The Companions of the Cave

The meaning of the parable of the Companions of the Cave was revealed to Mohammed in reply to cynics who continually tried to trick the Prophet by their questions and argument. The Christian story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus is used to demonstrate how totally man must put his trust in God. Ephesus, in Asia Minor, was a seaport up until Roman times (about 60 km from Ismir in modern Turkey). The Roman emperor Decius (born 201 CE, ruled 249-251) persecuted Christians in his empire. Emperor Theodosius II (born 401, ruled 408-450) was the Byzantine emperor during whose reign the Sleepers awoke. Christianity had been permitted by the Christian Emperor Constantine in 313 CE and made the only state religion under Theodosius II in 380. There is a discrepancy of dates in the old Christian story. The Qur'an mentions no emperor by name and makes the point that it is the meaning of the parable which is important and not the particular emperor involved. The relics of the Sleepers were removed to the Christian church of St Victor in Marseilles, France, where they can still be seen. By name they are Maximian, Malchus, Marcian, Dionysus, John, Serapion, and their dog, Qifinir.

The Companions of the Cave

In every town and city throughout the Roman Empire there were many temples and many statues to different gods. Emperor Decius ordered that all the people of the Empire must worship these gods, and had statues of himself put in the temples so that the people would worship him as a god too.

This was some time after Jesus had lived and many people worshipped the One Almighty God as Jesus had taught. But Decius commanded them all to worship before the Roman statues and he travelled round the Empire making sure they did as they were told.

Emperor Decius came to Ephesus in Turkey. His orders were read out and soldiers sent to all parts of the city to hunt down any followers of Jesus. People were terrified. Children betrayed their parents, and parents betrayed their children. Friends let each other down and people worshipped before gods they didn't believe in.

But there were in Ephesus seven who refused to come to the temples and pray to the Roman statues. They stayed in their own houses praying to God. At last someone betrayed them. They were arrested by the Roman soldiers and brought before the Emperor.

'So you won't worship the Roman gods and you won't bow down before my statue?' said Decius. 'Don't you realise that the punishment is death?'

'We know that,' said Maximian, one of the seven, 'but we worship God and trust him. Death cannot frighten us.'

'Well, we'll soon see,' said Decius laughing. 'I shall be away for a few days. When I come back I'm sure you all will have changed your minds.'

But the seven were determined not to give in to the Emperor's bullying. While he was out of town, they gave away everything they had to the poor people of Ephesus. And then they made their way up to Mount Celion and hid in one of the caves there. After some time they began to get hungry. One of them, Malchus, disguised himself and went down to Ephesus to buy food.

While Malchus was buying bread he heard that Emperor Decius had come back. He had been furious when he had found that the seven had escaped into hiding and he had given orders for them to be captured and brought back to the city to be put to death. Malchus quickly paid for the loaves and hurried back to the cave. When Malchus gave the news to the friends they were terrified. Malchus made them eat the bread he had brought to give them the strength to face whatever might happen. And they all prayed to God:

'Oh Lord, give us Your mercy, And sort out our problems
In the way You think best.'
(from The Holy Qur'an 18: 10)

And then they fell asleep.

Meanwhile the people of Ephesus had been questioned by the Emperor, but they could tell him nothing. The seven had given away all they owned and had disappeared. The soldiers searched the town and the countryside but found no trace of them. Finally Decius gave orders for all the caves on Mount Celion to be blocked up. If they had hidden in one of them they would surely starve to death.

Inside the cave the seven sleepers slept on. Years passed and Decius died. No-one was sorry to see him go. Times changed and the Roman gods were worshipped no more. In the towns and cities of the Roman Empire Christian churches were built and people worshipped God without fear. And the seven still slept soundly. Two hundreds years passed. One day a man from Ephesus was wanting to build a stable and took away the stones that blocked up the cave. One by one the sleepers began to wake. They yawned and stretched and asked one another how long they had slept and what time it was. They all agreed that they had slept throughout the night and that it must be the next morning.
However, they felt extremely hungry and once again Malchus volunteered to sneak into Ephesus to buy some more bread. Malchus was puzzled to see a great pile of stones at the mouth of the cave and wondered how they had come to be there. He was surprised when he looked down on Ephesus. It didn't seem to be as he remembered it. And when he came to the city gate and saw above it a Christian cross, he was amazed. 'How could it be?' he wondered. 'Only yesterday Decius was going to kill every Christian he could find, and now the cross of Jesus stands above the city gate.'

Going into the bread shop Malchus asked for some loaves and handed over the money. The baker looked strangely at Malchus with his old-fashioned clothes and his odd way of speaking. And he looked even more strangely at the coins Malchus gave him. They were coins from the time of Emperor Decius over 200 years ago. The city police were called and Malchus was brought before the governor ,
frightened for his life.

'This is my own money " said Malchus, 'and these are my own clothes. I see nothing strange about them.'

'Where do you come from?' asked the governor.

'I am a man of Ephesus,' replied Malchus, and he gave the names and addresses of friends and relations. But no-one had ever heard of them. 'But let me ask something,' begged Malchus. 'Where is Emperor Decius who was so cruel to the followers of Jesus? What on earth happened last night while we slept?' 'There's no emperor by that name,' answered the governor. 'I believe there was many many years ago.' The bishop was sent for to hear Malchus's strange story .The bishop saw that the hand of God was at work and went up to Mount Celion with Malchus and the governor and a large number of people from Ephesus. And there they found the other six who had slept with Malchus for over 200 years. They were all wearing old-fashioned clothes and spoke in the same strange way as he did. The emperor was called, and all the people worshipped God at the mouth of the cave. Years later a place of worship was built there so that people would remember the power of God and those who put their trust in Him.

There is no god but God,
the Everliving, the Everlasting.
He does not slumber nor does He sleep.
All things in heaven and on earth belong to God. ... His throne stretches over the heavens
and the earth,
and He never gets tired of guarding and caring for His people.
For He is the Highest and the Most Glorious.

(from the Holy Qur'an 2: 255)