Sura 12, “Joseph,” is another late Meccan sura. It was revealed, says Maududi, “when the Quraish” — the pagan Arabs of Mecca, and the tribe of which Muhammad was a member – “were considering the question of killing or exiling or imprisoning him.” It tells the story of the patriarch Joseph, again – as we saw in sura 11 with the stories of other prophets – with a clear message relating to Muhammad and his opponents.
It begins in verses 1-3 with another panegyric to the Qur’an. Ibn Kathir expresses the mainstream Islamic view when he says: “The Arabic language is the most eloquent, plain, deep and expressive of the meanings that might arise in one’s mind. Therefore, the most honorable Book, was revealed in the most honorable language, to the most honorable Prophet and Messenger, delivered by the most honorable angel, in the most honorable land on earth, and its revelation started during the most honorable month of the year, Ramadan. Therefore, the Qur’an is perfect in every respect.” This is not, of course, a perspective that tends to be welcoming of critical examination of the book – as has recently been in the news with the discovery of 450 rolls of film of ancient manuscripts of the Qur’an.
Then verses 4-101 tell the story of Joseph. According to Maududi, one of the principal purposes of this account “was to apply it to the Quraish and warn them that ultimately the conflict between them and the Holy Prophet would end in his victory over them. As they were then persecuting their brother, the Holy Prophet, in the same way the brothers of Prophet Joseph had treated him….And just as the brothers of Prophet Joseph had to humble themselves before him, so one day the Quraish shall have to beg forgiveness from their brother whom they were then trying to crush down.” He points to verse 7, “Verily in Joseph and his brethren are signs for seekers,” as referring to the Quraysh, who should heed the warning given them in this sura.
The Qur’anic tale of Joseph is an abbreviated version of the story in Genesis 37-50, with some notable differences from the Biblical account. Joseph has a dream that eleven stars and the sun and the moon prostrate themselves to him (v. 4) – that is, his parents and brothers. Dreams are to be taken seriously: according to ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas, “the dreams of Prophets are revelations from Allah.” Muhammad himself explained this as not applying just to the prophets, but as a general principle: “A good dream is from Allah, and a bad dream is from Satan. So if anyone of you sees (in a dream) something he dislikes, when he gets up he should blow thrice (on his left side) and seek refuge with Allah from its evil, for then it will not harm him.”
The brothers, jealous, want to kill him (v. 9), but finally decide to throw him down a well and tell their father, Jacob, that he is dead (vv. 15-18). In a departure from the Biblical account, Jacob doesn’t believe them (v. 18). The Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs says “he did not believe them because in another occasion they said that Joseph was killed by thieves.”
Anyway, then Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt, is the target of an attempted seduction by the ruler’s wife (v. 30). Another detail not contained in the Biblical account is that Joseph “would have desired her,” except that Allah warded him off “from him evil and lewdness. Lo! He was of Our chosen slaves” (v. 24). The sharp dualism in Islam appears as Maududi sees a lesson in this: “Contrast the former characters [Jacob and Joseph] molded by Islam on the bedrock of the worship of Allah and accountability in the Hereafter with the latter molded by kufr [unbelief] and ‘ignorance’ on the worship of the world and disregard of Allah and the Hereafter…” She accuses him of impropriety (v. 25), but Joseph’s innocence is established when it is found that his cloak is torn in the back, not in the front – he was, in other words, fleeing from her (vv. 27-28). Her husband laments: “Lo! this is of the guile of you women. Lo! The guile of you is very great” (v. 28).
The wife then holds a banquet for the women of the city, who are so awed by Joseph’s good looks that they begin cutting their hands (v. 31). Ibn Kathir explains: “They thought highly of him and were astonished at what they saw. They started cutting their hands in amazement at his beauty, while thinking that they were cutting the citron with their knives.” The ruler’s wife felt exonerated: “When they felt the pain, they started screaming and she said to them, ‘You did all this from one look at him, so how can I be blamed?’”
Joseph is ultimately imprisoned (v. 35). When two fellow prisoners ask him to interpret their dreams (v. 36), he first tells them that he is a good Muslim: he has “abandoned the ways of a people that believe not in Allah” (v. 37). He follows the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and “never could we attribute any partners whatever to Allah” (v. 38). He languishes in prison for awhile longer, but ultimately gets a chance to interpret the king’s dream (vv. 46-49). The ruler’s wife confesses her wrongdoing (v. 51) and so Joseph is freed and rewarded (vv. 54-56). Joseph’s brothers come to him for help during the famine, not recognizing him (v. 58); Joseph demands that they bring their youngest brother (v. 60). Muhammad Asad explains how the story then unfolds: “Joseph had wanted to keep Benjamin with himself, but under the law of Egypt he could not do this without the consent of his half-brothers.” But when the goblet is discovered in his brother’s bag, “Benjamin appeared to be guilty of theft, and under the law of the land Joseph was entitled to claim him as his slave, and thus to keep him in his house.” The point of the Qur’anic story is that Allah orders all events, and none can thwart his will: “Thus did We contrive for Joseph. He could not have taken his brother according to the king’s law unless Allah willed” (v. 76). Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers (v. 90), who beg Allah’s forgiveness (v. 91) and receive it (v. 92, 98). Jacob and his brothers go live with Joseph in Egypt (vv. 99-100).
Verses 102-111 emphasize that all this is a warning. Allah tells Muhammad that he revealed the story of Joseph to him “by inspiration,” for Muhammad was not present when Joseph’s brothers plotted against him, so how could he know how it happened unless he is a true prophet (v. 102)? Still, most will not believe (vv. 103, 105, 106), although this is not an invented tale, but a confirmation of existing Scripture (v. 111) – which Scriptures, of course, to Muhammad’s great vexation, did not actually confirm his message.
Next week: Sura 13, “The Thunder”: “If there were a Qur’an with which mountains were moved, or the earth were cloven asunder, or the dead were made to speak, this would be the one!”
(Here you can find links to all the earlier "Blogging the Qur'an" segments. Here is a good Arabic Qur’an, with English translations available; here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)