Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Joseph: theme, plot and characters

The theme of this surah is a 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. The 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: in Verse 5, Joseph is advised not to mention his vision to stepbrothers but as early as Verse 8, they are already discussing that vision. The narrative shifts at least between six “scenes” in as few as seventeen initial verses:
  • 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
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 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.


  1. Great!
    Sura YOUSEF(Joseph) is described as best of the stories by Qur’an. The reason is simple, it is rich with all the human elements dealing emotional, physical and spiritual intricacies that form the wonder that this life is all about in this world. It reveals an exotic story of Father, sons, brothers and lovers. This sura(chapter) has 111 ayats (verses) Ayat 1, with mysterious ALR, mostly left alone by the commentators, but dealt by Sufis as inscriptions or initials of secret codes.

    Ayat (verse)11 is very significant:”(then going to their father)they said”. Here they means Joseph’s 11 brothers, which are referred in an encrypted manner in ayat 11. The Sura has 12 Rukus, in Ruku 11 verse 100 it is stated: “He seated his parents by his side on the throne; and they fell down before him in homage.” Here they also include his 11 brothers, who are once again formed as an encrypted symbol.

  2. Akhtar, thanks. That's a very interesting point which I didnt see elsewhere. More than meets the eye :).