Islamic Studies Qur'an

Tafsir of Surat al-Kahf

Lecture by Suhaib Webb Transcribed by Sabirah Reinke

Part I | Part II | Part III


Insha’Allah we start the tafsir (exegesis) of Surat al-Kahf (the Chapter of the Cave). This is the eighteenth chapter of the Qur’an. Surat al-Kahf takes its name from the ninth verse of this chapter (18:9).

The goal is to understand Surah Al Kahf, a surah that most of us read every Friday. I’m sure that we’ve read it so many times that we’ve started to actually memorize it. This is a great blessing of Allah (swt) who sent the Qur’an and promised to protect the Qur’an.

Tafsir itself began at the time of the Prophet ﷺ. There are some important tools that we should have when we talk about the Qur’an. The word ‘tafsir’ comes from a word which means “to be clear, to be apparent,” so Tafsir al-Qur’an means “Explanation of the Qur’an.” The goal of this tafsir is not to make things simple.

As Imam Sirti radi Allahu `anhu (may Allah be pleased with him), who died 911 years after Hijri, mentions in his book, that the tafsir al-Qur’an is the tool needed for someone to be able to gain a scholarly connection with the Qur’an and understand its meanings, its application and context, and also to derive rulings.

For us here in America, especially those of us working 9 to 5, struggling to pay $4.50 at the gas pump, what we need from tafsir al-Qur’an is basic application: how to practice the religion correctly, how to preserve the religion amongst our family and how to do something good in the society—that is what we need.

How do we develop an intimacy with the Qur’an that will empower us to transcend our own weaknesses and articulate our religious expression within the confines of Northern California? If we can do that, alhamdullilLah!

Those of us who study overseas, we have the tendency sometimes to come back and say things that nobody understands except us. That is a disaster! There is a separation between the scholars and the students of knowledge, and the masses of the people. A woman once came to me once in this community and told me, “I have decided to take Joel Austin as my imam.”

Are you aware who Joel Austin is? Audience: “Yes! He is a Christian TV preacher.”

He’s a very charismatic speaker. So I asked her how come you have decided to take him as your imam? She answered: ” I have visited many mosques in America, and I have come to the conclusion that you don’t know what you are talking about. None of these people know what they are talking about! I went through divorce, I lost my kids, I have this and that problem, and when I went to the mosque to find some type of basic support system, what I found was doom and gloom.”

We want to empower ourselves by getting close to the Qur’an—our source of guidance—to get close to Allah (swt). We want  to develop a personal relationship with Allah (swt)!

One of the dangers of the discourse that has permeated America within the last ten years is that in order to develop a basic understanding of the Qur’an, you have to study in Al Azhar and get a PhD, or climb some mountain in the Alps and sit with Yoda…

But as Imam al-Rasi and Imam al-Tabarini (ra) mention, the verses of the Qur’an are divided into three. One of those are the verses that everybody can understand! Everybody can pick up the Qur’an and read, “Qul hu allahu ahad (Say: ‘He is Allah, [who is] One’)” (112:1) and understand it, or “Aqeemoo assalaat“—establish prayer!

We have to be careful in an age of post-modernity, where people are looking for some type of spiritual anchor, that we don’t distance them from their own book, that Allah (swt) sent!

You and me need to be able to “plug into the Qur’an,” man!  As a brother who goes to work every day—how can the Qur’an become relevant to you at Cisco? How can the Qur’an be relevant to a young professional? How can the Qur’an be relevant to you if you’re single and about to die? How can it be relevant to you as a mother or as a father?

We need relevancy when it comes to our religion!

And we’re lacking that. Even in the Middle East, the masses of the Muslims are totally separated from the scholarly class. I’ve been in discussions where people were discussing the sharing of slave women. Can a slave woman be shared by two men? What kind of relevancy does this have for 30 million people in Cairo?

While hunger, malnutrition, absence of literacy and basic organizational skills—a humanitarian crisis—is facing these massive urban centers, we are worried about a slave woman being shared by two owners. La hawla wa la quwwata illah billah (there is no power or strength except through Allah)!

Insha’Allah, this tafsir will give us some relevancy in our lives. We ask Allah to make the Qur’an relevant and applicable to us—ameen. At the same time we have to rely on scholars for anything that we do not understand. We should ask the people who know insha’Allah.

Tafsir started in the time of the Prophet ﷺ; scholars have developed a simple methodology when it comes to tafsir:

  1. The Qur’an explains itself.
  2. The Prophet ﷺ explains the Qur’an with the Sunnah.
  3. Then comes the tafsir of the Sahaba and their students, who came after them, like Mujaheeb (ra). Ibn Abbas read the Qur’an numerous times and made tafsir of each verse, but unfortunately his tafsir was lost.
  4. Then comes the centers in the Muslim world of tafsir in Madinah, in Mecca.
  5. After that, the tafsir of the `Ulema’ (scholars), Saliheen, Mutt al-Arba and other scholars are looked at.
  6. And then, the tafsir of the language is examined. What does the Arabic language say about this verse?
  7. After that is the tafsir of opinion with some conditions. I don’t have time to mention all of them, but the `Ulama’ mentioned about 13-15 conditions for somebody that makes the tafsir of Qur’an by his opinion.

Don’t be shy if you don’t understand something from the Qur’an. Sometimes Umar (ra) would not understand a verse of the Qur’an. Even he said to the Companions, “What does this verse mean?” This is Umar, none of us were like Umar. Even those of us who speak Arabic, our Arabic is not even like one drop of the Arabic of Umar!

So don’t feel distanced. Those of you who are born of Arab families and the only thing you speak is `amiyya (vernacular Arabic), don’t allow yourself to feel down about this. The Arabic language hasn’t been spoken correctly for more than a thousand years.

Don’t allow these complexes to weaken your ability to relate to the Qur’an. It’s very important that you feel empowered when it comes to the Qur’an. The Qur’an gives you that boost!

That takes us to the 18th chapter of the Qur’an, masha’ Allah what a chapter! It is a very beautiful chapter. I read Surat al-Kahf before I became Muslim and after I became Muslim; really those were some very fond memories of this surah. Even though I didn’t understand any Arabic in those days, I was just mesmerized by the beauty and power of this chapter.

The Prophet ﷺ said in another authentic hadith that the best of you are those who read and who learn and teach the Qur’an; so we ask Allah (swt) in this gathering to make us from those to study the Qur’an and learn the Qur’an, ameen. That doesn’t mean just the memorization of the Qur’an, it is also the struggle to understand the Qur’an itself. The most difficult thing is not to memorize the Qur’an – the most difficult thing is to understand the book of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.

The Prophet ﷺ said in a hadith that the people of the Qur’an are the people of Allah (swt).

This chapter gets its name from the ninth verse of Surat al Kahf. This chapter is one of five chapters which start with “Al hamd (the praise).” Who can name another?

Audience: “Surat al-Fatiha, Surat al-An`am, Surat al-Kahf.”

Suhaib: “Subhaan Allah! Masha’ Allah, I didn’t think anyone was gonna saying that! Anything else? Surat al Fatir and what else? …Saba.

This chapter contains three of the most amazing stories of the Qur’an. There is wisdom behind stories. Imam Abu Hanifa (ra) said that the stories of the righteous people are more beloved to him than fiqh (jurisprudence). Why do you think that is? Why do you think that Abu Hanifa likes to read the stories of the righteous people?”

Audience: “Inspiration.”

Suhaib: “Inspiration! Stories are very inspirational! I remember a couple of years ago in the US this book Chicken Soup for the Soul, which is a collection of motivational stories, was number one in the book shops. What else?”

Audience: “These stories represent real life.”

Suhaib: “Good point! How can stories represent real life? How many of us have read a story in the Qur’an and then were able to correlate that to something that happened to you in your daily life? Have reflected on it and thought this is what Ibrahim did, this is what Musa did, this is what al Sabr al-Kahf did? Anyone have anything else?”

Audience: “Simplicity.”

Suhaib: “Simplicity! How many rulings—there was a discussion amongst the fuqahaa (legal scholars)—are from verses that come from stories in the Qur’an?”

Also if you read about something bad that someone did in the Qur’an that you do yourself, it is easier to swallow the medicine, right?

It is easier than listening to someone who comes to you and says, “You did this and you did that.” We should think about this sometime when dealing with our kids, when we are waiting for them in the front room to come home. Maybe there is a wiser way to guide our children. How to correct each other—we find this in those stories!

Sometimes you may read something that you have a problem with but since it’s not hitting you right in the face—it’s more like a soft jab—it’s easier to correct yourself and accept your mistakes.

So two things come out of stories. One is the wisdom behind stories. For example, if you listen to rap music like I used to, when something happened I would have this song playing in my head! I used to play basketball with this guy named Mark Baker, he did something to me, and I remembered I heard this song going “Smash him, slap him, throw him, kill him.” I couldn’t kill him so I had to stop at just throwing him.

Those songs become like the Qur’an and shaytan (devil), right? They start to guide the mind and that becomes the base of our constructs. Same with a TV show. Sometimes when you watch a movie, you feel like you are the person you’ve been watching! You have to put yourself in check, you know, check yourself before you wreck yourself, because you might start acting like those people!

So by having a relationship with stories in the Qur’an we build a “bayt” – a house – to refer to. We can act differently, so when we get married and have kids we live following a noble example! Not like Ice-Cube or J-Lo and that kind of stuff, but al-sabur al-kahf!

The goals of this chapter that are reinforced by the stories are three:

1. Struggling toward Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala. Somebody asked me one day, how did you memorize the Qur’an? I said, “I gave up television, man.” “What do you mean you gave up television?” I said “Akhi, I couldn’t keep watching television three hours a day and memorize the Qur’an, this is just not gonna happen.” We have to take steps to Allah (swt), we have to make sacrifices, we have to work! And in the story of the people of the Kahf, we find great sacrifices. Peer pressure, leaving their friends, going against the grain, trusting in Allah (swt) and being strong!

As one young Muslim brother told me in Egypt a month ago—he is about 23, going on to med school this year: “Brother Suhaib, you have to realize, amongst young people, man, being Muslim is just not cool!”

“What do you mean being Muslim is not cool? When I was young, becoming a Muslim was cool.”

He said: “No, it’s not cool anymore!”

Society does not reinforce positive Islamic behavior. So, going against the grain, developing your own rhetoric, being strong and clinging to Allah (swt) is a very important message to take.

2. Having humility and seeking knowledge. This is from the story of Musa (as)! He believed in the unseen and had faith in the promise of Allah.

3. Justice and thankfulness. This comes from the last story, the story of Ruh.

So those are the three important points of the surah that are reinforced by these stories.

The context of the chapter itself has three points. Number one, truth is not related to anything but sound faith. It does not matter how much you have or how powerful you are. If you’re powerful, but you don’t have a relationship with Allah (swt), you are weak. And if you’re seen as weak by the people but you have a strong relationship with Allah (swt), this is powerful.

Number two, we should believe in Allah (swt) over oneself, trust in Allah (swt) no matter how successful we become in life, no matter how awesome we think we are; we have to realize that everything is due to Allah’s unlimited blessings upon us. We have to be humble in front of Allah (swt).

Lastly, humility versus arrogance. That’s why Abu Hassan an-Nadwi, a great scholar from India, in his tafsir of Surat al-Kahf, basically said that it is the bible of iman versus materialism. He said that this theme appears throughout this chapter over and over again. People who are in a position of power go against people who might be weak; people who might be very weak but have a lot of humility and shukr (thankfulness) to Allah and Allah subhaana wa ta’ala blesses them!

About the author

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb is a contemporary American-Muslim educator, activist, and lecturer. His work bridges classical and contemporary Islamic thought, addressing issues of cultural, social and political relevance to Muslims in the West. After converting to Islam in 1992, Webb left his career in the music industry to pursue his passion in education. He earned a Bachelor’s in Education from the University of Central Oklahoma and received intensive private training in the Islamic Sciences under a renowned Muslim Scholar of Senegalese descent. Webb was hired as the Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, where he gave khutbas (sermons), taught religious classes, and provided counselling to families and young people; he also served as an Imam and resident scholar in communities across the U.S.

From 2004-2010, Suhaib Webb studied at the world’s preeminent Islamic institution of learning, Al-Azhar University, in the College of Shari`ah. During this time, after several years of studying the Arabic Language and the Islamic legal tradition, he also served as the head of the English Translation Department at Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah.

Outside of his studies at Al-Azhar, Suhaib Webb completed the memorization of the Quran in the city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. He has been granted numerous traditional teaching licenses (ijazat), adhering to centuries-old Islamic scholarly practice of ensuring the highest standards of scholarship. Webb was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in 2010.

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  • great article , there is a lot to learrn and to remember, something everybbody should reead, however

    barakallahu fik and
    s h o u k r a n / A r i g a t o

    brother Kaminari

    • barak Allah fiikum and may Allah preserve you.

      If I may suggest, the following link speaks to unity – based on the practices of Uthman, ibn Mas’ud and AbdurRahman ibn Awf (may Allah be pleased with them).

      InshaAllah the actions of the companions gives us much food for thought regarding the unity of Muslims, and how we are to deal with one another when we face differences – which I believe ties directly into these three points you have highlighted jazak Allah kheir.

  • I like your statement: “If you’re powerful, but you don’t have a relationship with Allah (swt), you are weak. And if you’re seen as weak by the people but you have a strong relationship with Allah (swt), this is powerful.”

    It reminds me of this hadith: On the authority of Abu Huriarah, may Allah be pleased with him, who narrated that the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said: “One who is disheveled may be turned away by people, but if he swore by Allah, He would fulfill it.” [Sahih Muslim, Book of Righteousness, #6682]

    Great lecture. Wish I could have been there.

  • Alhamdulillah, great speech Sheikh. I liked how you talked about relevant application of the Qur’an into our daily lives in the US. Even though I would live to go overseas and study, I have learned with the small amount of knowledge that I have right now, you gotta make sure people can understand you and not go over there heads. What ever knowledge you receive you gotta apply it in a relevant way. Jazak Allahu khairan.

  • Thank you for your explanation and suggestion to link our daily living with Surah Al-Kahfi and in fact to Al-Quran Al-Kareem. I even mentioned in my Fb comment about Egypt goverment building metal wall (financed by America) along its border with Gaza is already mentioned in Surah Al-Kahfi (re: Zulkanaen). Allahu Akbar.

    • Salamu3laikum brother Ismail please do not take verses out of context the meaning is very clear, The wall has already been built during the time of Dhul-Qarnayn. It is not a present event and he helped contruct that wall to protect a civilization/group of people from joog wa majoog a destructive tribe. So please brother ask a shayk to explain to you who Dhul-qarnayn is and what was the purpose of contructing that wall. Inshallah allah will guide you to greater knowledge, salamu3laikum

  • Jazak Allah khayr for the great and yet simple tafsir Imam Suhaib! This is just what we need.
    Jazaki Allah khayr Sabirah for transcribing it 🙂

  • AsA

    i believe its Joel Osteen not Austin. And i think in the third paragtaph, the goal of this tafsir is supposed to make things simple. It says “not”.

    Correct me if im wrong but i think thts how its supposed to read.


    • Those details are of no importance just as how many of them there were was of no importance. To us the message is not how many there were or who they were, its what they where(Believers) and what they’ve experienced(Allahs Mercy) thats one of the messages we take from surat Al-Kahf. Barakallahu fik wa salamualikum.

  • jazakAllah khayr Imam, and Sr. Sabirah

    This made me cry. For i have realized that there comes a point in life where you have everything, even a very high iman, and it can be taken from you if you are not grateful to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala, if you dont kill your ego, if you dont replace the haram with the halaal.

    for there is no substitute for Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala and the Quran is the best and only way to establish our broken connection with Him- subhanAllah.

    I love my spiritual masjid <3

  • Thank u for the great article. Touch my heart n alhamdulillah it just relate to my curreent problem

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  • masha Allah, jazaka Allah khair for this eye opening tafsir, brother. But are there only 3 parts ? I look forward to the complete surat al-kahf tafsir.

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