Joseph is one of the most important, revered figures in both Islam and Christianity. What lessons can be learned from the Qur’anic and Biblical accounts of his life?
“When we are being told a story … [n]ot only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.”
This comment on storytelling, by Leo Widrich, sets a useful framework as to why our kids love listening to stories before going to bed. It is also probably why Holy Scriptures present us with many stories from past nations and prophets. The story of Prophet Joseph is one such story. It’s one we learn from our early childhood years. Describing it as “the best of narratives,” the Qur’an has a full chapter dedicated to the story of this messenger of God, whose name is still one of the most popular names, with some linguistic variations, across the Abrahamic traditions. The following article details how this story is told in the Islamic and Christian traditions, and what moral lessons, especially on abuse of power, can be drawn from it.
Both the Bible and the Qur’an narrate the story of Joseph extensively. While the story in the Bible is in the Book of Genesis, the Qur’anic account is in the chapter of Yusuf. It is an exception in the Qur’an: while the different aspects of the stories of other Prophets are told in more than one chapter, the entire story of Joseph is told in a single chapter.
What to learn from the story of Joseph: A Muslim perspective
Though both the Biblical and Qur’anic accounts agree on much of the core elements, there are minor differences in the details. Joseph is one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Jealous of Joseph, his brothers plot to get rid of him. They throw him in a well, and he is sold in slavery to a top official in Egypt. Attracted by his beauty, the official’s wife tries to seduce him, and failing to do so, she slanders him. Joseph spends years in prison. He interprets the dreams of two inmates. When the ruler of Egypt has a dream, Joseph is released to interpret it. He is made a minister, and Egypt is saved from years of famine. His parents and brothers come to Egypt and show their loyalty to him.
1. Jealousy leads to evil: When Joseph is a child, he has a dream. Joseph says to his father, "O my father! I did see eleven planets and the sun and the moon: I saw them prostrate themselves to me" (Qur'an, 12:4). He (Jacob) says, "O my son! Do not relate your dream to your brothers, lest (out of envy) they devise a scheme against you. For Satan is a manifest enemy to humankind (and can incite them to do such a thing)" (Qur'an, 12:5).
Jacob worries that Joseph's brothers will become jealous of him. His fears prove true, as Joseph's brothers turn against him once they learn about the dream.
2. Acting wisely: Jacob says to Joseph “O my son! Do not relate your dream to your brothers.” It is not easy to keep to oneself what seems to be a fantastic phenomenon, especially a dream, which one would hardly imagine it may cause trouble. Jacob is teaching Joseph to act wisely and be cautious in this matter, so that his brothers are not provoked to committing something wrong.
3. Patience: Joseph's brothers come to their father and say, “Our father! We went off racing with one another and left Joseph behind by our things, then a wolf devoured him” (Qur'an, 12:17). Jacob says, "Rather, your (evil-commanding) souls have tempted you to do something evil. So (the proper recourse for me is), a becoming patience (a patience that endures without complaint)” (Qur'an, 12:18).
The virtue of patience is asserted in a later verse: “Surely whoever keeps from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety, and is patient, surely God will not leave to waste the reward of those devoted to doing good as if seeing God” (Qur'an, 12:90).
4. Resisting carnal desires and remaining faithful: One of the most difficult tests for a teenager is the stimulation of sexual desires. Joseph (imploring God) says, “My Lord! Prison is dearer to me than what they bid me to. If You do not avert their guile from me, I might incline towards them and become one of the ignorant (those who succumb to such temptations)” (Qur’an, 12:33). Joseph upholding faithfulness, maintaining his dignity, and restraining himself despite women desiring him – and the threats of prison – epitomizes the best of virtuous character – for all times and for every individual.
5. Accepting one’s mistakes and repenting: In the story of Joseph, the wife of the minister (Zuleikha) and Joseph’s brothers understand their mistakes. The Surah of Joseph tells us: “(The king had the woman assembled before him, and) he said: ‘What happened (between you and Joseph) when you sought to enjoy yourselves by him?’ They said: ‘God save us! We perceived no evil at all on his part!’ And the wife of the minister said: ‘Now the truth has come to light. It was I who sought to enjoy myself by him. He was indeed truthful (in all he said, and true to his lord)’” (Qur’an, 12:51).
(Similar to Zuleikha's confession, Jacob’s sons also confessed what they had done) They said: “O our father! Ask God to forgive us our sins; surely we have been sinful.” (Qur’an, 12:97). Accepting one's mistakes and asking for forgiveness relieves people from intrinsic problems. It is much easier to confess and ask for forgiveness than to live with the mistake.
6. Forgiveness: Forgiving those who wronged us is an exceptional virtue. It is a quality that manifests as an attribute of God. Muslims believe forgiving others can be a means for our own forgiveness. Joseph chooses the way of forgiveness: “No reproach this day shall be on you. May God forgive you; indeed, He is the Most Merciful of the merciful” (Qur’an, 12:92).
7. Being hopeful: After losing Joseph many years before, Jacob almost loses Benjamin, too. Yet, he never loses faith in God and always seeks His help. And he says to his other sons: “O my sons! Go forth and seek earnestly for Joseph and his brother; and do not despair of God's Mercy, for none ever despairs of God's Mercy, except people who disbelieve in Him” (Qur’an, 12:87).
8. Being thankful: Joseph is clearly aware of the grace of God. When Joseph's story ends with a happy ending, Joseph turns to God and expresses his gratitude in the following way: “My Lord! You have indeed granted me some important part of the rule and imparted to me some knowledge of the inner meaning of all happenings (including dreams). O You, Originator of the heavens and the earth, each with particular features! You are my Owner and Guardian in this world and in the Hereafter. Take my soul to You as a Believer, and join me with the righteous” (Qur’an, 12:101). Joseph prays to return to his Lord even when he has finally reunited with his family and at the height of worldly status and reputation. This exemplifies the attitude of a believer who is aware that all worldly titles are temporary and real success is attaining full faith in God.
9. Meritocracy: In order for a nation to progress, it is necessary to give administrative positions to people who are competent. As a good example, the Egyptian king gave ministry of the country to Joseph, who was not Egyptian but still possessed great wisdom and knowledge. Joseph said, “Place me in charge over the store-houses of the land, for I am a good custodian, a knowledgeable one” (Qur’an, 12:55). A lesson to take is that it is important to be equipped with skills to provide quality service while holding public interest on the frontline.