بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
While I have already written regarding Dhu al-Qarnayn and the Alexander Romances and the proposed influence of the Syriac Legend Concerning Alexander on Quran, I recently came across a moderate-size article by one Kevin van Bladel in a journal called “The Quran in its historical context” (2008) called “THE ALEXANDER LEGEND IN THE QUR’AN (sic) 18:83–102″ . After reading the article and not finding any Muslim or orientalist critique available I decided to offer a short critique of my own as the thesis overlooks some very important points.
The journal as a whole seems to have the agenda of proving natural origins for the Quran and its text. Nearly all of the articles inside it concentrate on the Quran either borrowing from existing sources and even a thesis that argues that the Quran was a work of multiple individuals. This is upsetting to see as Islamic studies direly need an approach that acknowledges Islam’s claims as a divine religion and incorporates Islamic primary and secondary sources in an approach to understand the Quran’s influence in its milieu and its effect as the Arab conquests spread from the Arabian Peninsula. This does not necessitate that one believes in Islam, but I would hope to see a more balanced approach because it would benefit the study of early Islam, its interaction with contemporary beliefs and texts and also Islam as a whole.
The present work will concentrate on van Bladel’s article and his points. While he bases his work on respected and strong scholarship , Bladel makes many sweeping assumptions and overlooks Islamic traditions regarding Surah al-Kahf and often makes speculative remarks regarding the text and seems to want to desperately prove that the Quran is dependent upon the Christian Legend. While history and its study is indeed speculative, one should be fair when looking into the history of any text. As we shall see, it is historically impossible to draw conclusions on the source of either text of the Quran or the Christian Legend. A Muslim will say that the Quran is divine and free of outside sources, while a non-Muslim will claim the opposite. Historically we have no evidence that the Quran has influenced the Legend nor vice versa.
Finally, it should be stressed that this critique is not a personal attack on van Bladel (who is currently an Associate Professor at Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures in Ohio) who seems to be very capable scholar otherwise. It is simply in regard to his article in the journal.
His approach is entirely based on multiple assumptions that, if examined, will impact the accuracy of his thesis a large deal.
Bladel’s approach is basically outlined as follows:
- The Alexander Legend was written c. 630 CE
- The Quran’s revelation ended in 632 CE
- The Alexander Legend must have reached the Prophet ﷺ in either Makkah or Madinah (after 630 CE)
- It is impossible for the Quran to have any effect on the Christian Legend since the Legend was composed before the Quran’s revelation was complete
- Since the Quran parallels certain events in the Legend, the Quranic narrative must be sourced back to the Legend.
These and other points will be looked at below.
NOTE: This article will not deal with the Alexander Prose composed roughly around the same time as the Christian Legend (that is, 628-636 CE) but attributed to Jacob of Serugh (d. 521 CE), as the main point that van Bladel makes is regarding the Legend, not the Prose. However, I have already covered dating of the Prose in my previous article, and the criticism raised here also can partially applied toward the Prose.
Complete disregard of Islamic sources
Bladel begins his investigation by looking at the allegation made by Theodore Nöldeke  in 1890 and decides to build upon it by stating that
“The present investigation will first show that Nöldeke was basically correct in his view: the Qur’an (sic) 18:83–102 is a retelling of the story found in this particular Syriac text..” (p. 176)
It is surprising to see that Bladel not once mentions what the early commentators (including companions of the Prophet ﷺ) as well as later commentators said regarding the background of Surah al-Kahf and the circumstances of its revelation, or commentaries on 18:83-102 itself.
First, let us discuss what the Islamic sources actually state regarding the revelation of the Surah.
There seems to be consensus among commentators that the Surah in its entirety was revealed in Makkah (before the Hijra ie. 622 CE).
It was narrated by Ibn ‘Abbas that:
“The Quraysh sent An-Nadr bin Al-Harith and `Uqbah bin Abi Mu`it to the Jewish rabbis in Al-Madinah, and told them: `Ask them (the rabbis) about Muhammad, and describe him to them, and tell them what he is saying. They are the people of the first Book, and they have more knowledge of the Prophets than we do.’ So they set out and when they reached Al-Madinah, they asked the Jewish rabbis about the Messenger of Allah . They described him to them and told them some of what he had said. They said, `You are the people of the Tawrah and we have come to you so that you can tell us about this companion of ours.’ They (the rabbis) said, `Ask him about three things which we will tell you to ask, and if he answers them then he is a Prophet who has been sent (by Allah); if he does not, then he is saying things that are not true, in which case how you will deal with him will be up to you. Ask him about some young men in ancient times, what was their story For theirs is a strange and wondrous tale. Ask him about a man who travelled a great deal and reached the east and the west of the earth. What was his story And ask him about the Ruh (soul or spirit) — what is it If he tells you about these things, then he is a Prophet, so follow him, but if he does not tell you, then he is a man who is making things up, so deal with him as you see fit.’ So An-Nadr and `Uqbah left and came back to the Quraysh, and said: `O people of Quraysh, we have come to you with a decisive solution which will put an end to the problem between you and Muhammad. The Jewish rabbis told us to ask him about some matters,’ and they told the Quraysh what they were. Then they came to the Messenger of Allah and said, `O Muhammad, tell us,’ and they asked him about the things they had been told to ask. The Messenger of Allah said,
«أُخْبِرُكُمْ غَدًا عَمَّا سَأَلْتُمْ عَنْه»
(I will tell you tomorrow about what you have asked me.) but he did not say `If Allah wills.’ So they went away, and the Messenger of Allah stayed for fifteen days without any revelation from Allah concerning that, and Jibril, peace be upon him, did not come to him either. The people of Makkah started to doubt him, and said, `Muhammad promised to tell us the next day, and now fifteen days have gone by and he has not told us anything in response to the questions we asked.’ The Messenger of Allah felt sad because of the delay in revelation, and was grieved by what the people of Makkah were saying about him. Then Jibril came to him from Allah with the Surah about the companions of Al-Kahf, which also contained a rebuke for feeling sad about the idolators. The Surah also told him about the things they had asked him about, the young men and the traveler.
The above narration is mentioned by Ibn Kathir, al-Tabari, al-Qurtubi, Ibn ‘Atiyyah, Abu Hayyan, and many others as the Jews questioning the Prophet being the circumstance of its revelation . This is very important from an Islamic perspective regarding this Surah. Van Bladel unfortunately overlooks this, and assumes that the story of Dhu al-Qarnayn had to enter Quran after 630 either through text or as a result of oral transmission . However, this assumption seems to pass over the report that Surah al-Kahf was revealed as an answer to the Jews’ inquiry in Makkah. The Surah bears no signs or indications whatsoever of being revealed in Madinah. In fact the story of the People of the Cave (verses 9-26) could very well have been revealed to console the Muslims who were oppressed by the pagans of Makkah for their beliefs.
If the Surah was indeed revealed in Makkah before 622 CE (most likely early in the Prophet’s ﷺ career, since the above narration makes it clear that the revelation occured before the persecution of the Muslims grew in intensity), then this means that the relationship between The Legend and the Quran is complicated by a rather noticeable margin.
Van Bladel strongly endorses the traditionally accepted dating of c. 630 CE for the Legend , thus following the vast majority of scholarship on this issue. The dating has not been seriously disputed in our modern time.
However, the fact that remains is that the Legend only gives us the terminus a quo (first limiting point in time) and not anything concrete regarding its terminum ad quem (final limiting point in time). I maintain that since the Legend plainly mentions the existence of an Arab Kingdom , its terminus a quo could be anywhere between 629-636 CE. Bladel himself never comments on this. Historically, there were no significant Arab Kingdoms in existence during the reign of Alexander. However the Legend clearly speaks in the context of its day, and hence tries to portray the kingdoms of the day as being in connection to the prophesy regarding the Day of Judgment. Persians are contrasted with Sassanid, Greeks with Romans (the Legend even explicitly mentions this), so who the Arabs are contrasted with? The only sensible options in light of history are 1) the first Islamic State built by the Prophet ﷺ himself or 2) the Rashidun Caliphate.
Since this point has been overlooked by all authorities on the topic (as far as I can find) I can imagine it is easy to make sweeping assumptions regarding the text and speculate on one effecting the other.
The only main solutions for one who wishes to maintain that the story of Dhu al-Qarnayn is copied from the Christian Legend are either to
a) to say that this passage is not an interpolation and was part of the original text
b) to show that the Arab Kingdom in the Legend does NOT correspond to either the first Caliphate established by the Prophet ﷺ or the Rashidun Caliphate
The first option becomes untenable due to the extremely late manuscript tradition of the Legend (which will be discussed in detail later), so hence trying to demonstrate any interpolations or the lack thereof becomes impossible. Supporting this position would also mean that we have to say that it is impossible to draw any conclusion on the origin of the text since the entire Legend could simply have been drawn at a later date or the parallels between the Quran and the the Legend could have been later interpolations.
The second option is likewise impossible to support as there are no historical evidences of any major Arab kingdoms existing during the time of Alexander or during the writing of the text itself (c. 628-636) apart from small Yemenite Kingdoms who quarreled among each other for centuries, and this being the original target for the composer of the Legend seems very unlikely as the Legend clearly speaks of major kingdoms that would exist near the end of time (c. 630 CE), hence the only viable Arab kingdom is either the first Islamic State or the Rashidun Caliphate. This interpretation would also indicate that the kingdom referred to was being fairly large because it is mentioned alongside Rome and Persia . In the end, it is impossible to know what the original writer meant, but the only sensible option seems to be the Caliphate that emerged in Arabia in 622 CE or its direct follow-up, the Rashidun Caliphate that existed from 632 CE until the Umayyad dynasty began with Mu’awiyah ibn Abu Sufyan.
In conclusion, drawing a specific date is impossible and based upon conjecture, as the text does not give us a specific limiting point in time by which we could argue that the text was in existence as it is today. A good argument could be made for the terminum ad quem to be 636 CE but as the few extant manuscripts are defective (missing texts, for example in a key point where the ‘prophecy’ of Alexander is made: “at the conclusion of nine hundred and forty years (629 CE)…. another king, when the world shall come to an end by the command of God the ruler of creation”. Here …. signifies missing text.) it is very difficult to draw definite conclusions.
Moreover, as the Legend portrays itself to be a prophecy of Roman/Greek rule of the entire world right at the onset of the Day of Judgment, it would not be impossible for the terminus a quo or indeed, the terminum ad quem to be post-636 CE. However, this is speculation as there is no evidence either way. Regardless, even the traditional view is not harmful to the Quranic narrative in any way as we shall see. It should also be noted, that it is easy to understand why the years between 632-636 CE would be possible candidates for its composition, since the Byzantine Empire was seen to be very strong after the Persians were conclusively defeated in 629 CE. 630 CE could very well have been seen as the ‘peak’ of their power in the years after the Arab conquests, and hence it could be possible that the Legend was composed some years later (most likely pre-636 CE) in celebrating the Empire that was helped by God. However this is not conclusive, and even if the Legend was written in 630 CE one would have to find how it influenced the Quranic text in just two years.
In conclusion, based on the scholarly understanding, the Legend was composed somewhere between 628-636 CE, with 636 CE being the terminum ad quem due to there being no explicit mention of the Arab conquest of Syria, as was seen in later texts such as The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius . However, to say exactly when the Legend or its sources came into being is impossible to say from a historical viewpoint. The only definite conclusion is that this happened somewhere after 628 CE. The Islamic sources on the other hand make it clear that Surah al-Kahf was revealed in Makkah sometime between 613-622 CE, most likely before 620 CE as the narration does not show any hostility from the polytheists of Makkah toward the Prophet ﷺ and it is well known that the persecution reached its peak between 620-622 CE .
It should be noted that even if the narration mentioned in the commentaries of the Quran is inauthentic, this does not prove that the Surah was sent down in Madinah, and even if one was to prove that the Surah was sent down in Madinah, one would have to establish that it was sent down AFTER the composition of the Christian Legend. This is impossible historically .
As I have mentioned in my earlier article, the manuscript tradition of the Christian Legend is extremely weak and the text seems to be defective in many places.
The Syriac Christian Legend in itself does not exist in any manuscript form independently, but is a rather long appendix in the extant manuscripts of the Syriac translation of the Alexander Romance attributed to Callisthenes. All of the extant manuscripts (which number 5) date from the either the 18th century (earliest manuscript was written in 1708 CE) or the 19th century . I am not aware of any new manuscript finds, and interestingly, van Bladel passes over the question of the integrity of the text and its manuscript tradition entirely, thus giving a layperson reading his article an impression that the text is 100% as it is today and the manuscript tradition is extensive while this is not the case. Obviously, late manuscripts themselves are not problematic, but if the thesis is about a text influencing another text, one should be fairly certain of text’s structure during its point of origin (in this case, 629-636). In the current state, we have no way of knowing how the text could have changed from its inception until 1708 CE, or indeed if it has changed at all. This also makes dating its origin very tricky, as we have to rely that the text is completely free of any editing for over a 1000 years, and its easy to understand why a lot of the discussion relating to the Legend is speculatory.
It should also mentioned that the earliest extant Quranic codex that mentions Dhu al-Qarnayn is the famous Topkapi Quran, dated between 672-722 CE . It should however be remembered that the main form of preserving the Quran in early Islam was through memorization. Hence, we can confidently say that the Quran reached its final form in 632 CE. This can also be seen by some of the recently discovered manuscripts that come from a pre-Uthmanic codexes. This agrees fully with the orthodox belief, namely that the Quran was collected by Abu Bakr between 632-634 CE.
In conclusion, the manuscripts of the Legend in our possession are very late and drawing any definite conclusions on the text itself is guesswork at best that is based on the a priori assumption that the text was in its current form in 630-636 CE. More manuscripts should be discovered before any speculation could be made between the Quran and its (supposed) relationship between the Christian Legend. Further manuscript discoveries would surely help us in establishing a connection or the lack thereof between the two texts.
Interestingly, van Bladel spends only roughly three pages (pp. 189-191) on discussing the alleged transmission of the Legend into the Quranic text. This is rather surprising as this seems to be the central point of his proposed thesis, and one would expect him to spend more time on the topic.
Regardless, on page 189, Van Bladel proposes the following 3 options on the relationship between the two texts based on parallels (which shall be discussed later):
The two texts must be related. That is the only explanation for their point-for-point correspondence. In that case there are three reasonable possibilities: (1) the Syriac takes its account from the Qur’an, or (2) the two texts share a common source, or (3) the Qur’an uses the account found in the Syriac.
Could the Syriac text have its source in the Qur’an? If this were the case, then the Syriac text would have to be seen as a highly expanded version of the Qur’anic account, which would then need to be understood as an attempt to explain the cryptic Qur’anic story with rationalizations drawn from stories about Alexander. However, the Syriac text contains no references to the Arabic language the type of which one might expect to find if its purpose was to explain an Arabic text, and 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. This possibility must therefore be discounted.
I don’t see what van Bladel refers to by saying that the Legend “contains no references to the Arabic language the type of which one might expect to find if its purpose was to explain an Arabic text..”
It is fairly obvious that since both the Quran and the Legend were composed in an environment that largely relied on oral transmission of stories, the author of the Legend composed his work CLEARLY based on oral stories and possibly written sources  that were in existence during the time of the composition. Hence it would make sense that the Legend would expand upon oral sources the author had collected and attributed to Alexander (more on this below).
The accusation that “the community at Mecca was far from well known outside Arabia…” seems to imply ignorance on part of van Bladel for two reasons, namely
- The Muslims had immigrated to Madinah in 622 CE, hence there was no Muslim “community” in Makkah between 622 and 630 until the Prophet ﷺ conquered Makkah, though few individuals remained in Makkah after 622 CE.
- It is well known that the Prophet ﷺ began to send letters to various leaders of different nations after the conquest of Makkah, inviting them to Islam. Some of these leaders responded with gifts. In addition many dignitaries from Arabia and outside it arrived to meet the Prophet ﷺ.
The above conclusion can only be arrived by disregarding all of Islamic history on the issue as van Bladel regrettably does.
A strong case can be made that the Muslim community in Hijaz was increasingly well known after 627 CE, and especially from 634 CE when the Arab conquest of Persia began. This would also fit well with the mention of the ‘Arab Kingdom’ in the Legend.
As for making a positive case for the Quran influencing the Legend, although based on speculation due to our lack of knowledge of the origin of the text, it is not impossible to imagine either Caravans coming from either Makkah (pre-622 CE) or Madinah (post-622 CE) to Syria and sharing stories of Dhu al-Qarnayn, especially with the attribution of a gate (wall in the Islamic narrative) to Alexander from pre-existing sources  and the author of the Legend modifying this to fit his idea of the coming Apocalypse in the prophesy. It is also possible that some of the Jews of Banu Nadir who lived among the Muslims and were exposed to Islam told of Dhu al-Qarnayn in Syria after their expulsion in 625 CE. Furthermore, if one accepts the proposition that the Legend could have been composed between 630-636 CE it is very likely that the Muslims themselves could have spread the Quranic narrative in Mesopotamia and southern Syria before the Muslim conquest of Syria starting in 636 CE.
None of these possibilities cannot be discarded due to our lack of knowledge of specific details. All could be possible since one has to admit that the author of the Legend relied on unknown oral sources.
Van Bladel continues, speculating on how the Legend could have spread to Hijaz. Interestingly, he even mentions the aforementioned Arab Kingdom but his conclusion is totally different:
Contemporary records in Greek, Syriac, Armenian and Arabic (poetry) repeatedly note the involvement of Arabs as troops and scouts on both Roman and Persian sides during and at the end of the great war of 603–30, and the Syriac Alexander Legend itself mentions Arabs as one of the nations involved in the last wars. Indeed, the Alexander Legend is likely to have been circulated widely if it was part of the Byzantine rallying cry after the war in the face of great losses and as a tool of Heraclius for rebuilding his subjects’ loyalty to the idea of a universal Christian empire undivided by schism. If it was aimed particularly at monophysites, as Reinink also proposed, then one would expect it to have been deliberately spread among the monophysite Arabs of the Ghassanid phylarchate, some of Heraclius’ close allies. It is even possible that Muhammad’s own followers heard the story of the Alexander Legend, for example during their raid on Mu’ta, around the southeast end of the Dead Sea (probably September 629) just a few months after the Persian withdrawal from Roman territory and a few months before Heraclius’ triumphant return of the cross to Jerusalem.
Some points have to be made here:
- The Legend explicitly mentions the Arabs as an independent kingdom, not as auxiliaries for the Romans or Persians. Hence this conclusion seems rather far-fetched. Even the argument that the mention of an Arabs could refer to Ghassanids seems very unlikely since the Ghassanids were weakened by the 7th century CE, had very little power and were a client state under the Byzantines  and not independent per se. The reference in the Legend is obscure and could just as well to be taken to refer to the Caliphate in Hijaz.
- Van Bladel points to the ‘possibility’ of the Muslims hearing the Alexander Legend during the Battle of Mu’tah in 629 CE, but this approach once again completely overlooks the Islamic sources, which state that Surah al-Kahf was revealed in Makkah in its entirety. This also completely overlooks the fact that the Companions actually believed in the prophethood of Muhammad (ﷺ), so what use would it be for them to give this story to him in order to fabricate claims just a few years before his death? The implication here is that the Prophet (ﷺ) was an impostor, but this has no support whatsoever from any historical source.
- One has to wonder what the Legend that – according to Reinink – was composed in order to spread among monophysite Arab Christians, would mean to strictly monotheist Muslims who believed in a Scripture that censures Christians for believing in God having a son and later also outright named them to be disbelievers?
One should also keep in mind that Surah al-Kahf explicitly refers to the story of Dhu al-Qarnayn as having been in answer to a question (by the Jews) in order to challenge the Prophethood of Muhammad ﷺ. If the story had reached Madinah (this is of course assuming that the story of Dhu al-Qarnayn was revealed in Madinah and not Makkah as all the evidence seems to suggest) from Syria or Iraq, why would the questioners have to ask the Prophet ﷺ regarding Dhu al-Qarnayn at all if all he was going to do was relate the Legend that was already known in Madinah? This defeats the purpose of the revelation of the story in reply to a question posed to the Prophet ﷺ. I should also point out that the verse 18:83 shows no evidence that the story was known by the questioners. All we can surmise is that a figure called Dhu al-Qarnayn was known among the questioners, and even then we have no idea what the original question to the Prophet was.
Van Bladel continues:
The Qur’an contains many references to the prophets of the past. The Syriac Alexander Legend presents Alexander the Two-Horned as just such a prophet. Moreover, Alexander’s prophecy clearly indicates that final wars heralding the end of the world were taking place. Many in the community that followed Muhammad seem to have shared this apocalyptic sentiment with others in the contemporary Middle East.
Once again, if Islamic sources on the topic of eschatology were consulted, Kevin would have probably understood the idea of a “apocalyptic sentiment” among Muslims.
Islamic tradition makes it clear that the Last Day is to be preceded by certain signs which are narrated in various ahadith. These include (in order): the death of the Prophet ﷺ, the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, Rome and Constantinople, the emergence of a descendant of the Prophet ﷺ called al-Mahdi, the emergence of the al-Masih al-Dajjal (the Antichrist) the second coming of Jesus, his killing of the Dajjal, which is immediately followed by the emergence of Gog and Magog and other signs .
Furthermore, the Islamic tradition is quiet on whether Dhu al-Qarnayn was a prophet or not. The Quran itself gives no such indication and the Prophet ﷺ is reported to have said: “I do not know whether Tubba’ was a prophet or not, and I do not know whether Dhu al-Qarnayn was a prophet or not” (collected by al-Hakim and Bayhaqi, classed as Sahih by al-Albani)
The Wall, its historicity and alleged pre-Islamic mentions
As for the wall built by Dhu al-Qarnayn, van Bladel overlooks something very important when comparing the two accounts.
The Quran is explicit in its mention that the whole barrier was made of iron with copper poured on it. The Legend goes into more detail, giving the dimensions of this wall and likewise saying it was built from iron.
The difference here is that the Quran is not explicit in saying that the barrier was built between two mountains, although there is an agreement among commentators on this.
The term saddayn is different from the word used for two mountains (jibalayn). sadd is simply a barrier, whether natural or man-made, whereas jibal is the arabic word for mountain.
Another point of note is the Arabic word radma which is different from the word sadd. Sadd is a barrier as discussed before. However radma seems to imply either a more fortified barrier or something that would enclose Gog and Magog completely.
As for the location of the Wall, van Bladel says that people “mistakenly” attributed it to be at the Pass of Dariel, however he gives no indication why the Wall could not have been there.
The wall itself is mentioned by multiple Muslims historians, among them ibn Kathir and al-Tabari. As for the authenticity of these reports Allah knows best.
Here we should also mention the references to the wall made by Josephus (c. 70 CE) in his Bellum Judaicum and St. Jerome in his letter to Oceanus (c. 399 CE). Although I referred to both authors in my original post, I have since done more research on the topic. In short: We have no clear pre-Islamic evidence of the mention of the wall precedes Islam. This is due to manuscripts.
The earliest extant manuscript of Josephus’ Bellum Judaicum is from the 9th century, as noted elsewhere  and the earliest manuscript of Jerome’s letter is from 8th century. . Hence we cannot draw direct conclusions on the matter, and as I noted in my original post, The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius (written sometime between 670 CE-690 CE under Muslims in Syria) had immense influence with regards to spreading the tradition of Alexander and the gate to Christian Europe as it was translated soon after its composition into Latin and Greek from Syriac. Hence we cannot close out the possibility that later copyists of the works of Jerome and Josephus modified the text by attributing the gate to Alexander as this was the prevalent tradition in Europe by the 8th century.
Note that I am not saying that Josephus and Jerome did not mention the gate itself, but rather that the possibility remains that the attribution to Alexander was post-Islamic since we have no pre-Islamic evidence that the tradition was exactly like it was after Islam. Historically we cannot know the exact events that transpired or what the original manuscripts said. Hence all of the following are historically possible:
a) That the original passages remained free from corruption from their composition (c. 70s CE and 399 CE respectively) until the earliest extant manuscripts (8th and 9th centuries). However even if this is the case, we have no way of knowing the accuracy of the attribution of the gate to Alexander, this could be accurate or inaccurate and the attribution was made sometime between building of the gate and by the time of Josephus was writing in the 1st century CE.
b) That the mention of the gate was in the original documents, but later copyists attributed the gate to Alexander in light of the post-Islamic tradition that Alexander constructed a barrier.
c) That the entire passage is a later, post-Islamic addition in light of the Alexander tradition.
All of the above are historically possible and hence we have no way of knowing if any of them is correct unless pre-Islamic evidence (such as manuscripts of these works or other documents) surfaces.
Historically, we cannot prove or disprove the existence of such a wall. Though it seems weird how van Bladel claims that the wall was identified with the Sassanid wall at Derbent in post-Islamic times. However this wall is not made of iron, something that the Quran is very explicit about. It seems weird how Muslims would think a wall that does not fit the Quranic description is actually the wall mentioned in the Quran.
This article has been an attempt to look at the claims of Kevin van Bladel regarding the supposed influence of the Christian Alexander Legend on the Quran.
As mentioned above, van Bladel’s thesis is weakened considerably in light of the following observations:
a) The narration attributed to ibn ‘Abbas makes it clear that the Surah al-Kahf was sent down in Makkah, therefore making the story of Dhu al-Qarnayn at least 8 years earlier than the Christian Legend. If the narration is unauthentic this leaves us with no certain knowledge regarding the time of revelation of Surah al-Kahf.
b) The Christian Legend was composed – as is widely thought – sometime between 629 to 636 CE (although this is not conclusive) from pre-existing oral and possibly written sources. Hence we cannot close out the possibility of the Quranic story of Dhu al-Qarnayn reaching Syria or Mesopotamia (where the Legend is widely thought to having been composed) sometime between its revelation and the composition of the The Christian Legend. However it should also be noted that the only thing we can say decisively is that The Christian Legend was written after the year 628 CE.
c) All of the 5 extant manuscripts of The Christian Legend come from 18th and 19th centuries, over 1000 years after the composition of the document. Hence it is very difficult to judge its original form.
d) The mention of an ‘Arab Kingdom’ in The Christian Legend can in the very least be applied to both the Ghassanid Kingdom and the the first Islamic State/Rashidun Caliphate, though as I attempted to demonstrate earlier, the attribution of the kingdom to Ghassanids is far from conclusive and seems unlikely due to their weakness and subordination to the Romans.
e) The issue of transmission cannot be proven historically either way. Just as one as a historian has to say that the Legend could have influenced the Quran, vice versa is just as likely. Van Bladel also overlooks all historical data on the character of the Prophet (ﷺ) and the idea of the Prophet (ﷺ) using a well-known story in Madinah/Makkah to prove his prophethood would automatically mean he is a liar, since the Quran claims to be the actual word of God, not inspired word of God. We have no reason to believe the Prophet (ﷺ) actually lied regarding this story, or any other story in the Quran. The idea of the Prophet (ﷺ) going around – especially in Madinah where he was constantly surrounded by his companions – learning this or other stories and then attributing them to God seems untenable, considering that he was never caught doing this. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that the Prophet (ﷺ) was sincere in his belief of being a prophet sent by God and hence would not go around looking for stories to tell to his followers, especially with how closely his followers followed him. For believers, the idea of revelation is the only other possibility here and hence the idea of the story spreading from Arabia soon after its revelation to Syria and Mesopotamia cannot be historically counted out, especially with the consideration that the composer of The Christian Legend used oral sources upon composing the document.
f) The supposed pre-Islamic mentions regarding Alexander and the barrier all derive from post-Islamic manuscripts. We should exercise caution with regards to assigning any specific literary source to the Quran, especially in light of all of the data we have regarding the Prophet (ﷺ) and his character as an sincere individual. The Quran itself attests to this multiple times.
g) Finally, it is impossible historically to prove or disprove the existence of an iron barrier as described in the Quran. (I might write on the wall itself later)
In conclusion: It is historically impossible to establish a strong case of The Christian Legend influencing the Quran or, indeed, vice versa. The idea of the Prophet (ﷺ) going around learning stories and lying about God seems very unlikely in light of the data we have regarding the Prophet (ﷺ) and his life. For Muslims, the Quran is the inerrant word of God and hence a Muslim will not entertain the idea of the Prophet (ﷺ) being an impostor. The idea of the Quran being influenced by The Christian Legend is far from conclusive and is historically impossible to establish with the current data we have.
And Allah knows best.
- The Article starts from pp. 175 onwards.
- Such as G. Reinink’s Der Alexanderliede, which is often seen as the main authority in discussing the Syriac Legend on Alexander as well as the Syriac translation the Alexander Romance attributed to Callisthenes.
- Namely, that the Quran borrows the story from the Legend, see Nöldeke, “Beiträge zur Geschichte des Alexanderromans” (1890)
- The above commentaries can be accessed here (Arabic). As mentioned in footnote 11, ibn Hajar al-Asqalani said that this narration is weak due to it contradicting authentic narrations. However most mufassirun have accepted the narration without commenting on its authenticity. Allah knows best.
- The Quran in its historical context, p. 190. As mentioned above, van Bladel spends nearly three pages on speculating how the story entered the Quran, while being completely silent on the Islamic sources.
- This dating was first conclusively proven by C. Hunnius in his refutation of Nöldeke in the early 1900’s. He was followed by many scholars. Many today rely on Reinink’s research on the issue, which agrees with previous scholarship. I have written more on the dating in my first article on Dhu al-Qarnayn. In short, the dating is based on two prophecies mentioned near the end of the Legend.
- This is at the end of the Legend, I have yet to see any mention or explanation as to what this could mean. The Legend mentions the 3 Kingdoms, namely Greeks (Byzantine), Persians (Sassanid) and the Arabs in conjuction with each other.
- The direct quote from the Legend is “… the kingdoms of the Huns and the Persians and the Arabs“…Then the kingdom of the Greeks shall move itself… (E.A.W. Budge, The history of Alexander the Great, being the Syriac version of the Pseudo-Callisthenes, pp. 155-156)
- Ibid, p. 154
- I have written more about this story in my previous article on the topic. In summary, it was composed somewhere between 670 CE and 690 CE as it explicitly mentions the Arab conquest of Syria. This story was also extremely influential in influencing the Medieval recensions of the Alexander Legend and quickly spread the story of Alexander building a barrier into Europe.
- the sanad for the narration mentioned by Ibn Ishaq is as follows: Ibn Ishaq – old man from among the people of Egypt who had emigrated from Hijaz – ‘Ikrimah – ‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Abbas. The narration itself has not been seriously questioned in any book of tafsir that I have encountered, even Ibn Kathir who usually is very stringent and mentions the strength of a narration simply passes this one. We could hence consider it authentic. Though even if it is not it is upon the one who is making the accusation to show opposition to muhaddithun and mufassirun from Ahl al-Sunnah to this narration and show those that consider the Surah to be Madinan. It should also be noted that narrations in tafasir are treated with less stringency than Prophetic ahadith. The only authority whom I have seen in questioning the narration is Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani who mentioned that it contradicts sahih ahadith where the Quraysh were asked to only ask the Prophet about the soul, and not about the people of the cave or Dhu al-Qarnayn. Allah knows best.
- See Budge’s 1889 translation (Introduction) or A Companion to Alexander Literature in the Middle Ages (Alexander the Great in Syriac literary tradition, p. 45)
- See here for example
- See for example Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources: Sallam’s Quest for Alexander’s Wall (2010), p. 18
- Though the validity of these accounts can be questioned, the pre-Islamic mentions of Alexander are the mention of a gate attributed to him by Josephus in his War of the Jews (c. 75 CE). It should be noted that the earliest manuscript of this book comes from the 9th century. The other main mention is by St. Jerome who mentions the gate in his letter to Oceanus (c. 399 CE). As I mention, manuscripts of both documents post-date Islam. Both of these are discussed under section #6. Even if the mentions will be found in pre-Islamic manuscripts in the future, it is not impossible that both Jerome and Josephus based their comments on hearsay and oral tradition that misattributed the wall to Alexander.
- See for example Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, p. 338
- Good contemporary resource on this is The End of the World by Dr. Muhammad al-Arifi
- See here under Wissenburgensis 22
- Codex Spinaliensis 68 is dated to the 8th century. Digitalized form of a critical edition of Jerome’s texts is available here (page 37 onwards)