بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَـنِ الرَّحِيمِ
The leaders of nations today are almost always under the spotlight. In a world that is digitally connected 24/7, in which everyone has a voice thanks to instant communication via the Internet and social media, national and community leaders often bear the brunt of ‘instant’ backlashes and criticism regarding their actions, policies and decisions, as the ruled masses animatedly express their opinions in writing and on television about every move made by them.
Suffice to say, this makes it very difficult to lead and rule nations today. There is hardly a shred of personal privacy, and leaders have more and more reason to fear the wrath of the masses amidst bloody uprisings and revolutions spurred on by the masses at the grassroots level by social media.
This goes to show that every era in the history of mankind poses its own unique set of challenges to those in positions of authority and leadership. Yet, it is still hard to imagine that there was once a time in ancient history, when the greatest challenge for a leader was traveling across the world on his riding beast, along with an army of thousands of artillery-laden warrior soldiers, to conquer lands, win people’s hearts, and rule over them with justice and fairness (and not necessarily in that order).
There was one leader in history who did precisely that, so much so that he became well-known for centuries after he had passed away. This leader was called Dhul Qarnain, and the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was questioned about him:
وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ عَن ذِي الْقَرْنَيْنِ قُلْ سَأَتْلُو عَلَيْكُم مِّنْهُ ذِكْرًا
“And they will ask you about the Two-Horned One. Say: “I will convey unto you something by which he ought to be remembered.” [18:83]
The fourth and last story that Allah has narrated in Surah Al-Kahf is about this just, Allah-fearing ruler and his conquests. Several Quran exegeses shed light upon why Allah refers to him as ‘Dhul Qarnain‘, or “the possessor of (ذِي) the two horns (الْقَرْنَيْنِ)”.
A Great Leader
It is well-known that a very small percentage of mankind go on to become leaders who rule over their masses. Yet, those who do, exercise considerable influence (good or bad) during their tenures. This story of Dhul Qarnain that Allah has narrated in the Quran serves to be a beacon for anyone who occupies, or intends to ascend to, a position of authority and leadership over a large number of people.
There are scores of articles and blog posts on the Internet that list and describe desirable leadership qualities for the benefit of the innumerable, young, ardent and wannabe ladder-climbers out there, which list the prerequisite innate as well as acquired traits of successful leaders.
Life coaches, authors, motivational speakers and corporate trainers have made lucrative careers out of giving conferences on sustainable leadership, and “how to become successful managers/CEO’s” et al. No surprise that self-help books on this topic penned by so-called gurus abound online and in print, many of them going on to become bestsellers.
The greatest book of all, the Quran, also throws light upon just what it practically means to be a leader, by narrating this story of Dhul Qarnain in Surah Al-Kahf, without mentioning any of his traits in the form of a list that we can all immediately start to incorporate into ourselves, but rather, by describing his actions and behaviors during his successful conquests; in particular, how he dealt with the people he came to rule over.
These people included those he had never even met before, nor (as in one particular case), whose language he even understood; people whose towns he traveled hundreds of miles to reach and eventually preside over.
Yet, Dhul Qarnain was so successful in influencing his subjects, that he was able to convince them to submit to and worship Allah as the only god,- and he did this without shedding any blood!
A Highly Resourceful Man
إِنَّا مَكَّنَّا لَهُ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَآتَيْنَاهُ مِن كُلِّ شَيْءٍ سَبَبًا
“Behold, We established him securely on earth, and endowed him with [the knowledge of] the right means to achieve anything [that he might set out to achieve];” [18:84]
Allah had bestowed every kind of resource and means (سَبَبًا) upon Dhul Qarnain, which Tafsir Ibn Kathir describes as: knowledge. This is what the word سَبَبًا means, according to Ibn Abbas, Sa’eed Bin Jubair, Qatadah, `Ikrimah and Al-Suddi, among others.
The tafsir further expounds on the meaning of وَآتَيْنَاهُ مِن كُلِّ شَيْءٍ سَبَبًا: “Allah gave him the means of all things, meaning, the means and power to conquer all areas, regions and countries, to defeat enemies, suppress the kings of the earth and humiliate the people of shirk. He was given all that a man like him would need.”
So, we can conclude that Allah had blessed Dhul Qarnain with knowledge as well as the worldly power, authority and physical means necessary to become a conqueror who established the sovereignty of Allah upon earth where ever he went.
Not everyone blessed with resources uses them for accomplishing good for others beyond and without one’s own ‘little bubble’, however.
Allah might give knowledge, wealth, authority and power to many individuals and families on this earth, but few are guided to “follow” (أَتْبَعَ) these means in order to achieve good for others around the world.
Dhul Qarnain, however, did, which is why he not only established justice upon earth where ever he went, but Allah also granted him long-term honorable mention in His Glorious Book, the Quran:
“And so he chose the right means [in whatever he did]. [18:85]
This means that Dhul Qarnain used the resources, ability, manpower and control at his disposal to travel across the world, east and west, to achieve what he wanted. He could have stayed stationary in one place until death overcame him, but he did not do that.
As the verses that come after this one reveal, his travels across the east and west of the earth allowed him to achieve much for the good and benefit of others. And let us not forget how strenuous and physically taxing it must have been to travel far and wide in those days, given that we live in the age of speed-trains, private jets and space shuttles, so we really cannot fathom the arduous and rather dangerous months-long journeys upon land and sea that people used to undertake centuries ago, just to get from one place to another.
The lesson in this verse for us laymen is, to use the means that Allah has given to us, to spread good to others who dwell beyond our own comfortable little circles (i.e. our homes and families). We live in an era in which we can do much (nay, a LOT) to benefit others across the globe, because many people now have a screen on their palms, laps, desks or tablets via which they can read our writing and hear our voices within seconds.
The Modern-Day Means or سَبَبًا
Two of the most effective means/resources or “سَبَبًا”, in our hands today, are – in my opinion- digital technology and the Internet (as well as the combination of them both). When these 2 means or tools are used to spread beneficial knowledge around the globe, they can literally bring about an overnight, permanent and positive change to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives! (Khan Academy is a great example.)
In the recent years, major events, causes, initiatives, entrepreneurial endeavors and even country-wide revolutions have been successfully initiated, managed and executed – all by the effective use of digital media and technology.
Yet, these beneficial tools continue to elude many educated and otherwise enlightened people thriving rather successfully in today’s digitally connected world.
For example, I know of a few educated, socially active and “modern” adults who can still not “text” (i.e. send a message from their cellular device). They also do not have an email address, which means that they do not check their email, which in turn means that they can only be reached via a phone call. They only read material that is printed on paper (even though their eyesight is just fine, and they are young). The only reason they bought a cell phone in the first place, was because everyone else had one and they were starting to be considered a bit ‘out-of-it’. They do not yet know that they can read major international newspapers online every morning (or night), nor do they know how much more effective Twitter is in getting localized breaking news in real-time than the news channels they remain glued to on TV.
In a world of instant connectivity and real-time communication, this detachment is a little hard to believe. The reason is that some people are not inspired to use the means and resources that Allah has provided them for the ‘greater good’ of mankind. At the most, they use these tools just for casual entertainment (Angry Birds, anyone?) or for leisure.
To each his own, and their choices are perfectly fine on a personal level.
But this nonchalance is contrary to what Dhul Qarnain did in appreciation of Allah’s many blessings upon him: فَأَتْبَعَ سَبَبًا. The point to note is how Allah has mentioned Dhul Qarnain’s use of his resources and knowledge (فَأَتْبَعَ سَبَبًا) in a positive light, by repeating this phrase more than once throughout the narrative of his story in Surah Al-Kahf!
Establishment of Justice
حَتَّى إِذَا بَلَغَ مَغْرِبَ الشَّمْسِ وَجَدَهَا تَغْرُبُ فِي عَيْنٍ حَمِئَةٍ وَوَجَدَ عِندَهَا قَوْمًا قُلْنَا يَا ذَا الْقَرْنَيْنِ إِمَّا أَن تُعَذِّبَ وَإِمَّا أَن تَتَّخِذَ فِيهِمْ حُسْنًا
“And he marched westwards till, when he came to the setting of the sun, it appeared to him that it was setting in a dark, turbid sea; and nearby he found a people [given to every kind of wrongdoing]. We said: “O you Two-Horned One! You may either cause [them] to suffer or treat them with kindness.” [18:86]
Dhul Qarnain came upon a townspeople who lived near the sea, because when the sun set upon these people, it appeared to them to be going down into the sea.
Allah granted Dhul Qarnain complete authority and power over these people, which is obvious from the second part of the verse above. He could punish them for their crimes, or he could treat them with kindness – Allah had given him the power, as their sovereign, to do as he wished.
Here I’d like to point out that every ruler on earth whom Allah tests by letting him acquire absolute authority over a people (community, town or country), so that he possesses the means to either be cruel to them when they are innocent, or to let them off unpunished even if they are guilty of committing heinous crimes, has a certain time period to either pass or fail this test.
Every leader, commander, or president eventually dies, or is removed from power (haven’t most of us seen this happen to rulers during our lives?). Whether or not he executes justice in his “seat” is what Allah tests him to see.
It was the same case with Dhul Qarnain. Allah granted him absolute power over the people whom he came upon near the sea.
Let us now see what he did when he got this power:
قَالَ أَمَّا مَن ظَلَمَ فَسَوْفَ نُعَذِّبُهُ ثُمَّ يُرَدُّ إِلَى رَبِّهِ فَيُعَذِّبُهُ
“He answered, “As for him who does wrong [unto others] – him shall we, in time, cause to suffer; and thereupon he shall be referred to his Sustainer, and He will cause him to suffer with unnameable suffering.” [18:87]
Dhul Qarnain warned the people that he’d punish whoever engaged in wrongdoings or committed crimes. He further warned that beyond this worldly punishment, such criminals would have to further endure the torment of the Akhirah meted out to them by Allah, if they did not repent for their wrongdoings.
وَأَمَّا مَنْ آمَنَ وَعَمِلَ صَالِحًا فَلَهُ جَزَاء الْحُسْنَى
وَسَنَقُولُ لَهُ مِنْ أَمْرِنَا يُسْرًا
“But as for him who believes and does righteous deeds – he will have the ultimate good [of the life to come] as his reward; and [as for us,] we shall make binding on him [only] that which is easy to fulfill.” [18:88]
Dhul Qarnain then showed the bright side of the same coin (viz. his system of recompense) by promising good rewards in the Hereafter (جَزَاء الْحُسْنَى) for those who believed in Islam and did righteous deeds under his rule, as well as words of kindness and ease of matters in this world (as a worldly reward from him, their ruler).
Thus, we glean from these verses that a righteous leader doesn’t just sentence a criminal to worldly punishment because he can (by exploiting his authority), but instead, he actually works towards establishing the rules and laws of His Creator upon earth by using his position of authority for this purpose.
He simultaneously warns and reminds his subjects about the rewards and punishments of the Hereafter, which should be his and their greatest concern, as everyone’s state in the world (good or bad) eventually comes to pass due to its fleeting and transient nature.
Moving Past a Barren Land
ثُمَّ أَتْبَعَ سَبَبًا
“And once again he chose the right means [to achieve a right end].” [18:89]
Dhul Qarnain traveled further on, using his resources and knowledge, as before.
حَتَّى إِذَا بَلَغَ مَطْلِعَ الشَّمْسِ وَجَدَهَا تَطْلُعُ عَلَى قَوْمٍ لَّمْ
نَجْعَل لَّهُم مِّن دُونِهَا سِتْرًا
“[And then he marched eastwards] till, when he came to the rising of the sun he found that it was rising on a people for whom We had provided no coverings against it.” [18:90]
He came upon a town whose inhabitants had no shade or cover to protect them from the heat of the sun during the day i.e. there were no buildings or trees. Qatadah said, “It was mentioned to us that they were in a land where nothing grew, so when the sun rose, they would go into tunnels until it had passed its zenith, then they would come out to go about their daily lives and earn themselves a living.”
(Tafsir Ibn Kathir)
I find it interesting to note how, in providing us the details regarding the first nation that Dhul Qarnain came across, Allah mentions the setting of the sun in “a dark sea” (تَغْرُبُ فِي عَيْنٍ حَمِئَةٍ). And when Allah describes this other, second nation on which Dhul Qarnain happened to come across, He mentions the rising of the sun. This might indicate that Dhul Qarnain traveled both along the east and the west of the earth, as the sun rises from the east and sets in the west. And Allah knows best. We can all but conjecture.
What I am trying to emphasize here is that we should ponder upon the intricate, seemingly trivial details that Allah mentions during His narratives in the Quran, in order to try and make sense of them. This is because not a single letter in the Quran is extra or irrelevant; each letter and word is important.
كَذَلِكَ وَقَدْ أَحَطْنَا بِمَا لَدَيْهِ خُبْرًا
“Thus We had made them, and thus he left them; and We did encompass with Our knowledge all that he had in mind.” [18:91]
It was Allah’s will that the people of this second nation had no cover from the sun. Tafsir Al Jalalayn adds further that these people were not even clothed (i.e. did not possess even the most basic cover from the sun for their bodies), and they lived upon a land that could not support any structures/pillars (not even plants or trees):
“Until, when he reached the rising of the sun, the place where it rises, he found it rising on a folk, namely, Negroes, for whom We had not provided against it, that is, [against] the sun, any [form of] cover, in the way of clothing or roofing, as their land could not support any structures; they had underground tunnels into which they would disappear at the rising of the sun, and out of which they would emerge when it was at its highest point [in the sky].” – Tafsir Al-Jalalayn
Dhul Qarnain moved on from them. Allah mentions how He had full knowledge of what Dhul Qarnain was doing (أَحَطْنَا بِمَا لَدَيْهِ خُبْرًا).
The fact that Dhul Qarnain took no interest in ruling over the people of this land is quite clear.
The lesson for us in his moving on from this town without staying with them, is that a wise leader recognizes and ignores those people and places that do not provide opportunities for doing any beneficial work that could lead to long-term, positive results for mankind.
Helping a Tormented Nation
ثُمَّ أَتْبَعَ سَبَبًا
“And once again he chose the right means (to achieve a right end).” [18:92]
حَتَّى إِذَا بَلَغَ بَيْنَ السَّدَّيْنِ وَجَدَ مِن دُونِهِمَا قَوْمًا لَّا
يَكَادُونَ يَفْقَهُونَ قَوْلًا
“[And he marched on] till, when he reached [a place] between the two mountain-barriers, he found beneath them a people who could scarcely understand a word [of his language].” [18:93]
Once again, Dhul Qarnain marched on along routes of the earth, until he came upon a people dwelling in a mountainous terrain. They couldn’t understand his language, but managed to convey to him one of their pressing problems:
قَالُوا يَا ذَا الْقَرْنَيْنِ إِنَّ يَأْجُوجَ وَمَأْجُوجَ مُفْسِدُونَ فِي الْأَرْضِ فَهَلْ نَجْعَلُ لَكَ خَرْجًا عَلَى أَن تَجْعَلَ بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَهُمْ سَدًّا
“They said: “O you Two-Horned One! Behold, Yajuj and Majuj are spoiling this land. May we, then, pay you a tribute on the understanding that you will erect a barrier between us and them?” [18:94]
Unlike the barren land that Dhul Qarnain had last come across, the mountainous land on which this nation lived was undoubtedly a good one, because of which its inhabitants sought a permanent solution from the corruption being wrought upon it by the Yajuj and Majuj, who’d intermittently attack and plunder them.
This indicates the righteous nature of these people, because only those who are morally upright and Allah-fearing are sensitive to and intolerant of vice, and seek to eradicate it from their communities.
These people undoubtedly saw that Dhul Qarnain was a righteous, just ruler who’d be willing to use his manpower, machinery and other resources to help them eradicate crime and corruption from their town.
This reminds me of how a couple of jail inmates recognized the innate goodness and wisdom of Prophet Yusuf [عليه السلام], and approached him for help in interpreting their dreams, soon after he was sent to live in their jail.
The fairness of these townspeople is further apparent in the fact that they readily offered to pay tax or payment to Dhul Qarnain in return for his building a barrier to permanently protect them from the Yajuj and Majuj.
قَالَ مَا مَكَّنِّي فِيهِ رَبِّي خَيْرٌ فَأَعِينُونِي بِقُوَّةٍ أَجْعَلْ بَيْنَكُمْ وَبَيْنَهُمْ رَدْمًا
“He answered: “That wherein my Sustainer has so securely established me is better [than anything that you could give me]; hence, just help me with [your labor’s] strength, [and] I shall erect a barrier between you and them.” [18:95]
For more details on who the Yajuj and Majuj are, you can consult any good Quran exegesis. Dhul Qarnain refused their payment of tax but agreed to build an invincible barrier between them and the mischief-makers anyway, requesting them to help him with their manpower.
When he refused their offer of payment, he gave the most beautiful reason for it: مَا مَكَّنِّي فِيهِ رَبِّي خَيْرٌ. Allah had already granted him vast provisions upon earth (إِنَّا مَكَّنَّا لَهُ فِي الْأَرْضِ), and instead of becoming arrogant and miserly as a result of being so self-sufficient, he remained humble and servile towards mankind, proclaiming Allah’s bounties upon him publicly and in an unapologetic manner.
This kind of negotiation or “business deal” is the wonderful, blessed kind that is done purely for the sake of Allah! In which one party offers a payment to the other in return for providing a valuable service that will remove their difficulty, instead of asking for the latter’s hard labor and services for free (to pinch pennies).
In return, the other party refuses to take the payment, because they already have ample money and resources given to them by Allah, but honestly requests what they do need from the other party in order to achieve what is to be done in as best a way as possible.
Such a transaction, which starts off on a footing of complete honesty and with the noble intention of humanitarian service (removal of vice and corruption from society), brings forward the best, most long-lasting good results.
This is how successful leaders negotiate noble causes, by honestly putting forth clear clauses in all their business deals, and honor their commitments.
Another lesson learned? When you want someone’s services, please take them in return for payment, and pay them well once you’ve receive the service (not in a stingy, niggardly manner).
Do not go around asking others for free favors, otherwise you’ll soon find yourself very lonely.
A Job Well Done
آتُونِي زُبَرَ الْحَدِيدِ حَتَّى إِذَا سَاوَى بَيْنَ الصَّدَفَيْنِ قَالَ انفُخُوا حَتَّى إِذَا جَعَلَهُ نَارًا قَالَ آتُونِي أُفْرِغْ عَلَيْهِ قِطْرًا
“”Bring me ingots of iron.” Then, after he had [piled up the iron and] filled the gap between the two mountain-sides, he said: “[Light a fire and] ply your bellows.” At length, when he had made it [glow like] fire, he commanded: “Bring me molten copper which I may pour upon it.” [18:96]
Dhul Qarnain got to work. Using iron, fire, bellows, and molten copper, he utilized the knowledge, manpower and other resources at his disposal to build an insurmountable and impenetrable barrier (رَدْمًا) that trapped the Yajuj and Majuj in the valley between the mountains.
One point I noted is that when the townspeople asked Dhul Qarnain to build a barrier for them, they called it (the Arabic word) سَدًّا. This word means, “any construction or building with which a place is closed up or stopped. A thing intervening as a separation, a partition, a fence, a barrier, a rampart, or an obstacle or obstruction between two other things.” [Lane]
When he agreed to do the job, however, Dhul Qarnain called this barrier (the Arabic word) رَدْمًا, which means, “A thing intervening between two other things, preventing the passage from one to the other; an obstruction, or a barrier; any building with which a place is obstructed. It is larger than a سَدًّا and signifies anything having parts that are put, and then joined and sewed, one upon another.” [Lane]
Analysis of these Arabic words reveal that Dhul Qarnain built for the people a barrier that was bigger, better, firmer and more long-lasting in purpose than what they had requested. The markings of a true “professional”! -Someone who does his job better than expected. The next verse corroborates this fact:
فَمَا اسْطَاعُوا أَن يَظْهَرُوهُ وَمَا اسْتَطَاعُوا لَهُ نَقْبًا
“And thus [the barrier was built, and] their enemies were unable to scale it, and neither were they able to pierce it.” [18:97]
The barrier was so hard, firm and sturdy, that the Yajuj and Majuj were unable to even pierce a small hole in it, let alone scale it over the top to come bother the good townspeople again.
Dhul Qarnain fulfilled his promise to the people – he worked hard to create a huge metal barrier that prevented the Yajuj and Majuj from reaching them to plunder and loot again.
Lesson: a humble, successful leader doesn’t sit with his feet up on his big desk in the corner office, twiddling his thumbs while slave-driving his workforce to get the big job done.
He gets down there with them, hands-on and in the thick, working as hard as they, if not more, to make sure that the targets of the team are met and the project is completed on time, yielding the best possible results, and bypassing even the client’s expectations.
But the best was yet to come.
Public Acknowledgment of Allah’s Favors and Belief in the Hereafter
قَالَ هَذَا رَحْمَةٌ مِّن رَّبِّي فَإِذَا جَاء وَعْدُ رَبِّي جَعَلَهُ دَكَّاء وَكَانَ وَعْدُ رَبِّي حَقًّا
“He said: “This is a mercy from my Sustainer! Yet when the time appointed by my Sustainer shall come, He will make this [barrier] level with the ground: and my Sustainer’s promise always comes true!” [18:98]
Dhul Qarnain attributed all that he had done to bring about the successful construction of the rampart, and the consequent prevention of the corruption caused by the Yajuj and Majuj, as a manifestation of the mercy of his Creator (هَذَا رَحْمَةٌ مِّن رَّبِّي).
Far from taking full credit for the job, he credited its success solely to Allah, since every believer knows that whatever he has been blessed with, from his talents, abilities, resources and knowledge, to the ideas and aid of other people that help bring about the positive culmination of the projects he undertakes, are all solely from Allah. Just as Allah can give someone all these blessings, so too, can He take them away in the blinking of an eye!
Dhul Qarnain further reminded the people of the town that when the promised Hour (وَعْدُ رَبِّي) would come to pass, Allah’s might and power would instantly destroy the barrier he had built by leveling it to the ground into nothingness. By proclaiming this reality, he diverted them from being impressed by the strength of the barrier, to focusing on and being in awe of the greatness and might of Allah, whose omnipresent power could instantly destroy even such a sturdy, impenetrable structure.
Such reminders to one’s self and to others ensure that a person prevents arrogance and pride from entering his heart, especially if he or she has been blessed with immense resources and power, and has achieved great feats using these blessings. For such people,- leaders who achieve much across the world,- it is even more important to remain humble by reminding themselves that everything they have and that they have achieved is solely because of Allah’s mercy and will.
If this mental exercise – of reminding one’s self and others of Allah’s power and the Hour of the Akhirah that will destroy everything on earth into nothingness – is not undertaken by people in positions of authority, it becomes easy for them to fall into the trap of becoming arrogant, self-absorbed and oppressive.
They can also then mistakenly start attributing their achievements to their own greatness, thus failing the test of leadership that Allah put them into for a short time in this world (which is, at the most, a few decades, because every “great” emperor and conqueror eventually died and mingled with the dust, no matter how vast his empire, and how great his power over people).
The four stories of Surah Al-Kahf are all real incidents that took place in the past. Centuries ago, the boys of the cave, the rich garden owner and his friend the poor man, Al-Khidr and Prophet Musa, and Dhul Qarnain, all went through the events detailed in this surah.
Allah has narrated them to us in the Quran and exhorted us to recite this surah every Friday, so that we are reminded of the reality of the life of this world, and are prevented from being fooled and impressed by the vastness of our resources, provision, wealth, social status, assets, influence, power, or any other kind of worldly blessing.
These stories endorse the action of traveling through the earth to escape religious persecution and safeguard one’s faith; to seek knowledge directly from a learned person; or to establish justice and Islam as the law and rule of the land.
All of these stories exhort us to not be fooled by the grandeur of the life of this world, and to keep the imminence and reality of the Hour (Akhirah) always in mind, as a reminder of the true nature of our transient existence on this earth.