By M.I. Liyaqath Ali
Chapter 18 of Holy Qur'an, Suratul Khaf describes the history of odd numbered youngmen in verses 9 to 27. Allah relates their story since they "are a wonder among our portents." (v.9). The incident in short, was as follows:
The companions were persecuted by the state because they converted to a faith contrary to state's pagan religion. They were firmly of the conviction: ".... Our Lord is the Lord of heavens and earth. We cry unto no god beside Him.. " (v.14). Then "the young men fled for their refuge to the cave..." (v.10) where they fell asleep. God kept them asleep for at least 300 years. When they woke up they exchanged words that they might have been inside the cave for a day or even less. Then one of them went out to buy Halal food only to find their silver coin had gone obsolete! The commentators of Qur'an add that when they woke up their religion had become the state religion and there was no persecution any more; the companion then returned to the cave and their life came to an end.
Who Were They?
There had been, and still currently is, more than one view on their identity. But it appears the identities have already converged upon one single group of persons.
There is an identical story in Christianity about the seven sleepers of Ephesus. After Christ his Apostles like Barnabas, and even the self-appointed Apostle Paul along with other followers of Christ did missionary work in present day Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, etc. which then belonged to Byzantine Empire. Some youths of the city of Ephesus were among the converts. The youths went into hiding during the rule of a tyrant on whose identity there is a confusion between Decius (also called Decianus) and Nero. They woke up during the reign of Theosodius-II. We can read this account in Edward Gibbon's monumental "The rise and fall of Roman Empire" and in other western works.
Generally, commentators of Qur'an do not identify the companions of the Cave with the ephesians. English translator Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, for example, thinks "........ it would seem rash to identify the story with that of the Christian seven sleepers". He says, "It must belong..... to rabbinical lore" since the Qur'anic revelation about the incident came in response to a test question put to Prophet (Pbuh) by Jewish rabbis of Madina through Mushrik Arabs. English commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali, on the other hand, undoubtingly attributes the episode to the Ephesians.
Inspired by Qur'anic account and possibly also by the rabbinical and Christian lore current then, Khaleefa Waathiq (842-846 AD) instituted an expedition to locate the Cave, but unsuccessfully, it appears. This author is not aware of any sources of information in the annals of Islam on discovery of the cave by the expedition.
Nevertheless, the Cave in question has already been located! It is at Amman, Capital of Jordan. At this site today the bones of the companions, those of their dog and their utensils are exhibited in three separate glass cases with identification boards. The sign board outside the cave declares in Arabic and English:
Cave of the seven sleepers Byzantine tombs - one mentioned in the Qur'an in the story of the seven sleepers.
Notwithstanding the inhibitions of Pickthall and others, we see that the sleepers are identified with the Ephesians by Jordanian archaeologists. The youths may well have fled South to Amman from Ephesus, a distance of about 900 kms. as the crow flies. Also there is no reason why Jews should not pose Prophet (Pbuh) a question relating to a Christian lore. For, early converts from paganism to unity of God did not call themselves "Christians". They considered themselves only as members of Judaism as preached by Jesus.
The photographs of the cave front and the exhibits were published in the February 1998 issue of Muslim Murasu, reputed Tamil monthly. They are reproduced here with their kind permission.
Let us now come to the topic of discussion namely, scientific content and other implications of the Qur'anic incident of the Cave. The verses 9 to 26 describing the incident are worthy of deep philosophical contemplation. But God has also kept latent in them quite a few scientific facts, especially, verses 18 and 25. They were discovered only after many long centuries of this Qur'anic revelation and a certain modern practice came to vogue based upon one such discovery. In this respect they are truly wonderful signs proving the truth of Qur'an!
Stages and Types of Sleep
Firstly, Allah says that the companions tarried inside the cave for more than 300 years. Momins never doubt He could keep them alive that long. But they must certainly be curious about the means. God points out in verse 18: "And even though they were asleep thou wouldst have deemed them awake ...". Continuing the verse God explains the reason for this illusion of wakefulness: "..... and we caused them to turn over to the right and to the left, ...". It is also possible, as Yusuf Ali suggests, that their eyes were open as it happens partially to many of us in sleep. Such a phenomenon of suspended animation is certainly known to happen in nature. Scientists call it hibernation.
When we sleep everyday we go through five or six cycles consisting of shallow, medium and deep states called alpha, beta and gamma phases. Deeper the sleep, lower are the frequencies and intensity of heartbeat, respiration and blood pressure. Still deeper state occurs under hypnosis but the subconscious becomes well 'awake' and becomes accessible for two-way communication. A far deeper 'superconscious' state is realised in the practice of yoga in which respiration is very shallow and its frequency falls to just about one per minute, heartbeat decreasing correspondingly. Not merely the subconscious, but the soul itself is claimed to become awake in yogi state. Investigative research is being carried out extensively all over the world on the physiology, psychology and psychosomatic therapeutic value of yoga.
Hibernation - Nature's Solution
Let us come back to hibernation. Many forms of life are found even in the northernmost reaches of earth, including the poles (so also around the South Pole for that matter). In winter the entire region turns into a vast icescape - not to speak of the permafrost. Birds migrate to southern hemisphere to escape the cold. Some animals move over to warmer southern parts. But some others, both vegetarians and non-vegetarians stay. How do they manage food? They do not. No leaves, grains, fruits or roots are available for themselves or their usual prey which themselves are totally absent. No fish is accessible. But Almighty has certainly made an excellent arrangement for keeping them alive!
As bitter winter creeps in creatures like polar bear, certain species of squirrels, rabbits, etc. seek resting places where they roll up like a ball and go into hibernation, that is motionless sleep for 4 or 5 months. Their respiration and heartbeat become far too shallow and slow to notice. This greatly lowers the energy demand. The minimal energy consumed is derived from the reserve of their body fat. Hibernation lasts till the return of spring, when they wake back in a bony-skinny shape.
Yogis demonstrate weeks of death like feat, barely breathing, with absolutely no intake of food or water. Spiritual masters are known to have been in trance for months in a 'frozen' state with absolutely no movements or food. We readily accept the phenomena of hibernation, yogi state and spiritual trance. It should not therefore be difficult at all to believe in a far superior, God-induced inert state of the companions of the Cave extending over a few centuries in a strange condition bordering between life and death!
Scientific research is afoot to induce hibernation in human beings. If it succeeds there will be a big breakthrough in space exploration. A large number of specialists in the various requisite disciplines can then be taken in space missions to other planets requiring many months to complete. The experts can be put into hibernation during the journey times, woken up whenever their tasks are due and reverted when over. This strategy will minimise demand on food, water, air and other provisions significantly. As a consequence, sizes and complexity of facilities, spacecraft and fuel storage will all come down, making the missions feasible at all on the first hand.
In 21st Century cosmonauts may be bound to planets of other stars, or even to galaxies. The mission durations may be in decades, even centuries or millennia! Then they have to tackle not only the problem of room discussed above but also the lifespan of travellers. The answer may well lie in hibernation in which the metabolism will slow down along with life functions of respiration, heartbeat, etc. So will be, it is believed, the ageing process. In other words, lifespan of cosmonauts can be increased through hibernation.
It is quite understandable that the life of the companions of the Cave was prolonged by a similar or even a far superior process. They were still young when they woke up. However, it appears that they went back to sleep after a few hours and then died, as God willed.
Prolongation Quite Practical
We saw that natural hibernation keeps animals alive. But does it prolong life, even if it be suspended animation, as scientists wish to have in the case of cosmonauts? Will they be as nearly young when woken up as they were before going to sleep? The law may not permit experiments in hibernation on humans to settle the issues. But there is ample practical evidence in confirmation of the point, at least on other forms of life.
Man has modified fertilisation process. He has now under his control the time of fertilisation of human and animal offspring. He hybridises livestock. For these ends human and animals spermatozoa and ova are kept immobile by freezing to very low temperatures as long as required, even years. Then they are defreezed and 'brought back to life' and then used for fertilisation in the womb or in vitro. This well established commonplace practice lends credence to prolongation of the sleepers' life. ( to be continued )