Skip to content

Some Notes on the Babi and Baha'i Interpretations of the Qur'anic Surat al-Kahf (The Surah of the Cave).

Some Notes on the Babi and Bahai Interpretations of the Qur'anic Surat al-Kahf (The Surah of the Cave).

Stephen Lambden UC Merced.


1980s - Being Revised and Supplemented 2018.


The eighteenth qur’ānic surah (`chapter’), the Meccan [+Medinan]  Sūrat al-kahf  (Surah of the Cave) is usually dated to the Medinan period of the lifetime of the Arabian  prophet Muhammad. A number of Sunnī and Shī`ī traditions deriving from the Prophet Muhammad, the Shi`i Imams and others highlight the importance of the qur’ānic Sūrat al-kahf  (Surah of the Cave), the eighteenth sūrah of the Qur’ān. It has 110 verses and commences as follows (in the A. J. Arberry trans.):

 In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

 Praise belongs to God who has sent down upon His servant the Book and has not assigned unto it any crookedness; [2] right, to warn of great violence from Him, and to give good tidings unto the believers, who do righteous deeds, that theirs shall be a goodly wage [3] therein to abide for ever, [4] and to warn those who say, 'God has taken to Himself a son'; they have no knowledge of it, they nor their fathers; a monstrous word it is, issuing out of their mouths; they say nothing but a lie. [5] Yet perchance, if they believe not in this tiding, thou wilt consume thyself, following after them, of grief. [7] We have appointed all that is on the earth for an adornment for it, and that We may try which of them is fairest in works; [8] and We shall surely make all that is on it barren dust.

The Surah of the Cave includes a number of important prophetological or qiṣaṣ  al-anbyiā’  (Stories of the Prophets)  type narratives. Firstly, following the verses cited above,

The `Companions of the Cave', Qur'an 18:9-26.

[I] The narrative of  أَصْحَابَ الْكَهْف   the aṣḥāb  al-kahf (`The Companions of the Cave’)  

This narrative has it that fleeing from religious persecution a number of young men take refuge in a kahf, or cave. They fall asleep and awake after a considerable period of time.  Numerous attempts have been made to trace the origins of this story including a parallel in the Christian story of the `Seven Sleepers of Ephesus’ :

أَمْ حَسِبْتَ أَنَّ أَصْحَابَ الْكَهْفِ وَالرَّقِيمِ كَانُوا مِنْ آيَاتِنَا عَجَبًا [9]

Or do you reckon that the  Companions of the Cave (aṣḥāb  al-kahf) and al-Raqīm [their dog?] were among Our wondrous (`ajaban) signs

إِذْ أَوَى الْفِتْيَةُ إِلَى الْكَهْفِ فَقَالُوا رَبَّنَا آتِنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ رَحْمَةً وَهَيِّئْ لَنَا مِنْ أَمْرِنَا رَشَدًا [10]

 When those young men [youths] (al-fityat) took refuge in the Cave (al-kahf) they said [in prayer] : `O our Lord! Bestow Thy Mercy (raḥmat) upon us  and  regulate our circumstance aright

فَضَرَبْنَا عَلَى آذَانِهِمْ فِي الْكَهْفِ سِنِينَ عَدَدًا [11]

In the Cave (al-kahf) We sealed up their ears for a number of years

ثُمَّ بَعَثْنَاهُمْ لِنَعْلَمَ أَيُّ الْحِزْبَيْنِ أَحْصَى لِمَا لَبِثُوا أَمَدًا [12]

Then We awakened them perchance Wewould be aware which of the two groups (al-hizbayn) could account for how long they had remained [in the cave ...


18:10 Then We smote their ears many years in the Cave. Afterwards We raised them up again, that We might know which of the two parties would better calculate the while they had tarried. We will relate to thee their tidings truly. They were youths who believed in their Lord, and We increased them in guidance. And We strengthened their hearts, when they stood up and said, 'Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and earth; we will not call upon any god, apart from Him, or then we had spoken outrage. These our people have taken to them other gods, apart from Him. Ah, if only they would bring some clear authority regarding them! But who does greater evil than he who forges against God a lie?
18:15 So, when you have gone apart from them and that they serve, excepting God, take refuge in the Cave, and your Lord will unfold to you of His mercy, and will furnish -- you with a gentle issue of your affair.'
And thou mightest have seen the sun, when it rose, inclining from their Cave towards the right, and, when it set, passing them by on the left, while they were in a broad fissure of the Cave. That was one of God's signs; whomsoever God guides, he is rightly guided, and whomsoever He leads astray, thou wilt not find for him a protector to direct.
Thou wouldst have thought them awake, as they lay sleeping, while We turned them 'now to the right, now to the left,' and their dog 'stretching its paws on the threshold'. Hadst thou observed them surely thou wouldst have turned thy back on them in flight, and been filled with terror of them.
And even so We raised them up again that they might question one another. One of them said, 'How long have you tarried?' They said, 'We have tarried a day, or part of a day.' They said, 'Your Lord knows very well how long you have tarried. Now send one of you forth with this silver to the city, and let him look for which of them has purest food, and bring you provision thereof; let him be courteous, and apprise no man of you.
'If they should get knowledge of you they will stone you, or restore you to their creed, then you will not prosper ever.'
18:20 And even so We made them stumble upon them, that they might know that God's promise is true, and that the Hour -- there is no doubt of it. When they were contending among themselves of their affair then they said, 'Build over them a building; their Lord knows of them very well.' Said those who prevailed over their affair, 'We will raise over them a place of worship.'
(They will say, 'Three; and their dog was the fourth of them.' They will say, 'Five; and their dog was the sixth of them' guessing at the Unseen. They will say, 'Seven; and their dog was the eighth of them.' Say: 'My Lord knows very well their number, and none knows them, except a few.' So do not dispute with them, except in outward disputation, and ask not any of them for a pronouncement on them.
And do not say, regarding anything, 'I am going to do that tomorrow,' but only, 'If God will'; and mention thy Lord, when thou forgettest, and say, 'It may be that my Lord will guide me unto something nearer to rectitude than this.')
And they tarried in the Cave three hundred years, and to that they added nine more.
18:25 Say: 'God knows very well how long they tarried. To Him belongs the Unseen in the heavens and in the earth. How well He sees! How well He hears! They have no protector, apart from Him, and He associates in His government no one.'

 [II]. Moses and the Servant (`abd), Joshua or al-Khaḍir /  Khiḍr (“The Green One”) 

Q. 18 verses 60-82.

 The theodicy narrative centering upon the testing of Moses or Moses and the (unnamed) Servant (`abd) who is often identified with al-Khaḍir  or  Khiḍr  (“The Green One”)  Q. 18 verses 60-82. The Dhū’l-Qarynayn  figure is traditionally identified with Alexander of Macedon or Alexander the Great (356‑323 BCE ) though he is also identified, among others, with Imam `Ali ibn Abi Ṭālib (d. 40/661).

[III]. The story of Dhū’l-Qarynayn (“Possessed of Two Horns”)  Q. 18 verses 83-101.


The story of Dhū’l-Qarynayn (“Possessed of Two Horns”)  Q. 18 verses 83-101.

Some Shaykhī  interpretations of these portions of the Surah of the Cave.

Some Bābī-Bahā’ī interpretations of the Surah of the Cave

The Bābī-Bahā’ī Interpretation of the motifs, verses, pericopae and narratives contained within the Sūra of the Cave form a significant part of  Bahā’ī sacred scripture.  Episodes, themes and motifs contained in  the important, rich and fascinating qur'anic Surat al‑kahf  (Sura of the Cave; Q. 18; especially Q. 18:60‑102) were of central importance to the founders of the Bābi and Baha'i religions; the  two contemporary  messianic figures of the Iranian Qajar period, Sayyid `Ali Muhammad Shirazi known as  the Bāb ("Gate" 1817‑50) and  Mirza Husayn `Ali Nuri (1819‑92) entitled, Baha'‑Allah (The Glory of God). Within the extensive and largely unpublished Arabic and Persian writings of these two successive, revolutionary claimants  there exist quite a  number of exegetical‑eisegetical  treatments of  Q. 18:60ff. While the Bāb, for example, eisegetically rewrote or re‑revealed the story of Dhū'l‑Qarnayn ("The Possessor of the Two Horns") in his first major work, the Qayyūm al‑asmā’  (mid. 1844), Bahā'u'llāh wrote a detailed commentary on Q. 18:XXff. Various key figures, motifs and terms mentioned in the Surat al‑kahf  receive novel  interpretations by these Persian born persons who claimed to be the latter day  manifestations of the Qā’im ( Shī`ī messiah) and the Qayyūm (eschatological theophany).

Attention is given by the Bāb and Baha'-Allah, for example, to the multi‑faceted and influential account of  the associated, highly suggestive phrase majma` al‑bahrayn  (`confluence of the two seas'),  the theme of the aṣḥāb al‑kahf  (Companions of the Cave)  and of Dhū'l‑Qarnayn (`The Possessor of Two Horns') in which Yajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog) also figure.  Such material was drawn upon and interpreted in diverse non‑literal (allegorical, typological... ) ways.

Both the Bāb and Baha'-Allah occasionally framed their claims based upon phrases or figures mentioned in  the Surat al‑kahf. The latter, for example,  in his Lawh‑i qinā'  (Tablet of the Veil)  called the Shaykhi leader Karim Khān Kirmānī (d.1871) to listen to him as the   "Khidr of [these]days" capable of leading him to the "Kawthar [Fount] of Eternal Subsistence". Addressing  a certain "letter qāf  between two alifs  (=Āqā [Mīrzā Āqā] Rikab Saz Shirazi ?) in another untitled Tablet he bade him "hearken" unto his message as the messianic personification of the majma al‑baḥrayn ("Confluence of the Two Seas") (see Māzandarānī, Āsrār al‑āthār,  4:230)


The Sūrat al-Kahf (Surah of the  Cave) LXXIII (73) in the Qayyūm al-asmā'  of the Bab.

Spanning 5-7 pages of Arabic text Qayyūm al‑asmā' surah LXXIII (73) is entitled the  Sūrat al-Kahf (The Surah of the  Cave).  In neo-qur'anic fashion it commences with the basmalah  then cites Qur'an 12:72  ("They said: "We have lost the great beaker [cup]  of the king (ṣuwa`a al-malik) ; Anyone who produces it,  will be given [the reward of] a camel-load [of grain]; I personally guarantee this")  after which it has as verse 3 (of the QA) the isolated letters A-L-M (= also Q. 2 etc). It thus begins:

  سورة الكهف 


بسم اللّه الرحمن الرحيم


(Qur'an 12:72)

قَالُواْ نَفْقِدُ صُوَاعَ الْمَلِكِ وَلِمَن جَاء بِهِ حِمْلُ بَعِيرٍ وَأَنَاْ بِهِ زَعِيمٌ  






 ذكر اللّه فی الشّجرة المباركة فاستمع ندإ اللّه انّی انا اللّه الّذی لا اله الا انا وانا لعلیّ قد كنت علی الحقّ بالحقّ كبيراً

[4] The Dhikr-Allah (Remembrance of God) is in the Blessed Tree (shajarat al-mubārakah)! So hearken unto the Call of God (nida'-Allah), 'I, verily, am God, no God is there except I Myself". And I, I am indeed  `Ali [One Transcendent] for I was, in very truth, One Mighty (kabīr an).

 After this bold opening verse the Bāb refers to the Aṣḥāb al-kahf ("The Companions of the Cave") and al-Raqīm and seems, rewriting Q. 18: 9, to pose a rhetorical question about the people's failure to identify these figures with the person of the Bab -- it is somewhat unclear whether the adjectival  "sleeping" (ruqūd an) refers to the people or those in the "cave" -- the translations is uncertain...


انحسب  / افحسب/ ام حسب النّاس ان اصحاب الكهف والرقيم قد كانوا من دون الباب رقودا  *      

  تا للّه انّ آياتنا فی ذلك الباب علی المؤمنين لكانت بالحقّ علی الحقّ البديع عجيباً

[5] The people have supposed that the Aṣḥāb al-kahf ("The Companions of the Cave") and al-Raqīm were "asleep" (ruqūd an) respecting  the Bāb? [6]  [Nay!] By God! Our wondrous (al-badi`)   "verses" (or "signs") in this Bāb were, in very truth,  something amazing (`ajib an)  for the believers.


   و انّ الكهف هذ الباب و فی امّ الكتاب قد كان حول النّار مسطورا

 The "Cave" (al-kahf) is this Bab,  something inscribed about the  [Sinaitic] "Fire" (al-nar) in the Archetypal Book (umm al-kitab).


The Bāb's version of the story of  Dhū'l‑Qarnayn in Qayyūm al-asmā'  LXXV (75)


In one of the suras  (LXXVI) of his "Tafsir surat yusuf" (= "Qayyūm al‑asma' ; mid. 1844 CE) the Bāb exegetically `rewrote' in  waḥy   (`revelation mode') Qur'an 18:83ff., the story of Dhū'l‑Qarnayn ("The One possessed of Two Horns"), traditionally [among others] Alexander the Great (356‑323 BCE). What follows is a sample of the Bāb's  exegetical  `rewrite' with some comments;

"O Solace of the Eye[s]!

The people shall ask thee about Dhū'l‑Qarnayn. Say [in reply]: `Yea! By my Lord! I am the King of the two Originations (malik al‑bad'ayn) in the two horns (al‑qarnayn).  I am the elevated Dhū'l Qarnayn in the two bodies (al‑jismayn). I am the [Sinaitic] Fire in the two [cosmic] Waters (al‑mā'ayn). I am the [cosmic] Water (al‑mā')  in the two [Sinaitic] Fires (al‑nārayn).   So hearken unto my call from these two [Sinaitic] Mounts (al‑ṭūrayn).'  We verily, established him [= Dhū'l‑Qarnaun = the Bāb] in the land and We, in very truth, bestowed a letter [of the alphabet] from the name of the Dhikr upon this Arabian Youth (al‑ghulam al‑`arabi  = the Bāb) such that the ways and means to all ends became his. Say: I verily, when I followed the Path, journeyed until I reached the [place of the] setting of the Sun. I found it setting in the Fount of Salsal [= a paradisiacal well of limpid water]. At that place I gazed upon the denizens of the mystic Cloud (ahl min al‑`ama')   [who were gathered] about the Fount. I saw them prostrating before God, the Exalted. They spoke to me about the secret knowledge (al‑`ilm al‑mustasirr),  [concerning] a letter [of the alphabet] inscribed above the line (al‑satr)  and I spoke to them of a cipher (ramz  an) veiled in mystery (sirr al muhajjab).  Then I followed the command (al‑amr)  until I reached the dawning‑place of the Sun (mala` al‑shams). I found it [the Sun] rising from the Camphor‑Fount (`ayn al‑kafur) upon a company of the people of the mystic Cloud (al‑`amā').  We found that they had no covering [protection from the Sun] save the verse  (or sign) of the Divine Unity (ayat al‑tawhid  = the "shahada), "an affair mysteriously concealed. They said: `God, verily, is, in very truth, your Master, nothing is like unto Him'. I said to them: `He, God, is the True One, no god is there save Him, One Exalted and Mighty.' "


 In this passage the Bāb identifies himself with Dhū'l‑Qarnayn. The dual form of qarn (= `horn') leads him to give vent to a variety of claims connected with his role as Bāb  to the occulted or hidden [twelfth] Imam. God bestowed on him a letter (celestial potency ?) of the name of the "Dhikr</I>  ("Remembrance" a quasi‑ messianic title in Bābism)  such that he was able to undertake heavenly journeys or travel on the path of celestial initiation. At the setting‑place of the celestial Sun where the Fount of limpid water is located he saw the "ahl al‑`ama' </I>and had a conversation with them. Deep qabbalistic mysteries were discussed. Then, at the dawning‑place of the celestial Sun where the Camphor Fount is located he also met a company of the "ahl al‑ `amā'"  who had no protection from the Sun of Reality save the `shield' of an expression of the Divine Unity ("al‑tawhid</I> = " la ilaha ila llah" (`There is no god but God'). While they proclaimed God's uniqueness the Bāb testified to His unity.

The ahl al‑`ama', it may be gathered, exist at the extreme orient and extreme occident of the spiritual world; those points where the Sun of Reality rises and sets. They are privy to the secret of the Hidden Imam and converse with the Bāb about deep mysteries. It appears that the journeys of Dhū'l‑Qarnayn ‑‑ transcendentalised by the Bāb ‑‑ are understood to be expressive of the recognition and heavenly initiation of the Bāb by the "ahl al‑ `ama'.</I> In this context it is likely that the "ahl al‑ama' </I> correspond with the inhabitants of twin cities of Jarbalqa (in the spiritual orient) and Jabarsa (in the spiritual occident) mentioned in various Shi`i traditions  and in the writings, for example,  of such  exponents of "gnostic" (irfani)  mysticism as Mir Muhammad Baqir, Damad Astarabadi (d. 1041/1631) and Baha al‑Din al‑`Amili (= Shaykh Baha'i, d. 1030/1621).They are the company of purified souls that inhabit the interworld of archetypal realities. Towards the end of the same surah of the  Qayyūm al‑asmā'  in which the story of Dhū'l‑Qarnayn is re-expressed and reinterpreted, the Bāb addresses the "ahl al‑`ama'"  after stating that he was sent by God from the expected Imam:

 "The polytheist's (mushrikin)  shall ask you, `Who sent you unto us?'..  Say: `God the Cleaver of the heavens and the earth! from the Proof (min `ind hujjat),  the expected [messianic] Qā'im. He, verily, is the True One and I am one of his servants.. And say unto the "ahl al‑`ama'"  `God created you from clay; He will return you unto it and from it He will bring you forth yet again before this sublime Gate (al‑Bāb= the Bāb).'"

  Here the Bāb underlines the essential createdness of the "ahl al‑`ama'".  Fashioned by God they will be suject to the eschatological `recreation' and appear before the Bāb, the representative of the Hidden or expected Imam.


An important unpublished epistle of Baha'‑Allah is expostitory of Q. 18:59ff.


In a lengthy and extremely interesting untitled letter of Baha'-Allah Dhū'l‑Qarnayn is said to signify (on one level) the `Self' or Logos-Self", the exalted "Person" (nafs)  of the Prophet Muhammad who was the locus or possessor of nubuwwa  (`prophethood') and wilāya (`divine providence') and was, by virtue of his primordial reality, the Lord of both East and West (see letter in INBMC 56:43‑67 [esp.p.61ff]. cf.also extract from a letter of `Abdu'l‑Baha in Ishraq Khavari (ed)" Ma'idih</I> 2:43).


Moses and the page-youth al-Khidr (the "Verdant", Green One).


Baha'‑Allah's detailed  interpretations of  the story of  Moses and the youth often identified as  Khiḍr are found in his commentary upon Qur'an 13:17[18] and 18:60ff which  may date from the latter period of his sojurn or exile in Ottoman Iraq (1863‑1868). He commences his allegorical interpretations as follows:

"Know thou that when Moses attained the most elevated [mystical] levels (maratib al‑a`la), traversed the paths of eternal subsistence (masalik al‑baqā') and was irradiated with the Lights of Might and Grandeur, he desired to draw nigh unto the Tree of the Divine Decree (shajarat al‑qaḍā') and the Lote‑Tree of Realization (sidrat al‑imḍā'). This that he might witness such as is decreed in a Preserved Tablet (lawḥ maḥfūẓ). Whereupon did he say unto the attendant [page, youth], `I shall not give up [but shall keep on walking] until I attain the confluence of the two seas, or [until] I have travelled for a considerable period'    

And We expound [interpret] the youth [page] (al‑fata) as his [Moses'] [outer] body (al‑jism) for he [Moses] is the Divine Youth (al‑fata al‑`ilāhī) in whom the sun of Prophethood (shams al‑nubuwwa) radiated forth with the utmost Lordship (bi‑ghayat al‑rabbāniyya) though the people fail to comprehend. He, assuredly, is indeed the youth (fata) who was irradiated with the theophanic effulgences (tajalliyat) of the lights of the kingdom (anwār al‑malakūt) and was sustained by the fruits of the Sinaitic Lote‑Tree (sidrat al‑sinā') which shed light in the Mount of Eternal Subsistence (ṭūr al‑baqā') with a manifest effulgence.

He [Moses] assuredly is the  youth [page] (al‑fata) who beareth the mysteries of God (asrār Allāh) and His treasures [as would be evident] if the people did but understand. Though few among the people comprehend this he [Moses] is indeed the shell in which is found the hidden pearl which is the [inner] Being of the [Sinaitic] Speaker (al‑kalim = Moses) and which sparkles with the lights of pre‑existence (anwār al‑qidam) and sheds splendour through the theophanic effulgence of the Sun of the Greatest Name (al‑ism al‑a`ẓam).

Then know , O wayfarer in the paths of God and observer of the Beauty of God that the import of the `confluence of the two seas' (majma al‑baḥrayn) is the [confluence] of the sea of Prophethood (baḥr al‑nubuwwa) and [the sea of] Divinity ( wa'l‑uluhiyya). He [Moses] attained, that is the station (maqam) of union with the ocean of Lordship (bahr al‑rububiyya) which surged in his very essence and every wave of which  cried out, `He, verily,  no God is there except Him. He created the creation from nothing through His command, `Be! and it is.' (Q.00) and originated existence from nothing through His utterance. And He is the Mighty, the Beloved One.'

On another level we interpret the first sea as the Sea of gnosis (bahr al‑`irfān) and the second as the Sea of  [mystical] attainment (bahr al‑wuṣul)...

when He [Moses] attained the confluence of the two seas and the ocean of gnosis was united with the ocean of [mystic] attainment [realization] (as was previously mentioned) "they [two] forgot their fish" as indeed thou do observe. So know that the intention of "fish" in this verse (Q. 18:60/1) is the mundane, earthly modes [of existence] which are known to exist in the outer world. Thus when they [two = Moses] attained to the sea [of the attainment of gnosis] they forgot  everything pertaining to the worlds of [earthly] dominion; such [memories] returned to its origin, basis and source.

This is a sealed reality since when humanity (al‑insān) is drowned in the sea of mystical gnosis (bahr al‑`irfan) and has attained  to the depth of ocean of reality in the worlds of pre‑eternity then are cast off the two "sandals" of the mundane worldly grades (na`layn al‑shu`unat al‑dunyawiyya) and carnal proclivities (al‑shawat al‑nafsaniyya)  [as would be realized] if you are of such as comprehend.   





Select Bibliography

Tha'labī, Aḥmad b. Muhammad b. Ibrāhīm al-Tha'labī (d.  427/ 1035).

  • Qisas = Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā' al-musammā bi-'Arā'is al-majālis, Cairo 1322; repr. Beirut 1980.
  • Tha'labī-Goldfeld

I. Goldfeld,

  • Qur'anic commentary in the eastern Islamic tradition of the first four centuries of the hijra. An annotated edition of the preface to al-Tha'labī's "Kitāb al-Kashf wa-l-bayān 'an Tafsīr al-Qur'an, Acre 1984
  • al-Kash wa’l-bayān al-ma`rūf bi’l-tafsīr al-Tha`labī. Ed.  Abī Muhammad Ibn [`Alī]  Āshūr ,  10 vols. Beirut: Dār Iḥyā al-Turāth al-`Arabī.  1422  2002.


  • Al-Khidr, "L'homme au manteau vert" en pays musulmans : ses fonctions, ses caractères, sa diffusion in  Charms et Sortileges Magie et Magiciens (= Rex Orientales XIV)  Bures-sur-Yvette 2002, pp.11- 36..