Dhu’l Qarnayn

Surah 18 (Al-Kahf/The Cave): 94

94. ‘Dhu’l Qarnayn,’ they said, ‘Gog and Magog are ravaging this land. May we pay you a tribute so that you erect a barrier between us and them?’

95. He answered ‘That with which my Lord has established me is better (than any tribute). Hence, do but help me with strength, and I shall erect a rampart between you and them!

96. Bring me blocks of iron!’ At length, when he had filled up the gap between the two mountainsides, he said ‘Ply your bellows!’
Then, when he made (the iron glow like) fire, he said ‘Bring me molten copper which I will pour over it.’

97. And thus their enemies were unable to scale (the rampart), nor could they dig their way through it.

98. He said ‘This is a mercy from my Lord. Yet when the time appointed by my Lord shall come, He will make this (rampart) level with the ground.
My Lord’s promise always comes true.’

[‘In the Shade of the Qur’an’, Sayyid Qutb, 1965 (Egyptian Islamist, leading figure in the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood, executed 1966)]


{18.83-98} tell the story of a traveller whom the Qur’an calls Dhu’l Qarnayn, literally ‘the two-horned one’. In {18.86} Dhu’l Qarnayn visits ’the place of the setting sun’ where he found that the sun sets into a ‘muddy spring(per Pickthall), ‘dark waters’ (Shabbir Ahmed), a ‘black sea (Shakir.) Next, he travels to the place of the rising sun where he finds ‘a people for whom (God) had not made any shelter from it’, {18.90}. Having been to both ends of the earth, he finally goes to a third place where he builds a barrier of iron and copper across a valley to protect a people from being overrun by Yājūj and Mājūj, (commonly rendered Gog and Magog), {18.92-97}.


The adventures of Dhu’l Qarnayn that are described in the Qur’an clearly replicate those contained in the first and second parts of a three-part legendary depiction of Alexander the Great, written in Syriac, called the Neṣḥānā d-leh dAleksandrōs, (The Victory of Alexander.) Alexander romances were a popular genre in the ancient near east but the Neṣḥānā shows very specific points of contact with the Qur’an . Part three of the Neṣḥānā describes Alexander going to war with a Persian king, Tūbarlaq, a conflict that ends with a treaty favourable to Alexander, after which Alexander travels to Jerusalem where he is enthroned as a conquering hero. It is generally agreed that this whole section was composed as propaganda literature to celebrate the triumph of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius over Kusrow II, and his restoration of the cross relic to Jerusalem, see 〈1.〉 above. Since the treaty that brought this conflict to an end was signed in 628 or 629, the Neṣḥānā, and in therefore Surah 18, would have been composed shortly after this date.


The description of the journey of Dhu’l Qarnayn to the places of the sunrise and sunset one must assume, was intended to be understood to be taken literally – the idea of the sun setting in a specific place is also mentioned at {36.38}. There is no evident allegorical significance.


The story of Gog and Magog, ends with Dhu’l Qarnayn giving an apocalyptic warning:

{18.98} (Dhu’l Qarnayn) said: ‘This is a mercy from my Lord. And when the Promise of my Lord comes, He will crumble it (the barrier he had built) to dust.

And the Promise of my Lord is true.

{18.99} And We shall leave them, on that Day, to surge against one another like waves. And the trumpet shall be blown, and We shall gather them together.

{18.100} And We shall present Hell, on that Day, as an array before the disbelievers…


A similar prophecy is made by Alexander in the Neṣḥānā, but here the disaster that is predicted is the incursion by central Asian tribes into Byzantine territory.
The names Gog and Magog first appear in the Book of Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39 in which the prophet Ezekiel foretells that shortly before the End of Days, Israel will face an invasion by the people of Magog, led by King Gog. In later Jewish apocalyptic literature this feared invasion force became associated with two separate peoples, the people of Gog and the people of Magog, who also appear as two peoples in the Book of Revelation (20.8 ). These tribes are first associated with the legends of Alexander the Great by the first century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus. Their apocalyptic presentation in the Qur’an has led to Gog and Magog often being imagined as wild, supernatural beasts. In later Islamic writings this depiction has been embellished. The Jewish Encyclopaedia summarises their description in post-Quranic Arab literature thus:

They are of small stature attaining to only one half the size of a man. Very ferocious, they have claws instead of nails, teeth like a lion, jaws like a camel and hair which completely hides their bodies. Their ears, hairy on one side, are so large that they use one for a bed and the other for a covering.


For Gog and Magog’s role in the events of the Last Day, see 〈96.〉 below.