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Author: Sajid Mahmood Ansari
The Holy Qur’an, in 18th Surah Al-Kahf, narrates the story of a few young believers, who fled from a tyrant polytheist king, hid inside a cave, and kept sleeping there for a number of years. After sleeping for centuries, they woke up and came to know that they slept for three centuries.
The Holy Qur’an narrates the story as follows:
“Don’t you think that the people of the Cave and the Raqeem were one of Our wondrous signs? When those youths sought refuge in the Cave and said: "Our Lord! Grant us mercy from Yourself and provide for us rectitude in our affairs." We lulled them to sleep in that cave for a number of years and then roused them so that We might see which of the two parties could best tell the length of their stay. We narrate to you their true story. They were a party of young men who had faith in their Lord, and We increased them in guidance; and strengthened their hearts when they stood up and proclaimed: "Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth. We shall call upon no other god beside Him; (for if we did so), we shall be uttering a blasphemy." (Then they conferred among themselves and said): "These men, our own people, have taken others as gods beside Him: why do they not bring any clear evidence that they indeed are gods? Who can be more unjust than he who foists a lie on Allah? And now that you have dissociated yourselves from them and from whatever they worship beside Allah, go and seek refuge in the Cave. Your Lord will extend His mercy to you and will provide for you the means for the disposal of your affairs." Had you seen them in the Cave it would have appeared to you that when the sun rose, it moved away from their Cave to the right; and when it set, it turned away from them to the left, while they remained in a spacious hollow in the Cave. This is one of the Signs of Allah. Whomsoever Allah guides, he alone is led aright; and whomsoever Allah lets go astray, you will find for him no guardian to direct him. On seeing them you would fancy them to be awake though they were asleep, and We caused them to turn their sides to their right and to their left, and their dog sat stretching out its forelegs on the threshold of the Cave. Had you looked upon them you would have certainly fled away from them, their sight filling you with terror? Likewise, We roused them in a miraculous way that they might question one another. One of them asked: "How long did you remain (in this state)?" The others said: "We remained so for a day or part of a day." Then they said: "Your Lord knows better how long we remained in this state. Now send one of you to the city with this coin of yours and let him see who has the best food, and let him buy some provisions from there. Let him be cautious and not inform anyone of our whereabouts. For if they should come upon us, they will stone us to death or force us to revert to their faith whereafter we shall never prosper." Thus did We make their case known to the people of the city so that they might know that Allah's promise is true and that there is absolutely no doubt that the Hour will come to pass. But instead of giving thought to this, they disputed with one another concerning the People of the Cave, some saying: "Build a wall over them. Their Lord alone knows best about them." But those who prevailed over their affairs said: "We shall build a place of worship over them." Some will say concerning them: "They were three and their dog, the fourth"; and some will say: "They were five, and their dog, the sixth" -- all this being merely guesswork; and still others will say: "They were seven, and their dog, the eighth." Say: "My Lord knows their number best. Only a few know their correct number. So do not dispute concerning their number, but stick to what is evident, and do not question anyone about them." 
The Holy Qur’an explicitly declares it a story of a miracle. A miracle is a Divine Decree, out of question, beyond a reasonable doubt. This Qur’anic narrative is brief and objective. Mufassirin, scholars of the Qur’an, elaborated this narrative subjectively. So, we will discuss the story in detail in this paper to address the historicity, geography, perspective, and outcomes.
Who were Companions of Cave?
The Companions of Cave, as translates the title of Ashab al-Kahf, were true followers of Tawhid (monotheism). A number of theories have been proposed regarding their origin. But, the most reliable theory that is supported by archaeological evidence, was proposed by Abdullah ibni Abbas (May Allah shower His blessings upon him) as it has been recorded by Muhammad ibni Jarir at-Tabri on behalf of Muhammad ibni Sa’ad. 
Abdullah ibni Abbas (May Allah shower His blessings upon him) said about the word Ar-Raqeem that appeared in the aforementioned narrative from Surah Al-Kahf (Ayat 9):
الرقيم: واد بين عُسْفان وأيَلة دون فلسطين، وهو قريب من أيَلة
Ar-Raqeem is name of a valley located between Usfan and Aylah, nearby Palestine, that is closer to Aylah.
Aylah was a famous city of ancient Syria (Ash-Sham) and has been well recorded in the history. Arab historians have mentioned Aylah in their historical accounts related to Byzantine Empire. Aylah has also been mentioned as a city in a few authentic Hadiths (Jami at-Tirmidhi: H#2445). The famous Muslim geographer Yaqut al-Hemawi gave a detailed account of Aylah in his compendium Mo’ajam al-Buldan, which is considered an outstanding encyclopedia of ancient cities. Yaqut al-Hemawi observes:
Aylah is a city located on the Mediterranean coast, nearby ash-Sham (Assyria).
Elath (Hebrew: אֵילַת, Modern: Elat, Tiberian: ʼÊláṯ; Latin: Aila; Ancient Greek: Ελά, Ἀηλά, Αἴλανα, Αἰλανίτης, Αἰλανή, Ἐλάνα, Αἴλανον, Αἰλάς, Αἰλάθ, Αἰλών, Ἡλάθ, Αϊλά), or Eloth, was an ancient city mentioned in several places in the Hebrew Bible on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. It was in the same vicinity as Ezion-Geber.
The name survived into the Roman period as Aela, adopted into Byzantine Greek as Aila and into Arabic as Aylah (the Arab settlement was built outside the ruins of the ancient city), later becoming Aqabat Aylah ("Aylah Ascent"), eventually shortened down to Aqaba.
The modern name of the same city is Eilat.
Ar-Raqeem and Aylah were part of the Eastern Roman Empire, which is also known as Byzantine Empire. Both of these localities were situated in the region that was called Petra by Romans. Fortunately, the famous Jewish historian Josephus Flavius recorded in his exceptional work Antiquities of the Jews , that the original name of Petra was Raqmu that referred the king Rekem.
The editors of the work Men on the Rocks: The Formation of Nabataean Petra observes:
Should we take the strange “so-called Petra” as an indication that the Greeks had knowledge about the Arab name of Petra, Raqmu, but decided to continue with the traditional Greek name? Li-kan is believed to be a translation of Raqmu in a Chinese source dating between 138-122 BC (Graf 1996:207-210). The Nabataean inscription of the Nefesh of Petraios son of Threptos, dated to the late 1st century BC, gives the old name Raqmu. 
Raqmu, the original name of Petra, is a somewhat distorted dialect of the original dialect Raqem. George Albert Cooke, the editor of an article on Petra compiled in the 1911 version of Encyclopedia Britannica, explicitly mentioned the name Rekem.
Eusebius and Jerome (Onom. sacr. 286, 71 145, 9, 228, 55. 287, 94), apparently on the authority of Josephus (Ant. iv. 7, 1; 4, 7), assert that Rekem was the native name. 
The same editor of Encyclopedia Britannica describes the location and significance of Petra as follows:
PETRA (ἡ Πέτρα= the rock), a ruined site, 30° 19′ N . and 35° 31′ E., lying in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Wadi el-‛Arāba, the great valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of ‛Akăba. The descriptions of Strabo (xvi. p. 779), Pliny (N.H. vi. 32), and other writers leave no doubt as to the identity of this site with the famous capital of the Nabataeans (q.v.) and the center of their caravan trade. Walled in by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bostra and Damascus in the north, to Elath and Leucè Comè on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf. 
According to the editor, Elath (Aylah) was a neighboring city of Petra. Look how beautifully, the statement Abdullah ibn Abbas (May Allah shower His blessing upon him) has been confirmed. Now it has been proven through pure Islamic literature, historical and archaeological records that Ar-Raqeem was the original name of Petra.
The Western scholarship agrees that the Nabataeans were originally Arab people who inhabited Petra (Ar-Raqeem). The Qur’anic name Ar-Raqeem indicates that it is Arabic in nature, which confirms the Arabian origin of Nabataeans. Moreover, Nabataeans inscriptions record that most of the gods worshipped in Petra, were same as were worshipped in Makkah according to the Qur’an.
George Albert Cooke notes:
The chief god of Petra was Dhū-sharā (Δονσάρης), i.e. the lord or owner of Sharā, he was worshipped under the form of a black rectangular stone, a sort of Petraean Ka'aba (Suidas Lex'. s v. Θεός Αρης, and cf. Epiphan. above). Associated with Dhū-sharā was Allāt, the chief goddess of the ancient Arabs.
W.W. Hallo, the editor of The Context of Scripture (2003), quoted a number of Nabataean inscriptions, found carved in 38 tombs, located in Madain Salih (Saudi Arabia). One of these Nabataean inscriptions mentions Nabataean gods and goddesses (idols) including Dhu-Shara, Allat, Manat, and Habal as follows:
And may [the supreme god] Dushara
and his throne and [the goddess] Allat of Amnad
and [the goddess] Manotu and her Qaysha curse
anyone who sells this tomb or who buys it or gives it in pledge or makes a gift
of it or removes from it body or limb or who buries in it anyone other than
Kamkam and her daughter and their descendants.
And whoever does not act according to what is written above, shall be liable to Dushara and Hubalu and to Manotu in the sum of five and to the exorcist priest for a fine of a thousand Aretite 's, except that whoever produces in his hand a document from the hand of Kamkam or Kulaybat, her daughter, regarding this tomb, this document will be valid.
We know that these were the idols that were worshipped by people of Hejaz. So the striking resemblance between, language, names, and deities leads us to conclude that Nabataean were the Arabs who share the same linage with Arabs of central Arabia.
So all these facts confirm the Arabian origin of Nabataeans. According to Josephus Flavius, Nabataeans were descendants of Nabit ibni Ismael, the grandson of Prophet Ibrahim )May Allah shower His blessings upon him).
Nabajoth is specifically mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus, who identified the Nabataeans of his time with Ishmael’s eldest son. He claimed that the Nabataeans lived through the whole country extending from the Euphrates to the Red Sea, and referred to this area as ‘Nabatene,’ or the area that the Nabataeans ranged in. Josephus goes on to say that it was the Nabataeans who conferred their names on the Arabian nations. (Jewish Antiquities I.22,1) Josephus lived and wrote during the time that the Nabataeans were in existence, and supposedly, he obtained his information directly from the Nabataeans themselves. These Nabataeans spoke and wrote an early form of Arabic and thus they were often referred to as ‘Arabs’ by Greek and Roman historians.
A well know Indian Muslim scholar Sayed Sulayman Nadwi, in his famous work Ardh al-Qur’an (The Land of Qur’an), also claimed that Anbat or Nabataeans were descendants of Ismael (May Allah shower His blessings upon him).  Dr. Jawad Ali also included them in Arabs.  There is no need to mention that Nabajoth is a distorted dialect for Nabit ibni Ismael.
So it is not a farfetched idea that Ashab al-Kahf belonged to the region Ar-Raqeem (Petra) and they were descendants of Nabit ibni Ismael. Their original language was Arabic, however, its dialect was greatly affected by Aramaic language, which has been a language of northern parts of the Arabian Peninsula, especially Petra.
The Qur’an clearly describes that the reason behind the persecution of Ashab al-Kahf was their strong and unshakable belief in the oneness of Almighty God, both in His Essence and attributes. They were staunch supporters of monotheism and refused to practice idol worshipping. When we investigate the history of the world, particularly northern Arabia, we find the Roman king Decius the tyrant, who persecuted the true believers in the oneness of God Almighty. The Christian scholars claim that the seven sleepers were Christians. While we believe that they were true followers of Jesus the Christ.
Most of the Muslim historians, including Imam Ibn al-Athir (d. 630 H) listed the story of Ashab al-Kahf after the story of Eisa (Jesus ) the Christ (May Allah shower His blessings upon him). Imam Ibn al-Athir begins the story with these words:
Ashab al-Kahf belonged to the days of King Dikyos, that is also dubbed as Diqyanos and they lived in the Roman city Efsus (Ephesus). 
Imam Muhammad ibn Ishaq explicitly claimed that Ashab al-Kahf were followers of Eisa (Peace be on him), as Ibni al-Athir quoted him.
The Editors of Encylopedia Britannica observe:
Before Decius’s reign, persecution of the Christians in the empire had been sporadic and local, but about the beginning of January 250, he issued an edict ordering all citizens to perform a religious sacrifice in the presence of commissioners. A large number of Christians defied the government, for which the bishops of Rome, Jerusalem, and Antioch lost their lives and many others were arrested. 
Wikipedia introduces Decius in these words:
A distinguished politician during the reign of Philip the Arab, Decius was proclaimed emperor by his troops after putting down a rebellion in Moesia. In 249, he defeated and killed Philip near Verona and was recognized as emperor by the Senate afterward. During his reign, he attempted to strengthen the Roman state and its religion, leading to the Decian persecution, where a number of prominent Christians (including Pope Fabian) were put to death. In the last year of his reign, Decius co-ruled with his son Herennius Etruscus, until they were both killed by the Goths in the Battle of Abritus.
The Cave of the Seven Sleepers
Several sites have been attributed as Cave of Seven Sleepers in Turkey and Jordan. However, reports mentioned by Abdullah bin Abbas (May Allah be pleased with him) supports the site of Amman (Jordan).
Madain Project reminds:
Cave of Ashab Kahf (اصحاب الکهف) or the Cave of the Seven Sleepers (كهف السبعة النائمين) in Jordan is a partly natural and partly man-made burial cave dating back to the Byzantine era, believed to be the cave of Ashab Kahf mentioned in Quran. The cave is also known as the Kahf of Raqeem (كهف الرقيم) mentioned in Quran's chapter 18 (Sura al-Kahaf).
Interestingly, the entrance of the cave faces south, which conforms with the Qur’anic narrative:
Had you seen them in the Cave it would have appeared to you that when the sun rose, it moved away from their Cave to the right; and when it set, it turned away from them to the left, while they remained in a spacious hollow in the Cave.
This narrative indicates that the sunlight does not fall on the entrance of the cave directly, neither at the time of sunrise nor sunset. It means the cave mentioned above faces southward or northward. So this narrative also supports that the cave identified as Seven Sleepers’ cave in Jordan is the strongest candidate.
Allah knows the best.
 W.W. Hallo, The Context of Scripture, p.845
 Sayed Sulayman Nadwi, Ardh al-Qur’an: p.67
 Al-Mafassal fi Tarikh al-Arab
 Ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, vol.1, p. 274, Dar al-KUtb al-Ilmiyah, Beirut, Lebanon, 1987