Allah SWT said: “Till, when he reached the setting place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring, and found a people thereabout: We said: O Zul Qarnain! Either punish or show them kindness.” (Al-Kahf: 86). Here is a brief commentary to the above verse as mentioned in the books of tafseer (exegesis of Qur’an):
“Till, when he reached the setting place of the sun…”, means that Zul Qarnain followed a route until he reached the furthest point that could be reached in the direction of the sun’s setting, which is the west of the earth. As for the idea of his reaching the place in the sky where the sun sets, this is something impossible, and the tales told by storytellers that he traveled so far to the west that the sun set behind him are not true at all. Most of those stories come from the myths of the People of the Book and the fabrications and lies of their heretics.
“he found it setting in a muddy spring…” means that he saw the sun as if it were setting in the ocean. This is something that everyone who goes to the coast or beach can see: it looks as if the sun is setting into the sea, but in fact it never leaves its path in which it is fixed. The muddy spring or hami’ah is derived from the word hama’ah which means ‘mud’.
In his commentary on the story referred to in the Qur’anic verse, the prominent Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, states the following:
“Indeed, the Qur’an is not a historical book where events are mentioned with their exact places and times. Rather, Allah mentions stories in the Qur’an so as to derive lessons from them both in present and future times.
Allah mentions that the story of Zul Qarnain in the Qur’an so as to derive lessons from it. The Qur’an itself did not mention who Zul Qarnain is. Also, there is no detailed explanation to his story. Where exactly did he go? To the east or to the west? There is not any mention of the people he went to. Added to that, there is no mention of names except for those of Zul Qarnain and Gog and Magog. The wisdom behind that is known to Almighty Allah Alone. But again, we are required to draw fruitful lessons from such stories, and we are not required to know every little detail about the minute incidents.”
Moreover, Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, Director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, Garden Grove, California and former President of the Islamic Society of North America, gives the following counter argument:
“The Qur’an says that this ruler named Zul Qarnain traveled to distant lands. He went westward to a distant land near the ocean and he saw the sun was setting there in a murky pond. The translation of the Qur’anic words are “Till, when he reached the setting place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring…” (Al-Kahf 18:86). The author of this flyer took this literally and objected, how could God say that the sun was setting in a murky pond? He considered this a “foolish and false statement” and a proof that the Qur’an was not the word of God and that Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was not God’s Prophet.
In the New Testament, Jesus is reported to have said about the Queen of Sheba that she came from the ends of the earth (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31). Would the author also say that Jesus’ words were also foolish and false and would he reject him also? Obviously, we know that the Queen Sheba did not come from the ends of the earth. Yemen is not the end of the earth. The author would say that Jesus spoke metaphorically. We say the same thing, that in the story of Zul Qarnain, God spoke metaphorically.
The author claims that “the great Islamic scholars (such as Tabari, Zamakhshari, Baydawi, Jalalain, etc.) took this literally.” This is not correct. The fact is that most of the commentators of the Qur’an do not take it literally. Most of them explain that “the sun appeared to him as if it was setting in murky water.” The famous commentators of the Qur’an Jalalain say, “fi ra’y al-`ayn wa illa fahiya a’zamo min ad-dunya” meaning “it appeared to his own eyes otherwise the sun is bigger than the earth.”
The Qur’anic statement is clearly metaphorical, and this is the way it has been understood by most of the classical and modern commentators of the Qur’an.
The author claims that Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) also explained it in a literal sense. He quoted a hadith in which the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is reported as saying, “Do you know, Abu Dharr, where this sun sets?” He answered, “God and His Messenger know better.” Muhammad said, “It sets in a spring of slimy water.” According to most authorities, this statement is not from Prophet Muhammad but it is attributed to Ka`b Al-Ahbar, a Jewish rabbi who converted to Islam and who reported this from the Torah, not from Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).”