Today is the Feast of Saint George in Palestine. He is known as Mar Jeries or Jirjis and al-Khader, in Palestinian Arabic which indicates the deeply syncretic nature of the holiday. It is thought to have originally been a local Christian holiday, but both Palestinian Christians and Muslims participate. The main feast is held in the Palestinian town of al-Khader, just south of Bethlehem. St George can no longer be disentangled in Palestinian veneration from al-Khidr (Arabic: الخضر al-Khiḍr; also transcribed as al-Khadir, Khader/Khadr, Khidr, Khizr, Khizir, Khyzer, Qeezr, Qhezr, Qhizyer, Qhezar, Khizar, Xızır, Hızır), a figure in the Quran described as a righteous servant of God possessing great wisdom or mystic knowledge. In various Islamic and non-Islamic traditions, Khidr is described as a messenger, prophet, wali, slave, and angel who guards the sea and teaches secret knowledge.
Palestinian folklore suggests that the feast originated during the Byzantine rule of Palestine. According to one tale,
The feast came and the young men stood together making their vows. One said, ‘I will give a goat,’ another ‘I will give a sheep.’ Then Jirjis (Jeries), the son of a widow, desired to offer something. They had but one cow. Then he said, ‘I will sacrifice a cow,’ and he went and killed the cow.
At evening time his mother called to him and said, ‘Where is the cow?’ He said, ‘I gave it to El Khader. (St. George)’ His mother said, ‘You have cut our lives. Let me not see your face again.’ That night, the young man had a vision. A white haired man appeared to him and said, ‘Fear not, I am El Khader: thou shalt go to Constantinople and to the king’s palace. Only each day thou shalt call a blessing upon me.’
In years past, the feast attracted Arabs from throughout Palestine to the Monastery of Saint George where they traded loaves of bread, made sacrifices concerning vows they wished to fulfill, and gathered for picnics under the olive trees surrounding the monastery. Some of these traditions continue today, with many Christian pilgrims coming to baptize their children, due to the abundance of stories about the healing properties of Saint George. Although the priest accepts sacrificed meat as a gift, the Christian tradition of the monastery itself does not allow the sacrifice of animals by the monks. Traditionally, Muslims guard the entrance of the church and welcome pilgrims. Like the Christians, the Muslims too sacrifice sheep during the feast and offerings are stored in a sheep pen in the garden of the monastery. In Islamic tradition, two sacrifices are offered. The first is the dhabihah, which requires that one-third of the cooked lamb be set aside for consumption by its owner, while the remaining two-thirds are for Allah and given as charity. The second offering is that of a live animal, bequeathed as a gift to Saint George. Muslim signs dot the courtyard of the monastery and traces of the sacrifices are evident in the form of the lamb hides left on the balustrades to dry.
In Sura 18, ayat (verses) 65–82 Al Kahf, Moses meets the Servant of God, referred in the Quran as “one of our slaves whom We had granted mercy from Us and whom We had taught knowledge from Ourselves.” Muslim scholars identify him as al-Khiḍr, although he is not explicitly named in the Quran. These associations come from later scholarship on al-Khiḍr. The Quran states that they meet at the junction of the two seas (which can be a river-tributary) and Moses asks for permission to accompany the Servant of God so Moses can learn “right knowledge of what he has been taught.” The Servant says, “Surely you [Moses] cannot have patience with me. And how canst thou have patience about things about which thy understanding is not complete?” Moses promises to be patient and obey him unquestioningly, and they set out together. After they board a ship, the Servant of God damages the vessel. Forgetting his oath, Moses says, “Have you made a hole in it to drown its inmates? Certainly you have done a grievous thing.” The Servant reminds Moses of his warning, “Did I not say that you will not be able to have patience with me?” and Moses pleads not to be rebuked.
Next, the Servant of God kills a young man. Moses again cries out in astonishment and dismay, and again the Servant reminds Moses of his warning, and Moses promises that he will not violate his oath again, and that if he does he will excuse himself from the Servant’s presence. They then proceed to a town where they are denied hospitality. This time, instead of harming anyone or anything, the Servant of God restores a decrepit wall in the village. Yet again Moses is amazed and violates his oath for the third and last time, asking why the Servant did not at least exact “some recompense for it.”
The Servant of God replies, “This shall be separation between me and you; now I will inform you of the significance of that with which you could not have patience. Many acts which seem to be evil, malicious or somber, actually are merciful. The boat was damaged to prevent its owners from falling into the hands of a king who seized every boat by force. And as for the boy, his parents were believers and we feared lest he should cause disobedience and ingratitude to come upon them from him. God will replace the child with one better in purity, affection and obedience. As for the restored wall, the Servant explained that underneath the wall was a treasure belonging to two helpless orphans whose father was a righteous man. As God’s envoy, the Servant restored the wall, showing God’s kindness by rewarding the piety of the orphans’ father, and so that when the wall becomes weak again and collapses, the orphans will be older and stronger and will take the treasure that belongs to them.” I can think of many more stories in the Buddhist tradition that are clearer than this one, although I get the point that a person’s motive is always key in understanding an act, not the surface appearance of the act.
There are two reports about the life of al-Khiḍr: one narrated by Ahmad ibn Hanbal in Al-Zuhd in which Muhammad is said to have stated that Elijah and al-Khiḍr meet every year and spend the month of Ramadan in Jerusalem; and the other narrated by Ya’qub ibn Sufyan from Umar II in which a man he was seen walking with was actually al-Khiḍr. Ibn Hajar declared both claims to be legitimate in Fath al-Bari. He goes on to cite another supposedly reliable report narrated by Ibn ‘Asakir from Abu Zur’a al-Razi whereby the latter met al-Khiḍr twice, once in his youth, the other in old age, but al-Khiḍr himself had not changed. Islamic scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi also contends that Khidr is alive, but that there are five degrees of life. Khidr is at the second degree of life, thus some religious scholars have been doubtful about his existence.
Khidr and Ilyas (May God grant them peace), are free to an extent. That is to say, they can be present in numerous places at the same time. They are not permanently restricted by the requirements of humanity like us. They can eat and drink like us when they want to, but are not compelled to be like we are. The saints are those who uncover and witness the realities of creation, and the reports of their adventures with Khidr are unanimous and elucidate and point to this level of life.
In Arabic-Christian tradition there is one degree of sainthood which is called ‘the degree of Khidr.’ A saint who reaches this degree receives instruction from Khidr and meets with him. Sometimes, it is said, a person who reaches that degree is mistaken to be Khidr himself.
al-Khiḍr is believed to be a man who has the appearance of a young adult but with a long, white beard. According to some authors, such as Abdul Haq Vidhyarthi, al-Khiḍr is Xerxes (a 6th-century Sasanian prince, not to be confused with Xerxes I), who disappeared after being in the lake regions of Sistan that comprise the wetlands of the Iran-Afghan border today, and after finding the fountain of life, sought to live his entire remaining life in service of God and to help those in their path to Him.
Muhammad al-Bukhari reports that al-Khiḍr got his name after he walked over the surface of some ground that became green as a result of his presence there. Because of the linguistic similarities and shared etymology between the name “al-Khiḍr” and the Arabic word for green (“al-akhḍar” or “al-khaḍra” as in Gubbat al-khaḍra or the Green Dome), and the fact that the name “al-Khiḍr” shares exactly the same triliteral root as the word “al-khaḍra” – a root found in multiple Semitic languages meaning “green” or “verdant,” the meaning of the name has traditionally usually been taken colloquially and academically to be “the Green One” or “the Verdant One.” This is probably folk etymology, but it is a common belief.
There are reports from al-Bayhaqi that al-Khiḍr was present at the funeral of Muhammad and was recognized only by Ali from amongst the rest of the companions, and where he came to show his grief and sadness at the death of Muhammad. Al-Khiḍr’s appearance at Muhammad’s funeral is related as follows:
A powerful-looking, fine-featured, handsome man with a white beard came leaping over the backs of the people till he reached where the sacred body lay. Weeping bitterly, he turned toward the Companions and paid his condolences. Ali said that he was Khiḍr.
In another tale, al-Khiḍr met with Ali by the Kaaba and instructed him about a supplication that is very meritorious when recited after the obligatory prayers. It is reported by Imam Muslim that during the time when the false Messiah appears and as he approaches at the outskirts of the city of Medina, a believer would challenge him, whom the false Messiah will slice into two piece and rejoin, making it appear that he caused him to die and be resurrected, to which this man would proclaim the falsehood of the Dajjal who would try again to kill him (or make show of it) but would fail and thus his weakness and inability will be revealed. According to commentators the person who will challenge the Antichrist and humiliate him will be al-Khiḍr.
Palestinian lamb is the obvious dish of choice for today. Here is Mansaf (Lamb in Yogurt Sauce).
1 ½ lb lamb, cut in large cubes
salt and pepper
1 tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
2 bay leaves
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
4 cups whole plain yogurt
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed and ground
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
Mix the cardamom, allspice, cinnamon, and salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl, and toss the lamb in the mix to coat thoroughly. Heat the ghee over high heat in a heavy skillet, and brown the lamb on all sides.
Pour a cup of lamb broth over the lamb. Add the bay leaves. Simmer gently, covered, until the lamb is tender.
Meanwhile, prepare the yogurt sauce. Break down your yogurt by running it in a blender or a food processor for two or three minutes. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, melt three tablespoons of butter, and stir in three tablespoons of flour, and cook for 2 or 3 minutes. Slowly add the beaten yogurt, adding in a little and stirring, and letting the mixture come to a boil, and then adding a little more yogurt. Continue to do this until you have added all of the yogurt. Stir constantly and adjust the heat as needed to avoid burning. Bring to a quick boil and let the sauce boil for one minute, stirring constantly. Turn the heat down to low, add the garlic paste and let the sauce simmer for 10 minutes.
Take the lamb from the heat. Arrange sufficient rice on a serving platter. This can be saffron rice, turmeric rice, or plain boiled rice. Place the cooked lamb on top and pour the yogurt sauce over it. Garnish with toasted pine nuts and fresh parsley. Serve with flatbread. Guests help themselves from the common dish.