The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
ZOLQARNAIN; CYRUS THE GREAT IN QUR'AN
By: Baha'eddin Khoramshahi
am Cyrus, who founded the empire of the Iranians.
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:
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).
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:
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
was Alexander (Tabari's Exegesis, a remark attributed to Abu-Rayhan,
Madjmal-al-Tawarikh va-al-Qessas, Sur-Abadi's Exegesis, and others).
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.
ibn-Djabal (Ghazzali in Serr-al-Alamain [The Secret of the Two Worlds]).
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:
his time, there were people who believed that Zolqarnain was an Iranian.
there were many who believed Zolqarnain was Alexander, this opinion was
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
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
There are some arguments against the first idea, the most
important of which are the following:
is no mention of Alexander in the Old Testament, while Cyrus is mentioned.
was not a monotheist, while Zolqarnain was explicitly mentioned in the Qur'an to
be a believer in one Supreme Being.
is no copper and zinc barrier, as mentioned in the Qur'an, that is associated
But the arguments in favor of Molana Abolkalam's claim are as follows:
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).
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
Page Keywords: Cyrus, Kurosh, Koorosh, Achaemenian, Achaemenids, Hakhamanesh, Hakhamaneshian, Pasargadae, the father
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