Surah 12: Joseph, Part 1

If I’ve complained about repetition in the last two suwar, Surah Yusuf is the answer. If I’ve ever complained about the scatterplot layout of material in the Quran, Surah Yusuf is the answer. Today’s surah deliberately and entirely focuses on a narrative telling of one person, Joseph (Yusuf) the son of Jacob. The first three ayat are almost endearing, as God winds Muhammad up by telling him that he is getting “the best of stories in what We have revealed to you.”

Now, the Biblical story of Joseph can be found in Genesis 37, 39-50. It has the benefit of luxurious length, fuller detail, and the context of its preceding history. From a literary standpoint I would call it the most narratively and emotionally satisfying story in the Bible. Surah Yusuf shares with the Genesis account the timeline points: dream of future ascendancy, betrayal by jealous brothers, enslavement in Egypt, jailed on false pretenses after rejecting attentions of his master’s wife, interprets dreams, gains place in Pharoah’s court for his wisdom and insight, tests brothers but ultimately refuses chance of avenging past wrongs, reunites and protects entire family. The details in almost every point are so different in the surah that the characters are quite changed in its telling. In my next two posts I am going to walk through the story blow-by-blow in order to think through those details.

I’d encourage you to read both accounts for yourselves. The surah is only 111 ayat and it’s shorter to read the surah itself than my analysis. One reason that I’m doing this blog is that I was tired of reading about the Quran and wanted to get direct with the materials. This blog is just my processing of those materials. That being said, I know by writing this that I’m just perpetuating the cycle of more people reading about the Quran and borrowing someone else’s opinions. I’m thankful that you’re reading my opinions! But I still would hope that you’re testing mine with your own.

Joseph’s Childhood

As a child, Joseph receives a dream in which eleven stars, the sun, and the moon bow down before him. He tells the dream only to his father Jacob. Jacob is supportive of Joseph and affirms that the dream was from God. He predicts that God’s favor on the Abrahamic family will be passed down through Joseph. He also warns Joseph not to share this dream with his (Joseph’s) brothers, predicting that they would become dangerously jealous, and that Satan is always looking to prey on mankind.

Joseph’s brothers, however, are already aware and resentful of their father’s favoritism. There is a cool narrative device here that is probably better manifested in a recitation. Notice that in ayah 8, the brothers are talking in first person about their resentments. Ayah 9, however, then switches to use second person as a solution to the problem is presented: kill Joseph. I think Sahih International cheapens this by proposing in brackets that it is one of the brothers who has given this suggestion. Instead, I read it as a suggestion of Satan’s inserted into the brothers’ thoughts and conversation, thus the use of second person pronouns. We already read Jacob’s warning that Satan is always on the prowl, and this ayah would be the fulfillment of that warning. A story teller might subtly inflect their voice to signify that this temptation is being planted amongst the brothers’ resentments. An interesting idea within this temptation is that after this murder, then the brothers could lead righteous lives in light of their father’s attentions, as if the voice is disguising itself as guidance towards virtue. The murderous temptation is met halfway, like a barter, in ayah 10 when the dialogue explicitly switches back to the mouth of a brother who says that it would be better just to abandon Joseph in a well, where he’s likely to be found by travelers.

The surah doesn’t give these brothers much of an identity. They do not have names and are usually treated categorically. This is going to cast them in a generically sinister and goonish light through most of the story, but in my mind it also represents the neglect they are suffering. My reading is colored by the Biblical account, in which Jacob is a divisively partial patriarch. His family is fragmented and broken between those who he has neglected and those whom he favors. I cannot deny that although I do not condone the brothers, I always feel sympathy for their place as underdogs. This is another time that I wonder if Muslims utilize the biblical context or not to understand these characters.

The brothers ask Jacob for Joseph’s company out in the wild later, staking their reputation on his safety despite Jacob’s fears that a wolf will eat Joseph. Once they get permission, they promptly abandon Joseph in a well, soak his shirt in blood, and tell their dad that while they were playing tag, a wolf indeed came up and ate Joseph….Jeesh, not going to even try picking a different story than the one their father imagined? So much for their reputations. They try guilt tripping Jacob by saying, “we tell the truth, but you won’t believe us,” but Jacob is unaffected in his rejection of their story. He proclaims that he trusts God and that he will be patient for God’s plan.

Here we must remember that Jacob believes in Joseph’s dream –Joseph’s revelation. Not seeing the revelation fulfilled, he chooses to wait and see what will become of it. Joseph being dead does not fit into that revelation, therefore Jacob can deduce that the brothers have lied and Joseph is not dead. Yet instead of taking investigation and judgement upon himself, Jacob submits to God by choosing patience and waiting for God to reveal all: His plan for Joseph and the crime of the brothers. In this way, Jacob is modelling the faith that Muslims are being called to demonstrate in waiting for God’s coming judgement when hopes will be rewarded and sins will be revealed. Jacob’s faithful patience is parallel to the eerie phrase from prior suwar, “Wait. We too are waiting.”

Joseph, in the meantime, is at ease. God inspires him with the knowledge that he will one day get to have his revenge upon his brothers. Joseph gets pulled out of the well by some passing travelers (it’s a comic verse, where the traveler lowers the bucket for water and then brings it up exclaiming “Good news! It’s a boy!”) and sold as mere merchandise in Egypt. His purchaser is not called by name, but rather titled as al-ʕazeez, which means “the powerful.” Al-Aziz puts Joseph under the charge of Mrs. al-Aziz with the idea that they might choose to adopt him. In this situation, Joseph finishes growing up and becomes wise, knowledgeable, and (according to hadith) unearthly beautiful.

Things Get Weird…

Al-Aziz’s wife, despite being in this motherly responsibility for Joseph, becomes determined to seduce her ward. The Quran makes clear that Joseph was only able to resist her because he had knowledge of God. As they run to the door, she rips the shirt off his back. In this version that action actually backfires. When trying to deduce the truth, Al-Aziz consults a relative of his wife’s and is told to check where the shirt tore. Sherlock Holmes style, Al-Aziz and the relative deduce that Joseph must have been running away when the shirt was ripped off him and therefore that Mrs. al-Aziz is lying. Al-Aziz sees this to be the case and makes a categorical slur to all women: “This is of [the] kaydahunna.” That word has two parts, the first being the noun kayda, “schemes/treachery/wiles,” and the second being -hunna, a suffix that indicates feminine plural third-person possession, i.e. “all you women’s”. (Nouns modified with possessive pronouns become definite, which is why there’s a “the” in brackets in my quotation.) The crime is Mrs. al-Aziz’s alone, but her husband blames the sin on the treachery he finds in all women. By kindest interpretation, this could just be Mr. al-Aziz’s individual misogyny, but here’s where things gets weird.

Joseph is in that moment vindicated and Mrs. al-Aziz humiliated. Her story circulates and she becomes the laughing stock of all the other women for lusting after a slave. Rather than apologize and repent of her sin as her husband commanded, Mrs. al-Aziz seeks her own vindication. She invites all the women over to a feast and gives to each woman a knife. She brings Joseph out on display for them. The women, so agog with Joseph’s beauty, cut their hands as they passionately declare admiration for his angelicness. At first I pictured something Klingon-like with the women all cutting their hands and shouting oaths that Joseph was too beautiful. Instead, it seems that traditional interpretation is that the women were so distracted that they all lost control of their cutlery. It is implied that this clumsiness was Mrs. al-Aziz’s plan all along, since the Quran makes a point of noting that she passed out knives with the food. I do find this scene hard to picture since the plural verb used required at least three women to be having the same accident, and these circumstances are hard to picture. Still, in my search results online for a better explanation, the picture is less often questioned but instead leaned into to indicate how beautiful Joseph was and how lustful the women were. A lot of sources conject that they were eating fruit, particularly pomegranates. Considering how hard pomegranates are to cut, I shouldn’t wonder in that case if the women’s hands weren’t already bleeding before Joseph came in.

This is the best they could do to figure out what this scene would have looked like. And it still looks contrived and questionable.

Mrs. Al-Aziz, feeling fully vindicated since all the other women are of the same sentiment, declares that now she will have her way and seduce Joseph. She threatens him with imprisonment. Joseph prays to God for aversion from these “women’s wiles” and states he would prefer prison. God does indeed save Joseph from these “women’s wiles,” which indeed results in him being imprisoned. (Joseph should be a little more careful in the wording of his prayers, it seems.) Whatever the intention of this story, it’s easy to believe that it would become the fodder for misogyny in Islamic extremism. It is disturbingly categorical and unredemptive in its portrayal of inherent female character. The uses of kaydahunna (“their schemes,” feminine-plural possessive suffix) would be less disturbing here, since Joseph is referring to a specific set of women, except that we were primed with the word used unnecessarily and categorically by Al-Aziz before.

(Warning: Be aware that my first Google page of results for the search words “Yusuf women cut hands” pulled up a website called “Authentic Tauheed” which interpreted this whole scene with the most blatant misogyny. That website is written by convicted extremist Sheikh Faisal. Do not dignify it with traffic. Also, I may now be on the NSA watchlist.)

Just as weird is that everyone else (the pronouns switch to include men) decides it would be best to lock Joseph up. It is not clear what is going on here, as no charges are trumped up to justify his sentence. I can only guess that Joseph has been labeled too beautiful for society to handle and that locking him up is deemed best for everyone’s marriages. This is ironic, given that societies around the world have a tendency to use this argument to force women into concealment. The argument goes that women are inherently beautiful, therefore the burden is upon them to conceal that beauty (sometimes to extreme levels) in order to avoid bringing out the animal in people. Part of what makes this section of Joseph’s story so weird is that it is a gender-swapped take on that logic.

Interpreting Dreams

We do not know how long Joseph is in prison. He is joined in time by two young men who are bothered by dreams and need interpretation. One sees himself pressing wine, the other sees himself carrying a basket of bread on his head from which birds are eating. Joseph tells them that their next meal won’t arrive before he interprets their dreams. He then digresses into a quick homily about his faith, his heritage, and the fruitlessness of polytheism. The homily is short, and the interpretations shorter: one man will become a cupbearer, the other will be crucified and the birds will pick at his head. (Personally, I always felt sorry for the baker, as in the Bible story I always had the sense that he was not morally different than the cupbearer but just had worse luck.) The use of crucifixion here will raise the skepticism of history buffs, as crucifixion was not a tool of Ancient Egyptian execution. The counter to this is that perhaps the Quran, which has declared itself in ayah 2 as using the Arabic language deliberate for the purpose of being understadable, chose to use a word or image that would communicate to Arabs, rather than some obsolete and foreign image they would not have easily understood.

The dreams are fulfilled as Joseph foretold, but the cupbearer forgets to bring Joseph’s case to Pharaoh’s attention as Joseph had asked of him. This forgetfulness is attributed to Satan’s influence, again fulfilling Jacob’s warning in the beginning of the story. Thus the story demonstrates the two most dangerous powers of Satan: that he can add ideas but also that he can obscure them. These two powers are very relevant to the Quran, which asserts of itself regularly that it is complete and perfect. As such, Satan is the greatest enemy at this point when the Quran is only held in the memories of its followers. Addition and subtraction of revelation is its greatest fear and the foremost danger to future Islam.

The incident of Pharoah’s dreams is pretty straightforward. I find it interesting that no one in Pharoah’s court even tries to interpret the dream, begging ignorance of the skill. When the cupbearer requests leave to go get the interpretation, I thought that he was going to do something sneaky, since he makes no mention of Joseph in his request. This suspicion of mine did not bear out, as the cupbearer behaves honorably. Joseph interprets the feast-famine message of the dream from his prison cell. Again, I thought this was part of some scheme of the cupbearer to take credit, but it turns out this served to fulfill another purpose. Pharaoh must summon Joseph, giving Joseph the opportunity to leverage that his case involving the women who cut their hands needs to be resolved first.

When the case is reviewed, the women involved all testify to Joseph’s innocence, and Mrs. al-Aziz confesses her guilt. Joseph wanted this done so that Al-Aziz would know he was innocent. In a way, this is unnecessary, as Al-Aziz already knew he was innocent. Everyone knew Joseph was innocent. It is also weird that the incident is remembered for the women cutting their hands. I returned to the idea that maybe the women had cut their hands to commit perjury rather than by accident, but again this is not an idea I’ve found in other sources. Another function of the review is that it makes sure that all involved parties testify to their own guilt and are publicly exposed (harkening to Judgement Day) so that God cannot be said to have facilitated evil.

Revisiting the idea that Joseph’s forced concealment in prison relates to the way women are forced into concealment, these confessions could be interpreted hopefully. The blame for lust is placed entirely on the souls of the lustful, not the beautiful. If interpretation is applied this way, this message could be liberating for women who are supposedly too tempting for public view. Now one counter is that such interpretation is only possible if women are viewed as equally capable of self-control as men. This story has provided a categorical denunciation of female character, which does not bode well. Joseph’s character, however, is not taken to be typical of men. He credits his sinlessness in the face of temptation as a matter of God’s intervention, making clear that religion is the source for his strength, and not his inherent character. Thus Surah Yusuf can be used to make many arguments on the issue, and largely is susceptible to the desires of whoever is wielding it.

End Part I

Pharaoh offers Joseph a position in his court, Joseph requests that he be put in charge of the feast-famine branch of the government, and thus Part I of the story concludes. Joseph’s life parallels the feast-famine cycle of Pharaoh’s dream, in which it is by receiving guidance from God that one can keep the right perspective and survive. God is at work through feast and famine, it teaches, and that hardship comes on even the undeserving. This section concludes that God does not deprive anyone of the good that they deserve, particularly mentioning the Hereafter as the place where rewards of the faithful will be paid.

Joseph’s story here is all about having the right information and connection to God, to an extent that makes him a little hard to relate to. No matter how assured we are in our faiths, I know few people who would say that God talked them through their situations in the way that He does Joseph. When Joseph is in the bottom of the well, he is assured that the situation will reverse in his decided favor. Joseph is also surprisingly perfect in character. While most of the Quran’s prophets have been portrayed as innocent of guilt, there are times when it could be read that they still have flaws. That Joseph has no flaws is attributed to divine intervention, which raises questions in my mind as to how human nature works in Islam. It reminds me of the Roman Catholic view of Mary, who is said to be perfect because God intervened to make her sinless (whereas Jesus was inherently sinless). The same question arises to me with this Joseph as the case with Mary: if God is willing/able to intervene and make one human infallible, why does He not do that for all? This question of God’s intervention is at the heart of the philosophical Problem of Evil already, but the question gets even more complicated if God addresses evil inconsistently.

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