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Lessons from Zulqarnain

Salman Rasheed

The writer is a Karachi-based research analyst and political consultant.

The story of Zulqarnain appears in Surah Al-Kahf from the Holy Quran and conjures many curiosities about this person and his identity. Leaving the conjecture about Zulqarnain’s identity aside, his story offers several lessons/values that are pertinent to our lives.

The story of Hazrat Yusuf (AS) and Zulqarnain is quite similar where Allah (SWT) gives Yusuf (AS) the key to the land that eventually led to governance where Yusuf (AS) becomes the Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Egypt. Similarly, Allah (SWT) gives Zulqarnain means/resources to all things, “Surely We established him in the land, and gave him the means to all things.” (Surah Al-Kahf, Ayat 84). Allah (SWT) is teaching us that He (SWT) sometimes tests people with nothingness like the story about the companions of the cave and tests others like Yusuf (AS) and Zulqarnain with resources/wealth and/or political power to accomplish remarkable things. 

Therefore, we see that Allah (SWT) gives resources to the prophets and good people to bring about positive change on a wider level. Likewise, we should also use the talents and success Allah (SWT) has given us to help others achieve success. 

The Ayahs 86-88 of Surah Al-Kahf provides another lesson from the travels of Zulqarnain, “until he reached the setting ‘point’ of the sun, which appeared to him to be set in a spring of murky water, where he found some people. We said, “O Zul-Qarnain! Either punish them or treat them kindly. He responded, “Whoever does wrong will be punished by us, then will be returned to their Lord, Who will punish them with a horrible torment. As for those who believe and do good, they will have the finest reward, and we will assign them easy commands.” 

Allah (SWT) through Zulqarnain is teaching us in the above Ayahs how to deal with people that we don’t know. Instead of stereotyping or assuming the worst about someone or a group of people and treating them harshly, we should treat good people kindly while punishing those who do wrong. Thus, Zulqarnain displays leadership traits of fairness and justice. Also, we see that Allah (SWT) has given Zulqarnain an important resource or ability to properly investigate people to find the right ones to grow the empire. 

The story of Zulqarnain serves as a model of good governance that all of us in leadership can apply.

This lesson is also true for this life and Duniya we live in. Many organizations or movements begin with visionary leadership at the top while the people underneath join when they see them successful and want to pursue their agendas within the organization rather than the leadership. And hence, success becomes a test as it attracts others to join us who may have ulterior motives and don’t share our vision and values. Rather than form alliances with corrupt people, we should do our homework and deal with people accordingly.

In the Ayahs 92-94 of Surah Al-Kahf, they narrate to us Zulqarnain’s meeting a people whose language he didn’t understand, “Then he traveled a ˹third˺ course until he reached ˹a pass˺ between two mountains. He found in front of them a people who could hardly understand ˹his˺ language. They pleaded, “O Ⱬul-Qarnain! Surely Gog and Magog are spreading corruption throughout the land. Should we pay you tribute, provided that you build a wall between us and them?” 

We know that Zulqarnain was a well-traveled person and learned many languages but these people’s language he didn’t understand. Here Allah (SWT) is teaching us that regardless of our education, knowledge, and experience, we must shed our pomposity when we approach a new project or serve new people, and listen to the people we are trying to serve as they know better about what their requirements are. Therefore, we see that Zulqarnain isn’t behaving like some European colonizer talking down and dictating to the natives as though he knows better than them what they need. However, Zulqarnain realizes that these people are lacking advanced technology as they don’t know how to build a wall to protect them from Gog and Magog.

Instead of building the wall for them utilizing his resources and labor from his empire, Zulqarnain asks these people to help him build this wall, “He responded, “What my Lord has provided for me is far better. But assist me with resources, and I will build a barrier between you and them. Bring me blocks of iron!” Then, when he had filled up ˹the gap˺ between the two mountains, he ordered, “Blow!” When the iron became red hot, he said, “Bring me molten copper to pour over it.” (Surah Al-Kahf Ayah 95-96).  Zulqarnain is transferring technology and expertise to the local people to build the wall out of their available resources and not using outside labor and material so that the local people become indebted to him.  This is a valuable lesson in how to empower people.

We must realize that empowering others by teaching them the skills and knowledge Allah (SWT) has given us doesn’t diminish our success.  By sharing knowledge and advice with others, we are developing the best resource which is human resources.  With Zulqarnain teaching the locals how to build a wall, he has gained their loyalty and gratitude for eternity without having to leave a military presence and thus, showing us how to win people over through goodness.

Ayah 97-98 states, “Thus were they made powerless to scale it or to dig through it. He said: “This is a mercy from my Lord: but when the promise of my Lord comes to pass, He will make it into dust, and the promise of My Lord is true.” We experience the humility of Zulqarnain that even his great achievement is no match for the power of Allah (SWT). Furthermore, he reminds the people and us that the true source of all accomplishment is Allah (SWT), and what he has accomplished is due to His (SWT) Mercy. Just like everything else, this achievement will perish when the Final Day comes, warning us that the Day of Judgement is the definitive truth.

The story of Zulqarnain serves as a model of good governance that all of us in leadership can apply. It provides lessons on generosity, unity of command, people’s empowerment and betterment, strong defense, teamwork, effective planning, and visionary leadership.

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