The Qur’an relates the story of Dhul-Qarnayn (“he of the two horns”) in Sura’ al-Kahf. In fact, the Qur’an relates three incidents in this Surah, and the story of Dhul-Qarnayn is one of them. These were apparently revealed in response to three questions asked by the Quraish. But actually, the Qur’an responded to serve its own purpose of admonition.
As to who was Dhul-Qarnayn, the Qur’an does not specifically mention any name or personality in history to be Dhul-Qarnayn. However certain hints are given which can be helpful in arriving at a decision as to who actually was Dhul-Qarnayn.
The first question in this regard is that which is the personality in history who fits the beliefs and characteristics of Dhul-Qarnayn and his different expeditions as mentioned in the Qur’an. Secondly, what was the importance of Dhul-Qarnayn for Quraish who asked about him? And if not for the Quraish then for any other group which was the direct addressee of Qur’an — Jews, and Christians.
In fact these two questions are interrelated and cannot be viewed in isolation, that is, if a personality from history fits the characteristics of Dhul-Qarnayn then we will also have to find out about his importance for any of the three groups mentioned above, for without any historic importance it seems illogical that any of the three groups instigated the question. Especially when the Qur’an responded with the words, “they ask thee concerning Dhul-Qarnayn”1. Only a personality with these specifications has a greater chance to be Dhul-Qarnayn.
There are apparently two personalities in history before Islam who were great conquerors and ruled over vast empires as mentioned by Qur’an. These were Alexander the Greek conqueror and Cyrus the Great, the Persian conqueror.
As far as Alexander is concerned the extent of his expeditions was towards the east and south, whereas Qur’an mentions Zulqarnain’s expeditions towards west, east and a third direction. When Qur’an talks about Dhul-Qarnayn, it shows him as a person believing in one God and the hereafter. He is also depicted as a kind-hearted and just ruler.
Now it is known about Alexander that he was a polytheist and no incidents of his kindness and justice are explicitly recorded in history. But as far as Cyrus is concerned, we find out that the extent of his expeditions was towards west, east and north that is, after becoming the king of Persia, Cyrus went on different expeditions, ultimately conquering almost eighty percent of the civilized world at that time. He became the king of this vast empire stretching from Lydia (west) to India (east) and Bactria (north) to Babylon (south).
History has explicitly recorded incidents of Cyrus’s extreme kindness and justice towards his subjects. In fact, these traits of his personality were so conspicuous that friend and foe equally acknowledged this fact. As regards Cyrus’s religion, he was a believer in Zoroastrianism, a new religion at that time, which existed with all its purity and spirit. The prophet Zoroaster who was probably contemporary to Cyrus preached belief in one God, the hereafter and all other basic good deeds that form a part of Divine religions. This answers our first question, showing that Cyrus comes very close to the narrative of the Qur’an.
Now the second question will be answered in the light of the first. As far as Alexander is concerned, there is no mention of him in the history of either the Quraish or the Jews and Christians in any manner which makes him significant for either of these groups. But as far as Cyrus is concerned we find out that though he had no significance for Quraish and Christians, Jews had very special importance for him in their history.
Signifance of Cyrus the Great of Persia
What was this importance of Cyrus for Jews?
Anyone who is familiar with the Jewish history knows that the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered the kingdom of Judea in the sixth century B.C and the Jews were taken to Babylon as captives. The temple of Jerusalem was plundered and desecrated. From then onwards the Jews remained in Babylon as captives for seventy years.
During this time the Prophet Daniel was appointed in Jews. He was the Prophet who at one time, after receiving revelation from God in a dream, announced the coming of a savior of Jews—the one who would release them from the captivity of the Babylonians. In that dream, the Prophet Daniel saw this savior as a ram with two horns (Dhul-Qarnayn — he of the two horns)2. The two horns metaphorically showed the two kingdoms of Media and Persia united and ram depicting the savior himself showed him to be the conqueror and king of this united kingdom.
This king was Cyrus. He was the one who afterward conquered the Babylonian kingdom and released the Jews from captivity and allowed them to go back to their homeland and build the temple. It was because of these reasons that Jews held him in very high esteem and considered him as their savior as predicted by the Prophet Daniel. Apart from Prophet Daniel, Prophet Isaiah and Jeremiah also foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, the captivity of Jews and then release with the coming of Cyrus as the savior.3
With this explanation, it becomes clear that Jews had great regard for the Persian king Cyrus. This answers our second question that out of the three main groups who were the direct addressees of Qur’an—Quraish, Jews, Christians—Jews had a personality in their history who fits the description of Dhul-Qarnayn and they had great regard for him.
This personality (Cyrus) happens to be the same, which we have alluded to, in the first question. This discussion makes it clear that Cyrus comes very close to the Dhul-Qarnayn of Qur’an.
The Expeditions of Dhul-Qarnain
Another interesting thing in this regard is that the commentators of the Qur’an have also generally believed that the Jews instigated the question. The above discussion verifies this notion also and it seems quite possible that actually the Jews instigated the question and the Quraish asked it on their behalf.
However, it would be pertinent to mention in brief the three expeditions and the wall built by Dhul-Qarnayn (Cyrus). Cyrus’s western expedition was the one, in which he conquered Lydia and the Ionian city-states on the western coast of Asia Minor. It is in all probability this expedition which the Qur’an mentions like the one in which he reached a place where he saw the sun sinking in water, metaphorically explaining the western direction of his conquest and his experience while standing at the shore of Mediterranean in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey). He must have had the same vision in front of him at that time.
Next, Cyrus turned his attention towards the barbaric nomadic tribes of the eastern part of the Iranian plateau. It is probably this expedition which the Qur’an mentions like the one in which he conquered a people who had no cover for the rising sun, metaphorically explaining their nomadic lifestyle and the eastern direction of the conquest.
Lastly, the Qur’an talks about his third expedition. This is probably when Cyrus went to the northeastern part of his empire (Caucasus mountain range between the Black Sea and the Caspian sea) and built barriers to protect his people against the incursion of nomadic tribes who lived on the other side of the Caucasus range, and referred to as Gog and Magog in the Qur’an.
As for the iron wall itself, its remains probably can still be found in the area of the Caucasus region called the Pass of Dariel.
With this discussion in view, we can conclude that in our opinion there is a greater likelihood that Cyrus the Great from Persia was the person mentioned as Dhul-Qarnayn in the Qur’an.
However, it should always be kept in mind that Qur’an has not specifically mentioned any name, so we should also avoid saying that our opinion is final and the personality we found out to be Dhul-Qarnayn is exactly the one which Qur’an calls Dhul-Qarnayn.
We should always talk about it in terms of our own understanding and knowledge, as the door for further research is always open.