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Dhul-Qarnayn or Zulqarnayn, (Arabic: ذو القرنينḏū al-qarnayn, IPA: [ðuːlqarˈnajn]), "he of the two horns", appears in Surah 18 verses 83-101 of the Qur'an as a figure empowered by Allah to erect a wall between mankind and Gog and Magog, the representation of chaos.[1] In the Islamic apocalyptic tradition the end of the world would be preceded by the release of Gog and Magog from behind the wall, and their destruction by God in a single night would usher in the Day of Resurrection.[2]

Surat al-Kahf (surah 18), verses 83-101[edit]

The Caspian Gates in Derbent, Russia, often identified with the Gates of Alexander

Chapter 18 (Surat al-Kahf, "The Cave") was revealed to Muhammad when his tribe, the Quraysh, sent two men to discover whether the Jews, with their superior knowledge of the scriptures, could advise them on whether Muhammad was a true prophet of God. The rabbis told them to ask Muhammad about three things: first about "some young men in ancient times, what was their story"; second "about a man who travelled and reached the east and the west of the earth, what was his story"; and finally they should ask about the "ruh" (soul or spirit). "If he tells you about these things, then he is a prophet, so follow him, but if he does not tell you, then he is a man who is making things up, so deal with him as you see fit." Verses 18:83-98 are the account of Dhul-Qarnayn, the "man who travelled".

Verse Abdullah Yusuf Ali Pickthall
18:83. They ask thee concerning Zul-qarnain Say, "I will rehearse to you something of his story." They will ask thee of Dhu'l-Qarneyn. Say: "I shall recite unto you a remembrance of him."
18:84 Verily We established his power on earth, and We gave him the ways and the means to all ends. Lo! We made him strong in the land and gave him unto every thing a road.
18:85 One (such) way he followed, And he followed a road
18:86 Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water: near it he found a people: We said: "O Zul-qarnain! (thou hast authority), either to punish them, or to treat them with kindness." Till, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring, and found a people thereabout. We said: "O Dhu'l-Qarneyn! Either punish or show them kindness."
18:87 He said: "Whoever doth wrong, him shall we punish; then shall he be sent back to his Lord; and He will punish him with a punishment unheard-of (before). He said: "As for him who doeth wrong, we shall punish him, and then he will be brought back unto his Lord, Who will punish him with awful punishment!"
18:88 "But whoever believes, and works righteousness, he shall have a goodly reward, and easy will be his task as we order it by our command." "But as for him who believeth and doeth right, good will be his reward, and We shall speak unto him a mild command."
18:89 Then followed he (another) way. Then he followed a road
18:90 Until, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun. Till, when he reached the rising-place of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had appointed no shelter therefrom.
18:91 (He left them) as they were: We completely understood what was before him. So (it was). And We knew all concerning him.
18:92 Then followed he (another) way. Then he followed a road
18:93 Until, when he reached (a tract) between two mountains, he found, beneath them, a people who scarcely understood a word. Till, when he came between the two mountains, he found upon their hither side a folk that scarce could understand a saying.
18:94 They said: "O Zul-qarnain! the Gog and Magog (people) do great mischief on earth: shall we then render thee tribute in order that thou mightest erect a barrier between us and them?" They said: "O Dhu'l-Qarneyn! Lo! Gog and Magog are spoiling the land. So may we pay thee tribute on condition that thou set a barrier between us and them?"
18:95 He said: "(The power) in which my Lord has established me is better (than tribute): help me therefore with strength (and labour): I will erect a strong barrier between you and them: He said: "That wherein my Lord hath established me is better (than your tribute). Do but help me with strength (of men), I will set between you and them a bank."
18:96 "Bring me blocks of iron." At length, when he had filled up the space between the two steep mountain sides, he said, "Blow (with your bellows)" then, when he had made it (red) as fire, he said: "Bring me, that I may pour over it, molten lead." "Give me pieces of iron" - till, when he had leveled up (the gap) between the cliffs, he said: "Blow!" - till, when he had made it a fire, he said: "Bring me molten copper to pour thereon."
18:97 Thus were they made powerless to scale it or to dig through it. And (Gog and Magog) were not able to surmount, nor could they pierce (it).
18:98 He said: "This is a mercy from my Lord: but when the promise of my Lord comes to pass, He will make it into dust; and the promise of my Lord is true." He said: "This is a mercy from my Lord; but when the promise of my Lord cometh to pass, He will lay it low, for the promise of my Lord is true."
18:99 On that day We shall leave them to surge like waves on one another: the trumpet will be blown, and We shall collect them all together. And on that day we shall let some of them surge against others, and the Trumpet will be blown. Then We shall gather them together in one gathering.
18:100 And We shall present Hell that day for Unbelievers to see, all spread out,- On that day we shall present hell to the disbelievers, plain to view,
18:101 (Unbelievers) whose eyes had been under a veil from remembrance of Me, and who had been unable even to hear. Those whose eyes were hoodwinked from My reminder, and who could not bear to hear.

Gog and Magog, the Alexander Romance, and the wall of Dhul-Qarnayn[edit]

Al-Idrisi's map (South up) shows "Yajooj" and "Majooj" (Gog and Magog) enclosed within dark mountains in the bottom-left edge of the Eurasian landmass.

Muslim and other commentators have identified Dhul Qarnayn with Alexander the Great.[1] According to a legend current in Jewish circles around the time of Christ the Scythians, identified with Gog and Magog, once defeated one of Alexander's generals, upon which Alexander built a wall in the Caucasus mountains to keep them out of civilised lands; the legend went through much further elaboration in the following centuries, and eventually found its way into the Quran through a Syrian version.[3]

Alexander was already known as "the two-horned one" in these early legends.[4] The reasons for this are somewhat obscure. The scholar al-Tabari held that Alexander was called "the two-horned" because he went from one extremity ("horn") of the world to the other,[5] but it may ultimately derive from the image of Alexander wearing the horns of the ram-god Zeus-Ammon, as popularised on coins throughout the Hellenistic Near East.[6] The wall may have reflected a distant knowledge of the Great Wall of China (the 12th century scholar al-Idrisi drew a map for Roger of Sicily showing the "Land of Gog and Magog" in Mongolia), or of various Sassanid Persian walls built in the Caspian area against the northern barbarians, or a conflation of the two.[7]

"Qarn" (horn) also means "period" or "century", and the name Dhul Qarnayn therefore has a symbolic meaning as "He of the Two Ages", the first being the mythological time when the wall is built and the second the age of the end of the world when Allah's shariah, the divine law, is removed and Gog and Magog are to be set loose.[8] Modern Islamic apocalyptic writers, holding to a literal reading, put forward various explanations for the absence of the wall from the modern world, some saying that Gog and Magog were the Mongols and that the wall is now gone, others that both the wall and Gog and Magog are present but invisible.[9]

Dhul Qarnayn in later literature[edit]

Dhul-Qarnayn the traveller was a favourite subject for later writers. In one of many Arabic and Persian versions of the meeting of Alexander with the Indian sages, the poet and philosopher Al-Ghazali (Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī, 1058–1111) wrote of how Dhul-Qarnayn came across a people who had no possessions but dug graves at the doors of their houses; their king explained that they did this because the only certainty in life is death. Ghazali's version later made its way into the Thousand and One Nights.[10]

The Sufi poet Rumi (Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, 1207-1273), perhaps the most famous of medieval Persian poets, described Dhul Qarnayn's eastern journey. The hero ascends Mount Qof, the "mother" of all other mountains (identified with the Alborz mountains on the northern border of Iran), which is made of emerald and forms a ring encircling the entire Earth with veins under every land. At Dhul Qarnayn's request the mountain explains the origin of earthquakes: when God wills, the mountain causes one of its veins to throb, and thus an earthquake results. Elsewhere on the great mountain Dhul Qarnayn meets Esrafil (the archangel Raphael), standing ready to blow the trumpet on the Day of Judgement.[11]

People identified with Dhul-Qarnayn[edit]

Oghuz Khan pictured with two horns as Zulqarnayn on a 100 Turkmenistan manat banknote.

Although Alexander is most commonly cited as the origin for Dhul-Qarnayn, some Muslim scholars have objected that this cannot be so: Alexander lived only a short time, whereas Dhul-Qarnayn lived for 700 years as a sign of God's blessing; Alexander behaved very badly while Dhul-Qarnayn was a paragon; and Dhul-Qarnayn worshiped only one god, while Alexander worshiped many.[12] Other candidates have been suggested:

  • Cyrus the Great, the 6th century BCE Achaemenid Persian conqueror.
  • Darius the Great Achaemenid king who led a great army of 800,000 through Scythia passing the Danube where he built eight large forts. Scythians are described by Herodotus as a savage nation in his work Histories.
  • Imru'l-Qays (died 328 CE), a prince of the Lakhmids of southern Mesopotamia, an ally first of Persia and then of Rome, celebrated in romance for his exploits.[13]
  • "Messiah ben Joseph", a fabulous military saviour expected by Yemenite Jews, associated in folk-lore with Dhu Nawas, a semi-legendary 6th century Yemenite king.[14]
  • Solomon, An Islamic scholar Muhammad Akbar claimed[15] [16] by verses of Quran that Dhul-Qarnayn is the second name of Solomon, just like Jacob is later called Israel.

Traditional exegesis (tafsir)[edit]

According to Tafsir ibn Kathir by Ibn Kathir, a widely used 14th-century commentary on the Quran:

The Quraysh sent An-Nazr bin Al-Haariss and `Uqbah bin Abi Mu`it to the rabbis in Al-Madinah, and told them: `Ask them (the rabbis) about Muhammad, and describe him to them, and tell them what he is saying. They are the people of the first Book, and they have more knowledge of the Prophets than we do.' So they set out and when they reached Al-Madinah, they asked the rabbis about the Messenger of Allah. They described him to them and told them some of what he had said. They said, `You are the people of the Tawrah and we have come to you so that you can tell us about this companion of ours.' They (the rabbis) said, `Ask him about three things which we will tell you to ask, and if he answers them then he is a Prophet who has been sent (by Allah); if he does not, then he is saying things that are not true, in which case how you will deal with him will be up to you. Ask him about some young men in ancient times, what was their story for theirs is a strange and wondrous tale. Ask him about a man who travelled a great deal and reached the east and the west of the earth. What was his story And ask him about the Ruh (soul or spirit) – what is it? If he tells you about these things, then he is a Prophet, so follow him, but if he does not tell you, then he is a man who is making things up, so deal with him as you see fit.[1]

According to Maududi's conservative 20th century commentary:

This Surah was sent down in answer to the three questions which the mushriks of Makkah, in consultation with the people of the Book, had put to the Holy Prophet in order to test him. These were: (1) Who were "the Sleepers of the Cave"? (2) What is the real story of Khidr? and (3) What do you know about Dhul-Qarnain? As these three questions and the stories involved concerned the history of the Christians and the Jews, and were unknown in Hijaz, a choice of these was made to test whether the Holy Prophet possessed any source of the knowledge of the hidden and unseen things. Allah, however, not only gave a complete answer to their questions but also employed the three stories to the disadvantage of the opponents of Islam in the conflict that was going on at that time at Makkah between Islam and un-belief.[2]



  1. ^ a b Netton 2006, p. 72-73.
  2. ^ Cook 2005, p. 8,10.
  3. ^ Bietenholz 1994, p. 122-123.
  4. ^ Van Donzel & Schmidt 2010, p. 57.
  5. ^ Van Donzel & Schmidt 2010, p. 57 fn.3.
  6. ^ Pinault 1992, p. 181 fn.71.
  7. ^ Glassé & Smith 2003, p. 39.
  8. ^ Glassé & Smith 2003, p. 38.
  9. ^ Cook 2005, p. 205-206.
  10. ^ Yamanaka & Nishio 2006, p. 103-105.
  11. ^ Berberian 2014, p. 118-119.
  12. ^ Van Donzel & Schmidt 2010, p. 57 fn.2.
  13. ^ Ball 2002, p. 97-98.
  14. ^ Wasserstrom 2014, p. 61-62.
  15. ^ Who is Dhul-Qarnayn?
  16. ^ Allah (Book), Page 86


Further reading[edit]

  • ^ Alexander the Great, p. 37, Richard Stoneman, Routledge, 1997.
  • ^ A. Shapur Shahbazi, 'Iranians and Alexander', American Journal of Ancient History n.s. 2 (2003), 5-38
  • ^ Sahih Bukhari, English Translation, Hadith number 6326
  • ^ Kathir, 2002. Tafsir Ibn Kathir. Surah Al-Kahf. Electronic web-only document last updated October 26, 2002. Tafsir.com. Extracted on September 22, 2010 from http://www.tafsir.com/default.asp?sid=18&tid=29908