In 2007, an article appeared in Gabriel Said Reynold’s ‘The Qurʾān in its Historical Context’ titled ‘The Alexander Legend in the Qurʾān 18:83-102’, authored by Kevin Van Bladel. This article has proven to be a substantial contribution to understanding the background of the Dhū-lQarnayn pericope in sūrat al-Kahf, or ‘The Cave’. The primary thesis of Van Bladel’s paper is that the story of Dhū-lQarnayn essentially depends on the ‘Neṣḥānā d-Aleksandrūs’, otherwise referred to as the “Syriac Legend of Alexander1” in contemporary scholarship.
The Syriac Legend dates approximately to 630 A.D2, and was brought to light by the orientalist E.A Wallis Budge in 1889, apparently being a work appended to the Syriac edition of Pseudo-Callisthenes. In his book titled “The History of Alexander the Great, being the Syriac version of Pseudo-Callisthenes,” Budge provided a critical edition of the Legend with an accompanying English translation, drawing on 5 existing manuscripts3.
Van Bladel is apparently the first scholar who has paid attention to the relationship between the Qurʾānic Dhū-lQarnayn story and the Alexander Legend in recent times. His work is interesting, and he demonstrates that there certainly exists some relationship between these two texts. However, Van Bladel consistently lets his comparisons go too far and often misreads the source texts in trying to find points of commonality between the Qurʾān and the Legend. This, in turn, causes his thesis, that the Qurʾānic account is essentially derived from the Neṣḥānā, appear stronger than it actually is.
The purpose of this essay is to argue that the Syriac Legend is not the source text for the Qurʾānic story, and in doing so, is primarily intended as a reply to Van Bladel’s paper. The structure of this essay is as follows. The first section analyse differences between the two texts at point where Van Bladel has in fact posited a similarity4, and discusses to what degree this difference is. At times this study will explore some tangential issues pertaining to the Legend that shall be relevant later, such as the precise geography of Alexander’s travels. A subsection is devoted to paying closer attention to some linguistic similarities noticed by Van Bladel between the two texts.
The second part of this article shall comment on some of the reasons offered by Van Bladel and others for believing that the Qurʾān derives from the Legend. Subsequently, an alternative hypothesis shall be argued for on the basis of some novel arguments.
I shall attempt to refer to Budge’s English translation of the Syriac Legend where possible5, taking recourse to the Syriac text only where relevant. In referencing the Qurʾān, the Sahih International translation will be referred to, unless a modification is deemed appropriate, or a linguistic point needs to be discussed. As this essay is largely interacting with Van Bladel’s paper, it is assumed that readers are at least partially familiar with the arguments found therein.
A comparison of the narratives
The bulk of Van Bladel’s comparisons between the two texts and his reasoning, where given, for positing similarities may be found on pp. 177- 182 of his article, and we shall consistently refer to it in this section.
Travel to the Fetid waters
The first precise correspondence between the Legend and the Dhū-lQarnayn narrative is the respective protagonists’ travels to the “fetid waters”. In the Legend, Alexander wishes to travel to the ends of the earth to see “upon what the heavens are fixed”6, and so he summons his officials, who inform him that this is impossible, given that the “Fetid Sea,” or the “Okeyanos (Ocean), which surrounds all creation” would stop him, as it is fatal to all who touch it.
The corresponding section in the Qurʾānic account is Dhū-lQarnayn’s initial west-ward travel7 to an ʿayn ḥamiʾa, variously “muddy”, or “murky” spring. Strictly speaking, Van Bladel does not explicate this to be an exact similarity in the paper, though translates ḥamiʾa as “fetid” rather than the conventional “muddy”, presumably in keeping with the Legend8. He also refers to the muddy spring as “fetid water” in his comparison9, so it is clear he considers this to be a similarity between the two tales.
It is obvious, however, that the Qurʾān omits the Okeyanos altogether. It is not entirely unreasonable to say that the Syriac saryā could be equivocated to the Arabic ḥamiʾa, but reading ʿayn, “spring”, as the creation-encompassing Okeyanos is a difficult stretch to make. This fact seems to have been glossed over entirely, even though this omission by the Qurʾān is significant from a cosmological standpoint in particular. Even outside the Dhū-lQarnayn narrative, there is simply no creation-encompassing “Okeyanos” to be found in the Qurʾān, though both texts belong to Late Antiquity. Tabataba’i and Mirsadri observe that Qurʾānic cosmology simply precludes the idea of any sort of an earth “surrounded by waters” in the “biblical and Mesopotamian” sense10. As such, this omission of the Fetid Sea is quite possibly intentional11.
Furthermore, since the “fetid” nature of the water in the Legend is essentially bound to the fact that this water is the Okeyanos, that the Qurʾān deliberately avoids the Okeyanos indicates that one does not need to necessarily read ḥamiʾa as “fetid” in the same sense as the deadly waters of the Legend either. Thus, the conventional interpretation of “muddy spring” is certainly still plausible.
The cosmological differences go deeper. Why did Alexander wish to travel to the ends of the earth? We see the following passage in the Legend:
“As to the thing, my lord, which thy majesty desires to go and see, namely, upon what the heavens rest, and what surrounds the earth, the terrible seas which surround the earth will not give thee a passage12”
The cosmology of the Legend features heavens which are domed in shape. Contrarily, Tabataba’i and Mirsadri have produced fairly convincing evidence that the Qurʾān intends flat shaped heavens13, and so it follows that they would not meet the Earth at any one point. Furthermore, though the Qurʾān does mention supports for the heavens, they are said to be invisible (Q 13:2). This omission of the creation-encompassing waters in the Dhū-lQarnayn story makes complete sense – not only is this notion in itself absent from elsewhere in the Qurʾān, its absence implies that Dhū-lQarnayn’s motivation to travel is not to find the place “upon which the heavens rest”. This entirely undercuts the premise of the Legend.
The Direction of the Journeys
The first journey taken by Dhū-lQarnayn in the Qurʾān is towards the setting of the sun (maghrib al-shams), or the west. Van Bladel writes that “Alexander’s journeys west and east match Q 18:85-91”. Here, he has committed a major oversight and has not read the Legend carefully. The direction of Alexander’s journey to the Fetid Sea is in fact towards the east, and not the west. The narration of details pertaining to Alexander’s initial itinerary are as follows: After having consulted his officials in Alexandria14 and determining to satisfy his curiosities, he marched until he “came to mount Sinai,” and then “crossed over to Meṣrên [Egypt]”. There, he took seven thousand Egyptian metalworkers from the king Sarnāqōs15. After this stage, he finally set sail to the Fetid Sea, journeying for “four months and twelve days.”
Where is this sea situated? The text does not provide an explicit answer, but after having reached the Fetid Sea and tested it with the lives of the convicts16, Alexander sets his sight “towards the west” to “the great Musas”, or Mount Ararat17. Clearly, if Alexander were looking west-ward to Mount Ararat (located in modern day Armenia), the author envisioned him to have travelled east from Egypt to reach the Fetid Sea.
Confirmation of this is hinted in the length of Alexander and his troops’ journey — “four months and twelve days”. A similar tradition is recorded in the so-called Syriac Alexander Poem18, where it is stated that Alexander travelled to the Fetid Sea for “four months”19, paralleling the Legend. In the Poem, the Fetid Sea is towards India, and therefore to the east. Even if the Poem is a retelling of the Legend, it is a rather early one, post-dating the Legend by less than a decade. We may deduce that the four month journey was already associated with Alexander’s travel to India to the audience, and therefore necessarily east-ward.
It follows then, that the Qurʾān is in opposition to the Legend here, and this difference extends to the next leg of Dhū-lQarnayn’s journey. Under the impression that Alexander first headed west-ward, Van Bladel continues that Alexander later “follows the sun through its course to the east during the night”20. Naturally, if the Fetid Sea is east-ward, then Alexander must have travelled back to the west, and not east, to Mount Ararat, contra Van Bladel. Meanwhile, Dhū-lQarnayn, after having reached the muddy spring, journeys towards the east (maṭliʿ al-shams), where he meets a people whom God had not “given a shield” (Q 18:90).
It shall later prove worthwhile to pursue a tangent at this point. The Legend features an ambiguity concerning the initial location of Alexander. It is not clear why Alexander and his army, beginning in Alexandria, went forth to Mt. Sinai, then sailed to Egypt, apparently tracking backwards. Why would this be necessary? Czégledy21 remarks that “the author hardly realised that Alexandria was in Egypt,” yet there is a more convincing explanation. It is probable that the author wished to place Alexander not in the Alexandria of Egypt, but Alexandria near Issus, which would have been familiar enough to the Syriac author, being a place of some import to Byzantine Christianity in late antiquity22 and geographically close to centres of Syriac Christianity such as Edessa. To assign cardinal directions to the Legend’s journey, Alexander goes south to Mt. Sinai, then slightly west to Egypt, then vaguely east to the Fetid Sea, and then west or northwest to Armenia, and then finally west once more to his home. Van Bladel writes that Alexander “makes his journey west, then east, then north, then return south”, which he takes to be an intentional symbol of the cross employed by the author of the Legend23. This seems extremely unlikely in light of the itinerary I have presented here24.
Punishing the “Wrong-doers”
After having reached the muddy spring to the west, Dhū-lQarnayn is prompted by God to either “punish” the natives of the land or treat them with “goodness” (Q 18:86). He declares in reply that “whoever has wronged, we shall punish them, then they shall return to their Lord, and He shall punish them 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 (Q 18:87-88)”.
Van Bladel believes this to be exactly identical to the Legend25, but it is not clear why. In the Legend, Alexander wishes to investigate whether the water is lethal just as his officials have warned him. To accomplish this, he decides it is best to test it with the lives of prisoners already condemned to death. These prisoners are not the natives of the land, but rather prisoners from his own army camp26. This is unambiguous: Alexander and his troops first “encamp”, then Alexander requests prisoners from the governor who was in the “camp”27. The word Budge translates as “camp”, mashrīta, also means a troop or retinue28.
The numerous differences are apparent. Dhū-lQarnayn deals with the natives of the land, and is apparently given a choice by God, perhaps as a test of his justice, on whom he ought to punish. His reply is a very typical maxim expressed in characteristic Qurʾānic language, where the “evildoers” are relegated to a “punishment”, “adhāb”, in this life and the hereafter (cf. Q 68:33). Contrarily, those who “believe and do good”29 shall receive a “good reward”. This moral episode does not occur in the Legend, not the least because there are no natives present for Alexander to interact with. Van Bladel mistakes what the Legend is actually saying, and is under the impression that “Alexander asks the people there if they have any prisoners”30, but as just illustrated, both the context and language make it clear that the governor and the prisoners he speaks to are from his own army.
Further, the motives of Alexander and Dhū-lQarnayn are different in dealing with the “evil-doers31”. Alexander intends to merely test the fatality of the fetid sea and investigate whether it is possible to traverse. Contrarily, Dhū-lQarnayn is concerned with general Qurʾānic justice relating to faith and the afterlife32.
The Heavenly Cords
Van Bladel’s most original contribution in collecting the similarities between the Dhū-lQarnayn story and the Neṣḥānā is the heroes’ travels through the so-called “heavenly cords”, apparently conduits or pathways through the skies. Van Bladel has argued at length in another one of his essays33 that the variously mentioned sabab (ways) in Q 18:83-99 taken by Dhū-lQarnayn are in fact references to these heavenly paths. Van Bladel believes this detail to be a key similarity between the Qurʾān and the Alexander Legend34, as Dhū-lQarnayn’s travel through the asbāb exactly match Alexander travelling through the “window of heaven (kawwteh da-šmayyâ)35” after having reached the Fetid Sea.
Unfortunately, there are serious flaws with Van Bladel’s understanding of the Syriac text. Alexander simply does not enter the “window of heaven”. The following is the Syriac critical text provided by Budge36, including vowel diacritics where supplied:
ܘܡܸܚܕܐ ܕܥܵܙܠ ܫܡܫܐ ܒܟܵܘܬܗ ܕܫܡܝܐ ܡܬܓܗܸܢ ܘܣܵܓܕ ܩܕܵܡ ܐܠܗܐ ܒܵܪܘܿܝܗ. ܘܪܵܕܹܐ ܘܢܵܚܹܬ ܟܠܗ ܠܠܝܐ ܒܗܘܿܢ ܒܫܡܝܐ. ܥܕܡܐ ܕܐܵܙܠ ܡܫܬܟܲܚ ܐܝܟܐ ܕܕܵܢܲܚ. ܘܚ݂ܙܐ ܐܠܟܣܢܕܪܘܿܣ ܒܝܬ ܡܥܲܪܵܒ̈ܲܝ ܫܡܫܐ. ܘܐܫܟܚ ܛܘܼܪܐ ܚܕ ܕܢܲܚܹܬ. ܘܫܡܗ ܡܘܼܣܵܣ ܪܒܿܐ. ܘܢܚܬܘ ܥܡܗ ܘܐܬܘ. ܘܢܦܼܩܘ ܠܩܠܵܘܕܝ݂ܼܵܐ
Below is the translation that Budge offers, and I have inserted square brackets indicating the verbs and participles employed, as this shall help comprehend the text more fully:
“And when the sun enters [participle] the window of heaven, he straightway bows down [participle] and makes obeisance [participle] before God his Creator; and he travels [participle] and descends [participle] the whole night through the heavens, until at length he finds [participle] himself where it rises.
And Alexander looked [perfect] towards the west, and he found [perfect] a mountain that descends [participle], and its name was ‘The Great Musas’; and (the troops) descended it [perfect] and came out [perfect] upon Mount Klaudia”37
Van Bladel characterises this translation as “nonsensical”, but does not labour to explain why. He instead offers the following translation38:
“And when the sun entered the window of heaven, he (Alexander) immediately bowed down and made obeisance before God his Creator, and he traveled and descended the whole night in the heavens, until at length he came and found himself where it (the sun) rises. He saw the land of the setting sun and found a mountain where he descended, named Great Mûsas, and they (the troops) descended and arrived with him. And they went forth to Mount Qlawdiyâ (Claudia).”
Van Bladel would this have us believe that the agent of the nightly travel is Alexander, and not the sun. However, this reading is so unnatural to the text, it is puzzling as to how he came to derive it. The Syriac gives no indication that there is a shift in the agent to Alexander after “when the sun enters the window of heaven…”. Why ought we to believe that the text begins speaking of Alexander at this point when his name is not even mentioned? Van Bladel labours instead to supply this in parentheses in his translation. His reading becomes almost impossible when paying close attention to the verb forms and participles used in this passage. When speaking of the sun, the Syriac text consistently uses participles39 (denoting a repetitive or continuous action), rather than the perfect tense, which would seem more appropriate if the text were speaking of Alexander40. Where the passage describes Alexander’s actions, it regularly and clearly employs the masculine perfect form of verb. Note that when the passage mentions the “Great Musas”, there is an abrupt switch back to the participle form, implying that the mountain — and not Alexander and the troops — are being characterised as “descending”. Budge’s translation makes the most sense of this sensitive usage of the perfect and participle forms found in the Syriac passage41.
This ought to be enough to dispel any precise similarity between the Legend and the Dhū-lQarnayn narrative concerning how the two characters travelled, and it is not strictly necessary to examine Van Bladel’s argument that the Qurʾānic story speaks of “heavenly cords”. Nevertheless, some comments may be made, the first of which is that Van Bladel’s interpreting “sabab” as “heavenly course” relies upon Alexander’s heavenly travel in the Legend being the underlying source of Dhū-lQarnayn taking the heavenly asbāb. Since it has been shown that this is not even found in the Legend to begin with, the basis for its appearance in the Dhū-lQarnayn account becomes weaker, following Van Bladel’s own logic. The second issue is that consistently reading “sabab” as “heavenly cord” is simply awkward even within Q 18:83-102, regardless of how the word is used elsewhere in the Qurʾān. Even if one grants Van Bladel’s incorrect interpretation of the Legend and accepts that Alexander followed the path of the sun through its setting point, we should note that this would have to occur immediately after the killing of the prisoners. This would have to conform with Q 18:89, if the Qurʾān is indeed retelling the Legend. The recurrence of “atbaʿa sabab” therefore remains unexplained in Q 18:85 and Q 18:92, and by Van Bladel’s own logic it would not be referring to a heavenly course because of the lack of parallels between these two Qurʾānic verses and the Legend itself. This raises a problem — these verses are identical to Q 18:89, so we are faced with an awkward reading where Dhū-lQarnayn “follows a sabab”, meaning a generic terrestrial pathway in two places in the legend, but somehow where the exact phrase occurs in Q 18:89, the meaning is entirely anomalous in that Dhū-lQarnayn instead follows a “heavenly cord”42.
The Burning Sun
Dhū-lQarnayn, after reaching the muddy spring to the west, journeys to the opposite ends of the earth. There he meets a people whom God had “not given any cover” against the sun (Q 18:90). The Legend also speaks of a group of people who live close to the rising of the sun in the east43—
“The place of [the sun’s] 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 and fall down, and whether they be men or beasts, as soon as the stones touch them they are consumed.”
Van Bladel holds that “it is only this Syriac text that explains the meaning of Q 18:90, where the otherwise unknown eastern people who have no cover from the sun are mentioned”44. There are actually numerous differences in detail between the two episodes which complicates the issue. Dhū-lQarnayn actually meets these sun-stricken natives, while Alexander does not. In the Legend, they are spoken of in the context of the daily journey of the sun. It is the sun that comes to them, and not Alexander45.
One may draw further comparison, though admittedly at the risk of splitting hairs. Strictly speaking, the Qurʾānic people whom God “had not given a cover” from the sun does not quite exactly describe a people forced to escape to the sea to gain shelter from the sun’s heat, as in the Legend. An unconventional shelter in the sea is shelter nonetheless. One could simply respond and say that this verse is a reasonable gloss of the Legend: taking shelter in the sea may as well just be not having a cover from the sun at all. But the Qurʾān does not even intend that these natives be “sea people” that have a sea to escape to: Dhū-lQarnayn encounters these natives after he has travelled away from the “muddy spring” which is the closest analogy to the eastern sea shore of the Legend, where the sun rises and in which the people must take shelter.
Additionally, in the Qurʾān, the people not having any cover from the sun lack it because God did not give them whatever is required to protect themselves46, the implication being that there potentially is some form of adequate protection that could be given – perhaps by way of construction material. This does not reflect the Neṣḥana precisely.
The Mountain People
The final portion of the Qurʾānic journey describes Dhū-lQarnayn’s travel to a people between “two mountains” who could “barely understand speech”. They request his protection from the Gog and Magog, asking to build a barrier in exchange for a levy (Q 18:93-94). He characteristically declines the fee, but informs them that he shall regardless build a barrier, and that they should aid him in its construction.
Van Bladel sees this as paralleling the Legend, where Alexander also builds a barrier. However, its commissioning diverges from the Qurʾān in its details. After hearing of the plight of the natives due to the devastation wrought by the Huns, Alexander then turns to his troops and commands that they build a door. The construction is then set in motion with the help of the brass and iron workers brought from Egypt earlier in the story47.
No mention is made of any offer of payment, unlike the Qurʾān. Witztum48 summarises this well, writing:
“The tribute and its rejection have no precedent in the Syriac Alexander Legend, but seem to reflect the common Quranic theme that prophets generally, and Muhammad especially, ask for no reward in return for their services. Interestingly, the only other occurrence of the word kharj in the Quran is with regard to the Prophet: ‘Or do you ask them for any tribute (kharjan)? But the tribute of your Lord is better and He is the best of providers’ (Q 23:72)”
While Van Bladel does not say that there is any sort of “tribute” to be found in the Legend, he does instead argue that, just like Dhū-lQarnayn, Alexander “asks the locals if they want a favor, and they answer that they would follow his command… together, they accomplish [building the barrier] with the help of the Egyptian metalworkers (2007a, p. 179)”. But the Legend nowhere involves the natives in the building of the wall. Rather, it is his army that Alexander requests help from, and they agree to comply. This is very clear from the Syriac text49, which Budge has translated accurately.
Van Bladel has simply misread the details of these episodes, resulting in some exaggeration on his part. He further says that the presence of the Egyptian metalworkers in the Legend explains “Dhū-lQarnayn’s ability to build a wall of iron and brass”, yet the metalworkers, too, are omitted from the Qurʾān. That Dhū-lQarnayn co-operates with the natives in building the wall provides enough explanation as to how exactly he was able to accomplish the construction. Hence, we see him clearly commanding the natives to “bring [him] sheets of iron”, among other instructions (Q 18:96). Were Van Bladel’s assessment correct, these commands would not have been so explicitly directed at the native people.
At the risk of making some premature remarks, one notes an interesting trend throughout the Qurʾānic account. The natives of the various places that Dhū-lQarnayn visits are consistently more prominent in each episode relative to the corresponding nations discussed in the Alexander Legend. In the first travel of the journey, Dhū-lQarnayn is given the option to “punish” or “deal justly” with the natives, unlike the comparable account in the Legend, where no natives are mentioned at all. Alexander instead uses his own camp’s prisoners to test the water. In the second segment of his journey, Dhū-lQarnayn actually meets the people with no protection from the sun, while in the Alexander Legend they are relegated to a passing comment on sun’s path through the heavens. Finally, in this third episode, we see the natives threatened by Gog and Magog to be actively building the wall, while in the Legend, it is Alexander’s own army.
Assuming that the Qurʾān is alluding to the Legend here, why would the natives replace Alexander’s own army in the case of the punishment and barrier building episodes? One may say that the Qurʾānic account is attempting to simplify the story of the Legend. If Alexander’s troops are not mentioned, then the story becomes simpler, with less parts to account for. But if this is the case, why the need for Dhū-lQarnayn to then request the natives for help in Q 18:95-96? Merely saying that Dhū-lQarnayn built the barrier after declining payment would be enough, and it would be assumed that someone helped him build it – presumably, his army, because of the allusion to the Legend. This would be a better simplification, if indeed the Legend is assumed to be filling in the gaps here.
This concludes the discussion on the key content-level similarities between the Qurʾān and the Syriac Legend, barring the prophecies of the respective protagonists after the building of the barrier. That episode in particular is especially significant in understanding the link between the two stories, and shall be discussed later.
Broadly speaking, the Arabic language of the Dhū-lQarnayn narrative is very much exclusive to it, with no singular words borrowed from the Syriac of the Legend50. Van Bladel does, however, draw two linguistic similarities pertaining to specific turns of phrase found in the Legend which apparently are also found in the Q 18:9951.
The first of these is where God, speaking of the nations beyond the wall, says that He shall “leave them on that day surging one upon another” (wa-taraknā baʿduhum yawmaʾidhin yamūju fī baʿdin), echoing the Legend where Alexander prophecies that “kingdoms will fall one upon another” (wa naplan malkwatha ḥda ʿal ḥda) after the great door has fallen. Van Bladel notes that the formula ‘baʿduhum… fī baʿdin’ in particular very closely accords with the Syriac ‘ḥda ʿal ḥda’, both meaning “one upon another”.
The problem with Van Bladel’s observation pertains to the textual transmission of the Legend. The Syriac phrase in question, with its wider context, occurs in Budge’s critical edition as follows52:
ܢܐܬܝ̈ܢ ܡܠܟܘ̈ܬܐ ܡܢ ܣܘ̈ܦܝ ܫܡܝܐ ܕܗܘܢܝܐ ܘܕܦܪ̈ܣܝܐ ܘܕܛܝܝ̈ܐ. ܥܣܪܝܢ ܘܐܪܒܥ ܡܠܟܘ̈ܬܐ ܕܟܬܝ̈ܒܢ ܒܣܦܪܐ ܗܢܐ. ܘܢܦ̈ܠܢ ܡܠܟܘܬܐ ܚܕܐ ܥܠ ܚܕܐ. ܘܬܡܣܐ ܐܪܥܐ ܒܕܡܐ ܘܦܪܬܐ ܕܒܢܝܢܫܐ.
This is roughly understood to mean “the kingdoms of the Greeks and the Persians and the Arabs shall come from the ends of the heavens, [and] the 24 kingdoms that are written in this book. And the kingdoms shall fall one upon another. And the earth shall wasten in the blood and dung of men.”
Crucially, Budge footnotes the passage with a textual comment, writing that in manuscripts A,B,D and E, temse (shall run) immediately follows naplan (shall fall). This means that from four of the five manuscripts that Budge drew from, the phrase ‘ḥda ʿal ḥda’, ‘one upon another’ does not occur. Thus, the above passage, according to the majority of the manuscripts, would read:
The kingdoms of the Greeks and the Persians and the Arabs shall come from the ends of the heavens, [and] the 24 kingdoms that are written in this book. And they shall fall. And the earth shall wasten in the blood and dung of men.
This is still a perfectly coherent reading, and one that does not share any formulas in common with Q 18:99. Unless Van Bladel can provide evidence that the reading of manuscript C is the original reading against the majority, the comparison drawn by him is brought to question.
The second example that Van Bladel supplies also pertains to the prophecy. In the Legend, Alexander prophesies that “the Lord will gather together the kings and their hosts”53, which according to Van Bladel finds a “nearly perfect match”54 in Q 18:99, where God says that “the horn shall be blown and We shall gather them together.” However, in the Neṣḥānā this “gathering” refers to the assembly of the nations behind the gate before its destruction, while in the Qurʾān, the “gathering” comes about after God levels the wall55. In fact, Q 18:99, unlike the Legend, is speaking of the general gathering of the nations after the day of judgement signified by blowing of the horn (nufikha fī-ṣūr). This very exact combination is found commonly in the Qurʾān, such as in Q 36:51, “The horn shall be blown and they will rush out to their Lord from their graves” and Q 78:18, “The day the horn shall be blown, and you will come in multitudes.”
This Qurʾānic formula is so regular that there is no need to derive it from the Legend, and the fact that it does not even occur in the same sequence in the Qurʾān as in the Legend makes Van Bladel’s correspondence here simply unconvincing. This phrase could easily have come about organically in a Qurʾānic context, especially given the distinct order of the events that Q 18:99 describes.
There are various other similarities pertaining to terminology that Van Bladel finds in common between the two texts, such as the “fetid” nature of the water (previously discussed), and a possible correspondence between “dhikr” (remembrance) in Q 18:83 and the title given to the Legend, “Neṣḥānā” or “glorious deeds”, though this seems rather tenuous, especially given that dhikr also elsewhere introduces a narrative in the Qurʾān (see Q 19:2)56. Van Bladel also mentions the concurrence on the materials of the respective barriers: “iron and brass”; though this could be used as evidence for linguistic dissimilarity, as shall be discussed.
The relationship between the two texts
Thus far, many of Van Bladel’s examples of “exact” concordances between the Dhū-lQarnayn narrative and the Syriac Legend of Alexander have been brought under closer examination. There are differences between them, not just in the details, but also at a broader level. There is no denying that the two stories are very similar in places, but the results of the present inquiry forces a closer look at Van Bladel’s position that the Qurʾān is essentially derived from the Legend.
The specific argument made by Van Bladel for placing the Neṣḥāna as the parent text of the Dhū-lQarnayn story hinges on the original purpose of the prophecy made by Alexander on the fall of the barrier and the subsequent invasion of the Huns. Van Bladel takes the prophecy to have been tailored specifically for the purposes of Heraclean propaganda57. The link between Alexander’s prognostication on the fall of the gate and contemporary events is summarised by Van Bladel to be the following:
As already stated, in his final campaigns against the Persians, Alexander’s former enemies, Heraclius actually did enlist the help of Inner Asian peoples, the Kök Türks, in his war against the Persians (626–7) – they are called variously in the sources Türks and Khazars, being perhaps Khazars under Kök Türk rule, though the specific tribal or ethnic identity of these invaders is a subject of very long debate – and afterward these Türks fiercely raided Caucasian Albania, Georgia, and Armenia until 630. One wonders whether Heraclius or his supporters promoted the idea that his Türk allies, summoned from the north, were the people of Gog and Magog come to punish the Persians. The Türk invasions are known from the Greek chronicle of Theophanes and in some detail from a compilatory seventh-century source used by the Armenian History of the Caucasian Albanians (Patmut’iwn Ałuanic’) by Movses Dasxuranc‘i.
The prophecy could thus be seen as specifically serving Heraclius’s own geopolitical aims. The Huns, in the words of the Legend, were a “punishment” brought about by the “anger of God”58. The raiding of Persian lands by the Byzantine-allied Kök Türks would surely have been the intended fulfilment of the Legend’s Alexandrian prophecy as Van Bladel succinctly explains. This does not, however, entail that this prophecy was specifically invented for the purposes of the Legend. It seems more likely that the Legend was tailoring preexisting oracular material, precisely because The Neṣḥānā portrays the breaking of the Huns through the wall as a catastrophe. It is not just the Persians that are troubled by their raids; it is prophesied that the Huns would “ravage the land of the Romans”59 as well. That the incursions of the Huns are so negatively portrayed in the Legend60 indicates that the author is adapting earlier apocalyptic material, else one would expect a far more positive portrayal of Heraclius’ alliance with the Kok Türks – something more readily useful as propaganda.
Czégledy61 further mentions an earlier prophecy already in circulation in the 6th century. Tesei, making reference to Czégledy, writes that John of Ephesus (d. 586 ca.) “reports about a revelation (gelyānā) predicting the arrival of the Huns.” Tesei concludes that “the possibility that in the middle of the 6th century the prophecy on the Huns was already set in the framework of the story of Alexander’s wall is a concrete one.” We may add that it is significant that the Qurʾānic prophecy expresses general apocalyptic motifs rather than propaganda specifically suited to the Byzantine state. Though it is possible the Qurʾān is modifying the prophecy of the Neṣḥānā to suit its own message, it is also possible that the Qurʾān is alluding to an earlier, more general apocalyptic prophecy already in existence, to which the author of the Legend has independently introduced an additional propagandistic layer.
In summary, the association of Alexander’s prophecy with the construction of the iron gates in the Syriac Legend and the Dhū-lQarnayn narrative is not decisive evidence for the latter being dependent on the former. Tesei, however, provides a further argument to elaborate on Van Bladel’s original thesis62. He posits that the original tradition underlying the Legend relates Alexander attempting to travel to Paradise, and not to the ends of the Earth. Tesei appeals to Van Bladel’s explanation on this itinerary — the author of the Legend intends the travels of Alexander to resemble a cross, a veritable symbol of Christendom and possibly even prefiguring Heraclius’ restoration of the True Cross to Jerusalem63. Thus, to Tesei, because this conscious editorial choice is also found in the Qurʾān (where apparently Dhū-lQarnayn takes the same journey as Alexander in the Legend), this is evidence that the Qurʾān is dependent on the Neṣḥānā rather than some earlier form of the narrative where the protagonist presumably attempts to travel to paradise.
This argument is extremely problematic for reasons that should be clear at this point. I have already treated the issue of Alexander’s actual itinerary according to the Legend in detail in this paper. To repeat — It is simply not the case that Alexander’s travel forms any sort of “cross”. In addition to this, the Qurʾānic journey is unlike the Legend’s journey in its trajectory. These two reasons make it difficult to admit Tesei’s argument.
What, then, is the precise relationship between the Legend and the Dhū-lQarnayn narrative? We shall argue that both these stories are utilising common traditions, rather than one text being dependent on the other. At least some of the force of evidence behind this hypothesis lies on the sheer number of differences between the two texts. These seem to have been completely ignored by Van Bladel and scholars in agreement with him. We have already discussed many of the points of divergence that Van Bladel has overlooked in the present paper, and yet many more may be found through any close reading of both texts congruently.
What is the exact nature of these differences, and how do they clarify the relationship between the Neṣḥānā and the Qurʾān? One may categorise them into two types. Let us suppose that the Qurʾān is indeed drawing on the Neṣḥānā. Thus, one category of difference is that which is brought about through the process of the Qurʾān consciously editing and curating the Neṣḥānā material in keeping with its own worldview. Obvious examples of this include significant differences between the cosmologies expressed by the two texts as discussed earlier. Since the Qurʾān does not feature dome shaped heavens or a creation-surrounding Fetid Sea, it would make sense that this be omitted from the Qurʾān in staying true to its own cosmological model. Another example would be the absence of the high christology featured in the Legend, which would no doubt be offensive to the Qurʾān’s theological notions, and so it is to be excluded. The Qurʾānic author would also avoid the heavily laden Byzantine propaganda of a world-empire for obvious reasons.
The second category of differences is less straightforward, and cannot be explained as a conscious editing of the Neṣḥānā material. This category includes the trajectory of travel in the Legend and the Qurʾān being essentially reversed, the roles of Alexander’s host being replaced by the locals in several places of the Dhū-lQarnayn story, and Dhū-lQarnayn meeting natives who could “scarcely understand a word”, which finds no counterpart in the Legend. Minor differences in this category are also many, and examples of these include such as the fact that Dhū-lQarnayn actually meets the people with no protection from the sun while Alexander does not, and how the Qurʾān features a “barrier” or a “dam” while the Legend consistently uses “door” (tarʿā), the precise nature of the dilemma of the people exposed to the sun, and how the method of construction of this barrier in the Qurʾānic account does not actually find any counterpart in the Syriac legend64.
Doubtless, some of these differences are possibly the result of an oral transmission between the Legend and the Qurʾān, but it is difficult to attribute them wholly to this process. Can we really expect that essential details such as the actual direction of Alexander’s travel be garbled in transmission before entering the Qurʾān, despite the travel of the fetid sea being so essential to premise of the Legend? Why does the Qurʾān replace the “gates” of the Legend with a generic “barrier”, though these “gates” must have been understood by the audience to be some existing structure65? I do not believe this is decisive evidence, but it is certainly an obstacle against any theory that places the Legend as an antecedent to the Qurʾānic account. There is, however, further linguistic evidence which makes the matter easier to decide.
We have already addressed many of Van Bladel’s arguments for a linguistic similarity between the two texts. While the examples he provides are essentially flawed, he is right in collecting possible linguistic similarities to determine the origins of Qurʾānic story. But what about linguistic dissimilarity? Can we provide a meaningful linguistic argument against a direct dependence of the Qurʾān on the Neṣḥānā? The answer is affirmative. As Arabic and Syriac are related languages sharing many cognates between them, one would expect some overlap in the language of the Dhū-lQarnayn narrative and the Legend. More precisely, if a Syriac word occurring in a specific context within the Legend has an Arabic cognate with the same meaning, one would expect the Arabic cognate to also occur in the corresponding context in the narrative of Q 18:83-99. For example, we notice that Alexander describes himself as being given “horns”, qarne. This cognate is found in a similar context in the Dhū-lQarnayn narrative in the very name of the protagonist. One would expect that a small amount of linguistic similarity may come about in each text independently, especially if the overlapping cognates are commonly used in both languages66. On the other hand, a high frequency of shared cognates would indicate a direct relationship between the two texts, while an absence of such would be evidence against a direct relationship. It is the latter scenario that is exhibited when reading these two texts carefully.
In the construction of the gate, Alexander uses brass and iron. We see that the Syriac word for brass is nḥāshā, which would be the direct cognate to nuḥās (as in Q 55:35), yet here the Dhū-lQarnayn narrative employs qiṭr instead, though the appropriate cognate is already attested to elsewhere in the Qurʾān67. The Syriac text speaks of “mountains”, ṭūre, when speaking of the final part of Alexander’s journey, and then again when describing the local geography of the place where he builds his gates. This would accord with ṭūr (pl. aṭwār) as used in various verses of the Qurʾān, yet two uncommon words, saddayn and ṣadafayn, are instead employed in Q 18:93 and Q 18:96 respectively. The Qurʾān uses qawm for the various natives that Dhū-lQarnayn meets, though nās in the indefinite would have been close to the consistent usage of nāshā in the same context in the Legend68. The body of water featured in the Legend is the sea, yamā, a word whose cognate al-yamm occurs frequently in the Qurʾān, and it is surprising that instead ʿayn is opted for69. In the final prophecy of the end times, Alexander inscribes that the gate will finally be “destroyed”, methgem, at the behest of God. Here the Qurʾān uses the phrase jaʿalahū dakkāʾ in place of various forms of the cognate roots h-j-m or h-d-m, such as hadamahū, or haddamahū (He shall destroy it), or that the barrier shall collapse (tahaddama, or inhajama). Finally, God is said to have “established” Dhū-lQarnayn (makkannā lahu), in the land. This does not have an exact counterpart to the Legend, though may be correlate with Alexander’s address to God where he praises him as one who establishes (mqīm) kings, and exalting Alexander himself among them. The arabic verb qayyamnā, “we established” would have mirrored the Syriac text. Van Bladel draws a different parallel between Q 18:84 and the Legend, instead positing it to be connected to when Alexander prayed for “power”, “ḥayla”, but even here the Arabic ḥawla could have featured in the Qurʾān.
For a text so short, it is significant that we see as many as seven instances where the Dhū-lQarnayn narrative could have used a cognate matching the Syriac text but did not. This is in line with the general dissimilarity of language between the two texts, which even Van Bladel admits70. Zadeh71 rightly notes that there is “significant divergence” between the language of the Qurʾānic text and the Syriac Legend, and concludes that it is “rather tenuous to attempt to historicize the Quranic account using material that may have not been a direct intertext for the Quran”.
The very close dating of the Qurʾān and the Neṣḥānā only compounds on the evidence presented here. A full study of the precise dating of sūrat al-Kahf, and perhaps even the pericope of Dhū-lQarnayn, may decide the matter entirely, though such research would probably require extensive stylometric analysis and study of Muslim tradition pertaining to the dating of this story as found in the Qurʾān. We should note that even Van Bladel accepts the dating to be a challenge, however believes his own arguments for the Qurʾān’s dependence on the Nesḥānā to be so effective as to overcome this issue72.
The Syriac Legend of Alexander and the Qurʾānic account of Dhū-lQarnayn do not share a direct relationship between them, but instead independently draw upon a shared tradition found in the Late Antique Near East. Evidences against Van Bladel’s thesis, that the Qurʾān is essentially retelling the Neṣḥānā, are several. Firstly, one sees that the Syriac account and the Qurʾānic one are different in many places, even pertaining to specific events, descriptions and turns of phrase that Van Bladel has previously posited as a similarity. These differences point against a direct Qurʾānic borrowing of the Neṣḥānā. Similarly, the language of the two texts provide additional reasons to believe that the two texts do not rely upon each other. Finally, the dating of the two texts make a direct dependence of one story upon the other especially difficult. These facts, in addition to the lack of demonstrative evidence provided by both Van Bladel’s and Tesei’s arguments for the Qurʾān drawing on the Syriac account, forces one to consider the possibility that the Qurʾān and the Neṣḥānā are independent witnesses to a common tradition.
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