Friday, March 4, 2016

Demystifying "Gog and Magog" in Judeo-Christian Tradition, the Qur'an, and the Hadiths

Adeel, the author of the "Quran Answers" blog, has just published an excellent essay on the topic of Gog and Magog in the Qur'an and hadiths.  I felt this was worth posting about, because the topic of Gog and Magog has become the subject of a lot of misunderstanding, wild conjecture, and bizarre interpretations.  But, while it represents an apocalyptic motif shared by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition, it is in fact grounded in a well-known historical phenomenon with historical, geographical, and ethnic identifiers.  Before posting the link to the "Quran Answers" article, I thought it would be worth providing some historical context to this misunderstood tradition.

The basic historical understanding of "Gog and Magog"[1] across the Abrahamic traditions is summed up well by Abdullah Yusuf Ali in an appendix of his Qur'an translation and commentary:
It is practically agreed that they were the wild tribes of Central Asia which have made inroads on settled kingdoms and Empires at various stages of history. The Chinese Empires suffered from their incursions and built the Great Wall of China to keep out the Manchus and Mongols. The Persian Empire suffered from them at various times and at various points. Their incursions into Europe in large hordes caused migrations and displacements of populations on an enormous scale, and eventually broke up the Roman Empire. These tribes were known vaguely to the Greeks and Romans as "Scythians", but that term does not help us very much, either ethnically or geographically.[2]
A.R. Anderson catalogs some of the earliest recorded examples of these incursions:
From time immemorial the Caucasus—that mighty bulwark thrown across the isthmus between the Black and the Caspian Seas—has lain in the pathway of northern nomads descending into the fair lands of Hither Asia. What devastating waves of migration have burst against its barriers, some of them to clear its passes and to deal destruction to the civilizations of the south! Such may have been the course of the Kassites when about 1900 B.C. they came bringing with them the horse, but wrecking the empire founded by Hammurabi. Such too may have been the course of the Mitanni, when they about 1400 B.C. made themselves felt as far as Palestine. It was probably through the pass of Dariel that the Cimmerians, Gimirrae, who are to be identified with the biblical Gomer, invaded Assyria under Sargon (722-705 B.C.) and then later passed on to overrun Asia Minor, devastating it as far as the Aegean, and overthrowing the power of Phyrgia founded by Midas. A generation later under Esar-Haddon (681-668 B.C.), the Scythians followed by way of the pass of Derbend, destined before the century was past to join the Medes and Chaldeans in overthrowing Assyria (612 B.C.). East of the Caspian the Massagetae constituted a problem even to Cyrus the Great. Darius, recognized the Scythian peril, sought to strike them by way of the Balkan peninsula, crossing the Danube in an in an expedition in which he narrowly escaped utter ruin. [3]
Such incursions continued well into the Common Era.  The term "Scythians," or later "Huns," became a generic designation for Central Asian nomadic tribes who occupied the northern parts of the Caucasus.  The people of Asia Minor and the Caucasus would build defensive walls in the Caucasian mountains, such as the Pass of Dariel and the Gates of Derbend in modern-day Russia, to protect them from from invasions by these tribes from the north.  The Huns, of course, ravaged Europe in the late fourth and fifth centuries, contributing to the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  In the following centuries, the Sabirs, Kök Türks, and Khazars posed repeated threats to Byzantine and/or Persian territories in the Near East.  In the climax of the centuries long Byzantine-Sassanian Wars, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius even opened the Gates of Derbend and summoned the Kök Türks and Khazars against his Sassanian Persian opponents.

The Gates of Derbend in modern-day Russia, also known in popular tradition as the Gates of Alexander.
(Courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Notwithstanding, the most devastating manifestation of this phenomenon occurred centuries later: the Mongol invasions and conquests of the thirteenth century.

The expansion of the Mongol Empire.
(Courtesy of Wikipedia, user Astrokey 44.)

In summary, Schmidt and Van Donzel write:
[Gog and Magog] were identified with different “impure peoples”: Scythians, Huns, Alans, Khazars, Turks, Kipchaks, or the Mongols. The common denomination of these peoples is that they all were accomplished horsemen who invaded the Roman Empire from the Eurasian steppes and whose civilisations were unknown to the citizens of the Roman Empire.[4]
 Speaking more broadly, Anderson states:
The term Gog and Magog has therefore become synonymous with barbarian, especially with the type of barbarian that bursts through the northern frontier of civilization. This frontier extends the whole length of the Eurasian continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Spain to China, and includes such outstanding landmarks as the Alps, the Caucasus, and the Great Wall[5]…The legend of Alexander’s Gate and of the enclosed nations is in reality the story of the frontier in sublimated mythologized form.[6]
The Gog/Magog tradition has evolved over the course of the Abrahamic traditions, from the mention of Magog as a descendent of Noah's son Japheth in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10:2), to the proto-apocalyptic prophecy about the armies of "Gog of Magog" in Ezekiel 38-39, to further apocalyptic development in Second Temple Jewish texts and early Christian and Rabbinic writings, to their infusion with the Alexander legends in the Late Antique period, and in their presentation in the Qur'an (18:93-99; 21:95-96) and prophetic hadiths.

Adeel's essay provides a fairly straightforward reading of the Qur'anic verses and (frequently misunderstood) hadiths on the topic of Gog and Magog, along with helpful analysis from medieval and modern Muslim scholars.  The essay clarifies:
  • What the hadiths say about the ethnic identity and geographical location of "Gog and Magog";
  • How the hadiths seem to have prophesied the Mongol invasions many centuries before they occurred;
  • That the fortification that restrained Gog and Magog (see Qur'an 18:93-99) may have already been breached, rather than being a future event;
  • That the invasions of Gog and Magog are not restricted to a single apocalyptic event, but are a transhistorical phenomenon, recurring across history, but culminating in their most catastrophic manifestation immediately before the Last Day;
  • How this catastrophic event fits into the ends times chronology presented in the hadiths;
  • What the hadiths about their enormous numbers mean.
It is also notable that the hadiths cited in the essay have many parallels with Ezekiel 38-39 and Rabbinic traditions.  This is an enlightening read for anybody who has been confused about this topic:

[1]  The etymology of these names is uncertain.  For a summary of several theories, see J. Lust, “Magog” in Karel Van Der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Hoorst (eds.), Dictionary of Demons and Deities in the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 2nd ed, pp. 535-536.  Magog occurs in the Table of Nations in Genesis 12 as a nation descending from Noah’s son Japheth, the progenitor of European and certain Asian peoples.  “Gog” first occurs in the prophecy in Ezekiel 38-39, where he is the political and military head of the region of Magog.  In the second century BCE, “Gog” occurs in place of “Magog” in the Book of Jubilees, and they subsequently occur as counterpart tribes in the third book of the Sibylline Oracles.  In the Qur'an, the paired names are made to rhyme—Ya'juj and Ma'juj—as is a common literary feature of the scripture.
[2]  Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur'an: Arabic Text with an English Translation and Commentary (Lahore: Shaykh Muhammad Ashraf, 1937), vol. 2, p. 761.
[3]  Andrew Runni Anderson, “Alexander at the Caspian gates,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 59 (1928): 138–139.
[4]  Andrea and Emeri Van Donzel (eds.), Gog and Magog in Early Syriac and Islamic Sources: Sallam’s Quest for Alexander’s Wall (Leiden: Brill, 2009), p. 45.
[5]  Here Anderson is considering post-Qur’anic interpretations, such as that the Mongol invasions represented Gog and Magog. Nonetheless, it is an accurate characterization of Gog and Magog as a transhistorical typology.
[6]  Andrew Runni Anderson, Alexander's Gate, Gog and Magog, and the Inclosed Nations (Baltimore: The Waverly Press Inc., 1932), p. 8.


  1. What do you think of the argument that the story of Dhul Qarnayn and Gog and Magog refutes Islam?

    1. The article and video you linked to are not particularly well-informed takes on the Qur’anic story and the Alexander traditions. More importantly though, they show ignorance about how the Qur’an uses stories that were a part of the milieu of its revelation.

      The Qur’an often uses the language, motifs, and symbols found in various Near Eastern, Jewish, and Christian legends in the milieu of its revelation to tell its own version of a story. By using such language and motifs, it demonstrates to its Jewish and Christian audience that it has an intimate familiarity with their traditions—far beyond what Muhammad (peace be upon him) could have been capable of, without having had a very extensive education in both Christian and Jewish tradition. The Qur’an shows very clear and thorough knowledge of the vast corpus of Near Eastern literature, including the Torah, the prophets, the psalms, the canonical Gospels, the apocryphal Gospels, the Diatessaron, the Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament letters, the Pseudepigrapha, the Talmud, the Midrashim, Syriac Christian traditions, Ethiopic Christian traditions, Near Eastern myths and legends, etc.

      Yet when it comes to the stories, it does not merely reproduce these traditions, but modifies and transforms them in significant ways. In some cases this could be to tell a more historically accurate version of a myth or legend found in these communities (e.g., parts of the story of Moses, or the story of Abraham and the heavenly bodies—see here: In some cases the Qur’an may intend a story as a parable rather than as a historical or purely historical account, and these modifications of pre-existing traditions may express various literary or didactic purposes. In some cases both factors may be at play. I think any of these scenarios may be plausible in the case of the story of Dhu 'l-Qarnayn. Hence I see this as a very poor basis for rejecting Islam, especially in light of the very strong positive case for the Qur’an.

  2. You said that
    ''In some cases the Qur’an may intend a story as a parable rather than as a historical or purely historical account, and these modifications of pre-existing traditions may express various literary or didactic purposes''

    Are you basically suggesting that the story of Dhul Qarnayn never happened?

    1. I think it could be taken as a parable rather than a historical account, just like, for example, the story of the man of the two gardens earlier in the sura. The point in the case of parables is not whether they historically happened, but the lessons they convey. No one says, for example, that the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the story of the man with the two gardens, must have been actual historical events, or else Jesus or the Qur'an are wrong. That would be completely missing the point of the parable.

      Similarly, I think that could be the case with the story of Dhu 'l-Qarnayn. On the other hand, a friend and mentor of mine has pointed out some significant ways in which the Qur'anic story departs from the Syriac legends, which might indicate the historicity of the Qur'anic account. Allahu a`lam.