This article explores the life of Prophet Yusuf (as), the purpose of such prophetic stories, their relevance and the lessons we can derive as individuals and as an ummah collectively.
Allah (ﷻ) revealed the Quran to His beloved Messenger Muhammad (saw) to guide mankind out of disbelief, ignorance and misguidance. Allah says,
“(This is) a Book which We have revealed unto you (O Muhammad) in order that you might lead mankind out of the darkness (of disbelief) into the light (of belief in the Oneness of Allah) by their Lord’s Leave to the Path of the All-Mighty, the Owner of all Praise.” [Ibrahim: 1]
The Kitab of Allah is full of stories of previous prophets and their nations. A diverse range of stories are narrated with unambiguous details of how many such previous nations perished on account of their rejection of and disbelief in Allah (ﷻ) and His prophets and messengers. One such prophet is Yusuf (as) with a tremendously weighty story, which is narrated to the ummah of Muhammad (saw) through the Quran.
This article will only focus upon the most salient parts of the story of Prophet Yusuf (as).
Purpose and relevance of prophetic stories
Before we launch into the substance of the life of Prophet Yusuf (as), it is vital to explore and appreciate the purpose of such narrations in the Quran. Prophetic stories are not mere fairy tales and Allah (ﷻ) did not reveal them to Muhammad (saw) as futile irrelevant information. Indeed, being the last ummah, our failure to properly grasp the purpose of such stories would lead us astray and make us of the ignorant.
Allah (ﷻ) narrated the events which took place thousands of years ago to Muhammad (saw) so that we as the ummah may draw lessons. None of us, including Muhammad (saw), could possibly have acquired the story of Yusuf (as) had Allah (ﷻ) not narrated it to us.
Allah (ﷻ) says,
“This is of the news of the Ghaib (unseen) which We reveal by Inspiration to you (O Muhammad)”. [Yusuf: 102]
Such revelations transmit lessons and reminders for the ummah to remain on the path of haq (truth) in relation to life’s affairs, whether temporal or spiritual and avoid the pitfalls of the past nations. These stories are highly relevant to our 21st-century life because, save for changes in technology and science, the essence of human life remains the same. Mankind today is engaged in similar evils which previous nations had engaged in. If the ummah fails to lead mankind out of the darkness of kufr, the same fate awaits mankind as those previous nations were subjected to. Therefore, prophetic stories are acutely relevant today.
The prophethood of Yusuf (as)
The account of the life of Prophet Yusuf (as) in the Quran is one of the most detailed and uniquely fascinating stories of all. It illustrates the qualities, which are the prerequisites for success in this life and in the hereafter, whilst demonstrating the blameworthy characteristics in man which lead to his downfall and failure. As Imam Ibn Kathir (may Allah be pleased with him) mentioned in his book, Stories of the Prophets, it is a story “involving both human weaknesses such as jealousy, hatred, pride, passion, deception, intrigue, cruelty, terror as well as noble qualities such as patience, loyalty, bravery, nobility and compassion”.
Yusuf’s (as) lineage consists of prophets; he was the son of Prophet Ya’qub (as), his grandfather was Prophet Ishaq (as) and his great grandfather was Prophet Ibrahim (as). Thus, it came as no surprise to his father when it became apparent that Yusuf (as) was destined to receive divine revelation.
The story of Yusuf (as) begins with the glad tidings of his prophethood, which then develops into a series of tragic trials and tribulations, and finally ends with success and glory where Yusuf (as) becomes a ruler in Egypt. The story begins with his dream about himself and ends with his interpretation of that dream.
The plot to exile Prophet Yusuf (as)
Yusuf (as), who was the most beloved of his father, dreamt that eleven stars, the sun and the moon were all prostrating before him. He narrated this dream to his father the next morning, whereupon Ya’qub (as) realised that this was a vision from Allah (ﷻ) and an indication of Yusuf’s (as) future prophethood. Ya’qub (as) warned his son not to disclose this vision to his brothers, for he feared that it would cause further jealousy amongst them who were already acutely spiteful of Yusuf (as).
Prophet Yusuf’s (as) brothers were deeply resentful of their father’s love for Yusuf (as) and his full brother Binyamin. They felt that Yusuf (as) was depriving them of their father’s love. Little did they care that in fact, it was Yusuf’s (as) sublime praiseworthy character which endowed this deep love and affection from his father. His brothers thus plotted to remove Yusuf (as) from this position of love and affection so that they could receive their father’s undivided devotion.
Thus, after much scheming and conspiring, they concocted a plot to banish and exile Yusuf (as) into a distant land. They cunningly invited Yusuf (as) to go out with them and threw him down a deep well and left him to fend for himself. The brothers then deceitfully told their father that Yusuf (as) was devoured by desert wolves and presented Yusuf’s (as) shirt, which they had soaked in sheep’s blood.
Upon receiving this heartbreaking tragic news about his most beloved son, Ya’qub (as) did not believe his sons. Allah (ﷻ) relates to the ummah Ya’qub’s (as) response,
“He said, ‘Nay, but yourselves have made up a tale. So (for me) patience is most fitting. And it is Allah (Alone) Whose help can be sought against that which you assert’.” [Yusuf: 18]
In the face of such great loss, Allah’s Prophet Ya’qub (as) showed us how one should respond. Ya’qub (as) did not despair of Allah’s help, nor dissatisfied with the calamity that befell upon him. Instead, he remained patient and sought refuge in and the help of Allah (ﷻ) alone.
There are indeed lessons for us from this episode of the story in Surah Yusuf. Allah (ﷻ) says,
“And Allah was the All-Knower of what they did.” [Yusuf: 19]
Allah (ﷻ) was fully aware of what was occurring and could indeed have stopped the wrongdoers who harmed Yusuf (as). However, out of Allah’s infinite foresight and wisdom, He (ﷻ) decreed otherwise and allowed it to occur so that His decision of a great future for Yusuf (as) would prevail at the appointed time. Allah (ﷻ) let the wrongdoers have a momentary respite so that eventually Yusuf (as) would succeed and have authority over his nation, not just over his brothers.
Lessons for today
We have witnessed much bloodshed in the Arab Uprising. Brutal dictators who were darlings of the Western colonialists for decades have been dethroned but at the cost of rivers of blood and countless martyrdom. Allah (ﷻ) is not unaware of what is occurring in the region. Indeed, He (ﷻ) is allowing the wrongdoers to commit these atrocities but will eventually give victory to the believers at the appointed time. The wrongdoers would then be subjugated to the deen of Allah (ﷻ) in due course, just as He (ﷻ) had granted victory to his Prophet Yusuf (as) and His Messenger Muhammad (saw).
At the time of the dawah of Muhammad (saw) in Makkah, despite the Quraish’s atrocities against the early Muslims, Allah (ﷻ) had granted victory to His Messenger (saw) over the Quraish and subjugated them to the authority of Islam. For now, however, the ummah has no option but to persevere in face of such tremendous trials and tribulations and continue with the efforts of replacing these dictators with righteous rulers who would rule by the Kitab of Allah (ﷻ) and the Sunnah of His Messenger (saw). Sincere effort in the path of Allah (ﷻ), obedience to the shari’ah, tawaqqul and sabr (patience) are vital for the ummah today.
Prophet Yusuf (as) taken to Egypt
Meanwhile, a passing caravan of merchants came to rest at the well and discovered this young handsome man at the bottom of the well. The merchants rescued Yusuf (as), took him as a slave to Egypt and sold him to the chief minister of Egypt. The chief minister soon realised that Yusuf (as) was no ordinary slave boy and had huge potential in him. He thus ordered his wife, Zulaikha, to be kind to Yusuf (as) and provide him with a comfortable life. This was indeed Allah’s plan, as He (ﷻ) says,
“Thus did We establish Yusuf in the land, that We might teach him the interpretation of events. And Allah has full power and control over His Affairs, but most of men know not.” [Yusuf: 21]
Allah (ﷻ) wanted to take Yusuf (as) out of his homeland in Cannan (which is the area of Palestine, Syria and Jordan) and bring him to Egypt for a great destiny ahead and He (ﷻ) allowed Yusuf’s (as) brothers to commit the evil acts which were all part of Allah’s greater plan.
Prophet Yusuf (as) languishes in prison
The story of Yusuf (as) at this point takes another difficult twist, as the chief minister’s wife, Zulaikha, attempted to seduce Yusuf (as). He was no ordinary man but was blessed with exceptional attractiveness. Allah (ﷻ) informs us that when the women of Egypt saw Yusuf (as),
“They said, ‘How perfect is Allah! No man is this! This is none other than a noble angel!” [Yusuf: 31].
Moreover, Muhammad (saw) said regarding Yusuf’s (as) handsomeness,
“He was given half of all beauty”.
In the interest of brevity, we will not explore this section of Yusuf’s (as) life in depth. Suffice to say that Yusuf (as) was confronted by another major test, which, by Allah’s help, he overcame. However, it was Allah’s design that Yusuf (as) should end up in prison away from the evils of these lustful women!
Once in prison, the story of Yusuf (as) enters its third phase of tests, wherein he continues with his prophetic mission of dawah to his fellow prisoners. Yusuf (as) spent several years in prison (possibly nine years) for a crime that he did not commit. However, there was greater wisdom behind Yusuf’s (as) imprisonment, which was soon to be unveiled by Allah (ﷻ), the Master of all planners.
The Egyptian king’s dream
The king of Egypt saw a terrifying dream which frightened him and made him fear for his kingdom. The king desperately sought an interpretation of this dream but all attempts at its interpretation failed. The most experienced of his advisors, soothsayers and pundits at the time failed to interpret this dream accurately. It was at this point that a servant in the king’s household remembered Yusuf (as) and his ability to interpret dreams. This man was with Yusuf (as) in prison and had himself benefited from an earlier interpretation by Yusuf (as) of his dream.
The king’s officials narrated the dream to Prophet Yusuf (as) in prison and he informed them that Egypt would experience seven fertile years followed by seven years of drought. Yusuf (as) advised the king that during these difficult years ahead, very careful management and distribution of the resources was essential. Yusuf (as) mentioned that after these 14 years, fertility would return to Egypt and resources would again be in plenty.
When the king received this interpretation, he felt convinced. The king recognised Yusuf’s (as) virtues, knowledge and foresight and immediately ordered the release of Yusuf (as). However, Yusuf (as) refused to leave prison unless he was exonerated and his innocence declared. The king thereupon investigated the allegations that were made against Yusuf (as) by Zulaikha, which soon proved to be unfounded. The king, recognising the greatness of Prophet Yusuf (as), thus ordered his immediate release. Allah (ﷻ) says,
“And the king said: ‘Bring him to me that I may attach him to my person.’ Then, when he spoke to him, he said: ‘Verily, this day, you are with us high in rank and fully trusted.” [Yusuf: 54]
Yusuf (as) requested the king to appoint him as the minister of finance of Egypt so that he could assume responsibility for the management of the harvests and storehouses and distribute resources efficiently. The king duly complied because Yusuf (as) was the best person for this task. Thus, Allah’s (ﷻ) plan to catapult Yusuf (as) into greatness came to fruition after years of perseverance in the face of difficult tests. He (ﷻ) says,
“Thus did We give full authority to Yusuf in the land, to take possession therein, as when or where he likes. We bestow of Our Mercy on whom We please, and We make not to be lost the reward of Al-Muhsinun (the doers of good)”.[Yusuf: 56]
In spite of the immense tests which Yusuf (as) had faced (as aforesaid), Allah (ﷻ) did not allow the patience of Yusuf (as) to be lost in vain and instead rewarded Yusuf (as) with greatness, victory and authority. According to Mujahid, a great early mufassir from the tabi’een, the king of Egypt became Muslim at the hands of Yusuf (as). This prophet of Allah, Yusuf (as), thus ruled Egypt by the laws of Allah (ﷻ).
The Quran does not dwell any further into this episode of the life of Yusuf (as). The story then phases into the final episode where Yusuf (as) interacts with his brothers, which we will not explore in this article.
Modern slander against Prophet Yusuf (as)
In order to justify participation in democracy and non-Islamic rule, some Muslims in recent times have alleged that Prophet Yusuf (as) participated in non-Islamic rule when he was appointed as the minister in Egypt. They assert that as Prophet Yusuf (as) had participated in non-Islamic rule due to necessity, it thus follows that it is permissible for Muslims today to rule by kufr democracy if it becomes necessary.
This is indeed a great slander against a prophet of Allah (ﷻ) and a gross misunderstanding. Prophets are immune from sin and are sinless. This is the very point of prophethood. Yes, prophets are human; but they are not capable of sinning. Allah says,
“And We sent not before you (as Messengers) any but men, whom We inspired from among the people of townships”. [Yusuf: 109]
How can a prophet of Allah (ﷻ) participate in kufr? Such an assertion is false because the evidence available does not support such an argument. As we have mentioned above, the king of Egypt had become Muslim after the appointment of Prophet Yusuf (as) as a minister. It would be a great error to suggest that they both ruled by kufr!
Moreover, the shari’ah of Prophet Yusuf (as) was unique to his nation. For example, when his parents came to meet Prophet Yusuf (as) following his appointment as a ruler, they prostrated before Prophet Yusuf (as) on account of the honour and respect Yusuf (as) enjoyed. However, Muslims are not permitted to prostrate before anyone other than Allah (ﷻ). Therefore, whatever Yusuf (as) ruled by was from his shari’ah revealed to his nation and whatever was revealed to Muhammad (saw) is the shari’ah of Muhammad (saw) for this ummah. We cannot conveniently select from the shari’ah of previous nations to suit our twisted agendas.
Lessons for the 21st century
Allah (ﷻ) informs Muhammad (saw) that in the stories of prophets are lessons for this ummah,“Indeed in their stories, there is a lesson for men of understanding”. 111
Today, the ummah is facing attacks from every angle possible. In the West, Muslims face intellectual attacks, media propaganda and humiliation and draconian terrorism laws that singularly target Muslims. In the Muslim world, Muslims are subjected to oppression and massacres en masse, as is the case in Burma, Syria and Yemen just to name a few. Such depressing circumstances are not new to the believers. In fact, many prophets and previous nations had faced similar trials and tribulations and were successful because they trusted in and relied upon Allah (ﷻ), engaged in righteous good deeds and followed the shari’ah of their time.
The Ummah today similarly needs to trust in and rely upon Allah (ﷻ), for the victory of Allah is near indeed. As we have seen from this article, Allah (ﷻ) has His plans for the believers and will inevitably grant them success, although He (saw) gives momentary respite to the enemies of Allah and the evil doers. Allah (ﷻ) says,
“(They were reprieved) until, when the Messengers gave up hope and thought that they were denied (by their people), then came to them Our Help, and whomsoever We willed were delivered. And Our Punishment cannot be warded off from the people who are Mujrimun (criminals, disbelievers, polytheists).” [Yusuf: 110]
The mother of the believers, A’ishah (ra) explained the above verse in the following words,
“This verse is concerned with the followers of the Messengers who had faith in their Lord and believed in their Messengers. The period of trials for those followers was long and Allah’s help was delayed until the Messengers gave up hope for the conversion of the disbelievers amongst their nations and suspected that even their followers were shaken in their belief, Allah’s help then came to them.” [Tafsir Ibn Kathir]
Allah grants victory when the situation appears hopeless and hardships prevail. This is when believers eagerly await Allah’s help. The Ummah today is at a critical juncture whereby a transition is occurring from one phase to the next. The Muslims are required to follow the shari’ah without compromise. Taking shortcuts and pragmatism would not lead to victory. If we learn anything from the prophetic stories, the help of Allah (ﷻ) came when the believers had firmly held onto the rope of Allah (ﷻ) without compromise. We must do the same today and work tirelessly to bring back the deen of Allah. May Allah (ﷻ) make this Ramadan the final days where the Ummah remains without her rightful ruler, the Khalifah.
“Indeed, they planned their plot, and their plot was with Allah, though their plot was a great (one, still) it would never be able to remove the mountains from their places (as it is of no importance)”. [Ibrahim: 46]
Also worth reading: Lessons from life Prophet Isa (as)