INNER MEANING OF SURAH KAHF, VERSES 60-82
By Late Jehangir A. Merchant
“It is He Who has sent down to you the Book: in it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical.” Holy Qur’an, Sura Ali ‘Imran, 3:7
The Holy Qur’an clearly defines the nature of its contents in the above passage and lends significant clue to the method of its interpretation. Regarding the sacred text of the Holy Qur’an, Hazrat Mawlana Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq is reported to have said.
“The Book of God contains four things, namely:
(1)‘ibarah – the announced expression
(ii) Isharah – the allusion
(iii) Lata’if – the hidden meaning related to the supersensible worlds and
(iv) Haqa’iq – the spiritual truths.
“The first, ‘ibarah, meaning the announced or literary expression, is for the common people (‘awamma); the Isharah, allusion, is for the elite (khawass); Lata’if, the hidden meaning, is for the friends of God (awliya) and Haqa’iq, the spiritual truths, are for the prophets (anbiya).”
Thus, on the whole, the Holy Qur’an may be divided into two inter-related elements, namely (a) the nucleus or foundation of the Book, and (b) the part which is figurative, metaphorical or allegorical. The division is not between the verses but in the meaning associated with them. The verses described as ‘basic or fundamental of established meaning’ refer to categorical orders and other matters which are plain to everyone’s understanding, whilst those which are termed as ‘allegorical’, refer to the spiritual themes that are clothed in multi-hued garb and often expressed in the form of stories.
The stories of the Prophets in the Holy Qur’an, which appear as plain and simple narrative of events, carry within them profound spiritual elements for the wise and mindful. It would be interesting to take just one such story from the Holy Qur’an (Sura Kahf, Sura 18, Ayats 60 to 82), which chronicles the meeting of Prophet Moses and Khidr and explore one inner meaning. Mawlana Rumi, the great Persian mystic is quoted as having said: “If you desire to become acquainted with inner truth, drop the letter and adopt the spirit.”
THE STORY OF MOSES AND KHIDR
The Holy Qur’an narrates as follows (Sura Kahf, verses 60-65)
“…Moses said unto his servant: ‘I will not give up until I reach the point where the two rivers meet, though I spend years and years in travel.’ And when they reached the point where the two rivers met, they forgot their fish, and it took its way into the waters, swimming at will. And when they had gone farther, Moses said unto his servant: ‘Bring us our meal. Truly, we are worn out with travelling.’
The servant replied: ‘Did you see (what happened) when we were resting on the rock? I forgot the fish and none but Satan made me forget to mention this to you. The fish made its way into the sea in a miraculous fashion.’
Moses said: ‘This is what we have been seeking.’ So they retraced their steps again.
And so they found one of Our servants, on whom We had bestowed Mercy from Ourselves and to whom We had taught Knowledge from Our Presence.”
Prophet Moses (a.s.) who possessed immense knowledge, once asked God if there was any one more learned than himself. In reply to his question, he was commanded to seek Khidr, who would instruct him in knowledge which he did not possess as yet. He was to take a fish with him, as its disappearance would be an indication of the place where he was to meet Khidr. Accompanied with his servant, Moses set out to seek Khidr, and when they arrived at the junction of the two seas they forgot the fish which made its way into the waters. After a tiring journey, Moses asked for the fish to be brought, but his servant explained apologetically that the fish had made its way into the sea and Satan had made him forget to mention this to him. When Moses heard this, he retraced his steps back to the spot where the fish had disappeared and met Khidr.
Prophet Moses, in this story, represents the ‘seeker of Spiritual Reality’. He is the one who possesses the humility and desire to seek further enlightenment. His quest for Absolute Reality is so intense that even a very long, arduous struggle does not dampen his spirit or deter him from journeying on this difficult path. As he intensifies his efforts, he soon realises that this Path cannot be traversed alone. He is inspired to seek the Spiritual Master who would reveal to him the Spiritual Truths and guide him on his onward journey unto the final goal in God.
The servant who is accompanying Moses on his spiritual quest is none else but the ‘self-reproaching spirit’ (Nafs-e-Lawwama), which senses evil, resists it and tries to purify itself by seeking God’s grace and pardon.
The fish symbolizes the intellect (aql), which is the human faculty of reasoning, and for the possession of which man is called the ‘Crown of Creation’ (Ashraful Makhluquat).
The two seas are the ‘seas of Divine Knowledge and of human knowledge’. The latter has its uses and is bound by limitations. However, it is a stepping-stone to the former.
Satan is the ‘human ego’ which cherishes pride. It hovers about, waiting for an opportune moment to misguide the seeker through neglect and forgetfulness. Like Iblis (Satan) who did not submit himself to the commands of God but revolted against Him, the ‘human ego’ also rebels against submission unto any other authority if so tempted.
Now, as the ‘seeker of Truth’ (Moses) journeys on the path, he finds himself crossing from ‘sea of human knowledge’ into the ‘sea of Divine Knowledge’. It is at this juncture that the ‘ intellect’ (fish) gives up the journey: unable to comprehend the Reality of the Spiritual World and stunned by the vastness of the Divine Sea, there is nothing left for it to do but to recoil silently.
At this stage, the ‘seeker’ (Moses) has to find a Master and submit himself to his will, but the ‘ego’ (Satan) succeeds in pushing him onwards to self-deceit and self-delusion. Unaware of the steep climb, the seeker journeys on but only to realise that he can go no further. He is astounded. Where is he? What ought he to do? Why can he not proceed on his way? Where is his ‘intellect’ which had been his faithful guide for so long and which had reasoned out things for him? Where is it now? The seeker realizes that the intellect is incapable of entering the Spiritual Realm and cannot exercise any power in this Province. He decides to seek the Master who could lead him to the Supreme Goal with Divine Grace. His search brings him to the door-steps of the holy one, Kamil Mursheed – The Perfect Master. Moses, the true seeker, meets his Master in the person of Khidr.
“Moses said to him: ‘May I follow you, so that you may teach me something of the (Higher) Truth which you have been taught?’
He said: ‘Verily you will not bear with me. And how can you bear those things with me that which is beyond your knowledge?’
Moses said: ‘If Allah wills, you shall find me patient and I shall not disobey you in anything.’
He said: ‘If you are bent on following me, ask no questions about anything till I myself speak to you concerning it.’”
Having met the True Master, the seeker implores the Holy One to accept him as his disciple (murid) and teach him the knowledge of Higher Spiritual Truths which would lead him to the Supreme Goal.
Knowing that Spiritual Knowledge can often confuse the minds of the seekers, the Master warns the seeker that it is a difficult path on which he embarks. He will see and experience many mysterious things and may neither be able to bear them calmly nor patiently. The ardent seeker demonstrates his true attitude as a student to the teacher, promising to follow and obey his Master under any circumstance. But this assurance is not enough and so the Master places a final condition before the seeker that he should not question him about anything whatsoever, and the seeker agrees to it. Baiyat (Oath of Allegiance) is pledged by the devotee creating a Murshid-murid (Teacher-disciple) relationship between the two. A spiritual bond, now binds them.
Verses 71 and 73:
“The two set forth, and when they were in the boat, he made a hole therein. Moses said: ‘Have you made a hole to drown those who are in it? Verily you have done a dreadful thing.’
He answered: ‘Did I not tell you that you will not be able to bear with me?’
And Moses said: ‘Do not be angry with me for my forgetfulness and pardon me for my fault.’”
“As for the boat, it belonged to poor people working on the sea. I damaged it because there was a certain king after them who was taking every ship by force.”
The path on which the Master leads his disciple is full of mysteries and paradoxes. The seeker, being unable to understand his Master’s acts, falls into the weakness of questioning, and even doubting, his Master.
The sailing on the Divine Ocean was not going to be a smooth one. Those who belong to God have to be saved from the tyrant king (worldly desires) and therefore the heart is pierced with the love of God, so as to eradicate it of all worldly attachments. God says in the Holy Qur’an:
“Be sure, We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits of your toil, but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, – who say, when afflicted with calamity: To God we belong, and to Him is our return.” Sura al-Baqr, 2:155-156
The seeker suffers worldly losses and endures difficulties sometimes with doubt. The seeker has been informed about the duality of the struggle: to endure trials or lose himself to the world. What seems to him an unjust act is indeed an act of kindness. This is the way of the Master.
Mawla Murtaza Ali has said:
“Never permit yourselves to have a doubt (in religion); as soon as you permit one to arise, you become unbelievers, deprived of the Mercy of God. Because doubt is the feature of His enemies; so, let you always be firm in your religious opinion.”
The seeker now realizes that it is by emptying his heart of his worldly desires that he will grow spiritually, and he therefore accepts the way of his Master. He craves forgiveness for his impatience, for his doubt and for any complaint he may have made in ignorance. The Master is Merciful and Kind. He is aware of the shortcomings of his disciple and continues to guide him.
“They journeyed on until they met a young man and he slew him. Moses said: ‘You have killed an innocent man who has done no harm. Surely you have done a wicked thing.’
He answered: ‘Did I not tell you that you will not be able to bear with me?’
Moses said: ‘If ever I question you again about anything, abandon me; for then I should deserve it.’”
“As for the youth, his parents are true believers, and we feared that he would grieve them with his wickedness and unbelief. And it was our desire that their Lord should grant them another son in his place, more righteous and closer in affection.”
As the seeker is taken along the spiritual path, the Master thwarts the vain desires which still lurk in the heart of the disciple. They appear harmless and innocent to the seeker, so that he demands an explanation from his Master for destroying them. The Teacher explains that though these vain desires look innocent they are the slaves of Satan bringing sorrow and despair in the end.
From an Ismaili perspective, the Imam of the Time grants Firmans to his murids, and these Firmans, when implicitly followed, annihilate weaknesses which are obstacles in the path of spiritual progress.
The faithful seeker is thus saved from the disastrous effects of his desires. As he follows the Firmans he also receives the blessings of his Mawla which enrich his life with abundant virtues (righteous and devoted son) that eventually become the source of his everlasting joy and happiness.
“So they travelled on until they came to a certain city. They asked the people for some food, but they declined to receive them as their guests. There they found a wall on the point of falling down, and he repaired it.
Moses said: ‘Had you wished, you could have demanded payment for your labours.’
He said: ‘Now has the time arrived when we must part. But first I will explain to you those acts of mine which you could not bear to watch with patience.’”
“As for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the city whose father was an honest man. Beneath the wall, their treasure is buried. Your Lord desired that they should dig out their treasure when they grew to manhood. I did not do it of my own accord. Such is the interpretation of those things which you were unable to watch with patience.”
The disciple learns to sacrifice personal gains for the good of others. Service to others represents a higher form of worship, helping to annihilate the ‘ego’. Hence the mirror of the heart reflects the ‘Light’ within.
The aspect of service is expressed in the words of the 48th Ismaili Imam, Hazrat Mawlana Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, who said:
“Today, I will give you a small motto and that is ‘Work no Words’. Labour for welfare of others is the best way of improving ourselves, because results are sure and certain. If you work for yourselves, you will never be happy. This is not a new idea but this is an outcome of the experience of thousands of years of history.”
The disciple has followed the Master serving him well, but the Master wishes him to know that this service to him is incomplete without service to his own brothers. Further, it is in the act itself (repairing the wall) without regard for reward that the Master exemplifies this aspect of service.
The three events which took place during the meeting between Moses and Khidr explain the paradoxes found in life. Apparent loss may be real gain; apparent calamity or cruelty may be real mercy; returning good for evil may be justice, not apparent generosity. Surely God’s Wisdom transcends all human calculation.
As we ponder over the events, yet another meaning takes shape.
The two rivers symbolize the ‘ exoteric’ (Zahiri) and ‘esoteric (Batini) aspects of the faith. The Holy Qur’an says:
“He has left free the two bodies of flowing water, meeting together: but between them is a barrier which they do not transgress.” Sura al-Rahman, 55: 19-20
When one is traversing a stream, a boat and a boatman are necessary. Moses, the disciple, meets the Spiritual Master in the person of Khidr. The boat, the heart of the disciple, pierced by the grace of the Master, increases the desire for higher spiritual knowledge, so keeping away the tyrant ruler (Satan) from becoming the master over the disciple’s heart. In this manner, the Master sets upon the task of destroying all animal instincts by enforcing strict discipline on the journeying seeker.
This journey of spiritual progress brings more difficulties for the disciple. Men of ordinary understanding, who are yet engaged in the outward (Zaheri) aspect of the faith, rebel against the inner (Batini) practices. The refusal of the inhabitants of the city to give food is an example of the attitude of the Zaheris towards the Batinis.
The crumbling wall of the city, underneath which lies the invaluable treasure, depicts the inner state of Moses where he feels the urgency to gain Ma’rifat of God and is prepared to give up the world (crumbling wall) and renounce his temporal duties. But Khidr, the Spiritual Master is in no hurry to grant him the treasure, as the time is not yet ripe and the disciple has yet to undergo further spiritual training. The Master strikes a balance between the spiritual and the temporal aspects of the life of his disciple. This is shown in Khidr’s work of re-building the crumbling wall.
The story tells us that beneath the wall lies an invaluable treasure belonging to the two orphans. ‘Treasure’ symbolises Ma’rifat (Knowledge) of God: this is kept secure for the seeker of Truth. The two orphans signify two stages the seeker traverses, the Tariqat (the way) and Haquiqat (the Truth). As long as there is rigid interpretation of the Shariyat (the law), these two stages (Tariqat and Haquiqat) will remain obscure, resulting in Ma’rifat remaining buried, unseen and untouched. The aging of the orphans and their discovery of the treasure illustrates the Tariqat and Haquiqat prescribed by the Master; these must be implicitly followed, for it is only then that the treasures of Ma’rifat become accessible.
This is neither the end nor final interpretation of the story of Moses and Khidr. Each individual may gain new insight into its meaning at various stages of his or her spiritual progress; this indeed is the fascinating aspect of the allegories and parables found in the Holy Qur’an.
Date updated: June 2018 (announcing death of author, Jehangir Merchant, at age 89, see below).
Author’s Note on Khidr:
Khidr means ‘Green’. His name is not mentioned in the Holy Qur’an, but tradition speaks of ‘One of Our servants’ as being Khidr. His knowledge is fresh and green, and drawn out from God’s own Presence. He is a mysterious being, who has to be sought out. He has the secrets of the paradoxes of life, which ordinary people do not understand or understand in a wrong sense. The nearest equivalent figure in the literature of the People of the Book is Meichizedek. In Genesis XIV. 18-20, he appears as kind of Salem, Priest of the Most High God: he blesses Abraham, and Abraham gives him tithes. He seems to live for all times.
The above is a revised version of the original article “Esoterics in Qur’anic Parables: The Example of Moses and Khidr” which appeared in Ilm magazine, March 1977, Volume 2, Numbers 3 and 4, published by the Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom (ITREB which was formerly known as The Ismailia Association).
About the author: (Rai) Jehangir A. Merchant has served Ismaili institutions as an Alwaez, teacher and writer for five decades, both in an honorary and professional capacity. He currently resides in Vancouver, Canada. During his tenure with ITREB United Kingdom from 1975-1992, he edited Ilm magazine.
Other articles by the same author on this web site:
1. Jehangir Merchant’s Thank You Letter to the Fatimid Ismaili Icon, Da’i Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi
2. I Wish I’d Been There: Ghadir-Khumm and the Two Weighty Matters (includes author’s detailed profile)
3. The Story of Noah’s Ark in the Holy Qur’an
3. Text and Explanation of “Eji Shah Islamshah Amne Maliya”
4. A Translation and Brief Commentary of Pir Sadardin’s Ginan “Jem Jem Jugatsu Preet Kareva”
5. The Frontispiece of the Ismaili Jamatkhana in Mashhad, Iran
6. An Esoteric Interpretation of the Mi’raj and the Prophetic Tradition ‘I Have a Time with God’ (li ma’a Allah waqt)
7. The Parable of Moses and Khidr in the Holy Qur’an
Additional explanatory notes about Khidr:
(1) Khidr literally means ‘The Green One’, representing freshness of spirit and eternal liveliness, green symbolizing the freshness of knowledge “drawn out of the living sources of life.” Whatever the source for this green may be, it has come to symbolize the benign presence of the divine wisdom as imparted by the Divine Himself to Khidr and to Prophet Muhammad.
Qur’anic commentators say that al-Khidr (‘The Green Man’ of pre-Islamic lore) is one of the prophets; others refer to him simply as an angel who functions as a guide to those who seek God. And there are yet others who argue for his being a perfect wali meaning the one whom God has taken as a friend.
Khidr is associated with the Water of Life. Since he drank the water of immortality he is described as the one who has found the source of life, ‘the Eternal Youth.’ He is the mysterious guide and immortal saint in popular Islamic lore and the hidden initiator of those who walk the mystical path.
In the Muslim tradition Khidr is alive and well and continues to guide the perplexed and those who invoke his name.
(2) From Wikipedia: Khidr or Al-Khiḍr (Arabic: الخضر “the Green One”, also transcribed Khidr, Khidar, Khizr, Khizar and (Persian: خضر), Turkish: Hızır) is an enigmatic figure in Islam; some say he is a ‘Abdan Ṣālih (righteous servant of God while others say he is a prophet. Al-Khidr is best known for his appearance in the Qur’an in sura al-Kahf – Qur’an 18:65. Although not mentioned by name in the ayah (verse), al-Khiḍr is assumed to be the figure that Musa (Moses) accompanies and whose seemingly violent and destructive actions so disturb Moses that he violates his oath not to ask questions.