THE HOLY QURAN is not just a book of revelation and guidance for Muslims – it is also one of pondering, assessing, reflecting and evaluating the path of our lives and the outcome of our deeds in this worldly life. The Quran lays stress upon knowledge and reason as the valid way towards the most excellent faith and God consciousness. The chapters and verses of the Holy Quran abound with tales of prophets and how they encountered problems and could surmount them with Allah’s revelations and guidance.
These stories are distinguished by the dignity of their aims and goals and the superiority of their solutions. Through these stories, the Muslim believer can absorb morals and values that discipline the soul and bring peace to his otherwise chaotic disposition and mind. These tales contain various ways of teaching and refinement, which sometimes become the stepping stones towards achieving wisdom and spiritual learning. By reading about the exalted prophets of various peoples, about nations and rulers of yore who sinned and learnt life’s lessons, who were punished and destroyed or who were rewarded for their efforts, we imbibe valuable lessons that we can assimilate into our own lives.
The eighteenth surah in the Holy Quran, Al Kahf, or ‘The Cave,’ is one such chapter that abounds with a treasure trove of stories which we can not only reflect upon, but which we can also use to apply as lessons for the betterment of our lives. One story in this surah which is a sparking jewel of wisdom and inspiration embedded with nuances of meaning and implication is the story of Prophet Musa and his meeting with Al-Khidr.
This meeting is a unique one, as it involves patterns of understanding and reflection, advocating that we ponder upon several instances that we too may encounter in our lives, as well as the consequential lessons and values that evolve out of them. By reading this story we gain an understanding of the many issues we grapple with in our day to day lives and we gain confidence in acquiring the qualities we need to develop and sustain within ourselves if we are going to function as good Muslims.
The story of this fortuitous meeting between Prophet Musa and Al-Khidr is related in verses 60- 82 of Surat Al-Kahf. as well as addressed in numerous hadith. One day, Prophet Musa delivered an impressive sermon to Bani Israel (the children of Israel), and all the assembled people who heard it were deeply moved. Someone in the congregation asked him: “O Messenger of Allah, is there another man on earth more learned than you?” Prophet Musa replied: “No!”– thus believing, as Allah had not only given him the power of miracles and honored him with the Torah, but He had also granted him the supreme privilege of speaking directly to Him.
In fact, Prophet Muhammad has indicated that Musa was one of the five greatest prophets and messengers of Allah. However, in this instance, Allah admonished Musa and revealed to him that no man could know all there is to know, nor would one messenger alone be the custodian of all knowledge. There would always be another with more superior knowledge, and yet someone else who knew what others did not. So then, in our Quranic passage, Prophet Musa asked Allah: “O Allah, where is this man? I would like to meet him and learn from him.”
Musa also asked for a sign to clarify this person’s identity. Allah informed Musa that he would find this wise man at the junction of the two seas. He was determined to undertake this arduous journey even if it meant travelling for many years. Allah instructed him to take a live fish in a water-filled vessel and where the fish disappeared, there he would find the man he sought.
Musa set out on his journey, accompanied by a young apprentice, Yusha bin Nun, who carried the vessel with the fish. When they reached the junction of the two seas, they were exhausted from the long journey and stopped to rest. As they slept, the fish moved vigorously in the vessel and jumped out and fell into a channel leading to the sea. It made its way out to the sea, through a passage fashioned from the motion of the pathway it took. It is said that Allah stopped the flow of water on both sides of the way created by the fish, so that there became something like an archway or tunnel. At the time, Prophet Musa’s companion neglected to tell him that their fish had escaped. When they woke up refreshed, they recommenced their journey. Thus, they had passed on from the place where Prophet Musa would have encountered Al-Khidr.
Later on, in their journey, exhausted and hungry, Musa asked his boy-servant to bring forth their meal for them to partake of it, satisfy their hunger and feel refreshed. Yusha bin Nun then recalled what had occurred at their previous rest stop and acknowledged that when they had taken an interlude of rest at the rock, he had forgotten about the fish, and none but the Shaytan had made him forget this incident.
So they retraced their steps and upon coming to the designated place, it is said, they were amazed to behold an incredible tunnel fashioned out of the water. Musa realized that this was the sign by which they were to discover Al-Khidr. Indeed, there they found a man covered by a garment. This was Al-Khidr, the sage whom Allah had ordained for Prophet Musa to meet.
The name Al–Khidr literally means ‘The Green One’. It was a title derived from the word khadra which translates to ‘green.’ It was said that Al-Khidr had the special prowess to turn withered, barren land into fertile, productive, green land. Al-Khidr is believed by scholars to have been an angel or a prophet, with many scholars leaning towards the latter assumption. They state that since he followed the divine ordainments commanded by Almighty Allah, he was probably a prophet.
Prophet Musa approached him and greeted him. Al-Khidr asked, “Is there such a greeting in your land? Who are you?”
Prophet Musa said, “I am Musa.”
He said, “Are you Musa the Prophet of Allah, the Musa of the Children of Israel?”
Prophet Musa said, “Yes,” and added, “I have come to you so that you may teach me something of that knowledge which you have been taught.” In this way, Prophet Musa beseeched Al-Khidr to teach him the Higher Truth that Allah had granted him, as he hoped to be guided by this supreme knowledge to perform beneficial and righteous deeds.
Al-Khidr said, “O Musa! I have some of Allah’s knowledge which He has bestowed upon me but which you do not know; and you too, have some of Allah’s knowledge which He has bestowed upon you, but which I do not know. Each of us has responsibilities before Allah that the other does not share. But you will not be able to have patience with me. You will not be able to accompany me when you see me execute actions that go against your better judgment. For how can you have patience about a thing you know not? I know you may justifiably denounce me, but my knowledge has been bestowed on me by Allah, and there are hidden interests in my actions, which you may not perceive.”
Having stated the above, Al-Khidr agreed to allow Prophet Musa to accompany him –on certain conditions. He extracted a promise from Prophet Musa that he should not only persevere by being patient and obedient, but also he must refrain from questioning him about the reason behind any of the actions he was about to observe or encounter.
Al-Khidr emphasized that Prophet Musa should not ask him about whatever he might find distasteful until he himself initiated the discussion and offered an explanation. Prophet Musa vowed to be not only forbearing, but also to practice restraint and self-control when confronted by any actions or decisions taken by Al-Khidr, expressing assent that all would be revealed to him by the end of the journey. Based on this understanding, the two proceeded upon their eventful journey.
It is said that Musa and Al-Khidr set out walking on the seashore. A boat sailed by and they requested the crew of the boat to take them on board. The crew recognized Al-Khidr, and welcomed them warmly. They would be honored to have Al-Khidr as their prestigious passenger, and they agreed to take both him and Prophet Musa to their destination without any fare. When they were on board the boat, a sparrow came and stood on the edge of the boat and dipped its beak once or twice into the sea. Al-Khidr said to Moses: “O Musa! My knowledge and your knowledge have not decreased Allah’s knowledge except as much as this sparrow has decreased the water of the sea with its beak.” Then unexpectedly Al-Khidr took an adze and pulled up a plank which disabled the boat. Soon afterwards, he roughly patched it up again.
Musa was shocked and could not restrain himself from proclaiming: “What have you done? These people took us on board charging us nothing; yet you have intentionally scuttled their boat to drown its passengers. Verily, you have done a dreadful thing.” Al-Khidr replied: “Did I not tell you that you would not be able to remain patient with me?” Musa was immediately regretful and replied: “Call me not to account for what I have forgotten, and do not be hard upon me for my fault.” Prophet Musa realized the error he had committed and the forgetfulness that had befallen him which had prompted him to commit this mistake, so he pleaded with Al-Khidr not to let his outspokenness make Al-Khidr exclude him from the honor of being allowed to accompany him further.
Then, it is said, the two disembarked from the boat, and while they were traversing the shore they observed a young boy playing with other boys. He was the finest and most handsome of all the boys. Al-Khidr singled him out and without provocation, he took the boy away and slaughtered him. When he observed this, Prophet Musa was appalled and horrified. He perceived the killing as unjustified, so he confronted Al-Khidr, “Hast thou slain an innocent person who had slain none? Truly a foul (unheard of) thing hast thou done!”
By Prophet Musa’s standard, this was a heinous act, one that was both prohibited and evil. Al-Khidr reprimanded him and reiterated that he had correctly assumed earlier that Prophet Musa would have no patience with him. Upon hearing this, Prophet Musa was ashamed and realized that he had violated his trust with Al-Khidr. Musa realized that he must refrain from arguing and further questioning, or he would certainly be deprived of any further knowledge and benefit to be derived from this wise one. He fervently pleaded, “If I ask thee anything after this, keep me not in your company; thereupon you will have received an excuse for sending me away.”
Continuing upon their arduous journey, they chanced upon a village. Here the two travelers requested food and shelter. As per the custom of the day, wayfarers should be welcomed into the fold of any dwelling or town they passed through, and the inhabitants were to be honored with the provision of sustenance and a resting place. The people of this village, however, rejected the universal rule of hospitality towards the strangers, and their manners were not only devoid of any basic courtesy, but also proved to be extremely churlish in their outright refusal to offer sustenance in any form to their guests.
Upon departing from the village, the two came upon a wall which was on the point of collapse. To Prophet Musa’s utter surprise, Al-Khidr proceeded to repair the crumbling wall and fortified it by setting it upright again. Prophet Musa was unable to contain his anger. He was outraged that Al-Khidr had rewarded these rude and arrogant people by assisting them. The least he could have done was to ask for recompense for a job done, so that with the money gained from this job, they could have purchased some nourishment for themselves.
At this point Al-Khidr said: “You agreed after the boy was killed that if you would ask me any explanation after that, you would not accompany me any further. So this is the parting of the ways between me and you.” A hadith states that Prophet Muhammad at this point said, May Allah bestow His mercy on Musa! Had he remained patient, Allah might have told us more about their story.
Al-Khidr was now ready to explain the cause of all these seemingly senseless and impulsive acts, and what had prompted him to do as he had done:
- As for the boat, he explained, it belonged to poor people working on the sea. And because there was an oppressive, tyrannical king who was seizing every ship by force, Al-Khidr wished to save the boat by inflicting a defect on it, as that action would ultimately save their source of livelihood.
- As for the boy killed without provocation, his fated rebellious nature and arrogance, as known to Al-Khidr, would otherwise have led his righteous parents not only away from the true faith, but also towards disbelief and sin due to their love for him. Al-Khidr knew that Allah would bless them with a child who would be purer, more righteous and merciful, worthy of them.
- As for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the town; and there was under it a treasure belonging to them. Their father had been a pious, virtuous man, and they were entitled to these riches. Allah intended that they should attain their age of full strength and take out their treasure as a mercy and favor from Him.
These were Al-Khidr’s interpretation of those (things) over which Prophet Musa could not be patient.
Al-Khidr said that he had done none of these actions on his own initiative or on his own authority. He declared that in all three cases, though they appeared to Prophet Musa questionable and random, inexplicable and unjust, and perhaps even cruel, were done under divine guidance. Allah had prevailed upon him to perform the acts for a definite reason. He concluded by saying, Such is the interpretation of those things over which thou wast unable to hold patience.
Thus is culminated the Quran’s unique story of Prophet Musa and Al-Khidr. Eventually, we are left with a sense of reflection and contemplation about the varied lessons and morals addressed in this narration. Several aspects of this story prompt us to reflect and compel us to analyze the incidents in a way that will bring their lessons into our daily lives by way of precious attributes and qualities we can emulate. Similarly, the trials and tribulations that we personally face in our lives are a test from Allah, but each surah, verse and narrative of the Holy Quran, like this one, teaches us some valuable lesson we can infer and strive to apply, and through which we can increase the strength of our faith and develop our fortitude on the true path of Islam.
(Part 2 of this article suggests lessons and moral values we can learn from this Quranic story.)