By Sharif Randhawa
Chiastic Structures in Sūrat al-Kahf (Part 5): Verses 22-26
At the end of the story of the Companions of the Cave, or the Sleepers of Ephesus, there is a commentary on the disputes of the Syriac and/or Arab Christian transmitters of the story over its details (vv. 22-26). These verses form the next chiastic structure in the Sūrat al-Kahf. Before examining this structure, however, I wish to draw attention to a controversy among Muslim exegetes.
v. 25 says, “And they [the youth of the cave] remained for three hundred years—and they increased nine.” Most exegetes assume that this is the Qur’an’s position. Yet this is problematic, because the next verse says, “Say: ‘My Lord knows best how long they remained.’” This seems to enjoin a response to that claim. In fact, several verses earlier, in v. 22, we find the same formula:
Some will say, “They were three, and their dog was the fourth.” Some will say, “They were five, and their dog was the sixth,” guessing at the unseen. Some will say, “They were seven, and their dog was the eighth.” Say, “My Lord knows best their number. None knows them but a few.”
The variant claims of the Christian disputers are quoted, and then the Prophet is commanded to respond that God knows better.
Some exegetes did holds that the statement in v. 25 was only a quotation, and not the Qur’an’s position. This view was even held by some of the Prophet’s companions. For example, some of the commentaries indicate that Ibn Mas’ud wrote “They say” at the beginning of the verse in his personal copy of the Qur’an as an annotation. The exegetes who hold this view maintain that the quotations in v. 25 is a continuation from the quotations in v. 22. How can this be, given that there are several verses between them that break up the flow between these two quotations?
This question is answered when we recognize that the entire passage (vv. 22-26) is a chiastic structure. v. 25 (labeled A’1 below) is related back to v. 22 (labeled A1) through this structure, clarifying that it is indeed a quotation. The entire passage is a follows:
A. (1) سَيَقُولُونَ ثَلَاثَةٌ رَّابِعُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ وَيَقُولُونَ خَمْسَةٌ سَادِسُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ رَجْمًا بِالْغَيْبِ وَيَقُولُونَ سَبْعَةٌ وَثَامِنُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ
(2) قُل رَّبِّي أَعْلَمُ بِعِدَّتِهِم مَّا يَعْلَمُهُمْ إِلَّا قَلِيلٌ
B. (1) فَلَا تُمَارِ فِيهِمْ إِلَّا مِرَاءً ظَاهِرًا وَلَا تَسْتَفْتِ فِيهِم مِّنْهُمْ أَحَدًا
(2) وَلَا تَقُولَنَّ لِشَيْءٍ إِنِّي فَاعِلٌ ذَٰلِكَ غَدًا إِلَّا أَن يَشَاءَ اللَّهُ
B’. (1) وَاذْكُر رَّبَّكَ إِذَا نَسِيتَ
(2) وَقُلْ عَسَىٰ أَن يَهْدِيَنِ رَبِّي لِأَقْرَبَ مِنْ هَٰذَا رَشَدًا
A’. (1) وَلَبِثُوا فِي كَهْفِهِمْ ثَلَاثَ مِائَةٍ سِنِينَ وَازْدَادُوا تِسْعًا
(2) قُلِ اللَّهُ أَعْلَمُ بِمَا لَبِثُوا
A. (1) Some will say, “They were three, and their dog was the fourth.” Some will say, “They were five, and their dog was the sixth,” guessing at the unseen. Some will say, “They were seven, and their dog was the eighth.”
(2) Say, “My Lord knows best their number. None knows them but a few.”
B. (1) Then do not argue about them except with a manifest argument and do not seek an opinion about them from anyone,
(2) And do not say about anything, “I will indeed do that tomorrow” without adding “if God wills.”
B.’ (1) Remember your Lord if you forget,
(2) And say “Perhaps my Lord will guide me to something closer than this in guidance.”
A.’ (1) “And they remained in their cave for three hundred years,” and they increased nine.
(2) Say, “God knows best how long they remained.”
The entire passage is a chiastic structure with two parallels embedded in each segment.
From this it is clear that A1 and A’1 are bothquotations of the divergent claims of the Christian disputers, while A2 and A’2 both command the Prophet to respond on the pattern of “Say, ‘[God] knows best…” Indeed, most of the Christian accounts place estimate the sleep of the youth as having lasted three hundred something years, so the Qur’an’s quote is a succinct abridgment of these various claims. In fact, by the various Christian and Muslim accounts of the story, the sleep took place between the edict of Decius (250-251) and the reign of Theodosius II (r. 401-450, though his active rule began in 416, when he had reached the age of majority). Historically, the sleep of the youth could therefore not have lasted more than two hundred years.
B consists of a prohibition of action (1, “do not argue…”) and a prohibition of speech (2, “And do not say…”). B’ is the opposite: it consists of a command of action (1, “Remember…”) and a command of speech (2, “And say…”).
From this we see the importance of understanding Semitic rhetoric, and in particular the use of chiastic structures, as a hermeneutical key in interpreting the Qur’an.