قَالَ الَّذِينَ غَلَبُوا عَلَىٰ أَمْرِهِمْ لَنَتَّخِذَنَّ عَلَيْهِمْ مَسْجِدًا
Qāla-ladhīna ghalabū ‘alā amrihim lanattakhidhanna ‘alayhim masjidā
Those who prevailed in the matter said, ‘We will surely set up a place of worship over them.’
(Sūratul Kahf, No.18, Āyat 21)
When the People of the Cave (ashāb al-Kahf) died after waking up from their long sleep they were buried in the cave in which they had slept. Those who did not believe in God and the Hereafter suggested that a building should be built upon it so all traces of the men would be forgotten. The King of the time who was a believer, along with the elders and virtuous people of the time thought it would be better to build a masjid over it. The blessed presence of the bodies of the Ashāb al-Kahf and the fact that they had worshiped only One God and prostrated to Him while all around them did not, would make it a sacred place and inspire the worshipers of the future.
This verse demonstrates that setting a place of worship over the bodies of esteemed personalities is not only not forbidden, but is mentioned in the Quran as a form of respect and remembrance. To keep alive the memory of outstanding people who have had a special position with Allah ‘azza wa-jall is a form of continuous inspiration for people to come. It keeps history alive. This does not conflict with the essence of Tawhīd. There is a difference between worship and respect. In Islam, God alone is worshiped as we repeatedly affirm at least ten times daily: iyyāka na‘budu – You [alone, O Lord] do we worship (Q 1:5). The personalities are respected and revered, and that also due to their connection with God.
It is interesting to note that the word ‘lanathakhizanna’ (we will set up) shows that the people who suggested this were willing to do it themselves. Unlike the other group who suggested that a building should be built (by others) over the bodies, they would have a say in its construction, oversee its running and also worship in it. This is what the verb used suggests. It is different from saying we will ‘build’ a mosque over them.
Those who truly believe in Allah subhānahu wa-ta‘ālā and want His worship to spread use opportunities that come up to fulfill that aim. The People of the Cave were a determined group of worshipers who believed in God despite much opposition. Their story would be a source of inspiration to many. The virtuous people of the time understood the value of that and proposed the setting up of a mosque. This shows their strong belief in God and the desire to keep His name elevated.
History becomes alive when someone visits a place and learns about the story that happened there. An effort to preserve religious history is vital to the spiritual and religious legacy of those who believe in God. It influences the future and affects the lives of people who witness it. People learn from it and may model their lives on it. Unfortunately, with some Muslims, especially the extremists, it has become a tool of obliterating certain religious symbols and historical places so people may not remember and revere those personalities. We need to be vigilant of their schemes and invoke this verse to understand the importance of preserving history.
Sources: Shaykh Tabarsī, Tafsīr Majma’ul Bayan; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (ed), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; http://www.alketab.org/