This is the barrier built by Dhu’l-Qarnayn (The Qur’an, 18:92–98).
As stated before, knowing and affirming the existence of something is different from knowing its nature and identity. In addition, in any piece of writing, article or book, there may be many judgments. Some of these judgments are explicit, established, and of primary importance, while others are putative or ambiguous. If a knowledgeable one is asked about a matter discussed in a book written long before and which has been partially changed over time, the answer will take either or both of the two forms. Either, it will be in agreement with the aim and terms of the questioner’s question, or it will be of the kind that gives rise to further interpretative effort by the questioner. So, in addition to being in agreement with the reality and convincing the questioner (that his question in the terms asked has been answered), a proper answer may also solve other aspects of the problem that the questioner had not anticipated when asking the question. Even if the answer may not always exactly conform to the aim of the questioner in asking his question in the way he did, by applying the answer to his knowledge about the matter, he in fact received the right answer. In addition, if the person answering takes into consideration the conditions in which the question is asked, the answer will contribute to many other purposes by virtue of the core of the vitality in it. The answers in the Qur’an are of this kind.
We should distinguish between the explicit judgments to be found in any Qur’anic statements and those that are not explicit, without forgetting that it is obligatory to believe in the explicit ones. The explicit points in the Qur’an’s answer to the question about Dhu’l-Qarnayn cannot be denied. According to this answer (18:83–98), Dhu’l-Qarnayn was a person favored with God’s confirmation and help. By God’s leave and guidance, he built a barrier between two mountains in order to prevent the attacks and corruption of some savages—Gog and Magog are the names given to the two “tribes” that were engaged in corruption and disorder. When the Divine order comes, the barrier will be destroyed. These, and some other explicit truths that exist in the Qur’an’s account of Dhu’l-Qarnayn, must certainly be considered as being confirmed. Denial of any of them means unbelief. However, as for the detail of what is narrated and meanings that it is possible to infer—the Qur’an is not clear about them. According to the rule that an expression employed to convey a general meaning does not necessarily constitute an argument or proof for some particular meaning incidental to that general meaning or alluded to or required by it, and the rule that whatever a statement states clearly with respect to its underlying and essential meaning is sufficient for it, it may be said that the Qur’an here does not necessarily indicate anything of detail. But since it does not categorically reject it, we can study and comment on it.
This means that all the interpretations, expositions, and analyses, other than the explicit meaning and the clear, apparent truth established by the explicit meaning, are only putative suggestions. They require corroboration by other indications. Interpreters can reason about them. They can be given different meanings. The differences of opinion among verifying scholars concerning them shows that the inferences and connotations, other than the evident, basic meanings are putative. But unfortunately, some people attempted to arrive at different, conflicting conclusions from the verses, as if the answer should come exactly in accordance with the purpose of the questioner; they did not consider the error in or the hidden intent behind asking the question or behind inferring meanings from the verses that had arisen according to the sources that had provoked the questioner. They added into the essential meaning their personal interpretations and certain persons or events that they regarded as fitting into the Qur’anic account. Even that was not enough; they went on to present these as if they were the essential, evident meaning. The literalists accepted such interpretations and inferences as being part of the essential meaning, while the verifying scholars considered them as harmless stories, and did not criticize them. However, acceptance of certain interpretations and inferences based on or borrowed from the present altered versions of the Bible is contrary to the creed of Islam and the sinlessness of the Prophets. The stories narrated in the Bible concerning Prophets such as Lot and David, upon them be peace, bear witness to what I say.
Since deductive reasoning is permitted in the secondary or explanatory matters where the Qur’an and the sound Prophetic Tradition are silent, and commenting while relying on God’s help, is permissible, I say: What the Qur’an and our Prophet meant by Dhu’l-Qarnayn, Gog and Magog, and the barrier which Dhu’l-Qarnayn built is absolutely true, and it is obligatory to believe in these. For believing in whatever the Qur’an and our Prophet said and meant is one of the fundamentals of the Religion. However, when what the Qur’an and the Prophet say is not clear, we are allowed to make comments. So, concerning the matters under discussion, I say the following:
I do not agree with those who claim that Dhu’l-Qarnayn was Alexander the Great. First of all, the name does not fit this. Some interpreters of the Qur’an assert that he was a king, while according to some, he was an angel, others maintain that he was a Prophet, and there are some who think that he was a saint. What is certain in the Qur’an is that Dhu’l-Qarnayn was one who was confirmed and strengthened by God and who caused a barrier to be built between certain civilized and uncivilized peoples. There are also differences of view about the barrier. Some interpreters say that it was the Great Wall of China. Some others look for it between some mountains, and still others hold that it was a barrier that disappeared over time. Wherever and whatever it was or is, what is certain is that it was a great barrier for repelling the attacks of some savage, plundering tribes.
As for the tribes of Gog and Magog, there are different views among the interpreters. According to some interpreters, they were two tribes that were descendents of Noah’s son Yafas, while some others opine that they were some Mongolian and Manchurian tribes, or two tribes that were living in north-eastern Asia. There are still some who hold the view that they were a great host who reduced the world to chaos, while some others maintain that they are some creatures among God’s human and non-human beings who live on or under the surface of the earth and who will throw the world into great chaos before the Last Day. Despite such different views, all interpreters are agreed that Gog and Magog are two savage tribes who signal the end of the civilized world.
There are several opinions about how the barrier came or comes to an end. According to some, it will be destroyed before the end of time, while others say that the signs of its being destroyed have already appeared, and it will be fully demolished in the future. There are still others who are of the opinion that it was destroyed long ago. The common point on which all are agreed is that the destruction of the barrier means a grey hair in the beard of the earth and signals the old age of humankind.
When you consider all these explanations, it is possible to conclude that the Great Wall of China may have a share in the meaning or identity of the barrier. Extending for thousands of kilometers, this Wall is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and, at least at the beginning or during some period of its construction, it must have been built by one confirmed and strengthened by God. At the time it was built to protect the civilized peoples of the world from the destructive power of the savages. The destruction of the barrier is one of the signs of the final destruction of the world. Its complete disappearance is something different. The Prophet held up his two fingers side by side and declared, “I and the end of the world are like these two fingers,”41 meaning that he was the last of the Prophets, and was one of the signs of the end of the world. So, why should not the destruction of the barrier after the Age of Happiness—the Age of the Prophet—be a sign that the end of time is nigh? The destruction of the barrier suggests a wrinkle on the face of the earth, signaling its old age. There may be a time period between the destruction of the barrier and the final destruction of the world or Doomsday in the lifetime of the world that is like the time between the late afternoon and the evening; that time period may last hundreds or even thousands of years. Likewise, the turmoil and destruction that is to be caused by Gog and Magog could be the fever of humankind in its old age.
The comment made at the beginning of the Twelfth Premise concerning the narrative and the lesson will open a door for you. It is as follows:
The Qur’an mentions historical events to give certain, important lessons, and picks certain points out of these events which are like the nuclei of life and which serve one or some of its main purposes. Although the fire and light of a narrative and the lesson it gives do not exist side by side (that is, the lesson is not mentioned along with the narrative but is inferred from it,) the style may show them to be close friends standing side by side, and the mind may see them to be so. But since an event is narrated to teach a lesson, detail is not important. We should take the lesson without considering the detail. Furthermore, when you consult the Tenth Premise, you will see that one metaphor opens a door onto another. The sentence, He (Dhu’l Qarnayn) saw it (the sun) setting in a spring of hot and black, muddy water (18:86), rejects the literalists.
It should be remembered that the key of many Divine truths and proofs manifested through the language of Arabic is rhetorical eloquence founded upon the concise, figurative or metaphorical styles. The key to understanding them is not the speculations people make concerning the statements of Divine Speech. If you like, consult the Conclusion of the Tenth Premise, from which you can extract the nectar. It is also possible that the barrier, the exact identity and location of which are unknown to us, may be somewhere in the world, and will survive until the destruction of the world on Doomsday.
A house is not built for endurance, with no use at all. A house exists because it should be inhabited, but it usually outlives its dwellers. Similarly, a fort does not exist for a certain period of time without any use; it exists because people should take shelter in it, but it usually endures more than those who take shelter in it. There are many buildings which were built for habitation or to take shelter in, but which continue to exist empty and with no purpose. (So, although Dhu’l-Qarnayn built the barrier against the attacks of savage peoples, this does not require its destruction when its use has ended. It is possible that it will survive until the destruction of the world.) Unawareness of or heedlessness to this reality has given rise to many fancies and misunderstandings.
The reason why I have gone into this lengthy explanation concerning Dhu’l-Qarnayn and certain relevant matters is to illustrate the need to distinguish the exact meaning of a statement from its interpretations, something certain from something conjectural, the existence of something from its nature, a judgment (in the source texts themselves) from the explanations of others, the essential meaning of a statement from the points relating to that meaning, and the need to consider an occurrence with an eye to the likelihood of its occurring.
41 Al-Bukhari, al-Jami‘ al-Sahih, “Riqaq” 39; Muslim, al-Jami‘ al-Sahih, “Fitan” 132-135; al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, “Fitan” 39.