Cave
(ghār, kahf, maghāra)

Muzaffar Iqbal and Csaba Okvath

A cave is a hollow enclosure in a mountain or underground. The Qurʾān uses three nouns for cave (kahf, ghār, maghāra); Q 18 is called Sūrat al-Kahf (“The Cave”).

Definitions and Usage

Kahf, from the root k-h-f (pl. kuhūf) is often explained by the lexicographers using the other two terms for cave. Thus, Abū ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Khalīl b. Aḥmad al-Farāhīdī (100-175/718-791), the author of the oldest Arabic lexicon, says kahf is “a maghāra in a mountain, except that it is more spacious; if it is smaller [than maghāra], it is called ghār” (ʿAyn, sub k-h-f). Later linguists repeat his definition in different words (Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ; Fayyūmī, Miṣbāḥ, sub gh-w-r; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub k-h-f). Kahf is used six times (Q 18:9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 25) in the eponymous Sūrat al-Kahf, also called “Sūrat aṣḥāb al-kahf (“The Companions of the Cave”; Suyūṭī, Itqān, Type 17, 1:193), which includes the story (Q 18:9-31) of a group of believing young men—the Companions of the Cave and Inscription (Q 18:9, aṣḥāb al-kahf wa-l-raqīm; q.v.)—who had sought refuge in a cave to protect their religion (Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr; Suyūṭī, Durr, sub Q 18:9; Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 18:19). The location of the Cave is variously and uncertainly mentioned in commentaries as being on top of a mountain between ʿUsfān and Ayla, in the southern region of Palestine (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Suyūṭī. Durr), or in the region of al-Rūm (Byzantium), or in Syro-Palestine (al-Shām), or near Wādī Mūsā, where pilgrims stop on their way to Makka (Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām, al-āyat al-rābiʿa qawluhu taʿālā wa labithū fī kahfihim, Q 18:25); some exegetes say the name of the mountain is Banjulūs or Banājulūs (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Māwardī, Nukat, sub Q 18:9). Raqīm, from the root r-q-m, means “to write” (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs, kital-rāʾ, bāb al-rāʾ wa-l-qāf; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, ḥarf al-mīm, faṣl al-rāʾ, r-q-m); it is variously explained as the name of the village, valley, or mountain where the above-mentioned Cave was located (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Makkī, Hidāya, sub Q 18:9). Other exegetes say al-raqīm means a book (kitāb) (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Makkī, Hidāya); or an inscribed book (kitābun marqūm), as it appears elsewhere (Q 83:9, 20) in the Qurʾān. Saʿīd b. Jubayr (d. 95/713) is quoted as saying that it is a stone tablet (lawḥ ḥijāra) on which they wrote the story of the Companions of the Cave and placed it at the entrance of the Cave (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Makkī, Hidāya; Suyūṭī. Durr, sub Q 18:9).

The nouns ghār (pl. ghīrān, aghwār) and maghārāt (sing. maghāra), both from the root gh-w-r, appear once each—ghār (Q 9:40) in reference to the Prophet’s Hijra (q.v.) journey from Makka (q.v.) to Madina (q.v.) and maghārāt (Q 9:57) in the characterization of the hypocrites (q.v.), who falsely swear by Allah that they are with the believers (q.v.), but who, were they to find a refuge, or caves (maghārāt), or a burrow in earth would surely turn toward it with an obstinate haste,  “in order to hide” (Rāzī, Tafsīr), “because they only reluctantly side with the Prophet, act unwillingly, and without love for him” (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrs, sub 9:57).


See also

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