Alexander the Great, Dhū al-Qarnayn & the Qur’ān

Alexander the Great, Dhū al-Qarnayn & the Qur’ān

By Klingschor

There appears in the Qur’ān a mysterious figure by the name of Dhū al-Qarnayn, a mighty hero who travelled to both the Eastern and Western extremities of the earth, where the sun rose and fell (respectively). At the former location he encountered peoples who (due to the close proximity of the sun) endured great heat without respite during the daytime, whilst at the latter he found a body of murky water.
Dhū al-Qarnayn proceeded to travel elsewhere until he came across two great barriers, in whose shadow lived a strange race of bestial and subhuman people who begged him for help; beyond the barriers lay the lands of the foul Gog and Magog, an evil and apocalyptic race against whom the bestial peoples sought protection.  In response to their plight, Dhū al-Qarnayn constructed a gigantic bastion of iron and brass to shore up the barriers betwixt his clients and the vicious nations of Gog and Magog, a wall that (according to the Qur’ān) still stands to this day and will only crumble on Judgement Day. When this occurs, the evil hordes of Gog and Magog will be released from their imprisonment behind Dhū al-Qarnayn’s iron wall and scourge the world.[1]

The identity of Dhū al-Qarnayn (literally the ‘Two-Horned One[2]) has been the source of much speculation throughout history. Although opinions vary, the most common identity posited for Dhū al-Qarnayn by Classical Muslim exegetes of the Qur’ān (such as ‘Abd-Allāh al-Qurtubī, Ismā‘īl ibn Kathīr, Muhammad al-Tabarī and Jalāl al-Suyūtī) was that of Alexander the Great.[3], [4] The evidence for this conclusion is compelling, and incidentally reveals an interesting plagiarism within the Qur’ān.

The very name Dhū al-Qarnayn (the Two-Horned One) is extremely revealing as to the identity of the so-called character in the Qur’ān, as the title was actually a commonly used epithet for Alexander the Great in Antiquity:

The epithet he [Alexander the Great] is given in the Koran and in Islamic tradition is already known in the Syriac Alexander Legend which itself goes back to Jewish and probably Egyptian tradition. The name is also found in the Greek, Coptic and Ethiopic Alexander tradition.[5]

This title actually originated from the association of Alexander with a horned composite-deity known as Zeus-Ammon,[6], [7] which led to the Macedonian being depicted with two ram’s horns protruding from his head:

The iconography of Amun would surround Alexander even after his own death: “The god Ammon became increasingly important to Alexander after siwah … [and] after his death the men who knew him well would incorporate the horn of Ammon into the canonical iconography of Alexander”. To support his claims to divinity as the son of Amun (whom the Greeks venerated as an avatar of Zeus), Alexander began to sanction official graphic representations of himself with the ram’s horns of Amun curling through his hair. This image of Alexander fitted with the horns of a ram […] can still be seen on various ancient coins.[8]

Thus it was that Alexander the Great became known as the Two-Horned One, an epithet that was used throughout the ancient world and even appeared pictorially on coinage for many centuries to come.

It isn’t just the name that identifies Dhū al-Qarnayn as Alexander the Great, however – the story of Dhū al-Qarnayn in the Qur’ān finds a great degree of parity with the myths and legends that developed around Alexander the Great in the centuries following his death: According to the Qur’ān, Dhū al-Qarnayn the Two-Horned One travels to the Western and Eastern extremities of the earth to lands ravaged by the heat of the sun, before travelling to a place between two barriers where he constructed a giant bastion of iron to keep at bay the evil tribes of Gog and Magog. This narrative actually predates the Qur’an by several centuries and has its origins in an ancient legend pertaining to Alexander the Great “According to Greek and Latin traditions from the first century CE onward”, who spoke of him “building gates in the Caucasus to keep out invaders”.[9]
The famous first century Roman historian Pliny the Elder noted this peculiar legend, and spoke giant iron gates and a fortress in the Caucasus Mountains, “erected for the purpose of barring the passage of the innumerable tribes”.[10]

In the Middle East, however, the story was far more elaborate and had become interwoven with popular Biblical apocalyptic legends, as was duly noted by the First Century Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus:

The link between the apocalyptic peoples of Gog and Magog on the one hand, and Alexander and the wall he is said to have built on the other, apparently took origin in Jewish Hellenistic circles in Alexandria at the beginning of the Christian era. It is Flavius Josephus (d. around 100) who witnesses at first to the trend. […] It is in his Jewish War, that Josephus links the biblical Gog and Magog with the popular Hellenistic Alexander-tradition. He says that Alexander closed a mountain pass by erecting iron gates south of the Caspian Sea[11]

Thus it was that in the 1st Century CE, Alexander the Great (or the Two-Horned One, as he was also popularly known) was attributed with having constructed a giant bastion of iron in the Caucasus Mountains of Central Asia to keep at bay the evil hordes of Gog and Magog.

The Hun invasions of the late 4th Century CE that devastated Syria and the Northern-Mesopotamia were reminiscent of the Biblical menace of Gog and Magog, a fact that helped to further develop the tradition surrounding Alexander the Great. He became “a superhuman protector of civilization” and

With God’s help he was to build a barrier that should shut off the apocalyptic nations until the time fixed by God Himself. Only at God’s signal could they get loose and ravage the earth before they would be finally destroyed.[12]

By now, the various legends surrounding Alexander the Great portrayed the Macedonian conqueror as “an almost mythical hero performing numerous deeds which brought him to the farthest ends of the world[13] and attributed to him the construction of a gigantic iron bastion in the Caucasus Mountains of Central Asia to imprison the evil hordes of Gog and Magog until Judgement Day, when the peoples of Gog and Magog will escape and lay waste to the world.
Nowhere was this more evident than the Alexander Romance, a collection of ahistorical legends penned by an unknown author commonly titled ‘Pseudo-Callisthenes’ that

seems to have received its literary form in Alexandria at the end of the 3rd century. The text became soon very popular and was rewritten and adapted to the different readers’ cultural or national environment. The Romance was spread in numerous versions and languages to the East and to the West. The oldest testimonies of the Romance are the Latin (4th c.) and Armenian version (5th c.).[14]

It was the Syriac rendition of the Alexander Romance, however, the truly brought together these various Alexander traditions into a single unified narrative:

The Syrian redactor, probably an East Syrian Christian, added a certain number of until then unknown episodes to the text. The episode of Alexander’s building a wall against Gog and Magog, however, is not found in the oldest Greek, Latin, Armenian and Syriac versions of the Romance. Though the Alexander Romance was decisive for the spreading of the new and supernatural image of Alexander the king in East and West, the barrier episode has not its origin in this text. The fusion of the motif of Alexander’s barrier with the Biblical tradition of the apocalyptic peoples of Gog and Magog appears in fact for the first time in the so called Syriac Alexander Legend. This text is a short appendix attached to Syriac manuscripts of the Alexander Romance.[15]

The Syriac Alexander Legend was composed 629-630 CE in the Northern Levant following the Byzantine victory over the Sāssānid Empire, and details how a God-fearing Alexander the Great (the King of the West and the East) travelled to the ends of the earth: at one he finds an inhospitable land girt by foetid water, and at the other (the place where the sun rises) he finds a land where the peoples fear the scathing burn of sunlight. After visiting these places, Alexander travels on and constructs a giant iron bastion in-between two mountain barriers to keep at bay the tribes of Gog and Magog. In the Legend the old epithet of the ‘Two Horned One’ is taken literally, and Alexander is described as possessing a set of horns.[16], [17]

This legend persisted for more than a millennium in Persia, where the celebrated poet Firdausi included in his masterpiece the Shahnameh a section devoted to the tale of how Alexander the Great “went to the East, saw wonders, and built a barrier against Gog and Magog”.[18]

There is no room for ambiguity on this matter – the story of Dhū al-Qarnayn—the Two-Horned One who travelled to the ends of the earth and found a pool of foetid water at one and people living in fear of the rising sun at the other, before constructing a giant wall of iron between two barriers to keep at bay the evil tribes of Gog and Magog until Judgement Day—is a direct plagiarism from ahistorical pre-Islāmic stories and legends pertaining to Alexander the Great. These legends originate from the 1st Century CE and were widely disseminated throughout the ancient world up til the birth of Islām. Muhammad’s prophetic career (610-632 CE)[19] even coincides with the Syriac Alexander Legend (629-630 CE), although many of the stories it contains had already filtered into the Arabian Peninsula in the years preceding Islām:

Alexander the Great is an important figure in Arabic literature. Incidental mentions of him, either under his own name (al-Iskandar) or as Dhu’l-qarnain, ‘the two-horned one’, appear from the earliest times, even in pre-Islamic poetry[20]

Two examples of this are the pre-Islāmic poet Maymūn ibn Qays al-A‘shā and Muhammad’s contemporary Hassān ibn Thābit, both of whom composed verses relating to Dhū al-Qarnayn’s travels to the eastern end of the earth and to his construction of a wall to imprison Gog and Magog.[21]

When all of these facts are taken into consideration, it’s little wonder that Classical exegetes of the Qur’ān took Dhū al-Qarnayn to be Alexander the Great:

the two stories […] associated with Dhu’l-qarnain [in the Qur’ān] are precisely those two associated with Alexander in the Syriac Legend of Alexander, current shortly before the composition of the Qur’an.[22]

In summation, ancient legends pertaining to Gog and Magog (as related in the Bible) and ancient ahistorical stories pertaining to Alexander the Great’s iron barrier in the Caucasus (as noted by Pliny the Elder) became interwoven into a single myth (according to Flavius Josephus): Alexander the Great built a giant barrier of iron in the Caucasus to imprison Gog and Magog. The Hun Invasions in the 4th Century CE inspired the narrative further, wherein it was said that Gog and Magog will be imprisoned behind Alexander’s barrier until Judgement Day. This story was further elaborated in the Alexander Romance (first compiled by Pseudo-Callisthenes in the 3rd  Century CE and further redacted many times in many different languages over the following centuries), and by the 7th Century CE (the time of the formative years of Islām) it attained the following form (as culminated in the Syriac Alexander Legend): Alexander the Great was a God-Fearing Monotheist who travelled to the ends of the earth and encountered foetid water at one and people living in fear of the rising sun at the other; in Central Asia between two mountain-barriers he built a gigantic wall of iron and brass to imprison the evil nations of Gog and Magog that will last until Judgement Day, whereupon Gog and Magog will break free and wreak havoc upon the world.
Furthermore, Alexander the Great was always depicted with ram’s horns in Antiquity and was known throughout the ancient world by the epithet of the ‘Two-Horned One’ – the Syriac Alexander Legend even describes him with literal horns.
This ahistorical narrative of Alexander the Great (well known throughout the ancient Middle East and even the Arabian Peninsula) was subsequently incorporated into the Qur’ān, where Dhū al-Qarnayn (the Two-Horned One) travels to the ends of the earth (encountering a murky body of water and people beset by the rising sun, respectively) before building a giant wall of iron and brass between two barriers to imprison Gog and Magog until Judgement Day.

In conclusion, it seems clear beyond dispute that Muhammad (or perhaps some other later author) draw upon pre-Islāmic legends and appropriated them into Qur’ān.

Bibliography: 
Primary Sources:

Al-Mahallī, Jalāl al-Dīn, & Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī, (Translated by Feras Hamza), ‘Tafsir al-Jalalayn’, at http://tinyurl.com/3hruw8c, accessed 27 June 2011.

Budge, Ernest A. W. (ed.), The History of Alexander the Great: Being the Syriac Version of the Pseudo Callisthenes, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1889.

Khalidi, Tarif, The Qur’an: A New Translation, London, UK: Penguin Classics, 2009.

Secondary Sources:

Barletta, Vincent, Death in Babylon: Alexander the Great & Iberian Empire in the Muslim Orient, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Campo, Juan E., Encyclopedia of Islam, New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2009.

Donzel, Emeri Van, & Andrea Schmidt, Gog and Magog in Early Syriac and Islamic Sources: Sallam's Quest for Alexander’s Wall, Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2009.

Fildes, Alan & Joann Fletcher, Alexander the Great: Son of the Gods, Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2002.

Goldsborough, Reid, ‘Alexander the Great Numismatic Portrait’, 2010, at http://tinyurl.com/66g3r7x, accessed 24 June 2011.

Lawrence, Bruce, The Qur’an: A Biography, Crows Nest, AUS: Allen & Unwin, 2006.

Meserve, Margaret, Empires of Islam in Renaissance Historical Thought, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Panayotakis, Stelios, Maaike Zimmerman & Wytse Keulen, The Ancient Novel and Beyond, Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2003.

Reynolds, Gabriel S. (ed.), The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context, New York, NY: Routledge, 2008.

Wheeler, Brannon M., Prophets in the Qur’an: An Introduction to the Qur’an and Muslim Exegesis, London, UK: Continuum, 2002.



[1] Qur’ān 18:83-99, Qur’ān 21:96-97.

[2] Juan E. Campo, Encyclopedia of Islam (New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2009), pp.30-31.

[3] Brannon M. Wheeler, Prophets in the Qur’an: An Introduction to the Qur’an and Muslim Exegesis (London, UK: Continuum, 2002), pp.227-237.

[4] Jalāl al-Dīn al-Mahallī & Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī (Translated by Feras Hamza), ‘Tafsir al-Jalalayn’, at http://tinyurl.com/3hruw8c, accessed 27 June 2011.

[5] Emeri Van Donzel & Andrea Schmidt, Gog and Magog in Early Syriac and Islamic Sources: Sallam's Quest for Alexander’s Wall (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2009), p.57.

[6] Reid Goldsborough, ‘Alexander the Great Numismatic Portrait’, 2010, at http://tinyurl.com/66g3r7x, accessed 24 June 2011.

[7] Alan Fildes & Joann Fletcher, Alexander the Great: Son of the Gods (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2002), p.58.

[8] Vincent Barletta, Death in Babylon: Alexander the Great & Iberian Empire in the Muslim Orient (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), pp.183-184.

[9] Gabriel S. Reynolds (ed.), The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008), p.186.

[10] Cited in Margaret Meserve, Empires of Islam in Renaissance Historical Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), p.252.

[11] Emeri Van Donzel & Andrea Schmidt, Gog and Magog in Early Syriac and Islamic Sources, pp.10-11.

[12] Emeri Van Donzel & Andrea Schmidt, Gog and Magog in Early Syriac and Islamic Sources, p.16.

[13] Emeri Van Donzel & Andrea Schmidt, Gog and Magog in Early Syriac and Islamic Sources, p.16.

[14] Emeri Van Donzel & Andrea Schmidt, Gog and Magog in Early Syriac and Islamic Sources, p.17.

[15] Emeri Van Donzel & Andrea Schmidt, Gog and Magog in Early Syriac and Islamic Sources, p.17.

[16] Emeri Van Donzel & Andrea Schmidt, Gog and Magog in Early Syriac and Islamic Sources, pp.18-19.

[17] Ernest A. W. Budge (ed.), The History of Alexander the Great: Being the Syriac Version of the Pseudo Callisthenes (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1889), p.148.

[18] Ernest A. W. Budge (ed.), The History of Alexander the Great, p.133.

[19] Bruce Lawrence, The Qur’an: A Biography (Crows Nest, AUS: Allen & Unwin, 2006), pp.4-5.

[20] Stelios Panayotakis, Maaike Zimmerman & Wytse Keulen, The Ancient Novel and Beyond (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2003), p.3.

[21] Stelios Panayotakis, Maaike Zimmerman & Wytse Keulen, The Ancient Novel and Beyond, pp.7-8.

[22] Stelios Panayotakis, Maaike Zimmerman & Wytse Keulen, The Ancient Novel and Beyond, p.8.


See Also: 

Dhu’l Qarnayn and the sun controversy in the Qur’an: New evidence

A comprehensive examination with new evidence and many new arguments concerning the different interpretations of Qur’an 18:86 and 18:90 By Martin Taverille.

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2 Responses to this post

    Anonymous said...

    First of All:
    1) Dhul-Qarnayn (I'll mention him forthwith as DQ) is mentioned as a "Believer", whereas Alexander was (historically) known as a pagan.
    2) Neither the Quran nor Mohammad mention DQ as being Alexander. This is just an interpretation of various Muslim scholars, other Muslim scholars diasgree with the connection.
    3) For example: if 2 writers on opposite sides of the world write a story on say being mugged in a park at night and the both stories go plot-by-plot, does this necessarily mean that one of the writers committed plagiarism?
    4) Muslims believe that God has revealed down many books to past nations throughout history. The same stories occurred in several revelations, 'cause they were moral stories. When these nations changed the Religion revealed down by God they usually kept some traditions. Such would be the case here.

    You pride yourself in your so-called "logic", so please use facts and not your own or someone else's interpretations.

    Skeptic Mind said...

    Hello Anon, good to have you here.

    Your first point is,

    "1) Dhul-Qarnayn (I'll mention him forthwith as DQ) is mentioned as a "Believer", whereas Alexander was (historically) known as a pagan."

    This wasn't the attention of the article, though one could claim it doesn't matter what Alexander's religious views *historically* was, he nonetheless was a monotheistic individul. Classical scholars have had this view.

    Second point:

    "2) Neither the Quran nor Mohammad mention DQ as being Alexander. This is just an interpretation of various Muslim scholars, other Muslim scholars diasgree with the connection."

    I agree with you! There is still an ongoing debate among Islamic scholars who actually Dhul Qarnayn was. Some say Alexander, some say Cyrus the great, some mention other individuals.

    Your third point,

    "3) For example: if 2 writers on opposite sides of the world write a story on say being mugged in a park at night and the both stories go plot-by-plot, does this necessarily mean that one of the writers committed plagiarism?"

    Not necessarily. But it is possible! In this day & age, if someone discovers his story was similar plot by plot with another story written by another guy, then he can actually take legal action on presumption of plagiarism! But more than that, the above article shows stories from Alexander Romance was prevalent in ancient arabia. Arabs knew about these stories even before islam. The pre-islamic poetry actually mentions Alexander as Al- Iskandar. Please read the article carefully.

    How do you explain the similarities between Quran's narrative of Dhul Qarnayn and stories from Alexander Romance? You wrote,

    "4) Muslims believe that God has revealed down many books to past nations throughout history. The same stories occurred in several revelations, 'cause they were moral stories. When these nations changed the Religion revealed down by God they usually kept some traditions. Such would be the case here."

    Let me quote late Christopher Hitchens...

    "Extraordinary claims require Extraordinary evidence"

    It doesn't matter what the Muslim view is. It doesn't matter that Muslims believe Muhammad was a prophet and he got divine revelation from god, unless and until you provide evidence! You made an extraordinary claim. You bear the burden of proof for that claim. (in line with Occam's Razor,) in this particular case, a naturalistic explanation (muhammad plagiarised from contemporary folklore of Alexander) as detailed in the article, is highly probable than your explanation (muhammad recieved story of Dhul Qarnayn from God).

    "You pride yourself in your so-called "logic",so please use facts and not your own or someone else's interpretations."

    I don't understand what you wrote here.

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