Al-Khidr, the Immortal Prophet, Mystic, Trickster and Sea Spirit
In ancient Islamic legend, there exists the wonderful, contrary figure of Al-Khiḍr, an immortal prophet who kills a youth out of mercy and who scuttles a boat of some travelers to deny the greed of a king. He is described as God’s special servant, a protector, trickster, saint, and mystic, who has been identified with various ancient deities.
The roots of Khiḍr, also known as Khadir, go back to the earliest Muslim text, the Quran, in which he accompanies Moses as a servant of God. But because he is immortal, Khiḍr is said to have appeared to other Muslims through the centuries.
The Ancient Origins of Khidr
Some scholars maintain that the character of Khiḍr is much older than Islam itself and that his roots lie in Utnapishtim of ancient Mesopotamia, or in the Canannanite god Kothar-wa-Khasis, or even the Zoroastrian water goddess Anahita.
Khiḍr has been identified, some say falsely, with the Christians’ St. George and with Elijah of the Bible. He has been equated with Europe’s Green Man and with Native American tricksters.
Khidr and Moses
Khiḍr does strange things that seem wrong but which are steeped in wisdom and benevolence. In the Quran, the figure of Moses’ traveling companion of Chapter 18 has been identified as Khiḍr, though he is not named as such. The two go on a journey, and Khiḍr warns Moses not to question him about what he does. Moses does question him all along, only to regret it in the end.
Khiḍr kills a youth, tears open a boat at sea with people aboard and rebuilds a wall that’s about to collapse even though the villagers had denied him and Moses food.
Khiḍr finally consents to explain himself to Moses, from Sura 18:
[Al-Khidh r] said:
Jews tell these same stories but attribute them to Elijah.
Khidr and the Sufi Dervish
In a legend about Khiḍr, a Sufi dervish entices a king to support him for three years, after which, he tells the king, he will produce the Green Man (Khiḍr resembles the word “green” in Arabic, though others give other etymologies for the name). At the end of three years, the dervish of course cannot present Khiḍr to the king, who is eager to meet him, so the dervish flees. But the dervish meets a man all in white who takes him back to the king. The king commands his ministers to pronounce judgment on the sneaky thief.
One minister tells the king to cut the dervish into pieces. Another counsels him to boil him alive, another to throw him in the furnace. The fourth counsels the king to pardon him.
According to The Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Myth and Legend:
The man in white agrees with all, saying each thus indicates his origin, respectively, son of a butcher, of a cook, of a baker and of nobility. The king pardons the dervish, not only because that is the noble thing to do, but because the man in white brought before him by the beggar is El Khiḍr.
The Foundation of Immortal Youth
Khiḍr, according to legend, is the only person to have tasted the liquor of the Fountain of Immortal Youth in the East. He was wandering in a desert and came to a dried-up spring. He dipped a dried fish in it, and the spring came alive again. Khiḍr “realized that he had found the fountain of life. He dived in and became immortal and his cloak turned green. He is often associated with the primordial ocean and is said to live on an island in the middle of the sea,” says The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols.
Patron of the Sea
Among the Arabs of Syria even today he is a sea spirit and the patron saint of the sea. There he is called “He who walks in the seas.” Muslims revere him as a saint and launch tiny boats with lights as an offering to him to rid themselves of sins or evils that menace them.
The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols explains about Khiḍr further:
The legends say Khiḍr dwells on the edge of the world, where the celestial and earthly oceans join. He is a mystical figure of plant life and the sea and is patron saint of travelers. Some say he was a son of Adam and that he retrieved his father’s body after the Biblical flood. Still others say he was born of the Earth, in a cave, and was fostered by wild animals. He grew up and became the servant of a king, the legends say, identifying that king as Allah or his Spirit.
Featured image: Prophet Elijah (Al-Khidr) Rescuing Nur ad-Dahr from the Sea, a scene from the Hamzanama, here imagined in a Persian miniature by Mir Sayyid Ali (c. 1550 C.E.). (public domain)
By: Mark Miller
Courtesy: Ancient Origins