Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 18, “The Cave,” verses 60-82

Sura 18’s importance in Muslim piety, noted last week, is affirmed in numerous ahadith. In one, a man was reciting the sura when “a cloud came down and spread over that man, and it kept on coming closer and closer to him till his horse started jumping (as if afraid of something). When it was morning, the man came to the Prophet, and told him of that experience. The Prophet said, ‘That was As-Sakina (tranquility) which descended because of (the recitation of) the Qur’an.’” As-Sakina is an adaptation of the Hebrew Shekinah, which refers in Jewish tradition to God’s presence in the world, and the cloud clearly recalls the cloud that accompanies God’s presence in Biblical passages such as Exodus 40:35. Like other Biblical concepts imported into Islam – notably, Jesus as the “Word of God” — it doesn’t have this strong a connotation in Islamic thought.

Verses 60-82 of Sura 18 contain one of the strangest, most arresting stories in the entire Qur’an: that of the journey of Moses and Khidr, one of the great road-trip stories of all time. Moses, traveling with his servant, forgets the fish they had carried along for their meal (vv. 60-64). Returning to retrieve it, they encounter “one of Our servants, on whom We had bestowed Mercy from Ourselves and whom We had taught knowledge from Our own Presence,” (v. 65). In Islamic tradition this man is identified as Al-Khadir or Al-Khidr, or, more commonly, Khidr, “the Green Man.” Some identify him as one of the prophets, others as a wali, a Muslim saint. Abu Hayyan Al-Gharnati, a fourteenth-century commentator on the Qur’an, points to v. 82, in which Khidr says he didn’t act “of my own accord,” to argue that he was a prophet – for if he was prompted by someone else, who could have prompted a man so holy as to instruct a prophet like Moses except Allah himself? However, another fourteenth-century Islamic scholar, Ibn Taymiyya, noted that “the majority of the ‘ulema [Islamic scholars] believe that he was not a Prophet.”

Anyway, at the beginning of their encounter, Moses asks Khidr: “May I follow thee,” so that “thou teach me something of the (Higher) Truth which thou hast been taught?” Khidr is leery (vv. 67-68), and finally agrees as long as Moses asks him no questions (v. 70). Moses agrees.

Khidr and Moses then get on a boat, which Khidr immediately scuttles – whereupon Moses breaks his promise for the first time, and upbraids Khidr (v. 71); Khidr reminds him of his promise (vv. 72-73). Shortly thereafter, Khidr murders a young man in an apparently random act, and Moses criticizes him again (v. 74), with the same exchange about the promise then following (vv. 75-76). Finally, Khidr rebuilds a wall that had fallen down in a town that had refused the two hospitality, and Moses scolds him yet again (v. 77), for he could have gotten wages for his action, which the two could have used to buy food and lodging.

Finally Khidr tells Moses that their journey is over, and explains his strange actions. (Muhammad commented: “We wished that Moses could have remained patient by virtue of which Allah might have told us more about their story.”) Khidr damaged the ship because a king is seizing “every boat by force,” but not ones that are unserviceable (v. 79) – presumably the poor owners of the boat could repair it once the king passed by. Khidr killed the young man because he would grieve his pious parents with his “rebellion and ingratitude” (v. 80), and Allah will give them a better son (v. 81). And as for the wall, there was buried treasure beneath it that belonged to boys too young to inherit it at this point — so repairing it gave them time to reach maturity while protecting the treasure from theft (v. 82).

Maududi enunciates the point of all this: “You should have full faith in the wisdom of what is happening in the Divine Factory in accordance with the will of Allah. As the reality is hidden from you, you are at a loss to understand the wisdom of what is happening, and sometimes if it appears that things are going against you, you cry out, ‘How and why has this happened’. The fact is that if the curtain be removed from the ‘unseen’, you would yourselves come to know that what is happening here is for the best. Even if some times it appears that something is going against you, you will see that in the end it also produces some good results for you.’”

The Qur’an translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali offers these four lessons from the story, including the idea that “even as the whole stock of the knowledge of the present day, the sciences and the arts, and in literature, (if it could be supposed to be gathered in one individual), does not include all knowledge. Divine knowledge, as far as man is concerned, is unlimited,” and “There are paradoxes in life: apparent loss may be real gain; apparent cruelty may be real mercy; returning good for evil may really be justice and not generosity (18:79-82). Allah’s wisdom transcends all human calculation.”

Another point emerges in Islamic tradition: don’t kill children, unless you know they’re going to grow up to be unbelievers. “The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) used not to kill the children, so thou shouldst not kill them unless you could know what Khadir had known about the child he killed, or you could distinguish between a child who would grow up to he a believer (and a child who would grow up to be a non-believer), so that you killed the (prospective) non-believer and left the (prospective) believer aside.” The assumption thus enunciated may help explain the persistence of the phenomenon of honor-killing in Islamic countries and even among Muslims in the West.

In Islamic mystical tradition Khidr looms large. The eighth-century Sufi mystic Ibrahim Bin Adham (Abou Ben Adhem) once claimed: “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.” Some consider Khidr to be immortal (Ibn Taymiyya thinks so). This idea rests on many arguments. Bayhaqi recounts that when Muhammad died, the assembled mourners heard a voice – identified as that of Khidr – exhorting them to trust in Allah. The idea also has a basis in Muhammad’s own words. Once Muhammad was telling his followers about the Dajjal, the anti-Christ figure who plays a large role in Islamic eschatology. The Dajjal, he explained, would kill a person and bring him back to life, and then would try to kill him again but would not be able to do so. “That person would be Khadir.”

In view of his immortality, not a few Muslim (and even some non-Muslim) mystics through the centuries have recounted meetings with him – here is a tongue-in-cheek, more recent example, as a man runs into Khidr at Home Depot.

Next week: The appearance on the Qur’anic stage of…Alexander the Great!

(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)