In The Name of God, The Most Gracious, The Dispenser of Grace.
18:1 All Praise is due to God, who has bestowed. this divine writ from on high upon His servant, and has not allowed any deviousness to obscure its meaning.
Lit., “and has not given it any deviousness”. The term ‘iwaj signifies “crookedness”, “tortuousness” or “deviation” (e.g., from a path), as well as “distortion” or “deviousness” in the abstract sense of these words. The above phrase is meant to establish the direct, unambiguous character of the Qur’an and to stress its freedom from all obscurities and internal contradictions: cf. 4:82 – “Had it issued from any but God, they would surely have found in it many an inner contradiction!”
18:2 [A divine writ] unerringly straight, meant to warn [the godless] of severe punishment from Him, and to give unto the believers who do good works the glad tiding that theirs shall be a goodly reward.
Most of the classical commentators (and, as far as I am aware, all the earlier translators of the Qur’an) relate the pronoun in bihi to the assertion that “God has taken unto Himself a son”, and hence take the phrase to mean, “They have no knowledge of it”, i.e., no knowledge of such a happening. However, this interpretation is weak inasmuch as an absence of knowledge does not necessarily imply an objective negation of the fact to which it relates. It is, therefore, obvious that bihi cannot signify “of it”: it signifies “of Him”, and relates to God. Hence, the phrase must be rendered as above – meaning that they who make such a preposterous claim have no real knowledge of Him since they attribute to the Supreme Being something that is attributable only to created imperfect beings. This interpretation is supported, in an unequivocal manner, by Tabari and, as an alternative, by Baydawi.
18:3 [A state of bliss] in which they shall dwell beyond the count of time.
Lit., “it may well be that thou wilt…”, etc. However, the particle la’alla does not, in this context, indicate a possibility but, rather, a rhetorical question implying a reproach for the attitude referred to (Maraghl XIII, 116).
18:4 Furthermore, [this divine writ is meant] to warn all those who assert, “God has taken unto Himself a son.”
This rhetorical question is addressed, in the first instance, to the Prophet, who was deeply distressed by the hostility which his message aroused among the pagan Meccans and suffered agonies of apprehension regarding their spiritual fate. Beyond that, however, it applies to everyone who, having become convinced of the truth of an ethical proposition, is dismayed at the indifference with which his social environment reacts to it.
18:5 No knowledge whatever have they of Him, and neither had their forefathers: dreadful is this saying that comes out of their mouths, [and] nothing but falsehood do they utter!
Lit., “We have made all that exists on earth as its adornment in order that We might put them [i.e., all human beings] to a test”: meaning that God lets them reveal their real characters in their respective attitudes – moral or immoral – towards the material goods and benefits which the world offers them. In further analysis, this passage implies that the real motive underlying men’s refusal to believe in God’s spiritual message (see preceding verse) is almost always their excessive, blind attachment to the good of this world, combined with false pride in what they regard as their own achievements (cf. 16:22 and the corresponding note 15).
18:6 But wouldst thou, perhaps, torment thyself to death with grief over them if they are not willing to believe in this message?
This interpolation establishes the elliptically implied connection between the long passage that follows and the preceding two verses.
18:7 Behold, We have willed that all beauty on earth be a means by which We put men to a test, [showing] which of them are best in conduct.
Lit., “that the Men of the Cave… were more wondrous…”, etc. – the implication being that the allegory or parable based on this story is entirely in tune with the ethical doctrine propounded in the Qur’an as a whole, and therefore not “more wondrous” than any other of its statements. – As regards the story of the Men of the Cave as such most of the commentators incline to the view that it relates to a phase in early Christian history – namely, the persecution of the Christians by Emperor Decius in the third century. Legend has it that some young Christians of Ephesus, accompanied by their dog, withdrew into a secluded cave in order to be able to live in accordance with their faith, and remained there, miraculously asleep for a great length of time (according to some accounts, referred to in verse 25 of this surah, for about three centuries). When they finally awoke – unaware of the long time during which they had lain asleep – they sent one of their company to the town to purchase some food. In the meantime, the situation had changed entirely: Christianity was no longer persecuted and had even become the official religion of the Roman Empire. The ancient coin (dating from the reign of Decius) with which the young man wanted to pay for his purchases immediately aroused curiosity; people began to question the stranger, and the story of the Men of the Cave and their miraculous sleep came to light. As already mentioned, the majority of the classical commentators rely on this Christian legend in their endeavor to interpret the Qur’anic reference (in verses 9-26) to the Men of the Cave. It seems, however, that the Christian formulation of this theme is a later development of a much older oral tradition – a tradition which, in fact, goes back to pre-Christian, Jewish sources. This is evident from several well-authenticated ahadith (mentioned by all the classical commentators), according to which it was the Jewish rabbis (ahbar) of Medina who induced the Meccan opponents of Muhammad to “test his veracity” by asking him to explain, among other problems, the story of the Men of the Cave. Referring to these ahadith, Ibn Kathir remarks in his commentary on verse 13 of this surah: “It has been said that they were followers of Jesus the son of Mary, but God knows it better: it is obvious that they lived much earlier than the Christian period – for, had they been Christians, why should the Jewish rabbis have been intent on preserving their story, seeing that the Jews had cut themselves off from all friendly communion with them [i.e., the Christians]?” We may, therefore, safely assume that the legend of the Men of the Cave – stripped of its Christian garb and the superimposed Christian background – is, substantially, of Jewish origin. If we discard the later syncretic additions and reduce the story to its fundamentals – voluntary withdrawal from the world, agelong “sleep” in a secluded cave, and a miraculous “awakening” after an indeterminate period of time – we have before us a striking allegory relating to a movement which played an important role in Jewish religious history during the centuries immediately preceding and following the advent of Jesus: namely, the ascetic Essene Brotherhood (to which, as I have pointed out in note 42 on 3:52, Jesus himself may have belonged), and particularly that of its branches which lived in self-imposed solitude in the vicinity of the Dead Sea and have recently, after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, come to be known as the “Qumran community”. The expression ar-raqim occurring in the above Qur’an-verse (and rendered by me as “scriptures”) lends strong support to this theory. As recorded by Tabari, some of the earliest authorities – and particularly Ibn ‘Abbas – regarded this expression as synonymous with marqum (“something that is written”) and hence with Kitab (“a writ” or “a scripture”); and Razi adds that “all rhetoricians and Arabic philologists assert that ar-raqim signifies [the same as] al-Kitab”. Since it is historically established that the members of the Qumran community – the strictest group among the Essenes – devoted themselves entirely to the study, the copying, and the preservation of the sacred scriptures, and since they lived in complete seclusion from the rest of the world and were highly admired for their piety and moral purity, it is more than probable that their mode of life made so strong an impression on the imagination of their more worldly co-religionists that it became gradually allegorized in the story of the Men of the Cave who “slept” – that is, was cut off from the outside world – for countless years, destined to be “awakened” after their spiritual task was done. But whatever the source of this legend, and irrespective of whether it is of Jewish or Christian origin, the fact remains that it is used in the Qur’an in a purely parabolic sense: namely, as an illustration of God’s power to bring about death (or “sleep”) and resurrection (or “awakening’); and, secondly, as an allegory of the piety that induces men to abandon a wicked or frivolous world in order to keep their faith unsullied, and of God’s recognition of that faith by His bestowal of a spiritual awakening which transcends time and death.
18:8 And, verily, [in time] We shall reduce all that is on it to barren dust!
Lit., “and provide for us, out of our condition (min amrina), a consciousness of what is right” – which latter phrase gives the meaning of the term rushd in this context. This passage is a kind of introduction to the allegory of the Men of the Cave, giving a broad outline of what is expounded more fully in verses 13 ff.
18:9 [And since the life of this world is but a test,] dost thou [really] think that [the parable of] the Men of the Cave and of [their devotion to] the scriptures could be deemed more wondrous than any [other] of Our messages?
i.e., God caused them to remain cut off – physically or metaphorically – from the sounds and the bustle of the outside world. The classical commentators take the above phrase to mean that God “veiled their ears with sleep”.
18:10 When those youths took refuge in the cave, they prayed: “O our Sustainer! Bestow on us grace from Thyself, and endow us, whatever our [outward] condition, with the consciousness of what is right!”
Or: “sent them forth” – which may indicate a return to the active life of this world.