Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 12: Joseph

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.  I will also include some original Arabic text, because it is very beautiful.

The twelfth surah of the Qur’an, entitled Joseph (Yusuf, in Arabic), is mostly a re-telling of the story of Joseph (son of Jacob) from the book of Genesis in the Bible.  It is also the plot of the modern musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  The Qur’an often re-tells stories from the Bible, seeing divine lessons in them: “There are lessons in the story of Joseph and his brothers for all who seek them” (v. 7).  The Qur’an sees great value in the stories of the Bible.  While the Qur’an’s account of this story mostly follows the Genesis account, there are some interesting differences—suggesting that the version Muhammad received from his Jewish and Christian friends in Mecca was an oral, not a written, account.  While written accounts of stories tend to remain rigid, oral accounts allow for variety and different cultural contexts.  Also, sprinkled throughout the story are “lessons” that readers/listeners are meant to get out of it.  Here’s the story of Joseph, as told by the Qur’an.

The Israelite patriarch Jacob (aka Israel, son of Isaac, son of Abraham) had twelve sons (who would form the basis of the twelve tribes of Israel).  One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, had a dream in which his eleven brothers bowed down before him.  Joseph’s brothers grew jealous and planned to get rid of him.  They threw him in a pit and sold him to a traveling caravan, which sold him to a nobleman in Egypt.  Joseph’s brothers then lied to their father Jacob, telling him that Joseph had been killed by a wolf.

In Egypt, Joseph found favor with his master (named Potiphar in the Bible) and developed the ability to interpret dreams.  Here is the first lesson of the story—that God can bring goodness out of tragedy: “God always prevails in His purpose, though most people do not realize it” (v. 21).

As Joseph grew in maturity, the wife of his master (traditionally named Zulaikha) tried to seduce him, but Joseph (being a good man and a servant of God) refused.  Here the account differs from the Bible.  In Genesis, Joseph is thrown in  prison on the false charges of the Egyptian woman.  In the Qur’an, the woman is shown to be a a liar, and Joseph is thrown in prison as a kind of protective measure against the advances of other women.  Apparently, Joseph was quite attractive.

Anyway, while in prison, Joseph correctly interprets the dreams of two fellow prisoners.  Word reaches the king that Joseph can interpret dreams, so he is brought before pharaoh to interpret his troubling dreams.  The dreams foretell of a coming famine, which Joseph is tasked with helping avert through a system of storing surplus crops.  Joseph is thus taken out of prison and promoted as a leader of Egyptian agriculture.  Here is another lesson of the story—that God ultimately rewards those who follow Him: “In this way We settled Joseph in that land to live wherever he wished: we grant Our grace to whoever we will and do not fail to reward those who do good” (v. 56).

Meanwhile, over in Canaan, Joseph’s family, feeling the effects of the famine, travel to Egypt to trade for food.  After messing with them for a while, Joseph ultimately reveals his identity to his brothers, and ends up being the salvation of his family, and the fledgling nation of Israel.

This surah ends with a word of encouragement to Muhammad and, by extension, his fledgling community of followers.  In the early years of Islam, the community of faith experienced much adversity and many trials.  In this surah, the community is encouraged to find solace and hope in the story of Joseph.  “We saved whoever we pleased,” the Qur’an states, “There is a lesson in the stories of such people for those who understand” (v. 110-111).

"Joseph Chased by Potiphar's Wife" miniature by Bezhad (1488)

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