The asking and disputing methods have been subtly contrasted in the context of the Quranic story of the Companions of the Cave, or the Cave Sleepers, (Ashab al-Kahf).
When the young Cave Sleepers, who became a symbol of patience and perseverance on the path of the truth, woke up in their cave, having slept therein three hundred solar, and three hundred and nine lunar, years, they did not know how long they had slept. The only thing they knew and were able to agree upon was that the time was longer than usual.
Thus, curious and somewhat perplexed, they asked one another (li yatasa’alu baynahum) how long they tarried. Some said: “We have tarried a day”, while others said: “We have tarried only some part of a day”.
Since there was no way to answer their legitimate query and know exactly the length of their sleep, some, who were endowed with deeper insight, suggested, and they all agreed, to give up the futile discussion and refer the certitude of the matter to All-Knowing Allah.
(At length) they (all) said: ‘Allah (alone) knows best how long you have stayed here’ (Al-Kahf 18: 19).
That was the end of the matter, even though it remained unsolved. Debating it further would have been pointless and unrealistic. It would have brought the Cave Sleepers nowhere, while turning to and solving more pressing issues would have been inhibited. As a result, they turned their attention rather to the practical and more readily solvable business of life.
Now send one of you with this your silver coin unto the city, and let him see what food is purest there and bring you a supply thereof. Let him be courteous and let no man know of you. (18: 19)
Going to the city and buying food could be interpreted as much as giving up barren and potentially controversial disputes and attending to life’s everyday business, as resorting to another perhaps more effective method for solving the dilemma of the incredible length of their sleep.
On the diametrically opposite side of the Cave Sleepers stood the majority of the people of the city. Allah sent the former as a powerful sign to the people who, unfortunately, failed to recognize it as such, let alone act over it.
Such was the case especially on account of the people’s general propensity to overly dispute and argue concerning life’s essential matters and events, overlooking the latter’s substance and how pertinent they are to their own intellectual and spiritual wellbeing.
Allah says that He had produced the miracle of the Cave Sleepers, drawing people’s attention to their story, so that the people
Might know that the promise of Allah is true and that there can be no doubt about the Hour of Judgment (18: 21).
However, the people missed the whole point. They disputed among themselves as to their affair (idh yatanaza’una baynahum amrahum), focusing on the trivial aspects of the miracle, rather than its core. Instead of subjecting themselves to the supernaturalism of the extraordinary phenomenon, learning and benefitting greatly therefrom, the people rather tried to subject the occurrence to themselves, attempting to color it by their own impulses and (mis)interpretations, and deposit it as such in the annals of human history. Hence:
(Some) said: ‘Construct a building over them’; their Lord knows best about them. Those who prevailed over their affair said: ‘Let us surely build a place of worship over them’ (18: 21).
This incident has been used for centuries as a case in point for either proving or disproving a culture of architecturally glorifying the dead in Islamic civilization by erecting various structures, such as mosques, tombs, mausoleums and memorials, over, and in the vicinity of, their burial sites. The proponents of both sides used the above Quranic verse for bolstering their respective positions. They did so both resourcefully and liberally.
However, the big picture, more often than not, was missed. In actual fact, it did not matter at all who said what in the context of the incident’s aftermath, and if it was the believers or non-believers who proposed building a structure over the Cave Sleepers, or if it was the true or nominal believers who prevailed over their affair and proposed that a place of worship (masjid or mosque) be built over them. Nor did it matter why and what exactly had been erected over the Cave Sleepers.
What mattered was that the people of the city ended up unnecessarily and excessively disputing of the case of the Cave Sleepers among themselves. They ended up debating the undebatable and disputing the undisputable, relegating the essence of the matter as non-essential. And whatever emerged from such a flawed approach was flawed itself, partly or completely.
Whatever any segments of the population of the city, in the end, proposed regarding the Cave Sleepers, it should not be taken as entirely authoritative or trustworthy, for it originated from sheer disputes and quarrels which commonly beget nothing but dishonesty and decadence.
It is primarily from those results and corollaries that lessons must be learned, specifically by those to whom the Quran had been revealed. Thus, Allah warns Muslims:
And obey Allah and His Messenger, and dispute not one with another lest you falter and your strength depart from you; and be patient and persevering, for Allah is with those who patiently persevere (8: 46).
O you who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger and those of you who are in authority; and if you have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the Messenger if you are (in truth) believers in Allah and the Last Day. That is better and more seemly in the end (4: 59).
Indeed, most knowledge results from asking. But asking ought to be preceded by admitting that one does not know and so, wants to know, which in and of itself is not the state of ignorance. Rather, it is a state of disequilibrium, so to speak, which sets productive curiosity and inquiry in motion.
Positive and curious ignorance, as the first phase of learning, is not an enemy. Disputing, as the antithesis of the former, is one of the greatest enemies of knowledge. Equally evil are the illusion and manipulation of knowledge as well. Together with a pattern of disputation and disagreement, they form an alliance that relentlessly works against any constructive initiative and program.
Finally, if today’s Muslims could take a leaf out of the Cave Sleepers’ book, they would approach many of their seemingly perennial issues and conundrums differently. By and large, their approaches and strategies would be marked by aspirations to learn, know, listen, appreciate, contribute, improve and solve, set in cultural as well as civilizational frameworks of mutual understanding, appreciation, participation and peaceful dialogue and coexistence.
The way most of those issues and conundrums – on top of which certainly stand sectarianism, civil wars, westernization, globalization, fostering Muslim unity and the prospect of reviving Islamic civilization – are currently dealt with only exacerbate, amplify and perpetuate them.
It seems as though when confronted with grave challenges, most Muslims, instead of following the exemplary standard set by the Cave Sleepers, followed in the footsteps of the inhabitants of their city.