As for the number in the group, the Qur’an says:
(Some) say they were three, the dog being the fourth among them; (others) say they were five, the dog being the sixth, guessing at the unseen; (yet others) say they were seven, the dog being the eighth. Say (O Muhammad SAW): "My Lord knows best their number; none knows them but a few." So debate not (about their number, etc.) except with the clear proof (which We have revealed to you). And consult not any of them (people of the Scripture, Jews and Christians) about (the affair of) the people of the Cave. (Qur’an 18:22)
By the power of Allah, the men were neither disturbed by outsiders nor swallowed by the ground; “however, had you looked at them, you would certainly have turned back from them in flight, and would certainly have been filled with awe of them.” (Qur'an 18:18)
One year faded into the next. Seasons changed. Generation replaced generation, nations rose and fell, and still the young men continued sleeping until Allah roused them.
Once awake, the disoriented young men realized they had lost track of time, and wondered how long they had been there. One of them suggested perhaps a day or a part thereof, but they agreed that only Allah knew the exact duration. Of this, the Qur’an says:
And they stayed in their Cave three hundred years, and add nine. (Qur’an 18:23) By some interpretations, this means 300 solar years, but if one were to use the basis of lunar years to calculate the duration, it would total 309 years. However, the Qur’an also says:
Say: "Allah knows best how long they stayed. With Him is (the knowledge of) the unseen of the heavens and the earth." (Qur’an 18:24) Again, Allah is telling us that the actual length of time is not of consequence for us, as this is part of the unseen knowledge only held by Allah.
These youths were physically no different from the youths of today, and the conversation turned to food. One of them was assigned to buy good and lawful food from town with some silver coins that they had on hand. They warned him to exercise extreme caution to avoid discovery, for fear that the townspeople would stone and assault him, or worse, pressure him to renounce Islam. This is described in Quran 18:19 and 18:20. It is noteworthy that even under mortal threat, the youth were particular about eating food which was pure (halal) to them.
The King and the rest of the disbelievers who had persecuted them had died several generations earlier, but the youth did not know this as he carefully headed towards the town. He struggled to find his bearings. The landscape and buildings were unfamiliar. According to Ibn Kathir, he was confused and momentarily doubted himself, but quickly pulled himself together, convinced of his sanity and that things had changed indeed from the “previous night”.
He tried to buy some food with his coins, but the seller did not recognize the currency nor the markings on it. Imagine if someone popped up in today's mall, wearing clothes of three hundred years ago and carrying coins which should rightfully belong in a museum. It would be impossible for such a person to blend in anonymously with the crown. So, the coins were passed from person to person, all of whom were baffled and unable to identify their origin. The youth told the townspeople where he was from and the ruler at that time, and his story was so implausible that he was brought to face the Governor to explain himself.
The Governor at the time, who was a follower of Allah's religion, listened to the youth’s tale. The Governor and the townspeople were so amazed by what they heard that they asked to meet the rest of the group. By Allah’s will, the society by then had adopted monotheistic belief in Allah, therefore, the youth’s personal safety was no longer under threat.
And So It Ends
This was not a Hollywood ending, with splendor and celebrations as the people rejoiced. It was a joyful meeting, however, the townspeople were in such awe that the youths were in danger of being venerated and worshipped. The youths did not want the townspeople to be led astray and start worshipping them instead of Allah.
It is related by some reports that Allah caused the youths to fall asleep and then die, before such an abomination occurred.
It was also said that the physical proof of the young men, being physically intact after centuries of sleep, was to provide proof to to some people of that time who denied the Resurrection. This evidence was then provided to them for them to witness with their own eyes, and will stand as witness for them or against them as to which path they chose to believe thereafter. Allah knows best.
As a monument, the townspeople eventually agreed to build a place of worship above where they died.
And similarly, We caused them to be found that they [who found them] would know that the promise of Allah is truth and that of the Hour there is no doubt. [That was] when they disputed among themselves about their affair and [then] said, "Construct over them a structure. Their Lord is most knowing about them." Said those who prevailed in the matter, "We will surely take [for ourselves] over them a masjid." [18:21]
Reflections for Us:
This story shows that age and status are not impediments to worship. The heroes of this story were extremely young and were born into a life of luxury, unlike the majority of humankind who only think of God when they are elderly or close to death. Instead of frittering their lives away on decadent pleasures, these young men dedicated their youth, time, energy and even their lives in the worship of Allah. Reflect back on your own youth - how God conscious were you at that point in time, and was your priority then to please Allah or to find yourself, figure out what life is about, make mistakes and do reckless things? If you are within the age band of the youths in this story, it is time to reflect on what heights you want to aspire you.
Also, certain details have been omitted from the story, such as the exact time and location of these events, the number of the youths and the length of their sleep There is much speculation on where the cave was located, with a few countries claiming that the cave of the sleepers is located on their soil. However, the location of the cave is irrelevant to the point being made in the story. If Allah had wanted us to have certain information, He would have relayed it clearly. In the absence of such information, we have to accept that certain unseen knowledge is only known to Allah and that it is neither appropriate nor beneficial for us to debate, conjecture or discuss these issues any further.
The story of their awakening is one for the mankind until the Day of Judgment. The lesson is that if you elevate Allah in your heart and hold tight to your faith, Allah will take care of you, support you and give you victory against all the odds, and in all situations, no matter how unlikely or bizarre. Like all Quran’ic stories, the main themes are belief, iman and yakin (certainty of faith). If we turn to Allah for guidance, He will increase us in guidance. If we trust in Allah, He will strengthen our faith, be there for us, and give us support through unimaginable means and methods.
May Allah enable us and give us such faith, the one that enables us to ride the high wave to overcome the huge obstacle any calamity or hardship with complete support from Allah to us. Ameen.