The Pronoun Usage in Khidr’s Explanation to Musa (Peace and Blessings Upon Them Both) Regarding His Actions

Answered by Shaykh Faraz A. Khan

Question: In Surah Kahf, at the end of their journey together, Khidr explains to Musa, peace be upon them both, the reasoning for why he did the things he did.

For scuttling the boat, Khidr says “I wished…” (18:79). For killing the child, he says that “we [Allah and him] feared…”  (18:80). For repairing the wall, he says “Allah desired/intended…” (18:81).

Can you shed some light on the wisdom behind why different groupings are used for each incident – Khidr for the boat, Allah and Khidr for the boy, and Allah for the wall?

Answer: Assalamu alaikum warahmatullah,

I pray this finds you in the best of health and states.

The Verses (18:79-82)

These are the verses that your question pertains to:

“As for the boat, it belonged to some poor men who worked on the sea, and I desired to damage it; indeed, there was behind them a king who seized every [undamaged] boat by force.” (18:79)

“As for the boy, his parents were believers and we feared that he would overwhelm them with transgression and disbelief. So we desired that their Lord would give them in exchange [a child] better in purity and closer in affection.” (18:80-81)

“As for the wall, it belong to two orphan boys in the city and beneath it was a treasure belonging to them, and their father was a righteous man. So your Lord desired that they should reach their age of full strength and bring forth their treasure — an immense mercy from your Lord. And I did nothing of my own accord. That, then, is the interpretation of what you were unable to have patience of.” (18:82)

Classical Exegetical Commentary

This issue is discussed in the works of tafsir. Exegetes such as Imam Baydawi mention that Khidr (peace be upon him) ascribes the first “desire” (I desired to damage it) to himself alone because he himself damaged the boat. He ascribes the second “desire” to himself and Allah (So we desired that their Lord would give them in exchange [a child]), because the exchange for another child entails the act of killing by Khidr (peace be upon him) as well as the act of creating the new child by Allah. Finally, he ascribes the third “desire” to Allah alone (So your Lord desired that they should reach their age of full strength), because the aging of the orphans until their full strength is only Allah’s act, of which Khidr (peace be upon him) had no part.

Some scholars add that the difference in ascription is based on adab with Allah, i.e., reverence and respect to the Divine. While every act in existence is created by Allah alone, the good is ascribed to Him Most High, while the bad is ascribed to the particular means with which it comes about, which in this case is the doing of Khidr (peace be upon him).

So the first instance of damaging the boat is wholly negative, and hence Khidr (peace be upon him) ascribes to himself alone. The third instance of having the orphans reach adulthood and extract their treasure is wholly positive, and hence Khidr (peace be upon him) ascribes it to Allah alone. The second instance is mixed: killing the boy is negative, yet replacing him with a better child is positive. Therefore, Khidr (peace be upon him) ascribes it to both himself and Allah Most High.

An Alternative Perspective

Imam Alusi cites these and other explanations in his tafsir, yet concludes his discussion with another explanation which he feels is strongest, namely, that each ascription corresponds in strength to the objections of Musa (peace and blessings upon him).

Musa’s objection to the first incident is, “Did you pierce it [the boat] so as to drown its inhabitants? You have indeed committed something severe (imra)!” (18:71)

This was a criticism directed at Khidr himself (peace be upon him), coupled with a questioning of his intention, i.e., “So as to drown…” Hence, Khidr’s response is personal, “I desired to damage it.”

The second objection of Musa (peace and blessings upon him) is, “Did you kill a pure soul, without it having killed another soul? You have indeed committed a thing most atrocious (nukra)!” (18:74)

This criticism is also directed at Khidr (peace be upon him) yet is regarding a harsher crime from Musa’s perspective (killing vs damaging property). It is therefore more severe in wording, as the Arabic “nukra” is much stronger than “imra”. Hence, Khidr’s response remains personal yet makes use of the more majestic “we” instead of “I”, saying, “So we desired that their Lord would give them in exchange…” The utmost of criticism called for a most emphatic response, to highlight the gravity of the matter and the seriousness of what was feared, namely, the child’s ruining the faith of his parents.

It is worth noting that this explanation, as opposed to the classical one, takes into account the “we” used in the previous statement of Khidr, “And we feared that he would overwhelm them,” since the fear of the child overwhelming his parents is not an act of both good and bad, which serves as the basis of the classical explanation.

The third objection of Musa (peace and blessings upon him), however, is not a criticism but rather a suggestive inquiry. “Had you wanted, you could have taken renumeration for it [fixing the wall]” (18:77). This question is very mild in tone, and pertains not to the actual act which Khidr did but instead to his not having taken a wage for the work. So it was most appropriate for Khidr’s response to be gentler than the first two, and for him not to ascribe the act to himself whatsoever, neither to him alone (I desired) nor as a participant (we desired).

In any case, Khidr (peace be upon him) concludes the entire discourse with a statement that serves as the basis of all of his acts, affirming the reality of Whose will he was carrying out, “And I did nothing of my own accord” (18:82).

May Allah send abundant salutations, blessings and peace upon Muhammad, Musa and Khidr, and their folk and companions. Amin.

[Baydawi, Anwar al-Tanzil wa Asrar al-Ta’wil; Biqa`i, Nazm al-Durar; Alusi, Ruh al-Ma`ani]

And Allah knows best.

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani