Verses from Surah Al-Kahf (83-91)

[83] And they ask you concerning Dhu al-Qarnayn.104 Say, ‘I shall presently recite to you about him a report.’


104. Ibn Jarir writes that there is no definite report about why Dhu al-Qarnayn (“the Two-Horned One”) was so named. Some people have said that he had two bumps on his head and so won the nickname. (Others have said that he wore a crown, out of which protruded two horns: Zamakhshari). Yet others have said that he let his long hair hang down in two plaits. Asad expresses the possibility that he could have belonged to two epochs since Qarn is also used for epoch. Majid comments and quotes: “Horn in the Bible is ‘a symbol of strength’, and ‘is frequently mentioned to signify power and glory’ (CD p. 457). In Hebrew usage ‘raising the horn of a people or an individual signifies victory or pride, ‘breaking it’ signifies ‘defeat.’ (ERE. VI, p.792). Even Moses, (peace be on him) was represented with horns. ‘It has become a widespread belief that Moses, when he came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of Law, had two horns on his forehead.’ (JE, VI, p. 463).”

His identity is also covered in obscurity. Reports of Jewish or Christian origin say he was a conqueror who subdued Rome and Persia. (Hence perhaps “the controller of two horns”: Au.). Ibn Jarir reports a few other conjectures. Another report from Wahab b. Munabbih, also of Jewish and Christian origin, says he was a Roman. ‘Ali’s opinion was that he was not a Prophet, merely a righteous man.

Shawkani says that a few have thought he was an Egyptian; others that he was one of the sons of Kahlan b. Saba’ (of the Yemen). Qurtubi records Suhayli that perhaps there were two of them involved, one at the time of ‘Isa b. Maryam and the other at the times of Ibrahim (asws). Razi is inclined to believe that the allusion is to the Macedonian Alexander. However, he thinks there is a hitch. Alexander was a student of Aristotle but a student who was far from being a righteous man. Ibn Kathir also believes there were two: one of the times of Ibrahim, and the other, the Macedonian Alexander. He thinks that the one Qur’an spoke of here, was of the times of Ibrahim. Ibn Kathir strongly refutes the idea that Alexander the Macedonian could have been Dhu al-Qarnayn. Alusi says that some scholars have identified him with Faridun b. Ithfiyan, one of the Persian emperors (Cyrus), while Abu Rayhan al-Bayruni thought that the allusion was to a Himyari (Yemeni) ruler of the past who had conquered vast areas of land. He quoted a few classical poetical pieces to prove his point. In short, he could not be identified.

Muhammad Asad has a useful remark, “ is precisely the Qur’anic stress on his faith in God that makes it impossible to identify Dhu al-Qarnayn, .. with Alexander the Great (who is represented on some of his coins with two horns on his head) or one another of pre-Islamic, Himyarite kings of Yemen. All those historical personages were pagans and worshipped a plurality of deities as a matter of course, whereas our Dhu al-Qarnayn is depicted as a firm believer in the One God..”

Commentary books then have as many suggestions about Dhu al-Qarnayn’s identity as there are commentators. Ibn Kathir has ruled them all as unworthy of serious consideration. Only a few of them say that according to Jewish and Christian sources the allusion is to Alexander the Macedonian. No one has ever reported it as a statement of the Prophet.

[84] Verily, We established him in the land and bestowed on him means to all things.105


105. The textual “sabab” of the first occurrence here has been interpreted by Ibn ‘Abbas, Qatadah, Dahhak, Ibn Zayd and others as “knowledge” (of means) while the latter three occurrences have been interpreted as “target” or “way through the lands” (or “course”) – Ibn Jarir.

The meaning adopted by us at this point (as “means”) is the understanding of later day commentators (Au.). Ibn Kathir thinks the allusion is to the usual means of power provided to kings viz., a large army, weapons, siege equipment, et al.

[85] So he followed a course.

[86] Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring.106 And he found a people there. We said, ‘O Dhu al-Qarnayn, either you punish them or adopt towards them a graceful (attitude).’107


106. “Muddy (pool)” is the commonly accepted meaning. But a second opinion about “hami’ah” of the original, coming down from Ibn ‘Abbas and Hasan, is that it means “warm (waters).” Both could be right, one and at the same time (Ibn Jarir). As for what place it was, Ibn Jarir has no report. But Ibn Kathir points out that anyone who travelled to the edge of a land will find the sun setting in a pool of water. Ibn Kathir also points out that the hadith as in Ahmed and other books that when the sun sets it dips into waters, is an untrustworthy one (Au.).

Asad adds: “..Razi and Ibn Kathir, both .. point out that we have here a metaphor based on the common optical illusion of the sun’s “disappearing into the sea;” and Razi explains this, correctly, by the fact that the earth is spherical. (It is interesting to note that, according to him, this explanation was already advanced in the – now lost – Qur’an commentary of Abu `Ali Jiba’i, the famous Mu`tazili scholar who died in 303 A.H., which corresponds to 916 or 916 of the Christian era).”

In other words, ancient Muslim scholars believed in the sphericity of the earth, although controversy remained to Razi’s days (d. 604 AH) who himself seemed to have been a believer in its sphericity (Au.).

107. That is, after you have over-powered them (Au.).

Asad once again explains, “This divine permission to choose between two possible courses of action is not only a metonymic statement of freedom of will accorded by God to man, but establishes also the important legal principle of istihsan (social or moral preference) open to a ruler or government in deciding as to what might be conducive to the greatest good (maslaha) of the community as a whole: and this is the first “lesson” of the parable of Dhu al-Qarnayn.”

It is educating to know how preconceived ideas lead to error after error. A contemporary commentator first spends a good amount of energy to prove that Cyrus was definitely the Dhu al-Qarnayn of the Qur’an. But, since Cyrus neither received revelation, nor ilham, he had to assume that Dhu al-Qarnayn also did not receive either. Hence to Allah words, “We said, ‘O Dhu al-Qarnayn..’, he adds his commentary, “It is quite possible that no actual communication took place ..”!

 [87] He said, ‘As for him who transgresses,108 we shall indeed punish him,109 and then he will be returned to his Lord who will punish him with a terrible punishment.


108. That is, if they insist on remaining pagans, associating with Allah (Ibn Jarir).

109. Qatadah thought the meaning is “we shall exterminate him” (Ibn Jarir).

 [88] But whosoever believed and worked righteous deeds, for him will be a goodly reward. And we shall order him, of our task, (something) easy.’110


110. The translation reflects a literal understanding. But Mujahid’s opinion was, as in Ibn Jarir, “we shall teach him, within our humble capacity, what will take him nearer to his Lord.”

[89] Then he followed a course.

[90] Until, when he reached the rising of the sun, he found it rising upon a people for whom We had provided no shield against it.111


111. Once again there is no definite opinion about the people or their place, except for personal opinions. Probably they were desert-dwellers. Some have conjectured that they lived in a barren land in which they had dug burrows to shield themselves from the sun. If so, it must have been quite a primitive tribe.

[91] That is how,112 and We encompassed in knowledge what was with him.


112. Asad notes that “..kadhalika [refers] the (implied) fact that Dhu al-Qarnayn left them as he had found them, being mindful not to upset their mode of life and thus to cause them misery.”

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