Cyrus the Great in the Quran

Cyrus the Great in the Quran is a theory that holds that the character of Dhul-Qarnayn, mentioned in the Quran, should be identified with Cyrus the Great, or at least he is a better fit than the other proposed figures.

Dhul-Qarnayn (Arabic for "the two-horned") is mentioned in the Quran. The story of Dhul-Qarnayn appears in sixteen verses of the Quran, specifically the 16 verses 18:83-98 (Al Kahf).

There is extensive ongoing debate on who exactly was the historical character of Dhul-Qarnayn, with various historical, mythical, and sacred figures being proposed. The most popular identification, especially by classical Quran commentators, has been with Alexander the Great.[1]

In recent years, alternative theories supporting other explanations have become dominant. The most prominent of these is the theory that Dhul-Qarnayn was Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire.[2][3][4] This theory was first proposed by Indian scholar Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and was later endorsed by many Sunni and Shia scholars and commentators including Israr Ahmed, Maududi, Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, Allameh Tabatabaei (in Tafsir al-Mizan),[5], Naser Makarem Shirazi (et al., in Tafsir Nemooneh),[6] Muhammad Ali,[7] among others.[8]


Abul Ala Maududi, a 20th-century Quran commentator, writes in his Tafsir[9] that the identification of Dhul-Qarnain has been a controversial topic among Islamic scholars from the earliest times. Generally, commentators have been of the opinion that Dhul-Qarnayn is actually Alexander the Great. However, some characteristics of Dhul-Qarnain described in the Quran, it has been argued, are not applicable to the historical Alexander. The fact that the Alexander-as-Dhul-Qarnain theory actually refers to the semi-mythical Alexander described in the Alexander Romance makes the connection even more problematic for some Islamic scholars. In recent years some commentators are inclined to believe that Dhul-Qarnain was actually Cyrus The Great, an ancient king of Achaemenid Persia.

The characteristics of Dhul-Qarnain in the Quran

The characteristics of Dhul-Qarnain in the light of his story as given in the Quran are as follows:

(1) The title Dhul-Qarnain ("The Two-Horned") should have been quite familiar to the Jews, for it was at their instigation that the disbelievers of Mecca put this question to Muhammad.

According to Maududi's commentary on Surah 18 states:

This Surah was sent down in answer to the three questions which the mushriks of Makkah, in consultation with the people of the Book, had put to the Holy Prophet in order to test him. These were: (1) Who were "the Sleepers of the Cave"? (2) What is the real story of Khidr? and (3) What do you know about Dhul-Qarnain? As these three questions and the stories involved concerned the history of the Christians and the Jews, and were unknown in Hijaz, a choice of these was made to test whether the Holy Prophet possessed any source of the knowledge of the hidden and unseen things. Allah, however, not only gave a complete answer to their questions but also employed the three stories to the disadvantage of the opponents of Islam in the conflict that was going on at that time at Makkah between Islam and un-belief.

Therefore, one must investigate the Judaic literature and oral tradition available to Jews at the time of Muhammad in order to learn the identity of the person known as "The Two-Horned".

(2) Dhul-Qarnayn must have been a great ruler and conqueror whose conquests might have spread from the East to the West and then to the North or the South. Before the revelation of the Quran in 609CE, there were several historical figures who were known to have been conquerors of such caliber.

(3) This title should be applicable to such a ruler who constructed a strong wall across a mountain pass to protect his kingdom from the incursions of tribes or nations associated with Gog and Magog. In order to investigate this, one must determine the identity of Gog and Magog. One must also consider where and when such a wall was built, if at all, and by whom.

(4) Besides possessing the aforementioned characteristics, he should also be a mono-theist and a just ruler, since the Quran has stressed these characteristics more than anything else in the quoted passages.

The characteristics of Cyrus the Great

(1) The first of these characteristics may be applicable to Cyrus. The Prophet Daniel, in the Biblical account, saw a vision that the united kingdom of Media and Persia was like a two-horned ram before the rise of the Greeks.

The Book of Daniel Chapter 8 says:

"2 In the vision I was looking and saw myself in Susa the capital, in the province of Elam, and I was by the river Ulai. 3 I looked up and saw a ram standing beside the river. It had two horns. Both horns were long, but one was longer than the other, and the longer one came up second. 4 I saw the ram charging westward and northward and southward. All beasts were powerless to withstand it, and no one could rescue from its power; it did as it pleased and became strong. 5 As I was watching, a male goat appeared from the west, coming across the face of the whole earth without touching the ground. The goat had a horn between its eyes. 6 It came toward the ram with the two horns that I had seen standing beside the river, and it ran at it with savage force."

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible gives the following interpretation from Gabriel: "As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia."

The relief of Cyrus the Great near his tomb in Pasargadae, former capital of the Persian Empire. The two horns have been related to the name "Dhul-Qarnayn".

Furthermore, two horns and two horned symbolism was not an unknown emblem of the kingdoms of Persia and its predecessors, for we see that Elamite kings used this symbol routinely in their insignia.

The Jews had a very high opinion of Cyrus the Great, because it was his invasion which brought about the downfall of the kingdom of Babylon and the liberation of the Israelites.

(2) The second characteristic is applicable to Cyrus to a great extent but not completely. Though his conquests spread to Syria and Asia Minor in the West and to Bākhtar (Balkh) in the East, there is no trace of any of his great expeditions to the North or to the South, whereas the Quran makes an explicit mention of his third expedition. However some historians do verify the probability of such a voyage. Nevertheless, this third expedition is not completely out of question for history tells us that Cyrus' kingdom extended to Caucasia in the North.

(3) As regards Gog and Magog, it has been established that they were the wild tribes of Central Asia who were known by different names: Scythians, Parthians, Tartars, Mongols, and Huns, who had been making incursions on various kingdoms and empires from very ancient times. It is also known that strong bulwarks had been built in southern regions of Caucasia, though it has yet to be determined historically whether these were built by Cyrus.

(4) As regards the third characteristic, Cyrus is the only known conqueror among the ancient rulers, to whom this may be applicable, for even his enemies have been full of praise for him for his justice, and, Ezra, asserts that he was a God-worshiper and a God-fearing king who set free the Israelites because of his God-worship, and ordered that the Temple of Solomon be rebuilt for the worship of God.

Thus in the light of the above, it is possible to conclude that of all the historical conquerors who had died before the revelation of the Quran, Cyrus alone is the one to whom the characteristics of "Dhul-Qarnain" are most applicable. There is no other historical conquerors to whom the characteristics stated in the Quran are as much applicable as to Cyrus.

The historical Cyrus was a Persian ruler whose rise began about 549 BCE. Within a few years he had conquered the kingdoms of Media and Lydia; by 539 BCE he had conquered Babylon. There was no powerful kingdom left to oppose him. His conquests extended eastward to Turkistan; westward to Ionia; northward to Caucasia—covering, in fact, much of the known civilized world.

Journey towards the West

According to Ibn Kathir, it means that he followed a route to the West of the earth until he reached the last boundary of the land, beyond which there was ocean. Verse 18:86 says: "He found it setting in a muddy spring" (Pickthall). If Dhul-Qarnain was Cyrus, then that place would be the western limit of Asia Minor and the "muddy spring" (or "warm spring" according to some hadiths[10]) would be the Aegean Sea. The word "`ain" in Quran verse 18:86 means spring or source of water from the ground, as in other verses according to Lane's Lexicon:

The place [or aperture] whence the water of a قَنَاة [i.e. pipe or the like,] pours forth : (K, TA:) as being likened to the organ [of sight] because of the water that is in it. (TA.) And, (K, TA,) for the same reason, (TA,) ‡ The place whence issues the water of a well. (TA.) And, (S, Msb, K, &c.,) for the same reason, as is said by Er-Rághib, (TA,) ‡ The عَيْن (S, Msb,) or source, or spring, (K, TA,) of water, (S, Wsb, K, TA,) that wells forth from the earth, or ground, and runs : (TA: [and accord. To the Msb, it app. Signifies a running spring:] of the fem. gender[11]

The word "bahr" (not used in this verse) means sea or large body of water[12] and appears in many other verses in the Quran to mean sea.

Journey towards the East

That is, when he advanced towards the East in Babylon, the people, who had no shelter were the captured tribes of Israel. The reason the Quran mentions no more on the topic is because the whole epic is written in the Book of Kings, of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). The Quran simply says at 18:90, "To the extent that when he reached the rising-place of the sun, he found it rising upon a nation for which We had not kept any shelter from it."[13]

Journey towards the North/Gog and Magog

The "two mountains" must have been parts of that mountain range which runs between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. This must be, for beyond them was the territory of Gog and Magog. "It was difficult to communicate with them: their language was almost foreign to Dhul-Qarnain and his companions, and, as they were quite barbaric, none could understand their language, nor were they acquainted with any foreign language."

As has already been pointed out, Gog and Magog were the wild tribes of North Eastern Asia which, from the very early times had been making inroads on settled kingdoms and empires in Asia and Europe and ravaging them. According to Genesis (Chapter 10), they were the descendants of Japheth, the son of Noah, and the Muslim historians have also accepted this. And according to the book of Ezekiel (Chapters 38, 39), they inhabited the territories of Meshech (Moscow) and Tubal (Tubalsek). According to the 1st century CE Israelite historian Josephus, Magog were called Scythians by the Greeks,[14] and their territory spread to the north and the east of the Black Sea. However, Josephus also says that the Scythians had been shut up behind an iron gate built across a passage by Alexander [the Great].[15] According to Jerome, Magog inhabited the territory to the north of Caucasia near the Caspian Sea:

The hordes of the Huns had poured forth all the way from Maeotis (they had their haunts between the icy Tanais and the rude Massagetae, where the gates of Alexander keep back the wild peoples behind the Caucasus)[16]

Wall of Cyrus to protect from Gog & Mogog

He said: "Though I have built a very strong iron-wall, as far as it was possible for me, it is not ever-lasting, for it will last only as long as Allah wills, and will fall down to pieces when the time of my Lord's promise shall come. Then no power in the world shall be able to keep it safe and secure."

Some people have entertained the misunderstanding that the wall attributed here to Dhul-Qarnain refers to the famous Great Wall of China, whereas this wall was built between Derbent and Dar'yal, two cities of Daghestan in the Caucasus, the land that lies between the Black Sea and the Caspian. There are high mountains between the Black Sea and Dar'yal having deep gorges which cannot allow large armies to pass through them. Between Derbent and Dar'yal, however, there are no such mountains and the passes also are wide and passable. In ancient times savage hordes from the north invaded and ravaged southern lands through these passes and the Persian rulers who were fearful of them had to build a strong wall, 50 miles long, 29 feet high and 10 feet wide, for fortification purposes, ruins of which can still be seen (e.g. Great Wall of Gorgan).[17] Though it has not yet been established historically who built this wall in the beginning, Muslim historians and geographers assign it to Dhul-Qarnain because its remains correspond with the description of it given in the Quran, despite the fact that the wall is in fact Sassanid in origins, and thus is about 1000 years too late to have been built by Cyrus. "The OSL and radiocarbon samples demonstrated conclusively that both walls had been built in the 5th or, possibly, 6th century AD".[18]

Ibn Jarir Tabari and Ibn Kathir have recorded the event, and Yaqut al-Hamawi has mentioned it in his Mujam-ul-Buldan that: when after the conquest of Azerbaijan, Umar sent Suraqah bin `Amr, in 22 A.H. (643CE) on an expedition to Derbent, the latter appointed `Abdur Rahman bin Rabi`ah as the chief of his vanguard. When 'Abdur Rehman entered Armenia, the ruler Shehrbaz surrendered without fighting. Then when `Abdur Rehman wanted to advance towards Derbent, Shehrbaz informed him that he had already gathered full information about the wall built by Dhul-Qarnain, through a man, who could supply all the necessary details and then the man was actually presented before `Abdur Rehman. (Tabari, Vol. III, pp. 235–239; Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah, Vol. VII, pp. 122–125, and Mu'jam-ul-Buldan, under Bab-ul-Abwab: Derbent).

Two hundred years later, the Abbasid Caliph Al-Wathiq dispatched a party of 50 men under Sallam-ul-Tarjuman to study the wall of Dhul-Qarnain, whose observations have been recorded in great detail by Yaqut al-Hamawi in Mu jam-ul-Buldan and by Ibn Kathir in Al-Bidayah. They write:

this expedition reached Samarrah from where they reached Tbilisi and then through As-Sarir and Al-Lan, they reached Filanshah, from where they entered the Caspian territory. From there they arrived at Derbent and saw the wall. (Al-Bidayah Vol. II, p. 111, Vol. VII, pp. 122–125; Mu jam-ul-Buldan: under Bab-ul-Abwab). This clearly shows that even up until the tenth century, Muslim scholars regarded this wall of the Caucasus as the wall of Dhul-Qarnain.

Yaqut in his Mu jam-ul-Buldan has further confirmed the same view at a number of places. For instance, under Khazar (Caspian) he writes:

"This territory adjoins the Wall of Dhul-Qarnain just behind Bab-ul-Abwab, which is also called Derbent." In the same connection, he records a report by Ahmad bin Fadhlan, the ambassador of Caliph Al-Muqtadir, who has given a full description of the Caspian land, saying that Caspian is the name of a country whose capital is Itil (near the present Astrakhan) right through which flows River Itil, which joins the Caspian front Russia and Bulghar.

Regarding Bab-ul-Abwab he says that this city is called both Al-Bab and Derbent, which is a highly difficult passage for the people coming from the northern lands towards the south. Once this territory was a part of the kingdom of Nausherwan, and the Persian rulers paid particular attention to strengthening their frontiers on that side.

About Dhul-Qarnain, Muhammad Ali says (p586): The word qarn means a horn, as also a generation or a century and dhul qarnain literally means the two-horned one, or one belonging to the two generations or two centuries. The reference here seems to be to the two horned ram of Daniel's vision (Dan. 8:3), which he interpreted as the Kingdoms of Media and Persia, which were combined into a single kingdom under one ruler, Cyrus, who is erroneously called Darius in the Bible. The reference in Daniel's vision is, however, not to Cyrus but to Darius I Hystaspes (521-485 B.C.), "who allowed the Jews to rebuild their temple, and is referred to in Ezra 4:5,24;5:5;6:1;Hag1:1;2:10;Zech. 1;7, and probably in Neh. 12:22. His liberality towards the Jews is in complete accord with what we know otherwise of his general policy in religious matter towards the subject nations"

Maududi says: {Early commentators on the Quran were generally inclined to believe that it referred to Alexander. The characteristics attribute to Dhul-Qarnayn, however, hardly apply to Alexander. In the light of the latest historical evidence, contemporary commentators on the Quran are inclined to believe that Dhul-Qarnayn signifies the Persian Emperor, Cyrus. This, in any case, seems more plausible. Nevertheless, the info available to date does not enable one to form a definitive opinion concerning Dhul-Qarnayn's identity.

  • Key points:
  1. The title "The Two-Horned' was at least familiar to the Jews. This is evident from the fact they had instigated the Meccan unbelievers to ask the Prophet about him. One must, therefore, inevitably turn to Jewish literature or oral traditions from the time of Muhammed to find out who this person was or to establish what was the kingdom known as 'The Two-Horned.'
  2. (in summary of Maududi) there are only a few people who fit this description
  3. The title of Dhul-Qarnayn may be used for a ruler who, being concerned with the defense of his kingdom from the assaults of Gog and Magog, had a strong protective wall constructed across a mountain pass.
  4. He is a God conscious person.

Further indications

  • The book Iranians in the Qur'an and Traditions by Ali Abtahi[19] mentions that a wall with characteristics mentioned in the verses of the Quran exists in the Dariel passage in the Caucasus mountains, and that there is even a stream nearby which is called "Saeres"[20] by the locals. According to this source, local Armenians called this wall "Behag Gurai" (meaning "The passage of Cyrus").
  • In Arabic translations of the Old Testament, the word "Dhul-Qarnayn" (Hebrew: Ba`al Haqqərānayim בעל הקרנים) appears once in the Old Testament, in the Book of Daniel 8:20:
  • Dhul-Qarnayn expanded his empire in three directions (east, west and north), which is the same as Cyrus' expansions, where he did not make southern expansions (Achaemenid southern expansions began after Cyrus). It should be noted that Alexander made his expansions towards south and east.

See also


  1. Leaman, Oliver (2006). The Qur'an: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. pp. 182–3. ISBN 9780415326391.
  2. Waheed, Sehba (2006). Islam: A New Perspective in World-culture. Icon. pp. 206–7. ISBN 978-8188086375.
  3. Islam and the Modern Age. 36. 2005. p. 16.
  5. In his Vol 26 of his Opus Magnum, Tafsir al-Mizan
  6. In his Bargozideh Tafseer-i Nemuneh (برگزیده تفسیر نمونه), Vol 3, p69
  7. Raheem, M. R. M. Abdur (1988). Muhammad the Prophet. Pustaka Nasional Pte Ltd. p. 231. ISBN 978-9971772239.
  9. See Surah Al Kahf, Translated Quran
  10. Some hadiths have warm instead of muddy - the words are very similar - or even black mud, and al-Tabari also discusses the variant readings See here for discussion and endnote 76 for Arabic citation, and here for another hadith that comes in both versions
  11. Lane's Lexicon book 1, page 2215
  12. Lane's Lexicon book 1, page 156
  13. "Surah Kahf". Surah Kahf Translation.
  14. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews Book 1, Chapter 6, verse 1 Project Gutenberg
  15. Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book VII, Chapter VII, Verse 4 Project Gutenberg
  16. Letter 77 "To Oceanus", 8, Jerome
  17. UC Berkeley's page on archaeologist David Stronach: "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2005-11-08. Retrieved 2005-11-08.
  18. Omrani Rekavandi, H., Sauer, E., Wilkinson, T. & Nokandeh, J. (2008), The enigma of the red snake: revealing one of the world’s greatest frontier walls, Current World Archaeology, No. 27, February/March 2008, pp. 12-22
  19. ایرانیان در قرآن و روایات, سید نورالدین ابطحی, نشر به آفرین, 1383, ISBN 964-6760-40-6
  20. The exact Latin spelling is unclear for this writing. The word appears from the original Persian (سایروس) for this article.
  22. Daniel - Chapter 8 - Daniel
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