Zhul-qarnayn is a mysterious figure mentioned in the Qur’an whose identity has been a matter of contention and speculation to this day. Many differing theories were proposed on the identity of Zhul-qarnayn by Islamic scholars throughout the ages. This naturally has caused/been causing somewhat of a confusion. In this article, I am going to offer yet another opinion as to who this mysterious figure is. My goal, of course, is not to add to the confusion but rather to help eliminate it.
The Arabic name Zhul-qarnayn means the Two-horned one, or He of the Two Epochs (the prefix “Zhul-” means “owner of,”qarnayn means “two horns” or “two epochs”). Claims about his identity range from him being Alexander the Great to Cyrus the Great to a Himyarite king of Yemen.1–2 Maulana Muhammad Ali opines that he is none other than the Persian king Darius the Great.3 The late Pakistani scholar Maududi identifies Zhul-qarnayn with the Persian king Cyrus the Great.4 Some earlier scholars held that Zhul-qarnayn was a Himyarite king in Yemen.5
Historically, a significant number of Islamic scholars espoused the idea of Alexander the Great to be Zhul-qarnayn due to the former’s expeditions to the West and East of the ancient world, and his representation on some of his coins with two horns. Scholars of late have gradually distanced themselves from the view claiming that the polytheism of Alexander the Great disqualifies him to be Zhul-qarnayn, a strict monotheist.2,3,4 In the same vein, I find the plausibility of Darius the Great or Cyrus the Great to be Zhul-qarnayn to be very flimsy because both of these great kings were known to be Zoroastrians and who contributed to the spread and institutionalization of Zoroastrianism. Moreover, if Zhul-qarnayn were indeed any one of these powerful kings, they would have surely proselytized a significant number of their subjects without much difficulty. But I see Zoroastrianism flourishing in the centuries following the demise of these kings. In fact, I advance the same argument against the remote probability that Alexander the Great was Zhul-qarnayn as we see no indication of a monotheist religion tradition flourishing under the Alexander the Great in the territories he conquered (never mention the fact that we see no such account coming from Alexander the Great’s teacher, the great philosopher and scientist Aristotle.) Not seeing any such personage in the historical accounts does only indicate that Zhul-qarnayn must have lived long before the times of these mentioned kings.
Amidst all this confusion, some contemporary scholars posit that the story of Zhul-qarnayn ought to be seen as nothing more than a spiritual parable, an allegory rather than a historical reality.1,2,3 “Who was he? In what age, and where did he live? The Qur’an gives us no material on which we can base a positive answer. Nor is it necessary to find an answer, as the story is treated as a parable… ” writes the late Islamic scholar Abdullah Yusuf Ali.1 Muhammad Asad states that “We must, therefore, conclude that the latter (the story of Zhul-qarnayn) has nothing to do with history or even legend, and that its sole purport is a parabolic discourse on faith and ethics, with specific reference to the problem of worldly power.”2
In my view, the rationale behind this approach is twofold: (1) the frustration due to the so many conflicting theories about the character of Zhul-qarnayn, and (2) a tendency to evade any potential criticism by not having a “closure” on this topic. This “allegory” approach to seemingly mysterious and formidable Qur’anic topics and stories is also employed by scholars such as Muhammad Ali and Muhammad Asad when expounding the Qur’anic concepts such as Mi’raj, jinns, and Ya’juj and Ma’juj.2,3 Although I completely agree with the idea that these stories do employ allegories and parables to convey powerful spiritual meanings, I find it hard to believe that the Qur’an tells us events or personalities that are just fictional.
Here I would like to offer a new identification for Zhul-qarnayn. My analysis hinges on the answers to the following questions.
- What was the context and background of the Zhul-qarnayn question?
- Is there any other sacred/historical document in which one can look for the character?
- What are the qualities of this person?
- How do all these come together?
- Any support for my claim from any classical Islamic scholar?
Now let us answer these questions one by one:
1- What was the context and background of the Zhul-qarnayn question?
They ask thee concerning Zhul-qarnain. Say, "I will rehearse to you something of his story.” Verily We established his power on earth, and We gave him the ways and the means to all ends. The Qur’an 18: 83-84 (Abdullah Yusuf Ali Translation).
Ibn Kathir mentions the following hadith on the reason why the Qur’anic chapter mentioning Zhul-qarnayn (and still other mysterious stories and topics such as the “Seven” Sleepers, Al Khidr, and the Spirit) was revealed6:
Muhammad bin Ishaq mentioned the reason why this Surah was revealed. He said that an old man from among the people of Egypt who came to them some forty-odd years ago told him, from `Ikrimah that Ibn `Abbas said: “The Quraysh sent An-Nadr bin Al-Harith and `Uqbah bin Abi Mu`it to the Jewish rabbis in Al-Madinah, and told them: `Ask them (the rabbis) about Muhammad, and describe him to them, and tell them what he is saying. They are the people of the first Book, and they have more knowledge of the Prophets than we do.’ So they set out and when they reached Al-Madinah, they asked the Jewish rabbis about the Messenger of Allah . They described him to them and told them some of what he had said. They said, `You are the people of the Tawrah and we have come to you so that you can tell us about this companion of ours.’ They (the rabbis) said, `Ask him about three things which we will tell you to ask, and if he answers them then he is a Prophet who has been sent (by Allah); if he does not, then he is saying things that are not true, in which case how you will deal with him will be up to you. Ask him about some young men in ancient times, what was their story For theirs is a strange and wondrous tale. Ask him about a man who travelled a great deal and reached the east and the west of the earth. What was his story? And ask him about the Ruh (soul or spirit) — what is it? If he tells you about these things, then he is a Prophet, so follow him, but if he does not tell you, then he is a man who is making things up, so deal with him as you see fit.’
The Makkans, of course, upon hearing the above advice, questioned prophet Muhammad accordingly. The prophet answered all of their questions with a newly revealed Qur’anic chapter named the Cave. The “young men” mentioned in the question (called the People of the Cave) are usually associated with the Christian story of the Seven Sleepers.1,2 But since the above questions were asked by the Rabbis of Madina, it might mean they wanted to challenge the Prophet’s knowledge about this mysterious Christian story as well. Or -as indicated by Muhammad Asad- the story of these young men might be of Jewish origin possibly referring the ascetic Essene Movement.2 What really matters is the fact that the Zhul-qarnayn question had stemmed from Judeo-Christian sources, specifically from the “people of the book” of Madina.
2- Is there any other sacred/historical document in which one can look for the character?
The answer to “Ask him about a man who travelled a great deal and reached the east and the west of the earth” was Zhul-qarnayn. Thus since the question pertaining to Zhul-qarnayn is of Judeo-Christian origin, it is only plausible to look for him in the Bible, the most sacred scripture of Judeo-Christian tradition, and potentially other Judeo-Christian texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic Gospels.
3- What are the qualities of this person?
The questions asked by the Rabbis are supposedly difficult questions, which deal with enigmatic stories and figures. Thus the “man who travelled a great deal and reached the east and the west of the earth” must be an enigmatic figure.
When the Qur’anic story of Zhul-qarnayn is read, one learns that Zhul-qarnayn was a mighty king and a righteous person. Furthermore, he is mentioned to be someone who travels to the east and the west, and who is given “the ways and the means to all ends,” certainly well matching the enigmatic figure spoken of by the Rabbis of Al-Madinah.
Thus he was someone who uniquely combined the two distinct -and usually opposing- qualities: the earthly might of being a king, and the unwavering faith and righteousness (of spirituality). He was perhaps called Zhul-qarnayn by the Qur’an to mean “He of the Two Powers,” or “He of the Two Realms (or Dominions),” as according to the Qur’an, he consummately commanded both the domain of earthly power and the domain of spirituality.
4- How do all these come together?
With the premise that the identity of Zhul-qarnayn ought to be sought in the Bible, I ask the following question:
– Is there a man in the Bible who is enigmatic (meaning very little is said about him, and what is said is curious) and who at the same time combines the two distinct qualities of being a king and a righteous person?
Anyone who studies the Bible will not fail to say “yes!” to the above question, and identify that person to be none other than the great king of Salem, Melchizedek.
Melchizedek is mentioned in the Bible to be the King of Salem and a priest of God the Most High. In fact, his name “Melchizedek” is a lightly distorted version of Semitic epithet “melik-i-sadik” meaning “the righteous king.” One of the reasons that Melchizedek is an enigmatic figure is because he appears once in person in the Bible and blesses the patriarch Abraham receiving tithes from him. The latter implying that Melchizedek is similar in rank to Abraham, if not superior. Below is the Biblical account of Melchizedek as given in the Book of Genesis:
“(18) And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High. (19) And he blessed him, and said: ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; (20) and blessed be God the Most High, who hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.’ And he gave him a tenth of all." 7
Thus in the light of the four points made above, I posit that Zhul-qarnayn of the Qur’an is none other than Melchizedek of the Bible. So much so that even their names/titles do carry the same meaning; Melchizedek as the King of Salem, a priest of God the Most High, whose name/title means “Righteous King,” blessing patriarch Abraham and receiving tithe from him; Zhul-qarnayn as a most powerful king who is at the same time highly God-conscious and receives revelation/inspiration from God, whose name/title means he of the two horns, epochs or powers. Both combine the unique qualities of earthly and spiritual might, and both are enigmatic figures in the eyes of people.
In other Judeo-Christian texts such as the Gnostic Gospels, Melchizedek is mentioned as an eschatological “high-priest” and “holy warrior.”8 In the Second Book of Jeu, a Coptic gnostic text, Melchizedek is addressed by Jesus as “Zorokothora Melchizedek.” James Davila states that the meaning of “Zorokothora” is unknown, but he claims it to be related to nomina barbara.” 9 A nomina barbarum is a word or set of words uttered for magical effects. It is not unlikely that “Zorokothora” and “Zhul-qarnayn” are related. For more on this, see notes.10
5- Any support for my claim from any classical Islamic scholar?
Ibn Kathir in his Al-Bidaya wa’l-Nihaya (The Beginning and the End) mentions that Zhul-qarnayn was a contemporary of Abraham. The two are mentioned to have had various encounters.11 In fact, Ibn Kathir states that Zhul-qarnayn lived about 2000 years before the times of Alexander the Great. That certainly matches well with the claim that Zhul-qarnayn was a contemporary of Abraham. All this gives strong credence to my proposition that Zhul-qarnayn is Melchizedek.
In the works of the Islamic Scholars, I have not come across any who makes the link between Melchizedek and Zhul-qarnayn. However, Abdullah Yusuf Ali compares Alkhidr to Melchizedek. Nevertheless, Alkhidir is not known to be a king, unlike Melchizedek.1 In addition, Alkhidr is not mentioned in the Bible, hence he cannot be the person about whom the Jewish questioners of the Prophet were inquiring.
The hadith context of the Qur’anic revelation concerning the story of Zhul-qarnayn and his unique quality of being a king and a righteous man points us in the direction a Biblical personality. Close examination of the Qur’anic, the Biblical and other Judeo-Christian accounts of Zhul-qarnayn and Melchizedek, respectively, coupled with the meaning of their names and titles give credible support to my hypothesis that Zhul-qarnain is non other than Melchizedek.
References and Notes
1. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an: English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary.
2. Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an.
3. Maulana Muhammad Ali, The Holy Qur’an: English Translation and Commentary.
4. Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, Tafhim al-Qur’an.
5. Al Biruni, The Chronology of Ancient Nations (Adamant Media Corporation, 2002) 49.
6. Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim.
7. Genesis 14:18-20.
8. Birger A. Pearson, S?ren Giversen, Melchizedek (IX, 1), in The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James M. Robinson (1990) 439.
9. James R. Davila, The Dead Sea Scrolls As Background to Postbiblical Judaism and Early Christianity (Brill Academic Publishers, 2002), 265.
10. On an admittedly speculative note, I advance the following hypothesis: there is a possibility that Zhul-qarnayn was called Zhul-qitran or Zor-qitran, meaning “one who commands molten copper” in reference to his employing qitran (meaning ‘molten copper’) on finishing the rampart he built against Gog and Magog. The word “qitran” appears in the Qur’an (18:96) in reference to none other than Zhul-qarnayn himself as follows: in transliteration “qala atoonee ofrigh AAalayhi qitran,”” meaning “"Bring me ‘molten copper’ which I may pour upon it” (M. Asad translation). The prefix “Zhul” (which means “owner of”) could have been “zor” or “zur” as such variation is possible among closely related Semitic languages. For example, “Zhul” of Arabic becomes “tre” in Aramic. Or “bin” of Arabic becomes “bar” in Aramaic. This could be where Zorokothora came from.
11. Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidaya wa’l-Nihaya, 2: 169-175.
Serkan Zorba is an associate professor of physics at Whittier College, California USA. He is originally from Turkey. His website is www.serkanzorba.com.