Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

Folklore in the Qur'an: Who was Zul-Qarnain?

The Zul-Qarnain story was narrated in Qur'an by series of verses (18:83-98). Here let me cite a few verses related to Zul-qarnain story:

Quran-18:83-84:  They ask thee concerning Zul-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 means to all ends.

Quran-18:86:  Until, when he reached the setting of the Sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water; near it he found a people; We said "O Zul-qarnain ! Thou hast authority either to punish them, or to treat them with kindness."

Quran-18:90:  Until, when he came to the rising of the Sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the Sun.

Quran-18:94: They said: "O Zul-qarnain ! The Gog and magog (people) do great mischief on earth, shall we then render thee tribute in order that thou mightiest erect a barrier between us and them?"

Questions to ponder: If Allah did not consider the earth FLAT how in the world He sent Zul-qarnain to the (end of the world) place where sun was setting?  Or. To the place where sun was rising?  Does anybody need to reach a setting or rising place to observe sun-set or sun-rise?


Who was Zul-Qarnain?

Many Islamic thinkers and intellectuals consider that the said Zul-Quarnain mentined in Quran is the Greek conqueror Alexander the great.  Here are some sources from where Islamic thinkers perhaps got this idea of Quranic Zul-qarniain as Alexander the great. The famous Quranic translator maulana A. Yousuf Ali gave a long story as Appendix Vll (titled: Who was Zulqarnain; page 760-765) detailing the facts and figures why most Islamic scholars including himself considered very strongly that, Quranic Zulqarnain was nobody but Alexander the Great. In this long Appendix, maulana yousuf Ali tried to justify why he thought that the person in Quran by the name of Zul-qarnain was nobody but Alexander the Great. Readers please see for yourself the above mentioned appendix in the Maulana Yousuf ali's Translated Quran. Because, here in this essay I will only illustrate some important quotations (supporting Maulana Yousuf ali's assertion) from this Appendix.   Readers please note that, Maulana Yousuf ali's quotations are in italics:

Maulana Yousuf Ali stated, "I have not the least doubt that Zul-qarnain is meant to be ALEXANDER THE GREAT, the historic Alexander, and not the legendary Alexander, of whom more presently. My first appointment after graduation was that of lecturer in Greek history. I have studied the details of Alexander's extraordinary personality in Greek historians as well as in modern writers, and have since visited most of the localities connected with his brief but brilliant career."

What is the meaning of the name Zul-qarnain? According to Maulana Yousuf Ali-"Lord of the two Qarns (horn). And other meanings may be applicable as implying: (1) is a man or a great king; (2) Lord of East and West, Lord of wide territory or of two kingdoms; (3) Lord of two crests on his diadem, typifying two kingdoms , or rank superior to that of an ordinary king; (4) Lord of more than one Epoch-one whose power and influence extend far beyond his lifetime."

Maulana Yousuf Ali stated, "If we accept the popular identification of Zulqarnain with Alexander, all the three letter designations would be applicable to him, as he was the Lord of the West and the East, Lord of the Greek states united for the first time (Hellenic Captain-General) and of the widely-extended Persian Dominion which included all Western Asia, Egypt, central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Punjab. He was represented on his coins with two horns on his head: considered himself a son of Jupiter Amon (who had the two horns of ram), with a divine mission."

"Now the generality of the world of Islam have accepted Alexander the Great as the one meant by the epithet Zul-qarnain. But some of our Ulama have raised doubts about it and made other suggestions: (1) An earlier pre-historic king contemporary with Abraham, because they say Zul-qarnain was a man of faith (Quran-18:88-98) while Alexander the Great was a pagan  and believed in Grecian Gods."

"Another suggestion was made that, Quranic Zul-qarnain was an ancient king of Persia. But there is nothing in our literature to suggest that Zul-qarnain came to any such ignominious end.  If it is argued that it was some old prehistoric Persian king who built the iron gates (Quran:18:96) to keep the Gog and magog tribes (Quran:18:94), this is no identification at all.  Another suggestion made is that it was some old prehistoric Himyarite king from Yemen, about whom nothing else is known. An identification with a supposed pre-historic king, about whom nothing is known, is no identification at all."

"The question of Yajuj and majuj (Gog and Magog) and the iron barrier built to keep them out is of some interest. It is practically agreed that they were the wild tribes of Central Asia (Manchus and Mongols) which have made inroads on settled kingdoms and Empires at various stages of the world's history."

"The Barrier in the text must have been more in the nature of iron gates then a iron wall. Two iron gates, geographically far apart, have been suggested in the alternative. Sometimes they have been mixed up by writers not strong in geography. Both of them have local association with the name of Alexander the great.  Both are near a town Derbend, and have borne the name of bab-ul-hadid (Arabic word for iron gate). The best known iron gate in modern times is at the town and seaport of derbend in the middle of the western coast of the Caspian Sea. In the early days, when Muslims spread to all parts of the world, local legends were started by ignorant people connecting the places they knew with places referred to in the Quran."

" We now come to the "iron gate" which corresponds exactly to the Quranic description, and has the best claim to be connected with Alexander's story. It is near another Derbend in Central asia, Hissar District, about 150 miles south-east of Bukhara.  There is no iron gate there now, but there was one in 7th century when the Chinese traveler Hiouen Tsiang saw it on his journey to India. He saw two folding gates cased with iron and hung with bells. Near by is a lake named Iskandar Kul,   connecting the locality with Alexander the Great.   We know from history that Alexander, after his conquest of Persia and before his journey to India, visited Sogdiana (Bukara) maracanda (Samarqand).  We also know from Muqaddasi, the Arab traveler and geographer, who wrote about A.H. 375 (A.D. 985-6) the Abbasi Khalifa Wathiq (842-846 A.D.) sent out a mission to Central asia to report on this iron gate.  They found the defile 150 yards wide: on two jambs made with bricks of iron welded together with molten lead, were hung two huge Gates, which are kept closed. NOTHING COULD CORRESPOND MORE EXACTLY WITH THE DESCRIPTION IN HOLY QURA'N (18: 95-96)"

"If then the Barrier (in Quran:18:95-98) refers to the Iron gate near Bukhara, we are able to proceed to a consideration of the Gog and Magog people with  some confidence.  They were the Mongol tribes on the other side of the Barrier, while the industrious men who did not understand Zul-qarnain's language were the turks, with their agglutinative language, so different from the languages then spoken in Western Asia.  This Barrier served its purpose for the time being.  We need not bother about the legends of Gog and Magog people. They were reputed to be Giants, and two tiny hills in flat Cambridgeshire are derisively called the Gog and Magog hills. In the Alexander legends of medieval Europe, Gog and magog are said to have come with 400,000 men to the help of Porus whom Alexander defeated, and to have fled after that defeat. They fled to the mountains, and Alexander built a wall with brass gates to prevent their irruption (Paul Meyer, Alexander le Grand dans la literature fraqaise du Moyen age: Paris, 1886; Vol.2, pp:386-389)."

About Alexander's westward journey Maulana Yousuf Ali writes:

"One such point in the mention of Alexander's westward journey (Quran:18:86): "He saw the sun set in a piece of murky water which is described as a spring. Most commentators have understood the "spring" to be the sea, and takes the "murky water" to be the dark blue the west of the town of Lychnis is a lake 170 square miles in area fed by underground springs that issue through limestone rocks and give out murky water. Both town and lake is now called Ochrida, about 50 miles west of Monastir. The water is so dark that the river which forms the outlet of the lake to the north is called the Black Drin.  Looking at the Sun-set from the Town, the observer would see the sun set in a pool of murky water (Quran-18:86). History tell us that, it was a question before the boy King Alexander-the dreamy, impulsive, fearless rider, whether he would put the barbarous Illyriccans to the sword or show them mercy. He showed true discrimination and statesmanship. He punished the guilty and showed kindness to the innocent, and thus consolidated his power in the west. This I (Yousuf Ali) construe to be the meaning of verses (18:86-87); otherwise these verses do not seem to be perfectly clear.  Another point may be noted. Three episodes mentioned are: (1) journey to the west,  (2)  the journey to the east,  (3) and journey to the "Iron Gate": The journey to the west I have just explained. The journey to the east was to the Persian Empire. Here he found a people who lived in the open and wore little clothing.  This might apply to people who lived in an inland place in the latitude of Persepolis or Multan. He left them alone as they were (Quran:18:91)."

Maulana Yousuf Ali was an educated Mullah who frequently gave a very sensible/modern explanation to Quranic Ayats (unlike other Madrasa educated Mullah) and by doing that he put Quranic diviness in clear jeopardy. Therefore, to save Quranic diviness, he at the same time made some incongruous arguments to save Allah's integrity. Here in this explanation of Quranic Folklore story about Alexander he created very logical historical background but by doing this he put Allah in a precarious situation because of the fact that Alexander was not a believer as Quran postulated by various Ayats. So to save Allah's side, Maulana erected some ludicrous logic:

"Alexander was a focus of Christian and Jewish learning for some centuries. The Christians also made Alexander a saint. The Jews carried the Alexander cycle into the east. Our Persian poet Jami (A,H. 535-599, A.D. 1141-1203) worked it up into his epic the Iskandar-nama.   He is careful to show the historical or semihistorical and the ethical parts separately. The one relates to action or exploits (Iqbal) and the other to wisdom (Khirad). He had the advantage of Quran's story before him. The story mentions three historical episodes incidentally, but draws our attention to matters of the weightiest spiritual significance, and that is the chief thing to note in the story. All that is known about Alexander the Great shows that he was a man of lofty ideals. He died over three centuries before the time of Jesus, but that does not mean that he was not a man of faith, for God revealed Himself to men of all nations in all ages. Alexander was an disciple of philosopher Aristotle, noted for his pursuit of sound Truth in all departments of thought. "


My question to all Islamists of the opposing group who do not consider Zul-qarnain as the Alexander the great:  How can you deny all these (above) arguments by Maulana Yousuf Ali?  Apologists are in real problem with this simulation of Zul-qarnain story because ancient history does not give us any such character which fits with Zul-qarnain story in Quran. Zul-qarnain story exactly fits with the historical facts of the Alexander the Great. But Mullahs are in real problem to accept Alexander as Zul-qarnain, as because, Alexander was a pagan.  Interestingly, if the Alexander was a believer or at least somebody from any of the three monotheistic religions of the world, Mullahs would immediately jump to the conclusion that-Zul-qarnain is no one but Alexander the Great. Readers should ponder-why Quranic Zul-qarnain story matches 100% with the story of Alexander the Great? Could it be a mere co-incidence?

Any Muslims (especially Bangladeshi) who experienced "Waz-Mehfil" of a half-educated, or Madrasha (Taliban Factory) educated maulana-have definitely enjoyed the superstitious and mythological description of "Yajuj and majuj" (of this fanciful Zul-qarnain story) as the terrible Giants who will erupt from some parts of Syria and will destroy this beautiful world of Islam.  Then it is the Prophet Issa (Jesus Christ) who will come again to fight this "Yajuj and majuj" to save the world.  This colorful superstitious story is believed by hundreds of millions of blind-faith Muslims, just the way they believe that Qur'an is the word of Allah. However, this historical statement in Qur'an is seriously erroneous. Because the ancient history tells us that Alexander was a licentious, belligerent, idolatrous, and claimed to be the son of Amun, the God of Egypt. And Qur'an amazingly stated that, the Alexander was the one who reached the west point of flat earth (?), to a end point where sun set down in a well of muddy water, and also he reached the point of east end of the earth where he saw sun was rising.  Several years ago, America's PBS telecast a multi-part series on Alexander the Great. In one episode, it was shown that two Qur'anic scholars from Middle East (Arab) read a passage on Alexander. He was described in Qur'an as a demon with two horns who caused much destruction on earth. The commentator, an English professor, remarked that Alexander's disheveled hairdo and the shape of his head indeed portray him as a person with two horns. Perhaps it was a folklore that this brute Alexander--a devil with two horns had passed through a big chunk of Arab land. Still now, people can visit some remote parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, NWFP of Pakistan, and Punjab and hear some folk melodies in which a man name Eskander or Sikander is glorified as a fierce fighter. The bottom line is that Qur'an has obviously borrowed this folklore story that was prevailing in Arab peninsula. 

Like the one I just described above, there are many stories in the Quran which were taken from: local folklore, the fanciful details of Jewish writers, local stories from Arab heretical Christians, mythological stories from Zoarostrians who apparently got from Hindu mythology. Here are some examples of folklore which Quranic author obviously borrowed from various sources:

Story of Azazil

Quran took this name "Azazil" from Jews who call the evil spirit by the same name. But the story of Azazil was taken from Zoroastrian book of 5. Let us see the comparison of the two:

Quranic (Muslim) version of the story:   Allah created Azazil, who in the seventh hell worshiped the Almighty for a thousand years; he then ascended, spending a similar term at each stage, till he reached the earth. Elsewhere we read that the Devil (Azazil) stayed three thousand years close by the gate of the paradise, with hostile intentions against Adam and Eve, of whom he entertained the utmost jealousy.

Zoarostrian version of the story:   He remained in the abyss, dark and ignorant, there to commit hurt and injury, and such mischief and darkness is the place that they term the dark region. Ormazed (Zoarostrian name of God), who knew everything was aware of Ahriman's (evil) existence and designs. Both remained thus for 3000 years, without change or action. The evil spirit was ignorant of Ormazed's existence; but eventually rising out of the pit, at least behind the light of Ormazed; then filled with hostility and envy, he set to work to destroy.

Other folklore stories which I have no scope to describe here in this essay are: (a) Legend of the Companions of the cave (Quran-18:8-25), (b) The story of Harut and Marut (Quran-2:96), (c) Origin of "The Balance" (in Quran: 7: 7-8; 21: 48).  I will try to bring them in my future essay. 

Yet, apologists will always attempt to defend Quranic flaws by following ridiculous and incogitant arguments: (a) They will blame the translation, (b) will say human being can not understand Allah's Qudraat, (c) Quran has to be taken (when there is serious flaws) as Allegory/parable, (d) Quranic verses (which has flaws) are only a poetry and not to be taken as real, or (e) at least will say "mission impossible", Or, (f) will attack the messenger leaving messages by saying Mr. X or Y is not an intellectual (high quality enough) to comment on Holy Quran-even though Allah repeatedly said: "I (Allah) made the Quran in simple Arabic so that ordinary Arabs can understand it." 



  1. Holy Quran-translated by Mauolana Yousuf Ali

  2. Holy Quran-translated by Maoulana Mahiuddin Khan

Syed Kamran Mirza is the author of Roots of Terrorism in Islam. He has also contributed in Beyond Jihad — Critical Voices from Inside Islam and Leaving Islam — Apostates Speaks Out. He can be contacted at

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