83 [Prophet], they ask you about Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn. Say, ‘I will tell you something about him.’ 84 We established his power in the land, and gave him the means to achieve everything. 85 He travelled on a certain road; 86 then, when he came to the setting of the sun, he found it [seemed to be] setting into a muddy spring. Nearby he found some people and We said, ‘Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn, you may choose [which of them] to punish or show kindness to.’ 87 He answered, ‘We shall punish those who have done evil, and when they are returned to their Lord He will punish them [even more] severely, 88 while those who believed and did good deeds will have the best of rewards: we shall command them to do what is easy for them.’ 89 He travelled on; 90 then, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no shelter from it. 91 And so it was: We knew all about him. (Q 18:83-91. Abdel Haleem translation)
The common Muslim response on this issue (e.g. here at 1:58 and here) is that the Qur’an’s language here is from the perspective of the onlooker, ‘Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn. ‘Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn, from his vantage point, simply observed the setting sun’s reflection in the waters of the ‘muddy spring’. This approach is hinted at by Abdel Haleem’s interpretative insertion, ‘[it seemed to be].
I was once quite sympathetic to this approach, and was challenged by fellow Christians accordingly for not taking a harder line on this issue. I still recognise today that of course stories can be told from the perspective of a character, and poetic language can also be used. However, my former position was held to out of ignorance (NB: I am not saying all who hold such a position are ignorant, but I was). I was not aware of the background of this story, nor had I payed close enough attention to the text.
The Qur’anic story: the interpretation in the Hadith
Narrated Abu Dharr: I was sitting behind the Messenger of Allah who was riding a donkey while the sun was setting. He asked: Do you know where this sets? I replied: Allah and his Apostle know best. He said: It sets in a spring of warm water (Hamiyah). (Sunan Abi Dawud 4002. In-Book reference: Book 32, Hadith 34. English translation: Book 31, Hadith 3991).
I will be assuming that our Muslim friends reject this hadith, and so we will not discuss it further.
The Qur’anic story: an internal examination
Before I consider the context or background of this story, let me highlight features of the text that I hadn’t previously paid enough attention to:
- The story is about the great travels of Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn. ’83 [Prophet], they ask you about Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn. Say, ‘I will tell you something about him.’ 84 We established his power in the land, and gave him the means to achieve everything. 85 He travelled on a certain road…’ The point of the story is about how he travelled to the ends of the earth, east and west. If Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn merely saw the sun rising and setting in certain lakes or seas, this could happen anywhere. But the point of the story is that he saw these things because of the great lengths he travelled, to the ends of the earth.
- ‘he found it [seemed to be] setting into a muddy spring’ is not spoken of by itself. It is not an incidental feature mentioned to set the scene. The clause immediately before says ‘when he came to the setting of the sun’; this is a place that was reached [balagha]. Note the similar phrase in v. 93, when he literally ‘reached [balagha] a place between two mountain barriers’.
- One could interpret ‘he found it’ (wajadahā) to be another way of saying, ‘he considered it/he thought it’. By analogy, one might ask ‘How did you find the food?’, as a way of saying ‘What did you think about the food?’. Perhaps Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn really thought the sun does set in a ‘muddy spring’, and this perception/belief is all that the Qur’an records.
- We perhaps find this usage of ‘find’ elsewhere: Q 2:96 says ’96 [Prophet], you are sure to find them clinging to life more eagerly than any other people, even the polytheists.’ This might mean ‘You will indeed think of them…’. So too in Q 5:82: ‘You [Prophet] are sure to find that the most hostile to the believers are the Jews and those who associate other deities with God; you are sure to find that the closest in affection towards the believers are those who say, ‘We are Christians,’’. (Cf. also Q 7:17; 7:44; 7:102; 17:77; 18:69: 20:115; 37:102; 38:44; 51:36. Verses discovered via a search at Qur’an Gateway).
- Many or all of these uses of ‘find’ are comparatively subjective, in that they are about ‘finding’ qualities or attributes, as opposed to other usages where very concrete, objective realities are ‘found’ (e.g. not being able to find a scribe, Q 2:283). However, every instance of a subjective ‘finding’ that I came across was in accordance with reality. When God says in Q 2:96 ‘you are sure to find them clinging to life’, it’s because they truly are clinging to life. By contrast, Q 18:86 would be the only place in the Qur’an where we are told someone ‘found’ something, i.e. the sun ‘setting into a muddy spring’, when in fact it was not. So the argument that Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn actually thought the sun was setting in a muddy spring, even though it was not, strains the Qur’an’s usage of the word ‘found’ (wajada).
- One can say he ‘found it setting’ only in a poetic sense, that really ‘he saw the appearance of the setting of the sun in a muddy spring.’ However, this does not fit with the stress of the passage on the location of the sun’s setting, as discussed above and below.
- Note that we are about to read ‘he found some people.’ It makes more sense to think ‘found’ is being used twice in the same verse in the same sense (literally), rather than that there are two different usages. Two different usages in the same verse is not impossible; it could be done for the sake of word-play. However, this is a very risky word-play; if the word-play is not recognised, the audience will literally think the sun sets in a ‘muddy spring.’
- Not only is ‘he found it’ preceded by ‘when he came to the setting of the sun’, but it is also followed by another geographical marker, ‘Nearby he found some people.’ The Arabic is perhaps even stronger, wa‑wajada ʿindahā (‘And he found by it‘), ‘it’ being the ‘muddy spring’. Note the parallel in v. 93, where ‘he reached a place between two mountain barriers, [where] he found beside them a people…’.
- Later on we find another, indeed an opposite, geographical marker: ‘when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no shelter from it.’ (v. 90). Why mention ‘a people for whom We had provided no shelter from it.’? The assumption here is that Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn travelled geographically closer to the place from which the sun sets out, hence its heat is more scorching.
- The next story, is again about a physical place: ’92 He travelled on; 93 then, when he reached a place between two mountain barriers, he found beside them a people who could barely understand him.’
The Qur’anic story’s background: The Alexander Legend
These contextual clues strongly suggest to me that we are dealing with real concrete locations of the rising and the setting of the sun. This suspicion is strengthened when we consider the background to this story, as discussed by Kevin van Bladel, ‘The Alexander Legend in the Qurʾān 18:83-102′ in Reynolds, G. S. (ed.) (2008) The Qurʾān in its historical context, pp. 175-203. Routledge: London & New York. He discusses this work in far more detail than I can here, and the interested reader is referred to this work. An English translation by E. A. W. Budge (1889) can be found here, beginning p. 144.
As van Bladel (2008; I am indebted to this work below) notes, reading ‘The Alexander Legend’ clarifies the Qur’an’s terse comments. Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn, ‘The possessor of two horns’, is clearly ‘Alexander the son of Philip the Macedonian’ (Budge, 1889, 144), for it is he who has ‘horns upon my head.’ (p. 146). The story is about his travels, ‘how he went forth to the ends of the world, and made a gate of iron’ (p. 144). The Qur’anic connection between the sun setting into a ‘muddy spring’ and a nearby people whom Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn may choose to punish or show leniency (Q 18:86-87), is at first sight rather ‘cryptic’ (Bladel, 2008, p. 179). But ‘The Alexander Legend’ explains:
And Alexander and his troops encamped, and he sent and called to him the governor who was in the camp, and said to him, “Are there any men here guilty of death?” They said to him, “We have thirty and seven men in bonds who are guilty of death.” And the king said to the governor, “Bring hither those evil doers.” And they brought them, and the king commanded them and said, “Go ye to the shore of the foetid sea…”…and when they had gone, and had arrived at the shore of the sea, they died instantly. (Budge, 1889, 147-148)
We also find elucidation of v. 90, ‘when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no shelter from it.’
Alexander and his troops went up between the foetid sea and the bright sea to the place where the sun enters the window of heaven…The place of his rising is over the sea, and the people who dwell there, when he is about to rise, flee away and hide themselves in the sea, that they be not burnt by his rays; and he passes through the midst of the heavens to the place where he enters the window of heaven; and wherever he passes there are terrible mountains, and those who dwell there have caves hollowed out in the rocks, and as soon as they see the sun passing [over them], men and birds flee away from before him and hide in the caves, for rocks are rent by his blazing heat…’ (Budge, 1889, 148)
The following Qur’anic story about Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn’s barrier between two mountains (Q 18:93-94) is also elucidated in great detail (Budge, 1889, 144, 148-156, esp. 153), but that is not our concern here.
It is evident from ‘The History of Alexander’ that the sun has actual places of rising and setting; it is because the sun has an actual place of rising that those who live nearby are scorched by its heat. This view of a sun with actual places of rising and setting close to the earth is reflected in the Qur’an (Q 18:86, 90), along with unpleasant waters that can kill people (Q 18:86-88).
The priority of ‘The Alexander Legend’
We should acknowledge that there is a tricky issue when it comes to dating ‘The History of Alexander’. van Bladel (2008, 189) is right to say that this text and the Qur’an overlap so closely that there must be some form of relationship between the two. But he (184) also follows Reinink in arguing that the text must have been composed c. 628-630 CE because of the connection between the text and the end of the Persian-Roman war (603-630 CE). As van Bladel says, ‘Given the date that Alexander’s prophecy signals, 628-9 CE, it must be referring to the devastating wars of that time and their successful end for the Romans.’
van Bladel (189) persuasively argues against dependence of ‘The History of Alexander’ on the Qur’an: ‘it is impossible to see why a Syriac apocalypse written around 630 would be drawing on an Arabic tradition some years before the Arab conquests, when the community at Mecca was far from well known outside Arabia. Moreover, the very specific political message of the Alexander Legend would not make any sense in this scenario.’ We agree with his (190) conclusion that the Qur’an is interacting with the Syriac work, rather than vice versa, perhaps ‘by oral report.’ Indeed, van Bladel (195) notes that the Qur’an’s telling of this story ‘may well have been [Muhammad’s] response to questions concerning the publication of these prophecies (“They ask you about the Two-Horned One. Say…”)’. The community has already heard about Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn even before Q 18:83ff. is revealed.
Even if, however, the Qur’an came before ‘The Alexander Legend’, and the latter is dependant on the former, it would be our earliest commentary upon the meaning of the former. Its elucidations about a literal rising place and movement of the sun, and of waters that can kill people, fit well with the actual text of the Qur’an, as we argued in the first part of this article.
Dear Muslim reader, how do you understand Q 18:83-91? Does the sun literally set and rise in specific places? Do people die upon approaching or entering the ‘muddy spring’/’foetid sea’? Are people who live near the rising place of the sun scorched by its heat?