Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Surah Yusuf: theme, plot and characters

In the honor of the holy month, the four Saturday sessions of Iqbal Academy Pakistan at TDC, Karachi, during Ramazan shall focus on discussing Surah Yusuf (Chapter 12 of the Quran), which is also a significant reference in the works of Iqbal. The first half was discussed on Saturday, August 22.

The theme of this surah is the gift bestowed upon Joseph by God. Implications of the gift are insight into destiny through interpretation of visions, events and stories. Its corollaries are incorruptible moral character, patience, hope and forgiveness. Its purpose is to bring together a scattered “family,” be it the house of Jacob or the family of God (i.e. the entire human race).

In this chapter, described by the Quran as “the best of the stories”, the pace of action is fast. For instance, in Verse 5, Joseph’s father advises him not to mention his vision to his stepbrothers but as early as Verse 8, stepbrothers are already discussing what they should do about this peculiar vision. The narrative shifts between at least six “scenes” in as few as seventeen initial verses:

1-3: Prelude

4-6: Joseph shares his dream with father

7-10: Brothers plan against Joseph

11-14: Brothers persuade father to send Joseph with them

15: Brother throw Joseph in the well, and he receives revelation from God

16-17: Brothers return to father and give false report

Verisimilitude is avoided and even certain details found in other sources, such as the Old Testament, are skipped. This gives us a terse and compact narrative in which every single item is a metaphor that may never run out of applications in the lives of individuals, nations and humanity.

With the exception of Joseph, active characters are not called by their proper names but mentioned either by their relationship with Joseph or their function in the plot. Even “the father of Joseph”, named in the Quran on several other occasions, is not called Jacob in this surah – except once, where he is being listed among Joseph’s predecessors along with Abraham and Isaac, and hence is not in his active role in the plot.

Characters are well-rounded. Even among the respectful commentators of the Quran, we do find many who analyze the character of Joseph with a frankness with which they may not dare approach any other figure in the Quran. Personally, I do not condone such attitude but at least it is a testimony to the naturalism of this particular surah that even some otherwise staunch and orthodox writers have gotten carried away in this manner. Even the mischievous wife of Potiphar doesn’t fail to gain sympathy with the reader and, by her proper name Zulaykha (not mentioned in the Quran), she becomes one of the most popular characters in Sufi literature inspired by this surah.

The terseness of the narrative adds to the psychological depth of characters rather than diminish it. For instance, Jacob tells Joseph in Verse 5 that Satan is an open enemy, and in Verse 9, the brothers are quoted as saying, “Slay Joseph or cast him out to some other land, that so the favor of your father may be given to you alone, for you to be righteous after that.” Layers of hypocrisy can be seen working behind this idea of attaining a spiritual station by committing sin and murder, and hoping that later piety would make up for it. Since Satan has been mentioned just before this “scene”, the dialogue also becomes a study in the psychology of diabolically inspired thinking.

This error will be exposed through the action of the plot itself. In the second half of the story, we shall see that the brothers have indeed become “honest” but just when they would have no intention of doing away with Joseph’s other real brother (the precious “Benjamin”), he would be taken away from them. Again, they will have to stand before their father, offering excuses, and the shame of failing to protect a brother will be theirs once more. Hence, the unity of this narrative is such that it becomes difficult to separate theme, action and plot.

Incidentally, two new characters introduced by the Quran who are not so active in other versions, and who are as integral to this unity of theme, action and plot here, are God Himself and “you”, i.e. the reader. The surah begins as dialogue between these two characters and that’s how it ends. The relationship between these two major “characters” resonates in the diction and music of this surah, and provides it the necessary embellishment, as shall be seen in the next session on Saturday, August 29.

Attendance is free but registration is required. For details,contact Dr. Hena Jawaid at


  1. Dr. Hena Jawaid: I left you a short comment in the previous post and THANX for this as well.

  2. Thank You, Dr. Jawaid for your work here. I am still looking forward to YouTube classes eagerly.
    I hope you are having or had a joyous Eid Mubarak!