Trials of our time: Surah Kahf revisited

Sarah B.

Many of the insights and facts in this article were extracted from Shaykh Faraz Khan’s lecture series on the tafsir of Surah al-Kahf.

The miracles of the Qur’an are apparent at every level of its composition–from the etymology of every word, to the lessons in every story, to the organization of each chapter and the Book as a whole. Surah al-Kahf, the Chapter of the Cave, contains four main stories that each examine one of the major fitan that we come to face in this lifetime. The word fitna is usually translated as “trial”; it can refer to things which are not inherently evil, but can become a source of evil and thus test us. 

The first story follows Ashab al-Kahf, or the People of the Cave. This group of young believers were confronted by the fitna of deen, meaning their belief in Allah as the One True Lord of the worlds was challenged. Faced with the prospect of either submitting to the idolatrous practices of their society or being persecuted, they chose to escape and took refuge in a cave. To depart towards an unknown destination, purely for the sake of preserving their deen, required complete reliance on Allah as their Guide and Caretaker. Their Lord rewarded them accordingly by granting them a period of safe slumber in the cave, from which they awoke after three centuries. Through tawakkul (reliance on God), the fitna of deen was overcome.

The second story mentioned in Surah al-Kahf describes a conversation between two companions, one of whom boasted to the other about the vast gardens and orchards in his possession and his perceived status over him. He even went so far as to say that he believed none of his wealth would ever perish. This man was evidently faced with the fitna of wealth. However, he failed to overcome it and allowed it to make him arrogant, rather than grateful to The One who granted him that which he could not have created or acquired himself. 

The third story follows the journey of Prophet Musa, peace be upon him — the one honored with the most frequent mention of any Messenger in the Qur’an. Allah also honored Musa (as) with the gift of immense knowledge, which is itself a potential fitna. Attaining knowledge frequently causes people to act arrogantly towards others and believe themselves to have acquired this knowledge by their own merits, rather than through the mercy of Al-’Aleem — the All-Knowing. When Musa (as) was informed that there was a servant of Allah from whom he could learn, namely Al-Khidr (as), he immediately set out to find him. Musa (as) humbled himself before Al-Khidr in order to learn the wisdom behind his initially alarming actions, thus overcoming the fitna of being blessed with a great deal of knowledge himself.

The fourth story is that of Dhul Qarnain, who was granted the gift of power over his people. Power is a fitna which we constantly see employed to oppress, rather than uplift, the weak and innocent. When Dhul Qarnain was given the power to punish an entire community that contained some wrongdoers, he spared the righteous members of the community and justly punished the rest. He clearly overcame the fitna of power by deferring to the code of justice established by The Just.

Of the four fitan mentioned in this surah, three show us examples of righteous people who overcame them. Only one fitna resulted in failure: wealth. 

This story being singled out as a failure emphasizes the enormity of the tests that come with materialism. The most obvious manifestation of attachment to the material is being concerned with money and the possessions we buy and sell every day. This itself is blameworthy, as these things serve as a distraction from our ultimate purpose of worshipping Allah. Perhaps one of the most debased products of this mentality is what Thorstein Veblen termed “conspicuous consumption”: purchasing goods purely to demonstrate social class and make oneself visible, with the understanding that one’s identity is the sum of their possessions. Although wealth can be a tool for reaching our ultimate goal via giving charity and supporting one’s family, it should never be pursued for its own sake. This is made evident in the statement of Rasulullah ﷺ:

الدنيا دار من لا دار له و لها يجمع من لا عقل له.

“The dunya is the abode of the homeless, and those who lack intellect gather for its sake.” (Musnad Imam Ahmad)

The person who takes up this dunya as their home is, indeed, without a home, for it will dissipate into nothingness at the end of time. Furthermore, only those without intellect would lead a life in pursuit of the material world, rather than Allah (swt), as an end.

Materialism penetrates our spiritual hearts more deeply than by simply making us want more things, however. A key component of the Islamic worldview is our recognition of the metaphysical, or what is often referred to as the spiritual realm. As Muslims, we understand ourselves to be souls who are temporarily undergoing this physical, bodily existence. Believing in the primacy of the material can eventually lead to the complete denial of the metaphysical. The secular worldview does so outright, shaping the metaphysics of seemingly disparate ideologies like capitalism and Marxism alike. Metaphysical concepts like barakah have no place in these ideologies, which is the inevitable result of foolishly attempting to remove God from the picture that He fashioned. Even an emotion like love is reduced to a series of chemical reactions and animalistic survival instinct. It is no coincidence that humans end up debasing themselves to the level of beasts when they choose to deny The Truth.

Read more: Materialism is an identity crisis

A Muslim’s understanding of the metaphysical informs their approach to social justice. We understand that advocating for social justice to improve the material conditions of a people is not an end in itself; we do not control those conditions, nor are they the most important pursuit. Of utmost importance is our standing in the akhirah, and we only pursue social justice in the ways that Allah (swt) commands. To be unethical, vulgar, or arrogant in this pursuit runs counter to our end goal.

Our belief in the metaphysical is also key to our understanding and treatment of the natural world. Although nature is seen to simply follow the laws of physics, it has a metaphysical element because it is created by Allah and it follows His decree. A good friend once explained to me how salat ul-istisqa’ — a specific prayer performed to ask Allah for rain during a drought — is reflective of our worldview. A drought may be primarily understood as a physical state, but we approach the solution through a metaphysical means. When the companions of the Prophet ﷺ prayed salat ul-istisqa’ after his passing, they placed the Prophet’s ﷺ cloak over the shoulders of the imam. A materialistic worldview doesn’t account for how wearing the burdah contributes to ending a drought, and yet we easily recognize that Allah controls the natural world, the love that Allah (swt) has for Rasulullah ﷺ, and the love that He consequently has for those who emulate and honor His beloved.

At the end of a hadith narrated by ‘Uqba bin ‘Amir (ra), our beloved Prophet ﷺ says: 

“By Allah, I am not afraid that you will worship others besides Allah after me, but I am afraid that you will strive and struggle against each other over these treasures of the world.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 6590)

Rasulullah ﷺ tells us here that he does not even fear that we will fall into the worst of sins, but rather that we will become materialistic and turn against one another. No other person has more genuine concern for us than the Final Messenger ﷺ, who will beseech his Lord to intercede on our behalf.

The concluding verses of Surah al-Kahf present a final warning against the dangers of materialism:

قُلْ هَلْ نُنَبِّئُكُم بِالْأَخْسَرِينَ أَعْمَالًا (103) الَّذِينَ ضَلَّ سَعْيُهُمْ فِي الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَهُمْ يَحْسَبُونَ أَنَّهُمْ يُحْسِنُونَ صُنْعًا (104) أُولَٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا بِآيَاتِ رَبِّهِمْ وَلِقَائِهِ فَحَبِطَتْ أَعْمَالُهُمْ فَلَا نُقِيمُ لَهُمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ وَزْنًا (105) ذَٰلِكَ جَزَاؤُهُمْ جَهَنَّمُ بِمَا كَفَرُوا وَاتَّخَذُوا آيَاتِي وَرُسُلِي هُزُوًا (106)

“Say, [O Muhammad], ‘Shall we [believers] inform you of the greatest losers as to [their] deeds? [They are] those whose effort is lost in worldly life, while they think that they are doing well in work.’ Those are the ones who disbelieve in the verses of their Lord and in [their] meeting Him, so their deeds have become worthless; and We will not assign to them on the Day of Resurrection any importance. That is their recompense – Hell – for what they denied and [because] they took My signs and My messengers in ridicule.” [18:103-106]



“Living Links: Tafsir of Surah al-Kahf”:

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of The Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Macmillan, 1899.

Qur’an translation: Sahih International

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