Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 18, “The Cave,” verses 83-110

As we saw two weeks ago, verses 83-101 of sura 18 were revealed after a group of rabbis devised a test for Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet: “Ask him about a man who travelled a great deal and reached the east and the west of the earth. What was his story?” That man was Dhul-Qarnayn (v. 83) – “the one with two horns.” Ibn Kathir explains that he had “dominion over the east and the west, all countries and their kings submitted to him, and all the nations, Arab and non-Arab, served him.” He goes on to explain that Dhul-Qarnayn got his Qur’anic name “because he reached the two ‘Horns’ of the sun, east and west, where it rises and where it sets.”

But who was this great conqueror? The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that “he was not a prophet” and that his “name was Alexander” – better known as Alexander the Great, who was depicted on coins with two ram’s horns on his head. Maududi notes that “early commentators on the Qur’an were generally inclined to believe” that Dhul-Qarnayn was Alexander. Muhammad Al-Ghazali says that Alexander the Great is “high on the list of possibilities.”

However, Dhul-Qarnayn seems to have been a pious Muslim, since he said: “Whoever doth wrong, him shall we punish; then shall he be sent back to his Lord; and He will punish him with a punishment unheard-of (before). But whoever believes, and works righteousness, he shall have a goodly reward, and easy will be his task as We order it by our Command” (vv. 87-88). This has led some modern-day Muslim commentators on the Qur’an to be embarrassed by the earlier commentators’ insistence that the manifestly pagan Alexander the Great was identified as a Muslim in the Qur’an. Some have suggested instead that Dhul Qarnayn was Cyrus the Great of Persia, or some other great ancient king, but such identifications lead to many of the same difficulties caused by saying that Dhul Qarnayn was Alexander: Muhammad Asad observes that “it is precisely the Qur’anic stress on his faith in God that makes it impossible to identify Dhu’l-Qarnayn, as most of the commentators do, with Alexander the Great (who is represented on some of his coins with two horns on his head) or with one or another of the pre-Islamic, Himyaritic kings of Yemen. All those historic personages were pagans and worshipped a plurality of deities as a matter of course, whereas our Dhu’l-Qarnayn is depicted as a firm believer in the One God.” The consensus today, therefore, is that his exact identification is unknown. Asad concludes that the Qur’anic account “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.”

Anyway, whoever he was, Dhul-Qarnayn traveled to the farthermost West, until “he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring” (v. 86). The Iraqi astronomer who insisted last fall that the Qur’an taught that the earth was flat did not quote this verse, and that was probably because it has been understood for centuries in a way that wouldn’t have given Copernicus dyspepsia. Ibn Kathir explains that it means that Dhul-Qarnayn “followed a route until he reached the furthest point that could be reached in the direction of the sun’s setting, which is the west of the earth.” He didn’t see actually see the sun setting, he was just watching it from the shore: “he saw the sun as if it were setting in the ocean. This is something which everyone who goes to the coast can see: it looks as if the sun is setting into the sea but in fact it never leaves its path in which it is fixed.” So where do people get crazy ideas such as that he actually reached “the place in the sky where the sun sets”? Why, from the Jews and Christians, of course: “Most of these stories come from the myths of the People of the Book and the fabrications and lies of their heretics.”

After traveling from the farthermost West to the farthermost East (v. 90), Dhul-Qarnayn on another journey encounters Gog and Magog, who “do great mischief on earth” (v. 94, cf. 5:33). They are, according to Ibn Kathir, “two groups of Turks, descended from Yafith (Japheth), the father of the Turks, one of the sons of Noah.” Dhul-Qarnayn walls them in between two mountains (v. 96) – which is another reason why he is identified with Alexander the Great, who according to pre-Islamic legend built the Gates, or Wall, of Alexander in the Caucasus in order to protect his empire from the barbarians of the northern regions – who were associated with Gog and Magog of Ezekiel 38-39. But the wall will come down (v. 98) on the Day of Judgment, when the trumpet sounds (v. 99). A popular modern-day Saudi preacher, Muhammad Saleh al-Munajjid, explained Islamic eschatology in a nutshell:

Ya’juj and Ma’juj are two disbelieving tribes from among the sons of Adam. They used to spread mischief on earth, so Allah gave Dhul-Qarnayn the power to build a barrier to detain them. They will keep on digging at it until Allah gives them permission to come out at the end of time, after `Isa [Jesus] (peace be upon him) has killed the Dajjal [“Deceiver”]. They will emerge in huge numbers and will drink up the lake of Tiberias (in Palestine). They will spread mischief on earth and no one will be able to resist them. `Isa (peace be upon him) and the believers with him will take refuge in Mount Tur until Allah destroys Ya’juj and Ma’juj [Gog and Magog] by sending worms that will eat their necks. Then Allah will send rain to wash away their bodies into the sea and cleanse the earth of their stench.”

When will this be? No one knows, but even in his day Muhammad the prophet of Islam was warning: “Woe unto the Arabs from a danger that has come near. An opening has been made in the wall of Gog and Magog like this” – and he made a circle with his thumb and index finger. Muhammad also warned that only one out a thousand people would be saved: “one-thousand will be from Gog and Magog, and the one (to be saved will be) from you [Muslims].”

Verses 102-110 conclude this wild and wonderful sura by returning to several familiar themes: the unbelievers trust in created beings rather than in Allah, and hell awaits them (v. 102); even the good works of those who deny Islam will be for naught (vv. 104-106); the believers will enjoy the gardens of Paradise (v. 107); Muhammad is just a human being, but what he is transmitting are the words of Allah, who has no partners (v. 110).

Next week: Sura 19, “Mary”: “How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?”

(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)