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Dhul-Qarnayn: An Ideal Leader

The story of Dhul-Qarnayn in The Holy Quran also provides insight into the characteristics of an ideal leader.


translated as “the possessor of the two horns,” is a legendary king mentioned in Chapter 18 of The Quran, Surah al-Kahf (“The Cave”).

 The final story in Surah Al Kahf is in relation to Dhul-Qarnayn.

This story, including the story of the people of the cave (Al-kahf) was revealed in response to the efforts by the Jews of Mecca to discredit Rasulullah SAW.

Their scholars had knowledge of certain tales only known to the religious elite amongst them, and they challenged Rasulullah SAW by giving him certain key words and asking him to describe these stories in full to prove that he was indeed a Prophet. Not having Jewish or Christian ancestry, these stories were not known to the community of Makkah at that time and were not part of their traditions. So, the only means of which Rasulullah SAW could have told them the details was if the story was revealed by Allah himself (through the angel Jibril AS).

When asked to describe these incidents, Rasulullah SAW asked the questioners to return the following day, and that he would answer their questions then – but he omitted from saying“Insha Allah” (God willing). This was a tiny mistake on his part, but Allah swiftly admonished him for this oversight.

Usually when challenged by the disbeliever, or if faced with an issue that would require divine guidance to solve, Jibril AS would reveal the revelations to Muhammad SAW and the answer to challenges were provided quickly: if not the same day itself, then within a short period of time after that. In this case, however, day after day passed and as time went by, Jibril AS did not materialize. As time passed, people speculated that Rasulullah SAW did not rise up to the challenge thrown by the Jews. This was a trial from Allah, and also for admonishing Rasulullah SAW for not saying “Insha Allah” before making a commitment.

This reminder is in fact recorded in the Qur’an:

 ولا تقولن لشيء إني فاعل ذلك غدا إلا أن يشاء الله واذكر ربك إذا نسيت وقل عسى أن يهديني ربي لأقرب من هذا رشدا

وَلَبِثُوۡا فِىۡ كَهۡفِهِمۡ ثَلٰثَ مِائَةٍ سِنِيۡنَوَازۡدَادُوۡا تِسۡعًا‏  ﴿18:25﴾ قُلِ اللّٰهُ اَعۡلَمُ بِمَا لَبِثُوۡا​ ۚ لَهٗ غَيۡبُ السَّمٰوٰتِ وَالۡاَرۡضِ​.  ‏

And never say of anything, “Indeed, I will do that tomorrow,” Except [when adding], “If Allah wills.” And remember your Lord when you forget [it] and say, “Perhaps my Lord will guide me to what is nearer than this to right conduct.” (Al Qur’an; 18:24) 

 This is a parenthetical clause which has been inserted here because of its relevancy to the preceding verse, in which it was asserted that the correct number of the sleepers of the cave is known only to Allah and a research into it is a useless task. Therefore one should refrain from investigating into unimportant things, nor enter into discussions about them.

This has led to the instruction contained in the parenthetical clause for the benefit of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the believers who have been told never to make a positive assertion like this: I will do this thing tomorrow, for you do not know whether you will be able to do that thing or not: you have neither the knowledge of the unknown nor have full powers to do what you like. If ever inadvertently you utter anything like this, you should at once remember your Lord and say, InshaAllah. Besides this you do not know whether there will be any good for you in the thing about which you say: I will do this. It is possible that you may do another thing better than that. Therefore you should trust in God and say: I hope that my Lord will guide me in this matter with that thing which is nearer to the right way for me.

Who was Dhul-Qarnayn?

Eventually however, Allah revealed the answers to Rasulullah SAW, and they are contained in the eighteenth chapter of the Qur’an, Surah Al Kahf.

And they ask you, [O Muhammad], about Dhul-Qarnayn. Say, “I will recite to you about him a report.” (Al Qur’an 18:83)

Who exactly is Dhul-Qarnayn?

It is popularly believed that Dhul-Qarnayn refers to Iskandar Dhul-Qarnayn or Alexander the Great of Macedonia.

However, the historical details do not match, and further, Alexander the Great of Macedonia was not a believer in Islam whereas Dhul-Qarnayn was a pious believer.

There are many theories of who this man was and in what era he lived. However, the precise identity of Dhul-Qarnayn is not described in the Qur’an and Hadith, and Allah did not provide us with the details for a wisdom that He knows. As with many other Qur’anic stories, Allah only reveals essential information to us, and if details are not revealed, then the knowledge of such details is inconsequential to our journey of iman and we should not enquire or debate any further about it.

What is known is that Dhul-Qarnayn was a man endowed by Allah with many talents and abilities, including military prowess, the ability to rule kingdoms, and extensive practical knowledge on many aspects of life. He was also a pious and steadfast Muslim who constantly contemplated over the signs of Allah and lived his days travelling from one destination to the next in order to establish justice in the land and alleviate the suffering of the people.

Indeed We established him upon the earth, and We gave him to everything a way. So he followed a way. (Al Qur’an 18:84 – 18:85)

The Travels of Dhul-Qarnayn

Dhul-Qarnayn travelled extensively in his life. It is said that he ruled the earth from east to west, but it is noted that Allah only revealed part of this story to us. We therefore record what is revealed in the Qu’ran, and will not cite information which is not verified by authentic sources.

One of this travels brought him to the West, where he found the sun setting as if in a spring of dark mud. In this location he discovered a community who were living under oppressed conditions.

Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it [as if] setting in a spring of dark mud, and he found near it a people. Allah said, “O Dhul-Qarnayn, either you punish [them] or else adopt among them [a way of] goodness.” (Al Qur’an 18:86)

So Dhul-Qarnayn went into the community and led them to the correct path and ways of life in accordance with the rulings of the Almighty.

He liberated the community from the oppression that they were subject to, inflicted punishment upon the oppressors, criminals and evildoers and aided the weak and oppressed until justice was established in the land.

He said,

“As for one who wrongs, we will punish him. Then he will be returned to his Lord, and He will punish him with a terrible punishment. But as for one who believes and does righteousness, he will have a reward of Paradise, and we will speak to him from our command with ease.” (Al Qur’an 18:87 – 18:88)

Having completed his task, he and his army continued on their journey, until one day, against the rising sun, he found a people who were backward and ignorant, living in the open without any shelter or protection against the sun.

Then he followed a way. Until, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had not made against it any shield. (Al Qur’an 18:90)

He educated the community there on what they needed to do. He shared and imparted his knowledge to them, taught them the skills required such as carpentry and agriculture, and then continued on his journey.

Thus. And We had encompassed [all] that he had in knowledge. (Al Qur’an 18:91)

The next part of his journey is the most astounding, where he met a curious community, so far removed that he barely understood their language.

Then he followed a way. Until, when he reached [a pass] between two mountains, he found beside them a people who could hardly understand [his] speech. (Al Qur’an 18:92 – 18:93)

They said, “O Dhul-Qarnayn, indeed (Ya’juj) Gog and Magog (Ma’juj) are [great] corrupters in the land. So may we assign for you an expenditure that you might make between us and them a barrier?” (Al Qur’an 18:94)


The Quran narrates the story of how Allah establishes Dhul-Qarnayn as a powerful ruler on earth and allows the king the freedom to do with his subjects as he pleases.

Immediately, Dhul-Qarnayn creates a straightforward legal code wherein the righteous will be rewarded and praised, while the evil will be punished. However, he also acknowledges that punishments on earth can be imperfect, and that Allah is ultimately the final judge of mankind.

In this way, Dhul-Qarnayn demonstrates humility, an essential quality of an ideal leader. He recognizes that his power and authority come from God, and that his kingdom on earth is an ultimately flawed attempt to replicate the justice of the Kingdom of Heaven. If only real-world leaders could follow this example

Even though the concept of God’s judgment is not universally applicable in the modern world, politicians should acknowledge that virtually every political system is flawed in some way. An ideal modern ruler would understand that his/her political power — regardless of its origin — ultimately carries with it a responsibility to establish justice and improve the existing system.


exemplifies other good leadership qualities in his dealings with a nation being terrorized by the monsters Yajuj and majuj.

First, when the people offer Dhul-Qarnayn tribute in exchange for helping them, he responds that God’s rewards are better than earthly ones. He exhibits self-restraint and does not succumb to greed.

Since God has already blessed him with a powerful kingdom, Dhul-Qarnayn considers the tribute unnecessary and decides to help this nation solely due to his sense of justice.

However, Dhul-Qarnayn motivates the people to help themselves rather than allowing them to accept a handout. While he supplies the technical expertise necessary to forge a barrier preventing the entry of Yajuj and Majuj, he instructs the people to bring their own raw materials and aid in the construction. In this way, Dhul-Qarnayn models the importance of collective action in tackling nationwide problems.

In the modern world, it is clear that governments are not the solution to all societal ills; instead, people from all walks of life must work together to resolve these issues. Politicians may be necessary to supply the required leadership or expertise, but in many cases, the will of a nation’s people will dictate an initiative’s success or failure.

Dhul-Qarnayn’s story ends rather abruptly after the above example, but Quranic exegesis and analysis reveal other important features of his leadership. Since Dhul-Qarnayn is alleged to be a historical figure, scholars over the centuries have continuously debated his identity.

Interestingly, a large number of scholars agree that he was a pre-Islamic figure not associated with Jews or Christians, the traditional “Peoples of the Book.” In fact, most schools of thought consider him to be either Alexander the Great, a pagan, or Cyrus the Great, a Zoroastrian.

In any case, this means that Dhul-Qarnayn’s principles of good governance are widely applicable to diverse societies, not only Abrahamic ones. This also references a message of religious pluralism; even though Dhul-Qarnayn may not have been one of the “People of the Book,” he still exhibited traits like justice and humility that are central to Islam.

Was Dhul-Qarnayn actually Alexander, Cyrus or a completely different person? We may never know. But since his true identity is a mystery, we can analyze his actions without historical bias. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself must have believed that Dhul-Qarnayn’s story was worthy of frequent reading and reflection, since he strongly recommended that believers read Sura al-Kahf every Friday. Indeed, Muslims can be inspired by Dhul-Qarnayn’s respect for God’s justice and his pious commitment to God’s commands. Even person can learn from this legendary king by striving to emulate his personal qualities of humility, self-restraint and his commitment to justice.

While it is impossible for anyone to be a perfect leader, Muslims everywhere can benefit from a sincere commitment to Dhul-Qarnayn’s governing ideals. After all, The Quran declares, : Surah Ali 'Imran [3:104-114] - Al-Qur' - Quran

3.104. There must be among you a community calling to good, and enjoining and actively promoting what is right, and forbidding and trying to prevent evil (in appropriate ways). They are those who are the prosperous. Print E-mail

وَلْتَكُن مِّنكُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى الْخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَأُوْلَـئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

104. There must be among you a community calling to good, and enjoining and actively promoting what is right, and forbidding and trying to prevent evil (in appropriate ways). They are those who are the prosperous.

Dhul-Qarnayn: An Ideal  Leader
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