A rendering and interpretation of Yusuf’s story from the Qur’an.
As a child, I always found a special beauty in the story of Yusuf (Joseph). Perhaps it began with my early morning journeys to school, when in the car my father would tune into the recitation of Surah (chapter) Yusuf by the Egyptian Qari, Sheikh Abdul Basit Abdus-Samad. The tranquillity of the early hour would allow the verses to settle into our hearts. Years later, I sit, sometimes in a café in Oxford, or a bookstore in the heart of London, attempting to capture a dimension of this beauty, and of this special resonance in words.
The story of Prophet Yusuf as narrated in the Qur’an is a story of betrayal and reconciliation, of jealousy and of mercy, of grief, sorrow, and tribulation accompanied with the ever-present Grace of the One God. Through the depiction of human trials followed by the hope and promise of relief, the story embodies the Qur’anic verse, “And verily, with every hardship, there is ease.” In the language of the Qur’an itself, it is termed as “ahsan al-qasas,” the most beautiful of stories, intended for the guidance of Prophet Muhammad and the believers. Beginning with this testament of its beauty, the narrative ends with a prayer, a dying wish, in the words of Yusuf:
"O Creator of the heavens and the earth! You are my Protector in this world and in the Hereafter. Take thou my soul (at death) as a Muslim, (musliman, i.e. submitting to Thy Will), and unite me with the righteous" (al-Qur'an 12:101).
The concluding prayer of Yusuf is not unique; the Qur’an reiterates another prayer elsewhere, emphasizing the same whole-hearted submission to God that defines the Arabic word, an active participle: “Muslim”.
"Say: Truly, my prayer and my service of sacrifice, my life and my death are (all) for Allah, the Cherisher of the Worlds: No partner hath He: this am I commanded, and I am the first of those who bow to His Will (awwal ul-Muslimeen, i.e. first and foremost Muslim)" (al-Qur'an 6:162-3).
Surah Yusuf, in a condensed narrative, touches upon issues of morality, theology, personal and political relations. But above all, the story of Yusuf represents a lens through which Muslims today can look, and grasp the essence of this religious category
As a worldview, religion asserts the legitimacy of its identity as a primary lens to view the world. In our current day and age, one would approach the politics of privileging a religious identity over others with some trepidation. Where notions of religion and political sovereignty are so deeply enmeshed in popular understanding, professing an allegiance to a religious category can often fall into charges of parochialism, especially when this is taken to subscribe to a certain form of exclusionary politics. This dilemma is compounded with the recognition of right-wing religious politics as the norm, while the voices of many mainstream Muslims are sidelined as the exception. Yet, perhaps the most important question here is how we can best understand the shape and form of this overarching religious identity, rather than dispute or deny its ontological reality. Is it possible to step back from the parochialism, often associated with privileging religion as a focal point of one’s identity?
To politics and history, philosophy adds another important dimension of understanding. Not to imply that the sin of ahistoricity should be committed by emptying the “context” from the “content.” Rather, that the sui generis lens of institutionalized religion ex post facto cannot always be sufficient in explaining theological concepts. Time and time again, there is a need to examine and assess religious concepts, philosophically, and in their own right, so that we may arrive at a more holistic understanding of the meanings they ought to generate.
So what lessons can present day Muslims extrapolate from the stories of the Prophets, inscribed in the text of the Qur’an as eternal sources of guidance?
Many scholars have expressed the opinion that the depth of the Qur’an is best appreciated in the Arabic language, and any translation into another language is necessarily an act of interpretation, tafsir. But the knowledge of Arabic language alone is not sufficient, for many of the expressions in the Qur’an must be understood by their classical meanings, having undergone changes in connotation over time. In addition to the maqam or context of the verse, a consideration of intertextuality and internal relationships, as embodied in the dictumal-Qur’an yufassir ba’adahu ba’ada’ (some parts of the Qur’an explain others) is also needed for a deeper understanding. The terms ‘“Islam” (submission to the One God) and “Muslims” (those who wilfully submit to the One God) are scattered throughout the text of the Qur’an, as preceding the historical development of a Muslim political community, and the institutionalization of Islam as a religion.
Both terminologies are derived from the root of the Arabic word “sa-la-ma”, (to accept, to surrender or give one’s self whole heartedly). A Muslim in the Qur’an is an individual who has surrendered to God through faith and the integrity of actions. Conversely, the term kaafir – loosely translated as an infidel – is derived from the term kufr, which means to reject or wilfully conceal Faith despite an acknowledgment of its truth. While often used derogatively in vernacular by Muslims, in the language of the Qur’an it is in specific reference to those symbolized by the arrogant figure of the Pharaoh, or Abu Lahab or communities who through pride or self-righteousness associated themselves or others with God.
The stories of the Prophets serve a very specific function in the Qur’an. As Prophets of the One God, they provide a means to conceptualize the “Muslim” category. Prophethood, in the Islamic tradition, represented instances of intervention in the history of mankind, whereby God spoke to man “by inspiration, or from behind a veil, or by the sending of a Messenger to reveal, with Allah’s permission what Allah wills” (al-Qur'an 42:51). Upheld as exemplary models for mankind and the first tools of guidance for the believers, Muslims are instructed in the Qur’an to make no distinction between the Prophets. The common lineage with the Judeo-Christian tradition is not seen as a source of conflict, but that of unity, signifying the Oneness of the Divine source. The Qur’an states:
"O People of the Book! Come to common terms between us and you; that we worship none but Allah (God); that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than Him. And if they turn back, say: Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to God’s will)" (al-Qur'an 3:64)
Notwithstanding the shared heritage with the Judeo-Christian tradition, there are nevertheless fundamental differences in the depiction of Prophets from those in Jewish and Christian texts. Jesus, for instance, is not the son of God; David is free from any charges of adultery with Bethsheba and Uriah’s murder; Aaron, the brother of Moses, is not responsible for the construction and worship of the Gold Calf; and Noah never displays drunken behaviour.
The Story of Yusuf (Joseph): An Analysis
Compared to other stories of the Prophets,the story of Yusuf (Joseph) bears the most commonality in the three traditions. Whereas the story of Joseph in the Genesis is filled with details, conveying the historical migration of the Israelites to Egypt, in the Qur’an it is characterized by an economy of style. The major events, for the large part, remain the same, with certain variations in the responses of the characters at several stages.
The narrative in the Qur’an begins with a dream, a premonition that comes full circle by the end of the chapter. It is a portrait of a relationship between a father and a son, full of love. Yusuf narrates his dream to his father, Yaqub (Jacob): “O my father! I saw in a dream eleven planets and the sun and the moon, I saw them prostrating themselves unto me.” Yaqub, recognizing the gift of prophecy in the dream, warns Yusuf against mentioning the dream to his brothers lest it may ignite their jealousy. The narrative then shifts to the brothers, immersed in a conspiracy to kill their younger brother, before they decide to throw him in a well where he may be picked up by a caravan as a slave. While the character of the brethren is characterized by jealousy and hatred, the character of Yusuf is full of dignity, compassion, and mercy. Within the same family unit, the deep disjuncture is conveyed in the Qur’anic verse: Verily in Joseph and his brethren are Signs (or Symbols) for Seekers (after Truth).
The personal realm in the story of Yusuf is representative of a macrocosmic social realm; the dysfunction between the brothers evokes divisions that can tear apart communities. In the Islamic tradition, the verses of the Qur’an are often located within the situation of the revelation ("asbab al-nuzul") in order to clearly illustrate the meaning it intends to convey. The story of Yusuf was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the Year of Grief, when the first converts to Islam were brutally excommunicated by members of their Meccan community. As a source of solace to the first Muslims, Surah Yusuf promised that victory was always with those patient and persistent in their faith; that notwithstanding the malicious actions and plans of individuals against another, God has full control over all affairs.
In the story, this is symbolized by the eventual fulfilment of Yusuf’s dream. He is not only raised at a high station in the land of Egypt, but he is also reunited with his beloved father and family. Reconciling with the brothers who attempted to kill him, Yusuf forgives them and offers them a place in his palace. It is interesting that a similar parallel is later established with the life of Prophet Muhammad. After being persecuted by the Meccan and driven out, he re-enters his city years later in a position of considerable power, forgives his enemies, and declares a general amnesty.
Abandoned by his brothers in the depths of a well, Yusuf is rescued and sold to an Egyptian man who recognizes Yusuf’s worth and promises to treat him as his adopted son. Yusuf’s misfortune, then, takes a swift turn and becomes a means of sustenance in the new land. Yusuf’s trial of faith, however, does not end. In the Qur’anic narrative, the wife of the house attempts to seduce Yusuf, and then accuses him of assault. Yusuf’s shirt, ripped from the back, serves as a public testimony of his honesty and the wife’s deception. At this point Yusuf cries unto God:
"O my Lord! Prison is more dear than that unto which they urge me, and if You fend not off their wiles from me I shall incline unto them and become of the foolish. So his Lord heard his prayer and fended off their wiles from him. He (God) is All-Hearing, All-Knowing" (al-Quran 12:34).
Like those before and after him, Yusuf stands out as an outcast who eventually transforms his new community. In the new land, he can engage with the community as his own and transcend societal norms by virtue of his singular submission to God. The Qur’anic narrative shifts to Yusuf’s interactions with Sahib as-sijan (the Companions of the Prison). They turn to him, appealing to his good character, for an interpretation of their dreams. For one of the companions, the dream symbolizes eventual execution, whereas for the other it is a harbinger of eventual freedom and success at the palace. Yusuf’s conversation in the prison stands out as the ultimate proclamation of Prophethood. Bearing witness to the Oneness of God, Yusuf’s selfless conduct seeks no returns, but as a testimony of his faith and innocence.
Upon his release, the companion of the prison forgets about Yusuf, but a recurrent characteristic of the young Prophet (as well as his father, Yaqub) is his patience and reliance on God through all adversities. Reciprocally, in the narrative is the presence of God, as He watches over Yusuf and unravels through the turn of life’s events the insights that can only be gauged in hindsight. Years later, the released prisoner, now at the Palace, remembers his noble companion from the prison. In response to the King’s call, Yusuf is summoned to interpret the dream of seven lean cows devouring seven fat ones, and of seven green (ears) of corn, and seven dry ones. Yusuf interprets seven years of abundant harvests, and advises the King to store in preparation for the seven years of famine that would follow. Yusuf, thus, becomes a benefactor and a source of mercy for the community, in addition to serving as a trusted adviser to the King of the land.
From being an honest servant of an Egyptian master, a noble prisoner, and then a trusted adviser of the King, Yusuf – by the end of the Qur’anic narrative – moves back into the role of son and brother. Both the Qur’an and the Biblical scriptures agree that when the brothers present themselves before Yusuf, seeking grain from the stored harvests, he recognizes them but refrains from declaring himself until they bring their youngest brother (Benjamin) to him. Unlike the story in the Genesis, however, Yusuf does not use rough treatment against his brothers when they arrive, but promises to provide them with grain if they succeed in bringing the younger brother. Once in the company of Benjamin, Yusuf secretly declares his identity to him and assures him of his safety, before moving on to test his elder brothers of their loyalty towards their kin. Yusuf decides to keep Benjamin, but upon seeing the brothers’ fear of the reaction of their father on the loss of another son, Yusuf declares himself to his brothers, and forgives them. He sends his shirt to Yaqub, whose eyesight in grief for the loss of Yusuf has weakened, in order to convey that he is still alive. The narrative ends with the family reunited in Yusuf’s palace, completing the prophecy of years before.
The story of Yusuf in the Qur’an is given in a sustained narrative, unique in its rendition, where the stories of all other apostles are interspersed within the text in a non-linear fashion as fables in a much broader commentary. Many western scholars have been confused by the lack of linearity and historical chronology in the narrative of the Qur’an. In the words of Brandon Toropov, reading the Qur’an was “a river which swirls and twists and turns, then doubles back from where it came… and then, just when one thinks one knows where the river is going, it curves again in an entirely new direction.”
As a believer, it is precisely this that proves most rewarding; of applying myself to understand a deeply condensed (and in some instances, metaphorical) narrative, defying the logic of space and time, that makes me ponder, dynamically engage, and arrive at fresh insights and connections with each reading. Unique in its form from other stories of the Prophets, the chapter on Yusuf serves as a comprehensive and integral unit of commentary on morality and on ethics in interpersonal and communal relations – in the position of authority and in that of dependence. The narrative ends with the last verses:
"In their history (of the Prophets) verily there is a lesson for people of understanding. It is no invented story but a confirmation of the existing (Scripture) and a detailed explanation of everything, and a guidance and a mercy for those who believe" (al-Qur'an 12:111).
Contained in the narrative of Yusuf is a means to conceptualize and reconcile the integrity of one’s aqidah (core beliefs of the religion) with a fluidity of identity, the unity of a common purpose of humanity with the uniqueness of difference, ownership and belonging towards a community with a sense of cosmopolitanism.
But in our present reality defined by heavy pessimism and by what appear to be insurmountable barriers within communities can those who subscribe to religious faith transcend the chains of particularistic communal allegiances?
Humbly, through the eyes of the Prophets, I believe so.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.