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Alexander the Great of the Quran

Alexander the Great didn’t leave a mark only in history books; soon after his death he entered the sphere of myth. The first mythical narration of the king’s adventures belongs to pseudo-Callisthenes, a name given to the writer of the manuscript called The Life of Alexander (the real Callisthenes, Alexander’s court historian, died before him, so he couldn’t have written about the king’s death).

The mythical history continued to be embellished by peoples which had come in contact with Alexander and was named The Alexander Romance. We find in the relevant texts various fantastical stories which include Alexander’s travels at the edge of the world and the depths of the sea in a glass sphere. The legends passed on in the Jewish literature, where, in the Talmud, Alexander appears to rise in the heavens, shows up at the gates of Paradise, meets the Amazons etc. It also entered early Christian legends, where he was described as a Saint or The Believing King, but also Arabic, Persian, Armenian and Ethiopian ones.

A coin depicting Alexander, 297-281 BC
A coin depicting Alexander, 297-281 BC

But we also find him in the Quran, in chapter 18 (The Cave), in a story that reminds one of the Gates of Alexander. He is referenced as the Two-Horned king, or “Dhul-Qarnayn”, (coins found dated from the 2nd century BC, depicting him wearing horns validate the name –he is also called the same in Ethiopian, Christian and other sources) where Allah invites Mohamed to tell the story of the king. In the short narration, Alexander, having received the means to assert authority by Allah, went on his way and arrived where the sun sets, coming upon a people. Allah allowed him to punish that people or treat it well, according to his will. Alexander decided to punish the wicked ones among them, while he rewarded the believers and assigned them to his commands. He went on to reach the east, where he found another people to which Allah had not given protection from the sun (black people?), and “then he followed a way”. Reaching a place between two mountains, he met a third people who offered him a tribute to build a wall in order to protect them from Gog and Magog. These two peoples first appeared in the Old Testament, and are connected to the coming of Armageddon. In Islamic eschatology, they are supposed to ravage the lands of the Earth before the Day of Judgment. Alexander refused the tribute (“That in which my Lord has established me is better than what you offer”) but accepted to build the wall if they supplied manual labor. After the wall was completed and he blessed Allah, he reminded the people that whenever Allah wishes, he will destroy it, marking the Judgment Day (Islamic Armageddon).

There are some objections from Islamic scholars about the identity of the Two-Horned king –that he was not Alexander but, instead, Cyrus the Great, or even some unnamed world emperor. These objections only came up after historical documents about Alexander were discovered and clearly showed Alexander to be an idolater/pagan and with a controversial sexual behavior, since earlier Islamic scholars accepted without a doubt that the Two-Horned king of the Quran was the Macedonian King. In Tafsir al-Jalalayn (15th century), a Sunni tafsir (exegesis) of the Quran, it is made clear that he is indeed Alexander. Most agree that he was not a prophet, but a holy man, a “friend of Allah”. The notion that the Two-Horned king could be an unknown world emperor cannot stand to scrutiny, since it is quite unlikely that such a person, or his empire, could have existed without anybody having found the slightest relevant evidence. The great many similarities between the Quran story and ‘The Gates of Alexander’, as well as other older stories that name the Macedonian, make it rather clear that all these sources are indeed centered on the same person.

[you can read the source material below]

Alexander builds a wall against Gog and Magog (source)
Alexander builds a wall against Gog and Magog (source)

The Quran (=recitation) is the revelation of Allah (=God) to the Prophet Mohamed. The recitation is almost exclusively made by Allah, who speaks either in the first plural or in the first or third singular.

The verses on Alexander the Great in the Quran:

From chapter 18: The Cave

  1. And they ask you, [O Muhammad], about Dhul-Qarnayn. Say, “I will recite to you about him a report.”
  2. Indeed We established him upon the earth, and We gave him to everything a way.
  3. So he followed a way
  4. 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.”
  5. He said, “As for one who wrongs, we will punish him. Then he will be returned to his Lord, and He will punish him with a terrible punishment.
  6. But as for one who believes and does righteousness, he will have a reward of Paradise, and we will speak to him from our command with ease.”
  7. Then he followed a way
  8. 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.
  9. Thus. And We had encompassed [all] that he had in knowledge.
  10. Then he followed a way
  11. Until, when he reached [a pass] between two mountains, he found beside them a people who could hardly understand [his] speech.
  12. They said, “O Dhul-Qarnayn, indeed Gog and Magog are [great] corrupters in the land. So may we assign for you an expenditure that you might make between us and them a barrier?”
  13. He said, “That in which my Lord has established me is better [than what you offer], but assist me with strength; I will make between you and them a dam.
  14. 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.”
  15. So Gog and Magog were unable to pass over it, nor were they able [to effect] in it any penetration.
  16. [Dhul-Qarnayn] said, “This is a mercy from my Lord; but when the promise of my Lord comes, He will make it level, and ever is the promise of my Lord true.”
  17. 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.

[This is the end of the Alexander story. The chapter finishes below:]

  1. And We will present Hell that Day to the Disbelievers, on display –
  2. Those whose eyes had been within a cover [removed] from My remembrance, and they were not able to hear.
  3. Then do those who disbelieve think that they can take My servants instead of Me as allies? Indeed, We have prepared Hell for the disbelievers as a lodging.
  4. Say, [O Muhammad], “Shall we [believers] inform you of the greatest losers as to [their] deeds?
  5. [They are] those whose effort is lost in worldly life, while they think that they are doing well in work.”
  6. Those are the ones who disbelieve in the verses of their Lord and in [their] meeting Him, so their deeds have become worthless; and We will not assign to them on the Day of Resurrection any importance.
  7. That is their recompense – Hell – for what they denied and [because] they took My signs and My messengers in ridicule.
  8. Indeed, those who have believed and done righteous deeds – they will have the Gardens of Paradise as a lodging,
  9. Wherein they abide eternally. They will not desire from it any transfer.
  10. Say, “If the sea were ink for [writing] the words of my Lord, the sea would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even if We brought the like of it as a supplement.”
  11. Say, “I am only a man like you, to whom has been revealed that your god is one God. So whoever would hope for the meeting with his Lord – let him do righteous work and not associate in the worship of his Lord anyone.”

I originally used the Arabic to Greek translation by K. I. Pentakis (published by Cactus, 2006). The English translation above is from quran.com

15th century Persian miniature painting from Herat (Afganistan) depicting Iskander, the Persian name for Alexander the Great (source)
15th century Persian miniature painting from Herat (Afganistan) depicting Iskander, the Persian name for Alexander the Great (source)

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One comment

  1. I would like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this blog.

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