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Dhu l-Qarnayn

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Dhu l-Qarnayn (Arabic: ذوالقَرنَین) is the title of a character mentioned in the Qur'an. There are basic disagreements in Islamic sources about his identity, the historical period in which he lived, and the details of his life. According to an old belief, he is the same as Alexander the Great (reign: 356BC-323BC). Thus, information about Dhu l-Qarnayn in Islamic and Iranian sources is derived from historical sources and myths about Alexander.

In recent periods, some people identified Dhu l-Qarnayn with Cyrus the Great (reign: 530BC-590BC). The identity of Gog and Magog and the specification of the geographical location of the dam constructed by Dhu l-Qarnayn to obstruct Gog and Magog are key to the identification of Dhu l-Qarnayn.

Detailed discussions and serious disagreements among Muslim scholars were fueled by the brief mysterious reply of the Prophet Muhammad (s) to inquirers about Dhu l-Qarnayn and the curiosity of Muslims about the details of the story, and in particular, the identity of Dhu l-Qarnayn himself. The greatest source of concern for Muslim scholars was the identification of Dhu l-Qarnayn with Alexander the Great whose character led to different and even contradictory views about Dhu l-Qarnayn.

Literal Meaning

According to the best-known meaning of the word, "qarn", in Arabic (that is, horn), Dhu al-Qarnayn means: a person who has two horns. However, given other meanings of "qarn" such as hair, the crown or upper part of the head, the peripheries of the sun, a period of time equal to 30 or 80 years, and people of a period, and given the person to whom the title applies, different reasons have been offered for why the person in question is called "Dhu l-Qarnayn". A lexicological and philological examination of the word, "qarn", in Semitic languages shows that in Akkadian, Hebrew, and Syriac languages, the word has almost the same meaning as it has in Arabic, that is, horn. In fact, in all these languages it implies power and glory. In English, too, the word, "horn", is rooted in the Latin "cornu" which seems similar to the word, "qarn".

In Holy Texts

The issue of "Dhu l-Qarnayn" in the Islamic culture originates from the Qur'an. The name appears three times in the Qur'an. Before that, in a dream by the prophet Danial, a ram with two horns appears which is referred to in Hebrew as "קרנים" (qarnim). In Arabic poems before the emergence of Islam, "Dhu l-Qarnayn" was used to refer to some kings of Yemen and al-Hirah. For example, Mundhir b. Ma' al-Sama' al-Lakhmi was called "Dhu l-Qarnayn".

The rather short Quranic account of the story of Dhu l-Qarnayn is a mysterious story of the Qur'an appearing after two other mysterious stories in Sura al-Kahf: the story of the Seven Sleepers (People of Kahf) and the story of Musa (a) (Moses) and Khidr. The Qur'an illustrates Dhu l-Qarnayn as a believer in God and the Resurrection who was equipped with new tools with the help of God. According to these verses, some people ask the Prophet (s) about Dhu l-Qarnayn, and the Prophet's (s) response was briefly as follows:

Dhu l-Qarnayn travelled the Earth until he arrived where the sun sets (that is, the west). There he saw some people. He warned the oppressors among those people about a hard punishment and promised the righteous people that they will be rewarded and will be treated mildly. He then went to the place where the sun rises (that is, the east) where he found people who had no cover except the sunshine. He then went on until he arrived in a place between two mountains where he found people who could barely understand his language. They asked Dhu l-Qarnayn to build them a dam in order to protect them against the corruptions of Gog and Magog. He built a dam from melted iron and copper, and obstructed the invasions of Gog and Magog.

According to hadiths concerning the Asbab al-Nuzul (occasions on which verses are revealed), the inquirers were some Jews or polytheists of Mecca who were encouraged by the Jews to ask the Prophet (s) about Dhu l-Qarnayn and other issues in order to test his prophethood.


According to a hadith, the Prophet (s) said that he did not know whether Dhu al-Qarnayn was a prophet or not. Al-Tha'albi wrote that if this is true, then we should no longer concern ourselves with the issue. However, there was a disagreement about Dhu l-Qarnayn's prophethood later. Some people believed that he was a prophet, though he was not sent by God to guide people. Al-Tha'labi found this view plausible. Others believed that he was not a prophet; rather he was a righteous person and a just king. Al-Fakhr al-Razi also talked about the disagreement over Dhu l-Qarnayn's prophethood. He did not support either party of the disagreement, though he believed that there are Quranic verses which might demonstrate Dhu l-Qarnayn's prophethood, and so, he seems to be inclined to the view that Dhu l-Qarnayn was a prophet. Al-Qurtubi wrote that Dhu l-Qarnayn is said to be a chosen prophet with whom God conquered the Earth and he allegedly met an angel called "Rabaqil".

There are different views about the issue in Shi'a hadiths. In some cases, Dhu l-Qarnayn is introduced as a prophet and a king, and in some cases, only as a faithful king. Moreover, in some other hadiths, he was introduced only as a beloved servant of God, and in another one, as a scholar. Al-'Allama al-Majlisi collected Shi'a hadiths with regard to Dhu l-Qarnayn and then commented that Dhu l-Qarnayn was the first king after Nuh (a) (Noah) and was a righteous servant of God.


A number of different views—amounting to 20—have been developed about why Dhu l-Qarnayn was called so.

Concrete meanings: the first group of such views provide concrete grounds for the appellation, such him having horns and something similar. For example, some people believed that he had two excrescences on his forehead which were similar to horns, or that his crown was decorated with two horns, or his people had broken the two sides of his head, or he had two strings of braided hair.

Abstract meanings: the second group of such views provide abstract grounds for the appellation associated with other meanings of the word, "qarn". For example, during his life, two generations of people disappeared, or he reigned both in Iran and Rome, or he found his way both to the eastern and the western parts of the world, or he was a nobleman both through his father and his mother, or that he saw in a dream that he held two sides of the sun, or he was endowed with the knowledge of the exterior and the interior.

Historical Period

There has also been a disagreement in Islamic sources with regard to the historical period in which Dhu l-Qarnayn lived. Totally different views have been suggested in this regard. He is considered by some people as a first generation of human beings—a son of Yafith (Japheth), the son of Nuh (a)—and by others as contemporary with the prophets Ibrahim (a) (Abraham) and Isma'il (a) (Ishmael). Yet others believed that Khidr was his cousin and was a flag-holder of his army and surpassed him in drinking the Spring of Life. It is also suggested that he lived after Musa (a), or 300 years before the birth of 'Isa (a) (Jesus), or the interval period after 'Isa (a). Some people suggested that he was contemporary with, and a student of, Aristotle.

In order to solve some discrepancies with regard to Dhu l-Qarnayn, Ibn Kathir believed that there were people known as Alexander and Dhu l-Qarnayn, tracing the errors of earlier authors to regarding these two persons as identical. According to Ibn Kathir, the first Dhu l-Qarnayn was the son of the first Roman Caesar who was a progeny of Sam (Shem) the son of Nuh (a) and was a righteous person and a just king, and Khidr was his prime minister. The second Dhu l-Qarnayn was Alexander the Great whose lineage goes back to Ibrahim (a). He was a polytheist and his prime minister was Aristotle. He lived around 300 years before the birth of 'Isa (a). These two people were in different periods by about 2000 years.

Identification of Dhu l-Qarnayn

After the Qur'an, the contents of different sources regarding Dhu l-Qarnayn were based on fictions and earlier views, although in some periods, authors tried to adopt a critical approach to such contents and to precisely identify Dhu l-Qarnayn. In recent sources, and in particular, in contemporary scholarships, the views were informed by archeological and linguistic findings as well as some ancient sources of history. In general, the main views about the identity of Dhu l-Qarnayn in old and new Islamic sources include the following:


According to one view, Dhu l-Qarnayn was an anonymous person who was neither a prophet, nor a king; rather he was a righteous servant of God. The view is based on a hadith from Imam 'Ali (a) and turned into a well-known view in later sources. Shi'a exegetes were mostly inclined to this view by appealing to this hadith, and thus, they did not inquire about the identity of Dhu l-Qarnayn. Among contemporary Sunni exegetes, Sayyid Qutb referred to Dhu l-Qarnayn only as Dhu l-Qarnayn and did not try to identify him, because, he believed, there is no assuring source at our disposal except the Qur'an, and exegetical views are mixed with myths and Isra'iliyyat.

Alexander the Great

In addition to a hadith from the Prophet (s), it seems that Wahb b. Munabbih (d. 110/728 and a well-known fabricator of hadiths) was the first person who allegedly identified Dhu l-Qarnayn with Alexander the Great. It seems that many prominent Sunni exegetes of the early periods had no doubts about the view. The view was reflected in other Islamic sources as well. Thus, "Dhu l-Qarnayn" is used in Persian poetry as referring to Alexander the Great.

The main reason for the identification was that Alexander was historically known as a king who conquered different parts of the world, and it seemed that Dhu l-Qarnayn in the Qur'an also conquered different parts of the world. In general, the popularity of some myths about Alexander in the early Islamic period and some similarities between such myths and the Quranic story of Dhu l-Qarnayn as well as the sanctification of Alexander in Alexandria during the Hellenistic period by the first Christian communities led to the identification of Dhu l-Qarnayn with Alexander by Muslim exegetes and historians.

The view was rejected on grounds that Dhu l-Qarnayn in the Qur'an was a believer in God and the Resurrection who treated people with justice and tolerance, but Alexander was a Mandaean. Moreover, there is no historical evidence that Alexander ever constructed a dam as characterized in the Qur'an.

Cyrus the Great

The view was first developed by western scholars in the middle of the 13th/19th century, although it found its way among Persian readers about 60 years later through a different route.

The main arguments for the view include:

  1. Cyrus's justice, good treatment of the peasants, generosity, and fairness in wars, according to the Old Testament and historians such as Herodotus (d. 425BC) and Xenophon (d. ca. 354BC) and the similarity between his character and that of the Quranic Dhu l-Qarnayn.
  2. Cyrus's travels to the west to conquer the capital of Lydia and to the east to combat Bedouin tribes agree with Dhu l-Qarnayn's travels westwards and eastwards.
  3. In his travel to the northern Persia, Cyrus was asked by people there to construct an iron dam over the Darial Gorge, located in the Caucasus Mountains. This agrees with the construction of a dam by Dhu l-Qarnayn against the invasions of Gog and Magog.
  4. A stone sculpture of Cyrus has been discovered in Mashhad-e Morghab in southern Iran which has a crown on its head with two horns like those of a ram. This is consistent with the title, "Dhu l-Qarnayn" (holder of two horns).
  5. The Old Testament contains a reference to a ram with two horns as a metaphorical way of speaking about Persis and Medes kings, and according to hadiths about the occasion on which the verses about Dhu l-Qarnayn were revealed, the Jews initiated the issue of Dhu l-Qarnayn. Thus, it is probable that the Jews may have asked the Prophet (s) about a king with whom they were already familiar. On this view, Gog and Magog refer to the Moguls.

Opponents of the view have cast doubts on all the above evidence for the view. They claim that the Old Testament, and in particular, the Book of Daniel, as well as historical accounts of Xenophon are not reliable sources. Moreover, the main text of the Book of Daniel talks about "kings", rather than the "king", of Persis and Medes, and so, it does not apply to one and the same person.

Abu Karb Shammir Yar'ash, the King of Himyar

This view was propounded and advocated by Iranian historians of the 4th/10th and 5th/11th centuries, such as Hamza Isfahani and Abu Rayhan Biruni. According to Abu Rayhan Biruni, al-Adhwa' are from Yemen, and the king of Yemen is called "Dhu l-Qarnayn" because he had two braided strings of hair. The king traveled eastwards and westwards. He is honored in Yemeni poems. And his story agrees with what appears in the Qur'an about Dhu l-Qarnayn. Moreover, some other kings of Yemen are also identified with Dhu l-Qarnayn, including Tubba' al-Aqran, the son of Shammir Yar'ash, Sa'b b. Harith, or Sa'b b. Hammal, or Sa'b b. Dhi Yazan, a son of Wa'il b. Himyar.

The view has been rejected because the similarity between the names of the kings of Yemen and Dhu l-Qarnayn is not sufficient for the identification. Moreover, the kings did not conquer the world, and none of them constructed an iron dam. It seems that later narrators and historians exaggerated about these kings.

Other people have also been suggested to be identified with Dhu l-Qarnayn, including Alexandrous from Alexandria, Hermes or Herdis, Marzan b. Madraba the Greek, an Egyptian man from the progeny of Yafith the son of Nuh (a), 'Ayyash, and 'Abd Allah b. Dahhak. In addition to Cyrus, other Persian kings have also been suggested as possible candidates for the identification of Dhu l-Qarnayn, such as Fereydun, Xerxes I, and Darius III.

In western scholars about Dhu l-Qarnayn, it is widely held that he is identical to Alexander the Great, as implied by the entries on "Dhu l-Qarnayn" in Islamic Encyclopedia as well as the Encyclopedia of the Quran.