The Narratives of “the Companions of the Cave,” Moses and His Servant, and Dhū ’l-Qarnayn in Sūrat al-Kahf Late Antique Lore within the Purview of the Qurʾān

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Sidney Griffith

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Abstract

The Qurʾān’s accounts of the Companions of the Cave and the travels of Dhū ’l-Qarnayn strongly resonate with popular late antique Syriac Christian stories, namely, accounts of the so-called Sleepers of Ephesus and of Alexander the Great. Yet there is no evidence in the Qurʾān’s telling of these stories that it directly relied upon the specific form in which these stories have been preserved in Syriac. Rather, it is likely that oral versions of these narratives preceded their surviving written accounts and that the Qurʾān recalled aspects of these oral versions for its own purposes. Differences between the qurʾānic accounts of the Companions of the Cave and Dhū ’l-Qarnayn, on the one hand, and their Syriac parallels, on the other, serve to highlight how the qurʾānic telling of the stories under consideration is in line with and stresses the Qurʾān’s particular theological concerns. Similarly, the echoes between the story of Moses and his servant in Sūrat al-Kahf and motifs associated with Alexander should not be taken to mean that the Qurʾān is purposely creating a Moses-Alexander equivalence. Rather, the Islamic scripture may be read as utilizing familiar motifs in order to craft a new episode in the life of the biblical Moses, an episode that reports how Moses came to be prepared for his subsequent prophetic mission.

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