St George and Al Khidr

As for the history of this holy person, how are we to understand the life of one who has drunk of the Water of Life, and how are we explain his activities when these could not even be understood by Sayyidina Musa, peace be upon him, without explanation? The Christian history of the martyrdom of Saint George is related in Islamic sources also, as the history of Jirjis. According to the latter, Jirjis – peace be upon him – is granted martyrdom repeatedly, only to be restored to life, in keeping, perhaps, with the qualities of one who has tasted the Water of Life. It is of further interest to note that in Christian accounts, the event with the dragon involves a miraculous appearance of the saint subsequent to, and not preceding, his martyrdom. In other words, it concerns a mysterious glimpse of a saint who lives beyond the limitations of history but who sometimes enters it in various guises, and such are all his appearances from the time of Musa onwards, including, of course, his involvement in the expeditions of Iskandar Dhul-Qarnayn, peace be upon him.

I have witnessed the medieval iconography of the Green Man with the Sultan al-Awliya, and not only in Britain, but even in Cyprus. Your inspiration is likely correct concerning his “visit” to the Celts, whose lands are at the outer reaches of Europe; after all, al-Khidr – peace be upon him – is the teacher of the Afrad or Solitaries, that is, saints “outside” the community of believers. Especially relevant in this context is the medieval poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” since the “Green Knight” must be recognized as yet another “mysterious glimpse” of al-Khidr; some reasons for this are given in the introduction to The Royal Book of Spiritual Chivalry.

Concerning the symbolic character of these glimpses, beware the imaginary interpretations of those without a proper understanding of esoterism. Exoteric myopia is dangerous, and is warned against in the very verses of the Holy Qur’an in which al-Khidr, peace be upon him, is understood to appear.

Your inquiry particularly concerns the iconography of dragon slaying. To begin with, one must observe that in this Christian iconography, the dragon is not dead but is rather being transfixed by the weapon of the saint. I am not familiar with this image of the saint in an Islamic context, even though al-Khidr plays a critical role in the slaying of a seven-headed dragon by the warrior saint Sari Saltiq – may Allah sanctify his secret – in the Ottoman epic. I would, however, like to direct your attention to another iconography, that belonging to various portraits of Khwaja al-Khidr in the Indian milieu.

See example here.

Here the saint always appears upon a fish, and it was Coomaraswamy who rightly associated this vehicle in its Indian context with the Makara, or sea-dragon. What is more, the fish (Nun) is mentioned in the Holy Qur’an (68: 1), and Tabari for his part explains that this is the fish that supports the earth in Islamic cosmology: “The fish moved and became agitated. As a result, the earth quaked, whereupon He firmly anchored the mountains on it, and it was stable.” This role of the mountains in balancing the instability of the world has been designated in the Holy Qur’an by a specific term: {And the mountains: stakes} (78, 7). Now, “stakes” (awtad, singular watad) has in turn been applied to an exalted group of four in Islamic esoterism, and al-Khidr – peace be upon him – is among them. It may even be observed that the saint’s staff in this iconography depicts a kind of “stake,” and is therefore equivalent to the weapon of Saint George which fixes or “stabilizes” the dragon.

No doubt the blessing of al-Khidr flows through the Golden Chain, but how many practice the silent remembrance that was taught by him to Khwaja `Abdul-Khaliq al-Ghujduwani, may Allah sanctify their secrets? And who is to deny that it is also al-Khidr who enjoys the blessing of spiritual association with the great saints who have succeeded him in the silsilah? Your family’s love for Saint George is an opening for them to the love of the greatest Saints of Allah.

The medieval poem mentioned above ends with a mysterious motto in old French: “Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame be to him who thinks evil of it).” This is, however, the motto of the Order of the Garter, the most venerable order of chivalry in the world – and where now is chivalry in the lands of Islam? – whose patron is Saint George. Even Ottoman Sultans became Garter Knights. As the Garter Knight Prince Charles Philip Arthur George has reminded us, there is a sanctity that reconciles Muslim and Christian allegiances. This sanctity is embodied in the Green Man, and in his fellow watad Jesus, peace be upon them, and in others. Shame be to those who think evil of it.

May Allah bless you, and forgive me.

Mahmoud Shelton

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