The reality behind the curtain: How the story of Musa and Al Khidr helps us bear the pain of Palestine

The reality behind the curtain: How the story of Musa and Al Khidr helps us bear the pain of Palestine

As each day brings news of fresh horrors and our hearts reel at the atrocities taking place in Gaza, we look to the Quran to guide us in these troubled times. When we open up Surat al-Kahf every Friday, the story of Musa and al-Khidr gives us hope.

Musa (peace be upon him), who quite reasonably presumed he was the most knowledgeable man at the time, was informed by Allah Almighty that there was someone else endowed with special knowledge he did not have. Musa, humbled by this discovery, embarked on a journey to seek this mysterious man.  After a convoluted journey, Musa eventually tracked down al-Khidr who warned him that he would not be able to accompany him without fulfilling the conditions he set. They agreed that Musa (peace be upon him) could only accompany him so long as he did not ask any questions. Musa (peace be upon him) thought, surely it could not be that hard? And yet, so it proved to be.

Firstly, Musa (peace be upon him) is perturbed when al-Khidr deliberately damages a boat. It seems like a completely unwarranted act of vandalism. Worse still, he does it to the boat of some kind-hearted and very poor individuals who had just granted them free passage.

فَٱنطَلَقَا حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَا رَكِبَا فِى ٱلسَّفِينَةِ خَرَقَهَا ۖ قَالَ أَخَرَقْتَهَا لِتُغْرِقَ أَهْلَهَا لَقَدْ جِئْتَ شَيْـًٔا إِمْرًۭا ٧١

So, they set out, but after they had boarded a ship, the man made a hole in it. Moses protested, “Have you done this to drown its passengers? You have certainly done a dreadful thing! (18:71)

Al-Khidr replies knowingly, unsurprised by Musa’s question:

قَالَ أَلَمْ أَقُلْ إِنَّكَ لَن تَسْتَطِيعَ مَعِىَ صَبْرًۭا ٧٢

He said, “Did I not say that you can never bear with me patiently?” (18:72)

Although al-Khidr (peace be upon him) did inform Musa (peace be upon him) of the terms and conditions of their journey together, to Musa (peace be upon him), al-Khidr’s actions seemed so bizarre he forgot that he was not to question them. Al-Khidr reminds him of the deal and they continue. However, the next thing al-Khidr does shocks him even more.

فَٱنطَلَقَا حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَا لَقِيَا غُلَـٰمًۭا فَقَتَلَهُۥ قَالَ أَقَتَلْتَ نَفْسًۭا زَكِيَّةًۢ بِغَيْرِ نَفْسٍۢ لَّقَدْ جِئْتَ شَيْـًۭٔا نُّكْرًۭا ٧٤

So, they moved ahead until when they met a boy, he killed him (the boy). He (Mūsā) said, “Did you kill an innocent soul while he did not kill anyone? You have committed a heinous act indeed.” (18:74)

Absolutely horrified, Musa objects to al-Khidr killing a boy. This is a perfectly natural response, even more so for a Prophet (peace be upon him) – his very mission is preaching God’s laws, and the taking of life is a strict prohibition. Why did al-Khidr carry out this seemingly senseless killing?

Again, Musa fails to uphold the conditions of the journey. Again, al-Khidr comments, unsurprised, that he knew Musa would fail.

قَالَ أَلَمْ أَقُل لَّكَ إِنَّكَ لَن تَسْتَطِيعَ مَعِىَ صَبْرًۭا ٧٥

He said, “Did I not tell you that you can never bear with me patiently?” (18:75)

Yet again, it did not cross Musa (peace be upon him)’s mind that this was part of another test. We are all programmed to react based on the knowledge we have. We can only see what we see. But there are things we cannot see that other creatures around us can, such as UV light.

If you have been trained to solve a mathematical equation by a set formula, you will always use the same equation to solve a problem. If someone else comes along and uses a different equation, you will immediately start correcting him. However, when you see the results are the same, then you realise that things can work outside of your programming. All of us are that person. We are limited by our knowledge. And in this story, Allah was teaching us the importance of patience. Musa (peace be upon him) is embarrassed and now annoyed with himself: he states that if he fails a third time, he will leave al-Khidr.

قَالَ إِن سَأَلْتُكَ عَن شَىْءٍۭ بَعْدَهَا فَلَا تُصَـٰحِبْنِى ۖ قَدْ بَلَغْتَ مِن لَّدُنِّى عُذْرًۭا ٧٦

He (Mūsā) said, “If I ask you about something after this, do not allow me your company. You have now reached a point where you have a valid excuse (to part with me) from my own side.” (18:76)

Musa (peace be upon him) was an honourable person and he was Kalimullah. He felt ashamed that he could not stick to his commitment and Allah Almighty was teaching him a lesson in patience.

Then came his next test. When they reach an unfriendly town, tired and famished, and the townspeople refuse them food. However, al-Khidr now starts to rebuild a broken wall.

فَٱنطَلَقَا حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَآ أَتَيَآ أَهْلَ قَرْيَةٍ ٱسْتَطْعَمَآ أَهْلَهَا فَأَبَوْا۟ أَن يُضَيِّفُوهُمَا فَوَجَدَا فِيهَا جِدَارًۭا يُرِيدُ أَن يَنقَضَّ فَأَقَامَهُۥ ۖ قَالَ لَوْ شِئْتَ لَتَّخَذْتَ عَلَيْهِ أَجْرًۭا ٧٧

Then, they moved ahead until they came to the people of a town; they asked its people for food, and they refused to host them. Then, they found there a wall tending to fall down. So he (Khidr) set it right. He (Mūsā) said, “If you wished, you could have charged a fee for this.” (18:77)

It was extremely rude of the townspeople to refuse two hungry visitors food, so why did al-Khidr engage in this unnecessary act of generosity and charity? As Musa utters his third question, it brings his journey with al-Khidr to an end. Al-Khidr now unveils those truths which Musa was not privy to.

قَالَ هَـٰذَا فِرَاقُ بَيْنِى وَبَيْنِكَ ۚ سَأُنَبِّئُكَ بِتَأْوِيلِ مَا لَمْ تَسْتَطِع عَّلَيْهِ صَبْرًا ٧٨

He said, “Here is the point of parting ways between me and you. I shall now explain to you the reality of things about which you could not remain patient. (18:78)

Al-Khidr (peace be upon him) draws back the curtain that was veiling the Unseen, and this is the core lesson of the journey. Al-Khidr (peace be upon him) tells Musa (peace be upon him) that he judged according to what he saw in front of the curtain, but there was much more behind it. This is why Allah asked Musa to come and learn from al-Khidr.

We are often the person who only sees what is front of the curtain. However, when we see what is behind it, that is when we realise the truth in its full picture. What is behind the curtain is our destiny which Allah screens from us. We will only know it when we see it.

Al-Khidr now explains:

أَمَّا ٱلسَّفِينَةُ فَكَانَتْ لِمَسَـٰكِينَ يَعْمَلُونَ فِى ٱلْبَحْرِ فَأَرَدتُّ أَنْ أَعِيبَهَا وَكَانَ وَرَآءَهُم مَّلِكٌۭ يَأْخُذُ كُلَّ سَفِينَةٍ غَصْبًۭا ٧٩

As for the boat, it belonged to some poor people who worked at sea. So I wanted to make it defective, as there was a king across them who used to usurp every boat by force. (18:79)

When al-Khidr (peace be upon him) boarded the ship, he realised that the people were poor, and they made their livelihood by transporting passengers from one place to another. It would have been difficult for these people to survive if their ship was seized by the tyrannical king. They could barely cover their expenses and their needs. Allah refers to them as masakeen. The masakeen are described as those who have some belongings (e.g. property) but they are insufficient to cover their needs. Zakat is designated for the fuqara and masakeen.

إِنَّمَا ٱلصَّدَقَـٰتُ لِلۡفُقَرَاۤءِ وَٱلۡمَسَـٰكِینِ وَٱلۡعَـٰمِلِینَ عَلَیۡهَا وَٱلۡمُؤَلَّفَةِ قُلُوبُهُمۡ وَفِی ٱلرِّقَابِ وَٱلۡغَـٰرِمِینَ وَفِی سَبِیلِ ٱللَّهِ وَٱبۡنِ ٱلسَّبِیلِۖ فَرِیضَةࣰ مِّنَ ٱللَّهِۗ وَٱللَّهُ عَلِیمٌ حَكِیمࣱ ٦٠

The Sadaqāt (prescribed alms) are (meant) only to be given to the poor, the needy, to those employed to collect them, to those whose hearts are to be won, in the cause of the slaves and those encumbered with debt, in the way of Allah and to a wayfarer. This is an obligation prescribed by Allah. Allah is All-Knowing, Wise. (9:60)

The tyrannical king used to seize new ships and take them under his property. Khidr (peace be upon him) decided that if he made a defect in the ship, and repaired it, it would no longer be new and would save the poor owners from losing their ship. They would still survive and earn their livelihood. It was a tough decision for Khidr (peace be upon him). In Shariah, this is called choosing the lesser harm. He explained this to Musa (peace be upon him) and Musa understood. If Musa (peace be upon him) knew this earlier, he too would have saved the masakeen.

وَأَمَّا ٱلْغُلَـٰمُ فَكَانَ أَبَوَاهُ مُؤْمِنَيْنِ فَخَشِينَآ أَن يُرْهِقَهُمَا طُغْيَـٰنًۭا وَكُفْرًۭا

فَأَرَدْنَآ أَن يُبْدِلَهُمَا رَبُّهُمَا خَيْرًۭا مِّنْهُ زَكَوٰةًۭ وَأَقْرَبَ رُحْمًۭا

As for the boy, his parents were believers. We apprehended that he would impose rebellion and infidelity upon them. We, therefore, wished that their Lord would replace him with someone better than him in piety, and more akin to affection. (18:80-1)

Regarding the boy who was killed, he was underage and all children who die go to Jannah. His parents were believers and Allah showed al-Khidr (peace be upon him) the future of this boy. If he survived, he would have caused his parents a great deal of grief. Although they were good people, his actions may have entangled them in matters that would be detrimental to their akhirah. This would have been a lose-lose situation. Instead, Allah commanded al-Khidr (peace be upon him) to kill this boy, and Allah would replace him with another child. However, Musa (peace be upon him) did not know what was behind the scenes. In this particular case, Allah gave the knowledge to al-Khidr (peace be upon him). It was not an easy task for him to kill the boy. However, the One who has created life commanded al-Khidr (peace be upon him) to take it away. 

This was the right decision for the parents, and it was good for the boy.

وَأَمَّا ٱلْجِدَارُ فَكَانَ لِغُلَـٰمَيْنِ يَتِيمَيْنِ فِى ٱلْمَدِينَةِ وَكَانَ تَحْتَهُۥ كَنزٌۭ لَّهُمَا وَكَانَ أَبُوهُمَا صَـٰلِحًۭا فَأَرَادَ رَبُّكَ أَن يَبْلُغَآ أَشُدَّهُمَا وَيَسْتَخْرِجَا كَنزَهُمَا رَحْمَةًۭ مِّن رَّبِّكَ ۚ وَمَا فَعَلْتُهُۥ عَنْ أَمْرِى ۚ ذَٰلِكَ تَأْوِيلُ مَا لَمْ تَسْطِع عَّلَيْهِ صَبْرًۭا ٨٢

As for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the city, and there was a treasure beneath it belonging to them, and their father was a pious man. So your Lord willed that they should reach their maturity and dig out their treasure, as a mercy from your Lord. I did not do it on my own accord. This is the reality of things about which you could not remain patient.” (18:82)

In the unfriendly town, a pious man had passed away and left a treasure under the wall. Due to his piety, Allah Almighty charged al-Khidr (peace be upon him) to rebuild the wall. Some scholars say he was not the immediate father of the orphans but a seventh generation forefather of the boys. Irrespective of scholarly differences, the righteousness of the parents impacts their children. This lesson was about looking after the money of the yateem (orphan). The money of the yateem is restricted wealth. There are two types of wealth we treat with restrictions: waqf, endowment wealth, and the yateem (orphan)’s wealth.

Al-Khidr (peace be upon him) confirms the three actions above were not his decision but Allah’s commands. This is why scholars say that he was a prophet, because Allah told him to do these acts.

Al-Khidr clarified for Musa (peace be upon him) the hidden reasons behind what he had done. Musa (peace be upon him) came to understand the significance of the events.

Just as it was new for Musa (peace be upon him) to learn and see a new dimension and a new perspective, we too learn many deep lessons from this story, and we also learn that there is a reality beyond what we see.

Through this story we find that sometimes Allah Almighty wants to teach us something new and in order to do so, He takes us through a test, to a new realm. It does not cross our mind that we are in the test. This is part of Allah’s plan.

This is what I believe is happening in Palestine. Allah wants to take us through this pain to raise the Ummah to another level and enable it to be better than it was before. It is a new thing for us to learn. If we are patient and wise, we will reap the fruits of the patience.

Shaykh Haytham Tamim – Tafseer Class 7th Feb 2024


Shaykh Haytham Tamim is the founder and main teacher of the Utrujj Foundation. He has provided a leading vision for Islamic learning in the UK, which has influenced the way Islamic knowledge is disseminated. He has orchestrated the design and delivery of over 200 unique courses since Utrujj started in 2001. His extensive expertise spans over 30 years across the main Islamic jurisprudence schools of thought. He has studied with some of the foremost scholars in their expertise; he holds some of the highest Ijazahs (certificates) in Quran, Hadith (the Prophetic traditions) and Fiqh (Islamic rulings). His own gift for teaching was evident when he gave his first sermon to a large audience at the age of 17 and went on to serve as a senior lecturer of Islamic transactions and comparative jurisprudence at the Islamic University of Beirut (Shariah College). He has continued to teach; travelling around the UK, Europe and wider afield, and won the 2015 BISCA award (British Imams & Scholars Contributions & Achievements Awards) for Outstanding Contribution to Education and Teaching.