The third story in Surah al-Kahf, concerning the travels of Dhu al-Qarnayn, is perhaps the most enigmatic of all. As in the two previous stories, the theme of justice in the broad sweep of time is evident. Dhu al-Qarnayn, associated by some interpreters with Alexander the Great, is an avatar of the “just ruler” archetype. He travels to the east and west evincing moderation while dispensing justice. Finally he arrives at a place where the barbaric tribes Gog and Magog (Ya’juj and Ma’juj) are despoiling the land. Dhu al-Qarnayn proceeds to build an iron-and-copper wall that will last until shortly before Judgement Day, when the wall will fall, and chaos, presumably in the form of horrendous depredations by Gog and Magog, will ensue (the leveling of Dhu al-Qarnayn’s metal wall echoes, but in the opposite key is the crumbling of the stone wall repaired by al-Khidr in the previous story).
Dhu al-Qarnayn’s story reverses the relationship between the two binary oppositions in the previous stories. In the People of the Cave and Moses-and-Khidr narratives, injustice is equated with the ordinary moment-to-moment time of the dunya, whereas justice arrives in the broad sweep of epochal time, and by extension in the akhirah (hereafter). But in the story of Dhu al-Qarnayn, the title character, the proverbial just ruler, dispenses at least a modicum of justice in the ordinary time of this world — yet in the broad sweep of epochal time, the “wall of justice” he constructs will finally crumble, allowing the forces of injustice to run rampant, signaling that time itself is nearing its end.
What are we to make of this apparent triumph of evil shortly before the end of time? Some commentators interpret the Dhu al-Qarnayn story in the context of akhir al-zaman material, primarily from hadith literature, and take a historical and eschatological approach. Imran Hosein, perhaps the leading living Islamic eschatologist, sees signs of the end times all around us — especially in the Jews’ unjust and satanic return to al-Quds — and sees Gog and Magog as an unholy alliance of the evil forces that currently dominate our planet, led by the Zionist Jews and their Western (post)-Christian allies. In his view, real Muslims will be uniting with real Christians (primarily Eastern Christians) to resist and defeat this evil as the end times unfold.
While provisionally accepting that interpretation, it is possible to also interpret the Dhu al-Qarnayn story as a parable of just rule — for the dunya includes examples of justice as well as injustice, among rulers as well as ruled. The injustice and oppression experienced by the People of the Cave, and the apparent injustice witnessed by Moses, are not all we ever see. Indeed, most rulers, presumably including the historical Alexander the Great, have had to deal out a fair bit of justice in order to become and remain rulers in the first place!
So according to one possible interpretation of the Dhu al-Qarnayn story, the just ruler’s primary task is to “build a wall” against barbarism, selfishness, and rapacity. That is the basic “construction work” of civilization, meaning life in cities, which until recent times were always surrounded by walls to protect against raids and conquests. The eventual leveling of Dhu al-Qarnayn’s wall suggests that this work is always temporary and imperfect. Even the greatest ruler, the exemplary ruler, the avatar of all just rulers, cannot build a “wall of civilization” that will last forever. Nothing in this life is permanent, not even the greatest of human works.
Most traditional commentators saw Dhu al-Qarnayn or “He with the Two Horns” as Alexander the Great — who was depicted on coins wearing a two-horned helmet — and Gog and Magog as the wild invading tribes of Central Asia. I think it makes more sense to view Dhu al-Qarnayn as an allegorical “just ruler” figure based on Alexander, and Gog and Magog as allegorical figures based on warlike Central Asian nomads. Remember, God already told us, regarding the People of the Cave that it isn’t about details and historical exactitude; it is about moral allegory whose purpose is to offer us guidance.
Alexander the Great can symbolize the just ruler and builder of civilization, regardless of the various morally dubious details surrounding the career of the historical Alexander. His conquests laid the basis for Hellenistic civilization, which preserved the legacy of the great Greek philosophers whose work forms much of the basis for today’s Islamic, Christian, and post-Christian “modern” civilization. In a sense, we are all still subjects of Alexander’s empire.
It is interesting that the Qur’an has Alexander build an iron and copper wall against Gog and Magog. These are not the materials one would ordinarily think of using for a wall. But if the wall is allegorical, and means the material technology of civilization-building, then iron and copper are appropriate choices, at least as prophecies of the “civilizational wall against (inner) barbarism” built during the past few centuries. For iron is the basis of our railroads, automobiles, and tall (steel-framed) buildings; while copper is the basis of the electronics grid that powers and cybernetically guides our vast material civilization.
As for Ya’juj and Ma’juj, Muhammad Asad suggests that they “are purely allegorical, applying not to any specific tribes or beings but to a series of social catastrophes that would cause a complete destruction of man’s civilization before the coming of the Last Hour.” If so, the Central Asian tribes, which periodically erupted to ravage the Muslim and Christian lands, are appropriate broad-brush symbols of such civilization-destroying forces — the most dangerous of which is our own “barbarian within.” And that inner barbarian has been unleashed during recent centuries of global conquest and domination by Western post-Christianity (mis)guided by Zionist post-Jewry. The more barbarically non-spiritual we get, the more frantically we build the material “wall” that protects us from self-knowledge. Our steel-framed buildings get taller, our steel vehicles more numerous, our copper-based electronic webs thicker and more all-encompassing. At some point it is all going to crumble — perhaps in the nuclear Armageddon or malhamah predicted by scripture according to Imran Hosein — and the inner barbarism responsible for this hypertrophy of materialism will be unveiled and unleashed. Gog and Magog will swarm across the ruins of the “wall” and final judgement will be near.
Surah al-Kahf’s meditation on time and justice thus ends with a message that seems especially relevant to our era, when injustice of all kinds seems so rampant, and the problem of theodicy so thorny. If we are indeed living in or near the end times — akhir al-zaman — when the great philosophical-technological civilization-building project initiated by the Greeks and their political avatar Alexander finally crumbles, the chaos and suffering and injustice we see around us is not a cause to despair. As we meditate on this surah, and step outside of ordinary time, however faintly and haltingly, we may insha’allah be granted the intuitive heart-knowledge (iman) that God’s justice is indeed perfect, and that our efforts to “keep the faith and work justice” (amanu wa-‘amilu al-salihat) will ultimately be rewarded.
Dr. Kevin Barrett is a US-based journalist, commentator, and radio broadcaster. He hosts the TruthJihad radio program as well as manages the VeteransToday website. This is a continuation of Part I of this article, which appeared in the last issue of Crescent International.