Why Zul-Qarnain of the Qur'an is not Alexander the great

By Khalid Jan

Popular opinion amongst the Muslims and quite recently, within the mainstream evangelical Christians identify Zul-Qarnian (of the Qur’an) with Alexander the great. This claim, in the light of history needs to be analysed while keeping in view the sublime story of Zul-Qarnain found in chapter 18 of the Qur’an. Before we initiate a point-by-point examination of whatever data available on hand, we must bear in mind that Qur’an does not mention the title "Alexander the great," but rather Zul-Qarnain (two-horned one) which may also mean "period or century." (1) In addition, "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." (2)


The story of Zul-Qarnain begins in the Qur’an with: "And they ask you about Zul-Qarnain. Say: 'I shall recite to you something of his story.' Verily, We established him in the earth, and We gave him the means of everything." [v83-v84] The most important point made in verse 84 is that Allah endowed upon Zul-Qarnain the worldly power and prestige to enable him to rule justly. If a man of God is under the divine protection, then naturally, under no circumstances, the forces of evil can overpower him. Let us now see if, from the following historical record of Alexander the great, we recognise Zul-Qarnain of the Qur’an: Alexander: "Hearing of the river Indus, ...drove the army eastward across the Hindu Kush (327 B.C.). His army had understood the need to consolidate all the Persian dominion, but believed this new venture to be a madman’s act. Actually, Alexander thought that he was entering the last peninsula of the earth: that beyond it lay the Ocean of the East. He reached the Indus with a growing following, a moving state of allied peoples and their families, while his remaining Macedonians laid down pontoon bridges, shored up roads over immense ranges, and fought battles when necessary. Passing from the friendly country around Taxila (near Attock), they encountered the hostile Paurava rajah at the Jhelum River where the Macedonian infantry had to fight against armoured elephants for the first time. Alexander and his spearhead could not approach the elephants, which terrified the horses. This shook the Macedonian veterans who mutinied en masse at the river Ravi. Deeply angered, because he believed the end of the land lay not far off, at Ocean, Alexander was obliged to retreat   (326 B.C.)." (3)

From the above narrative, we can easily observe that Alexander’s army considered this new venture to be a madman’s act and running away from the battleground upon seeing elephants in the enemy’s army. Both of these acts are in clear opposition to the verse 84 where Zul-Qarnain is given the utmost power: "Verily, We established him in the earth, and We gave him the means of everything." When a man of God is given the power to rule justly upon the earth, he’s also sustained by his followers who are ready and willing to follow their leader, and sacrifice themselves for the sake of God. No hardship, calamity or force can play any role against them. But, unfortunately, Alexander’s cowardly actions, such as becoming angry just because he was unable to fight Paurava Raja’s ((a Rajah) belonging to, or descended from Puru, a king of Lunar Dynasty) (4) army which consisted of elephants do not match that of a man of God.


Zul-Qarnain was indeed a believer in monotheism. In one of his voyages, as described in the Qur’an, he found some people, and said to them: "as for him who believes in (Allah’s Oneness) and works righteousness, he shall have the best reward (Paradise), and we (Zul-Qarnain) shall speak unto him mild words." [v87] On the other hand, we do not find Alexander being a believer in the Oneness of God, as the following record demonstrates it: "Alexander eagerly assimilated the religious mysticism of the Nile and of Magian Persia. Not only did he protect these religions, but also as a sole ruler, he necessarily assumed the semidivine aspect of an Asian despot, wearing Persian attire at ceremonies and accepting prostration in his presence."(5) Furthermore, "Alexander’s greatest work was the spread of Greek influence..." (6) The comparison so clearly separates Alexander from Zul-Qarnain that no further explanation is needed.


In Zul-Qarnain’s third voyage, he found a habitation between two mountains whose people asked for his help against the aggression of Gog and Magog - for which they were going to pay him a tribute. And in the words of the Qur’an, Zul-Qarnain replied to them: "(the power) in which My Lord has established me Is better (than tribute.)" [v95] The manner in which Zul-Qarnain responded, is a testimony in itself that he had no interest in the material gain of this world. His mission endorsed by God was to be just and kind to oppressed, and harsh with those who inflict hardship upon the helpless. In contrast, when we analyse Alexander in similar capacity, we get a picture opposite to what has been cited above for Zul-Qarnain: "In Susa and Persepolis his (Alexander’s) headlong pursuit won him the imperial treasure of some 180,000 talents in bullion and coin - so fabulous an amount that he demonetised the gold to equate it with the smaller Graeco-Macedonian silver coinage," (7) and "at Damascus the Persian army’s treasure and supply train were captured, giving Alexander wealth for the first time." (8) From these two historical records, can we picture Zul-Qarnain as he is depicted in the above Qur’anic verse? Obviously not!


So far, it has been established that Zul-Qarnain of the Qur’an was a believer in the Oneness of God. In the case of Alexander the great, following few historical accounts further confirm that he was not a monotheist:

"In the spring of 331 Alexander made a pilgrimage to the great temple and oracle of Amon-Ra, Egyptian god of the sun, whom the Greeks identified with Zeus. The earlier Egyptian pharaohs were believed to be sons of Amon-Ra; and Alexander, the new ruler of Egypt, wanted the god to acknowledge him as his son. The pilgrimage apparently was successful, and it may have confirmed in him a belief in his own divine origin." (9)

"Shortly before he died, Alexander ordered the Greek cities to worship him as a god. Although he probably gave the order for political reasons, he was, in his own view and that of his contemporaries, of divine birth." (9)


In the days gone by, access and availability to social, academic and scientific knowledge was either limited or non-existent. People of learning used to base their opinions on whatever information was on hand. There were also those who accepted matters as conclusive without having first analysed it from all the different angles. In the case of those Muslim commentators on the Holy Qur’an who identify Zul-Qarnain with Alexander the great, we simply cannot blame them for their erroneous interpretation. The time-domain they lived in and the resources available to them, they, accordingly, explained the Qur’anic text to the best of their ability. Despite the fact that they were all sincere and good hearted scholars, they were bound to incorporate within their work certain cultural elements of which they were part of: "no other man has been claimed - in legends - by so many nations. Egyptian fable makes him god. Arabo-Persian tradition represents Is-kander as a hero-saint." (10) The only common factor on which these scholars based their opinions is the expeditions carried by Alexander and Zul_Qarnain. Other than this, there are hardly any other characteristics that are common in both.


  1. Cyril Classe, The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam, Harper & Row, 1989, p_32
  2. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, note 2428
  3. Encyclopaedia Americana, Volume 1, p_540
  4. Margaret & James Stutly, A dictionary of Hinduism, Ronledge & Kegan Paul, 1977
  5. Encyclopaedia Americana, Volume 1, p_540
  6. Encyclopaedia of Religion & Ethics, Volume 1, p_307
  7. Encyclopaedia Americana, Volume 1, p_540
  8. Ibid., p_539
  9. Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopaedia, CDROM ver, by future vision multimedia inc., 1995 INFOPEDIA
  10. Encyclopaedia Americana, Volume 1, p_540


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