On The Sources Of The Qur'anic Dhul-Qarnayn

M S M Saifullah

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

First Composed: 1st September 1999

Last Updated: 5th March 2006


Assalamu-`alaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

Among Western scholars, the issue of Dhul-Qarnayn (the two-horned one) in Qur'an 18:82 had been a source of great debate. The debate surrounds not only the identity of Dhul-Qarnayn but also the sources of the Qur'anic story. Who was he? Was he really Alexander the Great? Hammer-Purgstall held that Dhul-Qarnayn was one of the old kings of Yemen.[1] Graf took exception to this view and cited the passages from Ephippus and Clement that referred to the representations of Alexander as son of Ammon with horns. He concluded that the identity of Dhul-Qarnayn is that of Alexander.[2] Graf's conclusions provoked the dissent of Redslob. Redslob, citing the prophecy of Daniel in which the king of the Medes and Persians is interpreted as the two-horned ram, proposed that Dhul-Qarnayn was Cyrus the Persian.[3] Beer held that the Dhul-Qarnayn in the Qur'an had adopted the form of  the long awaited Jewish redeemer or messiah.[4] And others like Geiger have attempted to link Dhul-Qarnayn to Moses.[5] In the Western scholarhip, the issue of Dhul-Qarnayn's identity was finally brought to a close by Nöldeke who established that Dhul-Qarnayn was none other than Alexander and the source of the Qur'anic narrations was the Syrian Christian Legend ascribed to Jacob of Serugh (d. 521 CE). Nöldeke dated the Christian Legend to 514-515 CE.[6] A similar claim that identifies Dhul-Qarnayn with Alexander was made by Newton and other Christian missionaries/apologists.[7] Nöldeke's position was accept by many scholars[8] until it was discovered that the internal evidence of the Christian Legend suggested a post-Islamic date.

2. Dating The Christian Legend Attributed To Jacob Of Serug

The dating of the Christian Legend was based on the study of its internal evidence. At the end of the text there is a mention that on the passing of 826 years, the Huns will break forth and will subjugate peoples:

And king Alexander fetched [an engraver] and inscribed upon the gate: "The Huns shall go forth and conquer the countries of the Romans and of the Persians, and shall cast arrows with...., and shall return and enter their won land. Also I have written that, at the conclusion of eight hundred and twenty six years, the Huns shall go forth by the narrow way which goes forth opposite Halôrâs, where the Tigris goes forth like the stream which turns a mill, and they shall take captives the nations, and shall cut off the roads, and shall make the earth tremble by their going forth. And again I have written and made known and prophesied that it shall come to pass, at the conclusion of nine hundred and forty years,.... another king, when the world shall come to an end by the command of God the ruler of creation.[9]

This passage is considered by all students to be of fundamental chronological importance. If we compute according to the Era of the Seleucids, the successors of Alexander (i.e., from 311), then 826-311 yields a year of 515 CE; which was the date of the great Sabir invasion.[10] This vaticinatio ex eventu (i.e. a prophesy or predication after the event) is prophesied in the Christian Legend. Considering this vaticination (prediction or prophesy),  Nöldeke held the view that the Christian Legend was composed about 515 CE.

What about the second prediction or prophesy of the inscription: the 940th year? The year 629 CE (i.e., 940-311) corresponds to the Greek Era of 940. Nöldeke held it to be a genuine vaticination (prediction or prophesy). He even admits that the Khazars, the allies of Emperor Herakleios, invaded Armenia through the Caucasus in 627 CE. This date however, argues Nöldeke, did not refer to the beginning of the campaign (as the Legend would have us suppose), but rather to the conclusion of a protracted Byzantine-Persian war. Therefore, in Nöldeke's opinion, the date 940 of the Greek Era (= 629 CE) is purely arbitrary, as it should naturally be in the case of a genuine vaticination.

Hunnius has convincingly argued against Nöldeke's sixth century dating of Christian Legend. He showed that certain parts point to the Khazar invasion of 629 CE - i.e., seventh century.[11] Czeglédy, using Kmoskó's thesis, also argued that the Christian Legend and metrical discourse of Jacob of Serugh came into its final form after 628 CE and that this argument is conclusive:

... it is all the more regrettable that Kmoskó's expositions, which settle the dispute, were not published earlier than a few years ago, and even then only in extracts. Kmoskó has a whole series of arguments to prove that both the metrical Legend and the prose text of the same contain unmistakable references to the war of Khosrav II and Herakleios. Hence both variants, in their present forms, contain variant of the Legend that came into being as an adaption definitely after 628. Kmoskó's arguments are surely conclusive. An adaption of this kind is a natural phenomenon in apocalyptic literature: after the passing of the date foretold in the latest vaticination, the subsequent adapters inserts new prophecies into the text.[12]

This identification only gives us the date 628 CE as terminus a quo (a point of origin or a first limiting point in time). The text gives no date by which to fix the terminus ad quem (a final limiting point in time). Similarly Gero says:

Several features of the text [i.e., the Christian Legend] also occur in the Koranic narrative - the famous horns of Alexander, the journey to the west and then to the east, and of course the central theme of the gate, which will be opened at an apocalyptic Endzeit by divine command. But although this has been proposed by Nöldeke and often repeated since, the work also does not qualify as a direct source for the 'two-horned' Alexander of the Koran, at least not in its present form; recent investigations indicate an ex eventu knowledge of the Khazar invasion of Armenia in A.D. 629.

The prose legend (neshânâ) was then in turn the literary source of the Syriac metrical homily discourse attributed to Jacob of Sarug (sixth century) in the manuscripts. The poem, however, was actually written in the seventh century, shortly before the Muslim conquest of Mesopotamia and Palestine.[13]

Sir Wallis Budge indicated a long time ago that the Christian Legend had been re-worked and is burdened with additions, and that this work is that of Jacob of Serugh is improbable:

This composition appears to be an abbreviated form of which known to us is that given in the metrical discourse on Alexander attributed to Jacob of Serugh; both these works, in turn are based upon chapters xxxvii-xxxix of the second book of Pseudo-Callisthenes according to Muller's greek MS. C. The Christian Legend has been burdened with many additions, evidently the work of the Christian redactor, which have no connexion whatever with the story. On the other hand many passages, as, for example, the account of his descent into the sea in a glass cage, have been entirely omitted. The names of the places which are given us freely in this legend seem to indicate that it was drawn up at a very late period; that it is the work of Jacob of Serugh is improbable.[14]

Recent extensive studies on the influence by Syriac Pseudo-Callisthenes on Qur'an 18:60-102 (which includes the story of Dhul-Qarnayn) by Wheeler have shown that it was the Qur'anic commentaries and not the Qur'an that adopted the Alexander stories among other near eastern stories to explain the verses 18:60-102. Wheeler's conclusion can be shown in the following form:[15]

3. Conclusions

It has been claimed by Nöldeke and subsequent scholarship that the Qur'anic story of Dhul-Qarnayn was borrowed from the Christian Legend attributed to Jacob of Serugh. Internal evidence however shows that it was composed after 628 CE. Investigations by Hunnius, Kmoskó and Czeglédy have conclusively shown that the writer had ex eventu (i.e., a prophesy or predication after the event) knowledge of Khazar invasion of Armenia. The text provides no date by which the terminus ad quem (a final limiting point in time) can be fixed.

It is not only important to know the dates of composition of the individual works that are used to establish the theories of borrowing, but to also understand the difference between the Qur'an and the Qur'anic commentaries.


References & Notes

[1] F. v. Hammer-Purgstall, "Auszüge Aus Saalebi's Buche Der Stützen Des Sich Beziehenden Und Dessen Worauf Es Sich Bezieht", Zeitschrift Der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 1852, Volume 6, p. 506.

[2] K. H. Graf, "Ueber Den "Zweihörnten" Des Koran", Zeitschrift Der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 1854, Volume 8, pp. 442-449.

[3] G. M. Redslob, "Ueber Den "Zweihörnigen" Des Koran", Zeitschrift Der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 1855, Volume 9, pp. 214-223.

[4] B. Beer, "Welchen Aufschluss Geben Jüdische Quellen Über Den "Zweihörnigen" Des Koran?", Zeitschrift Der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 1855, Volume 9, pp. 785-794.

[5] A. Geiger, Judaism And Islam (English Translation Of Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?), 1970, Ktav Publishing House Inc.: New York, pp. 135-136.

[6] Th. Nöldeke, "Beiträge Zur Geschichte Des Alexanderroman", Denkschriften Der Kaiserlichen Akademie Der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Classe, 1890, Volume 37, pp. 31; Theodor Noldeke, "The Koran", Encyclopædia Britannica, 1893, Volume 16, Adam And Charles Black: Edinburgh, p. 600. This article was reprinted many times with slight modifications. See T. Nöldeke (J. S. Black [Trans.]), Sketches From Eastern History, 1892, Adam and Charles Black: London & Edinburgh, p. 30. This article was reprinted and edited by N. A. Newman, The Qur'an: An Introductory Essay By Theodor Nöldeke, 1992, Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute: Hatfield (PA), p. 9; Also see Theodor Nöldeke, "The Koran" in Ibn Warraq, The Origins Of The Koran: Classic Essays On Islam's Holy Book, 1998, Prometheus Books, p. 43; Also see Theodor Nöldeke, "The Koran" in C. Turner (Ed.), The Koran: Critical Concepts In Islamic Studies, 2004, Volume I (Provenance and Transmission), RoutledgeCurzon: London & New York, pp. 77-78.

[7] `Abdallah `Abd al-Fadi, Is The Qur'an Infallible?, 1995, Light of Life: Villach (Austria), pp. 84-86; R. F. Safa, Inside Islam: Exposing And Reaching For The World Of Islam, 1996, Creation House: Orlando (FL), p. 71; M. Elass, Understanding the Koran: A Quick Christian Guide To The Muslim Holy Book, 2004, Zondervan: Grand Rapids (MI), p. 99. Elass says that "the early linkage, however, provides an embarrassment to later Muslim scholarship, for Alexander was a pagan polytheist, and it would not do to canonize a heathen king as a true prophet of Allah." Not surprisingly, Elass did not provide the source of early "linkage" leading to "embarrassment"; R. Morey, The Islamic Invasion: Confronting The World's Fastest Growing Religion, 1992, Harvest House Publishers: Eugene (OR), pp. 144-145. Robert Morey claims "one of the greatest errors in the Quran concerns Alexander the Great, who is called Zul-qarnain."; N. A. Newman, Muhammad, The Qur'an & Islam, 1996, Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute: Hatfield (PA), p. 377. Quoting Nöldeke and Schwally, Newman says that the "Qur'anic narrative is based on Syriac Alexander the Great legend which appears to have been written in 515-516 AD"; Abdullah Al-Araby, Islam Unveiled, 2002 (10th Edition), The Pen Vs. The Sword: Los Angeles (CA), p. 44; D. Ali & R. Spencer, Inside Islam: A Guide To Catholics, 2003, Ascension Press: West Chester (PA), p. 73. According to Daniel Ali and Robert Spencer, the Qur'an "claims that Alexander the Great was a Muslim in the story of Zul-qarnain (Sura 18:89-98), whom Muslim exegetes both ancient and modern identify as Alexander. Such appropriation of historical figures might be understandable in the case of a figure like Abraham, but Alexander was not even a monotheist."

[8] See for example: I. Friedländer, Die Chadhirlegende Und Der Alexanderroman, 1913, Druck Und Verlag Von B. G. Teubner: Leipzig, p. 278; J. Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen, 1926, Walter De Gruyter: Berlin & Leipzig, p. 111; A. R. Anderson, "Alexander's Horns", Transactions And Proceedings Of The American Philological Association, 1927, Volume LVIII, pp. 110-111; A. R. Anderson, Alexander's Gate, Gog And Magog, And The Inclosed Nations, 1932, The Mediaeval Academy Of America: Cambridge, MA, pp. 29-30; C. C. Torrey, The Jewish Foundation Of Islam, 1967, Ktav Publishing House, Inc.: New York, p. 35 and 125.; A. Jeffery, The Koran: Selected Suras, 1958, The Heritage Press: New York, NY, p. 220, n. 9; J. A. Boyle, "The Alexander Romance In The East And West", Bulletin Of The John Rylands University Library Of Manchester, 1977, Volume 60, pp. 19-20.; M. S. Southgate, Iskandarnamah: A Persian Medieval Alexander Romance, 1978, Columbia University Press, New York, p. 201; Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not A Muslim, 1995, Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY, p. 61; A. Rippin, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs And Practices, 2003, Routledge, p. 22.

[9] E. A. W. Budge, The History Of Alexander The Great Being The Syriac Version Of The Pseudo-Callisthenes, 1889, Cambridge: At The University Press, p. 154.

[10] K. Czeglédy, "The Syriac Legend Concerning Alexander The Great", Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 1957, Volume 7, p. 246.

[11] C. Hunnius, Das Syrische Alexanderlied, 1905, Göttingen, pp. 21-24.

[12] K. Czeglédy, "The Syriac Legend Concerning Alexander The Great", Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, op cit., pp. 246-247. Czeglédy also discusses Kmoskó's arguments concerning metrical discourse of Jacob of Serug in "Monographs On Syriac And Muhammadan Sources In The Literary Remains Of M. Kmoskó", Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 1954, Volume 4, pp. 35-36. For the discussion on the Syriac prose legend refer to pp. 31-34.

[13] S. Gero, "The Legend Of Alexander The Great In The Christian Orient", Bulletin Of The John Rylands University Library Of Manchester, 1993, Volume 75, p. 7.

[14] E. A. W. Budge, The History Of Alexander The Great Being The Syriac Version Of The Pseudo-Callisthenes, op cit., p. lxxvii.

[15] B. M. Wheeler in "Moses Or Alexander? Early Islamic Exegesis Of Qur'an 18:60-65", Journal Of Near Eastern Studies, 1998, Volume 57, p. 203.

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