Critique of Kevin van Bladel’s “THE ALEXANDER LEGEND IN THE QUR’AN 18:83–102”

 بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

by Abdullah al-Finlandi

Introduction

 

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″  [1]. 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 [2], 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:

  1. The Alexander Legend was written c. 630 CE
  2. The Quran’s revelation ended in 632 CE
  3. The Alexander Legend must have reached the Prophet ﷺ in either Makkah or Madinah (after 630 CE)
  4. 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
  5. 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 [3] 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 [4]. 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 [5]. 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.

 

Dating

 

Van Bladel strongly endorses the traditionally accepted dating of c. 630 CE for the Legend [6], 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 [7], 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

or

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 [8]. 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”[9].  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 [10]. 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 [11].

 

Manuscript tradition

 

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 [12]. 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 [13]. 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.

 

Transmission

 

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.

He continues:

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 [14] 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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 [15] 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:

  1. 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 [16] 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 [17].

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 [18] and the earliest manuscript of Jerome’s letter is from 8th century. [19]. 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.

 

Conclusion

 

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.


 

  1. The Article starts from pp. 175 onwards.
  2. 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.
  3. Namely, that the Quran borrows the story from the Legend, see Nöldeke, “Beiträge zur Geschichte des Alexanderromans” (1890)
  4.  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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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)
  9. Ibid, p. 154
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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)
  13. See here for example
  14. See for example Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources: Sallam’s Quest for Alexander’s Wall (2010), p. 18
  15. 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.
  16. See for example Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, p. 338
  17. Good contemporary resource on this is The End of the World by Dr. Muhammad al-Arifi
  18. See here under Wissenburgensis 22
  19. 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)
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Critique of Kevin van Bladel’s “THE ALEXANDER LEGEND IN THE QUR’AN 18:83–102”

On interpretations of Quranic chronology of creation (UPDATED)

earth

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

by Abdullah al-Finlandi

“Allah created the heavens and the earth in truth. Indeed in that is a sign for the believers.” – Quran, Surah al-Ankabut: 44

UpdateAfter re-examining the arguments I made, I have made some minor adjustments to some of them.


introduction

 

A lot has been said on the ayat of the Quran that deal with creation of heavens and the earth by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike during the last century. The Muslim side [1] has, since the emergence of the Big Bang Theory, generally said the Quranic account is miraculous and how such information had been unknown to the Prophet (ﷺ) and hence confirms the Quran is a revelation from Allah [2].

The non-Muslim side generally has argued that the Quran is in contradiction with modern established science when it talks about the creation of universe, and hence, cannot be from God.

There has also been debate between Muslims themselves since early times on what the Quran says about the chronology of creation, with there generally being 3 sides:

i. That the earth was created first, based on a reading of ayat of creation that advocate chronology. This is the traditional approach accepted by most mufassirun.

ii. That the heaven/heavens were created first, based on a non-linear reading of the same ayat. This view also has ancient and modern proponents.

iii. A more modern opinion, namely, that the Quran does not name a certain chronology, but the creation accounts are used to show Allah’s Power and Ability, with earth being mentioned first at times and heaven at others.

The point of this article is to present an objective view with 5 different approaches on the matter, listing the pros and cons of both of the traditional narratives (1 and 2 respectively).

  • the reading that earth was created before heaven
  • the reading that heaven was created before earth
  • the reading that there is no clear chronology
  • the reading that different ayat refer to different topics
  • the reading that the “smoke” mentioned in ayah 11 of Surah Fussilat is non-scientific and should be understood otherwise.

I also hope to point out that neither of the 2 traditional readings is absolute, and that either (or indeed, any of the remaining 3), can be taken with no issues or modifying the text or its meanings, although I personally favor the view that the heaven existed before the earth.

Finally, I hope to help Muslims who might struggle with these ayat, while having modern scientific knowledge on this issue.

Before we start, a disclaimer should be made:

Quran is not a book of science, nor should it be interpreted based on scientific theories that are not confirmed. However, there is no harm in interpreting Quran based on established science (like the earth being spherical) but ONLY if the language supports this discovery. I am not a proponent of Quran having scientific miracles in it, but I do believe it to be consistent with modern established science. However, I will not disparage anyone who wants to take the traditional opinion regarding the creation. Although it may be unscientific, Allah is Able to do as He wills. End of the day we are all Muslims and these are trivial matters, however, by pondering upon the Creation of Allah our Iman will strengthen and we will remember our Lord more.

I will begin with talking about the different ayat that mention the creation of the heaven and the earth that are relevant to our inquiry.

I will then discuss the particle ثُمَّ (thumma) and proceed then with a review of the readings.

Now, let us proceed.

 

Quranic verses that mention the creation

 

There are 3 sets of ayat that are relevant to the discussion at hand: ayah 29 of Surah al-Baqarah, ayat 9-12 of Surah Fussilat and ayat 27-33 of Surah an-Nazi’at. I will use the Sahih International Translation.

First, 2:29:

هُوَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ لَكُم مَّا فِي الْأَرْضِ جَمِيعًا ثُمَّ اسْتَوَىٰ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ فَسَوَّاهُنَّ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ ۚ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

It is He who created for you all of that which is on the earth. Then He directed Himself to the heaven, [His being above all creation], and made them seven heavens, and He is Knowing of all things.

41:9-12

قُلْ أَئِنَّكُمْ لَتَكْفُرُونَ بِالَّذِي خَلَقَ الْأَرْضَ فِي يَوْمَيْنِ وَتَجْعَلُونَ لَهُ أَندَادًا ۚ ذَٰلِكَ رَبُّ الْعَالَمِينَ

Say, “Do you indeed disbelieve in He who created the earth in two days and attribute to Him equals? That is the Lord of the worlds.”

وَجَعَلَ فِيهَا رَوَاسِيَ مِن فَوْقِهَا وَبَارَكَ فِيهَا وَقَدَّرَ فِيهَا أَقْوَاتَهَا فِي أَرْبَعَةِ أَيَّامٍ سَوَاءً لِّلسَّائِلِينَ

And He placed on the earth firmly set mountains over its surface, and He blessed it and determined therein its [creatures’] sustenance in four days without distinction – for [the information] of those who ask.

ثُمَّ اسْتَوَىٰ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ وَهِيَ دُخَانٌ فَقَالَ لَهَا وَلِلْأَرْضِ ائْتِيَا طَوْعًا أَوْ كَرْهًا قَالَتَا أَتَيْنَا طَائِعِينَ

Then He directed Himself to the heaven while it was smoke and said to it and to the earth, “Come [into being], willingly or by compulsion.” They said, “We have come willingly.”

فَقَضَاهُنَّ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ فِي يَوْمَيْنِ وَأَوْحَىٰ فِي كُلِّ سَمَاءٍ أَمْرَهَا ۚ وَزَيَّنَّا السَّمَاءَ الدُّنْيَا بِمَصَابِيحَ وَحِفْظًا ۚ ذَٰلِكَ تَقْدِيرُ الْعَزِيزِ الْعَلِيمِ

And He completed them as seven heavens within two days and inspired in each heaven its command. And We adorned the nearest heaven with lamps and as protection. That is the determination of the Exalted in Might, the Knowing.

And 79:27-33

أَأَنتُمْ أَشَدُّ خَلْقًا أَمِ السَّمَاءُ ۚ بَنَاهَا

Are you a more difficult creation or is the heaven? Allah constructed it.

رَفَعَ سَمْكَهَا فَسَوَّاهَا

He raised its ceiling and proportioned it.

وَأَغْطَشَ لَيْلَهَا وَأَخْرَجَ ضُحَاهَا

And He darkened its night and extracted its brightness.

وَالْأَرْضَ بَعْدَ ذَٰلِكَ دَحَاهَا

And after that He spread the earth.

أَخْرَجَ مِنْهَا مَاءَهَا وَمَرْعَاهَا

He extracted from it its water and its pasture.

وَالْجِبَالَ أَرْسَاهَا

And the mountains He set firmly

مَتَاعًا لَّكُمْ وَلِأَنْعَامِكُمْ

As provision for you and your grazing livestock.

Now that we have the relevant verses, let us move to the particle thumma.

 

the meaning of ثُمَّ (thumma)

 

The particle ثُمَّ (thumma, translated usually as then, though words such as “moreover/also/and can be used depending on the context) is generally seen as a conjuction, denoting order and a long delay, though this is not always the case [3]. Some Arabic grammarians have argued that it can also have the function of وَ (wa), thus not indicating order (this is also agreed upon by some prominent classical mufassirun as we shall later see), with some even saying it can be used arbitrarily. It can also be used as a tool of emphasis or in an order of presentation. It can also be used to contrast between two things by placing thumma in between the things that one wants compared. The idea of using thumma here is to indicate large gap between the things that are being compared (ie. one being significantly greater).

In terms of the Quran itself, thumma is usually used to indicate order, but there are examples in which the word has been used in other purposes such as in 39:6 for the order of presentation (He created you from one soul. Thumma He made from it its mate). Obviously we did not exist during Adam’s time (alayhi salam) so here thumma is used for presentation.

In 102:3-4 (No! You are going to know. Thumma no! You are going to know.) it has been used for emphasis.

In 90:17 it has been used as وَ (wa) alongside other qualities.
There are many other examples in the Quran itself, but we shall concentrate on thumma in the context of chronology of creation.
Now that we know the general meaning of thumma, let us look at what the commentators have said regarding these ayat.

 

opinions of mufassirun on order of creation

 

1) earth created first

 

As mentioned above, the mufassirun generally have two opinions, one being that the earth was created before the heavens and another one that the heavens were created before the earth.

It is good to point out that there are no sahih ahadith going back to the Prophet about the order of creation, the opinions all come from sahaba or tabi’un.

As for the first view, Ibn Kathir [4] quotes a lengthy narration by Ibn Abbas, who basically interprets the creation like this:

First, Allah created the earth in its basic form as mentioned in 41:9

Then, the earth emitted smoke as it was created, and this smoke is the smoke mentioned in 41:11. Allah then built the heavens from this smoke and made them into seven heavens as mentioned in 49:12

Finally, Allah spread out the earth as mentioned in 79:30

This interpretation is based on thumma being a chronological device in both 2:29 and 41:11.

At the end of his commentary on 2:29, Ibn Kathir mentions another view by Ibn Abbas

It is said that “ثُمَّ ” in the Ayah (2:29) relates only to the order of reciting the information being given, it does not relate to the order that the events being mentioned took place, this was reported from Ibn Abbas by Ali bin Abi Talhah.

This (the earth being created first) was also the preferred view of ibn Jarir al-Tabari in his tafsir, as well as some of the Tabi’un like Mujahid.

 

2) heaven created first

 

Imam Abu Abdullah Al-Qurtubi writes in his commentary on 2:29:

In His words “then ( ثُمَّ ) directed”, the word “then” is simply a narrative aid and does not imply any time sequence in the matters referred to. [5]

He later writes:

It would appear from this ayah, if you take the word “then” as having a temporally sequential meaning, that Allah created the earth before the heavens whereas in Surah an-Nazi ‘at (79) He describes the heavens being created before the earth. This was the position of Qatada: heaven was created first. At-Tabari related it from him. Mujahid and other commentators say that Allah dried the water on which His Throne rested and turned it into the earth and made smoke rise from it and made heaven. Thus earth was created before heaven. I believe that what Qatada said is sound, Allah willing: that Allah first created the smoke of heaven and then created the earth and directed Himself to heaven, which was smoke and arranged it and then He smoothed out the earth. [6]

So here we see that this was the position of Qatada and that al-Qurtubi agreed with this.

This opinion was also narrated by a group of Companions by ibn Jarir in his tafsir and repeated by al-Qurtubi in his commentary of the ayah in question. [7]

The same ayah was also discussed by firstly, al-Razi in his tafsir, Mafatih al-Ghayb, where he says:

The word “then” is not here for chronological order, but merely to enumerate blessings. It is like when one man says to another: “Did I not give you great benefits, then raised your status, then repelled your opponents?” It may be that some of what he mentioned later took place first. The same can be said here. [8]

A similar view is also endorsed by al-Baydawi:

Perhaps the word “then” (thumma) here is to indicate the disproportion between the two creations and the greater merit of the creation of the heavens over the creation of the Earth. This is like when Allah says: “Then (thumma) he had been among those who believed”. This is not to indicate its occurring later chronologically. [9]

So this view says that thumma is only used as a narrative aid, hence a better English translation would be “and” in either 2:29 or 41:11.

 

3) No clear chronology

 

This is the view of Maududi [10].

He says in his commentary on 79:30:

“After that He spread out the earth” does not mean that Allah created the earth after the creation of the heavens, but it is a style of expression just like our saying after making mention of something: “Then this is noteworthy.” The object is not to express the sequence of occurrence between the two things but to draw attention from the first to the second thing although both may exist together. Several instances of this style are found in the Qur’an, e.g. in Surah Al-Qalam it is said: “(He is) oppressive, and after that, ignoble by birth.” This does not mean that first he became oppressive and then he turned ignoble by birth, but it means: “He is oppressive, and above all, ignoble by birth.” Likewise, in Surah Al-Balad it is said: “Should free a slave…then be of those who believe.” This also does not mean that first he should act righteously and then believe. but that along with doing righteous deeds he should also be characterized by belief. Here, one should also understand that at some places in the Qur’an the creation of the earth has been mentioned first and then the creation of the heavens, as in Al-Baqarah: 29, and at others the creation of the heavens has been mentioned first and then of the earth, as in these verses. There is, in fact, no contradiction in this. At no place the object is to tell what was created first and what afterwards, but wherever the context requires that the excellences of the power of Allah be made prominent, the heavens have been mentioned first and then the earth, and where the context requires that the people be made to appreciate and acknowledge the blessings that they are benefiting by on the earth, the mention of the earth has been made before that of the heavens. [11]

Now that we have gone over some of the views of mufassirun who hold various views, let us turn towards reviewing the pros and cons of both interpretations, and then discuss 2 additional ones.

 

a. review of the “earth first”-interpretation

 

As mentioned before, this is the predominant view among classical commentators and among most modern Salafis.

To recap, the general interpretation is that Allah first created the earth in an unspread form, then created the heaven and formed it into seven heavens and then spread out the earth. There are some variations but this seems to be the general narrative.

Pros

  • Uses thumma in its most used and understood context.
  • Interprets “dahaha” in 79:30 to mean spread out, fits well within the language

Cons

  • Contradicts established science, as science tells us that the universe is roughly 13 billion years old, with the Earth being around 4.5 billion years old. This view also indicates that the Earth existed before space did! [12]
  • al-Baydawi notices something interesting in his tafsir, namely that there seems to be a contradiction between 41:9-10 and 79:32 if this view is adopted. He notices that both 41:10 and 79:32 mention Allah placing mountains on earth, however in the Quranic context, in 79:32 the mountains were placed on the earth after the spreading of the earth, and in 41:10 they were placed on it directly after creation (meaning before the spreading of the earth) as the ayah does not mention earth’s spreading out. One counter argument could be that 2:29 refers to creation of the earth itself, but the ayah itself does not say that, but rather talks of creation of provisions on earth. Another approach one could take is to say that Allah mentions everything He did on earth in both 2:29 and in 41:9-10. And hence there was no need to mention the creation of provisions on earth in a chronological order. However this view also fits within alternative interpretation #1 (see below).
  • Thumma has multiple meanings, and thus this interpretation, while acceptable, is not the only one that can be taken based on the language.

 

b. review of the “heaven first”-interpretation

 

This interpretation was taken by some of the Companions (radiAllahu anhum) as well as commentators such as al-Qurtubi, al-Razi and al-Baydawi. He also mentions thumma in 41:11 is used to contrast between the creations as can be seen in the classical poem:

I was impressed by what you did today ثُمَّ what you did yesterday was more impressive”

Here thumma is used to compare between today and yesterday, meaning yesterday was more impressive. Same could be applied for 41:11.

One form of the argument says that “thumma” in the ayah in question can be used similarly to وَ (wa) and thus does not propose any chronology. It should also be mentioned that the Quran itself never mentions the time of the creation of “smoke” that is spoken about in 41:11.

Pros

  • In line with established science
  • language supports thumma as non-sequential in this context.

Cons

  • the word “dahaha” (spread out) has to be reinterpreted to mean Creation of the Earth instead of the apparent meaning which is “spread out”. Although it could be said that 79:30 simply skips the creation of the Earth.

Now that we have looked at the main interpretations, I will propose 2 more that should fit well within the context and language of the ayat.

 

alternative interpretation #1 – 79:27 and 41:11 refer to different contexts

 

This is basically a modified version of the second view.

The argument here is that the word sama, commonly translated as heaven/space actually refers to sky/atmosphere in 79:27. In Arabic the word sama can mean either a sky or heaven, for example in 21:32 it clearly has the context of sky, not space. Same with the many ayat in which Allah mentions sending down rain from sky. The same word is always used. So the argument here is simple.

  • in 41:11 Allah is referring to the initial state of the universe after its creation, which was like gas/smoke. so sama here refers to space.
  • in 79:27 sama refers to the construction of the sky of the earth. Earth’s atmosphere was formed after the earth was created but long before Earth became habitable.
  • in 79:30 Allah refers to earth being fully formed and being made fit for living (similarly in 2:29), and scientifically, this happened AFTER Earth’s atmosphere was created.
  • Thumma is used to non-sequentially
  • After re-examining the argument, I noticed that the contradiction (between 41:10 and 79:32) mentioned by al-Baydawi is also apparent if this approach is taken. One could say that 41:10 is referring to 79:32, and while this would strengthen the “Earth first”-interpretation it also applies here. As said elsewhere, the creation of the smoke is not mentioned anywhere in the Quran, hence the time of its creation is up to the individual.

 

ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATION #2 – the smoke in 41:11 is not scientific

 

This is something very simple. Let’s throw out scientific theories and consider an alternative one. There is no need to think of scientific arguments for the Quran being the word of Allah, the Exalted, there are other interpretations one could adopt. One I prefer is as follows:

  • The smoke (dukhan) in 41:11 is not scientific, but an indication of the fact that the heavens had not been ordered into 7 heavens yet. This does not contradict the idea of space being formed by the time the earth was created, as scientists have discovered. It simply says the making of the heaven into 7 heavens was made after the creation of the Earth.
  • This interpretation maintains that thumma is used in its primary context, ie. sequentially. Once again it is important to remember that the creation of the smoke is not mentioned anywhere in the Quran or authentic Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ, so the time of its creation is up to the person interpreting the texts.
  • To explain it simply. Allah first formed space/heaven as a singularity but it was not yet ordered into 7 heavens. This happened after the creation and spreading out of the Earth. In this context 79:27 refers to space as a whole.
  • This does not mean that space was literally smoke when the Earth was created, but rather smoke in a way that it had not been made into 7 heavens yet.
  • Alternatively, 79:27 could refer to formation of the 7 heavens, and not the creation of space itself. If 79:27 is taken to refer to space, then 79:30 skips the creation of the earth. This is valid, as 41:9-10 skip the spreading of the earth. If 79:27 is taken to refer to formation of 7 heavens the text itself is clear.

If this method is taken, the order of creation would be something like this:

i. Allah first created the smoke

ii. Then, He created the earth (41:9)

iii. Then, He formed the smoke into seven heavens (41:12 & 79:27)

iv. And finally, He spread out the earth (79:30 & 41:10)

 

Conclusion

 

I have presented above 5 methods of interpreting the ayat on Creation. Although I myself prefer the interpretation that heaven/space was created before the Earth, as I’ve said I respect the ijtihad of the person with an opposing view.

In addition, the non-scientific view seems very likely to me upon reading the context of the ayat.

All in all, these are minor issues with no impact on our aqidah and the ayat are vague on purpose. However this article is to help Muslims who may be struggling with interpreting these ayat.

End of the day we ought to remember Allah’s saying: I did not make them witness to the creation of the heavens and the earth or to the creation of themselves, and I would not have taken the misguiders as assistants. (18:51) and to increase in worship and ponder upon His signs.

And Allah knows best.


  1. A famous example is Zakir Naik, a da’i who has made some weird statements about Allah in the past.
  2. For a comprehensive critique of the “Quran and scientific miracles”-approach see for example this paper by brother Hamza Andreas Tzortzis (Does the Quran Contain Scientific Miracles? A New Approach on how to Reconcile and Discuss Science in the Quran) and a fatwa by Shaykh Muhammad ibn Salih al-‘Uthaymin here (Is it Permissible to Interpret the Qur’an According to Contemporary, Scientific Theories?). Although I generally agree with the latter I shall make a distinction between the purpose of this blog post and what the fatwa speaks of.
  3. Refer to Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon, p. 351 for a detailed discussion. Another good resource is Dictionary of the Holy Quran by AbdulMannan Omar, p. 84
  4. Tafsir Ibn Kathir, commentary on 41:9
  5. Tafsir al-Qurtubi, p.199 (English version)
  6. Ibid, p. 200
  7. Tafsir al-Tabari, p. 203 (English version).
  8. Mafatih al-Ghayb (2/143)
  9. Tafsir al-Baydawi (1/27)
  10. His tafsir is included here for the purpose of discussing the view he has on creation, not as an endorsement of his political beliefs or to endorse him.
  11. Tafhim al-Quran, 79:30
  12. As mentioned before not everyone will find this a problem.
On interpretations of Quranic chronology of creation (UPDATED)

On Dhul Qarnayn, Alexander Romances and the issue of parallelism.


qarnayn

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

by Abdullah al-Finlandi

And they ask you, [O Muhammad], about Dhul-Qarnayn. Say, “I will recite to you about him a report.” – Quran, Surah al-Kahf: 83

Introduction

I vividly remember when I first read the Quran how interested I was in the story of Dhul Qarnayn (literally “the possessor of two horns/ages, more commonly translated as the two-horned one), a mythical, monotheist figure who is said in the Quran as having traveled throughout the earth, first traveling to west, then east, then to a direction that is not named, and meeting 3 nations along the way. Finally he builds a massive iron barrier to keep the Asian tribes known as Gog and Magog away, with a promise that the barrier will be leveled when the ‘promise’ of God comes.

Quite ironically, the story itself is only 13 verses long, but the discussion concentrated around the person of Dhul Qarnayn has spanned centuries. The story has also been the subject of intense Orientalist critique for a long time, as the story seems to have parallels with certain narratives found in the legendary Alexander literature (especially the Syriac versions), starring Alexander the Great himself but embellished with various stories, such as Alexander visiting Heaven and searching for the fountain of life etc. These stories are obviously legendary and have nothing to do with the historical Alexander, though they do show the legacy he had in the world for centuries after his death.

The Orientalist contention is that since the Quran claims to be the Word of God, it invalidates itself and shows itself to be of natural origin due to it including these stories of Alexander. The Muslim response has usually been to dismiss the parallels or to simply not comment on the issue.

My aim is to provide an Islamic perspective on this and an adequate Muslim response. Could it be that Quran, being an early medieval/late antiquity document, has had influence on the Alexander narratives and that Dhul Qarnayn and the legendary Alexander are in fact two different people? I will be investigating this based on the Quranic story, Alexander narratives, manuscript traditions and my own conclusions.

A couple reservations should be taken before we start:

Firstly, when dealing with history we are dealing with probabilities. Hence, a lot of what I say will be speculative but I’ve tried to base my research on evidences.

Secondly, I’m not a historian. I’m interested in history and history of religions. My conclusions are based on my own research, and it might be flawed but I’m satisfied with it, both as a Muslim and from a logical perspective.

With that said, let’s move on to the investigation and start by discussing the background of the Quranic narrative.

revelation of Surah al-kahf

Scholars are generally in agreement that  Surah al-Kahf, the 18th Surah of the Quran was revealed entirely in Makkah. This is based on historical evidence we have from the Sirah of the Prophet (ﷺ) as well as the Surah’s internal evidence.

Ibn Ishaq records in his Sirah through Ibn ‘Abbas that [1]:

“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 [Dhul Qarnayn].

Ibn Ishaq’s sirah is notorious for including many fabrications and weak narrations but there has not been any objection from any Sunni jurist to this narration, as far as I am aware, hence we can treat it as authentic.

Maududi says in his tafsir (exegesis) that the Surah was sent down somewhere in between 614-620 CE, though we don’t know when. Regardless, it is seen as a Makki surah, which will be important later on when we discuss dates.

Identity of dhul qarnayn

The scholars have various opinions on this. Ibn Kathir said that Dhul Qarnayn’s name was Alexander but that he lived long before Alexander the Great, and people mixed them up afterwards. Maududi said Dhul Qarnayn was Cyrus the Great, an opinion that has been increasingly accepted since 20th century CE. Other scholars said he was an Yemenite king.

However, the vast majority of scholars from 9th century onwards all the way until 20th century equated Dhul Qarnayn with Alexander, no doubt due to influence from Alexander legends and seeing the narratives as confirming the Quran.

Personally I think Dhul Qarnayn’s identity was hidden by Allah on purpose as there is no uniform opinion and we should not inquire about it.

Now, let’s move on to the legendary Alexander narratives and other sources often claimed as the sources of the Quran.

the alexander Romances

The Alexander romances is a name given to several collections of stories about Alexander the Great, with the general dating of the collections being in between 4th and 16th centuries. The original (most likely Greek) text is known as Pseudo-Callisthenesnamed so due to its attribution to Callisthenes, a Greek historian and a companion of Alexander. This attribution is seen as pseudographical, hence the name. The texts of the collections evolved greatly as new legends were added as time went by. [2]

According to secular scholarship, the earliest witness we have to the lost, original Greek text is the 5th-century [3] Armenian translation. There are also translations and versions from many other languages such as Ethiopian, Syriac, Latin, and Arabic.

The collections pertinent to our study are mainly the Syriac Christian Legend concerning Alexander and also the Syriac poem attributed to Jacob of Serugh (d. 521 CE), both generally dated to the 7th century [4]. The Syriac Romance was translated from a lost Pahlavi original, according to Nöldeke, by Nestorian Monks. [5] However I will look into other sources as well.

the parallels in the quran with the syriac legends

WikiIslam, the notorious anti-Islam wiki has quite handily taken the passages from Christian Legend concerning Alexander and listed them alongside the comparison with the Quranic equivalent. For the sake of brevity I will only list a couple.

Building the Gate [6]

The Legend:

When Alexander had heard what the old men said, he marveled greatly at the great sea which surrounded all creation; and Alexander said to his troops, ” Do ye desire that we should do something wonderful in this land?” They said to him, “As thy majesty commands we will do.” The king said, “Let us make a gate of brass and close up this breach.”

The History of Alexander the Great, Being the Syriac Version, p. 153

Quran:

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

Impenetrable wall

The Legend

He fixed the gate and the bolts, and he placed nails of iron and beat them down one by the other, so that if the Huns came and dug out the rock which was under the threshold of iron, even if footmen were able to pass through, a horse with its rider would be unable to pass, so long as the gate that was hammered down with bolts stood.

The History of Alexander the Great, Being the Syriac Version, p. 153
Quran
Thus were they made powerless to scale it or to dig through it (18:97)

Let us now look at the issues we face when looking at these texts.

Case against the syriac alexander romances

1. Dating of the syriac legend and the poem of pseudo-jacob and interpolations in the text

As noted before, both the poem and the actual Syriac Legend have been in general dated to the 7th century, more specifically having terminus a quo (first limiting time) of 629-630. The Christian Legend features a large passage at the end featuring the narrative with Alexander and the Gate with strong parallels between Alexander and Heraclius, the Byzantine Emperor. It also includes two prophecies concerning the invasion of the Huns in 515 CE and a prophecy referring to 629 CE and a coming of ‘another king’ (most likely Heraclius). These observations have led some to assume the text was written as a Byzantine propaganda shortly before the Muslim conquest of Syria. [7]

However, upon my personal reading of the text, I noticed that the passage also contains a mention of ‘kingdom of the Arabs’ which could not mean anything else than the Islamic Caliphate. This could possibly push the terminus a quo forward, unless this part was added later. The passage also contains a contradiction with an earlier passage where it is said that there there were 15 kingdoms the interpolation (as we shall soon see) says there were 24.

As for this part, Czeglédy [8] mentions that in his opinion the whole passage was added around the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453 (!!) due to 629 not having any meaning to the original interpolator, who according to him added the passage about Alexander and the gate in the 8th century, and that it was not part of the original legend. The passage about destruction of the Arabs was apparently meant to console Christians after Constantinople was lost to the Ottomans in 1453 CE. The original interpolation of Alexander and the Gate was most likely based on the work called Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, a Christian theological and polemical work written to console the Christians who had fallen under Arab rule. This work has a terminus a quo of 670 CE. It is very likely that the Apocalypse itself relied on the Quran or early Muslim traditions due to its late dating and having been written in an thoroughly Islamic environment. It has also been noted that this work was very influential in embellishing the future recensions of Alexander narratives with the stories mentioned in the Quran (building the gate, travels etc). [9]

Neither the poem nor the Christian Legend present any terminum ad quem (final limiting point in time) , though if the Syriac Legend’s passage concerning the prophecies was in the original text the terminum ad quem would be 636 CE. [10]. As for the poem attributed to Jacob of Serugh, Czeglédy dates its composition to the to the 9th century instead of 629 CE, but weirdly gives no reason other than the ‘fear of Turkish invasion’ the Syrians might have had and thus included the episode of Gog and Magog and the building of the wall.

2. manuscript tradition of the syriac legend and the poem of pseudo-jacob

If the dating of these documents seems to raise some questions, then the manuscript tradition doubly so.

In short, the earliest manuscript of the poem attributed to Jacob of Serugh we have is from the 9th century, with a vast majority coming from 18th-century onward. [11]

As for the Syriac Romance, the only extant manuscripts we have all start from the 18th century, as noted by E.A.W. Budge in his monumental translation of the Syriac manuscripts to English in 1889. [12]. A thousand years between the original text and the manuscript is surely not encouraging, especially with Budge remarking that:

The Christian Legend has been burdened with many additions, evidently the work of the Christian redactor, which have no connexion whatever with the story. On the other hand many passages, as, for example, the account of his descent into the sea in a glass cage, have been entirely omitted. The names of the places which are given us freely in this legend seem to indicate that it was drawn up at a very late period; that it is the work of Jacob of Serugh is improbable. [13]

The irony here is that these manuscripts are the sources for the Christian and orientalist polemics against the Quran! For comparison, the earliest written witness we have to the text of Surah al-Kahf is from the famous Topkapi Quran, written somewhere between 672 and 722 CE. [14]

on other traditions of the alexander romance

I will briefly touch upon some of the other traditions that are mentioned.

It should be noted that apart from the aforementioned Armenian version, all versions of the Alexander Romance post-date the Quran by hundreds of years. [15]

As for the Armenian version of the Alexander Romance, it has been noted that its text was edited by a poet called Xach’atur Kech’arec’i in the 13th century. [16]. There is a manuscript that is supposedly from a time before these edits (also 13th century) but this does not preclude earlier editing of the text. These two manuscripts are the earliest witnesses to the text. It is possible that the Armenians were influenced by Islamic narratives after Islam spread to Armenia in the 7th century, but this is all speculative, as is the manuscript data and possible interpolations in it due to its late dating.

What about Josephus and Jerome?

There is a obscure passage in the book by the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus called the War of the Jews, written sometime in the 70’s CE. The passage runs as follows.

Now there was a nation of the Alans, which we have formerly mentioned some where as being Scythians and inhabiting at the lake Meotis. This nation about this time laid a design of falling upon Media, and the parts beyond it, in order to plunder them; with which intention they treated with the king of Hyrcania; for he was master of that passage which king Alexander shut up with iron gates. This king gave them leave to come through them; so they came in great multitudes, and fell upon the Medes unexpectedly, and plundered their country.

The Wars Of The Jews, Book VII, Ch7, v4

The original text does not specifically refer to Alexander the Great. But regardless even if so, the gate could have originally been built by Dhul Qarnayn and Josephus mixed it with Alexander. Josephus is seen as the first witness who mentioned the gates. Regardless, saying anything on this passage is difficult as the earliest extant Manuscript of this book is from the 10th century CE. [17]

As for St. Jerome, a 4th century theologian , he mentions the ‘Gates of Alexander’ in a letter of his saying that ‘they hold back the Huns’ (letter 77). I have been unable to find any manuscripts for the letters but it’s very unlikely to date from his time. It’s also likely that due to these early attestations that the gate of Dhul Qarnayn existed at least until 9th century CE.

Conclusion

I think I have demonstrated that there is good reason to doubt the Alexander Romances as they exist today. Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that the Alexander Romances did not exist before the Prophet (ﷺ). My argument is that it seems likely that after the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius spread out from Syria with the plausible Quranic influence in it, this influenced the later recensions of Alexander Romances to include these specific stories until we get to our own time.

In short, in my view the Quranic story affected the later development of the Alexander Romances,

What about the early mentions of the gates?

Of course the easiest way to solve this is to say the gates were built by Dhul Qarnayn but people mixed him with Alexander as time went on, however there is still little evidence to this. Rather, what seems correct to me is that a set of gates existed somewhere in Europe up until 9th century or later because they were  mentioned by both Muslim and non-Muslim sources. Alternatively, there could have been multiple kings who built gates and fortresses around Caucasus and Persia. What’s best is to leave it to Allah and remember that  “mankind have not been given of knowledge except a little.” (17:85).

And Allah knows best.

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Footnotes:

1. Ismail ibn Kathir mentions in his famous tafsir of the Quran the aforementioned narration by Ibn Ishaq in the beginning of Surah al-Kahf, under the chapter heading: Reason why this Surah was revealed,  accessed here: Reason why this Surah was revealed

2.. As we shall see later, many of the legends contain later interpolations.

3. The dating has been disputed, with arguments saying that the text originated in the 8th century. However the original dating largely prevails. For more information see, The Romance of Alexander the Great by Pseudo-Callisthenes (translated from Armenian from a 13th century manuscript), pp.10-12

4. See, for example Monographs On Syriac And Muhammadan Sources In The Literary Remains Of M. Kmoskó (1954) by K. Czeglédy, pp. 30-36 where he specifically discusses these legends and their dating. His opinion shall be discussed later.

5. Nöldeke’s hypothesis was challenged recently by Claudia Ciancaglini, who argued (convincingly, if I may add) that the Syriac version was a direct translation of the Greek original, not a translation from a lost Pahlavi text. Her analysis and refutation of Nöldeke’s arguments can be accessed here

6. Funnily, there is no ‘parallel’ beyond the building of the gate! in the Quranic account, the people ASK Dhul Qarnayn to build it, in the Legend, it is Alexander who proposes the idea. In addition, the Quran is the only account that says Dhul Qarnayn met a nation that did not understand speech, this is absent in both Syriac legends.

7. See, for example, Alexander the Great in the Syriac Literary Tradition, under Dating, (Brill publications). Theodor Nöldeke famously argued for a 6th-century dating based on the passage at the end, but his conclusion was refuted by later scholars such as C. Hunnius.

8. Monographs On Syriac And Muhammadan Sources In The Literary Remains Of M. Kmoskó, pp. 33-34

9. Stephen Gero, The Legend Of Alexander The Great In The Christian Orient, p. 9. The Apocalypse itself has some early manuscripts from the 8th century.

10. Though as we will shortly see, such a thing is impossible to claim as the manuscript tradition is a hopeless mess!

11. Alexander the Great in the Syriac Literary Tradition, under Manuscripts.

12. E. A. W. Budge, The History Of Alexander The Great Being The Syriac Version Of The Pseudo-Callisthenes p. 27

13. Ibid, p. 78

14. Topkapi Quran, Islamic Awareness.

15. Budge spends a lot of time on talking about different traditions at the beginning of his book, online resource is available here

16. See here. The Armenian version only mentions the gates very briefly in a supposed quote of Alexander. “And I put the gates together and carefully sealed up the place. And I wrote on a stone all that we had seen…”. The mention is very obscure.

17. See here

On Dhul Qarnayn, Alexander Romances and the issue of parallelism.