Surah 18 (Al-Kahf/The Cave): 74-81

74. So they (the Servant of God and Moses) journeyed on till when they met a young boy. He (the Servant of God) slew him.

Moses said `What! hast thou slain an innocent person without his having slain anyone! Surely, thou hast done a hideous thing!’…

[The Servant of God later explains his actions to Moses, referring to his victim’s parents]

81. ‘So we desired that their Lord should give them in exchange one better than he in purity and closer in filial affection.’

[Maulawi Sher Ali]

In {18.65-82} the Qur’an tells a story in which a young Moses 〈22.〉 follows a mysterious unnamed ‘servant of God’, traditionally called ‘Al-Khidr’ and associated with the colour green (and sometimes with St George).


The story proper is preceded by an account, {18.60-64}, in which Moses says to his servant: ‘I shall continue on till I reach the junction of the two seas even if I journey for a long time’, {18.60}. In the following verse they have reached this place only to realise that they have forgotten a fish which has escaped to the sea. In the verse after that, Moses asks his servant for the fish to which he receives the reply: ‘Didst thou see it? When we took refuge at the rock, indeed I forgot the fish, and naught made me neglect to mention it save Satan. And it made its way to the sea in a wondrous manner’. Moses responds: ‘That is what we were seeking!’ whereupon they turn back. Moses’s servant disappears from the story, but Moses then meets an individual who is introduced by God as the ‘a servant from amongst Our servants’, whom Moses decides to follow.


The story of the escaped fish is an allusion, if a less than clear one, to an episode associated with the legends of Alexander the Great . A variation of this story also appears in the Babylonian Talmud and the homilies of Jacob of Serugh . In these sources, Alexander the Great’s cook, Andreas, is washing a dried salted fish in a spring when the fish returns to life, wriggles from his grasp, leaps into the water and swims away. Andreas jumps into the water after the fish in a vain attempt to recapture it. Later he comes to realise that he has inadvertently stumbled into the font of immortality (for Jacob of Serugh, a metaphor for baptism). Though Andreas benefits from immortality himself, by the time that this has become clear, he is unable to find the pool again to share his immortality with Alexander.


The legends of Alexander the Great are also the basis of the story of Dhu’l Qarnayn (literally ‘the two horned one’) that follows later in Surah 18. The attribution of the role of Alexander in the fish tale to Moses, may be intended to suggest to the Qur’an’s audience that Dhu’l Qarnayn was none other than Moses. Alexander was sometimes referred to as ‘the two horned one‘ in pre-Islamic epics and often depicted in ancient art as having two rams horns, due, it is thought, to his conquest of Egypt and identification there as the horned Egyptian god Ammon (who was himself traditionally conflated with the Greek god Zeus.) However, coincidentally Moses is also depicted in art as having horns, a tradition often attributed to St Jerome’s alleged mistranslation of Exodus 34.29 in the Vulgate Bible.

Returning to the Qur’an’s ‘Al-Khidr’ narrative, the Servant of God permits Moses to travel with him on the condition that Moses does not question his actions. However, despite initially agreeing to this term, Moses cannot resist asking Al-Kihdr for explanations when the latter scuttles a ship, kills a boy and builds a wall, all for no apparent reason.
At the conclusion of their travelling, Al-Khidr explains the reasons for his actions. In all three cases this reason involves his knowledge of some hidden or future circumstance that Moses could not possibly have guessed, namely that had he not sunk the boat, it would have been seized by a king (and, one is left to speculate, used for some unjust purpose), had he not killed the boy, the boy would have grown up to challenge his parents with ‘rebellion and disbelief’; and ‘As for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the city and beneath it was a treasure belonging to them; their father was righteous and their Lord desired that they reach their maturity and extract their treasure as a mercy from thy Lord’, {18.82}.


The story of Al-Khidr clearly derives from a Jewish legend, recorded in the fifth or sixth century Pesitka of Rav Kahana . In this Talmudic commentary, it is the prophet Elijah who fulfils the role of the itinerant sage, and a (historical) rabbi, Joshua ben Levi, that of his questioning disciple. In the Pesitka, Ben Levi implores Elijah, as Moses does Al-Khidr, to permit him to accompany him on his travels, and promised not to weary his guide with any questions until they parted. Unlike Moses, Ben Levi keeps to his promise, as over the course of their travels Elijah petitions the Lord for three things: for the death of a cow that is the only possession of a poor couple who had shown the two travellers kindness, for the repair of a wall of a miser who had refused them hospitality, and for many leaders from one community that failed to show them any kindness, whilst only one leader from a community that had honoured them like princes. Upon eventually being asked for the meaning of his actions Elijah explains that his curse upon the cow was to make it a sacrifice in the place of the woman, who would otherwise have died the following day, his preventing the collapse of the wall was to prevent the miser from discovering treasure that was buried beneath it, and his prayer that many leaders emerge for a community was actually a curse upon them, since many leaders would inevitably result in discord and tragedy.

Roger Paret describes a pre-Quranic Christian adoption of the Pesitka story, discovered in a manuscript variation of the Pratum Spirituale of John Moschus (d. 619). In this, an angel, teaching a monk about wisdom:

‘…steals a cup from a pious man, strangles the son of another pious man and rebuilds the wall of which belonged to an impious and inhospitable man.’

The angel explains that the cup which belonged to the first man had been stolen. The son of the second pious man was to grow up to be an evil sinner; by strangling this son the angel allowed him to die before he fell into sin. Beneath the wall of the impious man lay hidden treasure and by rebuilding the wall he found the man from finding the treasure and using it for evil’.


Clearly the overall structure of the Pesitka and the Pratum Spirituale, and in particular the details of the wall over the treasure, and the causing of a death, makes the identification of them as the source of the story of al-Khidr inescapable. Prior to the Qur’an the tale was clearly an allegory, intended to instruct unquestioning faith and obedience, even where this leads to consequences that appear by human standards, to lead to perverse outcomes, a moral commonly summarised in the popular Muslim refrain: ‘Allah knows best’.

Al-Khidr’s explanation in {18.74} that he killed a boy in order to prevent him challenging his parents with ‘rebellion and disbelief’, regrettably not only appears to justify the punishment of an offence before it has been committed, but also the taking of a life in circumstances that today would lead to it being referred to as an ‘honour killing’.


For the Qur’an’s ‘theology of replacement‘ see 〈26.〉