By Sharif Randhawa
Chiastic Structures in Sūrat al-Kahf (Part 4): Verses 17-18
Previously, we saw three chiastic structures just in the introduction to Sūrat al-Kahf, i.e. verses 1-8. The next chiastic structure occurs in the next section of the sūra, the story of the “Companions of the Cave,” also known as the Sleepers of Ephesus.
The structure is as follows:
A. وَتَرَى الشَّمْسَ إِذَا طَلَعَت
B. تَّزَاوَرُ عَن كَهْفِهِمْ ذَاتَ الْيَمِينِ وَإِذَا غَرَبَت تَّقْرِضُهُمْ ذَاتَ الشِّمَالِ
C. وَهُمْ فِي فَجْوَةٍ مِّنْهُ ذَٰلِكَ مِنْ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ
D. مَن يَهْدِ اللَّهُ فَهُوَ الْمُهْتَدِ
D’. وَمَن يُضْلِلْ فَلَن تَجِدَ لَهُ وَلِيًّا مُّرْشِدًا
C’. وَتَحْسَبُهُمْ أَيْقَاظًا وَهُمْ رُقُودٌ
B’. وَنُقَلِّبُهُمْ ذَاتَ الْيَمِينِ وَذَاتَ الشِّمَالِ وَكَلْبُهُم بَاسِطٌ ذِرَاعَيْهِ بِالْوَصِيدِ
A’. لَوِ اطَّلَعْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ لَوَلَّيْتَ مِنْهُمْ فِرَارًا وَلَمُلِئْتَ مِنْهُمْ رُعْبًا
A. You would have seen the sun, when it rose
B. Inclining away from their cave to the right, and when it set, passing away from them to the left
C. While they were in an open part of it. That is among God’s signs.
D. Whoever God guides, he is committed to guidance,
D. And whoever God leaves astray, you will not find for him a guide, a protector.
C. You would have thought they were awake while they were sleeping,
B. And We turned them to the right and to the left, while their dog was stretching out its forelegs at the threshold.
A. If you had seen them, you would have turned away from them fleeing, and you would have been filled with fear of them.
A and A’ are connected in two ways. First, it is clear enough even in the English translation that the meaning “to see” occurs in both terms in the second-person and in the subjunctive mood (this mood is implied in the Arabic without being expressed grammatically). Through this device, the Prophet, and by extension the audience, is forced to place himself in the scene and imagine it as if he had been there. This connection is only semantic, however, because in the Arabic two different verbs are used for the meaning of “to see”—tarā in A and iṭṭalaʿta alā in A’.
Yet the latter verb supplies a second connection, because its root (ṭ-l-ʿ) is used in both segments. This root has the basic connotation of “to rise” or “to ascend.” It is used with this basic meaning in A, in the form ṭalaʿat, with the subject being the sun (“you would have seen the sun, when it rose”). The use of this root in A’ with iṭṭalaʿta alā (again, meaning “to see” here) places the Prophet/the audience in the position of a climber who is ascending a mountain. Then he reaches one of its cliffs, where the cave is, he comes upon a frightening scene, thus “you would have turned away from them fleeing, and you would have been filled with fear of them.” The frightening scene will be explained below.
B involves God turning the (rays of) the sun right and left away from the cave, while B’ involves Him turning the sleepers themselves to the right and left. One explanation of this is that it was a means of keeping their blood circulating, thus keeping them alive. Another explanation is that as the rays approached them from the right, they would be turned to the left, and as the rays approached them from the left, they would be turned to the right. As a result, even though the youth were “lying in an open part of” the cave, apparently while the cave was facing north, God miraculously coordinated the scene so that the rays of the sun would not expose them. These are all signs of God’s caring protection and intervention for them. Another measure for their protection is mentioned in B’: the whole time, the dog was guarding the entrance of the cave, with its paws outstretched as if ready to attack. The scene of some people moving around in a distant and mysterious cave, and a dog guarding the entrance in attack mode, would have caused you to “have turned away from them fleeing,” because “you would have been filled with fear of them.”
In C, the location of the youth is mentioned (“while they were in an open part of it”). In C’, what they were doing there is mentioned (“while they were sleeping”). This is also underscored in both cases by the use of a similar grammatical construct (“while they…”: و هم).
The very center of the structure is a parallelism with contrasting statements: “Whoever God guides, he is committed to guidance” and “whoever God leaves astray, you will not find for him a guide, a protector.” It is at this center that the theme of God’s guidance and protection is revealed. This is a major theme of the whole sūra, emphasized at the very beginning of the story (v. 13): “Indeed they were youth who believed in their Lord, and We increased them in guidance.” The whole structure is an illustration of this theme. God was guiding even their movements while they were sleeping, guiding their dog to guard the entrance, and guiding the rays of the sun away from their cave, thus protecting them.
The entire chiastic structure is a moving scene which the reader is asked to visualize, as if he were present there. The significance of the structure is revealed at its center, and every line of it is a beautiful illustration of that theme. “That is among the God’s signs.”