Dhul-Qarnayn and the Alexander Romance
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The story of Dhul-Qarnayn (in Arabic ذو القرنين, literally "The Two-Horned One", also transliterated as Zul-Qarnain or Zulqarnain) is found in the 18th Surah of the Qur'an, al-Kahf (the Cave). While he is never mentioned explicitly by name, the story is clearly based upon a legendary account of Alexander the Great. For centuries, most Muslim historians and Qur'anic commentators endorsed the identity of Dhul-Qarnayn as Alexander, though some also proposed alternatives. In recent years, this identification of Dhul-Qarnayn has become particularly problematic and controversial for Muslim scholars, as historical and archaeological evidence quite plainly reveal that the real Alexander was a polytheistic pagan who believed he was the literal son of Greek and Egyptian gods. This has prompted some apologists to create and advance alternative theories that identify Dhul-Qarnayn as other prominent historical kings, most notably Cyrus the Great. The theory that Dhul-Qarnayn is some other figure such as Cyrus the Great has little evidence in its favor and major flaws compared to the overwhelming evidence that the story is actually based on a legendary version of Alexander. The story in the Qur'an in fact parallels a medieval Syriac legend of Alexander quite closely; both narratives portray him as a believing king who traveled the world and built a barrier of iron which holds back the tribes of Gog and Magog until Judgement Day. Almost every major element of the Qur'anic story can be found in Christian and Jewish folklore about Alexander which dates back hundreds of years prior to the time of Prophet Muhammad. In addition, there is no such giant wall of iron and brass between two mountains that is holding back a tribe of people; it likely never existed and was originally a legendary embellishment of the original Alexander legend.
The gargantuan conquests of Alexander the Great, stretching from Macedonia in the West to the river Indus in the East, left an indelible mark on all the regions where his troopers trode. Alexander founded cities, declared himself a god and the son of a god, solved the famous Gordian knot, initiated a new chapter in the history of civilizational exchange and spread Greek Hellenic culture far and wide. Dying at 33 of either alcohol overdose or perhaps poisoning, his legend quickly became larger than life. First Jews and then Christians claimed his as their own. Separately to the Greek recensions of the Alexander Romance traditions (known as Pseudo-Callisthenes), a Syriac Legend with a distinctive storyline existed in the early 7th century CE with a close resemblance to the Quranic passage. The Syriac Legend as we have it is commonly dated to 629-636 CE, though most scholars infer the existance of an earlier 6th century version which was later updated (see dating sections below). While probably written by a Syriac-speaking Christian, Theodor Nöldeke saw signs that the Syriac had been translated from a lost Pahlavi Persian source. As the legend of Alexander spread, so too did the claims of his miraculous deeds grow in scope and size.
Historical vs Legendary Alexander
The Dhul-Qarnayn of the Qur'an is the Alexander of legend, not as some authors have asserted the Alexander III of Macedon (356–323 BC) of hisory. Instead, it is based entirely upon legendary stories of Alexander which bare little resemblance to the Alexander of history. In particular, the Qur'an parallels a Syriac legend where Alexander is portrayed as a monotheistic king who awaits the second coming of the Messiah and the end of the world.
It has been well understood for many centuries that legendary accounts of Alexander's life began shortly after his death in 323 BC. These were popular across most of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Persia and even India and China. In the subsequent centuries after his death, the historical accounts of Alexander were largely forgotten and legendary accounts of his deeds and adventures replaced them in popular folklore. It is these legendary depictions of Alexander that would have been known in the 7th century and not the historically accurate accounts of his life. It was not until the Renaissance in the 16th century that the first historical accounts of Alexanders life were rediscovered and investigated.
Alexander and the Water of Life
In addition to the Dhu'l Qarnayn episode and its relationship with the Syriac Alexander legend, the immediately preceding story about Moses in Surah al Kahf has long been noticed to derive from another story in the Alexander Romance tradition about Alexander's quest to find the water imparting immortality, featuring his cook, a dead fish that springs back to life from this water and escapes, and an attempt by Alexander to return to the water. In Quran 18:60-65, Moses travels to the junction of the two seas with his servant, who later realises that they have left their fish behind there, which has come back to life and swam away through a passage. When his servant later tells him this, Moses declares that this was the place they had been seeking. As Tommaso Tesei notes, "The most ancient versions of this story are found in three sources preceding or contemporaneous to the rise of Islam: the Rec. β of the Alexander Romance (fourth/fifth century), the Babylonian Talmud (Tamīd, 32a–32b), and the so-called Syriac Alexander Song (ca. 630–635)".
The Syriac Alexander Song (also known as the memre, poem, or metrical homily about Alexander) has both the water of life episode and the legendary journeys of Alexander seen in the Syriac Alexander Legend. Gabriel Said Reynolds observes that the junction of the two seas to which Moses seeks to travel in Surah al-Kahf, as well as other passages that mention the two seas, most likely refer to the waters of the heavens and of the earth, and that "the two seas" is referred to with this meaning in other Syriac works. He provides a translation of the relevant sections from the Alexander Song:
(Song of Alexander, recension 1, p. 26, ll. 33–38)
Then [Alexander’s cook] came to the spring, which contained the lifegiving water / he came close to it, in order to wash the fish in water, but it came alive and escaped; The poor man was afraid that the king would blame him / that he give back the [value of the] fish, which had come to life and which he did not stop. So he got down into the water, in order to catch it, but was unable / then he climbed out from there in order to tell the king that he had found [the spring] He called, but no one heard him, and so he went to a mountain from where they heard him / the king was glad when he heard about the spring. The king turned around in order to bathe [in the spring] as he had sought to do / and they went from the mountain in the middle of darkness, but they could not reach it.
This may be compared with Quran 18:60-64.
The next section of the story (18:65-82), in which Moses is taught lessons about justice by a servent of God, is in line with a contemporary genre of literature in which a wandering ascetic is upset by notions of divine justice demonstrated to him by an angel before the events are explained to him. In the section of his book quoted above, Reynolds goes on to highlight the work of Roger Paret who has demonstrated a connection between the Quranic justice story and a sixth century CE tale, the Leimon (or Pratum Spirituale, Spiritual Meadow) of John Moschus (d. 619 CE). The basic structure of this story is identical to the Quranic passage, and has many similarities of detail though also differences.
Parallels to the Syriac Legend
In 1889, the renowned scholar and philologist, Sir Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge, translated five Alexander stories from Syriac manuscripts into English. One of these stories was a legend that detailed the exploits of Alexander, the son of Philip the Macedonian, and how he traveled to the ends of the world, made a gate of iron, and shut behind it the Huns so they might not come forth to spoil the land. Titled as the Neṣḥānā d-leh d-Aleksandrōs, “the victory of Alexander”, the parallels between this Syriac legend and the story of Dhul-Qarnayn in the Qur'an are detailed below.
Alexander in the Syriac legend is described as having horns on his head. An Ethiopic variation of the story refers to Alexander as "the two horns". Coins depicting Alexander with ram horns on his head were first minted shortly after his death. By the 1st century BC, silver coins depicting Alexander with ram horns were used as the primary currency in Arabia. Imitation coins were issued by an Arab ruler named Abi'el who ruled in the south-eastern region of the Arabian Peninsula and other minting of these coins occurred throughout Arabia for another thousand years. This connection of Alexander with two-horns was widely known across the region at the time.
Established with Power
At the beginning of the Syriac legend, Alexander says a prayer to God that he might be given power from heaven to rule over the kingdoms of the earth. The Qur'anic story, speaking from the perspective of Allah, says that he has given Alexander power on earth.
Journey to the Fetid Sea
The first destination for the hero in both the Syriac and Qur'anic stories is a place near the setting of the sun. The Syriac legend identifies this location as Oceanus, a mythical sea believed to encircle a flat earth. In both accounts, the water is described as being muddy or fetid.
"As to the thing, my lord, which thy majesty (or thy greatness) desires to go and see, namely, upon what the heavens rest, and what surrounds the earth, the terrible seas which surround the world will not give thee a passage'; because there are eleven bright seas, on which the ships of men sail, and beyond these there is about ten miles of dry land, and beyond these ten miles there is the fetid sea, Oceanus (the Ocean), which surrounds all creation.And they put ships to sea and sailed on the sea four months' and twelve days, and they arrived at the dry land beyond the eleven bright seas.
Dr. Kevin Van Bladel, professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, states in his comparison of the two stories, that the water at the place where the sun sets is 'fetid' in both texts, a coincidence of two uncommon synonyms (Syriac saryâ, Arabic hami'a). Similar connections can be found in Islamic poetry contemporary to the time of Muhammad. Muhammad ibn Ishāq ibn Yasār ibn Khiyār recorded many pre-Islamic Arabic poems in his Sirat Rasul Allah (Biography of Muhammad); This included a poem which mentions Dhul-Qarnayn at the end and which Ibn Ishaq claims was composed by a pre-Islamic king of ancient Yemen. Here we can see that the sun sets into a pool of water that is described as being both muddy and fetid, a perfect linking of the two adjectives in both the Qur'anic and Syriac stories.
Conquered kings thronged his court,
East and west he ruled, yet he sought
Knowledge true from a learned sage.
He saw where the sun sinks from view,
Similarly, a poem attributed to Hāssan b. Thābit, who was a contemporary of Muhammad and employed by him as a poet, reads as follows:
Realm like his was never won by mortal king.
Followed he the sun to view its setting
When it sank into the sombre ocean-spring;
Up he clomb to see it rise at morning,
From within its mansion when the East it fired;
All day long the horizons led him onward,
All night through he watched the stars and never tired.
Then of iron and of liquid metal
He prepared a rampart not to be o’erpassed,
Gog and Magog there he threw in prison
Punishment of Wrongdoers
The Qur'anic story next gives the reader a cryptic speech by Dhul-Qarnayn where he says that "whoever does wrong" will be sent back to the Lord (i.e. killed). The Syriac legend gives a much fuller account; it explains that Alexander asked for criminals to be sent to the shore of the fetid sea to test a rumor that anyone who approaches the sea dies. When the prisoners drop dead, Alexander notes that it is good that those already "guilty of death should die". Not only is there a direct parallel between the stories, but the Syriac legend helps makes sense of the short and cryptic Qur'anic version of the story.
Sun Rises on People with No Cover
After leaving the muddy sea, The Qur'an tells us that Dhul-Qarnayn travels to the east where the sun rises. The author then conveys an odd and cryptic detail that the people living there have "no covering protection against the sun"; however, it gives no further explanation as to what that means. Again, the Syriac legend not only has an expanded, parallel account but it helps clarify the Qur'anic story. The reader is told that the people who live near the location where the sun "enters the window of heaven" (i.e. rises above the flat earth) must seek cover because the sun is much closer to the ground and its rays burn the people and animals there.
Travel to the Valley between Two Mountains
On his final journey, the Qur'an tells us that Dhul-Qarnayn traveled to a valley between two mountains. The Syriac legend tells us that Alexander heads north and likewise arrives at a plain between mountains. Here he sets up his camp near a mountain pass.
Gog and Magog Spoil and Ravage the Land
The Syriac legend then states that Alexander meets with people who live near the mountain pass. These natives tell of a tribe, the Huns, who live beyond the pass. These Huns spoil and ravage the land and then return back to their lands on the other side of the mountain. The legend identifies the first two kings of this tribe as Gog and Magog, the exact same names used in the Qur'anic account.
Alexander said, "This mountain is higher and more terrible than all the mountains which I have seen." The old men, the natives of the country, said to the king: "Yea, by your majesty, my lord the king, neither we nor our fathers have been able to march one step in it, and men do not ascend it either on that side or on this, for it is the boundary which God has set between us and the nations within it" Alexander said, "Who are the nations within this mountain upon which we are looking? "The natives of the land said, " They are the Huns." He said to them, " Who are their kings?" The old men. said: "Gog and Magog..."Alexander said to the natives of that country," Have they come forth to spoil in your days?" The old men answered and said to the king: "May God establish thy kingdom and thy crown, my lord the king! These fortresses which have been overturned in our lands and in the lands of the Romans, have been overthrown by them; by them have these towers been uprooted; when they go forth to spoil, they ravage the land of the Romans and of the Persians, and then they enter their own territory."
Build a Barrier
After speaking with the people about Gog and Magog, Alexander says he will build a barrier (a wall or dam) between the people and the tribes that harass them. Both stories record Alexander proclaiming this in a speech.
Made of Iron and Brass
Another similarity between the two stories is that the wall will be made of both iron and brass. Here the Qur'anic translators use different words for the second metal: "lead" (Yusif Ali), "copper" (Pickthall), "brass" (Shakir) but the connection with the Syriac legend is apparent.
Cannot be Breached
After constructing the barrier, the Syriac legend says that it is very difficult to penetrate and the Huns will not be able to dig under it. A similar phrase is used in the Qur'an to convey that the barrier is very difficult to pass.
Destroyed at the End of Times
An often overlooked aspect of the story of Dhul-Qarnayn is that it ends with a prophetic prediction of the wall being destroyed and the tribes of Gog and Magog surging and destroying everything in their path. In particular, it notes that this will occur on the day of Judgement when the "trumpet is blown" and the people of the world are gathered together to account for their sins. The Syriac legend also ends with a similar prophecy that likewise occurs when the nations have been gathered together at the end of times.
The connection with the destruction of the wall and the end of times is further explained in the classic Qur'anic tafsir by Ibn Kathir.
Views of Modern Scholars
Van Bladel in his book sums up the relation between the Qur'an and the Syriac legend:
Thus, quite strikingly, almost every element of this short Qur'anic tale finds a more explicit and detailed counterpart in the Syriac Alexander Legend. In both text the related events are given in precisely the same order.As it is, the correspondences shown earlier are still so exact that it is obvious in comparison that the two texts are at least connected very closely. They relate the same story in precisely the same order of events using many of the same particular details.
Relationship with the Syriac Legend
The parallels between the Syriac Legend and the Qur'an detailed above are quite striking. As to the question of dependency, Van Bladel has argued that the Syriac Legend is a direct source for the Quranic account. Tommaso Tesei concurs with van Bladel's thesis, though allows for the possibility that they share a common source. He notes that, while the final part of the legend concerns Alexander's battles with the Persian king and is an allegory of the bloody conflict between Byzantines and Sasanids with a propaganda purpose to glorify Heraclius (important in dating its final redaction), it is clear that in the rest of the story, there are indeed multiple streams of earlier elements, which it shares with the Qur'an. Crucially, these appear in the same order in both versions. Tesei argues that while this sequencing could go back to a common source, he finds it more plausible that the Syriac legend originated the particular composition, agreeing with van Bladel's argument that Alexander's journeys are intended to form the shape of a cross, and adding his own hypothesis that the story originally involved a failed attempt to reach paradise, removed in order to better glorify Heraclius. The elements pre-dating both the Qur'an and Syriac legend by many centuries include folklore found in earlier Christian and Jewish writings. Parallels to the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of Gog and Magog can be clearly identified in the story as well.
Epic of Gilgamesh
One of the earliest and most influential stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh was written sometime before 2000 BCE. In one of the tablets of his many adventures, Gilgamesh travels far to the east, to the mountain passes at the ends of the earth. He slays mountain lions, bears and other wild animals. Eventually he comes to the twin peaks of Mount Mashu at the end of the earth, from where the sun rises. Here he finds a large gate, guarded by scorpion-people who protect the sun and forbidden anyone to enter through the gate without their permission.
It is in this very ancient mythology, that we have the basic outline of the adventure found in the Qur'an and the Alexander legends: a powerful hero, who travels from west to east, the setting and rising of the sun, two mountains and a gate.
Early Jewish Legends
The Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 CE), records in his two books legendary stories of Alexander that were known to the Jews of the first century. In his first book, "The Antiquities of the Jews", he mentions that the tribes of Magog are called the Scythians by the Greeks. In his second book, "The Wars of the Jews", he further details that these people are held behind a wall of iron that has been built by Alexander the Great. In this legend, Josephus relates that Alexander allows the tribes of Magog to come out from behind the wall and create havoc in the land. Here is a very clear connection of Alexander to an iron gate and the tribes of Magog being prevented from plundering the land. This shows that local folklore already contained the basic backbone of the Alexander story almost six centuries before the story found in the Qur'an.
Early Christian Legends
As early as the 399 CE, local stories of Alexander building a wall against the Huns had made their way into Christian writings as well. St. Jerome, an early church father, writes about rumors of attacks against Jerusalem by invaders from the north. He refers to these invaders as Huns who live near the gate that was built by Alexander, though the wall does not yet have escatalogical implications.
Gog and Magog in the Bible
The story of Gog and Magog being let loose at the end of the world, on Judgement Day, can be found in the Book of Revelation. We are told that they will swarm across the earth and surround the "camp of God's people" who have been gathered together in the "city he loves" (namely Jerusalem). This writing dates to the second half of the 1st century.
Prophecy about Gog and Magog
Tesei notes that Czeglédy has argued convincingly that a 6th century ex-eventu prophecy recorded by John of Ephesus (d. 586 CE) about the invasion of the Sabir Huns in 514-15 CE was incorporated into the Syriac legend as its first, ex-eventu prophecy of invasion by Gog and Magog (distinct from the second ex-eventu prophecy about the Khazars around 627 CE, which extends into a failed prognostication by the author, crucial to its dating). It is, then, possible that this is another element that could have formed part of a common source shared by the Syriac legend and Qur'anic story. However, Tesei notes that evidence is lacking to link at that earlier time the prophecy with the tales of Gog and Magog behind Alexander's wall, which were also in circulation in the 6th century, nor yet with the other elements forming the shared sequence between the Syriac and Qur'anic stories.
Dating the Syriac Legend
The Alexander Legend in its final redaction was composed by a Mesopotamian Christian probably in Amid or Edessa. It was written down in 629-630 CE after the victory of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius over the Sasanian king Khusrau Parvez. Dr. Reinink, a Near East philogist and scholar, highlights the political agenda of the legend which is clearly written as a piece of pro-Byzantine propaganda. Its purpose was probably to win the separated Syrian Christians back to a union with the church at Constantinople.
Stephen Shoemaker has discussed the arguments of Reinink, van Bladel and Tesei, but argues that "it would appear that in its current form the Legend almost certainly updates an older version of the Legend that was composed in the early sixth century". The hypothetical earlier version would incorporate the main elements of the story up to the first ex-eventu prophecy of the 514-515 CE Sabir Hun invasion mentioned above, which was circulating in the sixth century. Shoemaker states that "a clear majority" of scholars take this view, though Renink's view that the Legend represents a new composition of the 7th century "presently enjoys relative acceptance". Shoemaker notes that unlike Reinink, van Bladel at least attempts to explain the presence of the first prophecy, which holds no importance to the narrative (van Bladel suggests that it served as a verification for 7th century listeners to trust the later prophecies), though like Tesei, he is unconvinced in light of Czeglédy's findings mentioned above. For this and reasons of timing, he finds it most likely that the Quran depends on a 6th rather than 7th century version of the Legend.
Dating the Qur'anic Verses
According to the traditional Muslim narrative, Al-Kahf (The Cave) was generally revealed in Mecca, except verse 28 and verses 83-101 which were revealed in Medina. Based on this information, the story of Dhul-Qarnayn, contained in verses 83-101, would be dated to after the Hijra in June 622 CE and before Muhammed's death in June 632 CE; a more specific date is difficult to ascertain with any certainty from the Islamic narrative. Van Bladel dismisses the possibility that the Quran could be a source for the Syriac legend. Since the community of Muslims in Mecca were far from well known outside of Arabia, the possibility of their story influencing Christians in Syria is extremely remote. The far more expansive Syriac work also contains no references to the Arabic phrases used in the Qur'anic account, which would be expected if the Syrian story was using that as its source. Tesei concurs with van Bladel's arguments here.
Spread of the Syriac Legend to Arabia
The popularity of the Syriac legend of Alexander is evidenced by its inclusion in other works soon after its composition: The "Song of Alexander", composed a few years later but before the Arab conquest of Syria sometime between 630 CE and 636 CE; The Syriac Apocalpyse of Pseudo-Ephrem composed between 640 CE and 683 CE and the "Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius" composed around 692 CE. Since the work was composed as a piece of propaganda, its intentional dissemination makes sense of its rapid adoption and popularity in the region. This would have included Christian Arabs of the Ghassanid. It is even possible that early Muslim followers heard the story of the Syrian legend during their raids on Mu'ta on the borders of Syria around September 629 CE.
Views of Modern Scholars
It is clear that all the major elements of the Alexander story were in place by the 4th century, predating both the Qur'anic and the Syriac account by hundreds of years. Their reliance upon common sources for these elements is also clear. In effect, the story of Dhul-Qarnayn in the Qur'an is simply another example of the widespread inclusion of Alexander folklore into the stories and traditions of the religious groups in the Middle East. Rebecca Edwards in a address to the American Philological Association in 2002 states:
Dhul-Qarnayn as Alexander in Islamic Sources
While the Qur'an and Hadith never explicitly identify Dhul-Qarnayn as Alexander, a number of Islamic scholars and commentators have endorsed this view. This was especially true in the early centuries after the founding of Islam when the legends of Alexander were still widely known and popular. In more recent years, some prominent scholars have also supported the connection between Alexander and Dhul-Qarnayn of the Qur'an.
Early Islamic Scholars
The Sirat Rasul Allah of Ibn Ishaq, circa 761 CE, mentions that Dhul-Qarnayn was of Egyptian and Greek origins, a fairly good description of Alexander who came from Macedonia in Greece, conquered Egypt, named a city after himself in Egypt and declared himself a god there.
Tafsir al-Jalalayn, a classical Sunni tafsir of the Qur'an, composed by Jalal ad-Din al-Mahalli in 1459 CE identifies Dhul-Qarnayn as Alexander.
Another influential Tafsir author who endorsed the identify of Alexander is the Indian scholar Shah Waliullah (1763 CE).
Modern Islamic Scholars
One of the most prominent modern scholars to defend the fidelity between Dhul-Qarnayn and Alexander the Great is the famous Qur'anic translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Yusuf Ali gives a detailed defense of the Alexander theory in the Appendix of his commentary on the Qur'an, including assertions that the Qur'an accurately depicts an historical account of Alexander and not a legendary one.
Reconstructing the Historical Alexander
While legendary accounts of Alexander's life dominated Europe and the Middle East for almost two thousands years, eventually more historical biographies about his life were unearthed. This included information about Alexander as a polytheist, Zeus worshiping pagan and insight into his personal and sexual preferences. Such historical facts about Alexander the Great became well known only after the Renaissance period (1300-1600 CE) when Greek documents from the 2nd century were rediscovered.
These included the "Anabasis Alexandri" or "the Campaigns of Alexander" by Arrian. It is generally considered the most important source on Alexander the Great. Written in the 2nd century, it gives a detailed history of Alexander's military complains and is based on early sources that are now lost. The other is the "Life of Alexander" and two orations "On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great" , by the Greek historian and biographer Plutarch of Chaeronea. This work detailed much of Alexander's personal life, desires, motivations, and other personal insights.
Alexander the Great was a polytheist who believed in the pantheon of Greek gods, the dominant religious belief at the time of the 4th century BCE in Macedon Greece and throughout most of the Mediterranean. When his army first invaded Asia, Alexander dedicated the lands of his conquests to the gods. He visited the Oracle at Delphi and sought prophecies about his future. After his death, Alexander apparently left instructions in his will for a monumental temple to Athena be built at Troy.
Son of Zeus-Ammon
Alexander appears to have believed himself a deity, or at least sought to deify himself. Olympias, his mother, always insisted to him that he was the son of Zeus, a theory apparently confirmed to him by the oracle of Amun at Siwa in Libya. Shortly after his visit to the oracle, Alexander began to identify himself as the son of Zeus-Ammon and often referred to Zeus-Ammon as his true father. This god, an amalgamation of both the Greek god Zeus and the Egyptian god Ammon was often depicted with ram horns on his head. Subsequent currency depicted Alexander adorned with similar rams horn as a symbol of his divinity.
Personal Relationships and Sex Life
Alexander had two wives : Roxana, daughter of a Greek nobleman, and Stateira II, a Persian princess and daughter of Darius III of Persia. He fathered at least two sons, Alexander IV of Macedon with Roxana and Heracles of Macedon from his mistress Barsine. Alexander's sexuality has been the subject of speculation and controversy. Alexander may have been bisexual, and while no ancient sources state that Alexander had homosexual relationships, many historians have speculated that Alexander's relationship with Hephaestion, his life long friend and companion, was of a romantic nature.
Modern Views and Controversies
Turning-point against Alexander as Dhul-Qarnayn
In the first few centuries after the founding of Islam, there was little controversy in identifying Dhul-Qarnayn as Alexander. Alexander's deeds and exploits were almost universally admired. However this slowly changed after the Renaissance in the 16th century when proper archaeological and historical methods were first applied to the life of Alexander the Great.
Once an accurate picture of the historical Alexander emerged, Christians and Jews easily discarded the legends of Alexander as a believing king. Since these accounts were not present in the Bible, rejecting Alexander as a Greek pagan held no theological consequences for them. Muslims, on the other hand, are forced to defend these accounts because the stories found their way into the Qur'an. While some Muslims have embraced Alexander and rejected modern scholarship around his historical identify, most apologists have gone the other way and decided to accept that Alexander was a pagan but reject his association with Dhul-Qarnayn.
Rejection of Alexander
Since most early Muslim scholars and commentators believed that Dhul-Qarnayn was Alexander, any defense of another theory is first obligated to state why Alexander should be rejected from consideration. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, one of the first to advance the theory of Cyrus, gives a typical justification for his rejection of Alexander by appealing to the historical man as an unrighteous polytheist:
The apologist insists that the only possible connection to Alexander must be to the historical man. On this basis, it is easy to agree that the historical Alexander is not portrayed in the Qur'anic story, as he does not fit the description at all. However, the legendary Alexander is a perfect fit. He is portrayed as a godly and righteous man, he shows generosity to the people harassed by the Huns, and he builds a wall of iron and brass. While these legendary stories were popular in the 7th century, they are virtually unknown outside of academic circles today. Maulana Azad simply ignores these facts and never considers the possibility that these verses are about a legendary figure and not the Alexander of history.
Cyrus the Great
Recent historical and archaeological evidence clearly points to the real Alexander of Macedon as a polytheistic pagan who fashioned himself after Greek and Egyptian gods. The more recent questions about Alexander's sexuality and personal relationships also raises serious problems for anyone who believes he was a follower of Islam. Based on this information, some Islamic apologists and theologians have constructed alternative theories to the identity of Dhul-Qarnayn. The most prominent alternative theory among modern apologists is that Dhul-Qarnayn was Cyrus the Great of Persia. This theory has been advanced by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Allameh Tabatabaei, and Naser Makarem Shirazi.
It is important to note that these rejections of Alexander as Dhul-Qarnayn are primarily motivated by theological concerns and are not based on any convincing evidence. As we shall see, the claims of Cyrus the Great being Dhul-Qarnayn are far weaker than the obvious connection to the legendary stories of Alexander. Proponents of this theory, however, pre-suppose that the Qur'an is relaying an accurate, historical story and thus never take into consideration the possibility that the story is based on myth and folklore.
In order to connect Cyrus to the epithet Dhul-Qarnayn (i.e. man with two-horns), proponents of this theory have pointed to a relief found on a doorway pillar near the tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae, Iran. In these depictions, a set of horns can be seen as part of an Egyptian Hemhem head dress worn by a winged figure. Some scholars believe this to be a depiction of Cyrus, whose name was once inscribed at the top of the monument above the pillar. Others note that the complex also once included human-headed winged bulls with crowns, and regard this as a protective doorway figure, inspired by Assyrian winged genii, and the words to be a "foundation inscription", also visible in two of the other palaces there. We have no other physical engravings or any other archaeological evidence that connects Cyrus with the epithet "two horns".
Religious practices of Cyrus
There is some uncertainty about the personal religious beliefs of Cyrus, though he was widely praised for religious tolerance. Supporters of the Cyrus theory claim he followed Zoroastrianism, which they also claim is monotheistic. However, the Encyclopedia Iranica in its online article on Cyrus, in a section on his religious policies, notes the following:
- Babylonian texts record that Cyrus "restored the statues of the Babylonian gods to their sanctuaries"
- In a temple in Uruk he called himself "caretaker of the temples of Esagila and Ezida," respectively the sanctuaries of Marduk in Babylon and Nabû in Borsippa
- In another inscription, from Ur, he boasted that "the great gods have delivered all the lands into my hands"
- On the Cyrus cylinder he claimed that the god Marduk had ordered him to become ruler of the whole world and to treat the Babylonians with justice
- According to the same text, the idols that Nabonidus had brought to Babylon from various other Babylonian cities were reinstalled in their former sanctuaries, as were the statues of alien gods from Susa and the cities of northern Mesopotamia. The ruined temples of Babylonia, Elam, and what had been Assyria were reconstructed.
A translation of the Cyrus Cylinder by Irvin Finkel of the British Museum includes the following lines:
Questions from the People of the Book
Another attempt to connect Cyrus to Dhul-Qarnayn comes from an analysis of the events that prompted the revelation of the Qur'anic story in the first place. The story begins in verse 83 by stating that someone has asked Muhammad about the story of Dhul-Qarnayn:
The "they" in question is often identified as Jews, or sometimes generally as the People of the Book, living near Mecca who use the question as a test of Muhammad's prophet-hood
Some Apologists argue that the identity of Dhul-Qarnayn must have been well known to the Jews and should therefore be found in the Bible. However, no justification is ever given as to why only the Bible is considered and not other literature used by Jews and Christians of the 7th century. This includes the Talmud, apocryphal books, and other non-canonical writings. In fact, this very account refers to another non-canonical story, the Sleepers of the Cave, which is a 5th century legend popular in both Syria and Arabia. In point of fact the storyline of the Alexander Legend was well known to both Christian and Jewish audiences in late antiquity, so the assumption that the story is well known to the audience of this verse once again points to the Alexander Legend.
Another detail about this account is that the audience of the verse is not asked to simply identify Dhul-Qarnayn. If that were the case, the answer would have been something such as "he is Alexander" or "he is Cyrus". The speaker in the verse actually asks the audience to relate a story about Dhul-Qarnayn. This once again points to a well known narrative about Dhul-Qarnayn, the Alexander Legend. In order for the audience to know the "right" answer to that question, they must already know the details of this story. This story does not appear anywhere in the Bible; but it does occur, point-by-point and detail-by-detail in the Alexander legend. Therefore, they must be using the Alexander legend as their source for the "right" answer.
An argument based on this verse ignores the wide range of stories in circulation by Jews and Christians of the 7th century. It projects a modern understanding of the cannon of scripture back upon the people of that time. The Alexander legends were incorporated into the writings and theology of the Jews and Christians in Syria and Arabia, thus it is easy to see why the speaker in the verse expects a well-rehearsed answer.
Reference in the Bible
Another point brought up in defense of the Cyrus thesis is a passage from the Bible, Daniel 8 that mentions a ram with two horns:
The meaning of this prophetic vision is explained a few verses later; the identities of the two-horned ram and the one-horned goat are given:
On the one hand, the two-horned ram is associated with Persia, and it conquering foes to the west, north, and south is a reference to Cyrus leading Persia to become a great power in the region. However, linking Cyrus explicitly to both of the "two horns" is problematic. First, the author of Daniel clearly says that the ram represents two kings and not only one king. The implication is that Persia is the longer and newer of the two horns, since Persia was more powerful and rose in ascension later than Media. The horn was a common metaphor for rulers or kings in the Middle East, so this imagery is not unique to Persian kings or Cyrus the Great. The clear explanation given in the text is that the ram represents the Persia-Media empire in general and not Cyrus in particular. Since the ram was considered a symbol of Persia, this is not a unique depiction.
Another problem with identifying Cyrus as the ram is that the ram is defeated and disgraced by the goat. It is well known that Cyrus was responsible for freeing the Jews from slavery in Babylon and he is always portrayed favorably in the Bible. In the Book of Isaiah, Cyrus is even called God's anointed  which is the same word used for Messiah or Savior. However, in this prophetic vision, the goat defeats the ram and tramples it, which is completely at odds with how Cyrus is portrayed throughout the rest of Jewish scripture. Again, this clearly shows that the Ram represents Persia as a whole and not Cyrus as an individual.
We must also consider that Cyrus is mentioned explicitly by name 23 times in the Bible including other parts of the Book of Daniel; yet he is never given the epitaph of "Two Horns". If the Jews knew Cyrus by this epitaph then one should expect to see it mentioned in at least one of these verses. Considering that Alexander is said to have two horns in the Alexander legend, this lack of direct reference to Cyrus further weakens this theory.
The horn on the goat is considered by many to be a reference to Alexander the Great. The horn is called "the king of Greece" that comes form the west and charges to the east destroying everything in its path; a basic summary of Alexander's conquest of the Persians. Later in the chapter, we are told that the horn is broken (a reference to Alexander's death) and four horns appear in its place (a reference to the four rulers that divided up Alexander's kingdom). This again provides further evidence that the ram is not Cyrus, as Alexander lived three centuries after Cyrus and the two never fought each other on the battle field.
Building a Wall
We have no evidence that Cyrus the Great built large walls or was famous for such deeds. In his commentary, Maududi all but admits as much:
When we compare this to the legendary version of Alexander, who not only built a wall against Gog and Magog but made it of iron and bronze, we have the final piece of evidence that the Legendary Alexander is the person identified as Dhul-Qarnayn in the Qur'an and not Cyrus.
Historicity of the Story
As for the story itself, either in the Syriac Legend or in the Qur'an, it would seem to be almost entirely legendary. Besides the fact that Alexander was not a Christian, Muslim, or "believer" of any type all of the adventures of the Legend have no basis in the historical sources available on Alexander. The trope about Alexander damming up Gog and Magog till the end of the world is clearly mythical, feeding into established Judeao-Christian tropes on the end of the world, and has no basis in history or archaeology as there is no giant iron wall anywhere on the earth which is containing an entire nation of people. The very existence of such a wall for the past 2300 years would defy all of logic and science as it is known, and in any event would have been spotted by modern satellite technology, which it has not been.
Historical Claims in the Hadith
The historical nature of the story in the Islamic narrative is affirmed by the following Sahih Hadith by Bukhari which relates that Muhammad viewed this wall (here called a dam) holding back Gog and Magog as a real structure that was facing immanent demise. In this account, he also reiterates that the wall's destruction will bring about death and destruction of the land when the tribes held behind it are let loose.
Great Wall of Gorgan
The Great Wall of Gorgan is sometimes offered as a possible candidate for the wall built by Dhul-Qarnayn. Made of clay from the local soil, the wall is called the Red Snake due to the color of its bricks. The wall is 195 km (121 mi) long and interspersed with forts. It covers an area between the Caspian Sea and the mountains of northeastern Iran. Dr. Kiani, who led an archaeological team in 1971, believed that the wall was built during the Parthian Empire (247 BCE–224 CE), and that it was restored during the Sassanid era (3rd to 7th century CE).
This wall cannot be same as the one described in the story of Dhul-Qarnayn for a number of reasons. First, it is made of bricks not iron and brass. It also does not cover an area between two mountains. The story in the Qur'an says that the wall built by Dhul-Qarnayn holds back a tribe but this wall in northern Iran is not holding back anyone; it is in a state of disrepair. The Qur'an also says the wall of iron will not be destroyed until the Day of Judgement; if that is true, then this cannot be the wall described in Surat 18 unless the prophecy has failed. Finally, even its earliest dating of 247 BC puts it almost three centuries after the reign of Cyrus the Great (576–530 BC) and almost a century after Alexander the Great (356–323 BC).
Caspian Gates of Derbent
Derbent, a city on the other side of the Caspian Sea from the Great Wall of Gorgon is located just north of the Azerbaijani border. Historically, it occupied one of the few passages through the Caucus mountains and it has often been identified with the word 'gate'. Fortresses and walls have been built at this location probably dating back thousands of years. The historical Caspian Gates were not built until the reign of Khosrau I in the 6th century, long after Alexander, but they likely were attributed to him in the following centuries. The immense wall had a height of up to twenty meters and a thickness of about 3 meters when it was in use.
This wall cannot be the same as the one in the Qur'an because it is not built between two mountains. The walls near Derbent were built with the Caspian sea as one border. In his comments on Derbent, Yusuf Ali mentions, that "there is no iron gate there now, but there was one in the seventh century, when the Chinese traveler Hiouen Tsiang saw it on his journey to India. He saw two folding gates cased with iron hung with bells". Again, if this gate is the same as the one in the Qur'anic story thenthe revelation of the gate holding back Gog and Magog must have failed since they did not rampage over the nations nor bring about judgement day. Additionally, the solitary claim of a single eye witness from the 7th century is suspect at best. One should expect a massive structure would have left copious amounts of archaeological evidence, but rather of Alexander of the Two-Horns and his Great Wall all that is to be found are legends and folktales.
- - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Dhul-Qarnayn
- Cosmology - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Cosmology
- Encyclopedia of Islam Volume IV E. J. Bril 1997, p. 127
- For example, Amar Ellahi Lone completely ignores the Alexander Legends of the 4th-7th century and focuses on a historical account of Alexander. Baha'eddin Khoramshahi rejects Alexander based solely on his historical identity. And Khalid Jan gives background information on the historical Alexander and why he is not a fit to the Qur'anic story. Expresses no knowledge of the Alexander legends.
- Sir Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge, "The History of Alexander the Great, Being the Syriac Version of the Pseudo-Callisthenes, Volume 1", The University Press, 1889, http://books.google.com/books/about/The_History_of_Alexander_the_Great_Being.html?id=_14LmFqhc8QC.
- Tommaso Tesei (2015) Some Cosmological Notions from Late Antiquity in Q 18:60–65: The Quran in Light of Its Cultural Context Journal of the American Oriental Society 135.1
- Ibid. p. 465
- For an english translation of the relevant passage in the Spiritual Meadow see the screenshots in this tweet by Professor Sean Anthony Twitter.com - 31 Dec 2021 archive
- .A. Stewart in “A Byzantine Image of Alexander: Literature in Stone,” Report of the Department of Antiquities Cyprus 2017 (Nicosia 2018): 1-45 cited by Professor Shaun W. Anthony of Ohio State Univesity on Twitter.com - Accessed 8 March 2021
- "The impact of Alexander the Great’s coinage in E Arabia" at culrute.gr.
- Van Bladel, Kevin, “The Alexander legend in the Qur‘an 18:83-102″, in "The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context", Ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds, New York: Routledge, 2007.
- Ibn Ishaq; Guillaume, Alfred, ed. (2002) [?-767 AD]. "The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah". Oxford University Press. pp. 138–140. ISBN 978-0-19-636033-1.
- Hāssan b. Thābit quoted in R. A. Nicholson (transl.), A Literary History of the Arabs, p. 18, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1907
- Tafsir Ibn Kathir. Ch 18: "The Barrier restrains Them, but It will be breached when the Hour draws nigh". Full text at qtafsir.com
- Tommaso Tesei (2013) The prophecy of Dhu-l-Qarnayn (Q 18:83-102) and the Origins of the Qurʾānic Corpus Miscellanea arabica 2013–2014: 273-90
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- Flavius Josephus, William Whiston (trans.), "The Wars Of The Jews: Book VII, Ch7, v4", Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed November 24, 2013 (archived), http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/war-7.htm.
- Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From "Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series", Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <Letters of St. Jerome: Letter 77 (archived)>.
- Kenneth Gentry, "Before Jerusalem Fell", Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision, ISBN 0-930464-20-6, 1989, http://www.amazon.com/Before-Jerusalem-Fell-Dating-Revelation/dp/0930464206/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1385273746&sr=8-1.
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- New International Version of the Bible. Zondervan 1971. Rev 20:7-19.
- Ed. Emeri J. van Donzel, Andrea Barbara Schmidt, "Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Chrisitan and Islamic Sources", BRILL, p. 18, 2010, http://books.google.com/books?id=PtxOXRlPMA0C.
- Stephen J. Shoemaker, The Apocalypse of Empire: Imperial Eschatology in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018, pp. 79-86
- Allamah Abu Abd Allah al-Zanjani, Mahliqa Qara'i (trans.), "The History of the Quran", Al-Tawheed, p. 34, http://tanzil.net/pub/ebooks/History-of-Quran.pdf.
- van Donzel, Emeri; Schmidt, Andrea. Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources: Sallam's Quest for Alexander's Wall. Leiden: Brill. pp. 25–31. ISBN 9789004174160, 2010.
- Rebecca Edwards. "Two Horns, Three Religions. How Alexander the Great ended up in the Quran". American Philological Association, 133rd Annual Meeting Program (Philadelphia, January 5, 2002)
- Ibn Ishaq; Guillaume, Alfred, ed. (2002). "The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah". Oxford University Press. pp. 138–140. ISBN 978-0-19-636033-1.
- Jalal ad-Din al-Mahalli, Feras Hamza (trans.), "Tafsir al-Jalalayn: Surah 18, Ayah 83", Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2013 (archived), http://altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=0&tTafsirNo=74&tSoraNo=18&tAyahNo=83&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0&LanguageID=2.
- Shah Waliullah (1763), "Al-Fawz al-Kabir fi Usul al-Tafsir", Islamic Book Trust, p. 27, 2013, http://books.google.com/books?id=jbVWRp56XxsC.
- Sheikh Abdullah Yusuf Ali, "The Noble Quran's Commentary", appx. 6, p. 738.
- Plutarch (1919). Perrin, Bernadotte, ed. "Plutarch, Alexander". Perseus Project. Retrieved December 6, 2011.
- Joseph Roisman, Ian Worthington, "A Companion to Ancient Macedonia", John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 1-4051-7936-8, 2010, http://books.google.com/books?id=lkYFVJ3U-BIC.
- Peter Green, "Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age", London: Phoenix, ISBN 978-0-7538-2413-9, August 7, 2008, http://www.amazon.com/Alexander-Great-Hellenistic-Peter-Green/dp/0753824132/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1385374702&sr=8-1.
- Karsten Dahmen, "The Legend of Alexander the Great on Greek and Roman Coins", Routledge, ISBN 0-415-39451-1, February 23, 2007, http://www.amazon.com/Legend-Alexander-Great-Greek-Roman/dp/0415394511/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1385374897&sr=8-1.
- Ogden, Daniel (2009). "Alexander's Sex Life". In Heckel, Alice; Heckel, Waldemar; Tritle, Lawrence A. "Alexander the Great: A New History". Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 1-4051-3082-2.
- A brief defense of Alexander against Cyrus by a Muslim apologist can be viewed here.
- Baljon , Johannes Marinus Simon. "Modern Muslim Koran Interpretation: (1880 - 1960)". pp. 32-33. 1961. Relates a typical defense by Azad of the Cyrus theory by explaining first why Alexander should be rejected based on the historical Alexander and not the legendary one.
- Maududi, "Tafsir Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi - Tafhim al-Qur'an", Surah 18 Ayah 83, 1972 (archived), http://www.islamicstudies.info/result.php?sura=18&verse=83.
- Allameh Tabatabae. Tafsir al-Mizan Vol 26
- Naser Makarem Shirazi. Bargozideh Tafseer-i Nemuneh, Vol 3, p. 69
- "“Cyrus the Great (558-529 B.C.)." (1972). Iran (10): 1-17. doi:10.2307/4300460.
- Stronach, David, "PASARGADAE", Encyclopædia Iranica, 2009, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/pasargadae.
- Stronach, David, "HERZFELD, ERNST ii. HERZFELD AND PASARGADAE", Encyclopædia Iranica, 2003, https://iranicaonline.org/articles/herzfeld-ernst-ii.
- "CYRUS iii. Cyrus II The Great", Encyclopedia Iranica, https://iranicaonline.org/articles/cyrus-iiI.
- Simonin, Antoine, "The Cyrus Cylinder", worldhistory.org, 2012, https://www.worldhistory.org/article/166/the-cyrus-cylinder/.
- Maududi, "Tafsir Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi - Tafhim al-Qur'an", Introduction to Chapter 18, 1972 (archived), http://www.usc.edu/org/cmje/religious-texts/maududi/introductions/mau-18.php.
- New International Version of the Bible. Zondervan 1971. Dan 8:2-7.
- Guzik, David. "Commentary on Daniel 8:1". "David Guzik's Commentaries on the Bible". 1997-2003 (archived).
- Ezra 1:1-2
- Isaiah 45:1
- Chron 36:22-33, Ezra 1:1-8, Ezra 3:7, Ezra 4:3-5, Ezra 5:13-17, Ezra 6:3,14, Isaiah 44:28, Isaiah 45:1,13, Daniel 1:21, Daniel 6:28, Daniel 10:1
- Omrani Rekavandi, H., Sauer, E., Wilkinson, T. & Nokandeh, J. (2008), "The enigma of the red snake: revealing one of the world’s greatest frontier walls", Current World Archaeology, No. 27, pp. 12-22, February/March 2008 (archived), http://www.shca.ed.ac.uk/staff/academic/esauer/pubs/iranian_walls.pdf.