Meeting of Saint Khidr
In the first part Part One of my memories related to the status of Islam in Russia during the Soviet Union, I spoke about a lady in my neighborhood, Maryam, who showed me some pages from the Qur’an, which she kept under her mattress due to brutal anti-religious assault of the Soviet regime. In this occasion, I am continuing to narrate my childhood memories related to Islam.
Auntie Maryam loved to visit the graveyard which was just one street away from our houses. I loved to accompany her too. Perhaps, for a lonely old lady, whose family members and friends passed away and buried already here, the graveyard was a place connecting her with the next destination, which was waiting for her very soon.
For a 5-6 years old child, the graveyard was something mysterious, enigmatic and beautiful. In Russia, people plant trees (big trees) on graves, therefore, graveyards often resemble wild forest with its enigmatic spirit. In spring time, violet syringa (lilac), white bird cherry and yellow tilia trees are blooming and spreading a relaxing aroma all around. During summer time, the graveyard is the place for different types of birds which just came back from their long journeys from Southeast Asia to raise their babies. Later, all graves will be covered with wild red berries, which we so wanted but were afraid to eat. We used to stop visiting the graveyard only during the winter times when all land was covered by deep white snow.
In the graveyard, Auntie Maryam used to make zikr, read some verses from the Qur’an from her memory and make supplications. Tall trees were covering us from the rest of the world; and it was a safe and quite place for her to be alone with her thoughts and worshiping as people rarely used to visit graveyards. Perhaps to maintain peace and silence, she taught me how to make zikr by using tasbeeh and gave me a beautiful tasbeeh. Since no any ornaments with religious connotations were allowed to be sold during the Soviet Union time, she used to make tasbeehs from the seeds of one flower, which she planted for that purpose.
One day on the way to the graveyard, Auntie Maryam told me about Saint Khidr, who never dies because he drunk eternal water, that he will be a very handsome man with white beard and in white cloth. He will speak and smile and will come to people who are in need. Only happiest and the most successful people will see Khidr, said Auntie Maryam. If we meet him, we have to make a wish. But we may lose everything if we will speak to him.
From that day, I truly wished to meet Khidr and make many wishes to happen. And that day did happen! It was a peaceful morning and we were seating in the middle of the graveyard in peace. I was busy with my beautiful gift tasbeeh and trying very hard to make my zikr. And then, one shining old man with white beard and in white cloth came to us and began speaking to Auntie Maryam.
I was in shock from excitement and happiness and began whispering my wishes and making my tasbeeh even better. But Auntie Maryam spoke to that man back! I was angry at her for speaking to Khidr but I kept my silence. This man left us soon. Then I criticized Auntie Maryam for speaking to Khidr and said that speaking to him is prohibited. She smiled and said that that man was from our village named so and so and not Khidr. I was very upset but continued hoping to meet Khidr one day.
Many years later, when I learned to read and understand the Qur’an, I came across the story about Musa AS and a wise person (surah al-Kahf, 61-82) who had knowledge coming from Allah. Many mufassirun of the Qur’an identified him as Khidr, which means ‘green’ in Arabic.
Muhammad al-Bukhari reports that Khiḍr got his name after he was present over the surface of some ground that became green as a result of his presence there. There are reports from al-Bayhaqi that Khiḍr was present at the funeral of Muhammad and was recognized only by Ali from amongst the rest of the companions, and where he came to show his grief and sadness at the death of Muhammad.
Famous historian and interpreter of the Qur’an Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari writes about Khidr in a chapter of his “The History of al-Tabari,” called “The Tale of al-Khiḍr and His History; and the History of Moses and His Servant Joshua.” Al-Tabari describes several versions of the traditional story surrounding Khiḍr. At the beginning of the chapter, al-Tabari explains that in some variations, Khiḍr is a contemporary of the mythical Persian king Afridun, who was a contemporary of Abraham, and lived before the days of Moses.
Khiḍr is also said to have been appointed to be over the vanguard of the king Dhul-Qarnayn the Elder, who in this version is identified as the king Afridun. In this specific version, Khiḍr comes across the River of Life and, unaware of its properties, drinks from it and becomes immortal. Al-Tabari also recounts that Khiḍr is said to have been the son of a man who believed in Abraham, and who emigrated with Abraham when he left Babylon.
Khiḍr is also commonly associated with Elijah, even equated with him, and al-Tabari makes a distinction in the next account in which Khiḍr is Persian and Elijah is an Israelite. According to this version of Khiḍr’s story, Khiḍr and Elijah meet every year during the annual festival season. But Russia’s Muslims always call Khidr and Elijah as one person, ‘Khuzur Ilyas’.
When people are oppressed and lacking spirituality, they hope that one day a superman will come to save and protect them. For my Auntie Maryam and for many thousands like her, who struggled for their entire life to be able to perform their religious obligations, Khidr was a dream, a symbol of purity and truth. Khidr was someone who connected them to Allah, eternity and liberate them from dirties of this atheist life.
In picture: the mosque of Khidr in Qum, Iran.
Writer is a faculty member at International Islamic University Malaysia