And (remember) when Musa (Moses) said to his boy-servant: “I will not give up (travelling) until I reach the junction of the two seas or (until) I spend years and years in travelling.” But when they reached the junction of the two seas, they forgot their fish, and it took its way through the sea as in a tunnel. So when they had passed further on (beyond that fixed place), Musa (Moses) said to his boy-servant: “Bring us our morning meal; truly, we have suffered much fatigue in this, our journey.” He said: “Do you remember when we betook ourselves to the rock? I indeed forgot the fish, none but Shaitan (Satan) made me forget to remember it. It took its course into the sea in a strange (way)!” [Musa (Moses)] said: “That is what we have been seeking.” So they went back retracing their footsteps. Then they found one of Our slaves, unto whom We had bestowed mercy from Us, and whom We had taught knowledge from Us. Musa (Moses) said to him (Khidr) “May I follow you so that you teach me something of that knowledge (guidance and true path) which you have been taught (by Allah)?” He (Khidr) said: “Verily! You will not be able to have patience with me! “And how can you have patience about a thing which you know not?” Musa (Moses) said: “If Allah will, you will find me patient, and I will not disobey you in aught.” He (Khidr) said: “Then, if you follow me, ask me not about anything till I myself mention it to you.”So they both proceeded, till, when they embarked the ship, he (Khidr) scuttled it. Musa (Moses) said: “Have you scuttled it in order to drown its people? Verily, you have committed a thing “Imra” (a Munkar – evil, bad, dreadful thing).” He (Khidr) said: “Did I not tell you, that you would not be able to have patience with me?” [Musa (Moses)] said: “Call me not to account for what I forgot, and be not hard upon me for my affair (with you).” Then they both proceeded, till they met a boy, he (Khidr) killed him. Musa (Moses) said: “Have you killed an innocent person who had killed none? Verily, you have committed a thing “Nukra” (a great Munkar – prohibited, evil, dreadful thing)!” (Khidr) said: “Did I not tell you that you can have no patience with me?” [Musa (Moses)] said: “If I ask you anything after this, keep me not in your company, you have received an excuse from me.” Then they both proceeded, till, when they came to the people of a town, they asked them for food, but they refused to entertain them. Then they found therein a wall about to collapse and he (Khidr) set it up straight. [Musa (Moses)] said: If you had wished, surely, you could have taken wages for it!” (Khidr) said: “This is the parting between me and you, I will tell you the interpretation of (those) things over which you were unable to hold patience. “As for the ship, it belonged to Masakin (poor people) working in the sea. So I wished to make a defective damage in it, as there was a king after them who seized every ship by force. “And as for the boy, his parents were believers, and we feared lest he should oppress them by rebellion and disbelief. “So we intended that their Lord should change him for them for one better in righteousness and near to mercy. “And as for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the town; and there was under it a treasure belonging to them; and their father was a righteous man, and your Lord intended that they should attain their age of full strength and take out their treasure as a mercy from your Lord. And I did it not of my own accord. That is the interpretation of those (things) over which you could not hold patience.” (Muhsin Khan translation)
This passage in the Qur’an is filled with symbolic deeper meaning for those who have eyes to see it’s hidden truths. The first verse begins rather suddenly, asking the reader/listener to remember the story of Musa (Moses) telling his boy servant about searching for the “juncture of two seas.” The inference is the listener should already know the previous story regarding Musa that they can connect with this story. The Sahih al-Bukari, a collection of hadiths compiled by Muhammad al-Bukari in 870 AD (most authentic collection of reports of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), provides the necessary preface to this story in the Qur’an. According to the hadith, Musa was asked by the children of Israel who the most learned person was. Musa replied, “I am.” Allah tells Musa that he should have stated that Allah knew best who the most learned person was, as that person is not Musa but “Khidr.” Musa asks Allah where Khidr could be found, and Musa is told he is at the “Junction of the Seas.”
The Arabic Qur’an refers to the person of “Khidr” as one of Allah’s “votaries” in its English translation. A “votary” is a “devoted follower, adherent, or devout worshiper,” which is a fairly general term. However, later commentaries determined this mysterious person was “Khidr,” who is a mythological, allegorical figure that appears in earlier myths and faiths around the world. The esoteric nature of this figure has greatly influenced Sufi literature and thinking. “Khidr” appears to be an archetype of of the mystical, immortal person who is granted direct communication with God. He is also referred to as “Elijah” which is a typology of an Old Testament Prophet which according to prophecy will appear again at the end times. The typology does not refer to the exact person of Elijah, but a human figure who will represent the a similar prophetic persona. Sufism refers to “Khidra” as an afrad. An afrad is a person who receives illumination directly from God without human mediation. Additionally, “Khidr” is referred to as “The Green One,” which symbolizes “freshness of knowledge”…drawn out of the living sources of life (water of life). (www.khidr.org)
“Khidr” is the human representation of spiritual enlightenment brought about by direct revelation from God. This type of person is Allah’s chosen instrument to enlighten humanity on its path of spiritual progression.
The allegory begins with Musa (Moses) deciding to travel until he finds “Khidr” at the junction of two seas. When their fish disappears, Musa will know that it is the place they are to meet Khidr. However, the fish are forgotten by Musa’s servant, but the servant remembers the exact place where the fish escaped from the basket into the sea. Musa tells the servant they must turn around and go to the place where the fish escaped to meet Khidr.
There is important significance of the “junction of two seas.” Many Scholars believe the two seas represent the outward revelation (as represented by Musa) and the inward revelation (as symbolized by Khidra). However, a more accurate interpretation is that this junction is the point in time when the Messiah came on the scene of civilization, in what Christians refer to as the “locus of revelation. Up to the point of this juncture, the revelation from God was an external manifestation. Moses went up the mountain to speak with a visible presence of God, God’s visible presence (Shekhina) traveled with the Israelites during the Exodus and was present in the Holy of Holies in the inner sanctum of the first temple. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, which was an outward form of basic laws to live by with the expectation of obedience. God outwardly punished the Israelites if they disobeyed by allowing them to lose in battle, and rewarded them of they obeyed. Because of the Jewish leaders increasing the number of laws the Israelites must follow (613), the spiritual emphasis became following each and every law, and not on the deeper core truth which was justice.
However, when the Messiah comes, the outward form changes to an inward form. Jesus is given revelation inwardly from the internal presence of God’s Spirit. Communicating directly with God in this manner is an internal representation of being on the mountain with God. This is characterized by the Prophet listening, and obeying God’s directions. The symbol of the mountaintop is God seeing the entire landscape around the mountain in all time. Also, God will reveal the landscape and the future to the Prophet, so hence, both are in the immediate present time looking at time’s events for the purpose of prophecy.
In my blog posting on this site, God’s Chosen People: The Journey I discuss the Axial Age (approximately 800 – 2oo BCE) as pre-frontal lobe brain development which provided the brain structure processes to allow for meta-cognition, reflective thinking, and the ability to understand intuitive knowledge, abstract thinking, and symbolic meaning which came to fulfillment in Jesus’ teachings and then later the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This was a major turning point in civilization which allowed for the deeper understanding to progress spiritually. The figure of “Khidra” is the mythological expression of metaphysical theology, and the symbolic human representative of God who is to receive illumination directly from God.
The fish are forgotten by the servant which symbolizes a lack of spiritual attentiveness or awareness. The servant mentions Satan caused him to forget, but more accurately is that Satan took advantage of the servant’s lack of attentiveness. Musa was to eat the fish for breakfast before he met Khidra. Fish symbolize knowledge and wisdom in which Musa would have needed to understand Khidra’s teachings. We must recall that Musa is sent on this journey because he proudly exclaimed to God that he is the most learned person, which represents the proud arrogance of the Jews during that time period. Because the Jews were designated as God’s “chosen people” and given the law, superiority developed which made their special status as God’s chosen people exclusive and not inclusive as God originally intended. For inner truth always addresses the importance of love and compassion.Therefore, in an act of humility, Musa must follow Khidra to learn from him. Khidra repeatedly tells Musa that he must be patient and not question his actions because these are things, Musa “knows not.” Remember, Musa’s perceptions lack spiritual depth due to his inability to reflect and understand symbols. So Khidra acknowledges Musa will not be capable of understanding the directions Khidra is receiving from God until it is explained.
In each of the three events; tearing a hole in the boat (the Arabic term is “xaraqa” which means “tearing something mischievously and without consideration), killing a boy, and rebuilding a wall in an inhospitiable village all appear confusing to Musa, as he only perceives with his eyes and shallow attention. In each instance he confronts Khidra, not giving Khidra the respect he should have as a messenger from Allah, and subsequently reveals he is not trusting Allah. Kihdra explains to Musa the hole was torn in the boat so the king could not take it from the poor village by force. This is evidence of what Walter Brueggeman in The Prophetic Imagination terms “royal consciousness.” A society that operates under a “royal consciousness” is one where the King (or Leader) becomes rich and powerful off the backs of the poor. Subsequently, the King and the wealthy live in over satiated lives such that their spiritual life diminishes, which in turn affects the spiritual level of the entire community. The Kingship unilaterally taking all the ships and boats for its own use obviously affects the people’s ability to physically survive, but in looking deeper we see the spiritual symbolism of the people unable to fish (to obtain spiritual knowledge) by not having the means to extract the knowledge from teachings of the Prophets (the sea equating to the source of all wisdom and knowledge). Due to the satiation of the King, Allah is not primary, but wealth and power have co-opted the worship of Allah.
In the second event, Khidra explains to Musa that Allah instructed him to kill the boy because the boy was rebellious and disbelieving which would have had a detrimental effect on his believing parents. Allah would replace this child with a believing child to keep the parent’ s faith and marriage strong. The firstborn son has great significance in the Old Testament among the Israelites. The Israelites were expected to donate the “first fruits” of their labor to Yahweh, and as such Yahweh even commanded the Israelites to dedicate their firstborn sons to service within the sanctuary. The highly valued firstborn son was to be the inheritor and carry on the family line. In Ezekiel 20:25-26 Yahweh orders the Israelites to sacrifice all first-born sons by killing as a punishment to the Israelites for their disobedience and worship of idols which would have been the severest punishment possible. Also, because the Jews rejected the Messiah, God sacrifices Jesus (a firstborn son), so that the spiritual blessing is given to the Gentiles instead. In this case from the Qur’an, the disobedient firstborn son is sacrificed so that the spiritual blessing would remain with the parents.
The third event relates to Allah making sure two orphans from believing parents are provided for later in an inhospitable village. A hadith states the people of the town were “mean and of low quality.” Certainly, to not offer hospitality during this time period was considered incorrigable and inferred the people of the town were not believers and were most likely idol worshipers. So Allah protects the orphans so that when they became adults they would be provided for and as a result of their presence in the village, idol worshipers may be influenced to become believers themselves.
The significant revelation of the relationship between Khidra and Musa is the lack of trust from Musa in Khidra as Prophet. Musa continually looks to his own human understanding, and doesn’t display trust and faith in Allah. The lack of acknowledgement of Allah’s providence speaking through His chosen messengers has been consistent throughout human history.
The first story in this Surah is the tale of the seven believing young people who escape persecution from their idol worshiping community and hide in a cave. The people in the cave fall asleep for 300 solar years, and when they awaken one is sent to the town with a silver coin to purchase food. The one chosen is told to be careful “For if they come to know of you, they will stone you (to death or abuse and harm you) or turn you back to their religion, and in that case you will never be successful” (18:20). An earlier account of the seven youth in the cave appears to come from a documented tale in which seven young people hid in a cave outside of Ephesus in 250 AD, fall asleep, and then awaken 300 years later to find the community filled with believing Christians.
Prophet Muhammad (pubh) and his followers during the time the story of the Cave was written in the Quran were undergoing persecution by the Quraish tribe. According to one commentator, “the Quraish resorted to ridiculing, scoffing, threatening, tempting, raising objections and making false propaganda against the Holy Prophet and his followers” (https://www.al-islam.org/enlightening-commentary-light-holy-quran-vol-9/section-2-companions-cave). The Muslims were forced to fight the Quraish and migrate to avoid the new religion from being totally annihilated.
In the story of the cave in the Quran, the believing youth are protected by Allah by hiding in the cave. There is significance in the number of years in the cave which its symbolic meaning parallels the Old Testament story of Jonah in the whale for 3 day which Jesus references as the “sign of Jonah” referring to his own death and resurrection. Jesus was in the tomb (cave) for three days before being resurrected. “Three” symbolizes a period of significant spiritual transformation. In the case of the youth in the cave, while they were “sleeping” the village they fled from became a believing village, so during the time in the cave, there was great spiritual transformation in the village.
Sayyd Qutb from Muslim Intellectual in his commentary writes, “The curtains hiding the future are stretched in full so as to hide everything beyond the present moment. Our eyes cannot discern what is behind that curtain, and our minds are finite, no matter how advanced our knowledge may be” (http://www.islamawareness.net/Children/story11.html). The believing youth went into the cave as Allah directed not knowing the outcome. This is the trust and faith that Allah expects as He sees behind the curtain into the future. This is the same trust and faith which should be placed in Allah’s Prophets who are completely submitted to accomplishing God’s will and purpose for the benefit of humanity.
Following the story of the cave, is an account of two men who are both blessed equally by Allah with abundantly producing lands. However, one of the men pridefully attributes the abundance to himself, while the other, in humility, gives thanks to Allah. The first man is blindly led by his ego, so loses what he was blessed with by not acknowledging Allah as the provider of blessings. This story compares and contrasts the heart of the true believer with that of the non-believer. What has been given to non-believers will be taken away on the Judgment Day, and believers will beg go on to be blessed with spiritual abundance. Again, there is an example of spiritual blindness evident by not acknowledging that Allah is the provider of all things.
The last story in the chapter refers to a great king, Dhul-Qarnain (“he of the two horns) who is empowered by Allah to build a great wall between two mountains to protect humanity against the power of Gog and Magog. There is much debate among religious scholars including Islamic scholars whether this king is Alexander the Great as the two stories parallel each other. Alexander was king of Persia and Greece (East and West) which they believe refers to the designation of “he of the two horns.” Gog and Magog is referred to in the New Testament Book of Revelations as hostile nations of the earth during the end times. Either way, Gog and Magog, symbolizes the chaos and destruction of nations who are non-believers and are led by Shaytan.
The conclusion of the verses relating to Dhul-Qarnain (18:83-101):
“Say: ‘Shall We tell you the greatest losers in respect of (their) deeds? Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life while they thought that they acquiring good by their deeds! [This refers to those verses in the Quran where the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) discusses “intention.”] They are those who deny Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations,etc.) of their Lord and the Meeting with Him (in the Hereafter). So their works are in vain, and on the Day of Resurrection, We shall not give them any weight. That shall be their recompense, Hell; because they disbelieved and took My Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) and My Messengers by way of jest and mockery.”
A common thread through the entire Surah is persecution and disbelief of Allah’s chosen Prophets or Messengers. The people of the cave must escape from persecution, Musa doesn’t trust Allah’s Prophet, the two men given land by Allah is representative of the behavior of a non-believer and a believer, and the last story is evidence of the destructive power of non-believing nations including the persecution and disrespect of Allah’s Messengers, but with the final outcome of judgement against those who fought against Allah’s will and purpose.
Most of Allah’s Prophets have been disbelieved and persecuted including the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet stands between the death trap of lack of human understanding and Allah’s clear direction through the Prophet to humanity. He or she is in between two worlds; that of Allah’s prescience and human disbelief. The Prophet must stay alone on the mountain with Allah in present time just as Musa had to physically go alone to the mountaintop to communicate with Allah. How can any person understand the experience of the Prophet? There can be no understanding, but there must be faith and trust in Allah’s direction through the Prophet. Allah provides signs and wonders as a witness to His chosen Messengers, but even these are oftentimes not acknowledged. For those who don’t believe in Allah’s miracles as a witness to His Messengers will be certain judgement. Their actions against a Prophet show a clear lack of belief in Allah.
Allah’s purpose unfolds in ways we can’t understand. Many people are chosen to be a part of this unfolding, but unless those people fully submit to Allah’s will, their significant role in His purpose will be lost, and Allah will choose a different person to fulfill that particular role in the unfolding of His purpose. There is the path of predestination to fulfill His purpose, but within that path is free choice. We have the choice of submission to Allah, or the choice of following our own will. The Prophet has been predestined and is willfully submitted to Allah’s path no matter the outcome, even if it leads to death. The path of Allah’s purpose has been laid for humanity’s spiritual welfare, and as the Quran teaches, the outcome of humanity and all of us individually is based upon our submission to His will.