Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Prophet and the Saint: Exploring Tensions and Possibilities for Dialogue between Faiths

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Prophet and the Saint: Exploring Tensions and Possibilities for Dialogue between Faiths

Article excerpt


The qur'anic account of Moses is generally in accord with the biblical account. A major exception to this is one section in Surah 18. This section contains an extraordinary narrative of the prophet Moses and his mysterious travel companion. (1) The Qur'an does not present any information on the identity of this bizarre individual. On areas not elaborated, Islamic traditions generally complement the Qur'an. In the case of this narrative, however, parallel canonical traditions provide tantalizingly few additional details. Traditional Muslim scholars and Muslim mystics or Sufis have made their own contributions in terms of providing a further exposition of this narrative.

The narrative in question, in its diverse contexts, appears to have been a source of addressing the problem of the authority of Sufi knowledge. Sufism has, for centuries, subscribed to the notion of the saint's being "the heir of the Prophet" and sainthood's being "the heir of prophecy." Some Sufis even proposed the idea of the one succeeding the other to support their aspiration for revelation to be progressive and their role as the agents of revelation. Khidr seems to play an important role in this context. This, to me, is a promising development for a continuing dialogue between the Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions.

The question of the relationship between the prophet (prophethood) and the saint (sainthood) has been unanswered. Traditions about "the companion" or Khidr have been a major source of this debate. Courtesy toward the prophets may have restricted the saints-sainthood part of the debate, but narratives challenging the traditional authority have long been in existence. This essay does not intend to reexamine the history of this debate or the qur'anic narrative per se. Patrick Franke's work (2) may be consulted for further background. Here, I examine how some within Sufism negotiate the tension between the notions of prophet/prophethood and saint/sainthood. The companion seems to be an important link in this process. The aim is to present a reading of the narrative that shows evidence of continuity between the Islamic and the Judeo-Christian traditions. This, to me, provides a basis on which these faiths can have a deeper level of dialogue.

I. Moses and His Companion: Identification with Khidr

The qur'anic story tells us of Moses' searching for and finding a travel companion at a place where "the two seas meet" (3) (possibly a picture of the interface between the worlds), (4) his covenant with this person, his journeys, conversations, and eventual "enlightenment." This story has been repeated and expounded on in both canonical and Sufi traditions.

Muslim historian Al-Tabari (d. 935 C.E.), in his major work on the history of the prophets and kings, held the view that the history is sacred because it involves God's prophets. He identifies Moses' companion with the enigmatic figure of Khidr. (5) Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (810-70), the compiler of one of the canonical traditions, Sahih al-bukhari, included the qur'anic narrative in his work; he, too, named Moses' companion as Khidr. (6) The traditional narrative encompasses the following key details: God is said to have led Moses to Khidr, a learned contemporary; Moses requests Khidr to take him on as an apprentice; Bukhari is warned of the potential failure of this association; Moses, however, persists and comes off the wiser. Three bizarre and seemingly incomprehensible acts lead to Moses' gaining knowledge beyond mere concrete facts: First, Moses and Khidr are rescued by a boat without charge; then (1) Khidr deliberately removes a plank from the boat so it will sink, possibly drowning the sailors; (2) the two of them watch boys playing, and Khidr beheads one of the boys; and (3) although they are refused food by some people, Khidr repairs their wall that was about to collapse. In each case, Moses' overt incomprehension (possibly protest) reminds the reader of the impossibility for this association to continue. …

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