Alexander as Zulqarnain

Published: November 17, 2012
The writer is author, most recently, of The Apricot Road to Yarkand (Sang-e-Meel, 2011) and a member of the Royal Geographical Society

The writer is author, most recently, of The Apricot Road to Yarkand (Sang-e-Meel, 2011) and a member of the Royal Geographical Society [email protected]

There is, in rural Mandi Bahauddin district, a few kilometres from Phalia town, a village marked as Helan in the Atlas of Pakistan. The ‘a’ is pronounced as in ‘father’ and the ending is nasal as it would be in French. The village is known for a tomb dating to the reign of Akbar the Great. In May 2000, I paused there, met a local ‘historian’ and learned that the word was a mispronunciation of Helen!

Now, it was well known that Helen of Troy, said the man, was the wife of Alexander the Macedonian. When she died, Alexander ordered this tomb. Inside, sits an ornate sandstone sarcophagus radiant with flowing curvilinear forms and calligraphy that tells us that the tomb is the last resting place of some Ali Beg. But that did not matter to my new friend.

Later, in nearby Mong, the village that takes its name from the Scythian King Maues (1st century BCE), known as Moga in Punjabi, I got another educational boost. Seeing that I was on the trail of Alexander, a rather contrary sort of middle-aged man took me under his wing. He spoke of the Macedonian’s victory over Raja Paurava (Greek: Porus) with admirable pride and how folks named their sons after the Macedonian. I asked if folks ever named a son after Paurava, he being one of our own. Pat came an angry, “Kyon? O koi Musalman cee?” Islam being nearly a millennium in the future, Raja Paurava was certainly no Muslim. But then neither was Alexander. On another similar occasion, my interlocutor burst out with an incredulous half-question, half-statement, “Alexander was Hindu?”

Interestingly, even semi-educated persons in Pakistan cannot imagine a religion like the Greeks had, with a large pantheon of mostly fun-loving gods. They are caught in a mental box with four names — Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and a very distant and vague Judaism. No other religion appears on their radar.

This man in Mong was smarter, however. He countered with the statement that Alexander was mentioned in the Holy Quran. The king we so desperately want to turn into Alexander is the Quranic Zulqarnain whose name means ‘Two-Horned’. He travelled across the great expanse of the world, ruled over a vast kingdom and was responsible for locking away the dreaded nation of Gog and Magog behind a rubble wall steeped in molten lead. This king, we read, travelled to the rising and setting places of the sun. That is, his sway extended across much of the known world of his time.

But scripture does not reveal anything beyond this short reference. Now, there were two famous world-conquering kings in history who wore horns on their helmets. Cyrus the Great (ruled BCE 549-529) of Persia and, 200 years later, Alexander of Macedonia. Indeed, the latter’s depiction on coinage with diadem and ram’s horns is very well known.

Now, both were great conquerors, therefore, either could be Zulqarnain. But mark: Cyrus established a kingdom only marginally smaller than Alexander’s.

This kingdom lasted 200 years until Alexander unravelled it and became master of it. Alexander’s kingdom was larger. His governors presided on the affairs of men from Thrace (Bulgaria) through the Scythian steppes on the northern shores of the Black Sea, to the banks of the Jaxartes (Syr) River (in Uzbekistan) and across the entire Persian Empire, Afghanistan, Punjab and Sindh to Babylon. But it was a short-lived empire, lasting just over a decade until Alexander’s death in 322 BCE.

So, really, which king was it that scripture refers to as the ‘Two-Horned’? If greatness were a measure in terms of longevity of kingdom, I would vote Cyrus. However, Alexander who did indeed embody traits that could arguably be termed ‘great’ left behind a kingdom that did not last beyond his own lifetime.

But we, in Pakistan, embrace him. We stretch the words of scripture to make Zulqarnain fit into Alexander’s shoes. We do this only because he, an outsider, defeated a king of Punjab who, unfortunately, was a Hindu. We disregard the fact that Raja Paurava (of whose greatness of character I have written earlier in this column) was a Hindu because he predated Islam.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 18th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (29)

  • Usman Ahmad
    Nov 17, 2012 - 11:24PM

    Zulqarnain has always been a sort of mystery in Quranic exegesis. Medieval Muslim scholars (and not just modern-day Pakistanis) thought that it was Alexander who was the real Zulqarnian. Maulana AbulKalaam Azad wrote a book on Zulqarnain. He refuted that ‘Alexander as Zulqarnain’ hypothesis. Instead he supported (actually proved) the idea that it was, in actuality, Cyrus who was the Zulqarnain mentioned in the Quran.
    About the glorification of Alexander ‘the great’ (so-called) by either the Europeans or our Muslim brethren, the less said the better.
    Janjua clan of Pothohar consider Raja Porus’ as their ancestor and probably are more proud of him that he stood against a tyrant and was a true son of the Punjab.


  • Prerna
    Nov 18, 2012 - 1:05AM

    “Kyon? O koi Musalman cee?”

    I nearly died of laughter there.

    Carry on,dear Pakistanis, along the road no one has trod upon before.


  • Outsider
    Nov 18, 2012 - 1:15AM

    @ Salman Rashid

    You are a historian and you still believe Alexander defeated Porus .The history of Alexander was written by historians of his courtyard . No body knows How Alexander die till now?No body knows whether Alexander defeated king Porus or not .The only excuse given to us that Alexander was not interested in India.The movie on Alexander also showed the near defeat of Alexander , but the real truth is buried in history. About the naming of a child in pakistan , they would love to name their child after the name of Bin Qasim or Gaznavi or Aurenzeb , because they don’t really know what Bin Qasim did with their ancestors, only ghost of religion is in their brain. Time is not so far when they will learn that lesson also.


  • gp65
    Nov 18, 2012 - 1:21AM

    I always enjoy your aricles and look forward to them. Would like to bring to your attention however that Porus was anglicized for Purushottam ( which means ‘The best among men’ in Sanskrit) not Paurav.Since Purushottam was shortened to Puru, his dynasty was called Paurav.


  • Sindhudesh
    Nov 18, 2012 - 2:15AM

    @Usman Ahmad:
    You are right. Cyrus was Zulqarnain. Salman Sahib should work hard to collect facts. Historians are morally bound to tell truth. But they seldom do so


  • Umar
    Nov 18, 2012 - 6:03AM

    Salman Sahib,
    I understand your utter exasperation, I feel the same. We are lost in maze of falsehoods. Actually it is worse more like those Russian dolls. We are trapped in multiple layers of self-deception. A lie within a lie within a lie within a lie.


  • Feroz
    Nov 18, 2012 - 7:56AM

    Pakistan has to get its history right if it wants to be a part of the modern progressive world. History is like a complex compass, helping you to avoid pitfalls and guiding you in the direction one wants to go. If you mess up History — North will be mistaken for south, Truth will be confused with lies and friends will seem like enemies. No wonder many believe Pakistan is the biggest victim of terrorism, not realizing the country has created an entire infrastructure and mindset to facilitate it.


  • Nov 18, 2012 - 9:36AM

    Indeed a very interesting article to read and it is indeed a historical question, “Who was Alexander the Great?”

    A very convincing commentary and testament is contained in The Holy Quran by Abdullah Yousaf Ali. He details all the facts and places mentioned and argues cogently of Zulqarnain being Alexander the Great in Appendix 7 after Surah Kahf (Surah XVIII).

    When you gentlemen have time, maybe you already have read it but please do go through it. It does occupy one’s thoughts. (Please do perform Wudhu). Salams


  • gangly khan
    Nov 18, 2012 - 9:50AM

    It is a good historical article. I may mention that Raja Porus still lives in the heart of Punjabis and they ffeel proud of him. As told by elders Rajdhani of Pour principality was located near my village Lakhnewala, on a raised ground. That raised ground still exists. Elders tell Porus was a kindhearted human being and due to his good administration he was popular among his people. He has strong army, having elephants. Sakander knew well about his strong army. His forces camped on left side or Jhelum River for considerable long time to gain intelligence. After lot of planning he then moved upward and crossed the river near Jhelum city and came downward along the river to attack. Battle was fought. Sakander soldiers were killed ion large number. He reorganized his army and collected some bulls. On their horns he tied sticks and put fire on them. When sticks were burning he directed them towards defense positions of porus where his army was deployed. This confused elephants and they turned backward damaging own troops. Meantime Sakander cavalry attached and porus elephant was injured. Sakander asked porus how he would be treated, when produced before Sakander. As the kings treat other kings, was the answer from Porus. It is further told the army of Sakander was broken and demoralized in this battle. The troops refused to go forward to fulfill dreams of Sakander. In the meantime monsoon season started. Rivers were flooded and plain between River Jhelum and Punjab was full of water. Big snakes were seen by Sakander troops. Mosquito did their job and troops of Sakander started falling ill. Sakander himself did not remain safe fro Dengue. Perforce he decided to move back and on his way he died in Iran. So by all means Porus broke will of the Sakander to fight any further. And thus Porus was victorious. Later on many raiders came to this land. Arabs, Iranians, Uzbeks were among them who ruled this country. They forced local to follow Islam. They killed people of this land to loot their wealth. Culture was changed. This was a bad luck of natives of this land. We in Punjab consider Porus and Ranjeet Singh our heroes. Ghauri, Qasim, Mahmood Gaznavi were all looters. They are not our heroes. With passage of time our people would realize this fact and start naming their sons as Porus. The writer is invited to visit village Lakhnewal when he happened to visit Pakistan.


  • gp65
    Nov 18, 2012 - 9:54AM

    @Usman Ahmad: Thanks for this interesting information.


  • unmet46
    Nov 18, 2012 - 10:16AM

    All the scholars i have heard and read have shown that Zulqarnain was Cyrus and no way Alexander. In fact the Jews who asked the question from Muhammad (pbuh) were talking about Cyrus and not Alexander. Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan wrote the same in his exegesis.


  • Arijit Sharma
    Nov 18, 2012 - 11:53AM

    Alexander’s religion was Greek Polytheism. And if one delves into Greek Polytheism deeper, one finds striking similarities between Greek and Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Perhaps way back in antiquity – the Greeks, Hindus and Persians were almost “one people” culturally ?


  • Usman Ahmad
    Nov 18, 2012 - 12:27PM

    You’re welcome.


  • gp65
    Nov 18, 2012 - 12:33PM

    @Arijit Sharma: “And if one delves into Greek Polytheism deeper, one finds striking similarities between Greek and Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Perhaps way back in antiquity”
    Not just in the Gods and Goddesses but also the epics. There are remarkable similarities between the epics too. Especially between the Iliad and Mahabharat. Characters of Achilles and Karna, Bheema and Hector have great similarity, Cassandra’s ability to foretell the future compares with Sahdev and so on.


  • faheema
    Nov 18, 2012 - 4:09PM

    @ gangly khan, lets hope your wish come true and Punjabis eventually realize who were their heroes. For last one century we are caught in the worst maze of delusion, thanks to Iqbal. His shaheens have made rocks of Waziristan their permanents abode, lets pray they would stay their for good, never come back to destroy our cities as cities are not worth living place for them. In the meantime if we got time we will revisit history to learn if the such shaheens were our heroes or those who laid their lives to protect their homeland, irrespective of religion.


  • mateen
    Nov 18, 2012 - 4:12PM

    @ Outsider, well-said, this ghost has now become Frankenstein and quite prepared to devour every thing.


  • Super Star
    Nov 18, 2012 - 9:00PM

    “Kyon? O koi Musalman cee?”

    Reading your article provides good insight into the delusional mindset of the converted people and their descendants who make the majority in Pakistan. This goes for other nations too like Iran, Afghanistan , Indonesia etc. This is indeed a fascinating study. Common traits found :
    1. Denial and lack of pride in its history and culture before the advent of Islam
    2. Trying to cling on to the culture and history of of its invaders
    3. Glorifying Invaders and looters as heroes and Inventing ancestors related to them to prove that their bloodline is not that of the defeated people but of the brave people who defeated and enslaved the locals.
    4. Claiming the achievements of Arabs like their conquest of Spain , Ottoman rulers, Afghan conquests as “our”.
    5. Complete amnesia about anything related to its own history.


  • Sara
    Nov 18, 2012 - 9:10PM

    @Usman and others, how could Cyrus, or even Alexander the Great for that matter, be the “Zulqarnain” of the Quran, even if respected historians say so? Some historians believe that Cyrus was a Zoroastrian, others say he believed in other gods – in short he was a polytheist. The same could be said of Alexander the Great, who also was a polytheist. Zulqarnain in contrast has been described as a “righteous” man. If “shirk” (i.e. associating partners with the One True God) has been called the only unforgivable sin according to the Quran, it doesn’t make sense that the Quran would label a polytheist as a “righteous” man. I am no historian, nor am I an Islamic scholar, but it doesnt stand to reason that either of these men could be Zulqarnain.


  • Muhammad Asaad Khan
    Nov 18, 2012 - 9:44PM

    The mentioning of Zulqarnain in this article gives me an opportunity to share what I’ve learned about Zulqarnain and Gog and Magog. I’ve been studying Islamic Eschatology which the current scholars of Islam have no idea what it is about or rather mysteriously they have been ignorant about the subject. However, Eschatology is the study of the ‘end times’. Gog and Magog are a subject in Eschatology and Zulqarnain is related to Gog and Magog. In Surah al-Kahf of the Qur’an (Chapter 18 entitled ‘the Cave’), as well as in Prophetic commentary (Ahadith), Gog and Magog are described as two people who descended from father Adam (peace and blessings of Allah Most High be upon him) and who were created by Allah Most High, and endowed with great power. “None but I can destroy them”, said Allah (Sahih Muslim). Surah al-Kahf has described how they were contained behind an iron barrier because they used their power to commit acts of Fasad (acts of wickedness, oppression, corruption). The Surah also implied that they would use power to wage war on those who lived lives of faith and righteousness, and that they would act malevolently against those who lived the primitive way of life. As opposed to Gog and Magog, Zulqarnain’s power was based on the foundations of faith. He used his power to punish the oppressor and reward the oppressed. So, Alexander as a polytheist, alcoholic and a ruthless conqueror cannot be attributed to Zulqarnain. Neither does ‘Cyrus the great’ qualify as Zulqarnain.

    Islamic scholar, Sheikh Imran N. Hosein’s book ‘An Islamic View of Gog and Magog in the Modern World’ is perhaps the best book on the topic of Gog and Magog.


  • anwar
    Nov 18, 2012 - 9:59PM

    you are correct – all of you (s) except mandi bahaudin was a jungle before the english tamed the rivers. so very unlikely one would find a great king there…. it would be blaphemous


  • sabi
    Nov 18, 2012 - 10:29PM

    “We do this only because he, an outsider, defeated a king of Punjab who, unfortunately, was a Hindu”
    “We” is pretty vague and it leaves an impression on outsider as if there is a unanimity of thoughts in Pakistan as far as history is concerned.In fact disrespect and disownership to our hindue insestors is the work of those who migrated to India from central asia during Mughal rules.So this discrimination of our incestors is more of racial superiority than anything with religion.To make their point more valid religion as weapon is used.This mindeset has somehow dominated Pakistan ruling elites and therefore is able to give history a twist per thier requirements.
    I’m punjabi and belong to a clan of jats that take pride to be son of the soil and we owe our hindu incestors and we also strongly believe that this land of ours has given birth to great people.We can never disown our incestors.And there are tens of millions who know that their incestors were hindus and this doesn’t stop them to owe them and respect them.
    Very intresting article I personely believe that cyrus is to be zulqarnain as mentioned in quran.

  • Sara
    Nov 19, 2012 - 12:52PM

    @Muhammad Asaad Khan, Thank you for that. I always did have a niggling doubt about either Alexander or Cyrus being Zulqarnain, even though I never had the religious or the historical knowledge to back up this doubt (meaning I haven’t read half the books you people seem to have) simply because both of them were polytheists and I refuse to acknowledge that the Quran would label a “mushrik” as a righteous man, considering its stance towards shirk. Do you also mind telling me where this book is available, if you know?

    and seriously, I also think that the Quran contains some “mysteries”, and it’s best to be left that way – when we start dissecting such stories, we stop focusing on the message of the story and the reasoning behind it, and instead get lost in pointless debate. just my personal opinion.


  • Feroz
    Nov 19, 2012 - 1:24PM

    I am quite sure that Cyrus was a Zoroastrian and not a polytheist. As I am not a historian I will reserve my views on whether he was a good, bad or indifferent Zoroastrian. As Alexander and Cyrus’s reigns predated Christianity and Islam I am not sure why the peddlers of religion would want to coopt them into their narrative. A cap may fit many heads but can it be placed on a head that does not own it ? Please enlighten me.


  • Sara
    Nov 19, 2012 - 2:45PM

    @Feroz, if I have my history correct, there is some dispute about Cyrus religion. Some say he was a Zoroastrian, others believe that he believed in Babylonian gods (as indicated by the Cyrus cylinder). Im not aware of the Zoroastrian religion in detail, but I do know for sure that it would not be a religion that would be approved by the Quran because of the reverence it attaches to such things as fire and because it revers a person not a “god”.

    There is also a background to the Zulqarnain incident in the Quran, where rabbis asked the mushriks of Makkah to ask Prophet Mohammad (SAW) three questions in other to test his authenticity as a prophet. One of these questions was about Zulqarnain. The answer to this question is the narrative that we have in the Quran. Why it is in the Jewish scriptures, Im afraid I cant answer that for you. I told you what I know.

    Like I said earlier, like the other question that the rabbis put to Prophet Mohammad (SAW) – namely about the sleepers of the cave, the Quran is silent on some things and we do not find this in Islamic literature anywhere, except as speculation. The same situation is that of the identity of Zulqarnain – we know there was such a man, but we do not know who he is except as speculation. Why do we have to engage in pointless debate about who he was? All of the narratives in the Quran have some sort of a logic or a moral behind them, dont you think it would be better to look at this rather than nitpick over who did what?


  • Muhammad Asaad Khan
    Nov 19, 2012 - 4:36PM

    @Sara: The book is available on the following link.

    Yes, I agree that there are difficult subjects in the Quran which are not easy to interpret. Again, it is true that when ordinary people like us start discussing them the debate is bound to become pointless. However; as you’ve said, the real message and the reasoning behind the story is never realized, I believe it is the duty of the scholars of Islam to do the job for us. Because, nothing is by accident in the Quran. Interpretation has to be done at some point because guidance cannot be ignored. Please do excuse me for this extended comment, but I was really looking for an opportunity like this. Also, information is important too. Eschatology (the study of end times) is a foreign word for madrassas, molvis, muftis and even great scholars of Islam too. Eschatology involves the study of Gog and Magog, Anti-Christ or the false Messiah i.e, Dajjal, the second coming of Prophet Jesus (A.S) and many more. Sheikh Imran Hosein is a leading International Islamic Philosopher, Scholar and author, specializing in world politics, economy, eschatology , modern socio-economic/political issues and expert on international affairs. I hope you read this book if the link opens, which I’m sure you’ll find very interesting and informative, But, you can access all his lectures on YouTube. Also, I believe his lectures on the Anti-Christ are also worth seeing. Thank you.


  • Muhammad Asaad Khan
    Nov 19, 2012 - 6:44PM

    The link didn’t appear. Wow! magic


  • Wasil Arien
    Nov 20, 2012 - 8:38PM

    The human beings took millions of years to get to their present form of evolvement. Scientists invested in the study of geology and other related branches have come up with more fascinating and plausible narratives and explanations then found in folk tales of illiterate people and stories found in scriptures of one religion or the other. No religion is older then ten thousand years and belong to the infancy stage of mankind and to seek or discuss historical veracity is nothing but futile.


  • rajput
    Nov 21, 2012 - 8:48PM

    I hope Muslim Rajputs & Jats realize the fact that their ancestors were Hindus who fought and martyred fighting invaders and they do not celebrate invaders as heroes. Persians never recognized arab invasion and annexation of Iran as a good thing. They still proudly say “We are Aryans” Their Hero is Cyrus The Great. Ghori was killed by Rajput clan Gakhars, most of whom are now Muslims and residing in Pakistan. Even Jats fought against Arab-Turkish invaders. Yet Missiles r named after Ghori who killed RajputsRecommend

  • Waseem janjua
    Nov 22, 2012 - 8:15AM

    Great article as usual a treat to read you sir….


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