By Farah Zahir, PhD.
Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem
Recently, I came across a small detail in the Qur'an that blew my mind. It expanded my heart too! The word ‘Lateef’, appears right in the middle of the Qur'an in Surah al-Kahf as ‘walyatalattaf’ وليتلطٌف, the 3rd person male singular perfect tense form V of the root word ‘Latufa’ لطف . It means ‘And let him be courteous, let him behave with great care, conduct himself with caution’. The word, which is composed of 8 letters, is found such that the first 4 letters are in the first half of the Quran and the second 4 letters are in the second half. This word, that is literally the middle of the Quran, is in effect a whole sentence of the soundest advice from our Lord to ourselves. It is as if to say the center of the Quran is this admonition—base your whole sojourn on this earth by being gentle and cautious.
Why cautious? When we look at the context, this word appears in ayah 19 of Surah al-Kahf, the surah our beloved, the messenger of God, Muhammad ﷺ advised us to read every Friday. This surah is full of stories with wise meanings and deep areas for contemplation, such as that of the ‘sleepers of Ephesus’, or the deeply metaphysical story of the meeting between Moses and Khidr (peace be upon them both), and that of Dhul Qarnain. This particular ayah is part of the telling of the story of the sleepers in the cave.
Or have you thought that the companions of the cave and the inscription were, among Our signs, a wonder? (Quran, 18:9)
As we know in this story, a group of youths fled to a cave upon the persecution they faced from their townspeople for their faith in the One God. There, they fell asleep and unknowingly awoke many years later in the future. Hungry, they pooled what money they had to go get provisions, still thinking the situation was the same as when they fled, and having no idea such an amount of time has passed. Now there are different versions as to what happened next, but on their entry into the town, what had transpired was made apparent to the people who then submitted to worshiping the One God. The youths retired back to the cave where they soon died. They have been buried there since, and the cave venerated as a holy place with rulers over the centuries maintaining it and building temples on the site.
Now to the wisdom in the word ‘walyatalattaf’ وليتلطٌف, in this story, Allah azza wajal says to the youth ‘walyatalattaf’ وليتلطٌف, as he emerges from the cave and prepares to go down to meet the townspeople and buy some provisions. If one contemplates; Allah azza wajal protected these youth who were true in their faith by not only giving them a place of refuge but by looking after them as they rested there, ‘turning them from side to side’ so that they would not be facing the sun as it entered through shafts in the cave ceiling (Ref. Qur’an 18:17-18). They would be faced west in the forenoon and east in the afternoon to avoid the direct rays of the sun. The cave had natural ventilation so the air was always fresh.
How many of us, faced with hostility when we profess our faith have retreated into this inner ‘cave’ of our consciousness? Where we feel loved and protected and we seek and are given a place of refuge with our Lord? Then when we are ready, we have to emerge and go and face the world again. Embark once more on that good fight our Lord loves us to engage in: the muhajada (striving) against the lower inclinations of the nafs (soul) and against the temptations in the world calling us to engage in what is ugly and lowly. How many of us, especially new Muslims, have shone in wonder and delight upon first encountering faith, only then to quickly hurt with the soon-to-follow hostility when professing that faith, and then we have run to Allah azza wajal seeking protection? Our Lord has never failed to provide rest. When we trust Him and close our eyes, as those youth did, just to rest, look at how much protection and da’wah ensued. A protection and a glad ending that the youth would never have imagined in their wildest dreams. Never limit the bounty of your Lord upon you by trying to calculate, theorize or factor it. Just trust.
Their story is deep and it happened. It happens, I assure you, every single day, to some Muslim if not many Muslims in the world. Look at this wisdom then in the wise words of our Most Loving Lord, ar-Rahman, who teaches us how to go back into the daily testing-ground of life, as those youth did, when after a refreshing rest they woke. Go then, with gentleness- if your da’wah is being misunderstood and you are faced with hostility, retreat to the refuge of God, rest and then emerge again, but this time approach gently. And yes, be cautious too. For both meanings are in this word. Be cautious lest you rush headlong into danger and know that the shayateen are already waiting on the wayside to trip you up. Be cautious by constantly turning to Allah to guide our steps. I can just picture that one youth, emerging from the cave, a little anxious, a little apprehensive, not sure what is awaiting him but needing to get to the town. How he must have called on God as he darted from rock to rock seeking cover, as he made his way down the steep path to the town.
This is allegorical to the sleep we had in our mother’s womb and the journey we take through life before we go back to our Lord. In this journey of life, the foundational approach, as Allah most High chose this word to be the center of His most sacred book, is to be gentle and careful. It is also allegorical to those moments of rest we take every night and we wake to enter into our daily strife. Be then gentle and careful every day.
No wonder then, that given the deep connotations of this story—the story that also has the status of being a proof for the Prophet-hood of Muhammad ﷺ we were advised to read this magnificent surah once a week, and that too on our holy day.1 Glory be to God, that the center of the Quran is found in this chapter and that that center should be such simple yet profound advice as وليتلطٌف .
We are looked after by the most loving Lord and we have nothing to fear as long as we cling to Him, jalla jalalahu. His guidance is the best guidance. And no one can guide better.
1. Tafsir Ibn Katheer, Ibn Ishaq
By Guest Author , 11 Jun 2014