Posted online with permission of author;
Scanned by Jonah Winters; proofread by Adore Newman
There are a number of points about the story of Joseph that have made it
a prime vehicle for Muslim mystics to recast the story into a parable of
the spiritual journey hence it is known as "Ahsan al-Qisas" the best
of stories (v.3) for "Verily in Joseph and his brethren are Signs (or
Symbols) for Seekers (after Truth)." (v.7)|
- The first theme that is of relevance to the mystic quest is the theme
of being lost and found again - the theme of being a stranger in a
foreign land. In the Valley of Search Bahá'u'lláh writes: "How many
a Jacob will he see, hunting after his Joseph"
- That which initially attracts the mystic is the fragrance of Joseph,
the spiritual fragrances that come from the Manifestation of God. This
fragrance is so strong that it permeates everything that comes into
contact with the Manifestation - hence the fragrance of Joseph's shirt
(qamis) - the true lover (Jacob) will discern it from a great distance
"And if, by the help of God, he findeth on
this journey a trace of the traceless Friend, and
inhaleth the fragrance of the long-lost Joseph
from the heavenly messenger, he shall
straightway step into the Valley of Love"
See also the reference to this in the Aqdas v. 4 and the note about
this, note 1, p. 165
- The third theme revolves around the overwhelming beauty of Joseph
the guests at the banquet were so awe-struck at his beauty that they
inadvertently cut their hands with their knives because they were not
paying attention to what they were doing (v.31). Love arises in the
individual as a result of the apprehension of beauty in the spiritual
path, this beauty is of course a spiritual beauty. Thus it is that
Bahá'u'lláh is known as the Blessed Beauty.
Hence Abdu'l-Bahá writes of Bahá'u'lláh: " When once He
standeth revealed unto the assembled peoples of the world
and appeareth with such comeliness, such enchantments
alluring as a Joseph in the Egypt of the spirit He enslaveth
all the lovers on earth. (Selections p. 64)
- The fourth theme is that of pain and betrayal the True Joseph
(Bahá'u'lláh) was betrayed by his brother and suffered great injury as a
result (see God Passes By p. 23).
But all are to some extent guilty of having "bartered away the Divine
Joseph for the most paltry of prices." (Gleanings p. 208)
There are many other themes in the story that have been dwelt upon down
the ages the truthfulness of Joseph, the love of Zulaykha who is not
named in the Qur'an but is given this name in the Muslim Traditions.
The Story of Joseph in Five Religious Traditions
by Jim Stokes
published in World Order, 28:3 (Spring 1997), 35-46
The story of Joseph is one of the oldest and most enduring stories in
the world's religious and secular literature. It has been told and retold, and
variously interpreted, serving as an endless reservoir of spiritual meaning for
diverse cultures and religions. Most people in the West know the story from the
book of Genesis in the Old Testament where it is generally recognized as "a
masterpiece of biblical narrative" and the most sustained narrative in the Old
But it holds a no less significant
place in the literature and teachings of Christianity, Islam, the
Bábí religion, and the Bahá'í Faith; and it had
analogues in ancient Egyptian literature and Zoroastrian texts as well. What is
so important about this particular narrative that the Manifestation of God
Muhammad Himself was moved to call it "the fairest of stories?"
`Why, thirteen hundred years after Muhammad's statement,
would the Báb, the Founder of the Bábí religion in
nineteenth-century Persia, choose to announce His prophetic identity and
mission to the first of His followers by composing in that person's presence
(as His main proof) the first chapter of a commentary on the Surih of Joseph
from the Qur'án?
Tracing the story through its appearance and treatment in five of the world's
religions that span a period of three millennia not only offers insights into
the nature of the tale but also into the common literary and spiritual heritage
of these several religions. To their founders and leaders, the story has always
had significance lifting it above mere literary narrative. As Muhammad
revealed: "it is not a tale forged [made by men] but a confirmation."
From that perspective the story also offers
insights into the various modes by which five religiously inspired cultures and
civilizations have sought to define and interpret reality--a process that
continues to the present day. Above all, their respective responses to the
story illustrate the ways in which each of the five religions understand the
nature and role of the Manifestations of God themselves, those great and
mysterious Beings at the center of each of the religions.
The Old Testament
In the Old Testament the story of Joseph occupies the final lengthy
section (chapters 37-50) of Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch--the five
books traditionally known as the books of Moses.
The story of Joseph follows and completes the story of his father, Jacob,
grandson of Abraham, and precedes Exodus, the story of Moses, the second book
of the Bible. From a literary point of view the Genesis version of the story
belongs to what literary scholars call the narrative genre of romance,
especially as the form was used in the Middle Ages. That is, it is the story of
a great life, episodically told, incorporating elements of adventure, mistaken
identity, miraculous escapes, mysterious interventions, reunions, movement
between geographically diverse settings, and, ultimately, the success and
vindication of the hero. But in religious texts the story is also invested with
deeper significance; it encapsulates the unique shape and meaning of the life
of a Manifestation of God.
In barest summary, the principal events of the story in Genesis are as
follows. Joseph was the second youngest of the twelve sons of Jacob. His
mother, and the mother of his younger brother, Benjamin, was Rachel. When young
Joseph incurred the wrath of his brothers by telling them, with innocent
honesty, of two symbolic dreams portraying his eventual dominion over them,
they conspired to kill "this dreamer" (Gen. 37:19-20) and to discredit his
dreams by murdering him. His brother Ruben persuaded them, instead, to cast him
into a well. Eventually they sold Joseph to traveling merchants who brought him
into Egypt where they, in turn, sold him to Potiphar, the Captain of the
Pharaoh's guard. Through Joseph's virtues and gifts he eventually rose to a
position of great favor and responsibility; but, when Potiphar's wife, having
failed in her efforts to seduce him, claimed that it was he who had tried to
seduce her, Joseph was cast into prison. Even there, however, through his
innate capacities, he rose to a position of favor (Gen. 39-41).
Then begins a sequence of two sets of twin dreams that Joseph successfully
interpreted. In the first set, the Pharaoh's butler and baker, having been cast
into prison, sought Joseph's interpretation of their respective dreams. He
complied, telling them that the butler would live and be restored to the
Pharaoh's household but that the baker would die, both of which predictions
came to pass. In the second set of dreams the Pharaoh dreamed first of seven
fat cows and seven lean cows that came out of the river, then of seven good
ears of corn that consumed seven bad ears. Joseph interpreted both dreams as a
single imminent prophecy warning of the approach of seven years of plenty to be
followed by seven years of famine. He counseled the Pharaoh to take steps to
prepare for these events. For these feats Joseph was made overseer of all the
Pharaoh's land and goods (Gen. 39-41).
The next episode--the central one of the tale--relates Joseph's forgiveness of
his brothers when they came to Egypt seeking relief from the famine and
Joseph's eventual reunion with his family. Through a series of stratagems he
compelled the brothers, in stages and by degrees, to see the errors of their
ways. He ordered them to return to Canaan and bring to Egypt their entire
family (the eventual tribes of Israel), including their father. Before the
brothers' returned to Egypt with their father after this second trip into
Canaan God spoke to Jacob in a dream, assuring him that he had nothing to fear
and counseling him to go into Egypt as bidden by Joseph (Gen. 42-47). The
episode illustrates Joseph's true purpose--to awaken remorse in his brothers
for their earlier misdeeds, and it dramatizes the forgiveness, generosity,
compassion, and love that Joseph shows to his brothers, standing in
transcendent contrast to their own earlier actions against him.
To someone for whom the story is a symbolic dramatization of the life and
mission of a Manifestation of God, leaving out any detail in summarizing it is
potentially problematic. But it seems safe to say that two motifs-- dreams and
garments--seem to be more important than others as symbols because of the way
they recur, unify the story, and illustrate the station of Joseph. It is
Joseph's own dreams and his ability to interpret dreams that sets him apart,
whether his clear vision of his own eventual ascendancy or his ability to
interpret the dreams of the prisoners and the Pharaoh. Further, the dream motif
also demonstrates Jacob's spiritual station when God, in a dream, reassures
Jacob and tells him to go as bidden into Egypt (Gen. 46:2-3); and though not a
dream, Jacob's final act--a ceremony in which he places his hand on Ephraim,
the younger of Joseph's two sons, thereby selecting him for ascendancy over
Joseph's first born son, Manassah, contravening the principle of primogeniture
on behalf of innate worthiness--seems a mystically informed act (Gen. 48:
13-20). Obviously the dream motif illustrates a superior knowledge based on
mystical union with God. Joseph is the source of guidance and protection for
everyone he encounters, even when separated from everyone while he was in the
darkness of the well or in the prison where he has been cast. In Jacob's dying
words, he lauded Joseph's having received "blessings of heaven above" and
"blessings of the deep that lieth under" and blessings of the womb (Gen.
49:25), seeming thereby to be saying that Joseph's knowledge transcends all
place and time.
The second major motif--garments--also seems to symbolize the rank of a
Manifestation of God or divinely inspired teacher and His suffering. At the
beginning of the story it is Joseph's coat of many colors (emblematic of his
special rank) that his brothers strip from him and dip into the blood of a
freshly slaughtered goat, telling Jacob that it is the blood of Joseph. Chapter
38, a digression that tells the story of Judah, the brother most bent on
killing Joseph, seems to be about those who would usurp the Prophet's station.
It uses imagery of garments as a negative symbol, specifically when Tamar, wife
of Judah's deceased son put off her widow's garments and replaced them with
those of a harlot to entrap Judah, by which means she conceived twins. In
Egypt, when Joseph is summoned back from prison to interpret the Pharaoh's two
dreams, he first changed his "raiment," and when the Pharaoh, in gratitude,
elevated Joseph to a position second only to that of his own son, Pharaoh
"arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain around his neck"
(Gen. 41:14, 42). Finally, Joseph was described by his dying father as "a
fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the
wall" (Gen. 49:22). Though not an overt image of garments, the bough can be
seen as a metaphor related to the garments treated throughout as emblematic of
blessings. All these images, like the dreams, seem designed as ways of
repeatedly defining Joseph in terms of a spiritual ruler.
On a literary level, the story of Joseph can be interpreted in many ways: as a
tale of the separation of a lost child miraculously protected and eventually
found; as a story of reunion; or as a story of forgiveness and reconciliation.
As a religious text, each of these aspects can also be seen as metaphors
illustrating the healing mission of a Manifestation of God. Whether viewed in
literary or religious terms, Joseph is presented in The Old Testament as a
chosen soul, gifted with special powers. His bond with the higher source of
these gifts is never seriously threatened or questioned by Joseph or by the
narrator. It is simply manifested in stages that successively and increasingly
reveal his wisdom and love and the unquestionable primacy of his station.
Moreover, he is the link in the chain of authority between Jacob and Moses. It
is the other characters who suffer and grow in more traditional human ways,
relative to their treatment of and attitudes toward Joseph. They are redeemed
by him in spite of themselves.
The traditional modes of interpreting the significance of the story within
Judaism are too richly various and complex to present adequately, even if the
author were able to do so. But several of the typical traditional approaches
can be noted. One approach sees the biblical story as a form of evidence about
Jewish history. Scholars generally agree that numerous details in the story
resonate convincingly with what is known of Egyptian culture during the early
to mid-second millennium B.C.E.--from the trafficking in slaves, to Egyptian
names in the story, to the structure of Egyptian bureaucracy and the forms of
titles, to the famine cycle, to details of clothing.
The biblical story, scholars say, seems clearly to be
rooted in memory of an actual historical encounter by the Hebrews with the
Even some motifs in the
story have analogues in contemporaneous Egyptian stories, notably one known as
the "Tale of the Two Brothers," built on the core incident of a wife's attempt
to seduce her brother-in-law, though the purpose, focus, tone, and moral
climate of the two stories are thought to be so utterly different as to
preclude direct influence.
But from an
historical perspective, scholars have convincingly shown that the biblical
author seems to be drawing brilliantly on the cultural matrix of his time to
recast the material into a transcendent story exemplifying God's mysterious but
benevolent design for the Jewish nation, a design that God chose to unfold
through the interpretive powers of His chosen human vessel, Joseph, and the
device of the dream.
Earlier rabbinical commentators were generally less interested in pinning down
historical details. Instead, they tended to view Joseph as an exemplar, an
idealized model of human conduct who combined physical beauty and moral
The incredibly rich Jewish tradition of midrash (interpretation) mines every
detail of the story for "object lessons in rabbinic homiletics" concerning
"various social, religious and political aspects of life," sometimes critical
of actions byJoseph and Jacob, more often filled with praise for his wisdom,
righteousness, and loyalty.
In fact, after Genesis Joseph quickly fades from view in the Bible and is but
fleetingly mentioned in the Old Testament, though he remains a symbol of
The beginning of his decline seems to have coincided with the fall of the
Northern Kingdom (associated with the descendants of Joseph) to the Assyrians
in the eighth century B.C.E.
subsequent story of Moses, which tends to overshadow Joseph, is an overwhelming
saga of liberation. Whatever the reason, in Jewish midrash Joseph, generally
speaking, evolved into a permanent symbol of the wise man rather than remaining
a clear and sustained symbol of a Manifestation of God.
Finally, because the biblical version of the story is a uniquely articulated
masterpiece of narrative, many modern Old Testament scholars want to see much
of the story's meaning in the shape and features of the story itself. They
search for redactions, analogues, and borrowings from folk traditions. Such
features as the parallel dreams and the disappearance into the well and the
prison lend themselves to symbolic interpretations. The classic collection of
midrash by Louis Ginsberg, includes many symbolic and mystical interpretations
for parts of the story.
For example, when
the wolf who is blamed for the supposed death of Joseph is brought before
Jacob, God causes it to speak and deny the killing of Joseph. Jacob's grieving
for the loss of Joseph becomes a rumination about the loss of the Covenant with
God; in fact, the underlying theme of God's plan for Israel recurs as an
interpretation throughout the midrash.
Most striking is the treatment of the dreams in which Joseph consistently finds
dual levels of meaning and prophecies--those concerning the fate of the dreamer
and those bearing a message about the destiny of Israel, which only he
But in spite of this unifying
recurrent symbolism, the effect of the midrash is not to interpret the story of
Joseph as a perfectly articulated divine allegory but as a combination of
historical narrative and religiously charged canonical text the ultimate
signification of which remains mysterious and inchoate but spiritually
attractive to many.
While the story of Joseph was a major part of Genesis in the Old Testament, it
is mentioned only three times in the New Testament (Mark 14:51-52) which may
echo the episode of the cloak and Potiphar's wife in Genesis 39:11-12); Acts
7:9-17, which summarizes his career; and Hebrews 11:22, which lists him as a
hero of faith. Yet the story had a prominent place in the development of early
Christian theology as a symbol for the Christian Savior, and it continues to be
both spiritually significant in Christianity and a rich imaginative source for
To understand the early Christian response to the story of Joseph it is
necessary to understand something of the way in which the theology of early
Christianity developed. During its formative stages, the Christian Faith was
faced with two great issues (among others) for which it needed to develop
responses. The first was the need to explain the relationship of the New
Testament to the Old Testament. Was the earlier Jewish text wrong, or was it
now superseded by the Christian Gospels? Or did the two instead share a
continuing interrelated life of sustained and spiritual significance as
divinely revealed texts? Implicit in that question was the more urgent one: How
was Christ to be understood in relation to spiritual figures who had come
before him? The answer would determine Christians' understanding of the shape
and meaning of history. The second of these issues arose out of the encounter
of the early Church with the Neoplatonism of Greek Hellenism, the dominant
culture within which early Christianity developed.
Was the Church to agree with the Platonist view that
this physical, temporal world is little more than illusory, an insubstantial
shadow without reality? Or does the world, though admittedly lower than the
higher spiritual kingdom of which Christianity teaches, somehow partake to some
extent in the larger reality?
The answer, the early Church fathers held, must be found within the New
Testament, the portion of the Bible considered most important by Christians
since it arose immediately from the life and teachings of Jesus. But both the
New Testament and the Old Testament contained material that was by turns
obscure, contradictory, at cultural odds with the emerging Christian culture,
or otherwise confounding to those turning to it for guidance. The method of the
early Church fathers in making sense of the Bible was to define it as an occult
text--that is, a text in which the real meaning (or at least important parts of
that meaning) lay beneath the surface of the mere letters and words themselves
and which was, therefore, in need of interpretation.
The technique developed by the Church Fathers was a complex form of
itself--the interpretation of episode-within-text as elaborately articulated
mystical metaphors standing for something else--was a legacy of the ancient
world, but their biblical source was St. Paul, who interpreted several biblical
cruxes in allegorical terms. For example, in explaining the significance of the
two sons of Abraham in Galatians (4:21-31), Paul said unequivocally that the
two sons "are an allegory" standing for the two covenants associated with
Abraham (4:24). From that foundation there developed a system for interpreting
divine text allegorically that has come to be known as the fourfold exegetical
Essentially the method argues that religious texts have four equipresent
levels of meaning. The first is the literal or historical. The next three are
allegorical meanings of several kinds: the typological, the moral or
tropological (from the word trope or figure of speech), and the metaphysical or
In the first of these three allegorical meanings--the typological--the thing
described prefigures or stands for something else. This level gave Christianity
the means to reinterpret everything in the Old Testament as a kind of
prefiguring or rehearsal of events in the coming theophany of Christ. The
tropological level interprets the event as a moral teaching directed toward
improving the spiritual life of the individual Christian. In the anagogical or
metaphysical level the event stands for a corresponding reality in a higher
spiritual realm (which reflects aspects of Platonism). This fourfold scheme
accounts for past, present, and future; for individual and institutional
spirituality; for the relation of the physical and the nonphysical worlds; and
for the relationship between successive religious dispensations.
For example, the word "Jerusalem," literally and historically, could mean the
city itself; typologically it could signify the Church of Christ (the New
Jerusalem); tropologically it could signify the human soul made new in Christ;
anagogically it could signify the heavenly City of God.
The fourfold method could be endlessly replicated and
applied to every story and every detail in the Bible, allegorically knitting
the Old Testament to the New Testament.
The story of Joseph was interpreted by the early Church fathers in terms of
the exegetical method as a way of better appreciating Christ as Savior. Of all
the Church Fathers, St. Ambrose--described by St. Bernard as one of "the two
pillars of the Church"-- endeavored in the fourth century to articulate the
fourfold exegetical method in its greatest detail, and he was the one "to
popularize the allegorical method in the West."
Allegorical allusions to Joseph occur in a number of his
letters, but it is his exegetical treatise on Joseph that systematically
presents a comprehensive allegorical interpretation of the entire story.
To Ambrose, Joseph, the model of purity and
chastity, was a typological figure representing Christ. In him "the
resurrection of the Lord Jesus that was to come was revealed."
Ambrose then meticulously shows that every incident and
detail in the Old Testament life of Joseph prefigures a corresponding episode
in the life of Christ. For example, the significance of Jacob's sending Joseph
to inquire of his brothers whether the sheep were well is that of God sending
His son, Christ, to inquire after the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Joseph was sold for a number of pieces of
silver; the same was done to Christ. Joseph was stripped of his garment and
cast into a dark, dry pit as if dead; in like manner Christ was stripped of His
mortal flesh and cast into hell, but nothing in that attempt to destroy Him and
His message could kill His divinity and immortal life. Ambrose likens the
dryness of the pit to the dryness of the Jews who had "abandoned the fountain
of living water."
It must be noted that
in this comment can be seen a strand of the incipient antisemitism in early
Christianity that, unfortunately, endured into much later times. Ambrose was
the master of the fourfold allegorical method, and some of his interpretations
are elegant. Indeed, he quotes from some biblical passages that, in the context
he gives them, seem veiled allusions to the story of Joseph--for example, in
Psalms 88:6: "Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the
Of the famine in Egypt that Joseph foresaw, Ambrose says that it signifies
Christ "taking pity on the hungers of the world" by opening the granaries of
divine mysteries that would nourish mankind.
When Joseph saw his brothers again and spoke mildly to
them, it was the Hebrews being seen by Christ, "who is the true Joseph,"
teaching them lovingly.
When Joseph told
his brothers not to grieve but to go to their father and report that Joseph had
been made master of Egypt, it is the resurrected Christ directing His followers
to go into Galilee where they shall see Him.
When the brothers did so, they were like the apostles
entering the synagogue and preaching of Christ to the Jews.
In the living Joseph reunited with his father is the
resurrected Christ, "the interpreter of the Godhead."
This sampling illustrates but a small part of the
meticulous working out of typological relationships, some of them much more
subtle and ingenious than these. It was a method that won the European West
with a rhetoric based on allegory.
Joseph is one of seven topics chosen by Ambrose as subjects of his major
exegetical works, thus reinvesting the story with a significance that it seems
to have lost in later Jewish midrash. While not the central story of
Christianity (that could obviously only be the story of Christ Himself), it was
allegorically made to mirror that story. And it has continued to be explored by
Christian mystics, philosophers, and artists into the twentieth century. As one
source says, "Few biblical figures have inspired more extensive and more
universal literary treatment than Joseph."
Notable among them are twelve English plays before 1560 and many continental
dramas, Thomas Mann's novel cycle Joseph and His Brothers
paintings by Rembrandt and other artists,
and the 1968 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Technicolored
To appreciate the importance of the story of Joseph is to
appreciate the particular contribution of Christianity by way of its
spiritually inspired interpretive model of reality and to understand the nature
and role of Christ as Christianity's universal Savior.
With the advent of Islam in 622 C.E. the story of Joseph moves once again from
the periphery to the center of religious text in a most extraordinary way--by
the words of God as revealed by the Manifestation of God Muhammad.
In the Qur'án, the holy book of
Islam, Muhammad signals the importance of the story of Joseph with words
variously translated as "the fairest" or "the best" or "the most wonderful" of
stories. To appreciate the profound significance of that appellation, it is
necessary to understand something of the nature of the Qur'án itself.
The Qur'án is divided into 114 súrihs or chapters variously
revealed to Muhammad in either Mecca or Medina (and so identified in each
case), arranged by length, and each given a name related to a motif within the
chapter. The Qur'án's most striking feature is the dramatic nature of
In form they are
dialogues between Muhammad and the Voice of God or, more properly, monologues
by God as reported by Muhammad, along with His own responses, in which God
delivers guidance via Muhammad to the world--guidance ranging from laws and
injunctions, to interpretations, to warnings, to consolations. in short, for
Muslims (and for Bahá'ís) the Qur'án is nothing less than
the authentic Voice of God cutting through a contemporary welter of confusions
and corruption with an uncompromising and healing message of renewal to
humankind. As such, the Voice of God in the Qur'án is rhetorically
intense, decisive, clear, and commanding.
Hence in the Qur'án the story of Joseph is framed by the Voice of God
speaking to Muhammad. That Voice defines the story's nature and meaning. It
opens by affirming that the Arabic Qur'án is itself but a sign of "the
Manifest Book" (that is, it reflects a timeless original that is in Heaven) and
that Joseph is the fairest of stories within that book (12:254). Just as
impressively, the surih closes with the emphatic reiteration that the story is
not "a tale forged" (that is, a human fable) but "a confirmation. . . a
distinguishing . . . a guidance . . . a mercy. . . . sent again here as it has
been before (12:264). At the end of the surih, speaking again to Muhammad, God
once more affirms that the story is meant as a gift to bring understanding.
Thus the Voice of God bestows on the story an emblematic, inherently symbolic
status, making it a spiritual template of the first order and thereby giving it
an enduring literary and spiritual significance in Islam. In fact, His words
give narrative itself, and the symbolic mode, significance too. Above all, the
Qur'án appears to say that the story signifies the nearly despairing
experience not only of earlier messengers of God but of Muhammad Himself, to
Whose teachings His people were not yet listening. In that sense, the
Qur'án seems to be saying that Joseph is to be understood as a model for
Muhammad in a way that is reminiscent of the earlier Christian typology that
interpreted Joseph as a type of Christ (although Islam does not follow the
fourfold exegetical model of early Christianity).
As was the case in the Old Testament, the story of Joseph is the most
detailed, narratively coherent episode in the Qur'án. But while the
essential incidents of the story are the same in both holy texts, the
presentation, the emphases, and the effect in the Qur'án are utterly
different based on differences in the nature of the book itself A Western
reader expecting to encounter a mirror of the biblical narrative may initially
be shocked, even a little disappointed by the differences and by the lack of
concern in the Qur'án for traditional Western literary devices and
signposts. But seen on its own terms, the Qur'anic story is a masterpiece of
reinterpretation of Jewish and Christian law comparable to that of Christ's
reinterpretation of Jewish law in the Gospel of Matthew and part of a text so
spiritually potent that it generated a new religion and civilization.
In literary terms, the Qur'anic version of the story of Joseph strips away
those elements of the Old Testament story that gave it a Hebraic focus,
presenting it, instead, as a universal "tidings of the Unseen" (12:265) meant
to quicken and awaken the hearts of all human beings and bring them to the
straight path of belief. Aside from the names Jacob and Joseph and references
to Egypt, the story is presented in the Qur'án as a kind of drama, a
contest unfolding on a universal stage devoid of specificities that would tie
it to one culture. Even the brothers of Joseph are never named; that would
detract from the point of the story and from its focus on Joseph himself.
In the Qur'anic version, the need to teach monotheism to the polytheistic
peoples of Arabia (and to acknowledge and accept Muhammad as their Guide in
this process) is the structural principle underlying the story. Each incident
that is retained is shaped to illustrate that grand theme; every action by
Joseph is intended to demonstrate the unwavering fidelity to the one true God
that not only Joseph but Muhammad Himself and His followers must maintain in
the face of the perfidies of Joseph's brothers (themselves seemingly symbolic
of all unbelieving peoples--the universal "brotherhood" of humanity in its
response to the Manifestation of God). A brief example will illustrate this
unique focus in the Qur'án. When Joseph is imprisoned and two young
fellow prisoners relate to him their dreams and ask him to interpret their
meaning, Joseph does so (as in the Old Testament). But the incident becomes an
opportunity for him to teach them about monotheism: "I have forsaken the creed
of a people who believe not in God... . And I have followed the creed of my
fathers. . . . Say, which is better, my fellow-prisoners--many gods at
variance, or God the One, the Omnipotent" (12:258). His "sermon" to them
continues, condemning the errors of judgment leading to polytheism. The meaning
of the two prisoners' dreams of food, in the Qur'án, is that the one
prisoner has chosen life-giving spiritual sustenance (by following the command
to serve only one God) while the other prisoner has chosen spiritual death (the
result of polytheism). The ultimate meaning of the dreams of the Pharaoh, and
of Joseph's dealings with his own brothers, is interpreted in the same way--to
illustrate the primacy of Joseph's knowledge and God's guiding hand. Awareness
of this kind of reinterpretation helps one to appreciate the bold originality
of Muhammad's thought.
The metaphors of dreams and of garments are still present in the Qur'anic
version, but are no longer the central metaphors of the story. Instead, the
Qur'anic version emphasizes the unity of understanding and purpose shared by
God, Jacob, Joseph, and his unnamed younger brother, in opposition to the
other, also unnamed, brothers and the assorted Egyptians. Jacob, though still a
figure of great suffering, has mystical insight throughout, similar to but more
limited in its application than the mystical knowledge of Joseph. He
understands the meaning of Joseph's childhood dream; he sees through the lies
of the brothers who have sold Joseph into slavery. When the brothers return to
Egypt as bidden by Joseph, Jacob counsels them to enter by separate gates, and
the Voice of God comments that "he [Jacob] was possessed of a knowledge for
that we had taught him" (12:262). When the brothers berate Jacob for grieving
so deeply after the loss of Joseph and his younger brother, Jacob responds, "I
know from God that you know not (12:263) and sends them out to search for the
two lost brothers. At the moment when Joseph in Egypt gives his shirt to his
brothers and instructs them to cast it over Jacob to restore his sight, Jacob
(far away in Canaan) says, "Surely I perceive Joseph's scent (12:264),
signifying his own mystical union with Joseph. Once reunited with his parents
(in this version his mother is still living), Joseph explains to Jacob the
meaning of the childhood dream and affirms that the author of his powers of
understanding and interpretation was God (12:265). In the Qur'anic version it
is not the literary symmetry of the succession of dreams that counts. Rather,
the story is a drama of the testing of one's spiritual character and insight
and one's ability to remain firm and united with God, Who here assumes the role
of Teacher, Narrator, Supreme Interpreter. The Qur'anic version brings a major
change to the story. Before the Qur'án, the value and meaning of the
story could be variously understood--as fascinating tale, as veiled religious
symbolism, as historical narrative. But its primary message--to Muslims--was
now fixed and clear: It represents the Manifestation of God and His most urgent
Because Muhammad gave such obvious signals of its importance, the story of
Joseph subsequently assumed great importance in both the literature and the
religious history of Islam. The literature of Islam is vast, encompassing
numerous languages and cultures and developing in stages that mirror the growth
and expansion of Islam itself. Floating on this vast sea of Islamic literature,
like so many ships, are innumerable works exploring, retelling, or interpreting
the story of Joseph. "Persian and Turkish literatures alone have produced close
to a hundred" versions of the story, fifty by Persian poets, twenty-eight in
Ottoman Turkish, and six in India.
The story of Síyávush from Zoroastrian sacred texts, told in a
work entitled The Books of Kings,
by the Persian epic poet Firdowsi (c.
940-1020 C.E.) was seen to parallel the Story of Joseph in the motif of "the
Chaste Youth and the Lustful Stepmother with a philosophical worldview which
transcends the individual and is directed toward the future."
The great Sufi poet Rumí, drawing on this earlier epic, wrote the most
important of the literary retellings of Joseph, the long mystical romance,
Joseph and Zulaykhá
(1484 CE.). It was the first to so thoroughly
interpret the story allegorically as a contest between uncontrollable human
passion and idolatry (symbolized by Zulaykhá, the wife of Potiphar) and
divine or mystical love (symbolized by Joseph) and to dramatize how the two are
resolved and eventually harmonized in perfect union. He also treated the story
as symbolically parallel to the mystical story of Majnun and Layli. From this
seminal work by Jámí sprang "an impressive number of imitators"
exploring this new theme.
Many of the works associated Joseph not only with Muhammad but with John the
Baptist and, more important, with Imám Husayn, the martyred grandson of
Muhammad. The Joseph story more than any other has also crossed and recrossed
religious and cultural boundaries in recent centuries as Jewish and Islamic
commentators have studied it, drawing on each other's traditions.
For millennial Muslims, the motif of return
has been an inescapable component--and the most compelling one--of the diverse
associations generated by the story, making it "the most popular of the
biblical stories in Muslim Persia."
inclination of the storytellers within that tradition is commonly to identify
with Jacob, whose heart was lost in sorrow, seeking reunion with his Joseph,
his Muhammad, his Husayn, and often to turn the story back into a romance (in
the medieval literary sense). It stands at the very core of Islamic literary
On the theological level, the story of Joseph has been particularly important
in the eschatology (the branch of theology dealing with last things) of Shi'ah
Islam, where the religious significance has remained close in spirit to that
given it by Muhammad, and where it eventually culminated in historic events
played out in the towns and countryside of nineteenth-century Iran. Soon after
the death of Muhammad, Islam split into what eventually became two branches of
the Faith--Sunni and Shi'ah which arose out of controversy concerning questions
of succession and authority.
Both groups accepted the spiritual authority of the Qur'án and
collections of hadith (the body of the sacred traditions of the Muslims), but
Sunnis also accepted the authority of the Caliph, a temporal ruler chosen by
other Muslim leaders but lacking prophetic or spiritual status, while Shi'ah
Muslims believed that legitimate spiritual authority resided in `Alí,
nephew and son-in-law of Muhammad, known to them as the first Imam (spiritual
leader), and subsequently in the hands of his chosen descendants.
After `Ali was assassinated in 40 A.H./ 660 CE., eleven further Imams chosen
from `Ali's immediate descendants successively assumed the mantle of spiritual
leadership within Shi'ah Islam. Eventually Shi'ism became centered in Iran,
first as an underground movement running counter to the ruling Sunni dynasty of
the Abbasids, and eventually as the dominant sect of Islam within Iran.
The basic tenets of Shi'ah Islam took shape during the tenure of the twelve
Imams. It is an article of Shi'ah belief that each of the first eleven Imams
were murdered, and that, to escape being murdered, the twelfth Imam (known at
various times as The Mahdi or The Qá'im or The Awaited One, or The Lord
of the Age) went into "occultation"-- a state of being alive but veiled from
the world and "miraculously prolonged until the day when he will manifest
himself again by God's permission."
Thus, inherent in Shi'ah Islam is a millennial dimension similar to that in
some branches of Christianity and other religions, a belief that at the time of
the end or Judgment Day, the Savior (in this case the Mahdí or Twelfth
Imam) will return to assert His rightful authority, thereby returning God's
justice onto the earth. Based on the words of Muhammad in the Surih of
Adoration, Shi'ah scholars reckoned that time as the year 1260 A.H. or 1844 CE.
Indeed, a great wave of millennial expectation, especially within the Shaykhi
School founded by Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsá'í, pervaded some elements
of Shi'ah Islam during the first half of the nineteenth century.
In the context of Shi'ih beliefs and expectations, it is obvious why, after
more than a thousand years of literary, philosophical, and theological
influence in Islam, the story of Joseph would assume special urgency and
significance in the 1840s within the millennial communities of Shi'ah Islam.
Muhammad had clearly designated the story a key, if not the key,
repository of spiritual mystery; Joseph's lengthy disappearance into Egypt
in the face of mortal danger could be interpreted as an occultation in its own
right; the chief threat to Joseph, as it was with Muhammad and the Imams, was
from envious members of his own family. Though he was the youngest of the
brothers (the Twelfth Imam, too, was a child), Joseph was the one mysteriously
anointed with intuitive, higher spiritual knowledge; and his return had
harmonized spiritual and temporal power and authority just as would the return
of the Mahdí. Yet the operative historical meaning and ultimate
significance of the story remained a mystery that defied definitive
interpretation. It is reported that, when Siyyid Kázim-i-Rashtí
the successor of Shaykh Ahmad, was asked sometime before 1844 to write a
commentary on the Súrih of Joseph, he declined, saying, "This is,
verily, beyond me. He, that great One, who comes after me will, unasked, reveal
it for you. That commentary will constitute one of the weightiest testimonies
of His truth, and one of the clearest evidences of the loftiness of His
Thus he linked the story of Joseph to the appearance of a new religion,
thereby clearly indicating the importance the story held for members of that
element within Islam but also its difficult mysteries.
Shortly thereafter, in 1844, the Bábi religion arose in Persia,
followed nineteen years later by the Bahá'í Faith, together
ushering in perhaps the most tumultuous religious episode of the nineteenth
century. From the moment of the inception of the Bábi religion, the
story of Joseph held central importance in it and, in fact, became part of its
historical development. The story has no less importance in the
Bahá'í Faith that followed. The role of the story in both those
religions, and what makes it spiritually significant in our own times, is
explored in the second part of this study.
Copyright (c) 1997 by Jim Stokes.
JIM STOKES is a professor of English at the University of
Wisconsin, Stevens Point. In 1996 the University of Toronto Press published his
Somerset, a two-volume work including records of early English drama. In
preparation are Lincolnshire, records of early English drama (also with the
University of Toronto Press) and "The Effects of the Reformation on Traditional
Culture in Somerset, 15321642." His examination of the story of Joseph, the
first installment of which appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of World
Order, grew, in part, from teaching comparative literature and literature
of the ancient world.
 D. L. Jeffrey, ed., A Dictionary of
Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W B.
Ferdman's, 1992) 441.
 A. J. Arberry, trans., The Koran
Interpreted (New York: McMillan, 1955) 254. All references to the
Qur'án are to this translation.
 For a discussion of the Báb's use of
the story of Joseph, see the second part of this article in a forthcoming issue
of World Order.
 Arberry, The 266 Koran Interpreted.
 All citations from the Bible are from the
Authorized (King James) version of 1611.
 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) is an
alternative designation corresponding to B.C. (Before Christ).
 For a discussion of the historical details,
see "Joseph," in Encyclopedia Judaica 202-17.
 See "Joseph," in Encyclopedia Judaica
 Jeffrey, Dictionary of Biblical Tradition
 "Joseph," Encyclopedia Judaica
 James L. Kugel, In Potiphar's House
(San Francisco: Harper's, 1990) 26.
 Kugel, In Potiphar's House 16.
 Louis Ginsberg, Legends of the Bible
(Philadelphia: Jewish Publications Society of America, 1975).
 Ginsberg, Legends of the Bible
 Ginsberg, Legends of the Bible
 See Edward K. Rand, Founders of the
Middle Ages (New York: Dover, 1928), especially chapter 1, "The Church and
Pagan Culture"; and Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The
Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism
(New Haven: Yale UP, 1993).
 On the occult text, see David Norton,
A History of the Bible as Literature, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
 On the method of early Christian
allegory, see Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture 225-30. and
Rand, Founders of the Middle Ages 85-90.
 Norton, History of the Bible 57.
For a discussion of John Cassian, who formalized the fourfold exegetical method
during the fourth century, see Norton History of the Bible 58.
 Norton, History of the Bible
 Rand, Founders of the Middle Ages
 See Sr. Mary Melchior Beyenka, trans.,
Saint Ambrose: Letters (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1954) 84-87,
147, 288-89, 431, 491; Michael P McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose: Seven
Exegetical Works (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic U of America P. 1972)
 McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose
 McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose
 McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose
 McHugh, trans., Saint
 McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose
 McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose
 McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose
 McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose
 Encyclopedia Judaica 213.
 Encyclopedia Judaica 213-16.
 C.E. (Common Era) is an alternative
designation corresponding to AD. (Anno Domini).
 Richard Bell, Introduction to the
Qur'an (Edinburgh: University Press, 1963) 59-62, 77-78.
 Bell, Introduction to the Qur'an
 Sa'id Arbab-Shirani, "Shapes of a Myth:
Literature Transformations of the Joseph Figure," diss., Princeton U, 1975, 29,
 Arbab-Shirani, "Shapes of a Myth" 32.
 Arbab-Shirani, "Shapes of a Myth" 29;
see also Paul Davis, et al., eds. World Literature in a World Context
(New York: St. Martin's, 1995) 1444; H. M. Bayuzi, Muhammad and the
Course of Islam (Oxford: George Ronald, 1976) 286; and Peter Heath,
Allegory and Philosophy in Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (Philadelphia: U of
Pennsylvania P, 1922) 3-4
 Arbab-Shirani, "Shapes of a Myth" 46,
 Arbab-Shirani, "Shapes of a Myth" 47.
 Much of this historical summary is taken
from Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The History and Doctrines
of Twelver Shi'ism (Oxford: George Ronald, 1985). On the problem of
succession, see Momen, Introduction to Shi'i Islam 11-22.
 Momen, Introduction to Shi'i
 Momen, Introduction to Shi'i
 Momen, Introduction to Shi'i
[Muhammad-i-Zarandí], The Dawn-Breakers; Nabíl's Narrative of
the Early Days of the Bahá'í Revelation, trans. and ed.
Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970)
 Nabíl, Dawn-Breakers 59.