History & Religion:

Zulqarnain: The story of Alexander

Edited by Javed S. Ahmad

Who was Zulqarnain ? This was a question of the Muslim scholars for many years. And it is quite obvious that only a person with in depth knowledge of "History of Mankind" would be capable to answer such a question. Abdullah Yusuf Ali happens to be that person with appropriate background to deal with this question. In his english translation of the Qur'an he took the liberty of writing down of commentaries based on his personal understanding and background. And undoubtedly, he did a marvelous job.

Qur'an is not like just any other book, it is a revelation, compiled by "All wise, All knowing". Often, we human beings can't even decipher some of it's meanings. Although, most of the verses are simple and straight forward, It does takes some wisdom and knowledge to understand the meaning of the glorious Qur'an. Our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was called the "living Qur'an". As he demonstrated how to live a "Muslim" life. Even being completely illiterate, who couldn't even sign his own name, was the one to answer questions raised by his followers. He had the wisdom and knowledge necessary to be able to interpret the meanings of the Qur'anic verses to the inquisitive minds of that time. And his words and sayings are now known as "Hadiths" (Sayings of the Prophet).

Alexander the Great is a legendary historic figure who had his influence in almost all civilized cultures of today's world. Also known as the conqueror of the world, travelled as far as India from ancient Greece. A disciple of Aristotle, one of the greatest ancient philosophers known to mankind. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, are few of the philosophers who never accepted anything without judging rationally. They even raised questions about beliefs in many Gods at the time when people believed in many Gods. Their faith was based on firm logic and reasons, which they passed down to their successors. From Socrates to Plato, from Plato to Aristotle, and finally from Aristotle to Alexander.

Alexander was a special man with a divine mission. And his mission was to unite mankind with a common bond, which we know today as the "Hellenic" bond. As per Qur'an, Alexander was a man of faith believing in "One God". He saw the world as "One" belonging to "One Mankind". He was given the wisdom and power... "They ask thee concerning Zul-quanain. Say, "I will reharse to you something of his story." Verily We established his power on earth, and We gave him the ways and the means to all ends." (Qur'an: The Cave (18): 83-4).

And then the story of his adventures begins.

"What is the meaning of the name or title Zul-qarnain - "Lord of the two Qarns"? "Qarn" may mean:

(1) a horn in the literal sense, as in the case of a ram or bull;

(2) a horn in a metaphorical sense, as in english, the horns of a kingdom or territory, two portions at opposite ends;

(3) but another metaphor, a summit, a lock of hair, typifying strength, a crest such as Eastern kings wear on their diadems;

(4) referring to time, an Epoch, an Age, a Generation.

Meaning (1) is inapplicable to a man or a great King: but see the next paragraph about Alexander the Great. The other three meanings may be applicable, as implying: (2) Lord of East and West, Lord of wide territory or of two kingdoms; (3) Lord of two crests on his diadem, typifying two kingdoms, or a rank superior to that of an ordinary king; (4) Lord of more than one Epoch: one whose power and influence extend far beyond his lifetime.

If we accept the popular identification of Zul-qarnain with Alexander, all the three latter designations would be applicable to him, as he was Lord of the West and the East, Lord of the Greek States united for the first time (Hellenic Captain-General) and of the widely extended Persian Dominion which included all Western Asia, Egypt, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Punjab (at least portions). He is represented on his coins with two horns on his head: he considered himself a son of Jupiter Ammon (who had the two horns of a ram), with a divine mission. He revolutionized the history of Europe, Asia, and Africa (Egypt), and his influence lasted for many generations after his death at the young age of 33. He lived from BC 356 to 323, but his name was one to conjure with for many centuries after him. It was not only on account of his political power, but his cultural influences. Through his conquests, Greek art gave the impulse to Gandhara art in Central Asia and North West India. the city of Alexandria which he founded in Egypt became the cultural centre, not only for Greek and Rome, but for Judaism and Christianity, and retained its supremacy till the sixth century of the Christian era.Justinian closed its schools of philosophy in 529. Its philosophic and scientific schools spread their influence over even a wider area than the Mediterranean basin.

Now the generality of the world of Islam have accepted Alexander the Great as the one meant by the epithet Zul-qarnain. But some of our 'Ulama' (religious scholars) have raised doubts about it and made other suggestions. One is that it was not the Macedonian Alexander the Great, but an earlier pre-historic king contemporary with Abraham; because, they say, Zul-qarnain was a man of Faith (18:88, 98), while Alexander the Great was a Pagan and believed in Grecian gods. An identification with a supposed pre-historic king, about whom nothing is known, is no identification at all. On the other hand, al that is known about Alexander the Great shows that he was a man of lofty ideals. he died over three centuries before the time of Jesus, but that does not mean that he was not a man of Faith, for God revealed Himself to men of all nations in all ages. Alexander was a disciple of the philosopher Aristotle, noted for his pursuit of sound Truth in all departments of thought. Alexander's reference to Jupiter Ammon may have been no more than a playful reference to the superstitions of his time. Socrates spoke of the Grecian gods, and so did Aristotle and Plato; but it would be wrong to call them idolaters or men without Faith. In the Ethiopic traditional stories of alexander the Great, he is represented as a great prophet....

The question of Yajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog) and the iron Barrier built to keep them out is of some interest It is practically agreed that they were the wild tribes of Central Asia which have made inroads on settled kingdoms and Empires at various stages of the world's history. The Chinese Empire suffered from their incursions and built the Great Wall of China to keep out the Manchus and the Mongols. The Persian Empire suffered from them at various times and at various points. Their incursions into Europe in large hordes caused migrations and displacements of population on an enormous scale, and eventually broke up the Roman Empire. These tribes were known vaguely to the Greeks and Romans as "Scythians", but that term does not help us very much, either ethnically or geographically.

If we could locate the iron barrier or iron gates referred to in Qur'an (18:96), we should have a closer idea of the tribes whom the barrier was meant to keep out. It is obvious that the Great Wall of China is out of the question. Begun in the third century BC and continued later, it covers the enormous length of 1,500 miles, and goes up the hills and down the valleys, with towers 40 feet high at intervals of 200 yards. Its average height is 20 to 30 feet. It is built of stone and earth. There is no particular point in it which can be identified with the iron barrier in the text. No one has suggested that Zul-quarnain was a Chinese Emperor, and none of the great Conquerors of Western Asia can be credited with the building of the Chinese Wall.

The barrier in the text must have been more in the nature of iron gates than an iron wall. Two Iron Gates, geographically far apart, have been suggested in the alternative. Sometimes they have been mixed up by writers not strong in geography. Both of them have local associations with the name of Alexander the Great. Both are near a town Derbend, and have borne the name of Bab-ul- hadid (Arabic for "Iron Gate")...

... The Wall in question is 50 miles long, with an average of 29 feet.... There is an Iron Gate which corresponds exactly to the description, in a locality which we know Alexander to have visited. (4) In the early days, when Muslims spread to all parts of the world, local legends were started by ignorant people connecting the places they knew with places referred to in the Qur'an.

We now come to the Iron gate which corresponds exactly to the Quranic description, and has the best claim to be connected with Alexander's story. It is near another Derbend in Central Asia, Hissar District, about 150 miles south-east of Bukhara. A very narrow defile, with overhanging rocks, occurs on the main route between Turkestan and India: latitude 38 degree N; longitude 67 degrees E. It is now called in Turki Buzghol-Khana (Goat-house), but was formerly known as the Iron Gate (Arabic, Bab-ul-hadid; Persian, Dar-i-ahani; Chinese T'ie-men-kuan). There is no iron gate there now, but there was one in the seventh century, when the Chinese traveller Hiouen Tsiang saw it on his journey to India. He saw two folding gates cased with iron and hung with bells. Near by is a lake named Iskander Kul, connecting the locality with Alexander the Great. We know from history that Alexander , after his conquest of Persia and before his journey to India, visited Sogdaina (Bukhara) and Maracanda (Samarqand). We also know from Muqaddasi, the Arab traveller and geographer, who wrote about A.H. 375 (AD 985-6) that the Abbasi Khalifa Wathiq (842-6 A.D.) sent out a mission to Central Asia to report on this Iron Gate. They found the defile 150 yards wide: on two jambs made with bricks of iron welded together with molten lead, were hung two huge gates, which were kept closed. Nothing could correspond more exactly with the description in Qur'an (18:95-6)." (Yusuf Ali:760-2).

"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 mightiest erect a barrier between us and them ? He said:" (The power) in which my Lord has established me is better (than tribute): Help me therefore with strength (and labor): I will erect a strong barrier between you and them: "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." Thus were they made powerless to scale it or to dig through it. 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."(Qur'an: The Cave(18): 94-8).

"If, then, the Barrier in 18:95-8 refers to the Iron Gate near Bukhara, we are able to proceed to a consideration of the Gog-Magog people with some confidence. They were the Mongol tribes on the other side of the Barrier, while the industrious men who did not understand Zul-qarnain's language were the Turks, with their agglutinative language, so different from the languages then spoken in Western Asia. The Barrier served its purpose for the time being. But the warning that the time must come when it must crumble to dust has also come true. It has crumbled to dust. Long since, the Mongols pushed through on their westward journey, pushing the Turks before them, and the Turks became a European Power and have still a footing in Europe. We need not bother about the legends of the Gog and Magog people. They were reputed to be giants, and two tiny hills in flat Cambridgeshire are derisively called the Gog-Magog hills! Similarly the statues of Gog and Magog in the Guildhall in London, which M.M.A. takes so seriously, only remind us how legends are apt to grow and get transported to strange places. In the Alexander legends of medieval Europe, Gog and Magog are said to have come with 400,000 men to help of Porus whom Alexander defeated, and to have fled after that defeat. They fled to the mountains, and Alexander built a wall with brass gates to prevent their irruptions. See Paul Meyer, Alexandre le Grand dans la litetrature franchise du Moyen Age: Paris, 1886; Vol.2,pp.386-389.

Personally, I have not the least doubt that Zul-qarnain is meant to be Alexander the Great, the historic Alexander, and not the legendary Alexander, of whom more presently. My first appointment after graduation was that of Lecturer in Greek history. I have studied the details of Alexander's extraordinary personality in Greek historians as well as in modern writers, and have since visited most of the localities connected with his brief but brilliant career. Few readers of Quranic literature have had the same priviledge of studying the details of his career. It is one of the wonders of the Qur'an, that, spoken through an Ummi's (illiterate) mouth, it should contain so many incidental details which are absolutely true. The more our knowledge increases, the more we feel this. There are little touches which need not have been mentioned. They come in incidentally like the incidental remarks of a person full of knowledge, who does not intend to put forward those points but whose fulness of knowledge brings them in inevitably.

One such point occurs in the mention of Alexander's westward journey (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."(Qur'an:18:86).

He saw the sunset in a piece of murky water which is described as a "Spring". Most commentators have understood the "spring" to be the sea, and the "murky water" to be its dark-blue water. Nizami, in his Romance of Alexander, takes Alexander right west along North Africa to Andalusia and the Atlantic Ocean. There is no historic proof that Alexander ever reached the Atlantic. But he was of course familiar with the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean interpretation may pass if we had not a closer explanation. Alexander's first exploits were when he was a mere boy, in the reign of his father Philip. The reign of Illyricum was due west of Mecedonia, and Mecedonia's first expansion was in that direction. The town of Lychnis was annexed to Macedonia and thus the western frontier of Macedonia was secured. The northern frontier towards the Danube had already been secured, and the lesson he subsequently gave to Thebes secured him against attack from the Greek States to the south, and prepared the way for his great march east against the Persian Empire. To the west of the town of Lychnis is a lake 170 square miles in area, fed by underground springs that issue through limestone rocks and give out murky water. Both town and lake are now called Ochrida, about 50 miles west of Monastir. The water is so dark that the river which forms the outlet of the lake to the north is called the Black Drin. Looking at the sunset from the town, the observer would see the sun set in a pool of murky water. It was a question before the boy Alexander- the dreamy, impulsive, fearless rider- whether he would put the barbarous Illyricans to the sword or show them mercy. He showed true discrimination and statesmanship. He punished the guilty but showed kindness to the innocent, and thus consolidated his power in the west. This I construe to be the meaning of 18:86-7; otherwise these verses do not seem to be perfectly clear.

"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). 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." (Qur'an:18:87-8).

Another point may be noted. The three episodes mentioned are the journey to the west, the journey to the east, and the journey to the Iron Gate. The journey to the west I have just explained. The journey to the east was to the Persian Empire. Here he found a people who lived in the open and wore little clothing. This might apply to people who live in an inland place in the latitude of Persepolis or Multan. He left them alone as they were (18:91).

"Then followed he (another) way, until, when he came to the rising sun, he found it rising on a people for whom we had provided no covering protection against the sun. (He left them) as they were: we completely understood what was before him."(Qur'an:18:89-91).

He was not warring against populations: he was warring against the proud but effete Persian Empire. He left them as they were, with their local institutions, and under their local chiefs. In feeling he treated them as his own, not as aliens. In some things he himself adopted their ways. His followers misunderstood him. But God understood, for He approves of all things that lead to Unity among mankind.

The direction of the third journey is not mentioned. The commentators suggest the north, but they might with better reason have suggested the south, as Alexander visited Egypt. But the visit to the Iron Gate was to the East - a continuation of his journey east. That is why the direction is not mentioned again. Here his mission was different. He had to protect a peaceful industrious population, whom perhaps the Persian Empire had failed to protect, against turbulent and restless invaders. He helped them to protect themselves, but warned them that all human precautions, though good and necessary, are vain without God's help.

Each of the episodes mentioned is historical. But the pomp and glitter of military conquest are not mentioned. On the contrary spiritual motives are revealed and commended. We need not know or learn any history or geography or science or psychology or ethics to understand them. But the more real knowledge we have, the more completely shall we understand them and the lessons to be drawn from them. The earthly journeys are treated as mere symbols to show us the evolution of a great and noble soul which achieved so much in a short earthly life.

His career was so extraordinary that it impressed his contemporaries as a world event, as it undoubtedly was, - one of the greatest world-events in history. Legends began to grow up round his name. In many cases the legends overlaid the history. Today the world is thrilled by Sir Aurel Stein's identification of Aornos, a very small geographical detail in a great career full of lessons, in political, ethical, and religious wisdom. But the generations immediately following Alexander's period wrote and transmitted all sorts of wonderful legends that passed current in East and West. The philosopher Kallisthenes had been with Alexander in Asia. Under his name was produced a Greek book in Alexandria some time before the second century of the Christian era. It was translated into Latin in the third century. Translations were subsequently made into most of the European languages. In Chaucer's time (1340-1400) these Alexander legends were known to every "weight that hath discrecion" (The Monk in Canterbury Tales).

Alexandria was a focus of Christian and Jewish learning for some centuries. The Christians also made Alexander a saint. The Jews carried the Alexander cycle into the East. Our Persian poet Jami (A.H. 535-599, A.D. 1141-1203) worked it up into his epic the Iskandar-nama. He is careful to show the historical or semi historical and the ethical parts separately. The one relates to action or exploits (Iqbal) and the other to wisdom (Khirad). He had the advantage of the Qur'an story before him. That story mentions three historical episodes incidentally, but draws our attention to matters of the weightiest spiritual significance, and that is the chief thing to note in the story."(Yusuf Ali:760-65).

"Kahf", meaning the Cave is the 18th chapter of the Holy Qur'an. It is one of the magnificent chapters which gives us "inside information" of some of the popular legends, historical events, and some mysteries of life. Namely,

1. The Christian legend of the "Companions of the Cave" - the story of 7 Christian youths of Ephesus. From verses 9 to 28.

2. The story of Prophet Moses (peace be upon him). His inquiries on mystery's of life, and his introduction with the invisible and immortal Prophet Khidhr (peace be upon him) who became his teacher and a guide.

3. And the story of Alexander (Zulqaunain or Dhulqarnain).

This surah or chapter begins with the following ayahs or verses:

"In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to God, who hath sent to His servant the Book, and hath allowed therein no crookedness: (He hath made it) straight (and clear) in order that He may warn ( the godless) of a terrible punishment from Him, and that He may give glad tidings to the believers who work righteous deeds, that they shall have a goodly reward, wherein they shall remain for ever: Further, that He may warn those (also) who say, "God hath begotten a son": No knowledge have they of such a thing, nor had their fathers. It is a grievous thing that issues from their mouths as a saying. What they say is nothing but falsehood! Thou wouldst only, perchance, fret thyself to death, following after them, in grief, if they believe not in this message. That which is on earth we have made but as a glittering show for the earth, in order that We may test them-as to which of them are best in conduct. Verily what is on earth We shall make but as dust and dry soil (without growth of herbage)." (Qur'an: 18:1-8).

In this text, I've limited myself to the story of Zulqarnain only. I wanted to re-write the story on my own, but later I realized that no matter how hard I try, I won't be able to do a better job than Yusuf Ali. He did a marvelous job in his introductions and commentaries. As if God had given him this special assignment to complete which he did wonderfully. Therefore, I've decided to keep his original quotes, references and interpretations intact. May Allah grant him peace and mercy, and honor him in the Day of Judgement.

The Qur'an is an unique book of knowledge. One should regardless of religious background and beliefs, read this book "with care" and "understanding". As the Qur'an itself said in the same chapter in verse 54:

"We have explained in detail in this Qur'an , for the benefit of mankind, every kind of similitude: But man is, in most things, contentious".

I strongly recommend the reader to acquire a copy of the translation of the Holy Qur'an by Yusuf Ali and read it at convenience and leisure. This "Qur'an" is the primary source of wisdom of "Islam", and the secondary sources of wisdom are the "Traditions or Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)". Yusuf Ali's commentaries comes as a rescue in understanding the critical verses of the Qur'an. Please also read other translations as well if you would like. After reading and comparing a few, you will definitely understand why I like and recommend Yusuf Ali's translation. Today's Islam is a misunderstood religion among the Muslims and Non-muslims alike. Many Muslims practice Islam without even knowing the meanings, reasons, and wisdom behind their acts and their practices. Everybody is looking for a short cut to heaven, but unfortunately, there is none.

Like always, I'm keeping my doors open for inquisitive quarters. Thank you.


End of "Zulqarnian-The Story of Alexander."

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