. The approach is not one of seeking truth, or the “right” interpretation, but simply a answer that is rationally plausible. It may have nothing to do with what the verse is really saying. What it does do is excite me with the idea that other such answers might exist, and that at least I found one of them. It is this excitement, which encourages me to dig deeper, that I am seeking; because unless I’m excited about a particular verse, it holds no interest for me at all. Rational plausibility is about uncovering Scripture’s intriguing aspect, independent of whether what I come up with is “right” or not.

The Sleepers

In the Qur’án there is a mysterious Súrih called “the Cave” (chapter 18). One of its stories depicts a number of youths whom God sent to a particular cave and put to sleep for nearly three hundred years, so that He might test them on waking to see if they knew how long it had been. But none of them knew, nor could anyone else accurately say after the event…

Bahá’u’lláh, in His mystical text The Four Valleys states that a verse from this story contains the meaning of the second of those four valleys. Here is the full reference:

If the wayfarer’s goal be the dwelling of the Praiseworthy One (Mahmúd), this is the station of primal reason which is known as the Prophet and the Most Great Pillar. Here reason signifieth the divine, universal mind, whose sovereignty enlighteneth all created things – nor doth it refer to every feeble brain; for it is as the wise Saná’í hath written:

How can feeble reason encompass the Qur’án, Or the spider snare a phoenix in his web? Wouldst thou that the mind should not entrap thee? Teach it the science of the love of God!

On this plane, the traveler meeteth with many a trial and reverse. Now is he lifted up to heaven, now is he cast into the depths. As it hath been said: “Now Thou drawest me to the summit of glory, again Thou castest me into the lowest abyss.” The mystery treasured in this plane is divulged in the following holy verse from the Súrih of THE CAVE:

“And thou mightest have seen the sun when it arose, pass on the right of their cave, and when it set, leave them on the left, while they were in its spacious chamber. This is one of the signs of God. Guided indeed is he whom God guideth; but for him whom He misleadeth, thou shalt by no means find a patron.”

If a man could know what lieth hid in this one verse, it would suffice him. Wherefore, in praise of such as these, He hath said: “Men whom neither merchandise nor traffic beguile from the remembrance of God….”

This station conferreth the true standard of knowledge, and freeth man from tests. In this realm, to search after knowledge is irrelevant, for He hath said concerning the guidance of travelers on this plane, “Fear God, and God will instruct thee.” And again: “Knowledge is a light which God casteth into the heart of whomsoever He willeth.”

An interpretation

In Islamic mysticism, Creation is divided into three days: The day when all souls were brought before God and He asked them, “Am I not your Lord?”, to which all replied, “Yea, verily!”; the day of mortal existence, where we prove our fidelity to that Covenant; and the day of Judgment, when all are judged according to their faithfulness.

In this scheme, we see God clearly on the first and third days, but a veil covers us throughout the second day. That veil has a purpose, however, which Bahá’u’lláh mentions in a few places; for example:

He Who is the Day Spring of Truth is, no doubt, fully capable of rescuing from such remoteness wayward souls and of causing them to draw nigh unto His court and attain His Presence. “If God had pleased He had surely made all men one people.” His purpose, however, is to enable the pure in spirit and the detached in heart to ascend, by virtue of their own innate powers, unto the shores of the Most Great Ocean, that thereby they who seek the Beauty of the All-Glorious may be distinguished and separated from the wayward and perverse.

Since our function in this life is to “die to the world” and be “born again of the spirit”, it is a bit like being asleep and summoned to wake through our love of God (a love which is recalled when we remember our “first day”: “Would ye but sanctify your souls, ye would at this present hour recall that place and those surroundings…”; and “…the bird of thy soul shall recall the holy sanctuaries of preexistence…”). That this state of sleep has a purpose indicates a heavenly wisdom which the discerning may penetrate. Such penetration is termed marifat*, or intimate understanding of divine matters. If the second of the four valleys describes the station of the knowers (*árifín), perhaps the allegory of the Cave gives the secret of why this world has the form that it does. In this sense, I would interpret the quoted verse as:

We saw the Sun in its glory at the dawn of our creation (when it arose); and will see it again clearly when this day has ended (as it passes on the left). During the interim, because this world is like a cave where we are blocked from the Sun, we cannot see Him clearly even though He shines over everything. Furthermore, God has cast sleep on our eyes so He might test us. Once we awaken in the cave, will we hold to One we can’t see clearly? Will the dark and shadows seem more real to us, or our knowledge of the unseen Sun?

If we understand we’ve been asleep, and God alone knows the truth of it, we might hold to Him despite all outward appearances. His hand moves all things toward their completion, and nothing moves or rests except by His bidding. “Say: All things are of God” would be our guide, and fear of God, our source of knowledge. If one can awake in the cave, but still know the Sun is there – by his inner eye – he will have proven his understanding and faith.