Leadership Lessons from The Qur’an: The Story of Dhul-Qarnayn

Posted on November 24, 2007


by Dr. Iqbal Unus, IIIT and Dr. Rafik Beekun

The Qur’an is a continuing source of Guidance, and the Guidance it offers is in the context of what the reader is seeking.  Learning from the Qur’an is a dynamic process and that is why we keep reading it in all sorts of circumstances and need.

The Qur’an teaches us in many different ways, and one of those ways is through the stories of prophets and kings and just plain ordinary people. Again different people at different times in different frames of mind can derive different lesson from these stories. we want to share with you the lessons we have derived about leadership from one such story – the story of Dhul Qarnayn.

Why look for lessons in leadership? Because all of us,  as Muslims and Muslimahs, play a leadership role in one setting or another. One of the well known ahadith of the Prophet is: “Kullu kum ra’in was kullu ra’in mas’ool an rai’yatay-hi…” meaning that “Everyone of you is a caretaker, and every caretaker is responsible for what he is caretaker of.” The hadith continues further to give example of caretakers.

The story of Dhul Qarnayn is related in Surah Kahf (Surah 18) in the Qur’an. It is said that unbelievers were trying to test the Prophet Muhammad (s) by asking Muslims to ask him certain questions to which, they thought, he would have no answer, unless he was truly the Prophet. So they asked him about some young people who lived in a cave, and about a man who traveled far and wide, and about soul. This was the occasion of the Revelation of Surah Kahf in which Allah informs the Prophet (s) about the answers to these questions.

 We do not really know who was Dhul Qarnayn. Some say he was Alexander the Great, others say he was Cyrus, the King of Persia. It really does not matter who he was in order to derive the lesson his story has to offer.

[1.] The Qura’n says: “They ask you concerning Zul-qarnain. Say “I will rehearse to you something of his story.” (18:83).

Then, it says.,”Verily We established his power on earth and We gave him the ways and the means to all ends. ” ( 18:84)

Leadership is about delegating authority, and a central principle of delegation is that authority must be delegated with appropriate resources, i.e. the means to accomplish the task one has been delegated with. In the story of Dhul Qarnayn, we are reminded that Allah SWT is the Sovereign. He delegates authority to us in different degrees. He delegates tasks to us, and accomplishes what He Wills through us. But He will not demand the accomplishment of a delegated task without giving us the proper resources to accomplish it. Allah (the Almighty or SWT) says that he established Dhul Qarnayn in the earth and gave him the means of everything, the resources and abilities that may be needed.  The other side of this coin is that Allah SWT does not demand from us what we do not have the ability to accomplish, when he says in Surah al Baqarah: “Laa yo kallifall-lahu nafsan illa wus-aa-ha (On no soul does Allah place a burden greater than he can bear.) So, in human terms, this is a lesson for us when we find ourselves in any position of leadership, that we expect the best from those we delegate tasks to, with two conditions: We do not expect more than we know they are capable of delivering, and we give them the material resources and the training needed to get the job done.

[2.] The Qur’an continues, ” One (such) way he followed until when he reached the setting of the sun He found it set in a spring of murky water: near it he found a People: We said: “O Zul-qarnain! (you have authority) either to punish them or to treat them with kindness.” He said: “Whoever does wrong him shall we punish; then shall he be sent back to his Lord; and He will punish him with a punishment unheard-of (before). But whoever believes and works righteousness he shall have a goodly reward and easy will be his task as we order it by our command.”  ” (18:85-88)

Leadership is constantly tested. Here Dhul Qarnayn is put to the test. He is established in authority and he has been given the capacity to do anything, and he is asked now to decide what he will do with a people whom he has apparently overpowered. He shows the discernment of a good leader – distinguishing between those who are righteous and those who are not. He shows the leadership qualities of fairness and justice. The wrong-doers must be punished, but good people must be rewarded and honored. Notice the two stages in each case. In the wrongdoers’ case, first punishment comes from him, and a greater punishment comes later from Allah SWT. In the case of good people, first they will get the best of rewards from him, and on top of that he will speak to them kindly. So the difference between treatment of the good and the bad is significant as it should be.

[3.] The Qur’an then says, “ Then followed he (another) way until when he reached (a tract) between two mountains he found beneath them a people who scarcely understood a word. They said: “O Zul-qarnain! the Gog and Magog (people) do great mischief on earth: shall we then render you tribute in order that you may erect a barrier between us and them?” (18:92-94)

Leadership is not exploitative. When Dhul Qarnayn meets a people who speak a different language and are obviously strangers to him, he treats them with a sense of service, not greed. Even though they themselves offer to pay for him to erect a protective barrier against foreign attackers, Dhul Qarnayn does not demand more, he does not even accept what he is willingly offered because he does not want to exploit their weakness. Maybe if they fought him and lost, he may expect something from them, but not when they basically surrendered and exposed to him their weakness. So like a good leader, he is generous. In his generosity also, he remains humble, because he remembers that even what he has is given to him by Allah SWT, and says so.  He also realizes that the power that Allah SWT has blessed him with is only a means to serve Allah.  He serves Allah through being a servant-leader to his people, i.e. taking care of their needs.

[4.] He said: “(The power) in which my Lord has established me is better (than tribute): help me therefore with strength (and labor): I will erect a strong barrier between you and them:  18:95

Leadership is about teamwork because leaders cannot accomplish anything without their followers (and of course Allah’s help). After telling them what he has from Allah SWT is better than what they can offer, Dhul Qarnayn tells them that he will help them if they will help him in the task, and work together as a group. This action does three things that good leaders do in accomplishing their mission: (1) Asking the people to help him dignifies the people by making them a partner in solving the problem, (2) it give them a stake the success of the solution, and (3) it also give them a sense of responsibility for owning and maintaining the solution they have arrived at. It is also important to note that he asks them to help him with what they do possess, which was their strength.

[5.]  “Bring me blocks of iron.” At length when he had filled up the space between the two steep mountain sides he said “Blow (with your bellows).” Then when he had made it (red) as fire he said: “Bring me that I may pour over it molten lead.” (18:96).

Dhul Qarnayn also displays another characteristic of his leadership and ability to accomplish things, by clearly laying down the process and acting on it stage by stage methodically. This is what he does: (1) He informs them and prepares them for the task, (2) he seeks their commitment and tells them what he will accomplish with their help, (3) he completes the first stage by having them bring blocks of iron to be placed between the mountains, (4) he lights the fire and asks them to blow on it,(5) he completes the next stage by having them bring copper to pour over red hot iron. The wall is then ready, with his knowledge and wisdom working hand in hand with the people’s strength and commitment.  Please notice that in the above ayat, Dhul Qarnayn also displays that a good leader is also a good follower:  He asks them to follow his directives, and he also participates actively in the action.  Most importantly, he models the way: a leader is in the vanguard when he needs to model the most challenging and difficulty behaviors.  Indeed, he himself takes charge of the most dangerous task by personally pouring the molten lead over the blocks of itron.   We can practically outline a method of performance and accomplishment for our daily task based on Dhul Qarnayn’s methodical conduct in this situation.

It is worth noting here that the people referred to here did have the resources like iron and copper but lacked the knowledge to use them. This tells us that we have an obligation to learn how to use whatever resources we may be blesses with. Thus the advancement of science and technology and other forms of knowledge that can help us benefit from our resources is an Islamic obligation on Muslim societies.

We also note that barrier that Dhul Qarnayn erected and how did it show his mastery over the technology far ahead of his time. So, Dhul Qarnayn’s scientific and engineering knowledge and skills is part of the mean that Allah SWT gave him when he established him in the earth. It is then natural for Muslims to regard technical knowledge as a gift from Allah to be accepted, cultivated, promoted, advanced and used in their own lives and in service to others. The clear and specific reference in the Qur’an to this great engineering project tells us in no certain terms that it is the Islamic way – to solve human problems with God-given technical knowledge and wisdom.

[6.]  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.”  (18:97-98)

Again like a good leader, having accomplished his task – to build a barrier that will prevent foreign invaders – he remembers and reminds the people that the true source of all accomplishment is Allah SWT. He tells them: (1) what he has accomplished is due to the Mercy of Allah SWT, (2) just like everything else this accomplishment will perish when the Final Day comes, alerting them that the Final Day is still the ultimate truth. In a way, he is sharing his humility that even his great accomplishment is no match for the power of Allah SWT.  It is important to note that the above lessons in leadership are congruent with some of the leading recent advances in leadership theory, and we will summarize them here:

  1. When delegating a task, make it possible for your follower to succeed by providing him/her with the means to accomplish his/her task (House, Path Goal Theory of Leadership; Hershey and Blanchard).
  2. Effective leaders are servant-leaders (Greenleaf)
  3. Leaders do not accomplish anything by themselves; they work through a team of followers. (Dyadic research; team-bulding)
  4. Good leaders are good followers. (Kouzes and Posner)
  5. Leaders model the way. (Kouzes and Posner)
  6. Good leaders are humble and realize that success only comes from Allah. (George)

Please note that several of the above principles are discussed in more detail in the book, Leadership: An Islamic Perspective by Beekun and Badawi available from this blog’s online bookstore.

Here are other articles that I have written and posted on this blog:

1. Effective Leadership Steps for Strategy Implementation in Islamic Organizations.

2. The Leadership Process of Muhammad (s) from Hadith.

3. Ali’s (r) Advice on Leadership to Malik Ashtar, Governor of Egypt.

4. Principles of Success in the Light of the Seerah.