Joseph in the Bible and Yusuf in Islam: Two ‘Versions’ or Two ‘Visions’?

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If you peruse through the articles on this blog you will see some that try to bring Islamic and Christian thinking together, and others that do this much less. In this short piece, with the help of the scholar Marylyn Waldman, we will look at the story of Joseph in the Bible and the Qur’an to learn how, in spite of a few similarities, the stories are miles apart. Why is this?

Take a few minutes to read Genesis 37-50 to read the story of Joseph, and then read the Islamic rendition in Surah 12 which is called ‘The Surah of Joseph.’ Even before we start to compare and contrast the stories, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Interpreting the Bible:

      In her article, “New approaches to ‘biblical’ materials in the Qur’ān,” Waldman refers to Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. He suggests that to understand a Bible story, one must understand its setting in the whole mega-narrative. So one might ask questions about the Joseph story:

1. How does this story portray God?

2. How does this story portray Joseph? Is it possible that it foreshadows Christ in some way?

3. How does this story fit into the entire history of redemption, whether of individuals, God’s people, and its benefit for the nations?

4. Who is the story ultimately about?

     For a Biblically informed Christian, some of the answers are self-obvious.

  • God is bigger than a dysfunctional Jacob family rife with sibling rivalry
  • God is bigger than jail-time for Joseph for a crime he did not commit
  • God is bigger than famine
  • God is bigger than the evil schemes of jealous brothers, i.e. “You meant it for evil, but God turned it to good” (Genesis 50:20).

In this story, the living God takes center stage and uses each and every aspect of Joseph’s topsy-turvy life to show that He is undefeatable, to protect His chosen people and to advance His agenda of showing his glory among the nations. In short the Joseph story is a foreshadowing of Christ who even in the face of the so-called setbacks of humiliation to the point of death, emerges victorious and proves undefeatable to the point of conquering even death. He purchases His chosen people with his blood and advances His agenda of showing his glory among the nations — wise men, centurions, Syrophonecian and Samaritan women, and so forth. 

Interpreting the Qur’an:

            Just as Robert Alter showed that a story must be interpreted according to the larger scheme of the Bible, so it is true at looking at the Qur’an. Marylyn Waldman recognizes this, and says that the person of Yusuf in the Qur’an fits seven characteristics common to prophets. In short, these are people who have a message, are ridiculed, and then are vindicated. Someone with knowledge of Islam will instantly see the story of Muhammad in this schema. 

            So why is the story of Yusuf in the Qur’an?

1. In the mega-narrative of the Qur’an, an authorized messenger must come with a message from Allah, and that message is always to submit to the One-ness or tawid of Allah (see the end of Surah 12). Joseph is said to be one of these messengers.

2.  All biblical figures in the Qur’an are there for strategic reasons. Waldman and others have pointed out that like Ibrahim; Yusuf is simply another “illustrious ancestor” for Muhammad. This was a strategic way of increasing the validity of Muhammad’s message, and to state that he had even the warrant of figures from the Bible. [It is beyond the scope of this article, but the Jesus-figure of the Qur’an named ‘Isa is another figure from the Bible who serves only to be a John the Baptist-like forerunner and announcer of Muhammad.]

3. The story in the Qur’an uses the word “sign” a lot. This word occurs some 375x in the Qur’an and sometimes refers to wonders in nature, and refers to the verses of the Qur’an.  One could think of them as road-signs with warnings and direction, and the Joseph story is designed to provide a warning to those who would refuse to listen to a messenger, and also point ahead to Muhammad, as the ultimate messenger (see Q. 12:1, 7, 35, 107). 

4. The opening passages of Surah 12 suggest it was to validate the message of Muhammad, and that he had received this directly from Allah. “We do relate unto thee the most beautiful of stories, in that We reveal to thee this (portion of the) Qur'an: before this, thou too was among those who knew it not” (Q. 12:3).

5. As Waldman notes, “The story closes [see Q. 12: 105-111] with reminder that it brings ‘tidings of the unseen,’ how one must never associate anything with God, how God always helps his messengers, even when others turn away from them, explaining that such stories are a true guidance to those who believe.” The main point? The Yusuf story validates the life, mission, and message of Muhammad.

Observations:

            Marylyn Waldman suggests that the Yusuf story is not a version of the Joseph Bible story, but it is a vision of Islam. Another scholar, Mark Durie suggests that the Qur’an “repurposes” Biblical material for Islamic advantage. The Yusuf story would appear to support their idea.  

A few questions:

1. If you see the following headlines how do you interpret them?

  • “The Bible and the Qur’an agree about Yusuf or Joseph”
  • “Imam denies that honor killings are found in the Qur’an”
  • “Muslim leaders are speaking out against violence…”
  • “We Muslims love Jesus”
  • “Islam is a religion of peace”

What tools from the mega-narrative of Islam would you need to interpret them? What other sources from within Islam might you have to read to answer these questions? Hopefully, the Joseph and Yusuf stories will give you material for being a better interpreter of important headlines.

For further reading:

Marilyn Robinson Waldman, “New approaches to ‘biblical’ materials in the Qur’ān,” The Muslim World 75, no. 1 (Jan 1985):1-16.

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