Monday, June 17



Yūsuf ibn Yaʿqūb ibn Isḥāq ibn ʾIbrāhīm (Arabic: يُوسُف ٱبْن يَعْقُوب ٱبْن إِسْحَاق ٱبْن إِبْرَاهِيم‎) is a prophet mentioned in the Quran,[1] and corresponds to Joseph (son of Jacob), a person from the Tanakh, the Jewish religious scripture, and the Christian Bible, who was estimated to have lived in the 16th century BCE.[2] It is one of the common names in the Middle East and among Muslim nations. Of all of Jacob’s children, Joseph was the one given the gift of prophecy. Although the narratives of other prophets are mentioned in various Surahs, the complete narrative of Joseph is given only in one Surah, Yusuf, making it unique. It is said to be the most detailed narrative in the Qur’an and bears more details than the Biblical counterpart.[3]

Yusuf is believed to have been the eleventh son of Yaʿqūb (Arabic: يَعْقُوب‎, Jacob), and, according to many scholars, his favorite. According to Ibn Kathir, “Jacob had twelve sons who were the eponymous ancestors of the tribes of the Israelites. The noblest, the most exalted, the greatest of them was Joseph.”[4] The story begins with Joseph revealing a dream he had to his father, which Jacob recognizes.[5] In addition to the role of God in his life, the story of Yusuf and Zulaikha (Potiphar’s wife of the Old Testament) became a popular subject in Persian literature, where it became considerably elaborated over the centuries.[6

Historical narrative in Islam

Joseph in Zuleikha‘s party. Painting in Takieh Moaven ol molk, Kermanshah, Iran.

The story of Joseph in the Qurʾān is a continuous narrative. There are more than one hundred verses, and in totality they encompass many years and “present an amazing variety of sciences and characters in a tightly-knit plot, and offer a dramatic illustration of some of the fundamental themes of the Qurʾān.”[7] The Qurʾān itself relates to the story’s importance in the third verse: “and We narrate unto you aḥsanal-qaṣaṣ (Arabic: أَحْسَنَ ٱلْقَصَص‎, “best (or most beautiful) of stories”).” Most scholars believe this is referring to Joseph’s story, while others, including Ṭabari, argue it is a reference to the Qurʾān as a whole.[8] It asserts and documents the execution of God’s rulings despite the challenge of human intervention (“And Allah hath full power and control over His affairs; but most among mankind know it not”).[9]

This is what the story of Yūsuf confirms categorically, for it ends with comfort and marvels, which is described in the Qurʾān. Along with the story there is also some commentary from some leading scholars of Islam.

Joseph before the dream

Muhammad at-Ṭabari provides exquisite detail and commentary of this narrative in his chapter on Joseph relaying the opinions of well-known scholars. In Ṭabari’s chapter, the physical beauty of Joseph and his mother Rachel is introduced, in that they were said to have had “more beauty than any other human being.”[10] His father, Jacob, had given him to his oldest sister to be raised. Ṭabari comments that there was no greater love than what Joseph’s aunt felt for him as she had raised him as her own. And she was very reluctant to give him back to Jacob and kept him until her death. The reason, according to Ṭabari, that she was able to do this was because of a belt that had been passed to her from her father, Isaac. Ṭabari notes “if someone else acquired it by guile from the person who was supposed to have it, then he would become absolutely subject to the will of the rightful owner.”[11] This is important because Joseph’s aunt puts the belt on Joseph when Jacob is absent and then accuses Joseph of stealing it and he thus stays with her until her death. Jacob was very reluctant to give up Joseph and thus favors him when they are together. This is commentary but, as is the profession of commentators, this provides an interesting set up to Joseph’s personal story and also lays a foundation for a future interaction with his brothers, particularly Benjamin.

The dream

The story begins with a dream and ends with its interpretation. As the sun appeared over the horizon, bathing the earth in its morning glory, Joseph, son of Jacob awoke from his sleep, delighted by a pleasant dream he had. Filled with excitement he ran to his father and reported what he had seen.

Yusuf said to his father: “O my father! I did see eleven stars and the sun and the moon: I saw them prostrate themselves to me!— Qur’an, Surah 12 (Yusuf) Ayah 4[12]

According to Ibn Kathir, Jacob knew that Joseph would someday become extremely important and would be in a high position, both in this world and the next—he recognized that the stars represented his brothers and the sun and moon represented himself and Joseph’s mother, Rachel. Jacob advised Joseph to keep the dream to himself in order to protect him from the jealousy of his brothers, who were already unhappy about the love Jacob felt for Joseph.[13] Ya’qub foresaw that Yusuf would be one through whom the prophecy of his grandfather, Ibrahim (Abraham), would be fulfilled, in that his offspring would keep the light of Abraham’s house alive and spread God’s message to mankind. Abu Ya’ala interpreted Jacob’s reaction as an understanding that the planets, sun and moon bowing to Joseph representing “something dispersed which God united.”[13]

Ya’qub told Yusuf: “My son, relate not thy vision to thy brothers, lest they concoct a plot against thee: for Satan is a clear enemy to humanity. Thus your Lord has selected you and given you knowledge to interpret reports, and has perfected his blessing upon you and upon the family of Jacob just as he perfected it on your forefathers before: Ibrahim and Is-haq (Isaac). Your Lord is Knowing, Wise” (Qur’an, Surah 12 (Yusuf) Ayat 5-6).[14]

Joseph did not tell his brothers his dream, unlike in the version relayed in the Hebrew Bible, but their dislike of him was already too strong to subdue. Ṭabari demonstrates this by adding that they said to each other, “verily Joseph and his brother (Benjamin) are dearer to our father than we are, though we may be a troop (‘usbah). By usbah they meant a group, for they were ten in number. They said, “Our father is plainly in a state of aberration.””[15]

Joseph was known, in addition for being very handsome, to be of gentle temperament. He was respectful, kind and considerate. His brother Benjamin was equally pleasant and both were from the same mother, Rachel. From a hadith (Arabic: حَدِيث‎, ‘narration’):

Narrated Abu Huraira:
Some people asked the Prophet: “Who is the most honorable amongst the people?” He replied, “The most honorable among them is the one who is the most Allah-fearing.” They said, “O Prophet of Allah! We do not ask about this.” He said, “Then the most honorable person is Yusuf, Nabiyyullah (Arabic: نَـبِيُّ الله‎, Prophet of Allah), the son of a Nabiyyillah, the son of a Nabiyyillah, the son of Khalilillah (Arabic: خَـلـيـلِ الله‎, “Friend of Allah”).”— Sahih al-Bukhari collected by Muhammad al-Bukhari[16]


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