Introduction to Surah 12. Yusuf (by Syed Abul Ala Maududi)
When and Why Revealed?
The subject matter of this Surah indicates that it was revealed during the last stage of the Holy
Prophet's residence at Makkah, when the Quraish were considering the question of killing or
exiling or imprisoning him. At that time some of the unbelievers put this question (probably at
the instigation of the Jews) to test him :"Why did the Israelites go to Egypt?" This question was
asked because they knew that their story was not known to the Arabs for there was no mention
of it whatever in their traditions and the Holy Prophet had never even referred to it before.
Therefore they expected that he would not be able to give any satisfactory answer to this
question or would first evade it, and afterwards try to enquire about it from some Jew, and thus
he would be totally exposed. But, contrary to their expectations, the tables were turned on
them, for Allah revealed the whole story of Prophet Joseph then and there, and the Holy
Prophet recited it on the spot. This put the Quraish in a very awkward position because it not
only foiled their scheme but also administered a 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 the
brothers of Prophet Joseph behaved towards him; so you shall meet with the same end."
Objects of Revelation
From the above it is clear that this Surah was sent down for two objects:
The first object was to give the proof of the Prophethood of Muhammad (Allah's peace be
upon him), and that too, the one demanded by the opponents themselves so as to prove
conclusively that his knowledge was not based on mere hearsay, but was gained through
Revelation. This aspect has been stated explicitly in its introductory verses and explained
plainly in its concluding portion.
The second object was to apply it to the Quraish and warn them that ultimately the conflict
between them and the Holy Prophet would end in his victory over them. As they were then
persecuting their brother, the Holy Prophet, in the same way the brothers of Prophet Joseph
had treated him. The Quraish were told indirectly that they would also fail in their evil designs
just as the brothers of Prophet Joseph had failed in his case, even after casting him into the
well. This is because none has the power to defeat the Divine will. And just as the brothers of
Prophet Joseph had to humble themselves before him, so one day the Quraish shall have to
beg forgiveness from their brother whom they were then trying to crush down. This, too, has
been made quite plain in v. 7: "Indeed there are signs in this story of Joseph and his brothers
for these inquirers from among the Quraish."
The fact is that by applying this story to the conflict, the Quran had made a bold and clear
prophecy, which was fulfilled literally by the events that happened in the succeeding ten years.
Hardly two years had passed after its revelation, when the Quraish conspired to kill the Holy
Prophet like the brothers of Prophet Joseph, and he had to emigrate from Makkah to
Al-Madinah, where he gained the same kind of power as Prophet Joseph had gained in Egypt.
Again, in the end the Quraish had to humble themselves before him just like the brothers of
Prophet Joseph, when they humbly requested, "Show mercy to us for Allah rewards richly
those who show mercy" (V. 88), and Prophet Joseph generously forgave them, (though he had
complete power to wreak vengeance on them,) saying, " today no penalty shall be inflicted on
you. May Allah forgive you:He is the greatest of all those who forgive" (V. 92). The same story
of mercy was repeated, when after the conquest of Makkah, the crest fallen Quraish stood
meekly before the Holy Prophet, who had full power to wreak his vengeance on them for each
and every cruelty committed by them. But instead, he merely asked them, "What treatment do
you expect from me now?" They replied, "You are a generous brother and the son of a
generous brother." At this, he very generously forgave them, saying, "I will give the same
answer to your request that Joseph gave to his brothers: '. . . today, no penalty shall be
inflicted on you: you are forgiven."
Topics of Discussion
Moreover, the Quran does not relate this story as a mere narrative but uses it, as usual, for
the propagation of the Message in the following ways:-
Throughout the narrative the Quran has made it clear that the Faith of Prophets Abraham,
Isaac, Jacob and Joseph (Allah's peace be upon them all) was the same as that of Prophet
Muhammad (Allah's peace be upon him) and they invited the people to the same Message to
which Muhammad (Allah's peace be upon him) was inviting them.
Then it places the characters of Prophet Jacob and Prophet Joseph side by side with the
characters of the brothers of Joseph, the members of the trade caravan, the court dignitary; Al
Aziz of Egypt and his wife, the "ladies" of Egypt and the rulers of Egypt and poses a silent
question to the reader, as if to say, "Contrast the former characters moulded by Islam on the
bedrock of the worship of Allah and accountability in the Hereafter with the latter moulded by
kufr and "ignorance" on the worship of the world and disregard of Allah and the Hereafter, and
decide for yourselves which of these two patterns you would choose."
The Quran has used this story to bring forth another truth: whatever Allah wills, He fulfills it
anyhow, and man can never defeat His plan with his counterplans nor prevent it from
happening nor change it in any way whatever. Nay, it often so happens that man adopts some
measure to fulfill his own design and believes that he has done that very thing which would
fulfill his design, but in the end he finds to his dismay that he had done something which was
against his own and conducive to the Divine purpose. When the brothers of Prophet Joseph
cast him into the well, they believed that they had once for all got rid of the obstacle in their
way but in fact, they had paved the way for the Divine purpose of making him the ruler of
Egypt, before whom they would have to humble themselves in the end. Likewise, the wife of
Aziz had sent Prophet Joseph to the prison, floating over the thought that she had wreaked her
vengeance on him, but, in fact, she had provided for him the opportunity for becoming the
ruler of Egypt and for putting herself to the shame of confessing her own sin publicly.
And these are not the solitary instances which prove the truth that even if the whole world
united to bring about the down fall of the one whom Allah willed to raise high, it could not
succeed. Nay, the very "sure and effective" measures that were adopted by the brothers to
degrade Joseph were used by Allah for the success of Joseph and for the humiliation and
disgrace of his brothers. On the other hand, if Allah willed the fall of one, no measure,
howsoever effective, could raise him high : nay, it helped to bring about his fall and the
disgrace of those who adopted them.
Moreover, the story contains other lessons for those who intend to follow the way of Allah. The
first lesson 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. Therefore if one adopts pure aims and lawful measures but fails, at least one will escape
ignominy and disgrace. On the other hand, the one who adopts an impure aim and unlawful
measures to achieve it, shall not only inevitably meet with ignominy and disgrace in the
Hereafter, but also runs the risk of ignominy and disgrace in this world.
The second lesson it teaches is that those who exert for the cause of truth and righteousness
and put their trust in Allah and entrust all their affairs to Him, get consolation and comfort from
Him, for this helps them face their opponents with confidence and courage and they do not
lose heart, when they encounter the apparently terrifying measures of the powerful enemies.
They will persevere in their task without fear and leave the results to Allah.
But the greatest lesson this story teaches is that if the Believer possesses true Islamic
character and is endowed with wisdom, he can conquer a whole country with the strength of
his character alone. The marvelous example of Prophet Joseph teaches us that a man of high
and pure character comes out successful even under the most adverse circumstances. When
Prophet Joseph went to Egypt, he was only a lad of seventeen years, a foreigner, all alone and
without any provisions; nay, he had been sold there as a slave. And the horrible condition of
the slaves during that period is known to every student of history. Then he was charged with a
heinous moral Crime and sent to prison for an indefinite term. But throughout this period of
affliction, he evinced the highest moral qualities which raised him to the highest rank in the
Historical and Geographical Background
The following historical and geographical details will help understand the story:-
Prophet Joseph was a son of Prophet Jacob and a grandson of Prophet Isaac and a great
grandson of Prophet Abraham (Allah's peace be upon them all). The Bible says (and the
allusions in the Quran also confirm this) that Prophet Jacob had twelve sons from four wives.
Prophet Joseph and his younger brother Benjamin were from one wife and the other ten from
the other wives. Prophet Jacob had settled at Hebron (Palestine) where his father Prophet
Isaac and before him Prophet Abraham lived and owned a piece of land at Shechem as well.
According to the research scholars of the Bible, Prophet Joseph was born in or about 906 B.
C. and the incident with which this story begins happened in or about 890 B. C. He was
seventeen when he saw the dream and was thrown into the well. This well was near Dothan to
the north of Shechem according to Biblical and Talmudic traditions, and the caravan, which
took him out of the well, was coming from Gilead (Trans-Jordan), and was on its way to Egypt.
At that time Fifteenth Dynasty ruled over Egypt, whose rulers are known in history as the
Hyksos kings. They belonged to the Arab race, but had migrated from Palestine and Syria to
Egypt in or about 2000 B. C. and taken possession of the country. The Arab historians and the
commentators of the Quran have given them the name of Amaliq (the Amalekites), and this
has been corroborated by the recent researches made by the Egyptologists. They were
foreign invaders who had got the opportunity of establishing their kingdom because of the
internal feuds in the country. That is why there was no prejudice in the way of Prophet
Joseph's ascendancy to power and in the subsequent settlement of the Children of Israel in
the most fertile region of Egypt. They could gain that power and influence which they did,
because they belonged to the same race as the foreign rulers of Egypt.
The Hyksos ruled over Egypt up to the end of the fifteenth century B. C., and practically all the
powers remained in the hands of the Israelites. The Quran has made a reference to this in v.
20 of Al-Ma'idah: ..... He raised Prophets among you and made you rulers. . ., Then there
arose a great nationalist movement which overthrew the power of this dynasty and exiled
250,000 or so of the Amalekites. As a result of this, a very bigoted dynasty of Copts came into
power and uprooted everything connected with the Amalekites. Then started that persecution
of the Israelites which has been mentioned in connection with the story of Prophet 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 their
own religion in Egypt. This is the reason why the Quran has not called the king who was the
contemporary of Prophet Joseph by the title of "Pharaoh," because this title was associated
with the religion of the original people of Egypt and the Hyksos did not believe in it, but the
Bible erroneously calls him "Pharaoh". It appears that the editors of the Bible had the
misunderstanding that all the kings of Egypt were "Pharaohs."
The modern research scholars who have made a comparative study of the Bible and the
Egyptian history are generally of the opinion that Apophis was the Hyksos king, who was the
contemporary of Prophet Joseph.
At that time Memphis was the capital of Egypt, whose ruins are still found on the Nile at a
distance of 4 miles south of Cairo. 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 years in prison, and
then became the ruler of the land at the age of thirty and ruled over Egypt independently for
eighty years. In the ninth or tenth year of his rule he sent for his father, Prophet Jacob, to
come from Palestine to Egypt with all the members of his family and, according to the Bible,
settled them in the land of Goshen, where they lived up to the time of Prophet Moses. The
Bible says that before his death, Prophet Joseph bound his kindred by an oath: "when you
return from this country to the house of your forefathers you must take my bones out of this
country with you. So he died a hundred and ten years old, and they embalmed him . . ."
Though the story of Prophet Joseph as given in the Quran differs very much in its details from
that given in the Bible and the Talmud, the Three generally agree in regard to its component
parts. We shall explain the differences, when and where necessary, in our Explanatory Notes.