Reason and self-doubt in Surat al-Kahf
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Wisdom, as the balance between meaning and reason, heart and mind, is a critical aspect of Islamic teachings. However, reason must take primacy in guiding the meanings we get out of life, as an irrational mind alone can easily be influenced by evil forces. Reason is our shield against such evil in our quest for knowledge and wisdom, but it must be accompanied with a sense of humility and healthy self-doubt.
The primacy of reason is so important that Allah dedicated a full chapter of the Quran for it. It is the same chapter that Muslims are encouraged to read every Friday as a means of shaping their thoughts through the power of reason. This chapter, named Surat al-Kahf (the chapter of the cave), is named so because it contains a story that forms the pinnacle of reason. This story has the explanation of consistency in all creation as a demonstration of the singularity of the Creator.
The story of the cave is related to a group of believers who sought shelter in a cave fearing persecution due to their adherence to monotheism and inviting others to practice it alongside them. In a miraculous event, they went to sleep in the cave for more than 300 years and woke up thinking they had only slept a day or part of a day:
أَمْ حَسِبْتَ أَنَّ أَصْحَابَ الْكَهْفِ وَالرَّقِيمِ كَانُوا مِنْ آيَاتِنَا عَجَبًا إِذْ أَوَى الْفِتْيَةُ إِلَى الْكَهْفِ فَقَالُوا رَبَّنَا آتِنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ رَحْمَةً وَهَيِّئْ لَنَا مِنْ أَمْرِنَا رَشَدًا فَضَرَبْنَا عَلَىٰ آذَانِهِمْ فِي الْكَهْفِ سِنِينَ عَدَدًا
Or have you thought that the companions of the cave and the inscription were a wonder among Our signs? When the youths took refuge in the cave, they said, ‘Our Lord, grant us mercy from yourself and guide us in our affairs.’ Thus, We cast a cover of sleep over their ears within the cave for a number of years.
Surat al-Kahf 18:9-11
The aim of this event, as pointed out in the Quran, was to determine who could tell how long these believers were asleep, as figuring this out relies upon a principle of monotheism:
ثُمَّ بَعَثْنَاهُمْ لِنَعْلَمَ أَيُّ الْحِزْبَيْنِ أَحْصَىٰ لِمَا لَبِثُوا أَمَدًا
Then, We raised them up that We would make known which of the two parties could precisely calculate the time they had remained.
Surat al-Kahf 18:12
These youth had no idea how long they had slept, but the people outside could easily tell they were from another era:
وَكَذَٰلِكَ بَعَثْنَاهُمْ لِيَتَسَاءَلُوا بَيْنَهُمْ ۚ قَالَ قَائِلٌ مِّنْهُمْ كَمْ لَبِثْتُمْ ۖ قَالُوا لَبِثْنَا يَوْمًا أَوْ بَعْضَ يَوْمٍ ۚ قَالُوا رَبُّكُمْ أَعْلَمُ بِمَا لَبِثْتُمْ فَابْعَثُوا أَحَدَكُم بِوَرِقِكُمْ هَٰذِهِ إِلَى الْمَدِينَةِ فَلْيَنظُرْ أَيُّهَا أَزْكَىٰ طَعَامًا فَلْيَأْتِكُم بِرِزْقٍ مِّنْهُ وَلْيَتَلَطَّفْ وَلَا يُشْعِرَنَّ بِكُمْ أَحَدًا
Thus, We raised them up that they might question one another. One among them said, ‘How long have you remained?’ They said, ‘We have remained a day or part of a day.’ They said, ‘Your Lord knows best how long you remained. Send one of you to the city with this silver coin of yours and let him see which food is best and bring provisions from it, but let him be cautious. Let no one be aware of you.
Surat al-Kahf 18:19
We can make two important observations in this story: First, change that occurs in the world is systematic and follows established patterns; these patterns never change. Second, we can identify and derive universal constants by studying the systematic changes that occur.
This kind of thinking is employed in scientific disciplines when various physical changes we observe are assumed to follow some underlying rule or principles. In the same way, we can deduce the truth of monotheism by recognizing the unified natural laws within creation.
The stories in the Quran, and in this chapter, contain much deeper wisdom than people might initially realize, which is why we are encouraged to read this specific chapter on every Friday. Sometimes it takes a long time of learning and acquiring experience before one achieves greater insight, yet some people become preoccupied by the details of the story as to miss the whole point:
سَيَقُولُونَ ثَلَاثَةٌ رَّابِعُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ وَيَقُولُونَ خَمْسَةٌ سَادِسُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ رَجْمًا بِالْغَيْبِ ۖ وَيَقُولُونَ سَبْعَةٌ وَثَامِنُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ ۚ قُل رَّبِّي أَعْلَمُ بِعِدَّتِهِم مَّا يَعْلَمُهُمْ إِلَّا قَلِيلٌ
They will say, ‘There were three men and their dog was the fourth,’ and they say, ‘Five men and their dog was the sixth,’ guessing at the Unseen. They say, ‘Seven men and their dog was the eighth.’ Say: My Lord knows best their number, and none knows them but a few.’
Surat al-Kahf 18:22
Hence, by studying the past we can discover fixed principles that explain the universe and its Creator, as well as get an idea of what is to come. The future is merely an extension of the past, or as Confucius reportedly said, “Study the past if you want to anticipate the future.”
In the next story of the same chapter, Allah shows us that the future is nothing more than a continuation of the past according to the same fixed patterns. With this knowledge one does not predict the future, but can make an educated guess and sufficiently prepare for what lies ahead.
This time, the story centers around a man who was privileged with wealth, possessions, and power, yet he was deceived into thinking his comfortable situation would last forever:
Nevertheless, whereas the past is a collection of consistent patterns and laws and its study is a form of scientific discovery, the future is purely based on faith that those same patterns will persist. Nevertheless, this faith in enlightened and not blind in that it is guided by the past that ends at our singular power that brought all that creation to existence. Here, Allah demonstrate for us in the second story a man who was privileged with wealth and power, yet he was deceived into thinking that his conditions do not change:
وَدَخَلَ جَنَّتَهُ وَهُوَ ظَالِمٌ لِّنَفْسِهِ قَالَ مَا أَظُنُّ أَن تَبِيدَ هَٰذِهِ أَبَدًا
He entered his garden, while wronging himself, and he said: I do not think this will ever perish!
Surat al-Kahf 18:35
This rich man used his status to arrogantly boast over a believer who had little by comparison. The believer, though, reminded him that life is a constant stream of change from the very beginning:
قَالَ لَهُ صَاحِبُهُ وَهُوَ يُحَاوِرُهُ أَكَفَرْتَ بِالَّذِي خَلَقَكَ مِن تُرَابٍ ثُمَّ مِن نُّطْفَةٍ ثُمَّ سَوَّاكَ رَجُلًا
His companion said in dialogue with him: Do you disbelieve in he who created you from dust? Then from a drop of semen? Then formed you into a man?
Surat al-Kahf 18:37
Again, the believer warned him that things will surely change and nothing lasts forever:
فَعَسَىٰ رَبِّي أَن يُؤْتِيَنِ خَيْرًا مِّن جَنَّتِكَ وَيُرْسِلَ عَلَيْهَا حُسْبَانًا مِّنَ السَّمَاءِ فَتُصْبِحَ صَعِيدًا زَلَقًا
Perhaps my Lord will give me something better than your garden and he will inflict calamity upon it from the sky, leveling it to the ground.
Surat al-Kahf 18:40
And so it happened. The man’s garden was eventually ruined in a single night and all he could do was to mourn and repent for his transgressions.
All science and human development is based upon the assumption of fixed patterns that make things more-or-less predictable. The presence of these many universal constants ought to point people in the direction of monotheism, so why is monotheism ignored despite all of the evidence in nature? The answer to this question comes in the third story of this chapter.
In this story, the Prophet Moses ﷺ seeks out a wise man who teaches him the important lesson of self-doubt, questioning one’s understanding, acknowledging that one may not have all the answers, and withholding judgment until such a time all the facts can be gathered. In other words, knowledge is attained by patient introspection.
When Moses found the wise man, he said to him:
هَلْ أَتَّبِعُكَ عَلَىٰ أَن تُعَلِّمَنِ مِمَّا عُلِّمْتَ رُشْدًا
May I follow you that you teach me the wisdom you know?
Surat al-Kahf 18:66
To which the man replied:
إِنَّكَ لَن تَسْتَطِيعَ مَعِيَ صَبْرًا وَكَيْفَ تَصْبِرُ عَلَىٰ مَا لَمْ تُحِطْ بِهِ خُبْرًا
Indeed, you will never be able to be patient with me! How can you be patient with what you cannot comprehend?
Surat al-Kahf 18:67-68
Nevertheless, the man agrees to take Moses as his student. Moses sees the man commit a number of strange and apparently sinful acts: he tears a hole in a poor man’s ship, he kills a child, and he restores the wall for townspeople who refused to show any hospitality. Moses is aghast and perplexed, and especially disturbed by the killing of the boy. How could a wise man do such things?
In reality, the wise man has a good reason for everything he did. He tore a hole in the poor man’s ship because a nearby king was forcibly seizing all viable vessels, thereby saving the man’s ship. He killed the boy because, by prophetic knowledge of the Unseen, he knew the boy was destined to become wicked. And he repaired the wall for the ungrateful townspeople because later on two orphan boys will discover a great treasure beneath it.
In each case, the man had a good reason, being guided by Allah, for acting in a way Moses did not understand:
وَمَا فَعَلْتُهُ عَنْ أَمْرِي ۚ ذَٰلِكَ تَأْوِيلُ مَا لَمْ تَسْطِع عَّلَيْهِ صَبْرًا
I did none of it of my own accord. That is the interpretation of things for which you could not be patient.
Surat al-Kahf 18:82
The lesson here is that mature growth and acquisition of wisdom needs self-doubt, that we should always question our understanding in search of more knowledge. Our knowledge, as individuals and collectively as humanity, is always incomplete and will never be perfect. We should never rush to judgment until we have done our due diligence in searching out the facts as best as we can; even then, our judgments should change as more information becomes available.
The stories in Surat al-Kahf together teach us to be aware of the consistency of creation – its patterns and constants – while also remaining humble and acknowledging our limitations in the quest for knowledge and wisdom.
This exact point was proven by the famous logician Godel, considered to be one of the most prominent logicians in history. Godel proved mathematically that any human argument can either be complete or consistent, but not both. Once we attempt to provide absolute theories of life, we will immediately run into contradictions. There is always going to be a gray-zone of things we simply cannot know for sure.
For this reason, the jurist Imam al-Shāfi’ī always acknowledged the possibility that he might be wrong on a number of issues in the religion, saying:
مَذْهَبَنَا صَوَابٌ يَحْتَمِلُ الْخَطَأَ وَمَذْهَبَ مُخَالِفِنَا خَطَأٌ يَحْتَمِلُ الصَّوَابَ
Our way is right, but it could be wrong. The way of our opponents is wrong, but it could be right.
And this is what we learn through the stories in Surat al-Kahf. We have to reflect rationally upon the consistencies of creation and trust in Allah as its unifying force, while acknowledging at the same time that we ourselves can never attain perfect knowledge of anything, especially knowledge of the Divine Essence.
As the Prophet ﷺ said:
تَفَكَّرُوا فِي الْخَلْقِ وَلا تَتَفَكَّرُوا فِي الْخَالِقِ فَإِنَّهُ لا يُدْرَكُ إِلا بِتَصْدِيقِهِ
Reflect deeply upon the creation, but do not reflect upon the essence of the Creator. Verily, his essence cannot be known other than to believe in it.
In the same vein, Thomas Kuhn asserted in his book Structure of Scientific Revolutions that science does not provide complete truth per se, but rather the most consistent explanation of what can be observed. A good scientist must always second-guess his or her assumptions, or “think outside the box,” so to speak.
The fourth and final story in this chapter is about what happens when reason disappears. Allah tells us about a great king who journeyed through the earth and came upon a region of the world where people’s skills in language were deficient:
حَتَّىٰ إِذَا بَلَغَ بَيْنَ السَّدَّيْنِ وَجَدَ مِن دُونِهِمَا قَوْمًا لَّا يَكَادُونَ يَفْقَهُونَ قَوْلًا
Until when he reached a pass between two mountains, he found beside them a people who could hardly understand his words.
Surat al-Kahf 18:93
As language is the container of thought, a deficiency in language means that primal impulses, temptations, and emotions are more likely to control people’s behavior. Indeed, two nearby nations were causing great turmoil in the land, so they asked the king:
إِنَّ يَأْجُوجَ وَمَأْجُوجَ مُفْسِدُونَ فِي الْأَرْضِ فَهَلْ نَجْعَلُ لَكَ خَرْجًا عَلَىٰ أَن تَجْعَلَ بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَهُمْ سَدًّا
Verily, Gog and Magog are corrupting the earth! May we pay you tribute that you would make barrier between us?
Surat al-Kahf 18:94
And thus the barrier was made, though the king warned them it would not last forever. As everything changes, a time will come when those two nations – and their primal, irrational behavior – would be set loose again:
قَالَ هَٰذَا رَحْمَةٌ مِّن رَّبِّي ۖ فَإِذَا جَاءَ وَعْدُ رَبِّي جَعَلَهُ دَكَّاءَ ۖ وَكَانَ وَعْدُ رَبِّي حَقًّا
He said: This is mercy from my Lord. But when the promise of my Lord comes, he will make it level, and the promise of my Lord is ever true.
Surat al-Kahf 18:98
Throughout each of the stories, the reality of change is highlighted against the sin of arrogance. Allah blames people who arrogantly guess at the details of the story of the cave, disputing about what they cannot know. Allah tells us about the rich man who thought he would live forever, only to lose everything in a single night. Allah shows us how Moses had to learn lessons with patience and healthy self-doubt. And Allah warns us about the destruction wrought by nations overcome by such arrogance and haughtiness.
At the end of chapter, Allah issues a final warning for us to always be thinking straight and never become engrossed in pride or impressed by our good deeds:
قُلْ هَلْ نُنَبِّئُكُم بِالْأَخْسَرِينَ أَعْمَالًا الَّذِينَ ضَلَّ سَعْيُهُمْ فِي الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَهُمْ يَحْسَبُونَ أَنَّهُمْ يُحْسِنُونَ صُنْعًا
Say: Shall I tell you about those who lose the most with their deeds? They are those whose efforts were misguided in the worldly life while they imagined they were doing good.
Surat al-Kahf 18:103-104
Ultimately, the Quran is teaching us to be faithful to Allah and humble at the same time. The many signs and wonders of creation point to the Creator, in which there is no doubt. A few issues in life are simply black-and-white, right and wrong, good and evil. But most other issues we encounter are different shades of gray and uncertainty. Like Moses, we need to learn humility and patience in our quest for knowledge and wisdom. Self-doubt, in this sense, is a strong indication of true faith and a healthy spirit.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.