Wisdom from the Quranic Story of Al-Khidr

Photo by author S. Karami

The name Al-Khidr is given (not in the Quran but in other texts such as hadiths – it being useful to have a name in discussing this Quranic narrative) to the knowledgeable man whom Prophet Moosa (Moses) met under unusual circumstances, hoping to gain more knowledge from him. This is narrated in Surah Al-Kahf (the Cave) 18:60-82 starting with the arduous journey Moses and his servant undertook to reach such a man, who taught Moses that Allah gives knowledge to people according to their need to know and purpose in life.

What happened when they met was not a mentor/ teacher giving knowledge to his student as Moses expected. Rather than giving his own knowledge, which consisted of Allah’s directives to him specifically to perform certain unusual tasks, Al-Khidr simply went about his God-given tasks, allowing Moses to accompany him. 

The story teaches us that although one can gain knowledge through patience, sometimes one needs knowledge first to gain patience. Also it teaches us that Allah gives knowledge to each person according to their life-path, and that certain faithful people may be allowed to break normal prohibitions by God’s will/ command in certain circumstances. Such people are protected by Allah the Exalted, as such tasks are difficult, often requiring being away from society or having limited relationships (if any). And guidance for all of us to become the people we were created to be.

The encounter taught Moses something different that could benefit his role as a prophet, gained not by transference of the knowledge he thought he wanted from teacher to student, but rather in seeing Al-Khidr doing what he did by Allah’s command. Al-Khidr simply told Moses that he didn’t have the patience to follow or accompany him. 

قَالَ إِنَّكَ لَن تَسْتَطِيعَ مَعِيَ صَبْرًا

He said, “Indeed, with me you will never be able to have patience.

Surah Al-Kahf 18:67

وَكَيْفَ تَصْبِرُ عَلَىٰ مَا لَمْ تُحِطْ بِهِ خُبْرًا

And how can you have patience for what you do not encompass in knowledge?

Surah Al-Kahf 18:68

So first, this is a story about patience (emphasized as essential) and knowledge (its limits and relationship to patience). Al-Khidr points out that sometimes knowledge is a prerequisite for patience. Patience in this case meant that Moses would have to have complete faith that Al-Khidr was acting on Allah’s command. After Moses insisted he would be patient and obedient, Al-Khidr allowed Moses to accompany him.

Yet in the first two actions, Moses could not restrain himself from strongly admonishing Al-Khidr about them. Al-Khidr first began to hack away at a poor man’s boat (making it appear worthless but in fact repairable) and then killed a “youth” (who had done nothing apparently to deserve this, but Al-Khidr later revealed would have grown to be a great burden on his faithful parents with his rejecting faith and bad deeds). Imagine seeing someone doing this, and given Moses’ role as a leader-prophet, it was unthinkable for him to remain silent. Al-Khidr knew this, but Moses had to learn this from experience. 

Second, this is a story about how certain people have attained a status with Allah in faith where they may do things generally prohibited to most people by His command. They may live apart from society protected by Allah and given tasks to do — all of which enforce justice — “regular” people are prohibited to do, because such actions could be destructive if done without the knowledge of Allah the Omniscient. Such people are trusted servants of Allah with their own reward. Note the difficulty and special miraculous “signs” even the great prophet Moses had to go through in order to meet Al-Khidr, a sign of Allah’s protection of Al-Khidr. And that was because of Al-Khidr’s God-given “immunity” or barrier from society to perform such unusual tasks. Thus he had been given knowledge not given to the prophet yet the role of prophet can be seen in this case “raised up” to one of social prominence and therefore has its greater importance. 

One of the lessons is that Allah gives/ distributes knowledge to people according to their path in life, differing in quality and kind as well as quantity. And that one of the reasons patience is so essential to faith is that people base their actions and faith on knowledge, and there comes a time when one’s knowledge gaps require the patience to endure experiences and situations one can’t understand. Prime example: Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) being tested for willingness to sacrifice his beloved (adult) son Isma’il (Ishmael), whom Abraham asked for his opinion, to which Isma’il replied that Allah the Exalted ordered this and he was fully willing to be sacrificed. In the case of Al-Khidr the tests below show how such actions are generally anti-social:

The three tests:

  1. Destruction of property 
  2. Killing (when ordered by Allah unequivocally to a believer) 
  3. Work without remuneration (even in time of need)

The first two are prohibitions which were overridden by Allah the Exalted in the case of Al-Khidr, who broke these obvious prohibitions, whose importance was great (and rightly so) in the eyes of Moses. Except “work without remuneration” which is not prohibited but exemplifies the need of humans to continuously work to support themselves, and in this third case, it shows that for such chosen servants of Allah, one must work without worldly remuneration, having faith that Allah will provide the necessary sustenance. However no mention of Al-Khidr’s sustenance was mentioned in the Quran. 

What was also made clear by this story is that Prophet Moses was not privy to the specific knowledge given exclusively to Al-Khidr, as such knowledge was very much targeted to his assigned tasks and not actually relevant to the prophetic task or “mission.” It thus shows us that knowledge is given to each person according to their pursuit and life-path; and also that

We raise in degrees whom We will, but over every possessor of knowledge is one [more] knowing.

Excerpt from Surah Yusuf 12:76

Moses was “raised in degrees” as are all Allah’s prophets. Yet even prophets, including Prophet Mohammad, are given the knowledge necessary for their specific life-path, not unnecessary knowledge that would not benefit them. Although sometimes one is given knowledge that seems in one’s own perception “unnecessary.” Al-Khidr himself had no personal necessity for the knowledge he was given but understood that these tasks were ordained by Allah. He must have attained a high level of faith to have received these tasks, utterly thankless as seen from the perspective of this world or one’s own self. Only Allah could appreciate such sacrifice.

Similarly all of us should strive to give in the path of Allah what is beyond our own needs (the purification aspect of zakat obligatory charity) to achieve greater acceptance by Allah the Almighty All-Merciful, whose appreciation is the greater by far than that of anyone or anything else. When faith and knowledge intersect in this way, to know deeply the value of Allah’s acceptance, that is the greatest success!

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