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Al-Khidr in the Islamic Tradition

excerpted from The Muslim World Vol. LXXXIII, No. 3-4,

July—October, 1993, Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Connecticut.

"In that wilderness I lived for four years. God gave me my eating without any toil of mine. Khidr the Green Ancient was my companion during that time - he taught me the Great Name of God."

[2] Introduction

Ibn Jarir Tabari (d. A.D. 935), the great Muslim historian, used as a title “The History of Prophets and Kings” for his encyclopedic classic Oevrue for the purpose of emphasizing that Islamic history has a prophetic quality.[3] In Tabari’s view, history has been thus suffused with prophecy, to the extent that it is impossible to extricate the ‘sacred’ from the ‘profane’.

Looking at it with a critical modern perspective, Islamic history revolves around a great many legends and historical events that cannot be proven by modern science. Nevertheless, the great dynamics of Islamic history, in the view of Tabari and other major Muslim historians, has been the Islamic rev­elation and its historical interpretation. The goal of existence in Islam is a prophetic existence. Although prophets are not sinless, they represent the perfect human model, and embody the ultimate human quality in God’s eyes. Because of their unique role as the standard bearers of the divine-human and human-divine relationship, prophets become the special focus of human history.

There are numerous prophets, ‘saints’

[4] and other heroes of Islam who have exerted a great influence on aspects of Islamic history. One among them is Khidr.

[5] In Islamic folk literature, one finds a variety of names and titles asso­ciated with Khidr. Some say Khidr is a title; others have called it an ephithet.

[6] He has been equated with St. George, identified as the Muslim “version of Elijah” and also referred to as the eternal wanderer.

[7] Scholars have also called and characterized him as a ‘saint’, prophet-saint, mysterious prophet-guide and so on.

The story or the ‘legend’ as it is often called, of Khidr finds its source in the Qur’an, chapter 18 (Surat Kahf) verses 60-82,

Then they found one of Our votaries whom We had blessed and given knowledge from Us.

[8]These verses primarily deal with an allegorical story relating Moses’ journey in search for truth. Full of symbolism, the Qur’anic story introduces the mysterious figure of Khidr, who symbolizes “the utmost depth of mystic insight accessible to man.

[9] Khidr is not mentioned in the Qur’an by name. However, the commentators have generally agreed, partly on the basis of Hadith literature, that the mysterious person with whom Moses’ meeting takes place, i.e. the meeting mentioned in 18:65, and who is called in the Qur’an as “one of Our votaries”, is no other than the ‘eternal’ Khidr.

[10] In the context of the above, a number of questions come to mind:

Is Khidr a name or does it represent a title?

Is Khidr a messenger and/or a prophet, or simply a Wali? and Is he one of the ‘eternal’?

These questions have engaged the minds of many Qur’an commentators and scholars of Islam. The purpose of this paper is to look at the various ways in which the figure of Khidr is understood by them. The questions most pertinent to our enquiry deal with three different aspects of Khidr:

his identity; his status; and his relevance.
In western Asia, Moslem or Hindu symbolic art shows the Saint, Al Khizr, dressed in a green coat being carried on top of the water by a fish which conveys him over the river of life.

Khidr in History

Khidr is one of the four prophets whom the Islamic tradition recognizes as being ‘alive’ or ‘immortal’. The other three being Idris (Enoch), Ilyas (Elias), and ‘Isa (Jesus).

[11] Khidr is immortal because he drank from the water of life. There are some who have asserted, however, that this Khidr is the same person as Elijah.

[12] He is also identified with St. George.

[13] Amongst the earliest opinions in Western scholarship, we have Rodwell’s understanding where he claims that the name “Khidr is formed from Jethro.”

[14] Interestingly enough, there is a link here between Khidr and the classical Jewish legend of the ‘Wandering Jew’. Krappe, in his major work on folklore, says: it is difficult to dissociate the figure [of the Wandering Jew] from that of Al-Khidr, one of the Arabic prophets. .. With the crusades Europeans became familiar with this legendary figure and out of it developed the character of Ahasuerus or Isaac Laquedem.

[15] Haim supports and even quotes Krappe to provide the link between ‘the Wandering Jew legend’ and the story of Khidr.[16] On the basis of some simi­larities of occupation, Khidr is also identified with the prophet Jeremiah or rather it is the other way around; Jeremiah is likened to Khidr.

[17]As far as the identity of Khidr in Islamic history is concerned, there are as many opinions as there are commentators.

[18] Enormous detail is found pertaining to his name, genealogy, appearance, origin and status in the chronicles of Muslim commentators and historians since the beginning of Islamic scholarship.

[19] Most of this literature exists either in connection with the commentary of S.18 of the Qur’an, or it is linked with the tales of the prophets (Qisas al-Anbiya’). Historically speaking, Islam inherited the tradition of Khidr from “earlier myths and faiths.

[20] Sale has argued that Muslim tradition confounds Khadir with Phineas, Elias, and St. George, saying that his soul passed by a metempsychosis successively through all three.”

[21] From a critical historical perspective, the legend of Khidr is found to be linked with some of the most ancient legends known to us today—the epic of Gilgamesh, the Alexander Romance, and the Wandering Jew, just to name a few.

[22] These, at the same time, are also perceived to be the three main sources of the episode of Khidr, implying, as it were, to be the ‘source’ of the whole Qur’anic narrative of the story of Moses and Khidr; in fact, of the whole of 8.18 (Kahf).

[23] However, a modern commentator has this to say about the his­torical links of Khidr,

The nearest equivalent figure in the literature of the People of the Book is Melchizedek… In Gen. xiv. 18-20, he appears as king of Salem, priest of the Most High God…

[24] However, since the advent of Islamic folk literature, Khidr has become an integral part of Islamic folklore as well as serious Sufi literature. Just as the figure of the ‘Wandering Jew’ became the main allegory of the Jewish people during their Diaspora, the figure of Khidr became an allegory for the travelling Sufis.

Khidr in the Qur’an

In the Qur’an the story begins by Moses’ declaration to his servant/companion that “I will not give up till I reach the confluence of two oceans”.[25] Moses and Joshua had begun to search for “a servant of Allah” from whom Moses was to learn the ‘secret knowledge given him by God. As seen above, Muslim tradition identifies this “servant” as Khidr.

Qur’anic commentators have related several opinions with regard to the status of Khidr. Some say he is one of the prophets; others refer to him simply as an angel who functions as a guide to those who seek God.

[26] And there are yet others who argue for his being a perfect Wali meaning the one whom God has taken as a friend.

[27]Some commentators, who have thought of Khidr as a prophet, have mainly argued on the basis of the Qur’anic reference to him as rahma. What does this term, rahma, mean in its Qur’anic context? As related above the Qur’an re­lates in S.18:65; Khidr is one of those “…whom We had blessed…”. This characterization usually applies to the prophets. Rahma comes from the root RHM meaning ‘womb’. Other translations of S.18:65 include, and there they found a devotee among Our devotees. We had blessed him with Our grace…

[28] …they found one of our servants unto whom we had granted mercy from us…

[29] Similarly in S.43:32, the Qur’an, while expounding one of the characteristics of God’s prophets, declare them as “the ones who dispense the favor of your Lord” as against those who are seemingly “wealthy” and hold important po­sitions (chiefs) in this world. Here the Qur’an argues for the Prophet as the one who embodies God’s rahma due to God’s will alone and not due to any worldly title or position which he did or did not have.

The Qur’anic usage of rahma here is the same as in 8.18:65. It deals with the quality of being a Rahim —the “ever-merciful”; the superlative degree of which is applied to God alone. So God being a Rahim sends His messengers (and prophets) as symbols of His rahma. And as a result they become a chan­nel through which God’s rahma is dispensed among mankind.

Another prominent example of this is found in S.21:107, towards the end of Surat al-Anbiya’, wherein referring to Prophet Muhammad the Qur’an says, “We have sent you as a benevolence to the creatures of the world”, using again the word rahma denoting the sending of the Prophet as “the mercy” from God.

[30] Other verses which bear similar association between the prophets and the rahma are S.11:28 and 63 where Noah and Salih respectively speak of God’s “grace’ and “blessings”.

In the second part of the same verse i.e., 18:65b, we read, “and [Khidr has been] given knowledge from Us.” Sale continues the translation of this verse as, “…and whom we had taught wisdom from before us.” Amir-Ali puts it as “…and endowed him with knowledge from Ourselves.”

So Khidr is a “mercy’ from God and he has been given knowledge from God. Here it seems plausible to argue that these qualities certainly allude to his elevated status. To possess divine knowledge is a quality of saints and prophets, but Khidr is evidently more than a saint, since he symbolizes God’s “mercy” which in the Qur’anic sense clearly refers to prophecy.

Commentators are more or less in agreement that the status of Moses is certainly higher than that of Khidr, since he (Moses) is not only a Messenger (Rasul) but also a prophet (Nabi),

[31] bearer of the divine revelation and provi­sions of the law. Khidr, on the other hand, does not hold these titles, although the Qur’an calls him a ‘Servant’ of God. Ibn ‘Arabi’s account of this encoun­ter also sheds some light on the nature of their relationship. Netton, for example, points out that there is an

…overwhelming emphasis on rank and knowledge…for al-Khadir is aware that Moses hold the exalted rank of Messenger (Rasul) which he, al-Khadir, does not…

[32]However, to analyze the subsequent verse of Surat al-Kahf, verse 66, in this context, we find that it deals with Moses’ request to he instructed by Khidr, which, seemingly at least, puts Khidr at a higher position than that of Moses. This further confirms the status of Khidr as a prophet, as mentioned in the previous verse.

The emphasis here is on two key words which perhaps determine the overall meaning of the verse, atabi’ka and tu’allimani which may have direct bearing upon the status of Khidr. Ahmed Ali translates it as,“…May I attend upon you that you may instruct me in the knowledge you have been taught of the right way?’ (Emphasis added)

Amir-Ali has translated the key words as, “…May I follow thee so that thou mayst teach me something of thy wisdom?” (emphasis added)

As we can see here the translation of tu’allimani is ‘instruct me’ or ‘teach me’. Moses, therefore, is requesting Khidr to “instruct” him “in the knowledge…of the right way” (S.18:66b). Since Moses in the Islamic tradition is regarded as a prophet as well as a messenger; bearer of the divine command­ments, and conveyer of God’s truth to his people, his seeking of knowledge from a non-prophet does not fit the criterion of the divine wisdom given to all prophets. A prophet is rahma of God as well as a bearer of the knowledge given to none other than prophets. It can be said that it would not he possible for Khidr, firstly, to have knowledge from God, and, secondly, to “instruct” Moses in that knowledge he is given by God, without being a prophet or for that matter rahma himself. It would be absurd to believe that Moses of all God’s messengers was less in knowledge than a non-prophet. On the other hand, it is also argued that Moses with whom Khidr’s meeting takes place is not the Moses of Bani Israel. In fact there is an hadith which mentions such a claim while refuting it at the same time on the authority of ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas.

[33] At this point, however, it must be noted that the concept of rahma is closely linked with divine ‘guidance’ either in the form of revelation given to the prophets or simply by their mere presence and witness unto mankind.

[34] The prophecy of Khidr thus is the ‘prophecy of Saint-ship’ (nubuwwatu’l-wilayat) whereas that of Moses is characterized as the ‘prophecy of institution’ (nubuwwatu’l-tashri).

[35] Going back to the origin of the story we find a different set of arguments emerging from the rationale behind Moses’ search for and subsequent meet­ing with Khidr. And this sheds further light on an overall understanding of the story. It begins with Moses making a claim about being the most learned of all men in the world.

[36][Due to this belief]…he no longer tried to acquire more knowledge. So God sought for an occasion to stimulate him to obtain more knowledge…[and one day after his address to his people] one of them asked him: ‘Can there be found anybody more learned than you?’ He replied: ‘No, such a man I never met’. Then God revealed: ‘Yes, such a man does exist. Our servant Khidr is is more learned than you are’…

[37] As we can see, Moses, by holding such a belief, created a necessity of being instructed by someone who surpassed him in knowledge. Although one may argue that the reason for such an ‘instruction’ was the mannerism in which he proclaimed it,

[38] the fact remains that Moses was the most knowl­edgeable of all men of his time as he was a prophet of distinction in steadfastness and yet there was a sense of ‘the absolute’ in his tone for which God had instituted his meeting with Khidr.

[39] It is in this context that most commentators regard Khidr as one of the prophets. For as the Qur’anic concept of rahma, analyzed above, also sug­gests the same and moreover indicates that both Moses and Khidr possess “some divine knowledge not possessed by the other.’

[40] On the one hand, Moses is placed above Khidr in rank as a messenger; on the other, it is argued that they both possess different sets of knowledge. This latter position is particularly held by Ibn ‘Arabi, mainly, its order to present the elevated status of the esoteric knowledge and, of the gnosis that perceives not only the necessity for and validity of [the] Law, hut also the inescapable validity and necessity of those aspects of cosmic becoming that elude the Law…

[41] Khidr in Sufism

Khidr is associated with the water of life.

[42] Since he drank the water of immortality he is described as the one who has found the source of life, ‘the Eternal Youth.’

[43] He is the mysterious guide and immortal saint in the popular Islamic piety.

Sometimes the mystics would meet him on their journeys; he would inspire them, answer their questions, rescue them from danger, and, in special cases, invest them with the khirqa, which was accepted as valid in the tradition of Sufi initiation.

[44] In Sufi tradition, Khidr has come to be known as one of the afrad, those “who receive illumination direct from God without human mediation.”

[45] He is the hidden initiator of those who walk the mystical path like some of those from the Uwaisi tariqa.

[46] Uwaisiz are those who “enter the mystical path without being initiated by a living master.” Instead they begin their mystical journey either by following the guiding light of the teachings of the earlier masters or by being “initiated by the mysterious prophet-saint Khidr.”

[47] Khidr has had thus gained enormous reputation and popularity in the Sufi tradition due to his role of an initiator. Through this way come several Sufi orders which claim initiation through Khidr and consider him their mas­ter. It has become yet another possible way of initiation through “a source other than a human master.” Besides the Uwaisiz, history records that Ibn ‘Arabi, the great mystical giant from Islamic Spain, claimed to have received the Khirqa from Khidr.

[48] Khidr had thus come to symbolize “the third path” to the knowledge of God, purely and constantly supernatural, giving access to the divine mystery (ghayb) itself.

[49] In the writings of ’Abd al-Kartm al-Jili, Khidr rules over ‘the Men of the Unseen” (rijalu’l-ghayb)-- the exalted saints and angels.

[50] Khidr is also claimed by and included among what in the classical Sufism are called the abdal (‘those who take turns’) or the ‘saints’ (Awliya) of Is­lam.[51] In a divinely instituted hierarchy of such saints Khidr holds the rank of their ‘spiritual head. They are called abdal due to their role of becoming a ‘substitute’ for Khidr and taking turns in “helping in his mission of assisting and saving good men in danger and distress,”[52]

Here one may ask the question how Khidr can relate to a disciple who materially and organically exists in this world of space and time! In other words, as Corbin puts it, is the “disciple’s relation to Khidr similar to the relation he would have had with any visible earthly” master! It seems, as Corbin also suggests, that questioning the nature of such a relationship is to question the historical existence of Khidr himself.[53] Whereas Khidr, as we know, is ‘transhistorical’ and by virtue of being “immortal” transcendent. Further the danger in describing the phenomenon of Khidr is more than real.

If, taking the standpoint of analytical psychology, we speak of Khidr as an archetype, he will seem to lose his reality and become a figment of the imagination, if not of the intellect. And if we speak of him as a real person, we shall no longer be able to characterize the difference in structure between Khidr’s relationship with his disciple and the relationship that any other shaykh on this earth can have with his.[54]

Hence the experience of being a disciple of Khidr “invests the disciple, as an individual, with a transcendent ‘transhistorical’ dimension.”[55] It is an experience which lies beyond the spatio-temporal conditions of our sense perception.

The immortality of Khidr is a symbol of the immensity of his knowledge and providential wisdom. By virtue of being immortal and counted among the four immortal prophets (mentioned above), he is revered in the Muslim tradition and looked upon by the Sufis in great veneration. But Sufis have also used Khidr’s symbolism in another way. ‘Attar, in his long allegorical poem Mantiq al-Tayr, presents Khidr as the opposite of what a Sufi may desire. In a dialogue with a “fool of God” and Khidr, Khidrian life style is shown to be that of an antinomy to the ‘Way’. In this dialogue Khidr asks the ‘fool of God’, “Oh perfect man, will you be my friend?” And the reply from the one, in the Way of God, is,

You and I are not compatible, for you have drunk long draughts of the water of immortality so that you will always exist, and I wish to give up my life.[56]

Symbolism of Khidr

Khidr literally means ‘The Green One’, representing freshness of spirit and eternal liveliness, green symbolizing the freshness of knowledge “drawn out of the living sources of life.”[57] It implies regeneration as Schwarzbaum has pointed out.[58] The color green has also been related to Khidr’s disappearing ‘into the “green landscape’ after departing from Moses.[59] It is a sort of ‘be­coming green’, or by way of disappearing and teaching a lesson, making knowledge ‘afresh’ for the one who is being taught. It is afresh because it is “drawn from Allah’s own knowledge.”[60]

It could also be taken to imply the connection with the wilderness, fields etc. where Khidr is most likely to meet the lost and troubled whence he could guide them. Whatever the source for this green may he, it has come to symbolize the benign presence of the divine wisdom as imparted by the Divine Himself to Khidr and to Prophet Muhammad—hence the inseparable association be­tween the prophetic love and praise in pious Muslim religious ceremonies and the color green. It is also well known that the cloak of the Prophet is associated with either white or green.[61] Interestingly, however, not all ac­counts of Khidr’s appearance describe him in green. Nicholson, in his classical work on Islamic mysticism reporting about Abu Sa’id ibn Abi’l-Khayr’s self-imposed exile, says:

... he [Abdul Khayr] would flee to mountains and wilderness, where he was sometimes seen roaming with a venerable old man clad in white raiment... [who as] he declared [later] was the prophet Khadir.[62]

Besides the symbolism which revolves around the figure of Khidr him­self, the story of Moses and Khidr is full of other imageries and divine allusions. First of all there is a mention of the fish which is a symbol of knowledge;[63] then there is mention of water, a symbol of life, as well as the sea, symbolizing the limitless immensity and vastness of knowledge, especially esoteric knowledge.

Further, the symbolism reaches its height in the fish’s disappearance in a ‘parting of the sea’, symbolizing the meeting of the two domains of knowledge, viz., the esoteric and the exoteric. Now this fish (wisdom) was to be Moses’ breakfast, which is precisely what Moses needed before he understood the subtlety of the events which occurred while he was with Khidr. The fish was dead when it was with Moses and Joshua, only to become alive soon after, thus suggesting the need for them to follow its ‘way to knowledge.’

The reason why Joshua may have forgotten to tell Moses about the disap­pearance of the fish is yet another sign alluding to the divine mystery. Regarding this Shafi’ says: Maybe he (Joshua) forgot due to the reason that his thoughts wandered away thinking about his homeland, since he is in travel.[64] The twist here is in the link between the symbolism of the ‘fish’ (a way of knowledge) which is being carried during the travel (jihad: one of the means of knowl­edge) in order to arrive (understand) the ‘meeting of the two oceans’ (the perfect knowledge). The two oceans, once again, are parallel to the two kinds of knowledge, the exoteric (that of Moses) and the esoteric (that of Khidr); ‘perfect knowledge’ is the coming together of the two.[65] Furthermore, travel is inevitably linked with the attainment of divine wisdom. Hence another aspect of Khidr, as patron-saint of travelers, is highlighted in the tradition. However, whatever may be the reason for Joshua’s forgetfulness; it certainly seems to contain yet another moral for the humankind.

In his case the ‘forgetting’ was more than forgetting. Inertia had made him refrain from telling the important news. In such matters inertia is almost as bad as active spite, the suggestion of Satan. So new knowl­edge or spiritual knowledge is not only passed by in ignorance, but sometimes by culpable negligence.[66]

Overall, the episode of Khidr in the Qur’an is a reflection and representa­tion of the paradoxes of life. Above all, it symbolizes the delicate balance between ‘patience and faith as they were enjoined”[67] on Moses after he understood the meaning of those paradoxes explained to him by Khidr himself.

What is implied by the story is that such wisdom is only attainable by the will, mercy, and grace of God, and that even the prophethood and bearing of the divine law could not bring that “most subtle knowledge” because it is “only known to him who has become the instrument of God.”[68]

[Moses was shown these events] to illustrate the manner in which God may provide contrivances or reconditioning for the benefit of his creatures. Then God uses one of His servants as an instrument for the accomplishment of an intended operation…[69]

Thus is Moses given a lesson by God about the infinitude of knowledge, with subtle but momentary knowledge belonging to Khidr, but universal knowledge to Moses.

(The fact of the matter is that) provisions of the law bear on universal principles...whereas contrivances bear on affairs conducive to a particular prudence…All this is a most subtle knowledge…[Thus Moses] comes to understand precisely the underlying idea of events…[70]

As it may be said here, there is a sense of Khidr being ‘superior’ to Moses. Based on that, one may suggest that there are “glimmerings of a theophany” in the personage of Khidr who as God’s servant is as human as Moses, yet seems to be embodied with the divine attributes of “God’s mercy [rahma] (eternal salvation) and...Divine knowledge (eternal prescience).”[71] Symboli­cally it may imply that Moses’ encounter with Khidr is actually his encounter with the aspects of the Divine in an attempt to equip him (i.e. Moses) with the infiniteness of knowledge. As Netton has rightly said, it may all be summed up as a Divine Testing of Moses.[72]

The legend of Khidr is an excellent example of the fact that human beings constantly need to seek the union with God in Whom all knowledge rests. Since there is no end to the divine knowledge, it is unwise to assume, as Moses did, that one may know it all.

The episode in the story of Moses is meant to illustrate four points… that wisdom [does] not comprehend everything, even as the whole stock of the knowledge of the present day, in the sciences and the arts, and in literature…[is accumulated] (if it could be supposed to be gathered in one individual). (2) Constant effort is necessary to keep our knowledge square with the march of time. (3) There is a kind of knowledge [like the one Khidr represents] which is in ever in contact with life as it is actually lived. (4) There are paradoxes in life: apparent loss may be real gain; apparent cruelty may be real mercy...[and that] Allah’s wisdom transcends all human calculation.[73]

In conclusion, it is to be noted that the symbolism of Khidr has traveled far and beyond the geographical as well as ideological boundaries of its origin. The legend has truly lived up to its universal quality as it spreads across a variety of cultures and civilizations around the world. In the subcontinent folklore Khidr has appeared “as a substitute for the Hindu gods of the water and is particularly revered by sailors and fishermen.”[74] It is in connection with Khidr being a patron-saint of sailors that his name is invoked down to this day by the sailors every time a boat is being launched in parts of the Middle East and Northern India.[75]

Today Khidr can be found in the verses of Iqba1,[76] in the poems of Rumi, and ‘Attar. He has immensely influenced the lives of many a mystic, ascetic and man of God throughout the history of Islam, such as ’Abd al-Karim al-Jili, Ibn ‘Arabi, Mansur al-Hallaj and so on. In the Muslim tradition Khidr is alive and well and continues to guide the perplexed and those who invoke his name.

courtesy: Irfan Omar

Duncan Black MacDonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations

Hartford Seminary

Hartford, Connecticut – U.S.A









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