Q. Questions about Moses and Khidr:

1) What is the significance of the story involving Moses and Khidr -- the pupil and the teacher? How should we read this incident? Did it really happen? Is it a metaphor or something more significant? Is this an allegorical episode signifying that all (true) knowledge rests with God, as is universally accepted by Muslims? Does Khidr represent knowledge of the "esoteric" and Moses the mundane "exoteric?"

2) In reading the story of Moses, I am tempted to conclude that Moses was not a strong spiritual leader. For example, when he was first commissioned with the mission to confront Pharaoh, he "whined" about his inadequacy of carrying out such a bold task by himself, and actually requested divine permission for his brother's (Aaron) assistance. We also read the story about the man he killed, who, while he was an Egyptian, was not the "attacker" but the victim. The attacker was a Hebrew, like Moses; so here is a lapse in discretion and judgment. And then, of course, there is Moses' educational episode with Khidr. What's your take on Moses as a spiritual leader?

A. Regarding the first question, all the narrations identifying this servant as Khidr come from the hadith, and must therefore be treated, unless proven otherwise, as apocryphal. Shawkani quotes scholars who tell us that in the Qur'anic episode, certainly this servant seems smarter than Moses. But this has to do with Allah's working in the cosmos, whereas Moses was smarter on the plane of Shariah. Now we know that man cannot know the morrow, except by Allah's leave, and that man too would be subject to certain laws for murder. No matter how you interpret these laws, they were in effect when the child was killed. It would seem then that this was a case of an angel appearing in human form to teach Moses, and as you have surmised, proves that all ultimate knowledge exists with Allah alone. The Shariah is on one level only, and that is not the goal and final point, but Allah's knowledge and understanding is. I think that all of your summations are credible, except that I do not see any reason to assume that the incident did not in fact occur.

Seeing also the heavy degree of mystical implication given to the term esoteric, I would simply say that the matter illustrates a psychological foundation for the coming of Jesus' message: the law is exoteric, dealing with that which we as humans see and judge with our fallible logic. But let us not hasten to judgement always, for the truth of something always lies with Allah. Moses was a man, and this illustrates that things perceived by the human perspective are always limited, since we lack the power of the Divine. We never rely on the Shariah as the ultimate, but remember that the ultimate is God and this union is to be sought always. We therefore evolve not into the litigious minded Muslims of today, who are quick to rule on what is halaal and what is haraam. Rather, we are more circumspect, always questioning and seeking mitigating factors. Before ruling on anything as being wrong, we reflect carefully before judging others.

Regarding esoteric and exoteric: despite the Sufistic and often mystical meanings given to some verses of the Qur'an, I feel that the Arabs to whom the Qur'an came were an extremely simple people. Such people would speak their language with facility, but would not be on such a level of sophistication that they would have mystical meanings, etc. The Qur'an also points out its "clear Arabic," leading me to believe that its focus is on what is now termed exoteric. That some thinkers would read deeper into certain things and come up with esoteric meanings is an expectation that comes with the passing of time. But these meanings are to be considered on an individual basis -- as if Allah is speaking to that person only -- and therefore my problem is when these mystical characters start spouting their "esotericism" to the world at large, often times making the Qur'an say what it does not.

Another problem that I have is the Muslim penchant for debating with the Christians to prove to them that Islam is true, and what the Bible says about Jesus is not true. Now academically, the Qur'an cannot seek to disprove what the Bible has said about Jesus, since the Qur'an is a later document and its interpreters cannot claim to have been eyewitnesses. Secondly, the Bible is based on faith views about Christ, and faith and academe are not reconcilable in Christian perception. The next thing is that the Qur'an was fully aware of the Christian views, and nowhere does it ask us to argue with them. It tells us to debate with that which is better. Now this is further explained by the Qur'an, which does not consider their faith based arguments worthy of debate. It tells us that those who say God is one of three have committed kufr, but it does not ask us to debate with them on the issue. It says instead: "Come, let us vie with each other in good works," showing the human-social duties of religion.

The only time we debate is when they say that only they will go to heaven. In this case, our debate is "bring your proof" -- note we are not arguing as such, but we have placed the burden of proof upon them. Perhaps you should tell your brethren then that their debates are futile efforts. People convert based on conviction, heart-felt conviction, not by proving them wrong in public, at least in the vast majority of cases. Therefore, people waste their time, and the time of good people when they sponsor such debates. The one between Deedat and Swaggart was a case in point. What did it achieve?

Now for your second question, as far as judging Moses' expertise and excellence as a spiritual leader, I think this will depend on how you adjudge certain things of what you perceive as necessary. My take is different regarding Moses. Allah tells us that He favored Moses with wisdom and knowledge. There are also several aspects of the Moses story and social setting that we must adduce, preferably by reading Exodus and the last part of Deuteronomy. The Jews of Egypt had come to accept their fate, had presumably given up their laws and everything. For this reason, Moses later berates them for being a wicked people. Now Moses knew from the beginning that he was a Hebrew, and in the intellectual environment of Pharoah's household had probably come to recognize the Hebrew slaves for what they had evolved into -- a slothful, lazy group of people in whom the spirit of revolution had died. He did not speak their language too, for he was a royal person, they were slaves. On a literal basis, we may assume that he was by his own admission, slow of speech (Exodus 3). So when Allah commissioned him, he was worried about them accepting him. He was one of them, and yet not truly of them.

This lack of confidence is something that seems common to all Prophets, for when commissioned by Allah, we see the Prophet Muhammad being comforted in several suras: Muzzammil, Muddaththir, Inshirah. Why? The Prophet felt that he did not have the capability to harness the people. Now in the case with the Egyptain and the Hebrew: there is nothing in the Qur'an to suggest that the Hebrew had attacked the Egytian, but rather vice versa (28:15), which is at best relying on the story of Exodus. The next day, again, the matter now takes a turn somewhat similar from the Biblical episode. That puts it that two Hebrews were fighting; the Qur'an does not outright suggest that. But it does not prove that the man who sought Moses assistance was at fault -- Moses was berating him for seeming to have a penchant for being quarrelsome, seeking confrontation, while the more prudent action would probably be to have patience sometimes.

Now verse 28:16 is a problem for Sunni and Shia commentators. "Zalamto nafsi" -- I have wronged myself -- is it that, or is it the more literal, "I have brought darkness upon myself -- I must now flee?" And "Ghafara lahu" -- is it "forgave" or "covered him" -- i.e. that God protected Moses. The Shias say that "mighfar" is another name for turban -- that which covers, and that in its original meaning the word "ghafara" means to cover, and that its usage here is primordial, not in the spiritual sense. As a spiritual leader then, I think that he showed no flaws -- indeed he came to a people who were stiff-necked and numerous -- 600,000. This is why his father-in-law had to teach him the art of delegate and disappear, (see Exodus 18), for Moses took his business seriously, wanting to attend to everyone and everything personally. He showed too the ultimate in being a man of the people when he intervened, seeking to stem God's anger on several occasions, which is given as one of the reasons why he did not get to enter Israel (Deut. 32:48, Deut. 9).

Remember that it was this perception of his leadership quality that made the Muslim thinkers create this business about the prayer, etc. with him advising the Prophet Muhammad during the miraj. I think we dealt with the Khidr episode already. A Prophet shows us the exoteric; contemplation shows us the esoteric. As I said, I do not think that there is reason to doubt the episode occurred, but if you do, then I guess the preceding sentence sums it up.

Coming back to Khidr, I recently read a comedy that was supposed to be a tafsir on Sura Kahf. I had already read the stuff about Moses in Encyclopedia Judaica, and everything, as far as my limited intellect is concerned, seemed to fall into place. Now the Khidr episode is not mentioned at all in the Jewish scriptures, which is quite significant, since all other mention of Moses can be paralleled to the Aggadah or Torah. So this brings us to two perspectives: one may, from a purely academic secular point of view, say that the Qur'an mentions this story incipiently, creating Moses in an Islamic light. An academic and a Muslim believer may state that the story is not new; it in fact is a crypto-polemic directed against the Jews who had placed Moses on the level of such magnitude that they made him almost wiser than God.

In fact, in the hadith, the Muslims too do this, which is why we have him saying that Allah does not know about what humans are capable of when Allah supposedly orders them to do 50 daily prayers. Anyway, suffice to say that by the Prophet's time, Moses had been made out to be the ultimate man, the one who could postpone his death, the one who could argue with God and win. So what does the Khidr story show? That "Fawq kul zi ilmin aleem" -- over everyone who knows is someone who knows more. Moses, for all his merit, is but a mortal, and if Allah wills, He can do what He wants. The Prophet is not the ultimate, nor is he to be seen as the ultimate, nor is hagiography supposed to take place. His message, however, must be contemplated. To my mind, this is the first thing.

Now for the next part, I do not, for reasons I have already stated to you, like to use "esoteric," so we may say that the Khidr episode also is paradigmatic. For it shows two servants of Allah -- each doing what he does best. Moses, judging and thinking along the lines of his Shariah education, and Khidr, also judging and thinking according to what he knows. He realizes that Moses will not understand what he is doing, but nonetheless, tolerates it. This to me is a paradigm that we must use to show our relations with other religions -- other representatives of the Divine. We must not condemn them without asking them to explain themselves, and often times, we will not get an explanation, but we should not jump to judgment.

The end result is pluralism and tolerance. So when a Hijabi Muslimah sees an American Muslim woman without hijab, she should not jump to adjudge the latter a woman of loose morals. And the latter, when she sees the former covered up, should not jump to the conclusion that she is repressed, for each has been brought up in a different society, interpreting things differently, serving the same Loving, Tolerant God. One may not understand why the other does what she does, but that does not make one or the other wrong, even though one system may perceive it that way. Moses did not err in his judgment as far as the human plane is concerned; he erred in not realizing that God had commanded the other person to do what he did, and all commands are for a reason. There is no need to say more, for all that I will say, you can glean by reading between the lines, and by your own contemplation.

P.S - Aggadah is the homiletic form of Jewish tradition: you are already familiar with this in the form of hadith on all non-legal issues. Kabbalah, on the other hand, is Jewish mysticism of which I know very little; however, it is not dissimilar to Islamic mysticism. What is significant is that an important aspect of Jewish mysticism is tied into "merkavah maaseh" -- chariot ascension -- the journey to the heavens. So this gives Sura Isra a whole new dimension when one understands it in light of the Jewish tradition. To conclude, often what seems so logical turns out to be false. I pray that Allah has guided us both to that which is proper.

Posted April 23, 1999