Number 1.1       
October 2006      


The Human-God Relationship in the Qur'anic Story of Joseph

by Asma Hamid

Surah Yusuf, the 12th and most detailed Surah of the Qur'an, revolves around the enigmatic character of Prophet Joseph and his relationship to his eleven brothers. This story is called the "most beautiful of stories" (12:3), and its beauty is attributed to the fact that it contains ethical lessons regarding human interaction and regarding the human relationship to God. The relationship of Joseph and the brothers is a manifestation of the heedlessness of the brothers of their relationship to God, as opposed to Joseph's strong awareness and perception of the Divine presence. The role of Jacob in the story is that of the wise sage, who through the knowledge bestowed upon him by God is aware of the divinely controlled dynamics of the events in which all of his sons are involved. His relationship to Joseph's brothers is thus symbolic of their relationship to God, for it is through violating their father's trust that they violate their covenant with God. Jacob's relationship to Joseph is a relationship of great intimacy and love, which again reflects Joseph's relationship to God. Through these familial relationships, the Qur'an shows us how Joseph's strong connection with the Divine gives him the ability to see and how this sight transforms the understanding of his brothers. What will be explored in this paper are the nature of the covenant or pact that all humans have made with humanity and the role of Joseph as the paradigm of adherence to this pact. The Qur'an constantly reminds us that breaking the sacred covenant with God through ungodly actions results in a soul's becoming blind:

Is then one who doth know that that which hath been revealed unto thee from thy Lord is the Truth, like one who is blind? It is those who are endued with understanding that receive admonition;- Those who fulfill the promise of Allah and do not break the covenant (13: 19-20).

This blindness will be entirely lifted in the day of judgment, when it will be said: "Certainly you were heedless of it, but now We have removed from you your veil, so your sight today is sharp" (50:22). Joseph's ability to see is a constant theme throughout the story, and seldom are there veils that cloud his vision. What does it mean to be able to see, and what is the significance of Joseph's visions?

The beginning of the story serves as an introduction that sets up the events that ensue, as it starts with the verse:

Behold, Joseph said to his father: "O my father! I did see eleven stars and the sun and the moon: I saw them prostrate themselves to me!" (12:4)

From the start, we feel the unusually elevated status of Joseph and his intimate relationship to his father Jacob. Contrasted with this nearness of Joseph and Jacob is the distance of the brothers, who are excluded from being privy to this significant dream, as Jacob instructs Joseph to abstain from relating this vision to his brothers. The reason Jacob gives for not telling Joseph's brothers is the fear that they may concoct a plot against Joseph, "for Satan is to man an avowed enemy" (12:5). Moreover, Jacob informs Joseph of his high status within the family and the significant gift bestowed upon him:

Thus will thy Lord teach thee the interpretation of stories (and events) and perfect His favor upon thee and to the posterity of Jacob— even as He perfected it to thy fathers Abraham and Isaac aforetime! for Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom (12:6)

From these three verses alone, we learn a great deal regarding the relationships that will direct the events of the story. Joseph's dreams are not mere dreams, but his connection to a higher Divine realm. The brothers, on the other hand, are associated with Satan, the "avowed enemy" (12:5). Once Joseph tells the dream to his father, Jacob is able to extrapolate many conclusions from it: 1) that Joseph is chosen by God, 2) that he will be given the gift of interpreting dreams and events, and 3) that this will come to bear positively upon the family at large, for the favor of God will be perfected with regard to Joseph as well as the whole family of Jacob.

The brothers break their covenant with God when they plot against their brother, for this action reflects their heedlessness vis-à-vis their Lord. This position of servitude and surrender should ideally remove the individual ego and allow one to see all of his/her interactions as a testimony of his/her acknowledgement of God. Even so, the brothers are not in a position of surrender, and they succumb to arrogance and envy. The negative emotions and desires that they harbor take them away from God, as the following verses in the end of the Surah reveal:

And how many Signs in the heavens and the earth do they pass by? Yet they turn (their faces) away from them! And most of them believe not in Allah without associating (other as partners) with Him! (12: 105-106)

In Islam the act of 'shirk,' or association is often interpreted as polytheism yet the worship of idols is not the only problem that this verse seems to address. If considered as a comment on the story of Joseph and his brothers, the word 'shirk' here refers to the brothers' blindness to the implications of their role as servants and vicegerents of God. Their faith in God is not pure but tainted with their willingness to serve their own egocentric whims. Before he allows Benjamin to accompany his brothers to Egypt, Jacob demands that his sons give him an oath that they will return with Benjamin. Since Jacob's relationship to his sons is symbolic of their relationship with God, the oath he requires of them is reminiscent of the original covenant established between God and humanity:

When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam—from their loins—their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (saying): "Am I not your Lord?"—They said: "Yea! We do testify!" (This), lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment: "Of this we were never mindful [...]." (7:172)

Although there is never a verbally pronounced oath that they would return Joseph, there is a unstated oath between humanity and God, an oath that exists forever.

If we define keeping the covenant of God as: 1) remembering one's obligations towards others, 2) abstaining from yielding to the desires of the lower self, and 3) maintaining a constant remembrance of the Divine and seeking to reflect His attributes, we notice that Joseph receives inspiration twice when others around him violate their adherence to the first two parts of the covenant. The first inspiration occurs in the beginning of the story. As Joseph is being thrown into the well, God "inspired in him: Thou wilt tell them of this deed of theirs when they know not" (12:15). This serves as a foreshadowing of the role that Joseph has to play and a revelation of the responsibility bestowed upon him by God regarding his brothers. The second inspiration results in Joseph's ability to see the "evidence of his Lord"[1] when he is seduced by Potiphar's wife. The story of Moses and Khidr in the Qur'an is a good example of how certain knowledge bestowed by God can be a source of pure and untainted sight.

The world of the unseen in the story of Moses and Khidr is a world to which the human is innately connected yet prevented from rationally understanding unless he or she strives to comprehend it. Every truth contains a hidden meaning, and the totality of the world is an act of the revelation of veiled Divine mysteries. In Surah Al-Kahf (Surah 18), the world of the unseen is completely accessible to Khidr, but it is veiled from Moses. This reveals that the unseen is not completely accessible even to Prophets and that "over every lord of knowledge there is one more knowing" (12:76). God's wisdom guides this unseen world, which cannot be rationally grasped by human understanding. What is seen can serve as a sign of the unseen if one opens his heart to the understanding that is granted directly from God's presence, as is that which God gives Khidr. God is literally the hand by which Khidr operates, and it is this union with the Divine plan that puts Khidr on a higher level of understanding than Moses. Moses interprets events using his rational understanding, while Khidr feels the plan of God as it emanates from his being. Transcendental knowledge that gives Joseph the ability to see and interpret, and it is this knowledge that enables Joseph to teach his brothers.

The resolution of the conflict with Joseph's brothers is achieved only after Joseph experiences many events that help him denounce his attachment to his worldly desires and cultivate a higher level of spiritual wakefulness. Being thrown into the well symbolizes being estranged from the world and shunned because of his closeness to this Lord. Moreover, Joseph is sold for "a few dirham," becomes a slave of low social status, and is imprisoned for a crime he does not commit. All of this suffering is a pathway through which Joseph must advance in order to be purified and brought closer to God. Suffering is thus a means of purifying the self in order to receive knowledge and to disseminate this knowledge to others. As he walks this path of suffering and renunciation of material and physical comforts with the utmost surrender, Joseph's knowledge increases. Consciously contemplating the Divine, seeking to experientially feel His presence, and reflect His attributes constitutes the third aspect of the covenant, and are practices that Joseph perfects such that he can be a teacher to his brothers. In a poem about Joseph, Rumi shows the suffering of Joseph as a preparatory experience for greatness, and Joseph is constantly aware of this:

..."What was it like when you realized
your brothers were jealous and what they planned to do?"

"I felt like a lion with a chain around its neck.
Not degraded by the chain, and not complaining,
but just waiting for my power to be recognized."

"How about down in the well, and in prison?
How was it then?"
"Like the moon when it's getting
smaller, yet knowing the fullness to come.
Like a seed pearl ground in the mortar for medicine,
that knows it will now be the light in a human eye.

Like a wheat grain that breaks open in the ground,
then grows, then gets harvested, then crushed in the mill
for flour, then baked, then crushed again between teeth
to become a person's deepest understanding.
Lost in Love, like the songs the planters sing
the night after they sow the seed." [2]

Borrowing the language of Sufism, we can regard the brothers of Joseph as the ‘murids’ (students) who are subconsciously thirsting for spiritual fulfillment despite their conscious oblivion of their wounded relationship with God. They themselves do not grieve for Joseph or for their sin, but Jacob constantly longs for the return of Joseph:

And he (Jacob) turned away from them, and said: "How great is my grief for Joseph!" And his eyes became white with sorrow, and he fell into silent melancholy. (12:84)

This physical blindness that befalls Jacob is a reflection of the spiritual blindness from which the brothers suffer, and Jacob's longing for Joseph is a reflection of the brothers' longing to receive the lesson that can remove the veils from their eyes. The brothers forgot the essential Divine principle of wanting for one's brother what one wants for oneself and adopt the same callous attitude as Cain when he asked, "Am I my brother's keeper." Joseph is to remind the brothers of their responsibility and of the pact that they have made with God—by virtue of being human—to act as caretakers for fellow humans. Restoring this part of the pact is an essential step in the spiritual development of the brothers, and Joseph—by virtue of his own advanced spiritual state—is most fit to have this transformative role in their lives. He makes them remember the oath they had made to their father about Benjamin and associate this oath with their obligations toward the first brother they lose:

Now when they saw no hope of his (yielding), they held a conference in private. The leader among them said: "Know ye not that your father did take an oath from you in Allah's name, and how, before this, ye did fail in your duty with Joseph? Therefore will I not leave this land until my father permits me, or Allah commands me; and He is the best to command. (12:80)

Yet regardless of their guilt regarding their loss of Joseph, Joseph does not reveal himself to them at this point. He awaits their return to him, and they return in a state of utter despair. Their father is now blind because of their actions, and they have no goods to trade for food. Joseph reveals himself at this point; it is in this state of weakness that the human heart is most humbled and aware of its servitude to God and is thus receptive to fulfilling its obligation towards God. The brothers' egos no longer dictate their actions but rather their severe need:

Then, when they came (back) into (Joseph's) presence they said: "O exalted one! distress has seized us and our family: we have (now) brought but scanty capital: so pay us full measure, (we pray thee), and treat it as charity to us: for Allah doth reward the charitable." He said: "Know ye how ye dealt with Joseph and his brother, not knowing (what ye were doing)?" They said: "Art thou indeed Joseph?" He said, "I am Joseph, and this is my brother: Allah has indeed been gracious to us (all): behold, he that is righteous and patient,—never will Allah suffer the reward to be lost, of those who do right." They said: "By Allah! indeed has Allah preferred thee above us, and we certainly have been guilty of sin!" He said: "This day let no reproach be (cast) on you: Allah will forgive you, and He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy! "Go with this my shirt, and cast it over the face of my father: he will come to see (clearly). Then come ye (here) to me together with all your family." (12:88-92)

At this point the brothers finally acknowledge their sin and turn to God for forgiveness. Joseph's shirt is cast over the face of Jacob, and Jacob regains his sight, which is symbolic of the brothers' finally being able to see through Joseph's lesson.

The human soul is the vessel through which God reveals His truth, and in the case of Joseph, the dreams he sees and the inspiration he receives provide him with a constant connection to the Divine realm. Thus the ideal human-God relationship is one in which the human purifies himself to the extent that God becomes "his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks".[3] This knowledge, as Ibn Al-'Arabi states, can be attained when one realizes the potential within his own soul:

"God deposited within man knowledge of all things, then prevented him from perceiving what He had deposited within him. This is one of the divine mysteries which reason denies and considers totally impossible. The nearness of this mystery to those ignorant of it is like God's nearness to His servant, as mentioned in His words, "We are nearer to him than you, but you do not see" (56:85) and His words, "We are nearer to him than the jugular vein" (50:16). In spite of this nearness, the person does not perceive and does not know. No one knows what is within himself until it is unveiled to him instant by instant." [4]

This unity with the Divine imparts transcendental knowledge upon a human, which puts him or her in a status above many people who still suffer from blindness caused by their egotistical thirst for power and their surrender to the snare of temporary pleasures. As a result, those who are given this knowledge have an obligation to serve as guides to those who are not granted this level of understanding; for example, Joseph serves as a guide and teacher to his brothers through his connection to the Divine. When he is confronted with his brothers, he remembers the inspiration that he receives before being thrown into the well and understands that the time has come to carry out his mission. Thus the world of the unseen guides his actions in the physical world, and it is his adherence to Divine guidance from the unseen that enables a genuine reconciliation with his brothers. Cultivating this personal relationship with God involves more than merely avoiding sin and fulfilling religious obligations. It is rather a path that is filled with suffering and yet is innately desired by the human who yearns to be close to God. The physical hunger that causes the brothers to turn to Joseph for food is a reflection of their innate yearning for spiritual fulfillment; by prompting them to ask forgiveness, Joseph places them on the path toward ultimate surrender.


[1] Hadith Qudsi 25 (trans. Shahih al-Bukari)

[2] Rûmî, Mathnawî, I, 3157-3168, in Coleman Barks (versions), Delicious Laughter, p. 94-5.

[3] Bukhari

[4] Al-Futûhât al-makkîyya, II, 684.4, quoted in William Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge, p. 154.

© 2006, Society for Scriptural Reasoning

Return to Title Page