بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
نحمده ونصلى ونسلم على رسوله الكريم
The eighteenth chapter of the Suhuf-i Mutahhara with its unmistakeable apocalyptic theme embodies an important lesson for the Muslims of the latter days when it narrates the story of the As-Hab al-Kahf or the youth who sought refuge in a cavern:
إِذْ أَوَى الْفِتْيَةُ إِلَى الْكَهْفِ فَقَالُوا رَبَّنَا آتِنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ رَحْمَةً وَهَيِّئْ لَنَا مِنْ أَمْرِنَا رَشَدًا
When the youths retreated to the cave they said: “Our Lord, grant us from Yourself mercy and facilitate for us from our affair in the right way.”
(Sura 18: 10)
وَإِذِ اعْتَزَلْتُمُوهُمْ وَمَا يَعْبُدُونَ إِلَّا اللَّـهَ فَأْوُوا إِلَى الْكَهْفِ يَنشُرْ لَكُمْ رَبُّكُم مِّن رَّحْمَتِهِ وَيُهَيِّئْ لَكُم مِّنْ أَمْرِكُم مِّرْفَقًا
“And when you withdraw from them and what they worship except Allah, then retreat to the cave. Your Lord will spread for you of His mercy and will facilitate for you from your affair in ease.”
(Sura 18: 16)
The theme of withdrawal and retreating away from the false society is especially important as a lesson for the present day Muslims in the midst of all sorts of trials which they must resist in order to protect their faith. The ‘Uzla (withdrawal) discussed in Surah 18: 16 is in fact twofold; 1. withdrawal from them, i.e., the society of Jahiliya (ignorance, “barbarism”) 2. withdrawal from their objects of worship, their false “gods”. The second is obviously a spiritual withdrawal, to remove oneself from their false religion, practices, and system, and purify oneself from the uncleanliness of idolatry, as Allah Most High commands:
And keep away al-Rujz (unclean idols)
(Sura 74: 5)
وَالَّذِينَ اجْتَنَبُوا الطَّاغُوتَ أَن يَعْبُدُوهَا وَأَنَابُوا إِلَى اللَّـهِ لَهُمُ الْبُشْرَىٰ
And those who avoid al-Taghut (false gods) lest they worship them, and (instead) turn to Allah; for them are glad tidings
But in order to enact the second type of withdrawal as per Sura 18: 16, the turning away from and avoidance of the false “gods” and idols, the youths of the cave first enacted withdrawal from the people and society. It is this first type of ‘Uzla which I am discussing in greater depth:
This withdrawal from a society consumed by Jahiliya, infused with idolatry, disobedience to Allah, and corrupt to the core takes on several forms. The youths of the cave represent an example of true Believers who took their withdrawal to a physical level of separation by actually retreating into a cavern. The Prophet ﷺ foretold his own Umma that a time will come with his followers too will have to enact this kind of physical withdrawal from society in order to safeguard their faith:
يُوشِكُ أَنْ يَكُونَ خَيْرَ مَالِ الْمُسْلِمِ غَنَمٌ يَتْبَعُ بِهَا شَعَفَ الْجِبَالِ وَمَوَاقِعَ الْقَطْرِ، يَفِرُّ بِدِينِهِ مِنَ الْفِتَنِ
A time will soon come when the best property of a Muslim will be sheep which he will take to the top of mountains and the places of rainfall (valleys) so as to flee with his Religion from trials.
(Sahih al-Bukhari: Kitab al-Iman; Bab Min al-Dini al-Firaro min-al-Fitan)
إِنَّ الْهِجْرَةَ خَصْلَتَانِ إِحْدَاهُمَا ، أَنْ تَهْجُرَ السَّيِّئَاتِ وَالْأُخْرَى ، أَنْ تُهَاجِرَ إِلَى اللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ ، وَلَا تَنْقَطِعُ الْهِجْرَةُ مَا تُقُبِّلَتْ التَّوْبَةُ ، وَلَا تَزَالُ التَّوْبَةُ مَقْبُولَةً ، حَتَّى تَطْلُعَ الشَّمْسُ مِنَ الْمَغْرِبِ
Verily, al-Hijra (emigration) is of two types: the first is to emigrate from sins, and the second is to emigrate to Allah and His Messenger. And al-Hijra shall not cease as long as repentance is accepted, and repentance shall not cease to be accepted until the sun rises from the west.
(Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal)
Then there is also a psychological, emotional, and social separation from the society one lives in. This too is imperative for the believing Muslims who happen to live in a society of Jahiliyya and corruption but are unable to physically emigrate to another land where Islam is established and there is no corruption or retreat into the remote areas in order to safeguard their faith.
Two illuminous companions of the Prophet ﷺ, namely, Abu Dharr al-GhifariRA and Salama b. al-AkwaRA, retreated into the desert of Rabadha to live among the Bedouins for the purpose of fleeing from trials. When the oppressor al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf taunted Salama b. al-AkwaRA because he imagined that Salama had committed apostasy by retreating into the desert to live among the Bedouins, Salama replied:
لاَ وَلَكِنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَذِنَ لِي فِي الْبَدْوِ
“No, but rather the Messenger of Allah ﷺ permitted me to stay with the Bedouins.”
(Sahih al-Bukhari: Kitab al-Fitan; Bab al-Ta’arrubi fil-Fitan)
Retreating into remote areas, such as caves, mountains, rainfall valleys, and the desert is all for the purpose of safeguarding one’s faith and fleeing from the trials and afflictions of the world. Some may argue that it is akin to cutting oneself off from the Jama’a of the Muslims, but that is not the case, as the Hadith of Salama b. al-AkwaRA illustrates. That is not to say that a wrong intention and motivation for departing from the Muslim society, such as that which came to characterise the Kharijite factions, is not condemnable and dispraised. But in the latter days especially, behavior which resembles the khuruj of the old Kharijites in leaving urban centers and withdrawing to form separate, small communities for the purpose of safeguarding the faith will in fact be considered as practing the Sunna, as long as an attitude of mass-Takfir (excommunication) of Muslim societies is avoided. Hence, the As-Hab al-Kahf represent a model and inspiration that Allah has cited in the Holy Qur’an for especially Muslims of the latter days to emulate.
In his book, Gilles Kepel discusses the type of ‘Uzla that was practiced in Egypt during the time of President Anwar el-Sadat:
“The imprisoned Islamicist militants were divided in their reading of Signposts. While the old-guard supporters of Hudaybi defended established dogma against heresies by publishing ‘Preachers, Not Judges’, the youth soon split into various factions. These may be classified in two major currents, which disagreed as to the proper interpretation of Qutb’s term mufasala, or ‘uzla (‘separation’, ‘withdrawal’). One tendency held that withdrawal from society meant only spiritual detachment, while the other felt it meant total separation. Those who preached ‘spiritual detachment’ from society called themselves the jama’a al-‘uzla al-shu’uriyya (Spiritual Detachment Group). They argued that contemporary Egyptian jahiliyya society had to be excommunicated (takfir), but they were aware of the dramatic consequences any enunciation of takfir could have, since they found themselves in a position of ‘weakness’ (istid’af) relative to the enemy jahiliyya society. Since they continued to live within society, they concealed their views, pronouncing the takfir secretly in their hearts while awaiting the advent of the phase of ‘power’ that would enable them to excommunicate a society which they would then have the capacity to combat without beeing doomed to defeat. Not unlike the Shi’ite sects that practice kitman (concealment), every Friday they pretended to pray before an imam whom they actually held to be an infidel…The other faction, which preached mufasala kamila, or ‘total separation’ from society, agreed with the first tendency that jahiliyya society had to be excommunicated. They were also aware of the danger of pronouncing this excommunication while they were still living in society in a ‘phase of weakness’. But their method of averting danger was to withdraw from society and to create, on its margins, a little Society of Muslims, which would then excommunicate jahiliyya society without ‘concealment’.” (Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh, pp. 74 – 75)
“In May 1975 the Cairo daily newspaper al-Akhbar published an article about Shukri and his disciples, calling them ahl al-kahf (people of the cave), an expression used in the Koran to designate the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and, by analogy, any others who sought withdrawal from the real world. The group’s wanderings in the mountains seem to have made an impression both on the authors of the police reports and on the journalists who copied them. In reality, however, the group had lived only very briefly in the grottoes. Most members lived together in furnished rooms in the poor neighborhoods ringing Cairo and other cities.” (ibid, p. 77)
The latter group described by Gilles Kepel was the Jama’at-ul-Muslimin led by Shukri Mustafa (1942 – 1978). They were nicknamed Takfir wal-Hijra by the Egyptian media. Undoubtedly a pure Kharijite group, Takfir wal-Hijra was highly influenced by Syed Qutb’s Signposts (or Milestones) and moulded by the political atmosphere created by Nasser’s modernist, secularist and pan-Arabist regime in Egypt. But throughout the history of the Umma, including its modern history, there have been various tendencies and sects among the Muslims who practiced ‘Uzla to different degrees. These groups often bore the unmistakeable mark of Kharijism, Shi’ism and Sufism. These particular expressions of Islam share with each other a sense of protest and dissent from the Muslim mainstream and political establishment. I believe that a healthy dose of this expression of spiritual and political dissent from the mainstream and the establishment is not only Islamic but is, upon deep introspection, the very theme and flavor of pure Islam. However, extreme manifestations of ‘Uzla such as mass-Takfir of Muslim societies, terrorism against the State and even worse, against civilians, and the doctrine of ‘concealment’, represent a fundamental divergence from the Qur’anic and Sunni expression of ‘Uzla. The Prophet ﷺ warned specifically about many groups emerging from the east, their distinctive sign being their shaven heads (Sahih Muslim: Kitab al-Zakat). This description fits many sects and subsects of Kharijism, Shi’ism and extreme versions of Sufism based in the eastern lands, especially Iraq. To compare these kind of misguided groups to the As-Hab al-Kahf is obviously a mistake.