وَيَسۡـَٔلُونَكَ عَن ذِى ٱلۡقَرۡنَيۡنِۖ قُلۡ سَأَتۡلُواْ عَلَيۡكُم مِّنۡهُ ذِڪۡرًا
Al Kahfi: 83
Zul-qarnain literally, “the Two-horned one”, the King with the Two Horns, or the Lord of the Two Epochs. Who was he? In what age and where did he live? The Qur’an gives us no material on which we can base a positive answer. Nor it is necessary to find an answer, as the story is treated as a Parable. Popular opinion identifies Zul-qarnain with Alexander the Great. An alternative suggestion is an ancient Persian King, or a prehistoric Himyarite King.
Zul-qarnain was a most powerful king, but it was Allah, Who, in His universal Plan, gave him power and provided him with the ways and means for his great work. His sway extended over East and West and over people of diverse civilisations. He was just and righteous, not selfish or grasping. He protected the weak and punished the unlawful and the turbulent. Three of his expeditions are described in the text, each embodying a great ethical idea involved in the possession of kingship or power.
إِنَّا مَكَّنَّا لَهُ ۥ فِى ٱلۡأَرۡضِ وَءَاتَيۡنَـٰهُ مِن كُلِّ شَىۡءٍ۬ سَبَبً۬ا
Al Kahfi: 84
Great was his power and great were his opportunities (“ways and means”), which he used for justice and righteousness. But he recognised that his power and opportunities were given to him as a trust by Allah. He had faith and did not forget Allah.
حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَا بَلَغَ مَغۡرِبَ ٱلشَّمۡسِ وَجَدَهَا تَغۡرُبُ فِى عَيۡنٍ حَمِئَةٍ۬ وَوَجَدَ عِندَهَا قَوۡمً۬اۗ قُلۡنَا يَـٰذَا ٱلۡقَرۡنَيۡنِ إِمَّآ أَن تُعَذِّبَ وَإِمَّآ أَن تَتَّخِذَ فِيہِمۡ حُسۡنً۬ا
Al Kahfi: 86
This is the first of the three episodes here mentioned, his expedition to the west. “Reaching the setting of the sun” does not mean the extreme west, for there is no such thing. West and East are relative terms. It means a western expedition terminated by a “spring of murky water”. This has puzzled Commentators and they have understood this to mean the dark, tempestuous sea. If Zul-qarnain is Alexander the Great, the reference is easily understood to be to Lychnitis (now Ochrida), west of Macedonia. It is fed entirely by underground springs in a limestone region, where the water is never very clear.
He had great power and a great opportunity. He got authority over a turbulent and unruly people. Was he going to be severe with them and chastise them, or was he going to seek peace at any price, i.e., to wink at violence and injustice so long as it did not affect his power? He chose the better course, as described in the next verse. To protect the weak and the innocent, he punished the guilty and the headstrong, but he remembered always that the true Punishment would come in the Hereafter-the true and final justice before the throne of Allah.
قَالَ أَمَّا مَن ظَلَمَ فَسَوۡفَ نُعَذِّبُهُ ۥ ثُمَّ يُرَدُّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهِۦ فَيُعَذِّبُهُ ۥ عَذَابً۬ا نُّكۡرً۬ا
Al Kahfi: 87
Though most powerful among kings, he remembered that his power was but human and given by Allah. His punishments were but tentative, to preserve the balance of this life as he could appraise it. Even if his punishment was capital (“wrong doer sent back to his Lord”) it was nothing compared to the dire consequences of sin, in the final Justice of Allah.
وَأَمَّا مَنۡ ءَامَنَ وَعَمِلَ صَـٰلِحً۬ا فَلَهُ ۥ جَزَآءً ٱلۡحُسۡنَىٰۖ وَسَنَقُولُ لَهُ ۥ مِنۡ أَمۡرِنَا يُسۡرً۬ا
Al Kahfi: 88
He never said like Pharaoh. “I am your Lord Most High”. On the contrary his punishments were humbly regulated as not being final and he laid more stress on the good he could do to those who lived normal lives in faith and righteousness. His rule was easy to them: he imposed no heavy tasks because of his power, but gave every opportunity to rich and poor for the exercise of virtue and goodness. Such is the spiritual lesson to be learned from the first episode.
حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَا بَلَغَ مَطۡلِعَ ٱلشَّمۡسِ وَجَدَهَا تَطۡلُعُ عَلَىٰ قَوۡمٍ۬ لَّمۡ نَجۡعَل لَّهُم مِّن دُونِہَا سِتۡرً۬ا
Al Kahfi: 90
We now come to the second eposide. This is an expedition to the east. “Rising of the sun” has a meaning corresponding to “setting of the sun”.
The people here lived very simple lives. Perhaps the climate was hot and they required neither roofs over their heads, nor much clothing to protect them from the sun. What did he do with them? See next note.
كَذَٲلِكَ وَقَدۡ أَحَطۡنَا بِمَا لَدَيۡهِ خُبۡرً۬ا
Al Kahfi: 91
They were a primitive people. He did not fuss over their primitiveness, but left them in the enjoyment of peace and tranquillity in their own way. In this he was wise. Power is apt to be intolerant and arrogant and to interfere in everything that does not accord with its glorification. Not so Zul-qarnain. He recognised his own limitations in the sight of Allah: man never completely understands his own position, but if he devoutly looks to Allah, he will live and let live. This is the spiritual lesson from the second episode.
حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَا بَلَغَ بَيۡنَ ٱلسَّدَّيۡنِ وَجَدَ مِن دُونِهِمَا قَوۡمً۬ا لَّا يَكَادُونَ يَفۡقَهُونَ قَوۡلاً۬
Al Kahfi: 93
It does not mean that they had no speech. It means that they did not understand the speech of the Conqueror. But they had parleys with him (through interpreters), as is evident from the verses following.
قَالُواْ يَـٰذَا ٱلۡقَرۡنَيۡنِ إِنَّ يَأۡجُوجَ وَمَأۡجُوجَ مُفۡسِدُونَ فِى ٱلۡأَرۡضِ فَهَلۡ نَجۡعَلُ لَكَ خَرۡجًا عَلَىٰٓ أَن تَجۡعَلَ بَيۡنَنَا وَبَيۡنَهُمۡ سَدًّ۬ا
Al Kahfi: 94
What we are mainly concerned with is its interpretation. the Conqueror had now arrived among a people who were different in speech and race from him, but not quite primitive, for they were skilled in the working of metals and could furnish blocks (or bricks) of iron, melt metals with bellows or blow-pipes and prepare molten lead. Apparently they were a peaceable and industrious race, much subject to incursions from wild tribes who are called Gog and Magog. Against these tribes they were willing to purchase immunity by paying the Conqueror tribute in return for protection. The permanent protection they wanted was the closing of a mountain gap through which the incursions were made.
قَالَ مَا مَكَّنِّى فِيهِ رَبِّى خَيۡرٌ۬ فَأَعِينُونِى بِقُوَّةٍ أَجۡعَلۡ بَيۡنَكُمۡ وَبَيۡنَہُمۡ رَدۡمًا
Al Kahfi: 95
Zul-qarnain was not greedy and did not want to impose a tribute to be carried away from an industrious population. He understood the power which Allah had given him, to involve duties and responsibilities on his part- the duty of protecting his subjects without imposing too heavy a taxation on them. He would provide the motive force and organising skill. Would they obey him and provide the material and labour, so that they could close the gap with a strong barrier, probably with well-secured gates? The word radm, translated “barrier”, does not necessarily mean a wall, but rather suggest a blocked door or entrance.
ءَاتُونِى زُبَرَ ٱلۡحَدِيدِۖ حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَا سَاوَىٰ بَيۡنَ ٱلصَّدَفَيۡنِ قَالَ ٱنفُخُواْۖ حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَا جَعَلَهُ ۥ نَارً۬ا قَالَ ءَاتُونِىٓ أُفۡرِغۡ عَلَيۡهِ قِطۡرً۬ا
Al Kahfi: 96
I understand the defences erected to have been a strong barrier of iron, with iron Gates. The jambs of the Gates were constituted with blocks or bricks of iron and the interstices filled up with molten lead, so as to form an impregnable mass of metal. It may be that there was a store wall also, but that is not mentioned. There was none in the Iron Gate near Bukhara.
Made it (red) as fire: what does “it” refer to? Probably to the iron, either in sheets or blocks, to be welded with the molten lead.
فَمَا ٱسۡطَـٰعُوٓاْ أَن يَظۡهَرُوهُ وَمَا ٱسۡتَطَـٰعُواْ لَهُ ۥ نَقۡبً۬ا
Al Kahfi: 97
The iron wall and gates and towers were sufficiently high to prevent their being scaled and sufficiently strong with welded metal to resist any attempt to dig through them.
قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَحۡمَةٌ۬ مِّن رَّبِّىۖ فَإِذَا جَآءَ وَعۡدُ رَبِّى جَعَلَهُ ۥ دَكَّآءَۖ وَكَانَ وَعۡدُ رَبِّى حَقًّ۬ا
Al Kahfi: 98
After all the effort which Zul-qarnain has made for their protection, he claims no credit for himself beyond that of discharging his duty as a ruler. He turns their attention to Allah, Who has provided the ways and means by which they can be helped and protected. But all such human precautions are apt to become futile. The time must come when they will crumble into dust. Allah has said so in His Revelation; and His word is true.
And so the lesson from the third episode is: Take human precautions and do all in your power to protect yourselves from evil. But no protection is complete unless you seek the help and grace of Allah. The best of our precautions must crumble to dust when the appointed Day arrives.
وَتَرَكۡنَا بَعۡضَہُمۡ يَوۡمَٮِٕذٍ۬ يَمُوجُ فِى بَعۡضٍ۬ۖ وَنُفِخَ فِى ٱلصُّورِ فَجَمَعۡنَـٰهُمۡ جَمۡعً۬ا
Al Kahfi: 99
And so we pass on to the Last Days before the Great Summons comes from Allah. All human barriers will be swept away. There will be tumultuous rushes. The Trumpet will be blown and the Judgement will be set on foot.
وَعَرَضۡنَا جَهَنَّمَ يَوۡمَٮِٕذٍ۬ لِّلۡكَـٰفِرِينَ عَرۡضًا
Al Kahfi: 100
If men had scoffed at Faith and the Hereafter, their eyes will be opened now, and they will see the terrible Reality.
ٱلَّذِينَ كَانَتۡ أَعۡيُنُہُمۡ فِى غِطَآءٍ عَن ذِكۡرِى وَكَانُواْ لَا يَسۡتَطِيعُونَ سَمۡعًا
Al Kahfi: 101
Those very men who refused to see the many Signs of Allah which in this world convey His Message and to hear the Word of the Lord when it came to them, will then see without any mistake the consequences fully brought up before them.
قُلۡ هَلۡ نُنَبِّئُكُم بِٱلۡأَخۡسَرِينَ أَعۡمَـٰلاً
Al Kahfi: 103
That is, those who prided themselves on their works in this life and now find that those works are of no avail. Their loss is all the greater because they had a misplaced confidence in their own deeds or in the assistance of false “protection”. Allah is the only Protector: no one else’s protection is of any use.
ٱلَّذِينَ ضَلَّ سَعۡيُہُمۡ فِى ٱلۡحَيَوٰةِ ٱلدُّنۡيَا وَهُمۡ يَحۡسَبُونَ أَنَّہُمۡ يُحۡسِنُونَ صُنۡعًا
Al Kahfi: 104
Many people have such a smug of self-righteousness that while they go on doing wrong, they think that they are acquiring merit. So, in charity, all the elements that make for outward show or selfishness (as to get some worldly advantage) nullify the deed of charity. In the same way hypocrites sometimes affect to be surprised, that their declared effort for somebody’s good is not appreciated, when they are really seeking some hidden gain or false glory for themselves. The sincere are only those who believe in their spiritual responsibility and act as in Allah’s sight.