Abbas - Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs
((Some) will say) the Christians of Najran, al-Sayyid and his followers who were Nestorians, will say: (They were three) they were three young men in the Cave, (their dog) Qatmir (the fourth, and (some) say) al-'Aqib and his followers who were Jacobite Christians will say: (Five) they were five young men, (their dog the sixth, guessing at random) without having definite knowledge; (and (some) say) the followers of al-Malik who were Melkites: (Seven) they were seven young men, (and their dog the eighth. Say) to them, O Muhammad: (My Lord is best aware of their number. None knoweth them save a few) among the believers. Ibn 'Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him and with his father, said: " I am among those few: they were eight young men, and the dog ". (So contend not concerning them) so do not argue with them concerning the number of the sleepers of the Cave (except with an outward contending) unless you recite the Qur'an to them outwardly, (and ask not any of them to pronounce concerning them) do not ask any one of them about their number; enough is what Allah has clarified to you.
They will say, that is, [some of] those disputing the number of the youths [of the cave] at the time of the Prophet (s), in other words, some of these will say that they [the youths] were: ‘Three; their dog the fourth of them’; and they, some [others] among them, will say, ‘Five; their dog the sixth of them’ — both of these sayings were those of the Christians of Najrān — guessing at random, in other words, out of supposition, not having been present with them [at the time], and this [statement ‘guessing at random’] refers back to both sayings, and is in the accusative because it is an object denoting reason, in other words, [they said this] for the reason that they were [merely] supposing it. And they, that is, the believers, will say, ‘Seven; and their dog the eighth of them’ (the sentence is [part of] the subject clause, the predicate of which is the adjectival qualification of sab‘a, ‘seven’ [namely, thāminuhum, ‘the eighth of them’] with the additional wāw [wa-thāminuhum], which is said to be for emphasis, or an indication that the adjective is [semantically] attached to that which it is qualifying). The qualification of the first two sayings as being ‘random’, but not the third, is proof that [the latter] is the satisfactory and correct [number]. Say: ‘My Lord knows best their number, and none knows them except a few’: Ibn ‘Abbās said, ‘I am [one] of these “few” [described]’, and he mentioned that they were seven. So do not contend concerning them except with an outward manner [of contention], [except] with that which has been revealed to you, and do not question concerning them, do not ask for opinions [from], any of them, [from] the People of the Scripture, the Jews. The people of Mecca asked him [the Prophet] about the story of the People of the Cave, and so he said to them, ‘I will tell you about it tomorrow’, but without adding [the words], ‘If God wills’ (inshā’a’ Llāhu) and so the following was revealed:
They will say, namely, the exotericists from among the People of the Book and the Muslims, those who have no [real] knowledge of [such] truths - and His saying 'guessing at random' (rajman bi'l-ghayb) means: throwing random guesses at what is unseen to them, in other words, out of speculation completely devoid of certainty, after where they say 'Three; their dog the fourth of them', and 'Five; their dog the sixth of them': the interpositioning of the wāw ('and') that indicates that the adjectival qualification combines inseparably with the qualified [noun] and that there is no [possible] number beyond between His words, And they will say, 'Seven, and their dog the eighth of them', and His words and none knows them except a few' afterwards is proof that the true [number] was seven and nothing else. The 'few' are the verifiers whose opinion is that [they were seven]. If we were to interpret them as representing the spiritual faculties, then they will be the following: 1) The twin faculty of reason, the considerative and the cognitive; 2) reflection; 3) estimation; 4) imagination; 5) memory; 6) the sensus communis, called 'fantasia'; and 7) the dog representing the soul and the spirit in both interpretations. That explains what has been related from the Commander of the Believers [ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib], peace be upon him, where he said, 'They were seven, three [seated] to the right of the king and three [seated] to his left, with the seventh being the shepherd, the very owner of the dog'. If this report is sound, then that King was Decius, representing the [evil-] commanding soul; the three [seated] to his right with whom he would consult were the two rational faculties in addition to [the faculty of] reflection; the three [seated] to his left to whom he would delegate affairs (istawzara) were the imagination, estimation and memory; the shepherd was 'fantasia' the owner of the sheep of the senses. As for those who said that they [the sleepers] had been three, they intended the heart and the two rational faculties. As for those who said that they had been five, added to these [three] the faculties of reflection and estimation and left out the [faculty that is the] perceiver of forms and that of memory on account of their lack of [the power of] free disposal (taṣarruf) and each of the two functioning as a storage place.
According to this [last] interpretation, the observing of the subsistence of the soul after the disintegration (kharāb) of the body belongs to the group of verifiers from the divine presence; the 'disputing' represents the mutual attraction and struggle that takes place between the faculties as they vie to take possession of the body in which they are resurrected, which is the very 'building' they are commanded to build, the commanding ones being 'those who prevailed', the ones who said, 'We will verily set up over them a place of worship', in which shall prostrate [in worship], that is, shall be made compliant all of the faculties, the animal, the natural and the egocentric. The ones commanded are the ones who were prevailed upon, the agents of the resurrected body. But God knows best.
Allah tells us that people disputed over the number of the people of the Cave. The Ayah mentions three views, proving that there was no fourth suggestion. Allah indicates that the first two opinions are invalid, by saying,
(guessing at the unseen), meaning that they spoke without knowledge, like a person who aims at an unknown target -- he is hardly likely to hit it, and if he does, it was not on purpose. Then Allah mentions the third opinion, and does not comment on it, or He affirms it by saying,
(and the dog being the eighth.) indicating that this is correct and this is what happened.
قُل رَّبِّى أَعْلَمُ بِعِدَّتِهِم
(Say: "My Lord knows best their number...'') indicating that the best thing to do in matters like this is to refer knowledge to Allah, because there is no need to indulge in discussing such matters without knowledge. If we are given knowledge of a matter, then we may talk about it, otherwise we should refrain.
مَّا يَعْلَمُهُمْ إِلاَّ قَلِيلٌ
(none knows them but a few.) of mankind. Qatadah said that Ibn `Abbas said: "I am one of the few mentioned in this Ayah; they were seven. '' Ibn Jurayj also narrated that `Ata' Al-Khurasani narrated from him, "I am one of those referred to in this Ayah,'' and he would say: "Their number was seven.'' Ibn Jarir recorded that Ibn `Abbas said:
مَّا يَعْلَمُهُمْ إِلاَّ قَلِيلٌ
(none knows them but a few.) "I am one of the few, and they were seven.'' The chains of these reports narrated from Ibn `Abbas, which say that they were seven, are Sahih, and this is in accordance with what we have stated above.
فَلاَ تُمَارِ فِيهِمْ إِلاَّ مِرَآءً ظَـهِرًا
(So debate not except with the clear proof.) meaning, gently and politely, for there is not a great deal to be gained from knowing about that.
وَلاَ تَسْتَفْتِ فِيهِمْ مِّنْهُمْ أَحَداً
(And consult not any of them (about the people of the Cave).) meaning, `They do not have any knowledge about it except what they make up, guessing at the unseen; they have no evidence from an infallible source. But Allah has sent you, O Muhammad, with the truth in which there is no doubt or confusion, which is to be given priority over all previous books and sayings.'
Maududi - Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi - Tafhim al-Qur'an
This shows that about three hundred years after this event, at the time of the revelation of the Qur'an, different stories had become current among the Christians about the Sleepers of the Cave, but generally these stories had no authentic source behind them.' This was because that was not the age of the press in which authentic books might have been published. Therefore naturally the stories of events were carried from place to place by means of oral traditions, and with the passage of time many tales of fiction got mixed up with the real story.
This is meant to impress that the real thing in this story is not the number of the Sleepers but the lessons it teaches: (1) A true believer should not on any account turn away from the truth and bow before falsehood. (2) A believer should not merely rely on the material means but on Allah. He should trust in God and follow the right way, even though the outward adverse circumstances might appear to be unfavorable. (3) It is wrong to suppose that Allah is bound by any so-called "Law of Nature", for He is able to do any thing He wills even though that might seem to be against some common experience. He has the power to change any so-called law of nature, whenever and wherever He wills and bring about any extraordinary "supernatural" thing. So much so that He can raise up anyone who might have been asleep for two hundred years, as if he had slept only for a few hours, without letting any change take place in his appearance, dress, health, indeed in anything, during the passage of time. (4) This teaches us that Allah has the power to bring to life all the generations-past, present and future all together as asserted by the Prophets and Divine Scriptures. (5) It teaches us that ignorant people have always been perverting the Signs of Allah which are sent for the right guidance of the people. That is how the miracle of the Sleepers of the Cave, which had been shown as a proof of the Hereafter, had been turned into a means of shirk, as if they were some saints who had been sent only for this purpose.
It is obvious from the above-mentioned real lessons, which one can learn from the story of the Sleepers, that a wise man will pay his attention to these things and not divert it in search of their number, their names, the color of their dog and the like. Only those people, who have no interest for the reality but for superficial things, will spend their time and energy in making investigations about such things. That is why Allah instructed the Holy Prophet: "You should not enter into useless and irrelevant discussions about such things, if other people try to involve you in them. Instead of wasting your time in such useless things, you should concentrate your attention only on your mission." That is why Allah has not Himself told their exact number lest it should encourage such people as are always hankering after useless things.
This is a parenthetical clause which has been inserted here because of its relevancy to the preceding verse, in which it was asserted that the correct number of the Sleepers of the Cave is known only to Allah and a research into it is a useless task. Therefore one should refrain from investigating into unimportant things, nor enter into discussions about them. This has led to the instruction contained in the parenthetical clause for the benefit of the Holy Prophet and the Believers who have been told never to make a positive assertion like this: "I will do this thing tomorrow", for you do not know whether you will be able to do that thing or not: you have neither the knowledge of the unknown nor have full powers to do what you like. If ever inadvertently you utter anything like this, you should at once remember your Lord and say, "Insha Allah." Besides this you do not know whether there will be any good for you in the thing about which you say, “I will do this.” It is possible that you may do another thing better than that. Therefore you should trust in God and say, "I hope that my Lord will guide me in this matter with that thing which is nearer to the right way for me."
This sentence is connected with the theme preceding the parenthetical clause like this: "Some people wilt say, `They were three and the fourth was their do:.....' and some people will say that they remained in the Cave for three hundred years and some others would add nine more years (to the reckoning of the period)". We are of the opinion that the number of the years "300 and 309" have not been stated by Allah Himself but Allah has cited these as sayings of the people. "this opinion is based on this succeeding sentence: "Allah knows best about the period of their stay there. If the number of years, given in v. 25, had been from Allah, this succeeding sentence would have been meaningless. hadrat `Abdullah bin 'Abbas has also opined that this is not the saying of Allah but that of the people which has been cited as a part of the story.