Friday, September 11, 2009

Surah Yusuf: Part 3

In the honor of the holy month, the four Saturday sessions of Iqbal Academy Pakistan at TDC, Karachi, during Ramzan have focused on discussing Surah Yusuf(Chapter 12 of the Quran), which is also a significant reference in the works of Iqbal. This was the third session in the series. The following points were discussed on Saturday 5, 2009.

Having discussed Surah Yusuf from the perspective of a general reader, let’s use it now apply it on the five-fold model suggested by Abbas M. Husain (my teacher) for understanding the Quran in the light of five phrases which the Quran uses to describe itself:

  1. Book (Kitab)
  2. Remembrance (Zikr)
  3. Guidance (Huda)
  4. Cure (Shifa)
  5. Arabic (Arabi)

Approaching a text according to according to patterns recognizable by our minds is a human limitation. Hence, on the most obvious level, the Quran is “a book”, and we pay attention not only to what is being said but also how it is being said. The Quranic version of the story we have discussed transforms the historic Joseph into metaphors of an individual soul, a nation as well as the entire human race.

Like Joseph, the humanity was also given a promising vision to be the master of the sun, moon and star. Just like Joseph, it has also been thrown into prison through the machinations of Satan. Therefore, just like Joseph, it will one day be elevated to the throne where indeed the dreams will come true. Each individual is a custodian of this entire progress of humanity: “you too have a Joseph in your soul” is the common message of all Sufi masters while some, like Attar, Jami and Iqbal, have treated the subject at great length.

Consequently, the esteem of the historic person also increases in our hearts. We wonder about the prophet of God who, in a short lifespan, was able to act out a metaphor of the entire human history from Creation to the Day of Judgment as well as mirror the trials and tribulations of each individual soul. That such a person really existed – and that the surah consists entirely of historical information – is so mind boggling that belief in angels and miracles becomes common sense by comparison.

This reflects the function of the Quran as “remembrance.” Since the days of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in India and Pakistan, Muslim scholars have spent great efforts to filter out those anecdotes of the story which had crept into traditional commentaries of the Quran from external sources and were incompatible with the stature of Joseph as established in the Quran (perhaps the crowning achievement of Islamic writing in this area is Qasasul Quran, written by Hifzur Rahman Sewharvi sometime around the middle of the twentieth century).

Such efforts at purification of historical accounts and bringing them in line with the purpose of the Quran turn the life of this prophet into “guidance” for our souls. His lofty nature – with unusual truthfulness, chastity, loyalty to friends and family, forgiveness, and wisdom – becomes a role model for believers. The source from which these immense virtues originate is the unity of God, as Joseph himself points out so succinctly: “...Are many lords differing among themselves better or Allah, the One and Almighty?”

Understanding the unity of God through textual integrity, historical accuracy and unity of action leads us to the more miraculous aspects of the Quran. Sufis have equated the Quran with Jesus, since both have been described as “the Word of God” – like Jesus, the Quran also has healing power, and just as the blood and flesh of Christ is the source of grace and salvation in Christianity so is the Quran in Islam. The miraculous powers attributed to Surah Yusuf belong more properly to the domain of intrapersonal experience and spiritual psychology but it may be mentioned in the passing that Surah Yusuf is usually among the earliest chapters to be memorized by those who set out to learn the entire Quran by heart, since it is believed to make the rest of the process easier for the learner.

Therefore it is only natural that the Quran should insist on its Arabic character on so many occasions (including the opening verses of this very chapter). The word Quran itself means a recital, and hence the Arabic recitation of the Quran has always been emphasized in Muslim cultures: in Javidnama, it is the recitation of the Quran and its sounds which reveal the “Heavenly Archetype” on the spirit of Iqbal at the second stage in the journey (a very creative recitation recommended in an earlier installment of the present summary has been done by Mishary Rashid and is easily available on the Internet through the artist’s website and other sources).

Of course, the other implication of remembering the Quran’s Arabic character is to be able to understand it through linguistic discussions about its words. One interesting point highlighted by my teacher Abbas Husain is that the king refers to his dream as rouya, which has the connotation of a vision while his counselors refer to it as ehlam, which has the connotation of a confused dream which is not worth interpreting. While spiritual psychology regarded all dreams as rouya, modern psychology disregards all as ehlam. A latter approach which was questioned by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was to consider some dreams as inspired from above and therefore rouya while disregarding others as mere reflection of subconscious, and hence disregarding them as ehlam.

Interestingly, the text of Surah Yusuf does not bifurcate between these two types: the same dream is called rouya by the king and ehlam by his counselors. To Joseph, this difference doesn’t seem to matter, for he can interpret all dreams, stories and events to reveal destinies of individuals and nations. This, as he explains to his fellow prisoners, is because he has “abandoned the ways of a people that believe not in Allah and that deny the Hereafter” and has come to see everything with the light of Unity: “O my two companions of the prison! Are many lords differing among themselves better or Allah, the One and Almighty?”


  1. Do you feel free to share which translations of the Quran you use and with what possible notes?

    I am wondering what you think of N. J. Dawood's with Penguin Books. Do you read in Arabic as well as Urdu and English?

    Also I'm curious about your own methods of reflection and study? Finally, how do you keep the repeated readings fresh? Do you sometimes envision yourself on the scene or even as one of the characters?

    That's a lot of questions yet I'm keenly interested and wondering if any others here at RR are as well?

  2. Did you do a fourth one or was that the Night of Glory?

    Is there yet any Audio or Video of your teaching from any time or topic at all? You know which topics might interest me perhaps your oldest student?

    Would you over time help me to develop something on the Yusuf story related to imprionment? NO hurry...

  3. After a short break, I'd like to discuss Joseph's imprisonment and to know if there have been any good commentaries/spiritual analogies/use of prison as metaphor on that aspect of the Yusuf story?