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Alexander the Great

By:
Richard N. Frye
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Alexander the Great

Alexander lived from 356 to 323 B.C.E. and ruled from 336. In the Middle East he generally is known as Alexander the Macedonian. He conquered the Persian Achaemenid Empire and introduced Hellenism throughout the region, but his influence in the East derives not from his conquests but from his relation to Aristotle and his superhuman qualities. After Alexander 's death many stories—some fabulous—circulated about him. Known collectively as the Alexander romance, they were translated into many languages in many versions. Before the coming of Islam, many Iranians, especially the Zoroastrian clergy, regarded him as a malevolent, bloodthirsty person who destroyed their empire, society, and religion. Others, however, tried to integrate Alexander into a list of Iranian monarchs.

In the Qurʿān (18:94) Dhū al-Qarnayn (He of the Two Horns), who built a wall against the realm of Gog and Magog and was considered a monotheist, was said by Muslims to be Alexander. Some, however, claim that Dhū al-Qarnayn was the Persian king Cyrus, or even Abraham. The change in the attitude of the Persians towards Alexander is best represented by the Shāhnāmah (Book of Kings) of Firdawsī, which depicts Alexander as descended from the Kiyanian dynasty; he was claimed to be the son of a Persian princess who married his father Philip, and thus to be a positive figure for the Persians.

The original Alexander romance was a Greek work attributed to Pseudo-Callisthenes. An early account in the Syriac language also exists in Armenian, but no Arabic Alexander romance has been found. An Arabic history of Dhū al-Qarnayn was found in Spain, but it differs from a similar text in the Aljamiado literature (in which texts in Romance languages are transcribed into Arabic characters). Alexander, however, remained the fascinating subject of many stories throughout the Islamic world, but especially in Persia, whose influence extended to Indian and other eastern cultures.

In folklore Alexander inspired countless legends and stories that also found their place in literature, in genres such as that known as “mirrors for princes.” These stories have little, if any, connection to historical events. Niẓāmī 's Sharaf-nāmah (Book of Honor) and Iqbāl-nāmah (Book of Good Fortune) are really about Alexander as a philosopher and even as a prophet. This Muslim view of Alexander contrasts with the tales about Alexander in the West, probably because the martial and chivalric aspects are related to his conquests in the East, which had been mostly forgotten there.

Bibliography

  • Anderson, Andrew R.Alexander 's Gate, Gog and Magog, and the Inclosed Nations. Cambridge, Mass., 1932. A review of the tales about Alexander in Islamic sources goes beyond the “Gog and Magog” of the title.
  • Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon: 356–323 BC: A Historical Biography. University of California Press, 1992.
  • Southgate, Minoo S., trans. Iskandarnamah: A Persian Medieval Alexander-Romance. New York, 1978. Although this book is devoted to a Persian poet, Alexanderʾs place in Islamic literature is also discussed.
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