Abbas - Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs
(And in like manner We awakened them), after 309 years, (that they might question one another) so that they might talk to one another. (A speaker from among them) this is their chief and leader: Maxmillian (Maksilmina) (said: How long have ye tarried) in this Cave after you slept? (They said: We have tarried a day) and when they left the cave and saw that the sun did set yet, they said: (or some part of a day. (Others) said) i.e. Maxmillian: (Your Lord best knoweth what ye have tarried) after you slept. (Now send one of you) Yamblichus (Yamlikha) (with this your silver coin unto the city) of Ephesus (Afsus), (and let him see what food is purest there) the largest quantity; it is also said that this means: the best of bread and most lawful slaughtered meat (and bring you a supply thereof. Let him be courteous) when buying (and let no man) let no Magian (know of you) find out about you.
Now send one of you forth with this silver of yours to the city, and let him see which of them has the purest food.
Here there are two allusions: One is that every faithful servant, though he may have reached the furthest limit in the Haqiqah, will be held to guarding the rulings of the Shariah, for any reality in which the outward Shariah is not witnessed is the deception and delusion of Satan. The root in this is that the chevaliers sent one of themselves to buy some food for them, and they commanded him to investigate and scrutinize its situation so that heedlessness would not make him fall into something forbidden.
The second is what was said by Yūsuf ibn al-Ḥusayn to one of his companions when he took something to the poor or to the folk of recognition, or when he bought food for them: “Let it be the most goodly and the most subtle of things, for when someone reaches recognition, only subtle things conform with him and only delicate things become his intimate. The root here is His words, 'and let him see which of them has the purest food.'” Then he said, “When you buy for the renunciants and the worshipers, buy whatever you find, for they are still busy with abasing their own souls and holding them back from appetites.”
And so, just as We did with them that which We have mentioned, it was that We aroused them, We awakened them, that they might question one another, concerning their state and the length of their stay [in the cave]. One of them said, ‘How long have you tarried?’ They said, ‘We have tarried a day, or part of a day’: [he said this] because they had entered the cave at sunrise and were awakened at sunset, and so they thought that it was [the time of] sunset on the day of their entry. Then, they said, unsure about this [fact], ‘Your Lord knows best how long you have tarried. Now send one of you with this silver coin of yours (read bi-warqikum or bi-wariqikum) to the city — which is said to be the one now called Tarsus (Tarasūs) — and let him see which is the purest food, that is, which of the foods of the city is the purest, and [let him] bring you a supply thereof. Let him be careful and not make anyone aware of you.
And thus it was that We aroused them, meaning, just like that real arousal and spiritual revival did We arouse them, that they might question one another, that is, that they might seek [to discover] among one another the significations deposited in their preparednesses, the truths hidden within their essences, that they might become perfected by exteriorising these and bringing them out into actuality, which is the beginning of attentiveness, what the Sufis call vigilance (yaqaẓa). One of them said, 'How long have you tarriedḍ': the interpretation of this has already been given, and it is the verifiers among them who were: They, who, said, 'Your Lord knows best how long you have tarried. Now send one of you with this silver coin of yours to the city: this was the time of their coming to perceive, their gaining [of knowledge] and their perfection. The silver coin represents the principle forms of knowledge which they posssessed and which are not acquired, since it is through these [forms of knowledge] that mental truths are gained from the forms of true knowledge and [from] divine gnoses. The city represents is the locus for the coming together (ijtimāʿ), for companionship and training are unavoidable; or [it represents] the city of knowledge, as per his statement, peace be upon him, 'I am the city of knowledge and ʿAlī is its gate'. As for the fact that they only sent one of them, that is because the perfection of all is not dependent upon instruction and learning. Nay, the more noble perfection is that of knowledge. And so it suffices for one to gain knowledge in place of the group and to [then] alert the remainder, as God, exalted be He, says: Why should not a party of every section of them go forth so that they may become learned in religion and that they may warn their folk when they return to them [Q. 9:122] and let him see which is the purest food, which of its inhabitants is the most goodly and most excellent in terms of knowledge and purer than meddlesomeness, idle talk and superficial things (ẓawāhir) such as the art of contradiction and disputation and the like by which the soul cannot become stronger nor perfect itself, as in His saying neither nourishing nor availing against hunger.
For knowledge is the nourishment of the heart, as food is for the body, and it is the true divine provision [Q. 88:7]. Let him be careful, when choosing the food [to buy] and the people to buy from, that is to say, let him choose the verifier with the pure soul, the one rightly-guided in his way, excellent in conduct, unpolluted in his inner heart (sarīra), the perfect and perfecting one, and not the meddling, superficial (ẓahirī), evil soul, who feigns knowledge and informs of what he does not possess, so that he [the former] might profit from his companionship and manifest his perfection by sitting with him and acquire perception through his knowledge and then in turn benefit us. Or: let him be careful in this matter lest an ignorant one become aware of your [spiritual] state and your [true] religion inadvertently; and [let him] not make anyone, from the veiled exotericists (ahl al-ẓāhir) or those deniers who dwell in the world of nature, aware of you. If we were to interpret 'the companions of the cave' as the spiritual faculties, then the one who has been sent [off to the city] represents reflection (fikr), the city the locus of the coming together of the spiritual and egocentric faculties with nature; the purest food is the intellect as opposed to estimation, imagination and the senses, for every perceptible thing has a [specific] nourishment; the provision [he is sent for] is considerative knowledge in the case of both interpretations; and [it would also mean] '[let him] not make anyone, of the egocentric faculties, aware of you.
("...or a part of a day.'' They said: "Your Lord knows best how long you have stayed...'') meaning, `Allah knows best about your situation.' It seems that they were not sure about how long they had slept, and Allah knows best. Then they turned their attention to more pressing matters, like their need for food and drink, so they said:
فَابْعَثُواْ أَحَدَكُمْ بِوَرِقِكُمْ
(So send one of you with this silver coin of yours) They had brought with them some Dirhams (silver coins) from their homes, to buy whatever they might need, and they had given some in charity and kept some, so they said:
(and let no man know of you. For, if they come to know of you, they will stone you) means, `if they find out where you are,'
يَرْجُمُوكُمْ أَوْ يُعِيدُوكُمْ فِى مِلَّتِهِمْ
(they will stone you or turn you back to their religion;) They were referring to the followers of Decianus, who they were afraid might find out where they were, and punish them with all kinds of torture until they made them go back to their former religion, or until they died, for if they agreed to go back to their (old) religion, they would never attain success in this world or the Hereafter. So they said:
وَلَن تُفْلِحُواْ إِذًا أَبَدًا
(and in that case you will never be successful.)
Maududi - Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi - Tafhim al-Qur'an
They were roused from their sleep in the same miraculous way that was employed in sending them to sleep and keeping them hidden from the outer world.
The secret of their sleep was revealed when one of them went to Ephesus to buy food for them and offered a coin of the period of Emperor Decius. As it was a changed world, he naturally attracted attention for he was wearing a costume of 300-year old fashion and spoke a language different from that in vogue. This was because during those two centuries the language, culture, dress etc., had undergone a marked change. So the shopkeeper looked askance at him and, according to a Syriac tradition, suspected that he had dug up some ancient treasure. Accordingly, he gathered some people of his neighborhood and they took him before the ruler. On questioning, it was discovered that he was one of those followers of Christ, who had fled the city 300 years ago to save their Faith. As most of the population had embraced Christianity, the news immediately spread throughout the city and a big crowd of the people along with the Christian Roman Ruler, arrived at the Cave. It was then that the Sleepers of the Cave came to know that they had slept for about three hundred years. So after making salutations to their Christian brothers they lay down and their souls left their bodies.
According to the Syriac tradition, at the time of this occurrence, hot discussions were going on in Ephesus about Resurrection and the Hereafter. Though the people had embraced Christianity under the influence of the Roman Empire, yet traces of shirk and idolatry of the Romans and the effects of the Greek philosophy were still very powerful. So in spite of the Christian creed of the Hereafter, many people denied this, or at least were skeptical about this. To add to this the Sadducee sect of the Jews, who formed a great part of the population of the city, openly denied the Hereafter and professed to base this on the Torah. The Christian scholars, however, could not put forward any strong arguments to refute them: so much so that the reports of the polemical discussion given in Matthew, Mark and Luke, attributed to Prophet Christ, are admittedly very weak even according to the Christian scholars. (Please refer to Matthew 22: 23-33, Mark 12: 18-27, Luke 20: 27-40). That is why the disbelievers in the Hereafter were having the upper hand and even the believers were being involved in doubts about it. It was at that time that the Sleepers of the Cave were raised up and furnished an absolute proof of the life-after-death and turned the scales in favor of the believers in this dispute.
It appears from the context that this was the saying of the righteous people from among the Christians. They were of the opinion that a wall should be raised at the entrance of the Cave in order to let the Sleepers remain in the same condition in which they were, for they argued that their Lord alone knew best about their rank and position and the reward they deserved.
The people "who prevailed in their matter" were the Roman rulers and the priests of the Christian Church, who did not let the righteous Christians have their way. This was because by the middle of the fifth century, the common people, especially the orthodox among the Christians, had become fully involved in shirk and the worship of saints and tombs. They used to visit the tombs of the saints to worship them and kept the statues of Jesus, Mary and the apostles in their churches: so much so that a few years before the rising up of the Sleepers of the Cave, in 431 A.D., a great council of the representatives of the Christian World had been held in Ephesus itself, in which it was resolved that the creed of the divinity of Christ and of Mary as the mother of God, should be included in the articles of the Christian Church. If we keep in view the year 431, it becomes clear that by "those who prevailed in their matter" are meant the leaders of the Church and the officers of the government, who had the reins of the religious and political powers in their hands. In fact these were the people who were the upholders of shirk and who decided that a mausoleum should be built over the Cave of the Sleepers to make it a place of worship.
It is an irony that some people among the Muslims have misconstrued this verse of the Qur'an so as to make it lawful for themselves to build mausoleums, monuments and mosques over the tombs of the righteous persons and saints. The Qur'an has, in fact, pointed out the deviation of the workers of iniquity who prevailed upon others and built a place of worship over the Cave of the Sleepers, who were indeed a Sign of Resurrection and of the life-after-death. But they abused this good opportunity and produced another means of practicing shirk.
One fails to understand how anyone can deduce from this verse an argument for the legality of building mosques over the tombs of the righteous people, when the Holy Prophet has categorically prohibited this:
(1) "Allah has cursed those women who visit tombs and those people who build mosques over them and burn lights over them" (Ahmad, Tirmizi, Abu Dawud, Nasa'i, Ibn Majah).
(2) "Beware that the people, who have passed before you, made the tombs of their Prophets the places of their worship. I forbid you to do that." (Muslim)
(3) "Allah has cursed the Jews and the Christians, for they made the tombs of their Prophets the places of their worship." (Ahmad, Bukhari, Muslim, Nasa'i).
(4) "The behavior of those people was strange: if a righteous person from among them, died they would build a mosque over his grave and draw his pictures. They will be treated as worst criminals on the Day on Resurrection." (Ahmad, Bukhari, Muslim, Nasa'i).
Thus, it is clear from the above Sayings of the Holy Prophet that building of the places of worship over the tombs is utterly unlawful; the Qur'an has merely stated as a historical fact the sinful act of the Christian priests and the Roman rulers and has not sanctioned such a thing. Therefore no God-fearing person can turn this into an argument for building mosques over the tombs.
Incidentally, it will be worth while to cite a statement of Rev. T. Arundell who published his Discoveries in Asia Minor in 1834. He says that he had seen the remains of the Mausoleums of Mary and the Seven Sleepers on a hillock near the remains of the ancient city of Ephesus.