The fourth story in Al Kahf is about the King Zulqarnain (one with two horns). There is no mention of a King named Zulqarnain in recorded history. However, his importance cannot be denied when he gets the honour of mention in Quran among blessed people. Secondly, the question about who Zurqarnain was raised by the Quraish (who were prompted by Jews). Since Jews revered Zulqarnain, Christians were also familiar with his name. Now its easy to connect the dots, Zulqarnain holds place of some significance among people of the Book. Some have labelled him as Alexander the Great and others called him the Cyrus. Lets draw few historic parallels regarding identity of Zulqarnain. The brief account of Zulqarnain discussed below is the gist of some of the best Quran Mufasareen.
Only Allah is the Knower of the truth.
For Jews, he is remembered as a savior. Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered the kingdom of Judea in sixth century B.C and the Jews were taken to Babylon. Jews remained in Babylon as captives for seventy years. During this time the Prophet Daniel was appointed in Jews. He was the Prophet who at one time, after receiving revelation from God in a dream, announced the coming of a savior of Jews. In a dream, Prophet Daniel saw this savior as a ram with two horns (Zulqarnain---one with two horns) (Daniel 8:1-4). The two horns metaphorically showed the two kingdoms of Media and Persia united and ram depicting the savior himself showed him to be the conqueror and king of this united kingdom. This king was Cyrus. He was the one who afterwards conquered the Babylonian kingdom and released the Jews from captivity and allowed them to go back to their homeland and build the temple. It was because of these reasons that Jews held him in very high esteem and considered him as their savior as predicted by the Prophet Daniel. This also answers the question why Jews were interested to know about Zulqaranain. Jews had a personality in their history which fitted the description of Zulqarnain and they had great regard for him. Cyrus comes very close to the Zulqarnain of Qur'an.
As regards Cyrus's religion, he was a believer in Zoroastrianism, a new religion at that time, which existed with all its purity and spirit. The prophet Zoroaster who was probably contemporary to Cyrus preached belief in one God.
While introducing Zulqarnain, his three expeditions(towards west,east and north) have been narrated in Quran. In western expedition he reached a place where he saw the sun sinking in water, metaphorically explaining the western direction of his conquest and his experience while standing at the shore of Mediterranean in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey). In second expedition towards east, he conquered a people who had no cover for the rising sun, metaphorically explaining their nomadic life style and the eastern direction of the conquest. Lastly, the Qur'an talks about his third expedition. This is probably when Zulqarnain went to the northeastern Caucasus mountain range between the Black Sea and the Caspian sea and built barriers to protect his people against the incursion of nomadic tribes who lived on the other side of the Caucasus range, and referred to as Gog and Magog in the Qur'an. As for the iron wall itself, its remains probably can still be found in the area of the Caucasus region called Dariel Pass.
It should be kept in mind that Qur'an has not specifically mentioned any name, so we should also avoid saying that this or any other opinion on Zulqarnain's identity is final. Cyrus comes very close to being Zulqarnain but is he really Zulqarnain? The answer is ambivalently, ‘probably he is’.
Quran is for all times and ages. The more you know this Book, the more you realize its Divine attributes. Like most stories of the past told in Quran, no specific details are given. Because specifics may generate lengthy discussions but would not change anything about that past event. The main purpose of Quran's storytelling is that we must take home few important lessons. Just like our parents and grandparents who used to tell meaningful little bedtime stories, every story in Quran is Allah’s way of making us understand the theory of life. It is His mercy that He resorted to storytelling through fables and important historic events like the mention of Zulqarnain in Al Kahf.
Next week the personality and leadership of Zulqarnain shall be discussed. Past and future implications of his expeditions have been explained in different narrations of the Prophet PBUH which would also require a separate blog entry as well. Insha Allah.