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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 2 - Sacred Texts 


The Story of Joseph in the Koran

Mohammed, the founder of the Islamic religion, was born in Mecca, the most important commercial center in Arabia, around the year 570. Working as a trader who dealt with caravans to Syria and Iraq, he came in contact with the diverse peoples of the Near East, including Jews, Christians, Persians, and Byzantines. His dealings with these groups introduced him to their advanced literary cultures and to their sacred texts. Presumably as a result of his early exposure to Jews and Christians, who dwelt in Arabia in sizeable numbers, Mohammed rejected the polytheistic customs prevalent in the Arabia of his youth. He was more drawn to the moral and ethical teachings of the monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity, but had no wish to convert to one or the other. Then, approaching the age of forty, he felt himself called to prophesy.

Islam accepts both the Hebrew Bible, considering it a record of the Jewish people's covenant with God as articulated by Moses, and the Christian Testament, a record of a subsequent covenant enunciated by Jesus. Muslims regard their sacred book, the Koran (qur'an, or "recitation"), as the third and final revelation, dictated by God (Allah in Arabic) through the angel Gabriel to Mohammed.

A compendium of oral texts, the Koran combines many kinds of utterance. For pious Muslims, the text is all-encompassing: it is not only a prayer book but also a code of civil and religious law, a secular and sacred history of the Arabs, a manual of behavior, and a guide for contemplation. After Mohammed's death, scribes began to write down his teachings, but because these were believed to be the words of Allah, they were never edited. As a consequence, the Koran has retained its essentially oral character. Organized into 114 chapters called suras, with the longer chapters first and the shorter ones at the end, it relates no single sequential narrative. In fact, Islam revolves less around the reading than the chanting of the Koran, whose mesmerizing sounds dominate the lives of believers even if they do not understand the Arabic of the text itself.

Many of the episodes narrated in the Koran retell stories originally told in the Bible. Like most revisions of traditional narratives, these retellings often take for granted information basic to the plot, aiming primarily to give inherited materials a new emphasis. The excerpt printed below, generally considered the narrative masterpiece of the Koran, claims a special allegorical significance for its treatment of a story familiar to readers of Genesis 37-50. Deeply influenced by this version, subsequent Islamic literature frequently refers to the beauty of Joseph, which becomes a sign of the beauty of God.

The Yusuf Sura
Chapter 12 of the Koran

In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Alif lam ra. These are the verses of the Glorious Book. We have revealed the Koran in the Arabic tongue so that you may understand it.

In revealing this Koran We will recount to you the best of histories, though before We revealed it you were heedless of Our signs.

Joseph said to his father: "Father, I dreamt that eleven stars and the sun and the moon were prostrating themselves before me.

"My son," he replied, "say nothing of this dream to your brothers, lest they should plot evil against you: Satan is the sworn enemy of man. You shall be chosen by your Lord. He will teach you to interpret visions and will perfect His favour to you and to the house of Jacob, as He perfected it to your forefathers Abraham and Isaac before you. Your Lord is wise and all-knowing."

Surely in the tale of Joseph and his brothers there are signs for doubting men.

They said to each other: "Joseph and his brother are dearer to our father than ourselves, though we are many. Truly, our father is much mistaken. Let us kill Joseph, or cast him away in some far-off land, so that we may have no rivals in our father's love, and after that be honourable men."

One of them said: "Do not kill Joseph. If you must get rid of him, cast him into a dark pit. Some caravan will take him up."

They said to their father: "Why do you not trust us with Joseph? Surely we are his friends. Send him with us tomorrow, that he may play and enjoy himself. We will take good care of him."

He replied: "It would much grieve me to let him go with you; for I fear lest the wolf should eat him when you are off your guard."

They said: "If the wolf should eat him despite our numbers, then we should surely be lost!"

And when they took Joseph with them, they decided to cast him into a dark pit. We addressed him, saying: "You shall tell them of all this when they will not know you."

At nightfall they returned weeping to their father. They said: "We went racing and left Joseph with our goods. The wolf devoured him. But you will not believe us, though we speak the truth." And they showed him their brother's shirt, stained with false blood.

"No!" he cried. "Your souls have tempted you to evil. But I will be patient. Allah alone can help me to bear this misfortune of which you speak."

And there passed by a caravan, who sent their waterman to the pit. And when he had let down his pail, he cried: "Rejoice! A boy!"

They took Joseph and concealed him among their goods. But Allah knew of what they did. They sold him for a trifling price, for a few pieces of silver. They cared nothing for him.

The Egyptian who bought him said to his wife: "Use him kindly. He may prove useful to us, or we may adopt him as our son."

Thus We found a home for Joseph, and taught him to interpret mysteries. Allah has power over all things, though most men may not know it. And when he reached maturity We bestowed on him wisdom and knowledge. Thus We reward the righteous.

His master's wife sought to seduce him. She bolted the doors and said: "Come!"

"Allah forbid!" he replied. "My lord has treated me with kindness. Wrongdoers never prosper."

She made for him, and he himself would have yielded to her had he not been shown a veritable sign by his Lord. Thus We warded off from him indecency and evil, for he was one of Our faithful servants.

He raced her to the door, but as she clung to him she tore his shirt from behind. And at the door they met her husband.

She cried: "Shall not the man who sought to violate your wife be thrown into prison or sternly punished?"

Joseph said: "It was she who sought to seduce me."

"If his shirt is torn from the front," said one of her people, "she is speaking the truth. If it is torn from behind, then he is speaking the truth and she is lying."

And when her husband saw Joseph's shirt rent from behind, he said to her: "This is one of your tricks. Your cunning is great indeed! Joseph, say no more about this. Woman, ask pardon for your sin. You have done wrong."

In the city women were saying: "The Prince's wife has sought to seduce her servant. She has conceived a passion for him. It is clear that she has gone astray."

When she heard of their intrigues, she invited them to a banquet at her house. To each she gave a knife, and ordered Joseph to present himself before them. When they saw him, they were amazed at him and cut their hands, exclaiming: "Allah preserve us! This is no mortal, but a gracious angel."

"This is the man," she said, "on whose account you reproached me. I sought to seduce him, but he was unyielding. If he declines to do my bidding, he shall be thrown into prison and held in scorn."

"Lord," said Joseph, "sooner would I go to prison than give in to their advances. Shield me from their cunning, or I shall yield to them and lapse into folly."

His Lord heard his prayer and warded off their wiles from him. He hears all and knows all.

Yet though they were convinced of his innocence, the Egyptians thought it right to imprison him for a time.

Two young men went to prison with him. One of them said: "I dreamt that I was pressing grapes." And the other said: "I dreamt that I was carrying a loaf upon my head, and that the birds came and ate of it. Tell us the meaning of these dreams, for we can see you are a man of learning."

Joseph replied: "I can interpret them long before they are fulfilled. This knowledge my Lord has given me, for I have left the faith of those that disbelieve in Allah and deny the life to come. I follow the faith of my forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We must never serve idols besides Allah. Such is the gift which Allah has bestowed upon us and all mankind. Yet most men do not give thanks.

"Fellow-prisoners! Are numerous gods better than Allah, the One, the Almighty? Those whom you serve besides Him are names which you and your fathers have invented and for which Allah has revealed no sanction. Judgement rests with Allah only. He has commanded you to worship none but Him. This is the true faith: yet most men do not know it.

"Fellow-prisoners, one of you shall serve his king with wine. The other shall be crucified, and the birds will peck at his head. That is the meaning of your dreams."

And Joseph said to the prisoner who he knew would be freed: "Remember me in the presence of your king."

But Satan made him forget to mention Joseph to his king, so that he stayed in prison for several years.

Now it so chanced that one day the king said: "I saw seven fatted cows which seven lean ones devoured; also seven green ears of corn and seven others dry. Tell me the meaning of this vision, my nobles, if you can interpret visions."

They replied: "It is but an idle dream; nor can we interpret dreams."

Thereupon the man who had been freed remembered Joseph after all those years. He said: "I shall tell you what it means. Give me leave to go."

He said to Joseph: "Tell us, man of truth, of the seven fatted cows which seven lean ones devoured; also of the seven green ears of corn and the other seven which were dry: for I would inform my masters."

Joseph replied: "You shall sow for seven consecutive years. Leave in the ear the corn you reap, except a little which you may eat. Then there shall follow seven hungry years which will consume all but little of that which you have stored for them. Then there will come a year of abundant rain, in which the people will press the grape."

The king said: "Bring this man before me."

But when the king's envoy came to him, Joseph said: "Go back to your master and ask him about the women who cut their hands. My master knows their cunning."

The king questioned the women, saying: "Why did you seek to entice Joseph?"

"Allah forbid!" they replied. "We know no evil of him."

"Now the truth must come to light," said the Prince's wife. "It was I who sought to seduce him. He has spoken the truth."

"From this," said Joseph, "my lord will know that I did not betray him in his absence, and that Allah does not guide the work of the treacherous. Not that I am free from sin: man's soul is prone to evil, except his to whom Allah has shown mercy. My Lord is forgiving and merciful."

The king said: "Bring him before me. I will make him my personal servant."

And when he had spoken with him, the king said: "You shall henceforth dwell with us, honoured and trusted."

Joseph said: "Give me charge of the granaries of the realm. I shall husband them wisely."

Thus We gave power to Joseph, and he dwelt at his ease in that land. We bestow Our mercy on whom We will, and never deny the righteous their reward. Better is the reward of the life to come for those who believe in Allah and keep from evil.

Joseph's brothers came and presented themselves before him. He recognized them, but they did not. And when he had given them their provisions, he said: "Bring me your other brother from your father. Do you not see that I give just measure and am the best of hosts? If you do not bring him, you shall have no corn, nor shall you come near me again."

They replied: "We will request his father to let him come with us. This we will surely do."

Joseph said to his servants: "Put their money into their packs, so that they may find it when they return to their people. Perchance they will come back."

When they returned to their father, they said: "Father, corn is henceforth denied us. Send our brother with us and we shall have our measure. We will take good care of him."

He replied: "Am I to trust you with him as I once trusted you with his brother? But Allah is the best of guardians: He is most merciful."

When they opened their packs, they found that their money had been returned to them. "Father," they said, "what more can we desire? Here is our money untouched. We shall receive an extra camel-load; that should not be hard to get."

He replied: "I shall not let him go with you until you swear in Allah's name to bring him back to me, unless you are prevented."

And when they had given him their pledge, he said: "Allah is the witness of your oath. My sons, enter the town by different gates. If you do wrong, I cannot ward off from you the wrath of Allah: judgement is His alone. In Him I have put my trust. In Him alone let the faithful put their trust."

And when they entered as their father had advised them, his counsel availed them nothing against the decree of Allah. It was but a wish in Jacob's soul which he had thus fulfilled. He was possessed of knowledge which We had given him, though most men were unaware of it.

When they presented themselves before him, Joseph embraced his brother, and said: "I am your brother. Do not grieve at what they did."

And when he had given them their provisions, he hid a drinking-cup in his brother's pack.

Then a crier called out after them: "Travellers, you are thieves!"

They turned back and asked: "What have you lost?"

"The king's drinking cup," he replied. "He that restores it shall have a camel-load of corn, I pledge my word for it."

"By Allah," they cried, "you know we did not come to do evil in this land. We are no thieves."

The Egyptians said: "What penalty shall we inflict on him that stole it, if you prove to be lying?"

They replied: "He in whose pack the cup is found shall be your bondsman. Thus we punish the wrongdoers."

Joseph searched their bags before his brother's, and then took out the cup from his brother's bag.

Thus We directed Joseph. By the king's law he had no right to seize his brother: but Allah willed otherwise. We exalt in knowledge whom We will: but above those that have knowledge there is One more knowing.

They said: "If he has stolen--know then that a brother of his has committed a theft before him."

But Joseph kept his secret and did not reveal it to them. He thought: "Your crime was worse. Allah well knows that you are lying."

They said: "Noble prince, this boy has an aged father. Take one of us, instead of him. We can see you are a generous man."

He replied: "Allah forbid that we should seize any but the man with whom our property was found; for then we should be unjust."

When they had despaired of him, they went aside to confer together. The eldest said: "Have you forgotten that you gave your father a solemn pledge, and that you broke your faith before this concerning Joseph? I shall not stir from this land until my father gives me leave or Allah makes known to me His judgement: He is the best of judges. Return to your father and say to him: 'Your son has committed a theft. We testify only to what we know. How could we guard against the unforeseen? Ask the townsfolk with whom we stayed and the caravan in which we travelled. We speak the truth.'"

"No!" cried their father. "Your souls have tempted you to evil. But I will be patient. Allah may bring them all to me. He alone is wise and all-knowing." And he turned away from them, crying: "Alas for Joseph!" His eyes went blind with grief and he was oppressed with silent sorrow.

His sons exclaimed: "By Allah, will you not cease to think of Joseph until you ruin your health and die?"

He replied: "I complain to Allah of my sorrow and sadness. He has made known to me things beyond your knowledge. Go, my sons, and seek news of Joseph and his brother. Do not despair of Allah's spirit; none but unbelievers despair of His spirit."

And when they presented themselves to Joseph, they said: "Noble prince, we and our people are scourged with famine. We have brought but little money. Give us some corn, and be charitable to us: Allah rewards the charitable."

"Do you know," he replied, "what you did to Joseph and his brother in your ignorance?"

They cried: "Can you indeed be Joseph?"

"I am Joseph," he answered, "and this is my brother. Allah has been gracious to us. Those that keep from evil and endure with fortitude, Allah will not deny them their reward."

"By the Lord," they said, "Allah has exalted you above us all. We have indeed been sinners."

He replied: "None shall reproach you this day. May Allah forgive you: He is most merciful. Take this shirt of mine and throw it over my father's face: he will recover his sight. Then return to me with all your people."

When the caravan departed their father said: "I feel the breath of Joseph, though you will not believe me."

"By Allah," said those who heard him, "this is but your old illusion."

And when the bearer of good news arrived, they threw Joseph's shirt over the old man's face, and his sight came back to him. He said: "Did I not tell you that Allah has made known to me things beyond your knowledge?"

His sons said: "Father, implore forgiveness for our sins. We have indeed been sinners."

He replied: "I shall implore my Lord to forgive you. He is forgiving and merciful."

And when they presented themselves before Joseph, he embraced his parents and said: "Welcome to Egypt, safe, if Allah wills!"

He helped his parents to a couch, and they all fell on their knees and prostrated themselves before him.

"This," said Joseph to his father, "is the meaning of my old vision: my Lord has fulfilled it. He has been gracious to me. He has released me from prison and brought you out of the desert after Satan had stirred up strife between me and my brothers. My Lord is gracious to whom He will. He alone is wise and all-knowing.

"Lord, You have given me power and taught me to interpret mysteries. You are the Creator of the heavens and the earth, my Guardian in this world and in the next. Let me die in submission and join the righteous."

That which We have now revealed to you is secret history. You were not present when Joseph's brothers conceived their plans and schemed against him. Yet strive as you may, most men will not believe.

You shall demand of them no recompense for this. It is an admonition to all mankind.

Many are the marvels of the heavens and the earth; yet they pass them by and pay no heed to them. The greater part of them believe in Allah only if they can worship other gods besides Him.

Are they confident that Allah's scourge will not fall upon them, or that the Hour of Doom will not overtake them unawares, without warning?

Say: "This is my path. With sure knowledge I call on you to have faith in Allah, I and all my followers. Glory be to Him! I am no idolater."

Nor were the apostles whom We sent before you other than mortals inspired by Our will and chosen from among their people.

Have they not travelled in the land and seen what was the end of those who disbelieved before them? Better is the world to come for those that keep from evil. Can you not understand?

And when at length Our apostles despaired and thought that none would believe in them, Our help came down to them, delivering whom We pleased. The evil-doers did not escape Our scourge. Their history is a lesson to men of understanding.

This is no invented tale, but a confirmation of previous scriptures, an explanation of all things, a guide and a blessing to true believers.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What are the major differences between the Koranic and the biblical styles of narration? How do they alter the emphases and thus the meaning of the story?
  2. What helps Yusuf reject the attempted seduction described here? What is the significance of his coat's being torn from behind?
  3. The unnamed seductress has a much larger role in this version of the story than does Potiphar's wife in Genesis. She is in effect tried in her own household in the court of public opinion. What is the verdict pronounced on her and why?