History of the Prophets

by Maulana Muhammad Ali

Joseph

A whole chapter, the 12th chapter entitled Joseph, is devoted to the life-story of Joseph. It gives a continuous account of the history of Joseph, the first three verses and the concluding section both pointing to the purpose which underlies the story. It is not, in fact, a mere narrative but a prophetical statement of the dealings of the Prophet’s enemies towards him and his dealings with them. That the plans of Joseph’s brothers to get rid of him and his magnanimous treatment of them contained a prophecy relating to the murderous plans of the Prophet’s enemies and his flight to Madina and his ultimate triumph over them and his generous treatment towards them is made clear by the following incident. The Prophet is related to have taken hold of the two sides of the gate of the Ka’ba [Kabah] on the day of the conquest of Makka [Makkah], and he said to the Quraish who had been guilty of the most cruel of crimes against him and his followers:

“How do you think I should treat you?”

They said,

“We hope for good, a noble brother and the son of a noble brother.”

Then he said:

“I say as my brother Joseph said: No reproof be against you this day.”

The concluding words are the words of Joseph as related in 12:92 [The Holy Quran], and are not met with in the Bible.

Joseph’s story as related in the Holy Quran starts with his vision:

“I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon—I saw them making obeisance to me” (The Holy Quran, 12:4).

In the Bible narrative, Jacob rebukes Joseph on account of this dream, saying:

“What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?” (Genesis, 37:10).

According to the Holy Quran, Jacob saw Joseph’s future greatness in this vision and said:

“And thus will thy Lord choose thee and teach thee the interpretation of sayings, and make His favour complete to thee and to the children of Jacob” (The Holy Quran, 12:6).

Later on, when he was cast into a pit by his brethren, Joseph, according to the Quran narrative, received a Divine revelation:

“Thou wilt certainly inform them of this affair of theirs while they perceive not” (The Holy Quran, 12:15).

It finds no place in the Bible narrative, and there is thus this essential difference between the two versions. The Bible narrates it as a simple story; the Quran gives prominence to the spiritual element which alone can justify its record in a book meant for the spiritual guidance of man. The Quran narrates the fact which the Bible omits that Joseph received a Divine revelation just at the time when his life had apparently come to an end that he will one day be the master of his present oppressors. It is this circumstance in a prophet’s life which enables him to face all distresses and difficulties, the deep conviction of the ultimate triumph of truth which is produced by revelation from on high.

The Bible narrative thus divests the story of its real beauty. When Joseph’s brethren came to Jacob with false blood on his shirt, Jacob doubted their sincerity. He said:

“Nay, your souls have made a matter light for you. So patience is goodly. And Allah is He Whose help is sought against what you describe.” (The Holy Quran, 12:18)

Not so according to the Bible:

“And he knew and said, It is my son’s coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces.” (Genesis, 37:33)

The Bible represents Jacob as an ordinary mortal, while the Holy Quran represents him as a prophet. The former makes him grieve as an ordinary mortal for the loss of a beloved son:

“And Jacob rent his clothes and put sackcloth upon his loins” (Genesis, 37:34).

The latter shows that he had from the first a hope. Throughout the Quran narrative, Jacob’s hope is the bright ray without which the story, as in the Bible, is a gloomy narrative devoid of all spiritual value. But there are traces left still in the Bible narrative which show that the account as now met with in Genesis does not truly depict the character of Jacob. He rebukes Joseph for his dream, but at the same time

“observed the saying” (Genesis, 37:11),

which shows that he was convinced of its truth. The Quranic narrative thus not only fits in with prophetical character of Jacob but also shows that wherever it contradicts the Bible, it removes in fact its inconsistencies.

Both narratives relate Joseph’s being sold in Egypt, his being kept in Potiphar’s house and the incident of Potiphar’s wife. But here again there is nothing to compare with the purity of the language of the Quran:

“And she in whose house he was, sought to seduce him and made fast the doors and said: Come. He said: Allah forbid! Surely my Lord made good my abode. The wrong-doers never prosper.” (The Holy Quran, 12:23)

Compare this with Bible narrative (Genesis, 39:7–12) in which the language used shows no trace of delicacy. Further, according to the Quran, Joseph’s character was cleared of the false charge on the spot:

“A witness of her own family bore witness: If his shirt is rent in front, she speaks the truth and he is one of the liars. And if his shirt is rent behind, she tells a lie and he is one of the truthful. So when he (Potiphar) saw his shirt rent behind, he said: Surely it is a device of you women. Your device is indeed great! O Joseph, Turn aside from this. And (O my wife), ask forgiveness for thy sin. Surely thou art one of the sinful.” (The Holy Quran, 12:26–29)

The vindication of Joseph’s character on this occasion, and the production of the evidence of the shirt, are not related in the Bible, but without it the episode of leaving the torn garment behind, which is narrated in the Bible too, becomes quite meaningless. It seems to be a clear omission. What follows this episode in the Quran narrative shows that Joseph was not cast into prison for being guilty of having committed an outrage on his master’s wife as against the Bible narrative. The Holy Quran does not allow even an accusation of this nature to stand against a prophet. In fact, the vindication of Joseph’s character is given this importance to lay stress on the purity of character of all prophets of God. It is also meant to be an evidence of our Prophet’s purity of character in his youth.

The narrative then goes on to relate the incident of Joseph being cast into prison on some other pretext. There Joseph interprets the dreams of two fellow-prisoners, the King’s butler and baker. There is again a difference here in the two narratives. Joseph, according to the Quranic narrative, is more anxious to reform the two fellow-prisoners, which is not mentioned in the Bible at all:

“Surely I have forsaken the religion of a people who believe not in Allah, and are deniers of the Hereafter. And I follow the religion of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. It beseems us not to associate aught with Allah. This is by Allah’s grace upon us and on mankind, but most people give not thanks. O my two fellow-prisoners, are sundry lords better or Allah, the One, the Supreme? You serve not besides Him but names which you have named…. Judgment is only Allah’s. He has commanded that you serve none but Him. This is the right religion but most people know not.” (The Holy Quran, 12:37–40)

Joseph is at last set free and brought to the King to interpret his dream but he refuses to leave the prison until he has his innocence established beyond all doubt. The women bear evidence:

“We knew of no evil on his part.”

And Potiphar’s wife admitted:

“Now has the truth become manifest. I sought to seduce him and he is surely of the truthful” (The Holy Quran, 12:51).

The Bible narrative is again silent on this point. The King’s dream is then interpreted and Joseph is placed in authority over the treasures of the land but the Divine purpose is made clear:

“And thus did We give to Joseph power in the land—he had mastery in it wherever he liked. We bestow Our mercy on whom We please, and We waste not the reward of the doers of good. And certainly the reward of the Hereafter is better for those who believe and guard against evil.” (The Holy Quran, 12:56, 57)

In vain would one search the Bible narrative for such spiritual lessons. Then follows an account of the famine during which Joseph’s brethren come to Egypt for buying provisions. Joseph recognizes them but they do not recognize him. They are asked to come again with Benjamin. Jacob gives them some instructions and the prophet in him is again brought to prominence:

“Surely he was possessed of knowledge, because We had given him knowledge, but most people know not” (The Holy Quran, 12:68).

The Bible narrative is devoid of these inspiring thoughts.

Then follows the episode of the cup being placed in Benjamin’s bag. According to the Bible narrative, Joseph himself commanded his steward to place it there:

“And he commanded the steward of his house, saying … put my cup, the silver cup in the sack’s mouth of the youngest and his corn money. And he did according to the word that Joseph had spoken.” (Genesis, 44:1, 2)

According to the Quran narrative, Joseph did not give any such command, nor was it Joseph’s cup but the King’s cup. Who placed it in the sack, is not stated; it was either the steward or somebody else, maybe one of Joseph’s brethren who did it by way of mischief. Anyhow Benjamin was kept in Egypt and Joseph’s brethren returned to their father and related to him the episode of the cup. Jacob blamed them in exactly the words in which he had blamed them when they had brought to him Joseph’s shirt with false blood on it:

“Nay, your soul have contrived an affair for you, so patience is good,” (The Holy Quran, 12:83).

This incident, however, only gave him a renewed hope of meeting Joseph:

“Maybe Allah will bring them together to me. Surely He is the Knowing, the Wise” (The Holy Quran, 12:83).

The remembrance of Joseph brought tears to his eyes, and his sons blamed him for continuing to remember Joseph for so long after he had perished.1

But Jacob’s hopes grew greater still:

“He said: I complain of my grief and sorrow only to Allah, and I know from Allah what you know not:

“O my sons, go and inquire about Joseph and his brother, and despair not of Allah’s mercy. Surely none despairs of Allah’s mercy except the disbelieving people.” (The Holy Quran, 12:86, 87)

This shows that Jacob had a true prophet’s faith in the Divine promise given to him about Joseph, and he knew by Divine revelation that Joseph was alive. These wonderful spiritual lessons are nowhere to be met with in the Bible narrative, while the Quran narrative is full of them. This fact entirely changes the very nature of the dry Bible story of an old man losing a son and then finding him. In the Holy Quran, we have one spiritual lesson following another giving comfort not only to Jacob but also to the Holy Prophet and his faithful followers. It was due to this that their trust in God was as solid as a rock, so that under no circumstances did they give way to despair. The difference in the two narratives may be briefly summed up as the difference between secular and sacred history, between a record of the past events and great spiritual lessons for the future.

The other aspect of Joseph’s story has already been alluded to. In the story of Joseph is related the story of the Prophet himself. Such is the beginning:

“Certainly in Joseph and his brethren there are signs for inquirers” (The Holy Quran, 12:7).

Such is also the end. After being raised to the highest dignity in the land, Joseph prays to God thus:

“My Lord, Thou hast given me of the kingdom and taught me of the interpretation of sayings. Originator of the heavens and the earth, Thou art my Friend in this world and the Hereafter. Make me die in submission and join me with the righteous.” (The Holy Quran, 12:101)

And then follow the memorable words:

“This is of the announcements relating to the unseen (which) We revealed to thee, and thou wast not with them when they resolved upon their affair, and they were devising plans.” (The Holy Quran, 12:102)

These were clearly the plans which the Prophet’s enemies were now devising to put an end to his life, but he was told that their plans would fail, and they would at last come to him as Joseph’s brethren came to Joseph, asking pardon for their cruelty to him and meeting with the magnanimous response of which history does not afford another instance:

“No reproof be against you this day. Allah may forgive you and He is the most Merciful of those who show mercy.” (The Holy Quran, 12:92)

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Footnotes:

  1. The general impression that Jacob had lost his eyesight on account of weeping too much finds no support in the Holy Quran. The words which are wrongly translated as meaning he lost his sight only mean that tears came to his eyes.

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