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Quran Stories: The Story of Dhul-Qarnayn

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The Fascinating Tale of “Dhul-Qarnayn

A group from Quraysh decided to test the Honorable Messenger (PBUH), and this group coordinated with the Jews, consulting them to present three issues: the history of the youths of the cave, the nature of the soul, and the third issue was about “Dhul-Qarnayn.”

The story of “Dhul-Qarnayn” revolves around a personality that has intrigued philosophers and researchers since ancient times. Many efforts and endeavors were made to identify this personality.

First, we will mention the story of Dhul-Qarnayn, as his life, regardless of its historical aspects, is a significant lesson filled with wisdom. Then we move on to research to know the personality of Dhul-Qarnayn himself, benefiting from Islamic narrations, and what historians have indicated in this regard.

In other words, what primarily concerns us is discussing the personality of Dhul-Qarnayn, which is what the Quran did, as Allah says:

وَيَسْـَٔلُونَكَ عَن ذِى ٱلْقَرْنَيْنِ ۖ قُلْ سَأَتْلُوا۟ عَلَيْكُم مِّنْهُ ذِكْرًا

And they ask you, [O Muḥammad], about Dhul-Qarnayn. Say, “I will recite to you about him a report.”. [18:83]

The beginning of the verse shows us that the story of “Dhul-Qarnayn” was popular and known among people, but it was surrounded by mystery and ambiguity. For this reason, they asked the Honorable Messenger (PBUH) to provide the necessary clarifications about it.

In resuming the talk about Dhul-Qarnayn, Allah says:

إِنَّا مَكَّنَّا لَهُۥ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ وَءَاتَيْنَـٰهُ مِن كُلِّ شَىْءٍۢ سَبَبًۭا

Indeed, We established him upon the earth, and We gave him from everything a way [i.e., means]..”[18:84]

Meaning, we granted him ways of strength, capability, and ruling.

حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَا بَلَغَ مَغْرِبَ ٱلشَّمْسِ وَجَدَهَا تَغْرُبُ فِى عَيْنٍ حَمِئَةٍۢا

Until, when he reached the setting of the sun [i.e., the west], he found it [as if] setting in a body of dark water.”[18:86]

“(Murky)” originally means black mud with a foul smell or the stale water found in swamps. This description shows us that the land reached by “Dhul-Qarnayn” was full of swamps, in a way that made Dhul-Qarnayn feel that the sun was setting in these swamps, just as a sea traveler or coastal residents feel that the sun has set in or risen from the sea.

وَوَجَدَ عِندَهَا قَوْمًا”

and he found near it a people”

refers to a group of people that Dhul-Qarnayn encountered, consisting of both righteous and unrighteous individuals. Allah addressed Dhul-Qarnayn concerning these people, allowing him the choice to either punish or act kindly towards them[1].

Following this, the Quran recounts Dhul-Qarnayn’s response:

قَالَ أَمَّا مَن ظَلَمَ فَسَوْفَ نُعَذِّبُهُۥ ثُمَّ يُرَدُّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهِۦ فَيُعَذِّبُهُۥ عَذَابًۭا نُّكْرًۭا ٨٧

“He said, “As for one who wrongs,1 we will punish him. Then he will be returned to his Lord, and He will punish him with a terrible punishment [i.e., Hellfire]..”[18:87]

As for those who believe and do righteous deeds, they will receive the best rewards, and Dhul-Qarnayn will deal with them in an easy manner, lightening their burdens, and not subjecting them to excessive difficulties or taxes.

Dhul-Qarnayn seems to imply that people will divide into two groups in response to his call for monotheism, faith, and prohibition of oppression and corruption:

  1. The first group will welcome his divine program and call for monotheism and faith. They will be rewarded and will live a secure and peaceful life.
  2. The second group will take an opposing stance against Dhul-Qarnayn’s call, continuing in their idolatry, oppression, and corruption. Thus, they will face severe punishment due to their stance.

After finishing his journey to the West, Dhul-Qarnayn directed himself to the East. The Quran narrates that he utilized the means and capabilities at his disposal.

حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَا بَلَغَ مَطْلِعَ ٱلشَّمْسِ وَجَدَهَا تَطْلُعُ عَلَىٰ قَوْمٍۢ لَّمْ نَجْعَل لَّهُم مِّن دُونِهَا سِتْرًۭا

“Upon reaching where the sun rises, he found it rising on a people who had little to protect themselves from it” [18:90]

 This signifies the primitive lifestyle of these people who had minimal clothing to shield themselves from the sun.[2]

The passage concludes by affirming that Allah is well-acquainted with everything pertaining to Dhul-Qarnayn’s abilities and actions.

﴿كَذَلِكَ وَقَدْ أَحَطْنَا بِمَا لَدَيْهِ خُبْرًا﴾

“Thus. And We had encompassed [all] that he had in knowledge. “[3]

How was the dam of Dhul-Qarnayn built?

The Holy Quran refers to another journey of Dhul-Qarnayn, saying

﴿ثُمَّ أَتْبَعَ سَبَبًا﴾

(Then he followed a way)

Meaning, after this incident, he benefited from the significant resources at his disposal and continued his journey until he reached a place between two mountains:

﴿حَتَّى إِذَا بَلَغَ بَيْنَ السَّدَّيْنِ وَجَدَ مِن دُونِهِمَا قَوْمًا لَّا يَكَادُونَ يَفْقَهُونَ قَوْلًا﴾

(Until, when he reached between the two barriers, he found beside them a people who could barely understand a word).[18:93]

This implies that he reached a mountainous region, where he found people (other than the two groups he encountered in the east and the west) who were on a low level of civilization, as language is one of the clearest signs of civilization among humans.[4]

Meanwhile, these people took advantage of Dhul-Qarnayn’s arrival because they were in severe distress from their enemies, Gog and Magog. Thus, they asked for his help, saying:

﴿قَالُوا يَا ذَا الْقَرْنَيْنِ إِنَّ يَأْجُوجَ وَمَأْجُوج

مُفْسِدُونَ فِي الْأَرْضِ فَهَلْ نَجْعَلُ لَكَ خَرْجًا عَلَى أَن تَجْعَلَ بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَهُمْ سَدًّا﴾

(They said, “O Dhul-Qarnayn, indeed Gog and Magog are corrupters in the land. So may we assign for you an expenditure that you might make between us and them a barrier?”)[18:94]

Their communication might have been done through signs and gestures because they did not understand the language of Dhul-Qarnayn, or they spoke to him in incomplete phrases that could not be relied upon.[5]

It can be inferred that this group of people was in a good economic position, but they were weak in the industrial, intellectual, and planning fields. Therefore, they accepted the costs of building this important dam, provided that Dhul-Qarnayn took responsibility for its construction and engineering.

Dhul-Qarnayn said:

﴿آتُونِي زُبَرَ الْحَدِيدِ﴾

(Bring me pieces of iron) [18:96]

When the iron pieces were ready, he gave the order to place some of them on top of each other until they completely covered the gap between the mountains:

﴿حَتَّى إِذَا سَاوَى بَيْنَ الصَّدَفَيْنِ﴾

(Until, when he had leveled [them] between the two mountain walls).[18:96]

The third command from Dhul-Qarnayn was asking them to bring wood and similar materials and place it on the sides of this dam, then lit it on fire and ordered them to blow on it until the iron became red-hot due to the intensity of the fire:

﴿قَالَ انفُخُوا حَتَّى إِذَا جَعَلَهُ نَارًا﴾

(He said, “Blow,” until when he had made it [like] fire) [18:96]

Dhul-Qarnayn aimed to connect the iron pieces to each other to create a single solid barrier. Through this, Dhul-Qarnayn performed the same task (welding) that is done today to connect iron parts to each other.

Finally, he issued the last command and said: bring me molten copper so that I can pour it over this dam:

﴿قَالَ آتُونِي أُفْرِغْ عَلَيْهِ قِطْرًا﴾

(He said, “Bring me molten copper to pour over it”) [18:96]

In this way, he covered the iron dam with a layer of copper, preventing air penetration and protecting it from corrosion.

Some interpreters have said that today’s sciences have proven that when a quantity of copper is added to iron, it increases its resistance. Because “Dhul-Qarnayn” was knowledgeable of this fact, he proceeded to execute it.

Finally, this dam became so strong and firm that:

﴿فَمَا اسْطَاعُوا أَن يَظْهَرُوهُ وَمَا اسْتَطَاعُوا لَهُ نَقْبًا﴾

(they could not scale it, nor could they drill through it) [18:97]

Dhul-Qarnayn’s work was magnificent and significant. According to the logic of the arrogant and their approach, he could have boasted or been conceited about it. However, he said with complete humility:

﴿قَالَ هَذَا رَحْمَةٌ مِنْ رَبِّي

(He said, “This is a mercy from my Lord”) [18:98]

because his ethics were divine ethics.

He wanted to say: If I possess knowledge and awareness and can take significant steps through them, then all of that was from the Creator, glorified and exalted. And if I have the ability to speak and converse effectively, that too is from the Creator, glorified and exalted.

And if such means and ideas are at my disposal, it is because of the blessings and extensive mercy of God, the Creator.

Dhul-Qarnayn wanted to say: I don’t own anything by myself to be proud of, and I didn’t do significant work to grant favors upon God’s servants.

He then elaborated, saying: Don’t think that this dam will be eternal and everlasting:

﴿فَإِذَا جَاءَ وَعْدُ رَبِّي جَعَلَهُ دَكَّاء﴾

(But when the promise of my Lord comes, He will make it level). [18:98]

﴿وَكَانَ وَعْدُ رَبِّي حَقًّا﴾

(And the promise of my Lord is ever true).[6] [18:89]

In this statement, Dhul-Qarnayn pointed to the issue of the world’s demise and the collapse of the structure of existence in it at the resurrection.

Who is Dhul-Qarnayn?

Interpreters have mentioned a lot about the character of Dhul-Qarnayn mentioned in the Holy Quran. Who is he? And which known historical figure does his description apply to? Opinions can be summarized into three basic theories.[7]

These theories in this field were taken from the well-known Islamic thinker (Abul Kalam Azad), who once held the position of Minister of Culture in India. He stated his opinion in a book he authenticated in this field. According to this theory, Dhul-Qarnayn is the same as Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid king.

Why was Dhul-Qarnayn given this name?

Some believe that the name is due to his reaching the east and the west, where Arabs express this as the two horns of the sun.

Others believe that he lived or ruled for two centuries, and there are different opinions on what a century entails.

Another group says: There were protrusions (horns) on both ends of his head, and for this reason, he was named Dhul-Qarnayn.

Finally, some believe that his particular crown had two horns.

The excellent qualities of Dhul-Qarnayn

If we carefully observe the Holy Quran, we realize that Dhul-Qarnayn had excellent qualities:

1- God prepared for him the means of power and the preliminaries of victory, putting them at his disposal.

2- He prepared three significant armies: the first to the west, the second to the east; and the third to the region that includes the mountain strait. In all these journeys, he had special dealings with different nations as detailed in the previous verses.

3- He was a faithful man, embodying the qualities of monotheism and compassion, and did not deviate from the path of justice. For this reason, divine grace included him, as he was a supporter of the righteous and an enemy of the oppressors, and he did not desire or covet the wealth of this world much.

4- He believed in God and the Last Day.

5- He constructed one of the most critical and strongest dams, a dam benefiting from iron and copper instead of bricks and stones. (If there were other materials used in it, they are not considered anything compared to iron and copper). His goal in building it was to help the weak against the oppression of Gog and Magog.

6- He was famous among a group of people before the revelation of the Quran, hence Quraysh or the Jews asked the Prophet (PBUH) about him, as the noble book explicitly says:

﴿يَسْأَلُونَكَ عَن ذِي الْقَرْنَيْنِ﴾

(They ask you about Dhul-Qarnayn) [18:83]

Nothing explicit in the Quran indicates that he was a prophet, despite expressions that feel this meaning.

We read in many Islamic narratives from the Prophet (PBUH) and the Imams of the Ahlul Bayt (AS) that he: “was not a prophet but a righteous servant”.

Where is the Dam of Dhul-Qarnayn located?

Despite some attempts to correlate the dam of Dhul-Qarnayn with the Great Wall of China, which still exists and stretches for hundreds of kilometers, it’s clear that the construction of the Great Wall doesn’t include iron or copper. Additionally, it’s not located in a narrow mountain pass but is a wall built from ordinary construction materials that still exists to this day.

Some believe that the dam of Dhul-Qarnayn is the Marib Dam in Yemen. However, despite this dam being located in a mountain pass, it was built to prevent flooding and store water, and copper and iron were not used in its construction.

However, relying on the testimony of scholars and experts, the dam – as we mentioned earlier – could be the one located in the Caucasus region, between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, where there is a mountain range acting as a wall separating the north from the south. The only pass located between these rocky mountains is the well-known “Darial” gorge. An ancient iron wall is still visible there, which is why many believe that the dam of “Dhul-Qarnayn” is located in this pass, with the remaining specifications and ruins supporting this claim.

Interestingly, there is a river near this location named “Cyrus,” as the Greeks used to call Cyrus “Cyrus.” Ancient Armenian monuments used to refer to this wall as “Bhak Koray,” meaning “Cyrus Pass” or “Cyrus Crossing,” which could be another possible indicator that Cyrus might be the one who built the dam.

Who are Gog and Magog?

The Quran clearly supports that these two names refer to two barbaric tribes that used to harm the residents of the surrounding regions.

Al-Allama al-Tabatabai says, in Tafseer al-Mizan, that it can be inferred from the entirety of what is mentioned in the Torah that Gog and Magog, or Ya’juj and Ma’juj, are large groups that used to inhabit the farthest point in Northern Asia. They are warlike people who ravage the areas close to them.

There is historical proof that the northeastern region of the earth, in areas near “Mongolistan”, was densely populated in ancient times. People multiplied rapidly, and as their numbers increased, they moved east or south, gradually conquering and settling in these lands.

Different historical passages have been noted regarding the movement and migration of these tribes.[8]

Around the era of Cyrus, around 500 BC, these tribes launched several attacks, but the stance of the Medes and Persian governments led to relative stabilization and the restoration of peace in Western Asia, which survived the invasions of these tribes.

It thus appears that Gog and Magog are from these brutal tribes. The people of the asked Dhul-Qarnayn, during his journey to them, to save them from the attacks of these tribes. Therefore, he undertook the establishment of the dam known as the Dam of Dhul-Qarnayn.

Source: Stories of the Quran: Ayatollah Sheikh Nasser Makarem Shirazi


1- Some interpreters see in the word (قلنا) a sign of the prophethood of Dhul-Qarnayn. However, it’s possible that this expression refers to the divine inspiration bestowed by the Almighty Creator not only on prophets but also on others. Moreover, it can’t be denied that this expression might indeed refer to the concept of prophethood.

2- Another possibility suggested by some is that these people were in a desert land lacking mountains, trees, and shelters and that there was nothing in that desert that could protect these people from the sun, neither coverage nor anything else. Obviously, there’s no contradiction between these interpretations.

3- Surah Al-Kahf / 83-91.

4- Some have suggested that the phrase (لَّا يَكَادُونَ يَفْقَهُونَ قَوْلًا) does not mean that they didn’t know languages, but rather that they didn’t understand the content of speech, meaning they were intellectually backward.

5- It’s possible that communication between them occurred through translators, or by means of divine inspiration, such as some birds speaking with Solomon (peace be upon him).

6- Surah Al-Kahf / 92-98.

7- First theory: Some believe that “Dhul-Qarnayn” took control over Roman, Moroccan, and Egyptian states after his father’s death, built the city of Alexandria, then later took control over Sham and Jerusalem, then went from there to “Armenia”, conquered Iraq and Persia, and then headed to India and China, and from there returned to Khorasan. He built many cities, then came to Iraq and fell ill in the city of “Zur”, where he passed away.

Some say he didn’t live more than 36 years, and his body was taken to Alexandria for burial.

This can be noted in the interpretation of Al-Fakhr Al-Razi, and Al-Kamil by Ibn Al-Athir (Volume 1, page 287).

Some believe that the first to propose this theory was Sheikh Ibn Sina in his book “Al-Shifa”.

Second theory: A group of historians believes that “Dhul-Qarnayn” was one of the kings of Yemen (Yemeni kings were called “Tubba”, plural “Tubab’”). Al-Asma’i defended this theory in his history of Arabs before Islam, and “Ibn Hisham” in his famous biography of Ibn Hisham, and “Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni” in his book “Al-Athar Al-Baqiya”.

From the poetry of the Himyarites (a people from Yemen), and some pre-Islamic poets, there is a sense of pride that “Dhul-Qarnayn” was one of their people.

According to this theory, the dam of Dhul-Qarnayn is the well-known “Marib Dam”.

8- One of these attacks took place in the fourth century AD, led by “Attila”, which eradicated the civilization of the Roman Empire. The last historical record of their attack was in the twelfth century AD, led by Genghis Khan, where he attacked the eastern Islamic lands, destroying many cities, including the city of Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate.

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