Alexander in the Qur’an
It’s well known that early Islam incorporated many figures from the Judeo-Christian tradition into its scripture. The most famous example is Jesus Christ, who appears in the Qur’an not as the Son of God but as the penultimate prophet, sent by Allah as the precursor to Muhammad. What’s less well known is the fact that one of the ancient world’s most famous pagans, Alexander the Great, also features in the Qur’an. It’s not under his own name however but under the name Dhul-qarnayn.
In Arabic, Dhul-qarnayn means “the two-horned one”, and we should remember that the historical Alexander depicted himself with horns to stress his paternity from the horned god Zeus Ammon. Dhul-qarnayn’s first appears in the Qur’an in Sura 18 (94-98). The passage speaks about Dhul-qarnayn’s enclosure of Gog and Magog—the Unclean Nations—behind a manmade wall.
Throughout history, Gog and Magog have essentially represented whoever the enemy at the gates happened to be at the time—so for Christians, Gog and Magog represented Muslims; for Muslims, they represented Christians and so on… They first appeared in the Old Testament, in Genesis, Ezekiel and Revelation, locked away to one day be defeated by the Messiah, thus ushering in the Apocalypse. Over time, stories and literary traditions became confused over who they were and who built the wall, by the fourth century AD the person responsible for building a wall to shut them away had come to be identified as Alexander.
Bearing in mind the Qur’an was composed another 400 years after Alexander made his way into the story of Gog and Magog and it makes sense why Alexander (or rather “Dhul-qarnayn”) should have been the one to build the wall. But this isn’t where his story ends. There was also an Islamic tradition around Alexander as a wise man, a philosopher, and a lover of music. This was mainly inspired by Alexander’s (very real) historical relationship with Aristotle, his tutor, as the famous Islamic scholar, Ibn Khaldun (1333 – 1378), pointed out.
He tells us that when the Muslims conquered Persia, they destroyed many Persian texts. Later finding they needed the wisdom contained within these lost texts, the Umayyad rulers were forced to turn to Greek texts. Aristotle was one of the great figureheads of Greek intellect, as by this stage was Alexander by association. And this explains why Alexander was so easily adapted into Islamic legend as a wise, pious, and religiously converted philosopher-king.