Moses Test

Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim
In the name of Allah, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful

Meditations on the story of Moses & Khidr from the Holy Quran, Surah Al-Kahf (The Cave), 18:60-82

According to tradition recorded in the collections of Bukhari, Muslim and Tirmidhi, the prophet Moses was rebuked by Allah for having once asserted that he was the wisest of all men. Allah subsequently revealed to Moses that a ґservant of Allah who lived at the junction of the two seas was far superior to him in wisdom. When Moses expressed his eagerness to find that man, Allah commanded him to catch a fish, put it in a basket, and travel with it until the fish disappeared. Its disappearance would be a sign that the goal had been reached Җ the place where the servant of Allahђ could be found.

Thence the Quranic story of Moses and Khidr begins, at the junction of the two seas of oral tradition and divine revelation.

In the course of his wanderings Moses said to his servant, ґI will not give up until I reach the junction of the two seas, even if I have to spend years in my quest!

But when they reached the junction of the two seas, the servant caught a fish, but then forgot about it. The fish then jumped back into the sea and disappeared from sight.

After the two had walked some distance, Moses said to his servant, ґBring us the mid-day meal; we have indeed suffered hardship on this day of our journey!

But the servant said, ґCan you believe this? When I sat down to rest on the rock back there, I forgot about the fish it must have been Satan who made me forget! ֖ and it jumped back into the sea! How strange!

To this, Moses exclaimed, ґThat was the place which we were seeking!

The two retraced their footsteps, and found one of Our servants, on whom We had bestowed grace from Ourselves, and unto whom We had imparted knowledge issuing from Ourselves.

Moses said to him, ґMay I follow you on the understanding that you will impart to me something of that consciousness of what is right which has been imparted to you?

The man answered, ґYou will never be able to have patience with me how could you be patient about things that you cannot comprehend within the compass of your experience?֒

Moses replied, You will find me patient, if Allah so wills; and I shall not disobey you in anything!ђ

Said the sage, Well, then, if you are to follow me, do not question me about anything that I may do until I myself offer you an explanation!ђ

The two went on their way, till they reached the seashore. When they disembarked from the boat that had ferried them across, the sage made a hole in it whereupon Moses exclaimed, ֑Have you made a hole in it in order to drown the people who may be traveling in it? Indeed, you have done a grievous thing!

He replied, ґDid I not tell you that you will never be able to have patience with me?

Moses said, ґDo not take me to task for having forgotten myself, and do not be hard on me on account of what I have done!

And so the two went on, till they met a young man, and the sage slew him. At this Moses exclaimed, ґHave you slain an innocent human being without his having taken another mans life? Indeed, you have done a terrible thing!Ғ

He replied, Did I not tell you that you will never be able to have patience with me?ђ

Moses said, If after this I should ever question you, dismiss me from your company; by now, you have heard enough excuses from me.ђ

And so the two went on, till they came upon a village. When they asked the people there for food, they were refused all hospitality. Soon they saw in the village a wall which was on the point of collapse, and the sage rebuilt it whereupon Moses said, ֑If you had wished, you could have at least been paid for your work?

The sage replied, ґIt is time for us to part ways. And now I shall let you know the real meaning of all those events that you were unable to bear with patience.

ґAs for that boat, it belonged to some needy people who toiled upon the sea and I sought to damage it because I knew that close on their heels was a king who would have taken their boat by brute force.֒

And as for that young man, his parents were true believers і whereas we had every reason to fear that he would bring bitter grief upon them by his overweening wickedness and denial of all truth; and so we desired that their Sustainer grant them in his place a child of greater purity than him, and closer to them in loving tenderness.

ґAnd as for that wall, it belonged to two orphan boys living in the town, and beneath it was buried a treasure belonging to them by right. Their father had been a righteous man, and so the Sustainer willed that when they come of age, by the grace of the Sustainer, they should bring forth their treasure from beneath that wall.

ґAnd I did not do any of this of my own accord. That is the real meaning of all those events that you were unable to bear with patience.

To begin a consideration of the passage from the QurҒan, I begin by considering the social environment from which the parable of Moses and Khidr emerged, and the assumptions regarding human relationships that pervade prevalent interpretations of the story.

The parable of Moses and Khidr emerged from a patriarchal tribal society, struggling to locate, utilize and preserve resources in exceedingly harsh terrain. In this society, authoritarian leadership was regarded as a necessity to ensure personal and collective survival, and to preserve the boundaries of the group. Family structure was patriarchal and authoritarian. The divine right of kings and patriarchs was not subject to question without such questioning being seen as a fundamental threat to social order. In every tribe there was at least one adult male who held the position of leader, and was thought to be the wisest among them whether that was in fact the case, or whether the assumption of superior wisdom was based upon the leader֒s elevated status within an existing ruling family. Such status was generally restricted to males, and was accompanied by explicit or implicit rights to the appropriation and possession of land, food and chattel, including women.

In Sufi tradition, Moses and Khidr have traditionally been characterized as the model for the ideal relationship between a teacher and student.

Having been accepted by the Pir, give thyself up to him:
submit, like Moses, to the authority of Khizr.
Whatever thy Khizr may do, bear it patiently, lest he say, “Begone, here we part.”
Though he scuttle the boat, be dumb!
Though he kill a child, do not tear thy hair!

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

This invocation proceeds from the assumption that the Pir, or spiritual teacher, possesses knowledge of inner realities superior to that of the student, is free of self-interest, and fully devoted to the development of the students piety and realization of divine truths. The Pir is often presumed to have a right to cause distress to the student in order to further that personҒs inner development or other sort of change. This is a fundamental element of the concept of the teacher-student relationship that has developed over the centuries within most Sufi lineages. One facet of the transformation of the nafs the human soul ֖ from the state of raw egotism to the state of annihilation in Allah (fana fiAllah) involves the transcendence of narcissism. It is often taught that not only can this transcendence be promoted by submission to the spiritual guidance of a shaikh, but that such submission should be complete and unconditional. Although few would admit a willingness to require students to tolerate, witness or carry out acts that violate the requirements of sharia, more might admit to a sense of leniency regarding the inner sharia of the spiritual aspirant Җ that is, personal conscience and discount the validity of the inner sharia, preferring to categorize an individual֒s moral priorities as signs of immaturity if they differ from those of the teacher.

The story may therefore be interpreted as an esoteric justification for those in a position of spiritual leadership to behave or treat others in manner that causes exceeding distress to the aspirant.

However, the story of Moses and Khidr suggests that all human beings possess a measure of self-interest. Too often distress is inflicted by spiritual teachers upon those of lesser status for reasons relating to personal challenges that the teacher has yet to satisfactorily address. These may include the teachers own narcissism, a compulsion to bully and belittle others, or a taste for manipulating and controlling others, masterminding their personal lives and relationships. A teacher may be simply greedy, or unskilled at directing sexual impulses in a manner that respects the needs and rights of those with whom he is in relationship. Many of these character traits evolve from childhood experiences of abuse, exploitation or deprivation. It is common for people who have suffered such experiences to prefer to avoid facing the pain and anger they have experienced in their lives, and to deny their aggressive tendencies. It is common for those who gravitate toward mystical spirituality to regard themselves as having “transcended” the need to directly address their personal issues (otherwise known as “denying the shadow”). And it is common for people who find themselves in positions of power over others to exercise that power in ways that serve their own self-interest.

Distress may also be inflicted by a teacher as a means to destabilize the emotional equilibrium of those who hold secrets about behavior of the teacher, disclosure of which would threaten the teacherҒs position, reputation, possessions or other relationships. Emotional destabilization or accusations of instability a time-honored means of discrediting those experiencing grief or anger, and a particularly popular tool for discrediting women ֖ serves to rob the secret-keeper of credibility in the public eye and to lower the secret-keeper in the affection and regard of her or his sisters and brothers in spiritual fellowship. Another motivator for the infliction of distress is envy the teacher may envy a student֒s insights, and fear that the student may pose a threat of competition within a hierarchy, or may simply be dismayed at the reminder that he or she is no more special than others.

So the story of Moses and Khidr is a powerful one in the imaginal lives of many spiritual seekers within the Sufi tradition. It has the power to confer divine authority upon those who would engage in destructive behavior in the name or guise of religion. It has the power to increase the suffering of those have been treated with irresponsibility and contempt by those from whom they have sought guidance and the protection of a spiritual lineage. If one does not question the desirability of authoritarian leadership, the story of Moses and Khidr may be readily interpreted as a validation of such leadership, a confirmation of a citizens obligation to submit to existing human authority no matter how harsh the treatment meted out by that authority, or a confirmation of a spiritual aspirantҒs obligation to submit to the authority of a teacher no matter how unethical the teachers conduct might be.

However, a close scrutiny of the story of Moses and Khidr, free of the assumption of the desirability of authoritarian leadership, can lead to some very different conclusions. The story has the power to validate both the human desire to seek guidance from a source of knowledge not subject to the limitations of oneҒs own experience, and the expression of individual conscience as a legitimate and commendable human activity. This is the way of the prophet Moses. We are told in the Quran:

Say, We believe in Allah and that which was revealed unto us
and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ismail, and Isaac, and Jacob,
and the tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received,
and that which the Prophets received from their Lord.
We make no distinction between any of them and unto Him we surrender

Al-Baqarah, 2:136

The legend that is a precursor to the QurҒanic revelation immediately draws our attention to one of the central tenets of authoritarian leadership that of the assumption that certain people may claim superior knowledge over others. It also gives the necessary information for understanding the significance of one of the central symbols of the story, the symbol of the fish.

The prophet Moses was rebuked by Allah for having once asserted that he was the wisest of all men.

Immediately we are faced with a challenge to hubris. If Allah would rebuke a prophet for making such an assertion, so, too, would any other human being be rebuked for doing the same ֖ no matter what their social position or presumed inner state. For who with any humility can rightfully claim to be the equal of Moses who himself was once rebuked for a lack of humility? Although Moses may in fact have been the wisest of men, it was his assertion of his own superiority for which he was rebuked.

Allah subsequently revealed to Moses that a ֑servant of Allah who lived at the junction of the two seas was far superior to him in wisdom.

Who is this ґservant of Allah, and what is the ґjunction of the two seas? Traditionally, the ґservant of Allah is understood to be Khidr, “an allegoric figure representing the utmost depth of mystic insight accessible to man.”

This ґservant of Allah is superior in wisdom to the eminently rational Moses. To return to and reassert the question of human claims to divine insight: Who can rightfully claim to be the equal of Khidr, when he was superior in wisdom to Moses, one of the wisest, most just and compassionate of human beings?

ґThe junction of the two seas was described in QurҒanic commentary as “the two sources or streams of knowledge the one obtainable through observation and intellectual coordination of outward phenomena (ilm az-zahir), and the other through intuitive, mystic insight (ilm al-batin), the meeting of which is the goal of Moses֒ quest.” It may be alternately described as the junction between sleep and wakefulness, the theta or twilight state rich in vision and intuition, the gateway to the dream world, the point at which divine perfection meets human limitation. It also represents the meeting of the masculine and feminine principles, the junction at which the syllable Al- meets the syllable -lah in the spoken invocation of the name of Allah.

In fact, the junction of the two seasђ provides a rich metaphor that may frame most polarities of manifestation in the world of created things.

When Moses expressed his eagerness to find that man, Allah commanded him to catch a fish, put it in a basket, and travel with it until the fish disappeared.

The fish is born of the sea, the source of all knowledge, the ultimate source of life, its water essential to the maintenance of all life. It is a seemingly boundless place, vaster than the human mind can imagine. The fish is a symbol of symbols themselves. The fish-symbol has its origin in the sea of divine wisdom, serves as a sign-post to it, and will always return to it. The image of putting the fish in the basket evokes an image of humans seeking to contain divine wisdom within the container of human limitation. The wisdom cannot be contained in the basket, nor in the elusive fish itself. The fish may stay for a while, but eventually it will disappear right at the point where we are convinced that we have found some very fine sustenance. Its function is to serve not as physical sustenance itself, but as a guide to a finer sustenance.

Its disappearance would be a sign that the goal had been reached ֖ the place where the servant of Allahђ could be found.

We might ordinarily look upon a fish as something that we could eat, something that could sustain our bodies for a day. But the servant of Allahђ, that being of superior wisdom, inspiration and subtle understanding, will only be found at a place within which our sustenance seems to be lost where we are left hungry and confused, not knowing how it is that our goals have seemed to elude us. It is the loss itself that takes us where we need to go.

Proceeding to Surah al-Kahf:

In the course of his wanderings Moses said to his servant, ֑I will not give up until I reach the junction of the two seas, even if I have to spend years in my quest!

Moses is committed to cultivating a depth of understanding of esoteric truth as deep as his understanding of exoteric law. It may take a very long time for Moses to attain this goal Җ but then follows the next lesson, which is that of the permanence of impermanence and change!

But when they reached the junction of the two seas, the servant caught a fish, but then forgot about it. The fish then jumped back into the sea and disappeared from sight.

Who is the servant who tries so hard to catch the fish, who thinks he has found his sustenance for the day, only to have it leap back into the water? The servant is our physical nature, a nature that hungers and thirsts, that sleeps, that is driven to procreate, that is vulnerable to decay and death, that seeks companionship, and that needs to be cared for. The servant sleeps every now and then, forgetting about the source of his sustenance until he wakes again. At the same time, while he sleeps, an amazing thing happens a fish in a basket leaps back into the sea.

After the two had walked some distance, Moses said to his servant, ֑Bring us the mid-day meal; we have indeed suffered hardship on this day of our journey!

Master and servant, body and intellect, can go only so far together before they need to rest. Moses, human that he is, expresses his suffering, his fatigue, and requests that the servant tend to his needs. No divine rebuke comes to him for this! After all, they have traveled far and deserve the fulfillment of their needs. However, the servant by his own efforts will not be able to fulfill all of their needs at the level to which his understanding is limited.

But the servant said, ґCan you believe this? When I sat down to rest on the rock back there, I forgot about the fish it must have been Satan who made me forget! ֖ and it jumped back into the sea! How strange!

The servant is conscientious, but like any human being, including his master Moses, gets tired now and then, and dozes off. The fish gets away, and the servant, no doubt a little ashamed at what he thought was his personal failure to preserve their food, fails to tell Moses about it until theyҒre a little way down the road. Perhaps he would like to conceal his regrettable, though human, act of forgetfulness, just as he sought to keep the fish in the basket. But the fish escapes, hunger calls, and there is no avoiding the truth. When the servant confesses, he makes a little attempt to avoid responsibility, blaming his forgetfulness on Satan with the ancient excuse, The Devil made me do it!ђ He externalizes his demon of forgetfulness; but he simultaneously points to the possibility that hidden forces may have something to do with the turn of events.

Perhaps the only way to keep hold of the fish, to ensure that it never gets away, is to never sleep, never rest. But without sleep, one will surely die. All humans need at least a little sleep. If one never sleeps, one isnt human! So, one might as well relax a little, accept the inevitability of human imperfection, and stop attributing excessive guilt to oneself.

To this, Moses exclaimed, ґThat was the place which we were seeking!

Moses and his servant need each other. Moses is awake, though weary, and understands the significance of the fish, but cannot catch it on his own. His servant is a simple man, who has the skill to catch the fish, and the dedication to his master to catch the fish for him. However, the servant looks upon the fish as nothing but a meal. Then the servant sleeps, and even that meal is gone. Moses recognizes the symbolic value of that loss, and is thereby moved to complete a quest far more essential than lunch Җ a quest for guidance that cannot be obtained through physical action or intellectual effort, whether alone or in tandem.

We now learn that the servants forgetfulness is his destiny, and that even his supposed failure in vigilance serves a profound purpose. As long as we are in this body, every now and then, no matter how conscientious we are, we will forget about our true sustenance Җ that which has its source in the sea. But its not necessarily a disaster. That forgetfulness has the potential to be followed by a greater understanding. Even the slightest memory or hint that there might be a greater significance to our experience can move us toward a greater understanding. This is why it is said that once a person begins to walk the path of a servant of Allah (the station of Khidr) or seeker of understanding of the cosmic order (the commodity possessed by Khidr), that person is hooked like the fish and will never stop seeking. Once a powerful symbol is embedded in a personҒs memory, the slightest hint of it can lead to an influential train of associations and insights. However, even though one may be fortunate enough to haul the fish up to land every now and then (or the symbol to conscious view), it will always be compelled to dive beneath the surface of the sea. If it doesnt, it will die, and be reduced to nothing but a meal.

The two retraced their footsteps, and found one of Our servants, on whom We had bestowed grace from Ourselves, and unto whom We had imparted knowledge issuing from Ourselves.

Inevitably, one does a little backtracking in order to reach oneҒs goal! And at that goal stands another servant, this time a servant of Allah rather than of Moses the human. He is full of the wisdom and beneficence issuing from Allah (and, as we will see, is free of self-interest). But no matter how much wisdom and beneficence he displays, he must not be mistaken for Allah. On an interior level, we are told that no matter how deep and profound our intuition may seem, we must never mistake it for divine wisdom itself.

Moses said to him, May I follow you on the understanding that you will impart to me something of that consciousness of what is right which has been imparted to you?ђ

Moses is direct and honest about what he is seeking: consciousness of what is right, which has been imparted to Khidr by the grace of Allah. He knows what he needs and seeks to fulfill that need. Wise as he is, he seeks a greater understanding that is not limited to that obtainable through his personal experience. This is what Khidr has to offer. Venturing inward again, we are told that if we follow the signs, we will eventually find ourselves seeking guidance in intuition, in a supra-rational source of understanding.

The terms of the relationship between the student and the teacher are then discussed between the parties involved. However, we are given no assurance of mutuality in their respective understanding of the challenges to come.

The man answered, You will never be able to have patience with me і how could you be patient about things that you cannot comprehend within the compass of your experience?

Khidr knows that Moses is a logical man, and makes it clear the divine logic does not always coincide with human logic. He acknowledges that MosesҒ understanding grows directly out of his experience. He unequivocally states that Moses is destined to fall short of a full understanding of divine will; this is an inherent human limitation. Not only is he destined to not understand in the moment; he is also likely to experience emotional agitation. This is not a condemnation, but a warning that Moses is in for yet another experience, this one guaranteed to be incomprehensible, frustrating, distressing maybe even shocking.

Moses replied, ֑You will find me patient, if Allah so wills; and I shall not disobey you in anything!

Moses, like his servant, is conscientious, and expresses his intention to follow Khidr with patience and without asking any questions. He means well! He intends to comply with KhidrҒs demands as he understands them. He is aiming to please and to succeed.

But Moses will be patient only if Allah so wills. If he loses his patience and speaks out anyway, the will of Allah will have as much to do with that development as it will with any act of Khidr or its consequences.

Said the sage, Well, then, if you are to follow me, do not question me about anything that I may do until I myself offer you an explanation!ђ

So they strike a deal: Khidr insists that Moses keep his mouth shut, no matter what. And because they go on their way together, we can assume that Moses agrees to do so. It will take a lot of trust on Moses part. ItҒs a no-win situation, at least as far as Moses understanding of the bargain is concerned Җ on the outer plane, the ilm az-zahir.

Undoubtedly, this is a test. However, from the outset, Khidr makes it emphatically clear that the demands he is making are impossible for Moses to fulfill. And Khidr possesses knowledge imparting from Allah omniscience, from the ilm al-batin. So, what is being tested?

If this is a test of Moses֒ ability to submit to authoritarian leadership, and maintain silence under any circumstance, it is no test at all, for there is no alternative to failure to comply with impossible demands. If Moses is created by Allah with no choice but to fail, and if Allah is just, how can Moses be judged personally responsible for that failure? Would Allah hold a blind man personally responsible for his “failure to see”?

But if this is a test of Moses capacity to exercise his reason and compassion and conscience, to respond appropriately to actions that Җ viewed with reference to the compass of his experience are clearly ethically impermissible, there is a wide range of possible outcomes (rather than a simple grade of pass/fail), and a greater opportunity to derive meaning from the results. It would be a far more useful test.

The two went on their way, till they reached the seashore. When they disembarked from the boat that had ferried them across, the sage made a hole in it ֖ whereupon Moses exclaimed, Have you made a hole in it in order to drown the people who may be traveling in it? Indeed, you have done a grievous thing!ђ

Moses and Khidr cross the sea together, without Moses servant. They leave behind the body and the physical world for a while so that reason and conscience may have an uninterrupted conversation with intuition and innate, supra-rational understanding of the cosmic order.

Then Khidr does something outrageous in the material world Җ he drills a hole in the boat, thereby damaging someone elses property and posing a potential danger to others who might seek to make the same journey. The soul of the boat is its buoyancy, its purpose service to humanity. Khidr has destroyed that soul and made it impossible for the boatҒs purpose to be served. In spite of his agreement with Khidr, Moses speaks from his conscience, addressing the issue of the imminent threat to the lives of other human beings whom he does not know, who are not even present, who may never even arrive at that place (though they might very reasonably be anticipated to do so). He cannot help himself it is a compellingly reasonable and credible speculation that some harm will come to innocent people as a result of Khidr֒s actions. Moses conscience is stronger than his commitment to silence. Were he fail to speak out, he would be failing to exercise a capacity that issued from Allah prior to his encounter with Khidr Җ the capacity of moral discernment. Moses is driven to exercise that capacity.

And Moses responds with grief, grief flowing from both the sea of intellect and the sea of emotion. Khidrs act is intellectually grievous in that it is a violation of the fundamental principles of humane personal interaction that Moses carried down from the mountain prior to their encounter Җ “Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal”. It is emotionally grievous in that Khidrs violation causes Moses distress Җ enough distress to compel him to speak out, enough distress to overwhelm Moses intention to be patient and to say nothing to the one he looks upon as his teacher and guide.

If MosesҒ is being tested on his ability to remain silent in the face of the apparently wanton destruction of property and potential endangerment of other human beings, or his ability to suppress the expression of his most fundamental beliefs and emotions, Moses cannot help but fail.

But if Moses is being tested on his capacity for moral discernment, for his ability to exercise meaningful, timely and responsible concern for immediate and anticipated human needs, and for the honest expression of his thoughts and feelings, then Moses has passed the test.

He replied, Didnђt I tell you that you will never be able to have patience with me?

Even a being that lives in the dream-world can gloat a little! At least he doesnҒt say, “You failed.” Again, Khidrs statement is unequivocal Җ no matter how hard one tries, mere humans (even prophets) cannot ever pretend to a full understanding of the will of Allah no matter how closely one walks with Khidr. Furthermore, the human impulse to respond to the events of life will always precede the capacity to understand divine purpose. These impulses are informed by Moses֒ experience and knowledge of moral law, which shape his conscience. Eventually, esoteric understanding will be imparted to him but in retrospect, not in advance.

Moses said, ֑Do not take me to task for having forgotten myself, and do not be hard on me on account of what I have done!

Moses appeals to KhidrҒs recognition of his human limitations, of the inevitability of forgetting both ones source and oneҒs ultimate goals. He appeals to Khidr to exercise the same mercy toward him that he, Moses, seeks to extend to other human beings. Moses cry in response to an act that posed a serious potential danger to unknown and unknowing people was a sign of his humanity, his compassion, and his ability to extend that compassion into his vision of the future.

If Moses is being tested on his capacity to express rahman and advocate for the social expression of rahman, Moses has passed the test.

And so the two went on, till they met a young man, and the sage slew him. At this Moses exclaimed, ґHave you slain an innocent human being without his having taken another mans life? Indeed, you have done a terrible thing!Ғ

Moses speaks from his conscience again, and invokes a law that permits the taking of life under certain circumstances. Such laws generally reflect the severity of the threat posed by their infraction to the maintenance of a viable society and the health of the human soul. However, as far as Moses knows, there is no reason to kill the young man. Here Khidr has progressed from destruction of property and the creation of a hypothetical danger, to unprovoked murder. No matter how compelling Moses desire for divine knowledge, or how firm his intention to maintain silence under any circumstance Җ to be “a good boy,” and obedient to authority he is compelled even more strongly to be “a good man,” obedient to his own conscience, speaking out in a timely manner in response to what his knowledge of the law tells him is an extreme injustice.

If Moses is being tested on his capacity to disregard the murder of an innocent soul, Moses is doomed to fail.

But if Moses is being tested on his understanding of moral law, then Moses has passed the test.

He replied, ֑Did I not tell you that you will never be able to have patience with me?

Yet again we encounter “I told you so”; and a repetition of the unequivocal never.

If the test is a test of MosesҒ capacity for silent compliance in the face of evident brutality, we have just been reminded for the third time by Khidr that the rational, compassionate and just Moses will always fail.

Moses said, If after this I should ever question you, dismiss me from your company; by now, you have heard enough excuses from me.ђ

Moses has every good intention, and humility as well. He is accustomed to a world in which those who question authority no matter how unreasonable that authority may be ֖ do not last long. He knows hes not living up to his part of the bargain as he understands it, and Khidr has made it clear that he never would be able to anyway. But he presses on, determined to gain some understanding from this mysterious carrier of divine wisdom, even if itҒs a Sisyphean task.

If Moses is being tested on his capacity for humility, perseverance, and honest acknowledgment of his human limitations, then Moses has passed the test.

And so the two went on, till they came upon a village. When they asked the people there for food, they were refused all hospitality. Soon they saw in the village a wall which was on the point of collapse, and the sage rebuilt it whereupon Moses said, ֑If you had wished, you could have at least been paid for your work?

Now Khidr makes an act of unwarranted kindness Җ a constructive but bewildering act in conflict with what one might assume would be his self-interest, an attribute usually possessed in unbalanced abundance by those who engage in deliberate destruction of property, endangerment of the public welfare, and murder! The people of the village, by selfishly refusing hospitality, have refused to acknowledge the humanity they share with Moses, and have rejected the guidance that Khidr has to offer. But Khidr rebuilds the crumbling wall anyway. This time, Moses refers to the human desire for material gain in his line of questioning but not because he is aghast at any immorality in Khidr֒s act of rebuilding the wall, but bewildered by Khidrs apparent lack of selfish motivation.

The sage replied, ґIt is time for us to part ways. And now I shall let you know the real meaning of all those events that you were unable to bear with patience.

The explanation is on its way, but not until Khidr has made it clear that the end of this particular encounter is in sight. And this is so not as a mutually understood consequence of any failure on MosesҒ part; it is Khidrs response to MosesҒ realization that he himself is constitutionally incapable of comprehending the whole of divine intention. He just cant handle it. We are told neither that another encounter will follow or that one will not, only that right now, itҒs almost time to go not even Moses may enjoy the company of Khidr endlessly. But before they part, Khidr seeks to put his inexplicable actions into the context of human history as it unfolds and will unfold. His actions are not motivated by self-interest, but by a superhuman compassion and omniscience.

֑As for that boat, it belonged to some needy people who toiled upon the sea and I sought to damage it because I knew that close on their heels was a king who would have taken their boat by brute force.֒

Khidr knew this in retrospect. Unlike Moses and other humans, he possesses unerring knowledge of subtle reality unrestricted by time, and acted in accordance with that knowledge so that needy people would be protected, rather than exploited. Khidr, too here symbolizing the movement of the will of Allah upon earth ֖ was acting in accordance with a divine understanding and compassion that outstripped Moses capacity to understand with logic. Each expressed his understanding and compassion in his own way. That divine wisdom and compassion flows even in those moments in which we lose our most valued possessions. From one misfortune, a blessing may emerge.

ґAnd as for that young man, his parents were true believers whereas we had every reason to fear that he would bring bitter grief upon them by his overweening wickedness and denial of all truth; and so we desired that their Sustainer grant them in his place a child of greater purity than him, and closer to them in loving tenderness.֒

This, too, is a retrospective understanding. Khidr knew the future, and knew that one death would be followed by another life of equal or greater potential, and greater ultimate manifestation of that potential particularly the potential for integrity and familial intimacy. Khidr also understood that the grief that inevitably follows profound transgressions of moral codes (which represent the fundamental principles of humane personal interaction) may be equal to or greater than the grief that follows the death of a child. He understood that divine wisdom flows even in those moments in which we lose those dearest to us.

֑And as for that wall, it belonged to two orphan boys living in the town, and beneath it was buried a treasure belonging to them by right. Their father had been a righteous man, and so the Sustainer willed that when they come of age, by the grace of the Sustainer, they should bring forth their treasure from beneath that wall.

Khidr sought to tend to the affairs of the physical world, and to protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of the community, regardless of his own self-interest. He rebuilt a wall beneath which a treasure was hidden Җ a treasure of understanding that could only be obtained by its rightful owners after the passing of time and acquisition of personal experience. This treasure is the rightful inheritance of our children the gifts we offer to the world, and to the future.

The wall reintroduces the subject of the symbol of the servant of Moses (waiting to reappear since Moses and Khidr ventured off together alone). That subject is the material world and the physical body, and the things that serve to protect our inner treasures. Walls are boundaries, the body is one boundary, the limits of our understanding another, our conscience another, and the sharia yet another. Treasures are protected and their integrity maintained beneath a healthy boundary. If we let those boundaries weaken, our treasures can be stolen from us.

In the same way, biblical and esoteric traditions refer to the metaphor of salt, a symbol of physical reality, the sharing of which is a symbol of shared humanity.

“Thou shalt not suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking from thy meat offering: with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt.”

Leviticus 2:13

“In gratitude for your bread and salt, I must preserve you from all danger.”

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

Without salt, our offerings are nothing more than lifeless flesh. Our conversations with Allah must always be accompanied by an honest acknowledgement of the reality of how our philosophies and actions ֖ our “offerings”  manifest on the physical plane. If we act as if this doesn֒t matter, destroying our protective boundaries or those of others, we cannot serve our purpose in this world to bring forth our treasures as we come of age. We may find ourselves like the righteous father in an inhospitable community ֖ dead, our walls crumbling, unable to guide our children into their own maturity, or deliver our legacy to them.

Without the salt that regulates the passage of fluid through the cell membrane, helping to maintain the structural integrity of the cell, the cell cannot serve its purpose. Without a wall to protect the treasure, the treasure will be looted and taken from its rightful owners. In the same way, human beings cannot be whole in the physical world or in our human interactions, or serve our earthly purpose effectively, without strong boundaries and integrity. Those boundaries are established and integrity preserved by way of the faculties exemplified by Moses rational acumen, compassion, understanding of moral law, and the capacity to speak out on behalf of the welfare of others, regardless of self-interest.

֑And I did not do any of this of my own accord. That is the real meaning of all those events that you were unable to bear with patience.

If the test is a challenge to keep silence, and if silence is the only positive outcome, then Moses fails miserably, and Khidr is under no obligation to explain his actions.

But if Moses is being tested on his attainment to the status of a highly evolved human being Җ rational, articulate, compassionate, and strongly motivated to manifest that compassion in the material world as best he can within the compass of his understanding then Moses has passed the test.

And if that is indeed the test, then Moses has won the prize ֖ Khidrs explanation. Khidr could very easily have turned his back and walked away, offering no explanation, unwilling to tolerate MosesҒ impatience, his outrage, his confusion, and his willingness to express his convictions and his feelings. However, Khidr goes on to impart “something of the consciousness of what is right” that Allah has imparted to him something of it, not all of it, and only in retrospect. But that is much more than what Moses starts out with. At the end of the story, Moses has been granted a threefold glimpse of the will of Allah manifested in the most horrible and bewildering of circumstances. In retrospect, indeed ֖ but he didnt have to die first!

So Moses goes his own way, and Khidr his Җ perhaps theyll meet again, perhaps not. ItҒs not a punishment, but a fact of life. Perhaps Moses servant will catch another fish that will lead them again to the junction of the two seas Җ but in order to fulfill its purpose, that fish must be elusive, and there is no guarantee that the next encounter with Khidr will be any longer or less bewildering than the last.

The servant of Moses is a signifier of the physical body; Moses himself the embodiment of reason, conscience, and the drive to seek understanding of our purpose in the world. Khidr carries the light of intuition, the channeled essence of inflowing divine grace, unceasing benevolence, and the overarching knowledge that gives light to our human experience. That light flows through Khidr in retrospect, in a fleeting encounter with Moses, and, inshallah, in fleeting encounters with the rest of humanity in our own prayers, intuitions and dreams.

Afterword
And He it is who has given freedom of movement to the two great bodies of water the one sweet and thirst-allaying, and the other salty and bitter ח and yet has wrought between them a barrier and a forbidding ban. And He it is who out of this very water has created man…

Al-Furqan, 25:53-54

If all the sea were ink for my Sustainers words, the sea would indeed be exhausted ere my SustainerҒs words are exhausted! And thus it would be if we were to add to it sea upon sea.

Al-Kahf, 18:109

Sea added upon sea, both contain ink for the SustainerҒs words: one the ink of divine revelation, intuition, understanding and benevolence; the other the ink of human experience, the gift of reason, intelligence, speech, and conscience. And the sea is never exhausted.

Peterborough, New Hampshire
6-8 October 2000

Note: Quran passages and commentary are taken from The Message of the QurҒan. translated by Muhammad Asad. I have subsequently taken the poetic liberty of modernizing some pronouns and verb forms from KJV English to contemporary usage, and changing the word “God” to “Allah” in all instances. Green text is used for citations from the Quran and the Bible, grey for hadith and other quotes.

Kathleen Seidel, author of Serving the Guest : Food for Remembrance (http://www.superluminal.com/cookbook), is a bookseller who lives in New England with her husband and two teenage daughters. The article Moses’ Test was originally published online at http://www.superluminal.com/moses, and is reprinted in The American Muslim with the permission of the author.

sem


Google