[Al-Quran 50:6-8] Have they not looked at the heaven above them - how We structured it and adorned it and how it has no rifts? And the earth - We spread it out and cast therein firmly set mountains and made grow therein [something] of every beautiful kind, Giving insight and a reminder for every servant who turns [to Allah].

Monday, May 26, 2014

People of the Cave

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Al-Qur’an Chapter 18 starts with the statement that Allah has sent this Book and allowed therein no crookedness. It then goes on to relate three very strange stories, the first of which is about the People who slept in a Cave, in verses 9-26. The following is an attempt to understand these verses in the light of what scientists have discovered so far.  As verse 22 warns us that there are debates & guesswork regarding the number of Sleepers, and expressly forbids us from entering into controversies regarding them, comparisons with similar stories in other religions have been deliberately avoided.

Why is it not something strange or surprising for people to have slept for an extended period of time in a cave?
The story of the People of the Cave in Chapter 18 Verse 9 starts with the question:
 أَمْ حَسِبْتَ أَنَّ أَصْحَابَ الْكَهْفِ وَالرَّقِيمِ كَانُوا مِنْ آيَاتِنَا عَجَبًا
[Shakir]‘ Or, do you think that the Fellows of the Cave and the Inscription were of Our wonderful signs?’
[Pickthal] ‘Or deemest thou that the People of the Cave and the Inscription are a wonder among Our portents?’
[Yusuf Ali] ‘Or dost thou reflect that the Companions of the Cave and of the Inscription were wonders among Our Sign?’

What do we know about cave-life?
‘Cave creatures live buried alive. Troglobites—the technical name for these millipedes, spiders, worms, blind salamanders, and eyeless fish—are made to navigate, mate, and kill amid perpetual darkness, desperate starvation, poison gases, and endless labyrinths of stone. Evolved in isolation and unable to disperse, species often consist of just a handful of individuals in one cave, or one room of one cave. Their existence raises many questions. How did they get there, and when?
Worldwide, perhaps 90 percent of caves lack visible entrances and remain undiscovered. Even in well-explored caves, troglobites are expert at hiding. The roughly 7,700 species known are probably only a small taste of what lives below.
 To survive stagnant, low-oxygen air in dead-end recesses and months without food, many troglobites have super-slow metabolisms. And because they live slow, they live long. The Orconectes australis crayfish of Shelta Cave in Alabama may reproduce at 100 years, and live to 175. ... Instead of vision, many have elaborate appendages and beefed-up nerve centers to interpret slight air-pressure or temperature changes, sounds, and smells. This sensory equipment lets them travel, sense objects moving or still, ambush prey, ...’ [1]  

Besides the daily form of sleep that we are familiar with, what are the other known types of sleep?
There are three words which are generally used to define special types of sleep in animals: torpor[2], hibernation[3] and aestivation[4]. Torpor is short, sleep-like state lasting from a few hours to a few days; Hibernation, in frigid climates, and Aestivation, in warmer climates, are longer periods of physical inactivity; however the brain is not in a sleeping state, rather it is active.
Moreover, Hypnosis, Yogi State and Spiritual Trance, etc are special types of sleep or lack of consciousness that have been demonstrated in human beings in various degrees, ranging from a few minutes to several days. [5]  [6]

Do tropical mammals, particularly primates hibernate?
‘The fat-tailed dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus medius), also known as the lesser dwarf lemurwestern fat-tailed dwarf lemur, or spiny forest dwarf lemur, is one of the smallest primates. It is endemic to Madagascar. Recent research has shown that C. medius hibernates (or estivates), even though in the tropical winter of Madagascar, temperatures remain high. It is the first tropical mammal and only primate in which hibernation has been demonstrated. However, the Malagasy winter is dry, and it appears that the lemur is avoiding the drought. It can hibernate for seven months. Unlike animals that hibernate in temperate regions, the lemur does not control its body temperature while hibernating, and if the tree hole in which it is sleeping is not well insulated, its body temperature fluctuates in accordance with the outside temperature.[3] During torpor, this lemur has been found to periodically enter REM sleepnon-REM sleep has not been observed, a pattern opposite that found in hibernating ground squirrels.[4] The REM sleep episodes occurred during periods of higher ambient temperature (averaging 27 C, versus an average of 20 C during nonsleeping intervals while in torpor).[4]’  [7]

What does the Qur’an state about the People of the Cave?
Chapter 18, verses 9 - 26 relate the story of the People of the Cave.
The people of the cave were in a prolonged state of inactivity. Verse 11 & 12 inform us that ‘So We prevented them from hearing in the cave for a number of years. Then We raised them up that We might know which of the two parties was best able to compute the time for which they remained.’ [8] Further on, verse 17 speaks of their position relative to the movement of the Sun: ‘And you might see the sun when it rose, decline from their cave towards the right hand, and when it set, leave them behind on the left while they were in a wide space thereof. This is of the signs of Allah; whomsoever Allah guides, he is the rightly guided one, and whomsoever He causes to err, you shall not find for him any friend to lead (him) aright.’ Verse 18 informs us that ‘And you might think them awake while they were asleep and We turned them about to the right and to the left, while their dog (lay) outstretching its paws at the entrance; if you looked at them you would certainly turn back from them in flight, and you would certainly be filled with awe because of them.’

Why was it significant to prevent hearing? Can we hear while sleeping?
The brain processes sounds while we sleep. [9] For the People of the Cave to have slept unawares and unresponsive, it was significant that their hearing be prevented.

What does it say about the motion of the Sun?
۞ وَتَرَى الشَّمْسَ إِذَا طَلَعَت تَّزَاوَرُ عَن كَهْفِهِمْ ذَاتَ الْيَمِينِ وَإِذَا غَرَبَت تَّقْرِضُهُمْ ذَاتَ الشِّمَالِ وَهُمْ فِي فَجْوَةٍ مِّنْهُ ۚ ذَ‌ٰلِكَ مِنْ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ ۗ مَن يَهْدِ اللَّهُ فَهُوَ الْمُهْتَدِ ۖ وَمَن يُضْلِلْ فَلَن تَجِدَ لَهُ وَلِيًّا مُّرْشِدًا
[Al-Qura’an, 18:17, translator: Shakir] And you might see the sun when it rose, decline from their cave towards the right hand, and when it set, leave them behind on the left while they were in a wide space thereof. This is of the signs of Allah; whomsoever Allah guides, he is the rightly guided one, and whomsoever He causes to err, you shall not find for him any friend to lead (him) aright.

Verse 17 above speaks of the motion of the Sun: when rising, inclining (moving away) towards the right of the cave, and when setting, inclining (moving) towards the left of the cave, while they lay in the wide space in/of it. In the Northern hemisphere, if we face towards the East, looking at the rising Sun, its path is actually slightly inclined towards our right. Similarly, if we face towards the West and watch the Sun’s decline, its path is actually inclined towards the left.  Mapping the Sun’s motion across the sky through the year, the paths plotted show the tilt of the incline towards South when the Sun rises from the East, and inclining northwards when moving towards the Western horizon, as explained in the excerpt and plots below:   

The position of the Sun in the sky can be used for orientation if the general time of day is known. In the morning, the Sun rises in the east and tracks upwards. In the evening it sets in the west. In the middle of the day it is to the south for viewers in the Northern Hemisphere and the north for those in the Southern Hemisphere. This method works less well closer to the equator (ie between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn) since, in the northern hemisphere, the sun may be directly overhead or even to the north in summer. Conversely, at low latitudes in the southern hemisphere the sun may be to the south of the observer in summer.’ [10] 

Verse 18
 وَتَحْسَبُهُمْ أَيْقَاظًا وَهُمْ رُقُودٌ ۚ وَنُقَلِّبُهُمْ ذَاتَ الْيَمِينِ وَذَاتَ الشِّمَالِ ۖ وَكَلْبُهُم بَاسِطٌ ذِرَاعَيْهِ بِالْوَصِيدِ ۚ لَوِ اطَّلَعْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ لَوَلَّيْتَ مِنْهُمْ فِرَارًا وَلَمُلِئْتَ مِنْهُمْ رُعْبًا

Awake or Asleep? Were their eyes open? Why would one be scared?
Verse 18 informs us that ‘And you might think them awake while they were asleep...’
According to an article: ‘Hibernating black bears, particularly mothers with cubs, sleep lightly, and bear expert Roger Powell says he has never approached a den in which a resident bear was not watching him come.’ [13]

Why turn them on their sides?
Verse 18 further states: ‘... and We turned them about to the right and to the left’
‘The human body is designed to be in constant movement, even while we sleep. We constantly shift positions, always unconsciously readjusting ourselves in bed, at the computer station, watching TV, or whatever active or inactive pursuit engages us.’ [14]
‘Pressure sores, also called bed sores, occur when the skin breaks down from constant pressure, especially from sitting or lying in one position for any extended period of time... If you are not mobile, your position must be changed at least every two hours.’ [15]

Need for security?  
Verses 14, 15 & 16 inform us that: ‘[14]And We strengthened their hearts with patience, when they stood up and said: Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth; we will by no means call upon any god besides Him, for then indeed we should have said an extravagant thing. [15]These our people have taken gods besides Him; why do they not produce any clear authority in their support? Who is then more unjust than he who forges a lie against Allah?  [16] And when you forsake them and what they worship save Allah, betake yourselves for refuge to the cave; your Lord will extend to you largely of His mercy and provide for you a profitable course in your affair.’
Verse 18 continues to state: ‘while their dog (lay) outstretching its paws at the entrance; if you looked at them you would certainly turn back from them in flight, and you would certainly be filled with awe because of them.’

How long did they sleep in the cave?
 [Al-Qur’an 18:25] ‘And they tarried in their Cave three hundred years and add nine’
Three hundred solar years is approximately equal to three hundred and nine lunar years. As per historical records, it is believed that the Jews of Medina had posed the question of the Sleepers of the Cave to test the authenticity of the claim of prophet hood by Muhammad, in response to which these verses were revealed. The Jews of Medina were using a lunisolar calendar[16] and the Christians probably a solar one. There are many forms of calendars still in use all over the world [17] [18] 
Verse 26 goes on to say: ‘Say: Allah knows best how long they remained; to Him are (known) the unseen things of the heavens and the earth; how clear His sight and how clear His hearing! There is none to be a guardian for them besides Him, and He does not make any one His associate in His Judgment.’  

Implications of hibernation for humans: medical; space travel
Human hibernation may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. In December 2000, Gerhard Heldmaier, a professor at the University of Marburg in Germany and chairman of the International Hibernation Society, announced the discovery of two genes that are thought to trigger hibernation. These genes direct enzymes to burn fat rather than carbohydrates, thereby equipping the body for hibernation. "There is no real reason," Heldmaier told London's Independent, "to say that humans are so different from other mammals that they are unable to enter hibernation." [19]
A blog post with the self-explanatory title: The Curious Case of Human Hibernation[20] also makes an interesting read.
Another interesting article is Total Shutdown: Hibernation for Humans [21]
For prospects of space travel, read: Project Hyperion: To the stars in a sleeping car? [22]


[8] Translator: Shakir

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