al-Khidr, the Green Man

Khiḍr in the Encyclopedia of Islam

Hazarat Khadir, Khiḍr, Khezr, Hizir

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.

Khadir (Khiḍr, Khezr, Hizir) legendary man believed to be immortal, to possess divine wisdom, and to have inspired Sufis

At the time of Islam's appearance in the seventh century there was a large pool of myths and legends in the Middle East from which Muslims soon drew to enrich their understandings of the past, of life and death, and of the sacred. Khadir was a figure who seems to have been a kind of magnet for such stories in the early Muslim community. His name means 'the green one', which gave rise to attempts to explain why a man would be associated with this color. Some accounts say it derives from belief that his color was a result of having gained immortality by drinking water from the miraculous spring of life. They also associated his color with plant life and fertility, and that the earth turned green wherever he stood or prayed.

By some accounts he was among only four men believed to have ever attained immortality, the other three being Elijah, Idris,and Jesus.Stories that he lived on a distant island or at the meeting place of two seas and of his ability to assist people far from home made him a patron saint of sailors living on the shore of Syria or a deity for those traveling in the Indian Ocean region. An ambulance service in Turkey today is named after him, in honor of his ability to assist others in time of need.

The Dutch scholar A. J. Wensinck proposed that elements in his story were related to the Epic of Gilgamesh of ancient Mesopotamia and to the Romance of Alexander the Great of the Late Antique era (third century to eighth century C.E.). All three story cycles involved heroic figures who traveled to the limits of the known world and uncovered hidden secrets. Khadir even appeared as a companion of Alexander in his quest for the spring of life in Arabic versions of the legend. Indeed, Khadir was famous in Islamic tradition for his knowledge of the unseen. So much so, in fact, that some Muslim scholars even ranked him among the prophets, thinking that his insights could have come only from a divine source.

Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) included a chapter on Khadir in his collection of prophets' tales, equating him with the biblical prophet Jeremiah and relating how he interceded on behalf of the wayward Children of Israel with God. In Palestine and Syria Khiḍr is associated with the Christian Saint George for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Although Khadir was never mentioned in the Quran,the majority of commentators identified him with an unnamed 'servant' of God mentioned in its 18th chapter (Q 18:6082). This passage was a legend about the journey of Moses to the meeting place of the two seas, which some commentators said was located between the seas of Byzantium and Persia (the Gulf) perhaps in the Suez region. There he encountered one of God's servants (Khadir), who had been given the gift of God's mercy and knowledge.

Moses asked to travel with him so that he might acquire some of his knowledge. Khadir reluctantly agreed on the condition that Moses promise not to ask questions and be patient in his quest for knowledge. During their travels, Khiḍr, acting like the trickster known to the legends of the Native Americans, did three shocking things. He scuttled a boat in which they were sailing, he killed a young man without provocation, and he built a crumbling wall without charge. Moses lost his patience at each incident, much to Khadir's chagrin, and demanded an explanation.

Exasperated at Moses's inability to grasp the meaning of his deeds, Khadir at last explained himself. He scuttled the boat because a tyrannical king was about to take it from its impoverished owners. He killed the youth because he was destined for a troubled life that would bring only grief to his faithful parents. Lastly, he built the wall to protect a buried treasure belonging to two orphans so that they had a means of support when they grew up.

In each instance, Khadir demonstrated an uncanny knowledge about the future, which he attributed to God. Later commentators saw in the story the interplay of two kinds of knowledge. One, possessed by Moses, was knowledge of the material world and its apparent meanings. The other, possessed by Khadir, represented knowledge of the invisible world of the spirit and its deeper meanings.

Sufis have drawn inspiration from Khadir because of his knowledge of the unseen, his close relation to God, his capacity for travel, and his ability to flout conventions in order to teach deeper truths. He was an exemplary guide (Murshid or Pir) who could lead them to immortality, breaking their ties to the material world. Several mystics, including Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240), claim to have met him and been initiated by him into the Sufi way. Among the Twelve Imam Shia, Khadir is believed to have a close association with the 12th Imam, who is in occulatation (ghayba). A mosque/ shrine complex in Jamkaran, Iran (near the holy city of Qom), has become a popular pilgrimage site where people go to seek the assistance of both Khadir and the 12th Imam.

Ismailis note that Khadir practices tawil (esoteric interpretation, Q 18:78) when he explains his troubling actions to Moses, thus affirming a key method used in interpreting scripture to arrive at its hidden (batini) meaning. Alawis in Turkey fast for three days in honor of Khadir. Many mosques in Muslim countries have been named after him. In addition to the shrine in Jamkaran, other shrines dedicated to Khadir exist on the island of Abadan (Iran) in the Persian Gulf, on Failaka Island off the coast of Kuwait, and in Sri Lanka at Kataragama, Bosra (Syria), Jerusalem, Iraq, and Samarkand (Uzbekistan).

Source: Encyclopedia of Islam edited by Juan E. Campo