When and Why Revealed?
The subject matter of this Surah indicates that it was revealed duringthe last stage of the Holy Prophet's residence at Makkah, when theQuraish were considering the question of killing or exiling orimprisoning him. At that time some of the unbelievers put thisquestion (probably at the instigation of the Jews) to test him :"Whydid the Israelites go to Egypt?" This question was asked because theyknew that their story was not known to the Arabs for there was nomention of it whatever in their traditions and the Holy Prophet hadnever even referred to it before. Therefore they expected that hewould not be able to give any satisfactory answer to this question orwould first evade it, and afterwards try to enquire about it from someJew, and thus he would be totally exposed. But, contrary to theirexpectations, the tables were turned on them, for Allah revealed thewhole story of Prophet Joseph then and there, and the Holy Prophetrecited it on the spot. This put the Quraish in a very awkwardposition because it not only foiled their scheme but also administereda warning to them by aptly applying it to their case, as if to say,"As you are behaving towards this Prophet, exactly in the same way thebrothers of Prophet Joseph behaved towards him; so you shall meet withthe same end."
Objects of Revelation
From the above it is clear that this Surah was sent down for twoobjects:
The first object was to give the proof of the Prophethood ofMuhammad (Allah's peace be upon him), and that too, the one demandedby the opponents themselves so as to prove conclusively that hisknowledge was not based on mere hearsay, but was gained throughRevelation. This aspect has been stated explicitly in its introductoryverses and explained plainly in its concluding portion.
The secondobject was to apply it to the Quraish and warn them that ultimatelythe conflict between them and the Holy Prophet would end in hisvictory over them. As they were then persecuting their brother, theHoly Prophet, in the same way the brothers of Prophet Joseph hadtreated him. The Quraish were told indirectly that they would alsofail in their evil designs just as the brothers of Prophet Joseph hadfailed in his case, even after casting him into the well. This isbecause none has the power to defeat the Divine will. And just as thebrothers of Prophet Joseph had to humble themselves before him, so oneday the Quraish shall have to beg forgiveness from their brother whomthey were then trying to crush down. This, too, has been made quiteplain in v. 7: "Indeed there are signs in this story of Joseph and hisbrothers for these inquirers from among the Quraish."
The fact is thatby applying this story to the conflict, the Quran had made a bold andclear prophecy, which was fulfilled literally by the events thathappened in the succeeding ten years. Hardly two years had passedafter its revelation, when the Quraish conspired to kill the HolyProphet like the brothers of Prophet Joseph, and he had to emigratefrom Makkah to Al-Madinah, where he gained the same kind of power asProphet Joseph had gained in Egypt. Again, in the end the Quraish hadto humble themselves before him just like the brothers of ProphetJoseph, when they humbly requested, "Show mercy to us for Allahrewards richly those who show mercy" (V. 88), and Prophet Josephgenerously forgave them, (though he had complete power to wreakvengeance on them,) saying, " today no penalty shall be inflicted onyou. May Allah forgive you:He is the greatest of all those whoforgive" (V. 92). The same story of mercy was repeated, when after theconquest of Makkah, the crest fallen Quraish stood meekly before theHoly Prophet, who had full power to wreak his vengeance on them foreach and every cruelty committed by them. But instead, he merely askedthem, "What treatment do you expect from me now?" They replied, "Youare a generous brother and the son of a generous brother." At this, hevery generously forgave them, saying, "I will give the same answer toyour request that Joseph gave to his brothers: '. . . today, nopenalty shall be inflicted on you: you are forgiven."
Topics of Discussion
Moreover, the Quran does not relate this story as a mere narrative butuses it, as usual, for the propagation of the Message in the followingways:-
Throughout the narrative the Quran has made it clear that theFaith of Prophets Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph (Allah's peace beupon them all) was the same as that of Prophet Muhammad (Allah's peacebe upon him) and they invited the people to the same Message to whichMuhammad (Allah's peace be upon him) was inviting them.
Then it placesthe characters of Prophet Jacob and Prophet Joseph side by side withthe characters of the brothers of Joseph, the members of the tradecaravan, the court dignitary; Al Aziz of Egypt and his wife, the"ladies" of Egypt and the rulers of Egypt and poses a silent questionto the reader, as if to say, "Contrast the former characters mouldedby Islam on the bedrock of the worship of Allah and accountability inthe Hereafter with the latter moulded by kufr and "ignorance" on theworship of the world and disregard of Allah and the Hereafter, anddecide for yourselves which of these two patterns you would choose."
The Quran has used this story to bring forth another truth: whateverAllah wills, He fulfills it anyhow, and man can never defeat His planwith his counterplans nor prevent it from happening nor change it inany way whatever. Nay, it often so happens that man adopts somemeasure to fulfill his own design and believes that he has done thatvery thing which would fulfill his design, but in the end he finds tohis dismay that he had done something which was against his own andconducive to the Divine purpose. When the brothers of Prophet Josephcast him into the well, they believed that they had once for all gotrid of the obstacle in their way but in fact, they had paved the wayfor the Divine purpose of making him the ruler of Egypt, before whomthey would have to humble themselves in the end. Likewise, the wife ofAziz had sent Prophet Joseph to the prison, floating over the thoughtthat she had wreaked her vengeance on him, but, in fact, she hadprovided for him the opportunity for becoming the ruler of Egypt andfor putting herself to the shame of confessing her own sin publicly.
And these are not the solitary instances which prove the truth thateven if the whole world united to bring about the down fall of the onewhom Allah willed to raise high, it could not succeed. Nay, the very"sure and effective" measures that were adopted by the brothers todegrade Joseph were used by Allah for the success of Joseph and forthe humiliation and disgrace of his brothers. On the other hand, ifAllah willed the fall of one, no measure, howsoever effective, couldraise him high : nay, it helped to bring about his fall and thedisgrace of those who adopted them.
Moreover, the story contains otherlessons for those who intend to follow the way of Allah. The firstlesson it teaches is that one should remain within the limits,prescribed by the Divine Law, in one's aims and objects and measures,for success and failure are entirely in the hands of Allah. Thereforeif one adopts pure aims and lawful measures but fails, at least onewill escape ignominy and disgrace. On the other hand, the one whoadopts an impure aim and unlawful measures to achieve it, shall notonly inevitably meet with ignominy and disgrace in the Hereafter, butalso runs the risk of ignominy and disgrace in this world.
The secondlesson it teaches is that those who exert for the cause of truth andrighteousness and put their trust in Allah and entrust all theiraffairs to Him, get consolation and comfort from Him, for this helpsthem face their opponents with confidence and courage and they do notlose heart, when they encounter the apparently terrifying measures ofthe powerful enemies. They will persevere in their task without fearand leave the results to Allah.
But the greatest lesson this storyteaches is that if the Believer possesses true Islamic character andis endowed with wisdom, he can conquer a whole country with thestrength of his character alone. The marvelous example of ProphetJoseph teaches us that a man of high and pure character comes outsuccessful even under the most adverse circumstances. When ProphetJoseph went to Egypt, he was only a lad of seventeen years, aforeigner, all alone and without any provisions; nay, he had been soldthere as a slave. And the horrible condition of the slaves during thatperiod is known to every student of history. Then he was charged witha heinous moral Crime and sent to prison for an indefinite term. Butthroughout this period of affliction, he evinced the highest moralqualities which raised him to the highest rank in the country.
Historical and Geographical Background
The following historical and geographical details will help understandthe story:-
Prophet Joseph was a son of Prophet Jacob and a grandson ofProphet Isaac and a great grandson of Prophet Abraham (Allah's peacebe upon them all). The Bible says (and the allusions in the Quran alsoconfirm this) that Prophet Jacob had twelve sons from four wives.Prophet Joseph and his younger brother Benjamin were from one wife andthe other ten from the other wives. Prophet Jacob had settled atHebron (Palestine) where his father Prophet Isaac and before himProphet Abraham lived and owned a piece of land at Shechem as well.
According to the research scholars of the Bible, Prophet Joseph wasborn in or about 906 B. C. and the incident with which this storybegins happened in or about 890 B. C. He was seventeen when he saw thedream and was thrown into the well. This well was near Dothan to thenorth of Shechem according to Biblical and Talmudic traditions, andthe caravan, which took him out of the well, was coming from Gilead(Trans-Jordan), and was on its way to Egypt.
At that time FifteenthDynasty ruled over Egypt, whose rulers are known in history as theHyksos kings. They belonged to the Arab race, but had migrated fromPalestine and Syria to Egypt in or about 2000 B. C. and takenpossession of the country. The Arab historians and the commentators ofthe Quran have given them the name of Amaliq (the Amalekites), andthis has been corroborated by the recent researches made by theEgyptologists. They were foreign invaders who had got the opportunityof establishing their kingdom because of the internal feuds in thecountry. That is why there was no prejudice in the way of ProphetJoseph's ascendancy to power and in the subsequent settlement of theChildren of Israel in the most fertile region of Egypt. They couldgain that power and influence which they did, because they belonged tothe same race as the foreign rulers of Egypt.
The Hyksos ruled overEgypt up to the end of the fifteenth century B. C., and practicallyall the powers remained in the hands of the Israelites. The Quran hasmade a reference to this in v. 20 of Al-Ma'idah: ..... He raisedProphets among you and made you rulers. . ., Then there arose a greatnationalist movement which overthrew the power of this dynasty andexiled 250,000 or so of the Amalekites. As a result of this, a verybigoted dynasty of Copts came into power and uprooted everythingconnected with the Amalekites. Then started that persecution of theIsraelites which has been mentioned in connection with the story ofProphet Moses.
We also learn from the history of Egypt that the"Hyksos kings" did not acknowledge the gods of Egypt and, therefore,had imported their own gods from Syria, with a view to spreading theirown religion in Egypt. This is the reason why the Quran has not calledthe king who was the contemporary of Prophet Joseph by the title of"Pharaoh," because this title was associated with the religion of theoriginal people of Egypt and the Hyksos did not believe in it, but theBible erroneously calls him "Pharaoh". It appears that the editors ofthe Bible had the misunderstanding that all the kings of Egypt were"Pharaohs."
The modern research scholars who have made a comparativestudy of the Bible and the Egyptian history are generally of theopinion that Apophis was the Hyksos king, who was the contemporary ofProphet Joseph.
At that time Memphis was the capital of Egypt, whoseruins are still found on the Nile at a distance of 4 miles south ofCairo. When Prophet Joseph was taken there, he was 17 or 18 years old.He remained in the house of Aziz for three years and spent nine yearsin prison, and then became the ruler of the land at the age of thirtyand ruled over Egypt independently for eighty years. In the ninth ortenth year of his rule he sent for his father, Prophet Jacob, to comefrom Palestine to Egypt with all the members of his family and,according to the Bible, settled them in the land of Goshen, where theylived up to the time of Prophet Moses. The Bible says that before hisdeath, Prophet Joseph bound his kindred by an oath: "when you returnfrom this country to the house of your forefathers you must take mybones out of this country with you. So he died a hundred and ten yearsold, and they embalmed him . . ."
Though the story of Prophet Joseph asgiven in the Quran differs very much in its details from that given inthe Bible and the Talmud, the Three generally agree in regard to itscomponent parts. We shall explain the differences, when and wherenecessary, in our Explanatory Notes.