Book Review: Patrick Franke’s ‘Encountering the Khidr’

Book Review: Patrick Franke’s ‘Begegnung mit Khidr: Quellenstudien zum Imaginaren im traditionellen Islam’

The legend of Khidr, ‘the Green one’, has been of abiding interest for both Muslim and Western scholars over the centuries. Although Khidr, an imaginary figure, can be encountered in the practices and traditions of Muslim societies around the world, no comprehensive survey of this phenomenon has been undertaken. Patrick Franke’s Begegnung mit Khidr: Quellenstudien zum Imaginaren im traditionellen Islam presents the first ever study of Khidr as a focus for worldwide Muslim piety. Franke divides Begegnung mit Khidr (‘Encountering Khidr’), a revised version of his Ph.D. thesis, into five parts. Part 1 analyses the literary theme of the encounter with Khidr, its important components, as well as the significance of, and expectations tied to, such meetings. Part 2 deals with the basic elements of Muslim reverence for Khidr, while part 3 examines his connection to the world of the friends of God. Franke highlights, in part 4, the instances when Khidr was used as a symbol for God’s endorsement of particular places, rulers, Hadiths. Sunni schools of law as well as Shii distinctiveness. The last section of the book is devoted to the ‘Khidr-controversy’, contentious aspects of the myth which have been debated among Muslims to the present day. Annexed to these sixteen chapters are 173 stories of encounters with Khidr arranged and translated by Franke and spanning the period from ninth to twentieth centuries.

Based on a wealth of material in Arabic, Persian and Turkish, Begegnung mit Khidr offers a macro study of the veneration of Khidr in the Islamic/Muslim world. Franke draws on collections of hattiths, commentaries on the Quran, Sufi manuals, legends of saintly figures, biographical dictionaries as well as chronicles, travelogues, folk traditions and novels to provide a rich survey of encounters, manifestations, symbols and rituals involving Khidr. The study locates him at the centre of a complex system of discrete religious phenomena and sets out to disentangle and order these in a systematic fashion. It traces the collective interpretive processes, which led to the emergence, changing shape and function of the figure of Khidr, and thus provides a global historical phenomenology of reverence for him.

Texts speak of Khidr as a man to whom God granted eternal life and who made sudden appearances in the lives of humans. His interventions were largely meant to help and provide succour to people in times of need, a characteristic that is underlined by the fact that ambulance services in Turkey today are called ‘Khidr-Service’ (p. 26). In parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia and Afghanistan people offered the Khidr-meal at home to gain his blessings; in areas of the Balkans and Turkey Muslims celebrated the Khidr-feast; while his sanctuaries and pilgrimage-sites can be found throughout the Muslim world. Both Sunni and Shii Islam contain supplicatory prayers to Khidr, the most famous of which, the Du’a Kumayal, was read publicly during the burial of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran (p. 112). Seeing and meeting Khidr was regarded as a great distinction among Muslims, indeed being able to encounter him was one of the distinguishing marks of Sufi saints. Khidr, far from being a rival figure to the Prophet Muhammad, developed into his supporting helper, and was tightly woven into the Islamic fabric of Quran, prayer, mosque attendance, hajj and charity.

Why was the veneration of Khidr never transformed into a coherent religion devoted solely to him? Franke addresses this question in the last section of his book. ‘Ulama’ from the tenth century onwards took a defensive position with regard to this legendary figure and participated in debates, still ongoing, as to the nature of Khidr. Two questions were at the forefront of their concerns: Was Khidr a prophet or a friend of God, a Sufi saint? And was Khidr still alive or not? The importance of the first question was linked to Khidr’s etiology. Identified as the nameless servant of God in Sura 18: 60-82 of the Quran, whose deeds, the destruction of a boat, the killing of a boy, were against Islamic law, religious scholars were concerned that if Khidr were understood to be a friend of God, other friends might decide to take the same liberties. In order to prevent this license for lawlessness, some ‘ulama’ declared Khidr to be a prophet and his deeds thus not to be a precedence for Sufi saints.

The second question, whether Khidr was still alive, was a more contentious issue. In the twelfth century a Hanbali scholar denied the continued existence of Khidr. The majority of scholars, on the other hand, affirmed Khidr’s eternal life and have continued to do so into the twentieth century. New Arabic texts on Khidr have appeared during the last twenty years of the twentieth century, the majority of which have rejected the idea of his eternal life as ‘unislamic’ without enlisting new arguments for their viewpoint though. New developments, however, have taken place in quranic exegesis, which have refocused this century-old controversy.

Both Mawlana Mawdudi (1903-79), the founder of the Jama’at-i Islami in Pakistan, one of the early Islamist movements, and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), the leading thinker of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, addressed the question of Khidr in their commentaries on the Quran. While Mawdudi was satisfied with reinterpreting Khidr as an angel, thus eliminating the problems of both lawlessness and eternal life, Qutb took a more radical step. He rejected outright the hadiths-bound, century-old identification of Khidr with the nameless servant of God in Sura 18: 60-82. Instead he insisted on keeping the servant nameless, thus severing the central link of Khidr with the Quran. ‘Muslims who follow his quranic interpretation will no longer see Khidr as a religious figure with a place in the Islamic salvation-history [Heilsgeschichte] but only a chimera [Hirngespinst], which is to be consigned to the realm of superstition.’ (my translation, p. 369) Franke thus closes his excellent study with what might come to be the swansong for Khidr.

Source: Book review by Claudia Liebeskind in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 6513 (2002)

Review by W. Madelung

Begegnung mit Khidr: Quellenstudien zum Imaginaren im traditionellen Islam. By PATRICK FRANKE. Beiruter Texte und Studien, vol. 79. Stuttgart: FRANZ STEINER VERLAG, 2000. Pp. xv 620, plates. [euro]89.

Al-Khadir or al-Khidr, the “green one,” is the name of the most conspicuous imaginary figure in popular religious life throughout the Muslim world. Believed to have been granted eternal life in ancient times, al-Khidr wanders forever on earth, visiting holy sites and suddenly appearing to believers, mostly to help and advise them in need and to console them in grief. Tales about encounters with him abound. His status in official Islam was secured by his early identification with the anonymous “servant of God” who, according to Qur’an 18:60-82, was sent to teach the prophet Moses a lesson. This identification was confirmed by canonical hadith reports classified as sound. The longevity of al-Khidr was questioned by only a few prominent scholars such as Ibn Hazm, Ibn al-Jawzi, and Ibn Taymiyya. Sufi circles in particular strongly promoted belief in his continued presence and miraculous activity on earth.

Much has been written about various aspects of the veneration of al-Khidr. The present volume offers a comprehensive study of the phenomenon, its history, ramifications, and spread throughout the Muslim world. In the first part, the motive and typical characteristics of encounters with al-Khidr are analyzed as described in numerous literary accounts.

The second part deals with basic elements of his veneration. His mythical dimension connects him variously with Melchisedek, Alexander the Great, Jeremiyah, and the Qur’anic Servant of God sent to Moses. His cosmic role, which he often shares with Elias/Elijah, shows him as the lord of vegetation, or the seas, the desert, the atmosphere. Popular customs of the cult of al-Khidr, including the Turkish Hidrellez festival, are described in detail.

The third part of the book extensively analyzes al-Khidr’s role in Sufism. He appears as a spiritual initiator, guide, as a paragon of ascetic practice, repudiation of the world, and trust in God, as dispenser of transcendent knowledge and inspiration. Often he is viewed as heading the secret hierarchy of saints governing the Sufi world. Al-Khidr’s special role in various Sufi orders is discussed.

Part four examines al-Khidr’s function as purveyor of divine authorization. He appears as the patron saint of sacred buildings and towns, as legitimator of individual rulers and dynasties. He inspires the works of poets, confirms religious beliefs and doctrine. Thus he is involved in the apologetics between Shi’a and Sunna, in the rivalry among the Sunni law schools, and transmits hadith.

The fifth part of Franke’s book deals with the controversy aroused among religious scholars about the reality and status of al-Khidr. Is he a prophet or merely a wali, a saint? Is he still alive, and what was his role in the time of the prophet Muhammad? The controversy continues to the present age. In an appendix, 173 accounts of encounters with al-Khidr and other relevant texts, are arranged according to themes and partly translated or summarized. These are gleaned from a wide range of sources in various languages, from all ages and all parts of the Muslim world.

The author’s analysis of the subject matter in general reflects a fine and sympathetic understanding of the significance of the imaginary world in religious psychology. With its broad and careful documentation from numerous primary sources and critical evaluation of previous studies, the book provides a mine of information and a reference work on a major figure of the imaginary world of Islam. It should attract in particular readers interested in popular Islam and Sufism.

Patrick FRANKE. Begegnung mit Khidr. Quellenstudien zum imaginären im traditionellen Islam. Beirut: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2000 (xv + 620 pp. + 23 end plates).

This is an exhaustive encyclopedic treatise on Khidr utilizing a very wide range of published Syriac pre-Islamic and Arabic, Persian, and Turkish Islamic sources. The first two thirds of the book comprehensively examines the mythical, historical, symbolic, ritual, sufi, and poetic dimensions of Khidr narratives. After this text is a separate compendium of 173 translated passages of various Khidr narratives arranged in six themes. These are nicely cross referenced with the discussion in the first part of the book. The end plates portray the visual aspects of Khidr veneration, e.g., shrines, festivals and representations of Khidr.

The book begins with the conception of Khidr in the Muslim imagination through an exposition of his various roles. Franke investigates the typical aspects of the Khidr myth, e.g., Khidr as a helper of those in emergency situations, as a person with changing form, and as a hidden presence among humanity. This is augmented by a careful analysis of other figures in the Near Eastern imagination such as Melchisedek, Alexander the Great, Jeremiah, and Elias. Detailed historical research demonstrates how these various figures overlap and contribute to the development of Muslim perceptions of Khidr. With this background of pre-Islamic legends, the author outlines various Islamic ritual celebrations and places honoring Khidr, e.g., the Turkish Hidrellez celebration and the many mosques and shrines named after Khidr.

A special section is devoted to Khidr in the sufi world. Starting with tenth-century sufi sources, the book amply shows how Khidr has been portrayed as God’s friend. Khidr’s celestial rank (as a qutb or one of the abdâl) as a cosmic being initiates a discussion examining the extent to which Khidr is a human or a multi-faceted symbol. Then the author investigates the motif of Khidr as sufi shaykh, both in sufi ritual (e.g., the initiatory handshake and the sufi robe) and his role in the Naqshbandiyya, Sanusiyya, and Murshidiyya. The Khidrology (a term coined by Herman Landolt) of Alâ ad-Dawla Simnânî evidently influenced many centuries of the Khidr legend in the Indian Subcontinent.

With Khidr as the symbol of God’s authority, Franke demonstrates how Khidr came to be associated with the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and a number of cities in the Islamic world including Damascus, Samarqand, Tunis, and Herat. In addition, Khidr has been used to legitimize many Islamic dynasties including the Ghaznavids and the early Ottomans. Near the end of the analysis, there are examples of Khidr-inspired literary works and discussions of Shî î versus Sunnî perspectives on Khidr as well as continuing controversies concerning Khidr, e.g., whether he is a prophet or God’s friend and whether he is immortal. Begegnung mit Khidr, is the basic reference for Khidr. It provides a fine example of solid research that will serve a large cross section of scholars for decades to come.

A. Buehler


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