Here is yet another Biblical story recast and retold in the Qur’an, and like the overwhelming majority of Biblical stories in the Qur’an, is employed to make the same point: Muhammad is a true prophet, he is being mistreated like all other prophets, and those who are ridiculing and rejecting him will be severely punished.
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.
Allah 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 was in the news in 2008 with the discovery of 450 rolls of film of ancient manuscripts of the Qur’an that had been concealed, apparently to avoid offending delicate Muslim sensibilities.
Then Allah tells the story of Joseph (vv. 4-101). According to Maududi, one of the principal purposes of this account was — yet again — to warn people not to reject Muhammad. Its aim, he said, was to apply the story of Joseph being rejected by his brothers to Muhammad’s tribe that rejected him, the Quraysh, “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, “Certainly were there in Joseph and his brothers signs for those who ask,” 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 whoever has seen (in a dream) something he dislike, then he should spit without saliva, thrice on his left and seek refuge with Allah from Satan, for it will not harm him, and Satan cannot appear in my shape.” (Bukhari 9.87.124)
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 Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas 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 inclined to her had he not seen the proof of his Lord,” and Allah warded him off “from him evil and immorality. Indeed, he was of Our chosen servants” (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: “Indeed, it is of the women’s plan. Indeed, your plan is 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: “I have left the religion of a people who do not believe in Allah, and they, in the Hereafter, are disbelievers” (v. 37). He follows the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and “it was not for us to associate anything with 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 plan for Joseph. He could not have taken his brother within the religion of the king except that 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).
Allah emphasizes that all this is a warning (vv. 102-111). 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.
(Revised July 2015)