What Is Dhul-Qarnayn?
The verses of the chapter reproduced below show Dhul-Qarnayn traveling first to the Western edge of the world where he sees the sun set in a muddy spring, then to the furthest East where he sees it rise from the ocean, and finally northward to a place in the mountains where he finds a people oppressed by Gog and Magog:
|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.|
The Alexander Romance and Dhul-Qarnayn
The story of Dhul-Qarnayn has its origins in legends of Alexander the Great current in the Middle East in the early years of the Christian era. According to these the Scythians, the descendants of 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 basic elements are found in Flavius Josephus). The legend went through much further elaboration in subsequent centuries before eventually finding its way into the Quran through a Syrian version.
The reasons behind the name “Two-Horned” are somewhat obscure: the scholar al-Tabari (839-923 CE) held it was because he went from one extremity (“horn”) of the world to the other, 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. The wall Dhul-Qarnayn builds on his northern journey 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.
Dhul-Qarneyn also journeys to the western and eastern extremities (“qarns”, tips) of the Earth. In the west he finds the sun setting in a “muddy spring”, equivalent to the “poisonous sea” which Alexander found in the Syriac legend.  In the Syriac original Alexander tested the sea by sending condemned prisoners into it, but the Quran changes this into a general administration of justice. In the east both the Syrian legend and the Quran have Alexander/Dhul-Qarneyn find a people who live so close to the rising sun that they have no protection from its heat.
“Qarn” 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. 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.
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.
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.
The Malay-language Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain traces the ancestry of several Southeast Asian royal families, such as the Sumatra Minangkabau royalty, from Iskandar Zulkarnain, through Raja Rajendra Chola (Raja Suran, Raja Chola) in the Malay Annals.
People identified with Dhul-Qarnayn
- 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.
- “Messiah ben Joseph”, a fabulous military saviour expected by Yemenite Jews and associated in folk-lore with Dhu Nawas, a semi-legendary 6th century Yemenite king.
- Cyrus the Great, the 6th century BCE Achaemenid Persian conqueror, although there is no evidence that the earliest Muslim commentators made this connection.
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