By Raeesah Akhtar
The character of Khidr —or al-Khadir, ‘The Green One’—has captivated Islamic tradition and numerous other world religions over the centuries, yet is not once named in any holy scripture. Who then is this mysterious figure, and why does he remain of such symbolic significance?
In chapter eighteen of the Qur’ān (Sūrat al-Kahf), Moses sets out on a journey to meet a mysterious wise man. The junction of two seas marks their meeting place—the same place where the fish that Moses carries miraculously comes to life and disappears into the sea. On a journey of divine testing, Moses witnesses this wise man commit acts that he cannot understand. So he jumps to accuse him of sinning, only to learn that each act has an inner truth, which the human intellect is unable to appreciate. It is the wise man that reminds Moses of the boundlessness of God’s knowledge, and in turn, the Qur’ān reminds us of the fickleness of men.
It should be noted that this Qur’ānic narrative explores a special kind of knowledge endowed directly from God, ‘ilm ladunnī, which would pave the way for vivacious definitions of knowledge amongst Islamic scholars for years to come. It is therefore with thanks to this story that Islamic tradition has celebrated the persona of Khidr, who is widely accepted—though never actually named in the Qur’ān— as this mystical sage who possesses such divine knowledge and guides Moses on a journey of revelation. What can be said then of a man so wise and knowledgeable that he knew things even a prophet did not know?
Khidr’s presence has given birth to many vibrant traditions and interpretations that cemented his significance in Islamic and non-Islamic thought alike. Derived from the Arabic for ‘green’ (akhḍar), early commentators on the Qur’ān said that he was named Khidr because wherever he would pray, green life would spring forth beneath him. Others refer to a piece of white fur that shimmered green with his saintly presence. Whether he is in fact a saint, a close friend of God’s (walī), or a prophet, remains contested historically and theologically. An almost unanimous belief amongst Muslims, however, is Khidr’s immortality. His intrinsic association with life and nature is celebrated with his immortal stature, which explains the symbolic resurrection of the fish when it came into contact with him. To this very day Khidr is believed to roam earth; an eternal wanderer that traditions narrate performs Hajj annually and observes Ramadan in the holy city of Jerusalem.
We need not look further than the likes of “European” heroic figures to also find Khidr. Take, for example, the celebrated patriot Saint George. Whilst Englishmen may mark his bravery in battle with the raise of a glass; some Muslims, particularly in Palestine, say blessings upon Saint George who they revere as Khidr himself, to commemorate a characteristic so often watered down in legends of heroes: proximity to God. Khidr has also been connected in many traditions to the heroic Alexander the Great. As European legend would have us believe, Alexander is best known for his success in the battlefield as the Ancient Greek king of Macedon. What people might not know, however, is that many early Islamic commentators of the Qur’ān affiliated Alexander with the ‘two-horned figure’ (dhu al-qurnayn) that also appears in chapter eighteen of the Qur’ān. Though this remains speculation, it should be noted that Alexander was depicted as having two such horns on coins circulated in the Ancient Greek kingdom. If we further consider Alexander’s epic quest for immortality and the legendary ‘fountain of life’, we can’t help but be reminded of Khidr.
In many ways, Khidr’s universal significance lies in the fact that he transcends definitions. The more we seem to know, the less becomes clear. Whilst societies and communities mold to be defined by their place in time, Khidr remains a fluid conservation of wisdom and knowledge, which is untouched by time. What he symbolises as a figure seems continuously relevant. For the modern man—or specifically the modern Muslim—he reminds us, as he did Moses, that in a society which seeks to know and define everything with a sense of arrogance towards knowledge and faith, we in fact know very little. And that there is a beauty in man’s mundane knowledge, for it means we must re-center and seek knowledge and humility in places we might not expect. To best summarise this, there is narration that describes a moment on Moses and Khidr’s encounter. While making their journey amidst the sea, Moses and Khidr came across a bird that began to circulate above them, dipping its beak in and out of the sea to fetch water. Khidr interrogated Moses whether he knew what the bird was alluding to. Since he didn’t, Khidr explained: the bird’s lesson for you is that the knowledge you possess amounts to no more than that of the water he carries in his beak.