- 1-3: Prelude
- 4-6: Joseph shares his dream with father
- 7-10: Brothers plot against Joseph
- 11-14: Brothers persuade father to send Joseph with them
- 15: Brothers throw Joseph in the well, and he receives revelation
- 16-17: Brothers return to father and give false report
With the exception of Joseph, active characters are not called by proper names but mentioned either by their relationship with him or their positions. 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 not in his active role in the plot.
Characters are well-rounded. Even among careful commentators we find many who approach the character of Joseph with a frankness which they may not dare towards any other prophet mentioned in the Quran. Personally, I do not admire this but at least it is a testimony to the naturalism of this particular surah that even some otherwise staunch and orthodox mufassirin get 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 an extremely popular character in Sufi literature inspired by this surah.
The terseness of narrative adds to the psychological depth of characters: Jacob says in Verse 5 that Satan is an open enemy, and in Verse 9, Joseph's stepbrothers are 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 in this idea of attaining a spiritual station by committing murder, and hoping that later piety would make up for it. Since Satan has been mentioned in the previous “scene” itself, the dialogue also becomes a study in the psychology of diabolically inspired thinking.
This particular error will be exposed through the action of the plot itself. In the second half, we shall see that the brothers have indeed become “honest” but just when they will be serious about protecting the other favorite child of their father (the precious “Benjamin”), he will be taken away. Again, they will 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 installment of these observations.