Dhul Qarnayn in the Quran

As part of my research into the Quran, this was one of the biggest problems I ran into.  The story of Dhul Qarnayn has so many issues.  I spent days reading and reading everything I could find on this topic until I came to the conclusion that this story is not from God.  At the end of this post I have links for further reading as there is a lot more detail than I put here. Note: if you prefer videos to reading, check out Videos on Dhul Qarnayn, otherwise, read on!

 

 The story of Dhul Qarnayn is a fantastical story of a man who travelled to the East and West, and trapped the nation of Gog and Magog between mountains.  Was Dhul Qarnayn Alexander the Great?  There is lots of evidence that he was due to the startling similarity of the stories as well as the common folklore about Alexander.  Even if he wasn’t, there are many other issues with the actual content of this story that need to be addressed.
  1. Dhul Qarnayn went to the place of the rising of the sun and the setting of the sun
  2. Dhul Qarnayn trapped a people behind two mountains using a dam or gate of copper and iron
  3. These people are constantly digging from this trapped location until Allah allows them to escape and they will wreak havoc on humanity.

Could it be an analogy?

The Quran has many stories in it.  Infact one of the claims of its miraculous nature is that it contains many stories that Prophet Muhammad could not have known.  It is said that God himself told him these stories.

ذَٰلِكَ مِنْ أَنبَاءِ الْغَيْبِ نُوحِيهِ إِلَيْكَ ۚ وَمَا كُنتَ لَدَيْهِمْ إِذْ يُلْقُونَ أَقْلَامَهُمْ أَيُّهُمْ يَكْفُلُ مَرْيَمَ وَمَا كُنتَ لَدَيْهِمْ إِذْ يَخْتَصِمُونَ
That is from the news of the unseen which We reveal to you, [O Muhammad]. And you were not with them when they cast their pens as to which of them should be responsible for Mary. Nor were you with them when they disputed.  (Quran 3:44)
نَّحْنُ نَقُصُّ عَلَيْكَ نَبَأَهُم بِالْحَقِّ ۚ
It is We who relate to you, [O Muhammad], their story in truth…
وَكُلًّا نَّقُصُّ عَلَيْكَ مِنْ أَنبَاءِ الرُّسُلِ مَا نُثَبِّتُ بِهِ فُؤَادَكَ ۚ وَجَاءَكَ فِي هَٰذِهِ الْحَقُّ وَمَوْعِظَةٌ وَذِكْرَىٰ لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ
And each [story] We relate to you from the news of the messengers is that by which We make firm your heart. And there has come to you, in this, the truth and an instruction and a reminder for the believers.

And We will leave them that day surging over each other, and [then] the Horn will be blown, and We will assemble them in [one] assembly.
(Quran 18:99)

No.  It makes it crystal clear in these verses that this is not the case.

Is Dhul Qarnayn Alexander the Great?

Yusuf Ali, the famous translator of the Quran, who studied Greek literature, believes that there is no doubt that Dhul Qarnayn can be no other than Alexander the Great.  In his appendix he describes this man in great detail, which I have included here for your perusal:

YusufAli_AlexanderTheGreat1    YusufAli_AlexanderTheGreat2YusufAli_AlexanderTheGreat3YusufAli_AlexanderTheGreat4YusufAli_AlexanderTheGreat5

For the longest time, classical scholars said that Dhul Qarnayn was Alexander the Great.  Many early tafaseer make this claim as well (Fakhr al-Din al-Razi , Tafsir al-Jalalayn for example).   Also there are references to Dhul Qarnayn being in pre-islamic poetry found in Ibn Ishaq’s seerah. At this point in time (early Islamic history) there was no problem in making this connection, because it was not known that Alexander the Great was a pagan polytheist.

Only recently due to the discovery of historic documents (as compared to the romantic or fantastical stories of Alexander) we now know that Alexander the Great was a pagan and he was not a monotheist.  This means that due to new historic evidence, Dhul Qarnayn cannot be Alexander the Great, or otherwise the Quran would be wrong, or history is wrong.  This is why most modern scholars now want to say that Dhul Qarnayn was not Alexander the Great.  Yasir Qadhi also mentions this, along with many others.

Abul Ala Maududi in Tafheem al Quran writes:

The identification of Dhul Qarnayn has been a controversial matter from the earliest times. In general the commentators have been of the opinion that he was Alexander the Great but the characteristics of Zul-Qarnain described in the Quran are not applicable to him. However, now the commentators are inclined to believe that Dhul Qarnayn was Cyrus, an ancient king of Iran. We are also of the opinion that probably Dhul Qarnayn was Cyrus, but the historical facts, which have come to light up to this time, are not sufficient to make any categorical assertion (“Tafheem-ul-Qura’an”. p. 18:83, note 62.)

The story of Dhul Qarnayn

There are many issues with the Dhul Qarnayn story.  First of all, the story is very similar to the Syriac Alexander Romance which was authored in the same era and could easily have come to Arabia.  The stories are startlingly similar and have very strong parallels:

  1. Alexander the Great goes to the place of sun rise at the edge of the Earth and sees a people who have no shade from the sun.  When the sun comes up, they run and jump into the water to avoid being burned by the rays of the sun
  2. Alexander the Great goes to the place of sun set at the other edge of the Earth and he discovers that the sun goes into the fetid dark murky sea.
  3. People complain to Alexander about the tribes of Gog and Magog who are creating havoc for them
  4. Alexander says he will build a dam or gate out of copper and iron (same two metals mentioned in the Quran) to trap them between the two mountains

So now we have a problem.  We are faced with two possibilities.  Either the Syriac Alexander Romance was influenced by the Quran, or the Quran was influenced by the Alexander Romance.  Which one is it?  This is our first doubt.  Both of the stories are dated to the same time period so we cannot rule out either possibility.

The version recorded in Syriac is of particular importance because it was current in the Middle East during the time of the Quran’s writing and is regarded as being closely related to the literary and linguistic origins of the story of Dhul-Qarnayn in the Quran. (Wikipedia)

Secondly, the content itself of the story does not seem to be realistic.  How can an entire nation of people be trapped between two mountains?  The Alexander Romance describes a flat earth surrounded by a murky sea. Also, the sun setting into the sea is a problem unto itself.  Historical references to this story indicate it was understood literally in Tafsir by scholars of Arabic and Quran.  Not to mention the use of the language in describing this event.

We know for a fact that Dhul Qarnayn was known to the people at the time, based on the fact that they came to ask Prophet Muhammad about him.

وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ عَن ذِي الْقَرْنَيْنِ ۖ قُلْ سَأَتْلُو عَلَيْكُم مِّنْهُ ذِكْرًا
And they ask you, [O Muhammad], about Dhul-Qarnayn. Say, “I will recite to you about him a report.” (Quran 18:83)
The title “The Two-Horned’ was at least familiar to the Jews. This is evident from the fact they had instigated the Meccan unbelievers to ask the Prophet about him. One must, therefore, inevitably turn to Jewish literature or oral traditions from the time of Muhammed to find out who this person was or to establish what was the kingdom known as ‘The Two-Horned.’  This simple statement really limits the scope of who Dhul Qarnayn might be.

In the romance, Alexander the Great travels to the edges of the flat earth, and he finds the place where the sun rises.  Where the sun rises, the people have no shade, and they have to hide and run when it comes up.

Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it [as if] setting in a spring of dark mud, and he found near it a people. Allah said, “O Dhul-Qarnayn, either you punish [them] or else adopt among them [a way of] goodness.” 18:86

He also goes to where the sun sets into the fetid sea.  They believed that the Earth was surrounded by a sea which was fetid (dark, dirty).  This fetid sea nobody could approach or could die. Around the sea were mountains.

Until, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had not made against it any shield. 18:90

The story of trapping Gog and Magog between the mountains makes a lot of sense if you believe the world is flat, and that it is possible to trap Gog & Magog between mountains and the fetid sea.

WorldBlog-idrisi-12thcntry

Al-Idrisi’s World Map with Gog and Magog behind the wall and circled in red. Note, this map is oriented to the south so here Gog and Magog are in the proximity of China.

Bring me sheets of iron” – until, when he had leveled [them] between the two mountain walls, he said, “Blow [with bellows],” until when he had made it [like] fire, he said, “Bring me, that I may pour over it molten copper.”

So Gog and Magog were unable to pass over it, nor were they able [to effect] in it any penetration.

(Quran 18:96-97)

It would have been possible to make such claims back in the 7th century, when humanity had not actually traversed the Earth and while many nations did not know what lay beyond their borders.  Now, it is very difficult.  Even though humans have not searched every inch of the Earth, we do have a pretty good idea.  Why can we not find such a gigantic gate?  Some Muslims have theorized that Gog and Magog may be living under the Earth according to the “Hollow Earth Theory“.  The idea that there are humans living inside the crust of the Earth shows the desperation of Muslims trying to make sense out of a story that makes no sense.

What are Gog and Magog?  Some people say they are the mongolians or the Huns..  Some people say they are another race like humans but unlike humans?  The hadith literature gives some hints that they may be humans, or some sort of human creatures, but that point is not really important to our discussion.

They are only mentioned twice in the Quran, once above, and the second time here:

And We will leave them that day surging over each other, and [then] the Horn will be blown, and We will assemble them in [one] assembly.
(Quran 18:99)

They are however mentioned in the hadith literature.  Apparently they are still trapped behind this gate and mountain and are trying to scratch their way out of it.  So far they have not succeeded.

 Narrated Zainab bint Jahsh:

That the Prophet (ﷺ) once came to her in a state of fear and said, “None has the right to be worshipped but Allah. Woe unto the Arabs from a danger that has come near. An opening has been made in the wall of Gog and Magog like this,” making a circle with his thumb and index finger. Zainab bint Jahsh said, “O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! Shall we be destroyed even though there are pious persons among us?” He said, “Yes, when the evil person will increase.”

(Bukhari 60:26)

This gate or dam must be really enourmous, as its trapping an entire race or civilization or creation of God.  Yet nobody has ever seen this gate that has kept these creatures out..  Infact Umar sent an expedition to find this gate as recorded in Ibn Kathir and by the muslim georgraph Yaqut al-Hamawi, and of course they did not find any giant gate trapping an entire nation between two mountains.  Apologists now will claim that the fact we cannot find this gate means its a secret of the Quran.  This is another major problem, are we to take this story completely on faith?  Do we have to believe that God hid this entire nation somewhere out of plain sight?  When people mention that we are still finding undiscovered native tribes in the forests, these are small tribes with a handful of people, completely different story from Gog & Magog who will number 999 of 1000 people on Earth at some point.

Of course, the early Makkans didn’t buy this, and they didn’t see anything miraculous about these stories. This is what they said:

And they say: The stories of the ancients– he has got them written– so these are read out to him morning and evening. (Quran 25:5)

In conclusion, Alexander the Great and Dhul Qarnayn are one and the same person based on multiple evidences and parallels between the stories.  Historical documents have shown that Alexander the Great was not a monotheist and was a pagan worshipper.  At the time Alexander was portrayed as many things including a monotheist, which the Quran decided to portray him as.  The Quran does not include the historical facts about Alexander rather includes the mythical version of his story which is based on fantasy rather than truth.  If we choose to discount history and instead accept the Quran and ignore the strong connection between Alexander the Great and Dhul Qarnayn, we still have a problem to solve regarding the content of the story not making logical sense.  Thus, it appears that the Quran is not the word of God but rather the work of a man in the 7th century.

For now, further reading:

25 thoughts on “Dhul Qarnayn in the Quran

  1. I read about this story from various source, and to me the most controversial thing is this:

    For the longest time, classical scholars said that Dhul Qarnayn was Alexander the Great. Only recently due to the discovery of historic documents (as compared to the romantic or fantastical stories of Alexander) we now know that Alexander the Great was a pagan and he was not a monotheist.

    So everybody from Mo’s time thought that Dhul Q was Alexander The Great, and that is how Mo got to know the story. There is also some piece of evidence like coins in Arabia (at that time) with picture of Alexander with horn on his head. Alexander is definitely Dhul Q.

    Now we know that Alexander The Great was a pagan and not monotheist, and the mythical Alexander is quite different from the real, historical Alexander.

    Why would the Quran tell us a story that is blatantly false?

    Unless of course, the Quran was actually composed by an Arab merchant using all the knowledge that he got from that time. It would explain why he made that mistake. He was just following the mythology of that time!

  2. Dear Brothers,
    There seems to be some confusion – the purpose of this story in the Quran is that the Jews of Madinah put out this story as a challenge question to the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. Which means they knew Makkans had no chance to know of about DQ. So unless there’s some historical evidence that Muhammad PBUH got in contact with some story teller in the 15-20 days after which he recited this part of the Quran, the argument, IMHO, that, since ppl after the messenger thought DQ was Alexander, the Quran is mistaken, does not hold up to rationality.
    If there WAS some such story teller, the Jews and Makkans would definitely have made a HUGE issue out of it, and history would have recorded it. An argument often given in response to this is that we don’t have many historians’ accords of that time, and Ibn Ishaq might have purposefully ignored the part about the story teller. In that case, we’re doubting Ibn Ishaq, which makes the whole case shatter even further, as, the article in the link (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_the_Great_in_the_Quran) clearly mentions:

    “Though Ibn Ishaq himself does not explicitly mention the name Alexander, he relates that a storyteller told him that Dhul-Qarnayn was a Greco-Egyptian (an accurate description of Alexander).”
    Which means Ibn Ishaq (almost a century after death of the Prophet PBUH) thought that it was ATG, and not the Prophet PBUH himself! And hence there’s nothing to argue about this issue of DQ being ATG.

    What makes the case even more towards the truth of Quran, is the point mentioned in the link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrus_the_Great_in_the_Quran

    “The Jews had a very high opinion of Cyrus the Great, because it was his invasion which brought about the downfall of the kingdom of Babylon and the liberation of the Israelites.”
    This explains why Jews might have come up with the challenge question at the first place.

    Hope that clarifies the matter a bit.

    1. Where is this fabled land that has an iron gate between two mountains? Does the quran or any hadiths provide the location for such a thing?

      1. Dear brothers n sisters,
        At least in my limited knowledge, there are not much details about the land where the nation of Gog & Magog currently are. There have been some interpretations (and I repeat, INTERPRETATIONS, and not literal narrations from the Prophet Muhammad Peace be Upon Him) that they are somewhere near Chinese / Mongolian region.
        In due course of time, humanity will definitely get to know where Gogs will come from, however, what seems to be the argument here is the truthfulness of the Quran.
        The Quran begins with a humble prayer, asking for guidance to the right path. Right after that, the Quran defines that there are three types of people:
        1) Who’d accept the Quran to be a true book, which provides guidance to the humble, who by their intellectual reflections have come to the natural understanding that there HAS to be something beyond our imagination – the UNSEEN.
        2) Those who’ll reject the Quran, no matter what arguments are presented to them.
        3) Those who’d outwardly appear to accept it, but would not accept it by heart.

        If we humble ourselves down, it makes sense that if we can easily understand 90% of the Quran’s teachings to be correct, and 10% are not (yet) clear to us, then the 100% of the Quran must be correct. The problem comes when we start arguing on the 10% unclear things just to prove the Quran wrong, we make a grave mistake. Cuz then we stop even trying to understand the basic Islamic concepts such as the Day of Judgement, and thus we keep committing wrong-doings (or in religious terms: sins). This attitude won’t help any1, but would definitely put ourselves in trouble, right after our eyes close for the final time.

        Just to be clear, there are numerous facts mentioned in the Quran, which were earlier thought to be scrupulous, but today they are established facts of life.

    2. Well I disagree that the Arab non-jews did not know about DQ. We know clearly that ATG was about to conquer Arabia before he died and word about him must have spread at the time. He died over 300 years before Christ which means that 100’s of years had passed before Muhammad’s prophethood. It is due to this passage of time that the Jews may have thought Muhammad did not know of Alexander the Great. We however know that Muhammad travelled extensively with Abu Taking and was also a merchant. This meant a huge possibility of interacting with other people who may have discussed about DQ/ATG. There’s nothing miraculous about the story. Muslims like to emphasize the fact that Muhammad was in a cave and an illiterate so couldn’t fabricate stuff but they forgot that he was well travelled and a merchant meaning that he met lots of people to share information with.

      1. And the whole point is: DQ might not have been ATG. Cuz the description of DQ in Quran and Sunnah doesn’t fit onto ATG. And ATG was not of significant importance to the jews, so why would they ask Muhammad about ATG?
        Indications are towards Cyrus, but not for sure….

        1. Actually this question is for Hamza,
          because he explained that this DQ story is an answer for the jews that test Muhammad .
          so if this story is irrational its okay because its just an answer for the jews.

          1. Dear brother Andit,
            Thank you for your question!
            The story is of course true. If we can’t see Gog Magog today, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist – otherwise we’d have to believe Atoms didn’t exist before humanity discovered em.
            What adds to the truthfulness of the Quran is that Jews had put this question to Muhammad, because they knew the Arabs of Makkah had no way to know about this story.
            But should we debate on truthfulness of Quran based on ONE story mentioned in it (which is not yet clear to humanity), while ignore the 1000s of other facts mentioned in the Quran?
            http://sunnahonline.com/ilm/quran/qms.pdf Shows a list of scientific facts mentioned in Quran, and their modern understanding.
            Quran DOES mention many things (that it describes as MUTASHABIHAT (loosely translated to as ‘grey areas’) that are not known to us now, but later humans might know better about em. So they maybe debatable today but an established fact tomorrow. It also tells that ppl Of bad hearts would always use the mutashabihat to make ppl astray (Quran 3:7).
            Hope that answers your question.

  3. Abdullah (I hope you continue to call yourself by that name and do revert to being Abdullah in real sense as well),

    Your conclusions appear hasty. I guess there was not much directly relevant readily available material over the internet for what was disturbing you but now it has come straight to you.

    https://quranmisconceptions.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/was-surah-18-plagiarized/
    https://quranmisconceptions.wordpress.com/2015/12/03/dhul-qarnayn-and-the-muddy-spring/

    You may Ctrl+F for key areas but I would insist you read them in full. Email me anytime ([email protected]) and I would love to discuss any matter with you. I see you may have some doubts about Ya’juj and Ma’juj as well; I have a draft paper that should satisfy your doubt if you continue to stay open minded and can share it with you before publishing it.

    Looking forward to your response.

      1. Brother Adeel, The view you bring forward on this blog is that Yajuj and Majuj have already broke through the barrier, attacked the Muslims, and now they are waiting for their final onslaught. If we ask, who are these people, you say they might have been the Mongols. So that means the Mongols are hiding and waiting to give their final onslaught? Also, if we accept the hadith, there is going to be 999 Mongols for every non-Mongol on earth (ref: http://sunnah.com/urn/44200)?

        You claim this is not mental gymnastics but Adeel honestly this really does feel like it

    1. I read your link on Gog and Magog and of course there are inconsistencies. First notice that Muhammad talked about spears, bows, arrows and sandals of hair. It’s obvious that this was a man speaking only about the things that were around him. Prophethood would imply at least a description of modern weapons which are all made of steel. Is it possible to make a firewood out of steel? Also Muhammad said Gog and Magog would drink dry a river in Palestine. Why not in America or Canada or present day Ghana? It’s because he was only aware of the regions surrounding him. I noticed that you applied a form of logic as follows: “if the quran or Hadith doesn’t say something explicitly then we are free to pick an interpretation or view that doesn’t introduce contradiction to the remainder of the narration”. That’s what you did when you said Gog and Magog may be out now and may have started causing havoc. Also is it possible that some community drink up all the water? We know today from geology how rivers flow from a source, tributaries and so on. Will they also drink dry the Atlantic and Pacific oceans? Finally it’s religion that causes the most hatred amongst people. Now because of this so called prophetic narration, Muslims will become skeptical of people with small eyes and “dirty hair”. Your article didn’t refute this blog. If anything it added more contradictions to the Islamic story

      1. Assalam Alaikum,
        … and we continue to argue on the Mutashabihat (Quranic topics that are not yet clear to us) and continue to ignore the rest of the Quran. Welcome to Satan’s beautiful intellectual trap!

        1. the whole premise is do not ask any questions. just ask why you are asking questions. end of story. and some seeking of some knowledge! good for mr nouman! and of course do him a favour and spare him the embarrassment!

          1. Good for brother Noman to explain that there r always useless questions that ppl with wrong intentions get stuck into and lose the right path! Bad for those who deny the hereafter, and save the embarrassment for then!
            Leave all the clear evidences of Quran being a miraculous speach of Allah, and indulge into the mutashabihat. Exactly the description of the ppl that Quran talks about in Aal e Imran, ayah 7!

  4. “The argument here is the truthfulness of the Quran”.

    Exactly. The Quran is untrue, as can be seen by this story of an unbelievably massive gate strung between two mountains.

    Mountains are sizable landmarks, and this gate would be even more so. It would be one of the largest man-made objects created in pre-modern times.

    Great blog btw. Love the discussion.

    1. Why do you let your imagination get the best of you? Where is there any mention of a HUGE gate between two HUGE mountains and there not being another way out? How do you know that Gog and Magog were not cave dwellers and there was a small opening in a cave from where they came out of and Dhul Qurnain didn’t use a whole lot of iron to close the mouth of the cave? I don’t know the answer either nor was the point of the story to discover this mysterious gate or associate a historical figure to the account.

      1. It’s not my imagination. Doesn’t the actual verses say it was built between two mountains? Also you need Dhul Qarnayn who was the leader of the world because he alone had the resources and manpower to do this. If it was just a simple gate on a cave couldn’t the people do it themselves? Btw There aren’t two stories of dwellers of the cave, just one.. Surely Allah could have said “Kahf” if thats what it means. Did you see the related hadith on this topic? Gog and Magog will drink the sea of Galilee dry,.. Muslims will burn the bows and arrows 7 years for firewood. That there will be 999 of them for every human in hell.

  5. The story of Alexander the Great reminds me of the Catholic Christians disposing of the concept of Limbo for young children.

    One thing was held as incontrovertibly true by the finest theologian minds for centuries upon centuries upon centuries….then when the truth is exposed, the past is brushed away like rubbish, as if billions hadn’t lived and died taking those utterly false truths on faith for generations. What of them?

    How can a ‘good’ religion teach a rubbish falsehood for more than a thousand years? What is the point of theologians if they cannot discern what the truth is?

  6. What is the name of the surat again ? = The cave ? right ? may be its not titled the cave just like this ? Don’t you think the wall is inside a cave ? an horizontal wall , not a vertical wall ? May be these creatures are underground ?

  7. Scholars had a theory that it could be alexander the great.that theory was mostly based on the mention in the quran about the helmet which dhul qarnayn wore had two horns.so far we only know of two leaders who wore a two horned helmet.one is alexander the great and the other is cyrus the great.there could be more we dont know.

    These were the theories put forward by some scholars.it does not mean that the quran is wrong.

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