Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Do Muslims revere any persons as especially gifted with wisdom?

In Islamic tradition, as in Jewish and Christian, King Solomon (Sulayman) is the paradigm of wisdom. Solomon’s sagacity enabled him to communicate with creatures of every kind, so that his sovereignty encompassed all of creation. Another figure from pre-Islamic history known for his wisdom is Luqman. Some traditions include him among the ranks of the prophets, but he is best understood as a prince among Muslim sages. According to the Qur’an, one chapter of which bears his name, Luqman was a teacher and coiner of proverbs. “Walk at a moderate pace and speak in measured tones,” he advises, “for the most annoying of voices is that of the jackass” (Qur’an 31:19). Islamic lore describes Luqman in ways that recall the Greek sage Aesop.

Wisdom did not cease with the passing of the ancients. Muslims have continued to discern in teachers, scholars, and spiritual guides the embodiment of a practical insight that goes far beyond mere intellectual understanding. God has entrusted certain individuals with the gift of wisdom, the ability to penetrate the veils of life’s mystery and to untangle the snarl of daily experience. Perhaps the most unusual personality in this general category is Khidr. The name means “Green One,” suggesting that this character originated as a generic mythic or folkloric fertility figure. Some scholars connect Khidr with the Gilgamesh epic’s sage Utnapishtim, who had survived the Flood. Gilgamesh searches for Utnapishtim in hopes that the sage will guide him to a plant that will provide him with the secret of immortality. Islamic lore attributes to Khidr arcane knowledge of the whereabouts of the Fountain of Life. Some accounts of his discovery of the Fountain pair him with Ilyas, since Elijah is another of the few who (along with Jesus and Idris) have attained immortality. Even as Jews often leave a chair and a glass for Elijah on ritual occasions, some Muslims greet the unseen Khidr because they know he is there somewhere.

Khidr’s mysteriousness is deepened by the fact that he is one of only three significant figures not specifically identified in the Qur’an to whom later tradition has attached names. The others are Alexander the Great, associated with the Qur’anic Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn—”The One with Two Horns”—and Joshua, who is said to be the anonymous servant of Moses in the Qur’anic story now connected with Khidr.


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