By: Baha'eddin Khoramshahi





In the Qur'an, there are 16 verses in the Kahf Sureh (verses 83-98) that talk about Zolqarnain and some aspects of his personality. Recently, Molana Abolkalam Azad, India's Minister of Culture, in his Urdu-language exegesis titled "Tarjoman al-Qur'an", claimed that Zolqarnain referred to Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenian king (taking this stand apparently on the authority of Seyyed Ahmad Khan, the famous exegete of the Qur'an). He mentioned many reasons for his assertion, including the following:


1)      Cyrus is mentioned in the Old Testament and the Book of Ezra as a God-revering person, a description that matched the qualities of Zolqarnain in the Qur'an.  


2)      The deeds of the Achaemenian king were in accordance to the deeds described in the Qur'an, as he fought with the Lydians in Asia Minor and then with the Sakas in the east (unlike Alexander of Macedon). 


3)      Zolqarnain in the Qur'an is said to have built a barrier of copper and iron after fighting the Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj people. Cyrus built a similar barrier in the Daryal Pass, the remains of which are still existing.


In the Qur'an, the name of Zolqarnain, together with descriptions of some aspects of his personality and an accounting of a number of his deeds, are mentioned three times in 15 verses of the Kahf Sureh. A translation of these verses is as follows:


"And they will ask you about Zolqarnain. Tell them, 'I will tell you now one of his tales.' We gave him power upon earth and gave him authority over everything. And he followed upon his authority, until he reached the lands west of the sun and found out the sun set there in a muddy spring. Nearby, he found a tribe. We told him: Zolqarnain, you have the authority. Either you will punish them or you will be generous to them. He said: Whoever ascribes company to God will be punished soon and I will return him to his God and punish him severely. But whoever accepts the faith and does good things, I will reward well and make things easy for him. He followed up on his words, and he reached the lands on the east of the sun and saw people who were not shielded before it. Thus, we know from his affairs.  He followed on his work and he reached between two huge wall-like mountains and found people who understood no language. [Through a translator] they told Zolqarnain, 'The Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj people bring great devastation to this land. If you want us to pay you tribute, build a wall between them and us.' He said: The power that God has blessed me with is better than your tributes, but help me [with manpower] to build a wall between you and them.' When they laid the foundation, he said: Bring me pieces of iron [and put them in a heap], until he filled the gap between the two mountains, making them level. He said: Blow [in furnaces of fire],'[and they did] until [iron] became [hot] like fire. Then he told them: Bring me melt zinc, until [a wall was built and the Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj] could not penetrate it. He said: This is a blessing from my God and when His promised day arrives, He will scatter it and right is my God's promise." [Kahf Sureh/18/verses 83-98].


According to most exegetes of the Qur'an, a cause of revelation exists for these 16 verses of the Kahf Sureh. From the Qur'an itself, it seems that these verses were revealed because of a question asked from the Prophet by his contemporaries. The Qur'an says: "They will ask you about Zolqarnain. Tell them, 'I will tell you now a tale about him.'"


In the translation of Tabari's History, Bal'ami said that Ibn-e-Abbas had said that when the infidels of Mecca could not contradict the Prophet, they asked for help from the Jews of Khaybar and sent Abu-Djahl to them: "All the Jews came together and brought with them the Torah and extracted three problems from therein." The first question was about the spirit (of course, not the human spirit, but the Holy Ghost, Gabriel). The next question was about the Seven Sleepers, and the third about Zolqarnain: "They told his story, they told how he went from the west to the east and the story of the Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj. And they said that this was what was told in the Torah, and if Muhammad could answer about what was in the Torah, then we know that he is a prophet."


Considering the cause of revelation of these verses, it could be seen that whoever the story was about, should have been mentioned in the Torah. We shall return to this point. The exegetes of the Qur'an, as well as historians had made many assertions about the identity of Zolqarnain, including the following:


1.      Zolqarnain was Alexander (Tabari's Exegesis, a remark attributed to Abu-Rayhan, Madjmal-al-Tawarikh va-al-Qessas, Sur-Abadi's Exegesis, and others).


2.      Abu-Rayhan mentioned other personalities that could be Zolqarnain, such as: (a) Athux, who triumphed over Hamiress, a Babylonian king, (b) Monzar-ibn-Ma' al-Sama', Abu-Karb Shamrir ibn-Afriqess Homeyri.


3.      Sa'b ibn-Djabal (Ghazzali in Serr-al-Alamain [The Secret of the Two Worlds]).


4.      Zolqarnain was Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenian king. This view was recently expounded by Molana Abolkalam Azad, the Indian minister of culture, (apparently following Sir Seyyed Ahmad Khan, the famous exegete of the Qur'an) in his exegesis of the Qur'an titled "Tarjoman al-Qur'an". In this work, the Indian official put forward many arguments in support of his claim.


In between the ancient and the contemporary scholars, Meqrizi (c. 1380-1460 A.D.) suggested in his book "Al-Khotatt" that Zolqarnain was Sa'b, the king of Yemen. This suggestion was so important, but he made another remark, which was significant. He wrote: "Those who believe he was Iranian, Roman, or that he was Alexander of Macedon, are wrong" (quoted from "Cyrus the Great in the Qur'an and in the Old Testament", written by Fereydoun Badre'i, p. 110).

This signified two points:


1.      During his time, there were people who believed that Zolqarnain was an Iranian.


2.      Though there were many who believed Zolqarnain was Alexander, this opinion was considered wrong.


Anyway, the contention of Molana Abolkalam Azad has received widespread attention in the Islamic world and in Iran. One of the contemporary historians, Dr. Muhammad Ebrahim Bastani Parizi, translated this treatise into Persian, with necessary annotations. Some great exegetes, such as Allameh Tabatabaie, the author of "Al-Mizan", and Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, the author of the exegesis "Nemooneh" and translator of the Qur'an, have accepted the plausibility of this assertion. Some experts on the Qur'an, such as the late Khaza'eli, who wrote the "Qur'an's Index", considered this as reasonable and defended their stand. Also, one of the great contemporary researchers and linguists, Dr. Fereydoun Badre'i, wrote a book titled "Cyrus the Great in the Qur'an and the Old Testament" to prove this hypothesis.  


But there are yet many other scholars in the Islamic World who consider Zolqarnain to be Alexander of Macedon, among them Montgomery Watt (in the Encyclopedia of Islam, Leiden), and Dr. Hossein Safavi, the contemporary Iranian scholar who wrote the book "Who is Zolqarnain?" (the latest research on Zolqarnain and the Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj, Tehran, Muhammadi Publications - Bita). He refuted Molana Abolkalam Azad's suggestion (and naturally that of Dr. Fereydoun Badre'i without mentioning his book, and all others who believed that the Achaemenian Cyrus was the Qur'anic Zolqarnain). Hence, the main competition is between two hypotheses: one that identified Zolqarnain with Alexander of Macedon, and the other that contends he was the Achaemenian Cyrus.


There are some arguments against the first idea, the most important of which are the following:


1)      There is no mention of Alexander in the Old Testament, while Cyrus is mentioned.


2)      Alexander was not a monotheist, while Zolqarnain was explicitly mentioned in the Qur'an to be a believer in one Supreme Being.


3)      There is no copper and zinc barrier, as mentioned in the Qur'an, that is associated with Alexander.


But the arguments in favor of Molana Abolkalam's claim are as follows:


1)      Cyrus is a personality mentioned in the Bible, i.e the Old Testament (the Book of Daniel, the Book of Ezra and some other books where Cyrus is referred to in very explicit terms: Daniel dreamt that in the palace of Susa in Elam, a two-horned ram triumphed over all animals, with the exception of a one-horned goat that finally defeated the ram. Daniel lost consciousness after this dream and an angel appeared to him, saying that the ram he had seen was the king of the Medes and the Persians, while the one-horned goat was the king of the Greeks) (Book of Daniel, chapter 8, verses 20-21).


2)      In the Qur'an, Zolqarnain is described as someone to whom God granted power and authority on earth. This corresponds well with the personality of Cyrus, who conquered a large part of Europe and Asia, establishing the first empire in the world.


3)      The Qur'an's Zolqarnain was God-revering and a monotheist, and so was Cyrus. As the most probable date for the appearance of Zoroaster is in the mid-sixth century B.C., this date is close to the time Cyrus lived.


4)      Zolqarnain led a military expedition to the land west of the sun. This is consistent with the Achaemenian king's military thrusts in Lydia in Asia Minor and his conquest of that country.


5)      Zolqarnain led a military expedition to the land east of the sun, corresponding to Cyrus's expedition to the southeast (Makran and Sistani) and northeast (near Balkh).


6)      The Qur'an's Zolqarnain encountered a barbarian tribe and this is consistent with Cyrus's expedition to the north and his battles with the Sakas, who may be interpreted as the barbarian tribes of the Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj. Here, Cyrus defeated the barbarians and in the Daryal Pass, which was the only passage from which they could be attacked by their neighbors, he built a barrier made of copper and iron. The people under siege might have asked Cyrus for help and provided him with manpower.



The ruins of this barrier still exist. Molana Abolkalam Azad noted that these barbarians were called different names in different areas. The Greeks referred to them as the "Lytes". In more recent times in Europe, they had been called the "Magyars" and in Asia the "Tatars". They could be identified with the Mongols (for more details, see Cyrus the Great (Zolqarnain), by Molana Abolkalam Azad, translated by Bastani Parizi, in particular Chapter 6).


In summary, one cannot decree with certainty when it comes to historical identifications, especially when dealing with stories from the Qur'an. But as can presented above, the hypothesis that the Qur'an's Zolqarnain is Cyrus the Great, appears reasonable and is highly probable.