Saturday, August 29, 2009

Joseph: diction, recitation and "embellishment"

The surah begins as God’s address to the reader:

  1. A. L. R. These are the verses of the perspicuous Book.
  2. We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran, in order that you may learn wisdom.
  3. We do relate to you the most beautiful of stories, in that We reveal to you this Quran: before this, you too were among those who knew it not.
One possible implication of being “the best of the stories” can be that each generation should be able to see this surah as the finest model of any genre best-known to them. We are just coming out of an age where screenplay was the dominant form of literature, and are probably entering an era when blog, website and interactive workshop may become accepted as forms of literatures. As such, we are likely to appreciate this surah by such analogies – just as our ancestors may have decoded it as the celestial prototype of epic poem, dastan and history.

Like them, we must also remember that despite being so many different things to so many different people, it essentially remains what it really is: a surah of “an Arabic Quran.” Neither poetry, nor fiction, it is a sign of God, which begins with three cryptic letters whose meaning is known only to God – just like those dreams and visions which Joseph encounters in the story.

A dignity befitting this relationship between the Divine narrator and a most special listener is retained despite all twists and turns. The narrative does not become fragmented into different “voices”. Only within a well-guarded unity of theme and plot is each character allowed the opportunity to speak out his or her mind. Hence Potiphar says, “Behold! It is a snare of you women! Truly, mighty is your snare,” and we get the impression of an honest but busy bureaucrat who is given to generalization for the sake of reaching quick decisions and preserving order at the cost of original thinking.

Hence, the surah has a form of its own which may not be completely paralleled anywhere else in the world – and hence the famous claim of the Quran, “And if you are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a surah like thereunto, and call your witnesses or helpers besides Allah, if yours are true” (Chapter 2, ‘The Cow’, Verse 23).

The originality of this Quranic form may not be fully appreciated until we listen to the original text (even without knowing Arabic), and imbibe its resonation not with the critical left brain but the more holistic right brain. It could be a singularly enriching experience to encounter the powerful musical element in the diction of this surah, for instance in a “creative” recitation by someone like Mishary Rashid (highly recommended: you can listen to him in the Quran Explorer or on his personal website).

Moving across such spectacular locations as stars and moon, deserts and oases, caravans, the Nile Rive Valley, and markets and palaces of ancient Egypt, this narrative is singularly lacking in that vivid imagery which characterizes some other passages in the Quran. The reason is obvious: the power of this surah can be felt apart from “representation and appearances” and its most important embellishment comes from the soul of its real protagonist, the reader.

As mentioned before, the “framing action” of the surah is dialogue between God and the reader, with which the surah begins. The subsequent story of Joseph, however interesting it may be, is just a kind of mise en abyme – a design within design – in this, and the “framing action” is resumed as soon as the subplot of Joseph finishes. “Such is one of the stories of what happened unseen, which We reveal by inspiration to you,” says God in Verse 102, and ends His epilogue on a spectacularly high note, nine verses later, declaring the surah to be “a detailed exposition of all things, and a guide and a mercy to any such as believe.”

A detailed exposition of “all things” in only a hundred and eleven verses may also be an acknowledgement of the inexhaustible depth of the reader’s own soul. Theme, action, characters, diction, music and embellishment became an indivisible unity in this narrative so that the reader could write on her or his soul the greater Unity of God, which was the key with which Joseph decoded mysteries and foretold destinies of individuals and nations. For that, the readers have to recollect their own energies – the Josephs of their souls must also outwit the scheming stepbrothers of fear, desire and flawed reasoning in order to become one unified whole. To quote from Iqbal: “What is the nation, you who declare ‘No god but God’? With thousands of eyes, to be one in vision! …Do not look slightingly on oneness of vision; this is a true epiphany of the Unity…Are you dead? Become living through oneness of vision; cease to be centre-less, become stable. Create unity of thought and action, that you may possess authority in the world” (‘Beyond the Spheres’ in Javidnama).

For this reason, no Sufi poet may ever have mentioned Joseph without insisting that the reader, too, is a Joseph. In The Conference of the Birds, Attar goes to the extent of introducing a fictitious anecdote which cannot be fitted into the Quranic version of this story but which drives home the analogy between Joseph and the readers of Attar’s book at the end of their journeys.


  1. It was such an enriching experience to study it before and these posts are opening more doors. Thanks for giving us such wonderful insight :)

  2. The next time I study the Joseph scriptures and your commentary I look forward to the "invitation" to see ourselves within his story and beautiful life lessons. I also like Raheel's metaphor of these posts "opening more doors". That is what makes this Republic of Rumi online community and school so unique among blogs and websites.

  3. Ibn Arabi was always an enigma for me but always a profound teacher when it came to seeking those dimensions which are hidden in the obvious. His FUSUS AL HIKAM(Wisdom of the Prophets) Chapter on Joseph AL-HIKMAT AN NURIYAH(The Illuminated Wisdom) is again profound quite unaccessable and challenging. In a netshell what I inferred from the vast ocean of possibilities is this:

    All the essential realities of being are manifested in real images. When a thing manifested to the senses calls for interpretation because it carries a meaning which trancends the simple datum and makes that thing a symbol. The wisdom which is concerned with such meaning is a wisdom of light(HIKMAT NURIYA), typified in the person of Joseph, the examplary interpreter of visions.

  4. Amen we say in some of our congregations to total agreement...I am particularly struck by this "wisdom of light(HIKMAT NURIYA), typified in the person of Joseph, the examplary interpreter of visions." In my first piece on Joseph in the Quran I skipped over Joseph as interpreter of visions...and how interesting to see this kind of wisdom as wisdom of light - under the light - OF the light - In the Light...(as contrasted with the dark arts, manipulation, mere fortune reading)