Moses and Khidr then have the same exchange about the promise Moses made not to ask questions (18:75-76). Finally, Khidr rebuilds a wall that had fallen down in a town that had refused the two hospitality, and Moses scolds him yet again (18:77), for he could have gotten wages for his action, which the two could have used to buy food and lodging.
Finally Khidr tells Moses that their journey is over, and explains his strange actions. (Muhammad commented: “We wished that Moses could have remained patient by virtue of which Allah might have told us more about their story.”) Khidr damaged the ship because a king is seizing “every boat by force,” but not ones that are unserviceable (v. 79) — presumably the poor owners of the boat could repair it once the king passed by. Khidr killed the young man because he would grieve his pious parents with his “rebellion and ingratitude” (v. 80), and Allah will give them a better son (v. 81). And as for the wall, there was buried treasure beneath it that belonged to boys too young to inherit it at this point — so repairing it gave them time to reach maturity while protecting the treasure from theft (v. 82).
Maududi enunciates the point of all this: “You should have full faith in the wisdom of what is happening in the Divine Factory in accordance with the will of Allah. As the reality is hidden from you, you are at a loss to understand the wisdom of what is happening, and sometimes if it appears that things are going against you, you cry out, ‘How and why has this happened’. The fact is that if the curtain be removed from the ‘unseen’, you would yourselves come to know that what is happening here is for the best. Even if some times it appears that something is going against you, you will see that in the end it also produces some good results for you.”
The Qur’an translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali offers these four lessons from the story, including the idea that “even as the whole stock of the knowledge of the present day, the sciences and the arts, and in literature, (if it could be supposed to be gathered in one individual), does not include all knowledge. Divine knowledge, as far as man is concerned, is unlimited,” and “There are paradoxes in life: apparent loss may be real gain; apparent cruelty may be real mercy; returning good for evil may really be justice and not generosity (18:79-82). Allah’s wisdom transcends all human calculation.”
Another point emerges in Islamic tradition: don’t kill children, unless you know they’re going to grow up to be unbelievers: “The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) used not to kill the children, so you should not kill them unless you could know what Khadir had known about the child he killed, or you could distinguish between a child who would grow up to be a believer (and a child who would grow up to be a non-believer), so that you killed the (prospective) non-believer and left the (prospective) believer aside.” The assumption thus enunciated may help explain the persistence of the phenomenon of honor-killing in Islamic countries and even among Muslims in the West.
In Islamic mystical tradition Khidr looms large. The eighth-century Sufi mystic Ibrahim Bin Adham (Abou Ben Adhem) once claimed: “In that wilderness I lived for four years. God gave me my eating without any toil of mine. Khidr the Green Ancient was my companion during that time — he taught me the Great Name of God.” Some consider Khidr to be immortal (Ibn Taymiyya thinks so). This idea rests on many arguments. Bayhaqi recounts that when Muhammad died, the assembled mourners heard a voice — identified as that of Khidr — exhorting them to trust in Allah. The idea also has a basis in Muhammad’s own words. Once Muhammad was telling his followers about the Dajjal, the anti-Christ figure who plays a large role in Islamic eschatology. The Dajjal, he explained, would kill a person and bring him back to life, and then would try to kill him again but would not be able to do so. “That person would be Khadir.”
In view of his immortality, not a few Muslim (and even some non-Muslim) mystics through the centuries have recounted meetings with him — one contemporary Muslim even wrote a tongue-in-cheek account of an encounter with Khidr at Home Depot (alas, now removed from the Internet).
Allah revealed verses 83-101 of sura 18 after a group of rabbis devised a test for Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet: “Ask him about a man who travelled a great deal and reached the east and the west of the earth. What was his story?” That man was Dhul-Qarnayn (v. 83) — “the one with two horns.” Ibn Kathir explains that he had “dominion over the east and the west, all countries and their kings submitted to him, and all the nations, Arab and non-Arab, served him.” He goes on to explain that Dhul-Qarnayn got his Qur’anic name “because he reached the two ‘Horns’ of the sun, east and west, where it rises and where it sets.”
But who was this great conqueror? The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that “he was not a prophet” and that his “name was Alexander” — better known as Alexander the Great, who was depicted on coins with two ram’s horns on his head. Maududi notes that “early commentators on the Qur’an were generally inclined to believe” that Dhul-Qarnayn was Alexander. Muhammad Al-Ghazali says that Alexander the Great is “high on the list of possibilities.”
However, Dhul-Qarnayn seems to have been a pious Muslim, since he said: “Whoever does wrong, him shall we punish; then shall he be sent back to his Lord; and He will punish him with a punishment unheard-of (before). But whoever believes, and works righteousness, he shall have a goodly reward, and easy will be his task as We order it by our Command” (vv. 87-88). This has led some modern-day Muslim commentators on the Qur’an to be embarrassed by the earlier commentators’ insistence that the manifestly pagan Alexander the Great was identified as a Muslim in the Qur’an. Some have suggested instead that Dhul Qarnayn was Cyrus the Great of Persia, or some other great ancient king, but such identifications lead to many of the same difficulties caused by saying that Dhul Qarnayn was Alexander: Muhammad Asad observes that “it is precisely the Qur’anic stress on his faith in God that makes it impossible to identify Dhu’l-Qarnayn, as most of the commentators do, with Alexander the Great (who is represented on some of his coins with two horns on his head) or with one or another of the pre-Islamic, Himyaritic kings of Yemen. All those historic personages were pagans and worshipped a plurality of deities as a matter of course, whereas our Dhu’l-Qarnayn is depicted as a firm believer in the One God.” The consensus today, therefore, is that his exact identification is unknown. Asad concludes that the Qur’anic account “has nothing to do with history or even legend, and that its sole purport is a parabolic discourse on faith and ethics, with specific reference to the problem of worldly power.”
Anyway, whoever he was, Dhul-Qarnayn traveled to the farthermost West, until “he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring” (v. 86). The Iraqi astronomer who insisted in 2007 that the Qur’an taught that the earth was flat did not quote this verse, and that was probably because it has been understood for centuries in a way that wouldn’t have given Copernicus dyspepsia. Ibn Kathir explains that it means that Dhul-Qarnayn “followed a route until he reached the furthest point that could be reached in the direction of the sun’s setting, which is the west of the earth.” He didn’t see actually see the sun setting, he was just watching it from the shore: “he saw the sun as if it were setting in the ocean. This is something which everyone who goes to the coast can see: it looks as if the sun is setting into the sea but in fact it never leaves its path in which it is fixed.” So where do people get crazy ideas such as that he actually reached “the place in the sky where the sun sets”? Why, from the Jews and Christians, of course: “Most of these stories come from the myths of the People of the Book and the fabrications and lies of their heretics.”
After traveling from the farthermost West to the farthermost East (v. 90), Dhul-Qarnayn on another journey encounters Gog and Magog, who “do great mischief on earth” (v. 94, cf. 5:33). They are, according to Ibn Kathir, “two groups of Turks, descended from Yafith (Japheth), the father of the Turks, one of the sons of Noah.” Dhul-Qarnayn walls them in between two mountains (v. 96) — which is another reason why he is identified with Alexander the Great, who according to pre-Islamic legend built the Gates, or Wall, of Alexander in the Caucasus in order to protect his empire from the barbarians of the northern regions — who were associated with Gog and Magog of Ezekiel 38-39. But the wall will come down (v. 98) on the Day of Judgment, when the trumpet sounds (v. 99). A popular modern-day Saudi preacher, Muhammad Saleh al-Munajjid, explained Islamic eschatology in a nutshell:
Ya’juj and Ma’juj are two disbelieving tribes from among the sons of Adam. They used to spread mischief on earth, so Allah gave Dhul-Qarnayn the power to build a barrier to detain them. They will keep on digging at it until Allah gives them permission to come out at the end of time, after `Isa [Jesus] (peace be upon him) has killed the Dajjal [“Deceiver”]. They will emerge in huge numbers and will drink up the lake of Tiberias (in Palestine). They will spread mischief on earth and no one will be able to resist them. `Isa (peace be upon him) and the believers with him will take refuge in Mount Tur until Allah destroys Ya’juj and Ma’juj [Gog and Magog] by sending worms that will eat their necks. Then Allah will send rain to wash away their bodies into the sea and cleanse the earth of their stench.”
When will this be? No one knows, but even in his day Muhammad the prophet of Islam was warning: “Woe unto the Arabs from a danger that has come near. An opening has been made in the wall of Gog and Magog like this” — and he made a circle with his thumb and index finger. Muhammad also warned that only one out a thousand people would be saved: “one-thousand will be from Gog and Magog, and the one (to be saved will be) from you [Muslims].”
Allah concludes this wild and wonderful sura by returning to several familiar themes: the unbelievers trust in created beings rather than in Allah, and hell awaits them (v. 102); even the good works of those who deny Islam will be for naught (vv. 104-106); the believers will enjoy the gardens of Paradise (v. 107); Muhammad is just a human being, but what he is transmitting are the words of Allah, who has no partners (v. 110).
Sura 19 is another Meccan sura. In the first part of Muhammad’s career, a group of Muslims migrated from Arabia to Abyssinia. One of the Muslims recited the material here about Mary and Jesus to the Christian ruler of Abyssinia, showing him that Muslims believed in Jesus, but not as the Son of God.
After the mysterious letters in v. 1, Allah in verses 2-40 retells the story told in Luke 1:5-80 — with some important differences, of course. The Qur’anic account begins (vv. 2-15), as does Luke’s account, with the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, encountering an angel (Luke 1:11; v. 9 of this chapter of the Qur’an establishes that Allah is not speaking directly with Zechariah). The angel tells him he will become a father despite his old age and his wife’s barrenness (v. 8). In the Qur’an, unlike in the Gospel, this comes as an answer to his prayer for a son (vv. 4-6). In both the Gospel (Luke 1:20) and the Qur’an (v. 10) he is unable to speak after this vision, although the Qur’an, unlike the Gospel, does not present this as punishment for his unbelief, but only as a sign of Allah’s power.
There is nothing in the Qur’an paralleling the Gospel’s connection of Zechariah’s son John with Elijah (Luke 1:17), the prophet who was to return before the Lord’s coming (Malachi 4:5-6). John is not the messenger sent to prepare the way of the Lord; he is simply pious (“meaning that he was pure and had no inclination to do sins,” says Ibn Kathir, in an echo of some Christian traditions that John committed no sins), devout, and kind to his parents (vv. 13-14).
Then Allah follows the story of the birth of Jesus (vv. 15-40), but like the account of the birth of John it differs significantly from the Gospel account. For one thing, the angel tells her only that she will be the mother of a “holy son” (v. 19) — there is not a word, of course, about his being “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32), a concept rejected again in v. 35. Jesus is virginally conceived (v. 20). Ibn Kathir says that many scholars believe she conceived by the breath of the angel Gabriel: “Many scholars of the predecessors (Salaf) have mentioned that at this point the angel (who was Jibril [Gabriel]) blew into the opening of the garment that she was wearing. Then the breath descended until it entered into her vagina and she conceived the child by the leave of Allah.”
Mary still suffers the pains of childbirth (v. 23) — while in some Christian traditions she does not, since those are the result of the sin (Genesis 3:16) that Jesus is taking upon himself and expiating (I Corinthians 15:22). Here, Mary gives birth to Jesus under a palm tree (not in a manger as in Luke 2:7), as Allah comforts her in her pains with dates (vv. 24-26). A voice cries out from beneath her, “Grieve not! For thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee” (v. 24); Ibn Abbas, Sa’id bin Jubayr, Ad-Dahhak, Amr bin Maymun, As-Suddi and Qatadah say this was Gabriel, while Mujahid, Al-Hasan, and Abdul-Rahman bin Zayd say it was the baby Jesus, who speaks soon enough anyway (vv. 30-33).
Abdul-Rahman bin Zayd notes that when Jesus told her in this verse not to grieve, she responded, “How can I not grieve when you are with me and I have no husband nor am I an owned slave woman?” To avoid the embarrassment of having to explain how she came to have a newborn, he tells her to tell people she is fasting and not speaking with anyone (v. 26). And as expected, when her family sees the child, they are amazed (v. 27), and remonstrate with her: “O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!” Many have charged that since the Qur’an here calls Mary “sister of Aaron,” Muhammad is confusing Mary the mother of Jesus with Miriam the sister of Moses and Aaron — in Arabic the names are identical, Maryam. Even the Christians of Muhammad’s day noticed this, but Muhammad had a ready explanation: “The (people of the old age) used to give names (to their persons) after the names of Apostles and pious persons who had gone before them.” So calling Mary “sister of Aaron” was, says Muhammad, an honor, not an error.
In any case, to allay their suspicions Mary simply points to the cradle, and Jesus begins speaking (vv. 30-33). This and other Qur’anic material about Jesus seems to come from heretical and non-canonical Christian material: the baby Jesus doesn’t speak in the New Testament, but an Arabic Infancy Gospel that dates from the sixth century says this: “Jesus spoke, and, indeed, when He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom thou hast brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to thee; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world.” Of course, in the Qur’an he doesn’t say he was the Son of God, but rather the “slave of Allah” (v. 30), for to have a son is not befitting for Allah’s majesty (v. 35).
Allah returns in verses 41-50 to the story of Abraham, recounting his breach with his father when his father refused to give up his idol-worship. Abraham prays that Allah will forgive his father (v. 47), but we learn elsewhere that in this he is not an example for the Muslims (60:4). Abraham turns away not only from the idols, but from his father also (vv. 48, 50). In verses 51-58 Allah mentions in passing several prophets, including Moses, Ishmael, and Idris (Enoch). He then returns in verses 59-63 to the delights that the blessed will enjoy in Paradise, but without being very specific.
Then Allah concludes the chapter (verses 64-98) by sounding familiar themes, mostly about the unbelievers. The angels don’t descend except by Allah’s command (v. 64) — this said because Muhammad wondered why he didn’t see Gabriel more often. Those who doubt the resurrection will not escape the Day of Judgment (vv. 66-71). In v. 73, the unbelievers are ready to determine which religion to follow based on the level of earthly prosperity of its adherents. “In this,” according to Ibn Kathir, “they were saying, ‘How can we be upon falsehood while we are in this manner of successful living?’ — But Allah has destroyed countless generations before them (v. 74). Those who boast of their worldly success while remaining unbelievers will be punished for their boasts (vv. 77-80). The demons that the unbelievers worship will turn against them (v. 82); indeed, Allah will set the demons upon them (v. 83).
The idea that Allah has begotten a Son is “most monstrous” (v. 89) — indeed, “at it the skies are ready to burst, the earth to split asunder, and the mountains to fall down in utter ruin” (v. 90). Allah will judge all beings (v. 95). The Qur’an gives “Glad Tidings to the righteous, and warnings to people given to contention” (v. 97) — for “how many a generation before them have We destroyed!” (v. 98)
Sura 20, an early Meccan sura, “has no rival,” says Muhammad Al-Ghazali, “in its uncompromising affirmation of the Absolute Unity of Allah.” It takes its name from the two Arabic letters that begin it, ta (ﻁ) and ha (ﻩ). Ibn Abbas and other early commentators have suggested that ta ha (طه) is actually a phrase from an ancient Arabic dialect, meaning “O man,” in which case it may be that here Allah is addressing Muhammad, as he does in v. 2 — where once again he consoles his downcast prophet, telling him he is not being given the Qur’an in order to distress him. Everything belongs to Allah (v. 6) and he knows all secrets (v. 7), for he has the best names — that is, the highest attributes (v. 8).
Allah then in verses 9-99 tells yet again the story of Moses, which he has already touched on in suras 2, 7, 10, and 17. But, as Al-Ghazali observes, “every time the story appears different aspects of it emerge. Each version has details which are not included in any other version.” The repeated aspects have their usefulness as well. Al-Ghazali also points out that this sura is very concerned with reminding and bidding the faithful to remember truths that they have already learned: the Qur’an itself is a reminder (v. 3); the believers should pray regularly so as to remember Allah (v. 14); Moses asks Allah to be given Aaron as a helper, so that together the brothers can praise and remember him without ceasing (vv. 29-34); Allah grants this, and warns Moses not to grow slack in remembering him (v. 42); Allah instructs Moses to go speak to Pharaoh so that perhaps Pharaoh will remember or show some fear of Allah (v. 44); Allah never forgets (v. 52), but after the mysterious Samiri fashions the idol of the calf, he tells the people that this is their god, but that Moses has forgotten that (v. 88); Allah tells Muhammad that he told him the whole story of Moses again as a reminder (v. 99); Allah gave the world the Qur’an so as to bring some people to remember him (v. 113); Adam forgot his covenant with Allah (v. 115); Allah will forget on the Day of Judgment those who forgot his signs (ayat, or verses of the Qur’an) in this world (v. 126).
Sufis say that when Moses approached the Burning Bush and heard the voice of Allah (vv. 10-17), he attained the states of fana, or absorption of the self into the deity, and baqaa, life in union with Allah. His shoes, they say, represented his separation from Allah, which is why Allah tells him to take them off (v. 12). According to Ibn Masud Baghavi in Ma’alimut-tanzil, what Moses saw wasn’t actually fire at all, but the heavenly light (Nur) of Allah.
Anyway, Allah equips Moses with the staff that turns into a snake (v. 20) and a hand that would turn brilliant white “without disease” (v. 22), and sends him off to confront Pharaoh. Allah grants Moses’ request to take Aaron along (v. 36) and tells him the story of how he was plucked out of the river by “one who is an enemy to Me and an enemy to him” (v. 39) as a baby and returned to his mother (v. 40). The story is told as if the hearers are already familiar with the outline of the story of Moses from the Book of Exodus.
When Allah tells Moses and Aaron again to go to Pharaoh (v. 44), they respond that they’re afraid “lest he hasten with insolence against us, or lest he transgress all bounds” (v. 46). Allah responds that they should not be afraid, for he is with them, and sees and hears everything — recalling the message of consolation he gave to Muhammad in vv. 5-7. So Moses and Aaron do their duty, telling Pharaoh that Allah is the only God and has “made for you the earth like a carpet spread out” (v. 53), and that punishment awaits the disbelievers (v. 48). But Pharoah rejects their message (v. 56) and says he can match their miracles (v. 58). When his magicians, however, profess their faith in Allah (v. 70), Pharaoh threatens them in language that eerily foreshadows Allah’s own recommended punishment (revealed chronologically later, according to the tradition ordering of the suras by date) for those who make war against Allah and Muhammad (5:33): he tells them he’ll crucify them, or amputate a hand and a foot on opposite sides (v. 71). Evidently the punishments are fine — the only problem is the person administering them, and for what reason.
Allah saves the Israelites from Pharaoh by parting the sea so that they pass on dry land (vv. 77-79). Moses ascends the mountain to meet Allah, but significantly, he doesn’t receive the Ten Commandments. Instead, Allah asks him why he hurried up the mountain in advance of his people (v. 82) and tells him that he is testing Moses’ people by allowing Samiri to lead them astray (v. 85). Moses scolds Aaron for doing nothing when he saw them beginning to go astray (v. 92). Samiri explains that he took “a handful (of dust) from the footprint of the Messenger” to fashion the calf (v. 96). Muslim commentators generally agree that he took this dust from one of the hoofprints left by the angel Gabriel’s horse, as Gabriel led the Israelites in battle. Moses punishes Samiri, telling him “thy punishment in this life will be that thou wilt say, ‘touch me not’ (v. 97). Ibn Kathir explains: “This means, ‘Just as you took and touched what was not your right to take and touch of the messenger’s foot print, such is your punishment in this life, that you will say, “Do not touch (me).”‘ This means, ‘You will not touch the people and they will not touch you.'” This may be a hint that Samiri is a Samaritan — a people who generally did not (and do not) intermingle with outsiders.
After that, Allah in verses 100-112 warns about the dreadful Day of Judgment. Then in verses 113-123 he tells us that he has sent down an “Arabic Qur’an” so that people may fear him (v. 113) — this is one of the verses that establishes the proposition that the Qur’an is essentially in Arabic and cannot be translated.
Allah tells Muhammad “be not in haste with the Qur’an before its revelation to you is completed” (v. 114). This is because, says Ibn Abbas, Muhammad would recite revelations rapidly as they were being revealed, trying to remember them. He should trust in Allah’s power to make him remember. After that the Qur’an returns to the story of Adam’s fall; Satan tempts Adam to eat from the Tree of Eternity (v. 120) — not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as in Genesis. Allah expels Adam and Eve from the Garden but tells them that those who follow his guidance will not lose their way (v. 123).
Allah concludes the sura with more warnings: the disbelievers will be raised up blind on Judgment Day (v. 125); Muhammad should be patient with the unbelievers (v. 130), because their punishment is coming (v. 129); nor should Muhammad envy their worldly goods (v. 131); the unbelievers ask for a sign, but they have ignored all of Allah’s previous revelations (v. 133).