Dhul-Qarnayn, “He of the Two Horns”, is a figure mentioned in Surah Al-Kahf of the Quran, where he is described as a great and righteous ruler who built a long wall that keeps Gog and Magog from attacking the people of the West.
Surah Al-Kahf is a portion of the Quran that contains a secret map for the explorer. We live in an age of exploration, so let the map be known to the explorers, that they might be rightly guided.
Why is a tailor interested in cartography and exploration? Because the expedition is dangerous and requires a garment that will protect the body from strange fire. The secret beauty of the surah can clothe the People of Understanding with a powerful garment, a garment of strength to navigate the waves of Time itself, a Prophetic garment of light, a garment to protect the traveler from the alien dangers above and below.
The worshipers examine the verses with little understanding. They read it as children read. They read “Dhul-Qarnain” and debate who he was. Was he Alexander? Cyrus? They read about his journey from west to east, and his construction of the barrier to defend the eastern people from Gog and Magog, and debate the geographies of the narrative. Some say Magog is the Mongols at Central Asia. Other match Magog to more contemporary politics. These attempts are folly.
They try to position the east and west, the western and eastern people, the figure of Dhul-Qarnain and Gog and Magog on a map of the world.
They try to find a map for Dhul-Qarnain. This is folly because they always use the wrong map. They need the map of Dhul-Qarnain himself, which certainly was not a wordly, geopolitical map, but rather a map of existence itself.
The map they require is there in front of them, in the words of the surah itself!
We live in an age of exploration, and yet the worshipers remain in their homes, afraid to venture out. Perhaps they are afraid because they sense their maps are inadequate.
We live in the age of exploration, and the time has come for the secret map to be given to anyone who would explore righteously.
Dhul-Qarnain means the two horned one: he who balances east and west.
To understand, look at the points of the compass in the holy books.
The west is a Divine Name that is reflected in the body of the human being. The west is a mirror that does not shine, a muddied water that absorbs and does not reflect. The west is speech, the raw creative spirit. The west is a Divine comfort that descends upon the seekers, and a location within our own psyche that can be cultivated to ascend to comfort. The west is the unconscious, the place of dreams, the writing board on which consciousness is inscribed. All explorers must begin in the west, because exploration is always a creative act, an act of writing, an act of speech. All our prayers begin in the west, because prayer is creativity, a creative approximation of the Divine within our minds, in reflection of the Divine creative act that rendered precise our form. The west is the gate to the Divine House, the entrance to the space of the Names.
And because we all begin exploration in the west, we also call the western station the lower station.
The east is a Divine Name that is reflected in the body of the human being. The east is the Divine Breath that breathed life into the cosmos. It is also the breath of human prophecy that reflects in human language the unrepresentable song of the Divine. It is from this eastern aspect of the human being that come all the holy books of our history, all the revelations of the ages, all words of God encoded through prophetic inspiration.
Because prophecy is higher than creativity, but has its beginning in the creative spirit, we also call the eastern station the higher station.
A prophet is one who journeys west to east. The prophet begins as a righteous worshiper, not as prophet. The worshiper ascends first to the lower, western station. The western name descends upon them and offers love and comfort and entry into the House of God. The worshiper begins their journey by cleaving to the Western Name, mastering their dreams, and making righteous their speech. The worshiper then travels east, to the limits of their speech, to the heart of the human body, the heart that beats with the Breath of God. Prophecy descends upon the worshiper, and the prophet breathes the breath of the unutterable, singing a divine song at the very limit of language. The prophet as a scribe is commanded to write and becomes our dunia’s sole linguistic conduit to the Unrepresentable Beloved.
Because prophecy is a song, and songs derive from the west, prophecy is only possible through a marriage of east and west. This is the cosmic marriage of which has been spoken by the mystics. It is balance between east and west. Dhul-Qarnain is the two horned one: the two horns are east and west, held in perfect balance by him.
The Quran describes exactly this prophetic ascension as Dhul-Qarnain’s journey from west to east.
(18:82) They will ask thee of Dhul-Qarnain. Say: I shall recite unto you a remembrance of him. (83) Lo! We made him strong in the land and gave him unto every thing a road. (84) And he followed a road (85) Till, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring, and found a people thereabout.
He begins in the west, where the sun sets at a muddy spring, a water that does not reflect. He begins at the source of creativity. He begins with speech. He begins his journey by entering the Western Name that descends upon him in gracious invitation.
But we have said the exploration is fraught with dangers. That’s why we need a map, to avoid danger.
The map of Dhul-Qarnain details the two temptations: one of the north and one of the south.
(18:85) We said: O Dhul-Qarnain! Either punish or show them kindness. (86) He said: As for him who doeth wrong, we shall punish him, and then he will be brought back unto his Lord, Who will punish him with awful punishment! (87) But as for him who believeth and doeth right, good will be his reward, and We shall speak unto him a mild command.
Dhul-Qarnain is tested by God through the Northern Name. The North is a Divine name, reflected in the human body. The Nothern name is Deen, judgement, logic, rationality, measure. It is associated with the left side of the body. As we have written elsewhere, rationality, judgement and logic are a precondition for the Cosmic Romance: eating of the Tree brought us into judgement, but through judgement we may realise the Cosmic Romance, because judgement is a precondition of being a free agent. The north and west are intimately linked: the west is language and speech, which are still an order of lesser judgement, but the west is still an open field. The field is divided and cultivated (or wasted and defiled) by systems of judgement.
In the case of the explorer, the danger is then the same as that faced by Dhul-Qarnain. We construct a system of values, we make judgements, utilizing our Western nature, utilizing our creative spirit. We may abuse this aspect of our selves that God has granted us, and create a monstrous, tyrannical system of judgement. We may create a system that harms us, or harms others. Humans do this constantly. That’s the temptation of the North over the West.
Dhul-Qarnain conquered that temptation, as he crowned his western land with a righteous judgement. His Deen reflected the Divine, and so his western Kingdom became a fruitful land.
(88) Then he followed a road (89) Till, when he reached the rising-place of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had appointed no shelter therefrom. (90) So (it was). And We knew all concerning him.
First graced by the West, crowned by a righteous Deen in the North, Dhul-Qarnain moves east. This place has no shelter from the light. The Eastern Name is prophecy, and prophets have no shelter from the light, they abide in light constantly. For the rest of humanity, the prophets are indeed our lights along the path. Dhul-Qarnain ascends to this name and attains prophecy.
Prophecy is the balance of east and west and it is in this state that the second temptation arises.
(91) Then he followed a road (92) Till, when he came between the two mountains, he found upon their hither side a folk that scarce could understand a saying.
The people scarcely understand a word. They do, however, understand. They exist at the limits of language, of representation. They exist at the limits of speech, whose field Dhul-Qarnain entered at the West. Dhul-Qarnain’s journey has taken him to the limits of speech, the limits of cosmologies, the limits of the cosmos as perceivable by the human mind. For this is the nature of the Prophetic station, a station of Mastery of the Limits.
(93) They said: O Dhul-Qarnain! Lo! Gog and Magog are spoiling the land. So may we pay thee tribute on condition that thou set a barrier between us and them?
The temptation from the South. The South is a Divine Name that is reflected in the body of the human. It is Love, Compassion and Beauty. God is Love, and Love is the meaning behind all, and that Love is incorruptible by definition. But it is the imprint of Love within the human form that is subject to a danger here. The people require Dhul-Qarnain’s knowledge to protect them from the attack of Gog and Magog. In exchange, they would tempt him with the offer of tribute. What is the tribute to prophecy? It is a dangerous thing, if human love, our southern aspect, deviates from modes of Divine lovesong, and become attached instead to submit to prophecy itself. Divine love takes many forms: we can love the Divine through love of each other, as well as through focused cultivation of the love of the Divine in prayer. But submission a prophet, or submission to a prophecy, poses a danger, as it may ultimately obscure and oppress the greater love.
(94) He said: That wherein my Lord hath established me is better (than your tribute).
Dhul-Qarnain was not tempted, a prophet is never tempted by such an offer. So the second temptation is our temptation: what do we worship? What do we love?
Divine Love is to unfold: it’s the meaning of life. But, as the Buddhist scriptures teach us, attachment is the other side of human love: and attachment can lead to hatred ultimately. If you worship the prophecy at the expense of forgetting the Divine, then where will you stand at the end of days?
(18:94) Do but help me with strength (of men), I will set between you and them a bank. (95) Give me pieces of iron – till, when he had levelled up between the cliffs, he said: Blow! – till, when he had made it a fire, he said: Bring me molten copper to pour thereon. (96) And (Gog and Magog) were not able to scale it nor dig through it.
Having attained prophecy and averted the two temptations within himself, Dhul-Qarnain then repeats this act again, for the worshippers. He builds a barrier that prevents Gog and Magog from attacking below (the first danger of judgement against west) and from attacking above (the second danger of love against east).
But what is the barrier and what are the two mountains?
In the Quran, mountains are stabilizers of the earth. Earth is the plane of human consciousness, its territories and lands, its cities and nations, exist as territories, lands, cities and nations over the physical planet but also, exist as frameworks and categories we use to orient our becomings.
The earth is a plane of intra- and inter-subjective interaction. The earth of consciousness is also open to earthquakes, fire, pestilence, wars, as well as gardens, cities and fruitfulness.
This range of earthly experience is a dialectic, a logical plane, delimited by two absolutes: truth and falsity, affirmation and contradiction, yes and no. This is the logic of life.
The distance between those two mountains is as wide as the human cosmos itself. The two mountains stabilize the human cosmos. We all exist between the two mountains.
The two absolutes are its stabilizers, for without these two poles, existence within this plane is not possible. But, between these two poles, all is possible, and that is the problem faced by Dhul-Qarnain’s people.
When Gog and Magog run free throughout the land, a promiscuity of words becomes possible, the fields can be left unattended, destruction, theft and evil is placed within the minds of the people. The Torah (Eziekiel 38:10): Thus says the Lord “On that day it shall come to pass that thoughts will arise in your mind and you will make an evil plan.” You will say, “I will go against a land of unwalled villages to take plunder and booty…”
Theft and destruction of unwalled cities! The cities are in need of walls. So Dhul-Qarnain established the barrier (radmaa) between the mountains. Gog and Magog could not scale or dig through it.
What is the barrier? The radmaa of Dhul-Qarnain is the sunnah (path) of righteousness, a barrier that extends between the limits of conscious thought, the limits of the human cosmos itself. It is a cosmology, a sunnah, a means of navigating the becoming, so we are protected from the attacks below (from the dangers of misalignment below, through tyranical judgement) and from attacks above (from the danger faced at prophecy — the danger of idolatory – attachment that leads to hatred). As a sunnah, it is a navigation.
(97) He said: This is a mercy from my Lord; but when the promise of my Lord cometh to pass, He will level it down to the ground when the Promise of my Lord comes. (98) And on that day we shall let some of them surge against others, and the Trumpet will be blown. Then We shall gather them together in one gathering.
But the navigation breaks down at the end of days. Gog and Magog will be released to surge upon the land. And the sunnah will not avail us: only the prayer of Jesus will do this. (A discussion of the related hadith demands another post.)
Let the babes become men and women, let the worshippers prepare for the end and clothe themselves well against alien forces!