Where the Two Seas Meet: The Qurʾānic Story of al-Khiḍr and Moses in Sufi Commentaries as a Model of Spiritual Guidance.
By Hugh Talat Halman. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2013. Pp. xxi + 319. $29.95 (paper).
In this wide-ranging, well-argued, and readable study, Hugh Talat Halman, a specialist in Sufism, offers an engaged reading of select Sufi commentaries on the story of al-Khiḍr and Moses found in Q 18:60–82. In his foreword to the book, Bruce Lawrence captures the spirit of Halman’s study when
650 Journal of the American Oriental Society 136.3 (2016)
he writes: “Words invent, reinvent, disguise and reveal meaning that never cease to sustain the human quest in life and beyond life, in death and beyond death” (p. xii).
The book is roughly organized into three sections. Section one is a general introduction to the story of al-Khiḍr and Moses in the Quran, and provides general information on the figure of al-Khiḍr both in classical and medieval Islamic scholarship and in more recent Western scholarship. Halman includes an overview of the al-Khiḍr–Moses relationship as a model for the master–disciple relationship in Sufism, and provides brief but suggestive references to the almost parallel significance of al-Khiḍr in Voltaire and Carl Jung. As part of this general introduction Halman provides a survey of how al-Khiḍr has been interpreted in the Quran, hadith, and in al-Ṭabarī’s commentary on the Quran. Apart from support for more general conclusions regarding the broader array of perspectives offered on the figure of al-Khiḍr in Western scholarship, confined mostly to footnotes, Halman sticks closely to the original Arabic texts without reference to the larger critical secondary studies on the Quran and its interpretation. For hadith traditions Halman relies entirely on al-Bukhārī, and for what he calls “Sufi” commentaries he uses al-Ṭabarī exclusively.
Section two is a more detailed analysis of how the story of al-Khiḍr and Moses is interpreted in three specific medieval Sufi Quran commentaries, to wit, those of Abū l-Qasim al-Qushayrī, Ruzbihān al-Shīrāzī, and ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Qāshānī (attributed to Muhyī l-Dīn Ibn al-ʿArabī). Halman translates the relevant passages from these exegetical works and provides his own commentary focused mostly on the structure of each exegetical passage. As in the previous section, Halman makes little reference to secondary scholarship or to the broader medieval and modern contexts (outside of al-Bukhārī and al-Ṭabarī) of Muslim readings of these texts and their authors.
Perhaps the strongest part of Halman’s argument, really the core of this book, are chapters four and five in which he examines the figure of al-Khiḍr across a variety of literary and biographical contexts. Chapter four deals with “intertextuality” among Sufi commentaries focusing on the al-Khiḍr and Moses story. Halman compares the literary models with other Islamic and European traditions, traces certain themes across the different texts, and makes frequent mention of how these ideas converge and diverge from the larger body of modern Western secondary scholarship on Sufism. Likewise, chapter five weaves a number of secondary works into the analysis of Sufi hagiography emphasizing how al-Khiḍr is used in Sufi literature as a model of the “master” in the master–disciple relationship at the heart of Sufism. Halman’s references range over a number of medieval works as well as some of the best known modern studies of Sufism.
Section three, in two chapters, consists of two separate studies related to the significance of al-Khiḍr in Islam and religion more generally. Chapter six is a too brief look at the relationship of al-Khiḍr to the stories of Alexander the Great’s search for immortality in Islamic traditions. In addition to mentioning the parallels and references to al-Khiḍr in some of the Muslim versions of the Alexander Romance, Halman looks at the image of St. George as a potential parallel to al-Khiḍr. Chapter seven is devoted to explaining what Halman sees as the “I–Thou” relationship represented in the stories of al-Khiḍr and their exegesis in Sufi commentaries. It is a chapter that allows Halman to bring together many of the different strands he has threaded throughout the book as a whole.
Overall, this is a serious academic book but not one aimed at a more specialized audience. Halman’s concern appears to target both scholars and educated laypeople interested in Sufism as a generic rubric with which to highlight what might be taken as perennial insight, themes, and ideas that can cut across a number of different and otherwise non-contingent religious traditions and historical contexts.
Brannon Wheeler United States Naval Academy