Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Surah 18: From Alexander to the Messiah

“We made Surah 18 a great sign of Mohammad’s plagiarism and confusion”

Masud Masihiyyen

The 18th chapter of the Islamic scripture, named The Cave (Al-Kahf in Arabic), has attracted a lot of attention from Christian apologists and become the subject of many critiques. Belonging to the Meccan period of the Qur’an, this chapter has a unique place as its form and content is clearly not in agreement with the Islamic notion of gradual revelation. The fact that in the Islamic scripture a story can be found repeated in many chapters with slight variations is compatible with the teaching that the Qur’an was sent down in portions rather than as a complete book. Non-Muslim scholars tend to interpret these kinds of repetitions as a literary defect of the Qur’an, arguing that the existence of similar stories differing only in details points at the influence of multiple storytellers. While talking of the literary problems in the Qur’an, Jay Smith quotes Morey:

Another problem is that of repetition. The Qur'an, we are told, was intended to be memorized by those who were illiterate and uneducated. It therefore engages in the principle of endless repetition of the same material (Morey 1992:113). This all leads to a good bit of confusion for the novice reader, and seems to point to a style reminiscent of the storytellers mentioned earlier. (Source)

The Islamic argument given in response to this sort of a critique regards the repetition of a story throughout the Qur’an as a positive sign of the Qur’an’s eloquence in addition to a necessity for memorization. In order to refute the claim that the repetitions of the Qur’an mark it as a book produced by multiple hands, Muslim scholars generally contend that the repetitions in the Qur’an are not boring and useless and that they have different functions:

The Quran uses repetition, as the accuracy of the speech requires showing a meaning in many different forms, and the repeated stories need to be introduced differently every time its mentioned so the reader does not get bored but rather than that he would find new meanings form the other repetitions.

The language knowledgeable Salah Abd Al-Tawab says: the importance of repetition was in reminding people and in increasing the effect of what was reminded. It is not easy for any one to understand the importance of repetition. The Quran use it very well that it looks perfect.

As examples for repetition and variation, the stories in the Quran are introduced differently each time, it is repeated to deliver the special purpose that the God want to deliver. Every time the story is repeated you would find differences in its words and parts and there is so much need to change the words positions and to mention stuff would be ignored in other situations, as require for the accuracy of the speech. (Source)

A Turkish Islamic scholar named Bediuzzaman gives a list of the purposes and benefits of the Quranic repetitions. He suggests that one of the many benefits of the repetition is that it enables some Muslims who do not have a chance to read the entire Qur’an to read and understand basic Islamic doctrines. He concludes that repetition is also a sign of and requirement for the miraculous nature of the Islamic scripture (source).

However, either Allah or Muslim scholars seem unaware of the fact that Surah 18 does not conform to the teachings about the suggested benefits of repetition, for it consists of three long narratives and a parable that are repeated nowhere else in the entire Qur’an:

The story of the sleepers in the cave (v. 9-26)
The parable of two men with two gardens (v. 32-43)
The story of Moses and a wise servant of Allah (v. 60-82)
The story of Dhu'l-Qarneyn (v. 83-98)

How should one reconcile the counter-arguments of the Islamic scholars who praise the repetitions in the Qur’an as a purposeful necessity and a mark of eloquence with the form and content of the 18th chapter? In the light of the alleged benefits of repetition and its significance for the Islamic revelation, is it possible to say that Surah 18 lacks eloquence or that it fails to share the miraculous nature of Allah’s book? In order to refute the possible accusation that our questions and critique are based on a hasty generalization, we should also remind Muslim scholars that Surah 18 is not the only chapter to contain stories appearing once in the Qur’an. Surah 12, which claims to be one of the best narratives, consists of Joseph’s story, which again occurs only once in the entire Qur’an. Similarly, Surah 28, which relates Moses’ story from his birth to his receiving the Law, has a few elements (for instance, the account of Moses’ journey to Median and his marriage) that are repeated nowhere else. Should we thus conclude that some of the well-developed narratives in the Qur’an are deprived of eloquence and the asserted benefits of divine repetition?

More interestingly, another reason given for the repetition of the same material in the Qur’an is based on the distinction between the two periods of the Islamic revelation:

The Makkan suras, and those revealed in Madina are different from each other in eloquence and miraculousness, and with respect to elaboration or conciseness. This is because, since those the Qur’an addressed in Makka were mainly the polytheists of the Quraysh, it would have to use a forceful, eloquent and concise language with an elevated style and make reiterations to establish its truths. (Source)

Despite being a chapter of the Meccan period, Surah 18 does not conform to the general rule of necessary reiteration stated above. Allah does not repeat any of the detailed narratives he introduces in the 18th chapter of his book. This shows that Mohammad was not always concerned with the step-by-step revelation of his stories or their repetition for eloquence or easy memorization. As perfectly exemplified in Surah 18, in some cases he delighted in devising long narratives by ignoring the supposed benefits of reiteration.

Mohammad’s narrative technique showing variations in the Qur’an may actually be related to the distinct forms of plagiarism he made use of in the formation of his book. Accordingly, some narratives that display more textual coherence and unity despite their one-time occurrence in the Qur’an are more likely to have been drawn from written sources. Thus, in the process of forming the Qur’an Mohammad seems to have sometimes kept faithful at least to the original form of a narrative, having decided not to spoil it through repetition.1 In short, Mohammad’s narrative techniques are inextricably dependent on his plagiarism techniques. The stories peculiar to Surah 18 constitute a brilliant example in support for this theory.

Things gets more interesting when one remembers the traditional Islamic teaching that Surah 18 was revealed to Mohammad because some of the People of the Book (Jews) had posed him a few questions with the aim of testing his prophetic claims. While explaining the reason for the alleged revelation of Surah 18, Islamic commentator Ibn Kathir records the following:

Muhammad bin Ishaq mentioned the reason why this Surah was revealed. He said that an old man from among the people of Egypt who came to them some forty-odd years ago told him, from `Ikrimah that Ibn `Abbas said: "The Quraysh sent An-Nadr bin Al-Harith and `Uqbah bin Abi Mu`it to the Jewish rabbis in Al-Madinah, and told them: ‘Ask them (the rabbis) about Muhammad, and describe him to them, and tell them what he is saying. They are the people of the first Book, and they have more knowledge of the Prophets than we do.’ So they set out and when they reached Al-Madinah, they asked the Jewish rabbis about the Messenger of Allah. They described him to them and told them some of what he had said. They said, ‘You are the people of the Tawrah and we have come to you so that you can tell us about this companion of ours.’ They (the rabbis) said, ‘Ask him about three things which we will tell you to ask, and if he answers them then he is a Prophet who has been sent (by Allah); if he does not, then he is saying things that are not true, in which case how you will deal with him will be up to you. Ask him about some young men in ancient times, what was their story. For theirs is a strange and wondrous tale. Ask him about a man who travelled a great deal and reached the east and the west of the earth. What was his story. And ask him about the Ruh (soul or spirit) -- what is it. If he tells you about these things, then he is a Prophet, so follow him, but if he does not tell you, then he is a man who is making things up, so deal with him as you see fit.’ (Source)

If this traditional explanation is true and trustworthy, this leads to two significant conclusions. First, the Islamic tradition concerning the origin of the 18th chapter displays inconsistencies with the accounts in this Surah. There is nothing in this chapter to suggest that the story of the sleepers in the cave was related in an answer to the first question of the Jewish rabbis as the formula “They ask thee….”, which occurs right before the narration of Dhu'l-Qarneyn’s expeditions, is missing from the introduction to the story of the sleepers. More, the second story in this chapter (Moses’ encounter with a wise servant of Allah) is by no means related to the questions posed by the Jews. Finally, the answer to the third question (about the spirit) is surprisingly found in another chapter (Surah 17:85), making one suppose that there was a problem with the arrangement of some Qur’an verses.

The second significant conclusion we can draw from this traditional commentary is that the stories of the sleepers and Dhu'l-Qarneyn were known by the People of the Scripture living in Mohammad’s era. This, in turn, proves that the narratives in view were not peculiar to the Qur’an, but were rather plagiarized by Mohammad from some sources present at that time. Relevantly, some scholars believe that the relation of the three narratives in Surah 18 once more labels Mohammad a self-betraying borrower knowing no boundaries. For example, in the introduction to the commentary of Surah 18, Wherry harshly criticizes the act of plagiarism carried out by Mohammad along with the ignorance of the people who contributed to him by recounting these stories:

A remarkable feature of the stories of this chapter is that three of them are derived from apocryphal sources, viz., the story of the sleepers, the story of Khidhar (Jethro), and the story of Alexander's journeyings, and of his building a barrier to prevent the incursions of the northern kings of Gog and Magog. All these stories partake of the character of the marvellous, and carry with them such an air of vagueness as to leave the impression that Muhammad's informants were themselves but ill-informed. (Source)

Of these three plagiarized stories, the story of Dhu'l-Qarneyn (generally identified as Alexander the Great in Islamic tradition) undoubtedly and rightfully takes the lead in the critique of this Surah, for from the narrative itself along with the traditional designation of its central character as two-horned Alexander have arisen many arguments defying and denying the supposed divine origin of the Islamic scripture. Prominent criticisms are centered on Alexander’s mistaken affiliation with monotheism/Islam (*) and the claim in the account of Alexander’s journeys that he went to the West and saw the Sun setting in a muddy spring, the verb “see” having the sense of “discovery” in this context (*).

It will not be implausible to assume for a moment that these three stories were intended to represent the three major religious groups in the world: Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Mohammad might have desired to make a vague association between the central figures of these stories in order to imply that Islam represented the correction and perfection of Judaism and Christianity. If this theory is true, one is free to suppose that Alexander the Great in this story corresponded to Mohammad himself as Mohammad claimed to be the only messenger of Allah sent on a universal mission whilst Alexander’s reign stood for the dreamed victory and golden age of Islam.

However, the order of these three stories in chapter 18 would instantly undermine this theory, for the account of the sleepers is recounted before that of Moses, which would give one the wrong impression that Christianity preceded Judaism. Another reason why it is not possible to establish a link between the central figure of the third story in Surah 18 and Mohammad’s universal mission is that Mohammad did not travel around the world or claimed that he was in any way associated with Dhu'l-Qarneyn. The traditional teaching that it was some Jewish men who had posed Mohammad a question about Dhu'l-Qarneyn (Alexander the Great) enables us to evaluate Alexander’s story in Surah 18 in a Messianic context in accordance with the Jewish expectation of a military commander and king that would extend his kingdom “from one sea to another, from the river to the confines of the earth” (Psalm 70). The Judaic designation of the Messiah as an earthly king and messenger may have contributed to Mohammad’s fallacious presumption that Alexander the Great was a great universal prophet and both the defender and promoter of monotheism. Nonetheless, it is not possible to know for sure whether the root of this confusion was Mohammad’s hasty conclusion or his Jewish audience’s wish to confound and ridicule him.

In any case, the story of Moses and the wise servant of Allah in Surah 18 addresses the Jews and contains Mohammad’s latent warning to the Jews of Medina that they should not question him about the things known and kept hidden by Allah. It is also noteworthy that the three incidents experienced by Moses in the Quranic story bear remarkable similarities to some major elements in the biblical account of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Surprisingly, Moses and his wise friend in Surah 18 try to escape a mighty figure chasing them on the sea with the aim of plundering the ship, and Moses’ friend rescues the ship and the passengers by simply opening a hole therein. Moses complains about his friend’s weird action and even accuses him of trying to drown the people on board (verses 71 and 79). This reminds us of the biblical story of Exodus, which narrates Pharaoh’s chasing the Israelites up to the sea, Israelites’ fear and grumblings to Moses, and Moses’ renting the sea in two for the Israelites’ rescue (Exodus 14). More, as Moses in the biblical account slays the Israelites who worship the golden calf in the wilderness and commands them to slay even their relatives who fell into the error of idolatry (Exodus 32:27), Moses’ wise friend in Surah 18 slays a lad because he is a disbelieving son of believing parents (verses 74 and 80-81). Finally, the account of Moses and his friend’s entering a town where they receive no hospitality and repair a wall in ruins (verses 77 and 82) is basically related to the biblical narrative of the Israelites’ arrival at Jericho and the opposition of Jericho’s people (the notion of hospitality), the reference to a wall in both accounts being significant. (Joshua 2 and 6).

The remaining story in the 18th chapter, which recounts the death-like sleep of some youths in a cave for a considerably long time, most likely addresses Christians. This interesting narrative, the setting of which caused the compilers of the Qur’an to name this Surah “Cave” (Al-Kahf), is a slightly modified form of a famous Christian legend telling the story of a few Christian martyrs who took refuge in a cave from their oppressive pagan enemies, fell into a sleep there, woke up centuries later and thus became archetypes of bodily resurrection. Ample evidence points to the fact that Mohammad heard this story and incorporated it into his Qur’an, having been fascinated by its message.2

One of the most interesting points concerning the story of the sleepers in Surah 18 is that Muslim scholars could not decide whether this particular narrative was originally about some Jewish youths rather than Christ’s followers. It is evident in the following quotation from Ibn Kathir that some commentators were reluctant to identify the youths as Christ’s followers since such identification would fail to answer the question why the Jewish rabbis would ever ask Mohammad a question about a miraculous story assigned to Christians.

It has been mentioned that they were followers of the religion of Al-Masih `Isa, `Isa bin Maryam, but Allah knows best. It seems that they lived before the time of Christianity altogether, because if they had been Christians, the Jewish rabbis would not have cared about preserving because of their differences. We have mentioned above the report from Ibn `Abbas that the Quraysh sent a message to the Jewish rabbis in Al-Madinah to ask them for things with which they could test the Messenger of Allah , and they told them to ask him about these young men, and about Dhul-Qarnayn (the man who traveled much) and about the Ruh. This indicates that this story was something recorded in the books of the People of the Book, and that it came before Christianity. And Allah knows best. (Source)

However, the details present in the traditional commentary overtly contradict the theory above and clearly ascribe the miraculous incident of sleeping and waking up to some youths of Byzantium who incurred the hostility and wrath of their pagan king Decius because they refused to offer sacrifices to idols:

Several of the earlier and later Tafsir scholars have mentioned that they were sons of the kings and leaders of Byzantium, and that they went out one day to one of the festivals of their people. They used to gather once a year outside the city, and they would worship idols and offer sacrifices to them. They had an arrogant, tyrannical king who was called Decianus3, who commanded and encouraged the people to do that. (Source)

This particular section in Ibn Kathir’s tafsir makes it clear that Mohammad had plagiarized the story of the sleepers from Christian sources. Again, we are left with two possibilities: either the Jewish rabbis who supposedly tested Mohammad’s prophetic claims tried to lead him into confusion by talking of a Christian story as if it was one of Judaic origin or Mohammad fabricated the test in view and ascribed it to Jewish rabbis so as to conceal from people the original source of the story. Nevertheless, this concealment came to a tragic end when Mohammad’s followers wrote commentaries and ironically testified to Mohammad’s plagiarism.

It is also noteworthy that Mohammad’s zeal to resist and condemn Jesus’ identification as the Son of God in Christianity can be clearly seen in the introductory verses of Surah 18 just before the narrative of the sleepers.

Praise be to Allah Who hath revealed the Scripture unto His slave, and hath not placed therein any crookedness, (But hath made it) straight, to give warning of stern punishment from Him, and to bring unto the believers who do good works the news that theirs will be a fair reward, Wherein they will abide for ever; And to warn those who say: Allah hath chosen a son, (A thing) whereof they have no knowledge, nor (had) their fathers, Dreadful is the word that cometh out of their mouths. They speak naught but a lie. (Surah 18:1-5 Pickthall)

Although some scholars contend that these verses were directed to the pagans of Mecca, who believed Allah to have daughters, it is more probable that here Mohammad’s primary target was Christians. This argument is strengthened when we remember that Surah 19 contains almost identical verses denouncing Christians for considering Jesus a son taken by Allah:

Such was Jesus, son of Mary: (this is) a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt. It befitteth not (the Majesty of) Allah that He should take unto Himself a son. Glory be to Him! When He decreeth a thing, He saith unto it only: Be! and it is. (Surah 19:34-35 Pickthall)

If the clause “those who say Allah has chosen a son” in Surah 18 refers to Christians rather than to pagans, the coherence and link between Mohammad’s opposition to Christianity and the story of the sleepers, which he certainly borrowed from Christian sources, become obvious. In other words, Mohammad could not resist attacking Christians in Surah 18 with regard to their faith in Christ as the Son of God since the account of the sleepers in the cave functioned as a reminder of Christian tenets, being originally devised by Christians and about Christians.

Major Characteristics of the Story of the Sleepers

The narrative of the miraculous awaking of some youths in chapter 18 has a few peculiarities that illustrate Mohammad’s motive for adapting it and the type of modifications he applied to it. First of all, this particular narrative is introduced through a rhetorical question which regards the sleepers as one of Allah’s several great signs/miracles:

Or, do you think that the Fellows of the Cave and the Inscription were of Our wonderful signs? (Surah 18:9 Shakir)

After a short account in the form of a summary (verses 10-12), the story is related again with overemphasis on the monotheistic faith of the sleepers:

We relate to you their story with the truth; surely they were youths who believed in their Lord and We increased them in guidance. And We strengthened their hearts with patience, when they stood up and said: Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth; we will by no means call upon any god besides Him, for then indeed we should have said an extravagant thing. These our people have taken gods besides Him; why do they not produce any clear authority in their support? Who is then more unjust than he who forges a lie against Allah? And when you forsake them and what they worship save Allah, betake yourselves for refuge to the cave; your Lord will extend to you largely of His mercy and provide for you a profitable course in your affair. (Surah 18:13-16 Shakir)

While borrowing the story from non-Islamic sources, Mohammad apparently infected the sleepers with his abnormal monotheistic obsession and tried to convince his audience that his ideology named Islam was the modern version of the ancient monotheistic faiths. Unsurprisingly, Mohammad was not a good narrator as he delighted in destroying the flow of a story through the abrupt addition of commentaries as we can see in the following verses:

And you might see the sun when it rose, decline from their cave towards the right hand, and when it set, leave them behind on the left while they were in a wide space thereof. This is of the signs of Allah; whomsoever Allah guides, he is the rightly guided one, and whomsoever He causes to err, you shall not find for him any friend to lead (him) aright. And you might think them awake while they were asleep and We turned them about to the right and to the left, while their dog (lay) outstretching its paws at the entrance; if you looked at them you would certainly turn back from them in flight, and you would certainly be filled with awe because of them. (Surah 18:17-18 Shakir)

Mohammad mistakenly presumed that forcing himself into a historic narrative would gain him credibility, but he would have abandoned that presumption if he had paid more attention to the style of his narratives. The verses above ironically testify to the plagiarism of a confused story teller more than to a revelation given to a messenger. The only thing we can consider mysterious in this untidy group of statements is the reference in verse 17 to the movements of the sun at the time of the youths’ sleep in the cave. The rising and setting of the sun and the sleepers’ lying in a wide space are somehow deemed to be miraculous by Allah. More interestingly, this particular reference to the sun creates an uncanny association between the narrative of the sleepers and that of Dhu'l-Qarneyn (Alexander the Great), which is later recounted in the same chapter. We are told that Alexander the Great took three expeditions, two of which were related to the movements of the sun. His final expedition was to a place between two mountains:

So he followed a course until when he reached the place where the sun set, he found it going down into a black sea, and found by it a people. (Surah 18:85-86 Shakir)

Then he followed (another) course until when he reached the land of the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people to whom We had given no shelter from It. (Surah 18:89-90)

Then he followed (another) course until when he reached (a place) between the two mountains, he found on that side of them a people who could hardly understand a word. (Surah 18:92-93)

What was the cause of this thematic association? The existence of these kinds of elements in the same Surah looks a bit weird and gives birth to the questions whether Mohammad had embellished these stories with the help of elements derived one from another or if he had erroneously ascribed the original motifs of a particular story to another solely because he was going to place them in one single Surah.

More strikingly, Surah 18 is one of the unique chapters of the Qur’an that has an emphatic apocalyptical tone. Before analyzing its verses that are related to the end of times, it is necessary to quote from Ibn Kathir’s commentary regarding the benefits of this Surah:

What has been mentioned about the Virtues of this Surah and the first and last ten Ayat, which provide protection from the Dajjal. Imam Ahmad recorded that Al-Bara' said: "A man recited Al-Kahf and there was an animal in the house which began acting in a nervous manner. He looked, and saw a fog or cloud overhead. He mentioned this to the Prophet , who said: (Keep on reciting so and so, for this is the tranquillity which descends when one reads Qur'an or because of reading Qur'an;). Imam Ahmad recorded from Abu Ad-Darda' that the Prophet said: (Whoever memorizes ten Ayat from the beginning of Surat Al-Kahf will be protected from the Dajjal.) (Source)

When we remember that the term “Dajjal” corresponds to the “anti-Christ” in Islamic terminology (source), the apocalyptic peculiarity of Surah 18 becomes apparent. The account of the sleepers in the cave also bears some motifs that refer to mankind’s bodily resurrection. Although the story does not explicitly talk of the youths’ long sleep as the symbolic equivalent of death, this kind of an interpretation and symbolic association is supported by a few other Qur’an verses in which the duration of mankind’s remaining dead is expressed in identical terms as that of the youths’ remaining asleep. To compare:

And thus did We rouse them that they might question each other. A speaker among them said: How long have you tarried? They said: We have tarried for a day or a part of a day. (Others) said: Your Lord knows best how long you have tarried. (Surah 18:19 Shakir)

On the day that they see it, it will be as though they had not tarried but the latter part of a day or the early part of it. (Surah 79:46 Shakir)

Therefore bear up patiently as did the apostles endowed with constancy bear up with patience and do not seek to hasten for them (their doom). On the day that they shall see what they are promised they shall be as if they had not tarried save an hour of the day. (Surah 46:35)

He will say: How many years did you tarry in the earth? They will say: We tarried a day or part of a day, but ask those who keep account. He will say: You did tarry but a little-- had you but known (it). (Surah 23:112-114 Shakir)

On the day when He will call you forth, then shall you obey Him, giving Him praise, and you will think that you tarried but a little (while). (Surah 17:52 Shakir)

It is therefore reasonable to say that in Surah 18 the youths’ waking up from their sleep corresponds to mankind’s bodily resurrection on the final day. This teaching is endorsed by Ibn Kathir’s tafsir on the 21st verse of chapter 18:

Several scholars of the Salaf mentioned that the people of that time were skeptical about the Resurrection. `Ikrimah said: "There was a group of them who said that the souls would be resurrected but not the bodies, so Allah resurrected the people of the Cave as a sign and proof of resurrection." (Source)

Besides, in the following verse the youths’ awakening from long sleep is presented as evidence for the veracity of the divine promises and teachings concerning the end of times:

And in like manner We disclosed them (to the people of the city) that they might know that the promise of Allah is true, and that, as for the Hour, there is no doubt concerning it. (Surah 18:21 Pickthall)

The central message of the narrative of the sleepers is thus linked to the final day and hour, displaying another connection with the narratives of apocalyptic nature. Rather interestingly, the story of Dhu'l-Qarneyn (Alexander the Great) contains similar apocalyptic elements. First, Alexander is said to build a great barrier to stop the movement of Gog and Magog, which occur often in Biblical prophecies of apocalyptic nature (*).

They said: O Dhu'l-Qarneyn! Lo! Gog and Magog are spoiling the land. So may we pay thee tribute on condition that thou set a barrier between us and them? (Surah 18:94 Pickthall)

Second, the barrier built by Alexander is claimed to stand erected until the Day of Judgment:

He said: This is a mercy from my Lord; but when the promise of my Lord cometh to pass, He will lay it low, for the promise of my Lord is true. (Surah 18:98 Pickthall)

Alexander’s prediction is linked to the end of times and mankind’s gathering for judgment, which definitely takes place after mankind’s bodily resurrection:

And on that day we shall let some of them surge against others, and the Trumpet will be blown. Then We shall gather them together in one gathering. (Surah 18:99 Pickthall)

Those are they who disbelieve in the revelations of their Lord and in the meeting with Him. Therefore their works are vain, and on the Day of Resurrection We assign no weight to them. (Surah 18:105 Pickthall)

These statements do not only affiliate Alexander’s reign on earth with the apocalyptic literature, but also constitute another interesting association between the story of the sleepers and that of Alexander’s. What is the reason that underlies this connection? What did the sleeping youths (Christians) have in common with Alexander, whose story in the Qur’an surprisingly has Messianic elements that became stronger due to the presence of an apocalyptic theme?

Problems in the Islamic Account of the Sleepers

The story of the sleepers in Surah 18 contains a few problems that reflect Mohammad’s exposal to confusion in the process of plagiarism due to the differing views on certain elements of the narrative. The first problem that has caused much trouble for Islamic commentators is the occurrence of the mysterious word “Al-Raqim” (al-raqeem) in verse 9, which is translated into English as “Inscription” by some scholars through mere guess work:

Or deemest thou that the People of the Cave and the Inscription are a wonder among Our portents? (Pickthall)

Or dost thou reflect that the Companions of the Cave And of the Inscription Were wonders among Our Signs? (Yusuf Ali)

Or, do you think that the Fellows of the Cave and the Inscription were of Our wonderful signs? (Shakir)

However, some scholars maintain the foreign word in their English translations:

Hast thou reckoned that the Fellows of the Cave and Er-raqîm were a wonder amongst our signs? (Palmer)

Hast thou reflected that the Inmates of THE CAVE and of Al Rakim were on our wondrous signs? (Rodwell)

Or dost thou think the Men of the Cave and Er-Rakeem were among Our signs a wonder? (Arberry)

Ibn Kathir’s commentary on this particular verse testifies to Mohammad’s special talent for leaving his audience in suspense and compelling the Islamic scholars to multiply the differing views on this subject through presumptions:

Al-Kahf refers to a cave in a mountain, which is where the young men sought refuge. With regard to the word Ar-Raqim, Al-`Awfi reported from Ibn `Abbas that it is a valley near Aylah. This was also said [in another narration] by `Atiyah Al-`Awfi and Qatadah. Ad-Dahhak said: "As for Al-Kahf, it is a cave in the valley, and Ar-Raqim is the name of the valley." Mujahid said, "Ar-Raqim refers to their buildings." Others said it refers to the valley in which their cave was. `Abdur-Razzaq recorded that Ibn `Abbas said about Ar-Raqim: "Ka`b used to say that it was the town." Ibn Jurayj reported that Ibn `Abbas said, "Ar-Raqim is the mountain in which the cave was." Sa`id bin Jubayr said, "Ar-Raqim is a tablet of stone on which they wrote the story of the people of the Cave, then they placed it at the entrance to the Cave." (Source)

The commentary above could be summarized in a single sentence: “We do not actually know what the word ‘al-raqim’ means; this is why the only thing we can do is brood and come up with various possibilities”. To complicate this issue further, some scholars argue that the word “al-raqim” referred to the dog of the sleepers.4 Still, many scholars translating the Qur’an into English, as presented above, feel at liberty to replace the word “al-raqim” with “Inscription” because they consider it derived from the Arabic verb “raqama”, which means “inscribe/record" (*). Some scholars, however, endorse the solution worked out by Torrey with regard to the source of this word in Surah 18:

The commentators present a great variety of guesses as to the meaning of ar-Raqim. The best solution so far offered is Torrey's suggestion that it arises from a misreading by Mohammed's informants of the Decius in the Story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who suffered during the Decian persecution, though the source was more likely to have been Syriac than the Hebrew source he posits. (Source)

The second problem stemming from the Islamic version of the story of the sleepers perfectly displays Mohammad’s eagerness to deal with a set of numbers and his reluctance to provide precise numbers due to his ignorance and consequent hesitation. Numbers are such integral and indispensable parts of this account that Allah’s motive for casting a deep sleep over the youths and awaking them many years later is bound to a test of accurate calculation:

So We prevented them from hearing in the cave for a number of years. Then We raised them up that We might know which of the two parties was best able to compute the time for which they remained. (Surah 18:11-12 Shakir)

Evidently, the theme of disagreement on certain numbers, which dominates the entire account of the sleepers, is craftily inserted by Mohammad into the story itself when the sleepers are made to form two parties and voice differing views concerning the length of their sleep:

And thus did We rouse them that they might question each other. A speaker among them said: How long have you tarried? They said: We have tarried for a day or a part of a day. (Others) said: Your Lord knows best how long you have tarried. (verse 19 Shakir)

Later Mohammad cannot conceal his hesitance when he latently confesses that the story he heard from others was highly problematic in terms of mathematical figures as it carried along numerical controversies. One of such disputes was related to the number of the sleepers:

(Some) say: (They are) three, the fourth of them being their dog; and (others) say: Five, the sixth of them being their dog, making conjectures at what is unknown; and (others yet) say: Seven, and the eighth of them is their dog. Say: My Lord best knows their number, none knows them but a few; therefore contend not in the matter of them but with an outward contention, and do not question concerning them any of them. (verse 22 Shakir)

Mohammad’s cautious approach even to a precise number allegedly given by Allah can be best seen in the following verses, which repeat the teaching that “Allah knows best”:

And they remained in their cave three hundred years and (some) add (another) nine. Say: Allah knows best how long they remained; to Him are (known) the unseen things of the heavens and the earth; how clear His sight and how clear His hearing! (verses 25-26 Shakir)

Some commentators think that in verse 25 Allah actually referred to two distinct numbers for the time spent by the sleepers in the cave, and this view is formally forced into the Qur’an through the addition of some words in brackets as seen in the above translation. If we accept the number (309) given in verse 25 as two separate figures (300 and 309 years) mirroring the numerical dissention of some people narrating the same story, we can but conclude that Allah does not only know best, but also “conceals best” or “reveals worst”, for Mohammad was obviously deprived of the knowledge of the exact number known only by Allah. Thus, the Islamic narrative of the sleepers in the Qur’an could do nothing more than reiterating the disagreements and disputes of Mohammad’s time, pushing Muslims into the same conflict despite the benefits of the divine revelation (!).

The original story of the sleepers makes it clear that the miraculous incident of falling asleep took place at the time of the pagan emperor Decius (249-251 A.D.) whilst that of waking up from a considerably long term of sleep during the reign of Theodorus II (447 A.D.), which would make the number of years spent in the cave about 200 (source). This is, however, far shorter than the number given by Mohammad (309 years). Wherry makes the following comment on the impossibility of the long span of time asserted in the Qur’an:

The interval between the reign of Decius and that of Theodosius the younger in whose time the sleepers are said to have awaked, will not allow them to have slept quite two hundred years … This passage is fatal to Muhammad's inspiration. According to this account the seven sleepers awoke about ten years before Muhammad's birth. (Source)

The mathematical figure given in this verse with regard to the number of the years the sleepers spent in the cave is perhaps the funniest and most ironic example of Islamic confusion stemming from Allah's statements, for Muslim scholars cannot even agree whether or not the particular way through which the number is given (the round number being given first, remaining number being added later) points at a disagreement. Thus, we can say that Muslims have a definite disagreement about the existence of an alleged disagreement among Christians. Ibn Kathir's commentary perfectly illustrates the Muslim scholars' confusion on this issue:

(And they stayed in their cave three hundred years,) Qatadah said, this was the view of the People of the Book, and Allah refuted it by saying: (Say: "Allah knows best how long they stayed...") meaning, that Allah knows better than what the people say. This was also the view of Mutarraf bin `Abdullah. However, this view is open to debate, because when the People of the Book said that they stayed in the cave for three hundred years, without the extra nine, they were referring to solar years, and if Allah was merely narrating what they had said, He would not have said, (adding nine.) The apparent meaning of the Ayah is that Allah is stating the facts, not narrating what was said. This is the view of Ibn Jarir (may Allah have mercy on him). And Allah knows best. (Source)

Further, one of the narrators in the above commentary puts the blame on Christians out of his ignorance and addiction to guesswork. Since the original Christian version of the story limits the number of years spent by the sleepers in the cave to two centuries, the digits given in the verse have nothing to do with Christian allegations. Some people who were well aware of this fact did not rely on Qatadah’s report and tried to work out different solutions. As evident in Ibn Kathir’s commentary, the best concurred solution was the claim that the two numbers (300 and 309) stated by Allah pertained to the existence of two different calendars, that is, solar and lunar years. Consequently, people following the lunar calendar reached a different number as they added 9 more years while changing the solar years into the lunar years.

This new Islamic claim finally got out of its original track and fell into the hands of a great miracle hunter and wizard like Harun Yahya. Before having some fun time by examining the absurdity of Yahya's pseudo-miracle concerning the peculiar number (309) claimed in the Qur'an, it is necessary to witness the confusion and ignorance of the Islamic commentators regarding the separation of the number 309 into two parts in the Qur'an verse. Instead of giving the total number at once, the Qur'an verse presents the round number first and then stresses the addition of 9 years, giving the total number only through implication. This mathematical process of addition is what actually instigates Muslim commentators to presume that there were two different numbers suggested by disagreeing parties. As it can be clearly seen below, some translators tend to support the latter view by adding extra words and/or comments into the original text of the Qur'an in Surah 18:25:

And they remained in their cave three hundred years and (some) add (another) nine. (Shakir)

So they stayed in their Cave Three hundred years, and (some) add nine (more). (Yusuf Ali)

And they stayed in their Cave three hundred (solar) years, and add nine (for lunar years). (Muhsin Khan)

Some scholars, however, keep faithful to the original text and avoid inserting traditional comments into the verse:

And (it is said) they tarried in their Cave three hundred years and add nine. (Pickthall)

And they tarried in their cave 300 years, and 9 years over. (Rodwell)

They tarried in their cave three hundred years and nine more. (Palmer)

The only thing we can say after this analysis is that Allah knows best why some scholars tamper with the Qur'an through inaccurate and misleading translations.

A Pseudo-Miracle of the Qur’an: Calculation of the Lunar Year

As it can be clearly seen in the peculiar translation by Muhsin Khan above, the Islamic tradition tends to attribute the occurrence of two distinct but related figures in Surah 18:25 to the difference between the calculation of lunar and solar years.5 This process is believed by people like Harun Yahya to indicate the miraculous and celestial nature of the Islamic scripture:

They stayed in their Cave for three hundred years and added nine. (Qur'an, 18:25)

We can clarify the time referred to in the verse thus: 300 years x 11 days (the difference which forms every year) = 3,300 days. Bearing in mind that one solar year lasts 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45.5 seconds, 3,300 days/365.24 days = 9 years. To put it another way, 300 years according to the Gregorian calendar is equal to 300+9 years according to the Hijri calendar. As we can see, the verse refers to this finely calculated difference of 9 years. (Allah knows best.) There is no doubt that the Qur'an, which contains such pieces of information, which transcended the everyday knowledge of the time, is a miraculous revelation. (Source)

Harun Yahya, an outstanding expert on the invention of pseudo-miracles from the Qur’an, simply derives this so-called scientific miracle from the traditional Islamic commentary that binds the two distinct numbers (300 and 309) in Surah 18:25 to the use of different calendars by human race. Through his allegations Yahya manages to baffle us once more by ascribing the existence of two different calendars to Allah himself even though lunar and solar calendars were devised by humans and pre-existed Islam. Likewise, in the entire Qur’an Allah does not instruct people how to distinguish solar years from lunar ones. More to the point, the thing suggested as a miracle by Yahya is nothing more than a mathematical process known to the people of Mohammad's era. Still, the idea that Allah is well aware of the use of two different calendars devised by humans and that he is as good as mortals at figuring out the differences between solar and lunar years might well be considered miraculous if this is what Yahya wants us to see and acknowledge. In short, Yahya thinks it is a miracle that Allah does not make any mathematical mistakes while calculating the number of years through different systems, which we can ironically consider a true miracle that exceeds all the other relevant miracles.

To be serious, we cannot see anything miraculous in the Qur'an verse quoted by Yahya, for it does not talk about two different calendars, nor does it explain why the numbers are given in this particular form. Thus, Yahya's invention is dependent on his assumption supported only by the traditional Islamic commentary, which ironically destroys the pseudo-miracle. It is obvious that the distinction between solar and lunar years could be noticed by humans – without Allah’s instructions – so as to be recorded in Islamic commentaries.

Second, it would be absolutely ridiculous to assume that Allah indicated the existence of lunar and solar calendars when he gave the numbers 300 and 309 in verse 25, for the Qur'an gave priority to lunar calendar as it was the system used by Arabs. Muslim and Western scholars have differing views about the peculiar form of the calendar used by Arabs in pre-Islamic times. Some scholars argue that Arabs originally had a lunar calendar, but a few centuries before Mohammad they switched to a lunisolar calendar (*). However, during the reign of the second Caliph the current Islamic lunar calendar was devised and enforced in accordance with the Quranic statutes commanding the use of lunar years for the measurement of time (*). In the light of these, claiming that in the account of the sleeping youths Allah first referred to the number of solar years is thus the least to be expected. Accordingly, Allah would make it clear that Muslims of that period added 9 years to 300 years and say “(we) add nine more”, thus emphasizing the perspective of the Muslims. If the supposition that the number 300 was derived from the solar calendar is true, we can but infer that Allah endorsed the solar number as the original figure and then additionally gave the lunar number, which would be improbable.

Third, this is not the only case in the entire Qur'an when a number is given in this particular form. While narrating Noah's story, Allah says that Noah lived among his people for 1000 years save 50, which equals 950.

And verily we sent Noah (as Our messenger) unto his folk, and he continued with them for a thousand years save fifty years; and the flood engulfed them, for they were wrong-doers. (Surah 29:14 Pickthall)

We (once) sent Noah To his people, and he tarried Among them a thousand years Less fifty: but the Deluge Overwhelmed them while they (Persisted in) sin. (Yusuf Ali)

And certainly We sent Nuh to his people, so he remained among them a thousand years save fifty years. And the deluge overtook them, while they were unjust. (Shakir)

Of old sent we Noah to his people: a thousand years save fifty did he tarry among them; and the flood overtook them in their wrongful doings. (Rodwell)

Strikingly, Muslim scholars do not argue that the numbers 1000 and 950 are distinct figures emphatically given to indicate people’s confusion about Noah’s age or the distinction of lunar years from solar ones. This example is of great significance because it shows that Allah somehow liked giving the round number first and then reached the precise number through a mathematical process, through subtraction in Surah 29 whilst through addition in Surah 18. Consequently, it is quite probable and reasonable to take the number 309 in Surah 18:25 as the precise figure meant by Allah and conclude that Allah simply wanted to highlight the process of reaching the precise number more than giving it directly.6

As some commentators failed to understand that Allah was eager to give the precise number (309) indirectly, they mistakenly interpreted the occurrence of the single number 309 in split form (300 and 9 more) in association with the disagreement dominating the narrative of the sleepers. The fact that number 309 coincidentally turned out to be the equivalent of the round number (300) in lunar calculation inevitably gave birth to the traditional Islamic comments and Yahya's pseudo-miracle.

The Mystery Surrounding the Number 309

It may be asked at this point of our discussion where this specific number in the Qur'an may have arisen from if not from the Christian versions of this story, as they do not contain such a number. Although it is not possible to give an exact source for this number, it is possible to trace its existence to a remarkable piece of pre-Islamic and apocryphal Christian literature. To our surprise, number 309 can be precisely found in the Arabic Gospel of Infancy, which was one of the non-canonical Gospels Mohammad used while forming the Islamic narratives about Jesus' birth. Actually, the account of baby Jesus' miraculous speech from His cradle in Surah 19 is obviously taken from the Arabic Gospel of Infancy and adapted to the Qur'an through Mohammad's meticulous act of distortion.7

Number 309 appears in this "Arabic" non-canonical Gospel in the following section:

In the three hundred and ninth year of the era of Alexander, Augustus put forth an edict, that every man should be enrolled in his native place. Joseph therefore arose, and taking Mary his spouse, went away to Jerusalem, and came to Bethlehem, to be enrolled along with his family in his native city.

Clearly, the mysterious number8 appears in a totally different environment, having nothing to do with the narrative of the sleepers since none of the apocryphal Gospels contains this story. At first, we may consider the occurrence of this number in the account of Jesus' birth completely irrelevant to the Qur'an and discard it as a mere coincidence, but the analysis of this non-canonical text reveals amazing results that strengthen the possible link drawn by Mohammad between this specific account and his version of the story of the sleepers.

First, the reference to Alexander's reign in the Arabic Gospel of Infancy is actually found puzzling by some critics of the text. Further, the writer is accused of having an erroneous calculation:

Inasmuch as the Jews were under Roman rule, not Greek, it is puzzling why the author considered it still the "era of Alexander." Alexander the Great became king of Macedonia in 336, put Palestine under the Greek empire in 333, and died in 323 B.C., so in any case, the author's arithmetic is wrong. (Source)

Some scholars, on the other hand, tend to consider the occurrence of Alexander's name in the account of Christ's nativity to the alleged Syriac origin of this apocryphal Gospel.

The Arabic Gospel of the Childhood is a composite production. Though first published in Arabic with a Latin translation in 1697, its Syriac origin may be inferred from the use of the era of Alexander the Great in chapter 2, from the acquaintance of the writer with oriental learning, and from that of the child Jesus, when in Egypt, with astronomy and physics. (Source)

As the author gives only the year of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem counting from Alexander, it is impossible to state with certainty that the particular reference to Alexander mirrors the asserted Syriac origin of the text. A possible reason for the existence of Alexander’s name in the narrative of Christ’s nativity in the Arabic Gospel is its author's intention to establish a connection between a world-famous earthly emperor and Christ's depiction as the eternal King of the Universe. This was nothing unusual when we remember that Luke was the first Evangelist to highlight the chronological connection between the era of a specific universal administrator (Roman Emperor Augustus) and the time of Christ's birth. Thus, it can be postulated that the writer of the Arabic Gospel of Infancy tried to make an important theological point by establishing an explicit connection between the year of Christ's birth and Alexander the Great's reign! The number 309 came into existence (thanks to the writer's reference to Alexander the Great), and corresponded to the particular year of Alexander's reign in which Christ was miraculously born.

Quite interestingly, Mohammad narrated the story of Alexander the Great in the same chapter (Surah 18) along with the story of the sleepers. What was his aim for this? One cannot stop wondering why Mohammad maintained the mysterious link between the universal reign of Alexander the Great and a story of Christian origin in Surah 18, despite replacing the account of Christ's miraculous nativity with that of the miraculous sleep and awakening of the youths.

Second, there is another significant element in the narrative of Christ's birth in the Arabic Gospel of Infancy which may have enabled Mohammad to transfer the precise number 309 in the Arabic source to the story of the sleepers in Surah 18, concluding that the total number of years the sleepers spent in the cave was 300 plus 9 = 309 years. The Arabic Gospel gives us not only the precise time, but also the specific place of Christ's birth. According to this pre-Islamic non-canonical text, Christ was born in the 309th year of Alexander's reign in a CAVE:

In the three hundred and ninth year of the era of Alexander, Augustus put forth an edict, that every man should be enrolled in his native place. Joseph therefore arose, and taking Mary his spouse, went away to Jerusalem, and came to Bethlehem, to be enrolled along with his family in his native city. And having come to a cave, Mary told Joseph that the time of the birth was at hand, and that she could not go into the city; but, said she, let us go into this cave. This took place at sunset. (

It seems that Mohammad heard the story of the sleepers of the cave from a few ignorant Christians and eventually appropriated some elements from the Arabic Gospel of Infancy in order to fill in the blanks and/or clarify some vague points. The outcome of this process was the purely Islamic teaching that the sleepers slept in the cave for 309 years. To put it another way, Mohammad combined the major components of the narrative of Jesus' nativity in the Arabic Gospel and the things he heard about the sleepers, managing to come up with a precise but unreasonable number with regard to the time spent by the youths in the cave. Below are the factors that may have contributed to Mohammad’s combination of the two independent accounts mistakenly:

Arabic Gospel of Infancy:

The miracle of Jesus' birth
The time of Jesus' birth (309 in association with Alexander)
The space of Jesus' birth (in a cave)

The Story of the Sleepers in Surah 18:

The miracle of waking up after many years' sleep
The number concerning the time of the miracle (309)
The place of the miracle (cave)

Apart from these, the narrative about the sleepers in the 18th chapter bears a few minor similarities to the story of Jesus' miraculous birth in the Arabic Gospel of Infancy. For instance, as Joseph leaves the cave in search of a midwife and witnesses the miracle upon his return, some of the youths leave the cave to buy some provisions, and the miracle is witnessed by people upon their return to the cave. (They are led to the place of the miracle to witness the incident). To compare:

And Joseph went out in haste to go for a woman to be near her. When, therefore, he was busy about that, he saw an Hebrew old woman belonging to Jerusalem, and said: Come hither, my good woman, and go into this cave, in which there is a woman near her time. Wherefore, after sunset, the old woman, and Joseph with her, came to the cave, and they both went in. And, behold, it was filled with lights more beautiful than the gleaming of lamps and candles, and more splendid than the light of the sun. The child, enwrapped in swaddling clothes, was sucking the breast of the Lady Mary His mother, being placed in a stall. And when both were wondering at this light, the old woman asks the Lady Mary: Are you the mother of this Child? And when the Lady Mary gave her assent, she says: You are not at all like the daughters of Eve. The Lady Mary said: As my son has no equal among children, so his mother has no equal among women. The old woman replied: My mistress, I came to get payment; I have been for a long time affected with palsy. Our mistress the Lady Mary said to her: Place your hands upon the child. And the old woman did so, and was immediately cured. Then she went forth, saying: Henceforth I will be the attendant and servant of this child all the days of my life. (Arabic Gospel of Infancy 2-3)

Now send ye then one of you with this money of yours to the town: let him Find out which is the best Food (to be had) and bring some to you, that (ye may) Satisfy your hunger therewith. (Surah 18:19 Yusuf Ali)

Thus did We make Their case known to the people, That they might know That the promise of God Is true, and that there can Be no doubt about the Hour Of Judgment. (Surah 18:21 Yusuf Ali)

Again, as the Arabic Gospel says that the shepherds arrived to visit the new-born Christ and the cave was turned into a temple of the upper world, Surah 18 teaches that the people visiting the sleepers in the cave decided to build a temple (masjid) there:

Then came shepherds; and when they had lighted a fire, and were rejoicing greatly, there appeared to them the hosts of heaven praising and celebrating God Most High. And while the shepherds were doing the same, the cave was at that time made like a temple of the upper world, since both heavenly and earthly voices glorified and magnified God on account of the birth of the Lord Christ. (Arabic Gospel of Infancy 4)

Their Lord knows best about them: those who prevailed over their affair said, "Let us surely build a place of worship over them." (Surah 18:21 Yusuf Ali)

Another minor parallelism is based on the significance attributed to the role of the sun in both accounts. In the story of the sleepers the place of the cave is described with regard to the rising and setting of the sun (Surah 18:17) whilst in the Arabic Gospel of Infancy Mary is said to have entered the cave at the time of the sunset, which aims to stress the miraculous light appearing after Christ's birth. In short, the sun is in one way or another connected to the miraculous incident described in the stories.

These remarkable parallelisms between the Arabic Gospel of Infancy and the 18th Surah of the Qur'an also brings about a new theory concerning the meaning of the weird term “Al-Raqim”" in verse 9. In the light of the links between these two sources, it is probable to suggest that Al-Raqim originally referred to the census taken during Christ's nativity in the 309th year of Alexander's reign. This is not far from possibility since the foreign word is believed to be affiliated with the Arabic word “raqama”, which means “record or digit”. A census is surprisingly related to both the notions of mathematical figures (numbers) and the act of recording, for its aim is to record the number of people. If this theory is true, we can think that in the Qur'an the association between the space of Christ's birth and the census organized at the same time was accidentally transferred to Surah 18 and attached to the miracle of the sleepers. As Jesus' birth in a cave was related to the census, the sleepers of the cave were erroneously bound to the census with no clear meaning of the term, which begot the theory that the word Al-Raqim referred to the inscription bearing the names of the sleepers and placed at the entrance of their cave.

Finally, the hidden connection between the account of Jesus' birth in the Arabic Gospel of Infancy and that of the sleepers’ miracle in Surah 18 partly explains why Mohammad needed to warn through this particular narrative “the people who said that Allah had a son”.

Unsurprisingly, the Arabic Gospel of Infancy presented Jesus as the Son of God right from its start:

We find what follows in the book of Joseph the high priest, who lived in the time of Christ. Some say that he is Caiaphas. He has said that Jesus spoke, and, indeed, when He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom you have brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to you; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world. (Arabic Gospel of Infancy chapter 1)

Mohammad, having misunderstood this doctrine, had already denied it in Surah 19 while recounting Jesus' birth and infancy. He did not only borrow the idea of baby Jesus’ miraculous speech from the Arabic non-canonical Gospel, but also tampered with the original text and replaced the words that designated Jesus as the Son of God, Logos, and the Savior with Islamic terms. The result was as follows:

“Son of God” was transformed into “Servant of God”
“Logos” was (accidentally) transformed into “Scripture” (Book/Revelation)
“Savior” was transformed into “Messenger” (Prophet)

To observe Mohammad’s distortion of the non-canonical Gospel:

But she pointed to him. They said: How should we speak to one who was a child in the cradle? He said: Surely I am a servant of Allah; He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. (Surah 19:29-30 Shakir)

After these vital modifications, Mohammad also deemed it necessary to label Christians as people saying that God took to Himself a son (child).

Such is Isa, son of Marium; (this is) the saying of truth about which they dispute. It beseems not Allah that He should take to Himself a son, glory to be Him; when He has decreed a matter He only says to it "Be," and it is. (Surah 19:34-35 Shakir)

The recurrence of the same kind of an accusation and warning in Surah 18:4 before the presentation of the story of the sleepers cannot be coincidental. Thus, we can bind the existence of the accusation addressing Christians in Surah 18:4 to the latent association set up by Mohammad between the story of the sleepers and the Arabic Gospel of Jesus' Infancy. Mohammad, who knew that the Arabic Gospel of Infancy identified Jesus as the Son of God, could not conceal his resistance to this doctrine and inserted his critique not only into Surah 19, but also into the story of the sleepers in Surah 18, which he embellished with the help of a few motifs he himself drew from that same apocryphal Gospel in Arabic.

To sum up, the interrelation between the story of the sleepers and that of Alexander the Great in Surah 18 seems to have originated from the appearance of Alexander's name in the narrative of Christ's nativity in the Arabic Gospel of Infancy, which bears similarities to the story of the sleeping youths. This is perfectly relevant to the theory that Mohammad mistook Alexander the Great for a great and universal messenger having Messianic peculiarities due to the overt association between Alexander and Christ given in the same non-canonical text.


Surah 18 is a brilliant and outstanding chapter of the Islamic scripture as it displays Mohammad’s talents for plagiarizing pre-Islamic stories and adapting them to his nascent ideology named Islam. The first of the three narratives in Surah 18 is also of great value for the critique of Islam since it presents Mohammad as a confused story teller who reluctantly conceded defeat in his fight against numerical controversies and other disagreements stemming from the different versions of the same story.

The analysis of the account of the sleepers in the cave, which gave the 18th chapter the name Al-Kahf, reveals some mysterious ties Mohammad made up between the story of the sleeping youths and the Arabic Gospel of Infancy, another pre-Islamic and non-canonical Christian scripture. Consequently, Mohammad is seen as an incompetent figure that resorted to double plagiarism while trying to relate a prominent legendary story of Christian martyrdom. As a matter of irony, the more Mohammad tried to make his new version of the original story pass as purely divine revelation, the more he exposed his confusion and ignorance.


1 It is not a coincidence that the account of John and Jesus’ nativity in Surah 19 and the narrative about Mary in Surah 3 are overtly independent and not repeated anywhere else, having been plagiarized from two non-canonical Gospels of Infancy: Surah 19 from Pseudo Matthew (*) whilst Surah 3 from the Gospel of James (*).

2 In his work entitled “The Sources of Islam” Tisdall lays emphasis on Mohammad’s plagiarism from a Latin work for the awkward appearance of this Christian story in the Qur’an and criticizes its false presentation by Muslims as a story originally revealed to Mohammad from above (original and revised edition).

3 Decianus is the same person as Emperor Decius, the former name being a variation used by Arab writers. Wherry's commentary on Surah 18, note 8 (here)

4 Footnote 4 in Rodwell’s translation touches upon the phonological similarity between the name given to this dog in Islamic tradition and the puzzling word “al-raqim”.

5 Another Islamic propagandist named Caner Taslaman, however, dissents from this view and associates the numbers occurring in Surah 18:25 to his fundamental mathematical miracle claim concerning number 19. More information can be found in this article.

6 Just like in the sleeper story, where he gives 309 instead of 200 years, Allah also messes up on the number in the story of Noah, or rather Muhammad heard and reproduced it incorrectly, see the article on Noah's Age.

7 This is explained in great detail in the article entitled “Surah Mariam: The Curse of the Apocrypha”.

8 Caner Taslaman ascribes a new mystery to this number when he asserts that there is a numerical miracle based on the number of words occurring in the narrative of the sleepers in Surah 18. I analyzed Taslaman's assertion in details and refuted this supposed numerical miracle in my article entitled Gambling with Numbers.

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
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