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Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (13)

Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (13)
Joseph’s Story

Critical situations

We encounter in the Holy Quran the story of Joseph (a.s.), which is eventful. He had hit rough patches from a tender age. He was the victim of a plot hatched by his brothers to get rid of him out of envy. Having survived that one, he ended up in captivity. He then had to fend of the temptation, and finally the attempted rape, by the wife of his master, which wrongfully landed him in jail for a long period. After his release, he was appointed the prime lieutenant to administer the affairs of the country. Thus, his powerful position enabled him to weather the detestable feelings of his brothers and turn them into a brotherly loving relationship, and finally his success in realizing the family reunion.

Here we are not trying to put emphasis on the development of the story, in its changing scenery. Rather, we will be trying to pause at the short dialogues in the story to see, through them, how lively, expressive, and crystal clear the pictures of the lives of the prophets had been. These are the examples the Holy Quran wants us to follow. We shall follow those dialogues step by step.

Joseph and the wife of the chief minister (al-Aziz)

But she in whose house he was, sought to seduce him from his (true) self: she fastened the doors, and said: “Now come, thou (dear one)!” He said: “God forbid! Truly (thy husband) is my lord! He made my sojourn agreeable! Truly to no good come those who do wrong!” And (with passion) did she desire him, and he would have desired her, but that he saw the evidence of his Lord: thus (did We order) that We might turn away from him (all) evil and shameful deeds: for he was one of Our servants, sincere and purified. So, they both raced each other to the door, and she tore his shirt from the back: they both found her lord near the door. She said: “What is the (fitting) punishment for one who formed an evil design against thy wife, but prison or a grievous chastisement?” He said: “It was she that sought to seduce me from my (true) self.” And one of her household saw (this) and bore witness, (thus) “If it be that his shirt is rent from the front, then is her tale true, and he is a liar! But if it be that his shirt is torn from the back, then is she the liar, and he is telling the truth!” So, when he saw his shirt – that it was torn at the back – (her husband) said: “Behold! It is a snare of you women! Truly, mighty is your snare! O Joseph, pass this over! (O wife), ask forgiveness for thy sin, for truly thou hast been at fault!

In the city, ladies said: “The wife of the Aziz (chief minister) is seeking to seduce her slave from his (true) self: Truly hath he inspired her with violent love: we see she is evidently going astray.” When she heard of their malicious talk, she sent for them and prepared a banquet for them: she gave each of them a knife: and she said (to Joseph), “Come out before them.” When they saw him, they did extol him, and (in their amazement) cut their hands: they said, “God preserve us! No mortal is this! This is none other than a noble angel!” She said: “There before you is the man about whom ye did blame me! I did seek to seduce him from his (true) self but he did firmly save himself guiltless! And now, if he doth not my bidding, he shall certainly be cast into prison, and (what is more) be of the company of the vilest!” He said: “O my Lord! The prison is more to my liking than that to which they invite me: Unless Thou turn away their snare from me, I should (in my youthful folly) feel inclined towards them and join the ranks of the ignorant.” So his Lord hearkened to him (in his prayer), and turned away from him their snare: Verily He hears and knows (all things). (12: 23–43)

This is the entire picture of his story with the wife of the chief minister. The atmosphere was rife with temptation and everything that was conducive to leading one astray. Joseph (a.s.) was in the prime of youth when his sexual drive was in full zest. On the other hand, the wife of the chief minister was a female who was infatuated with Joseph, who was exceptionally handsome. Because of living under one roof, the climate was conducive to admiration bordering on the obsessive on the part of the woman. The situation was further aggravated by the husband’s absence from home most of the time because of his high position and responsibilities in government. The woman could not suppress her sexual urge. For his part, Joseph was busy with something different. His heart was full with the light of faith and the loyalty he felt for his master.

The story, thus, did not mention any move on his side to try to seduce the woman. She made the first move and attempted to rape him, by locking the doors and saying that she was ready “Now come, thou (dear one)!”. In creating the right conditions for a sexual encounter, she thought he was going to fall victim to her advances. What was his response?

In all composure, he said “God forbid!” followed by the words of loyalty “Truly (thy husband) is my lord! He made my sojourn agreeable!” He went on to summarize the whole situation, thus, “Truly to no good come those who do wrong!” She was doing herself injustice by committing that sin. At the same time, she was doing her husband injustice by betraying him. As for Joseph, he would never have forgiven himself if he had reciprocated; the guilt would have haunted his conscience forever, not least for doing disservice to himself and proving ungrateful to his master who gave him shelter and took him under his wing. She did not yield to Joseph’s unreserved rejection to her manifest invitation to have sex with him, in the belief that he was showing timid restraint or he was afraid of the consequences of his deed, had he gone ahead with it. She was adamant, indulging in aggressive tempting behavior to weaken his resolve. He might have grown receptive to her incessant demand as might be gleaned from the phrase “and he would have desired her”. However, it was a momentary distraction that was instigated by the echo of temptation. Nevertheless, no sooner had he regained his composure by the call of faith inside him, he would have returned to defend himself against her determined sexual assault, thus: “But that he saw the evidence of his Lord: thus (did We order) that We might turn away from him (all) evil and shameful deeds.” That was a great testimonial to the high standard of belief attained by Joseph at that phase in his life. This would lead us to conclude that what we described as momentary distraction did not amount to more than that. It remained within the domain of feelings and emotions, in that it did not translate into action. This was through strong self-discipline.

Joseph had no option but to flee with his religion, belief, and morality. Yet, she did not let go of him, chasing him to the door and ripping his shirt. However, both were in for a surprise, as her husband was at the door. She feigned to have been the victim, accusing Joseph of attempting to rape her and suggesting the kind of punishment he should receive for “his vile deed”. Nevertheless, Joseph’s blamelessness was manifest in his cracking voice, the purity of his soul and in the general state he was in, so much so that her husband was sure that he was whiter than white. Yet, he did not take any action against his wife, preferring to censure her attempt and considering it a woman’s guile. Thus, he asked her to pray for forgiveness for her great sin and transgression.

The city was awash with gossip and rumor about what happened. To counter that, she invited a number of women to her house and asked Joseph to join them. They were taken aback by Joseph’s angelic beauty, concluding that she was excused for what she had done and they were apologetic, to the extent that they might have entertained the thought of seducing him. There and then, she said she was not sorry for what she did and that she would keep trying until he fell to her advances. Maybe, there were other attempts by her after that womanly conference. Joseph (a.s.) started to feel the pressure and turned to invoke the power of prayer, seeking help with his Creator “O my Lord! The prison is more to my liking than that to which they invite me”. Thus, faith was still living vibrantly inside him, urging him to withstand the temptations. He was inclined to go to prison rather than fall prey to the sexual advances, and turned to God in humility and supplication “Unless Thou turn away their snare from me, I should (in my youthful folly) feel inclined towards them and join the ranks of the ignorant.

That was a sign that he had reached the limits of forbearance and resilience. God answered his prayer by rescuing him from the women’s ensnarement. He ended up in prison after the wife of the chief minister had used every weapon in her armory to entrap him. Faith had scored a victory over misguidance, morality over immorality. The prophet emerged from the experience unscathed, scoring a victory over others and himself [his desires]. He had the best of both worlds, a battle-hardened individual with a sublime standard of integrity. He would then face people with his practical experience as well as his ideological acumen, only to prove to them that resisting temptation was not alien to his strong character. Rather, it was an expression of a real situation the prophet faced, which he turned to his advantage. Likewise, people can face the same situation and emerge triumphant, drawing on the strength of faith in God.

The most salient scene in this dialogue is that of the believer being subjected to constant inner struggle, and trying to resist going astray under the enticement of sexual longing. In eloquent response, he prefers to stick with his belief regardless of the sacrifices and sufferings.

The dialogue between Joseph and the wife of chief minister was condensed. And yet it has captured the whole situation of a flagrant sexual attack on her part and an unmistakable rejection on his. However, given the twists and turns of the story, you might notice that there are underlying long dialogues between both the chief characters of the story, not least by her failed attempts to entice Joseph to have sex with her, including the all-women party she gave in her palace. Perhaps this should throw indicate that there might have been a long talk by those women to persuade him to give in to her sexual advances. This is borne out by the fact that he turned to his Lord in prayer to save him from the guile of all the women.

In the discourse related by the Quranic verse, you come across a living example of the unwavering position of belief versus temptation. This is so as to explain that the call to observe chastity in sexual relations is not a far-fetched idea. It is a reality as has already been manifested in Joseph’s case. His position remained constant throughout the entire unpleasant experience.

The story is also trying to tell us that man must remain faithful to his original word and position, if it emanates from a deep sense of conviction. Thus, it would remain much stronger than all adverse words and situations.

Joseph in prison

Then it occurred to the men, after they had seen the signs, (that it was best) to imprison him for a time. Now with him there came into the prison two young men. Said one of them: “I see myself (in a dream) pressing wine.” Said the other: “I see myself (in a dream) carrying bread on my head, and birds are eating, thereof.” “Tell us” (they said) “the truth and meaning thereof: for we see thou art one that doth good (to all).

He said: “Before any food comes (in due course) to feed either of you, I will surely reveal to you the truth and meaning of this ere it befall you: that is part of the (duty) which my Lord hath taught me. I have (I assure you) abandoned the ways of a people that believe not in God and that (even) deny the Hereafter. And I follow the ways of my fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and never could we attribute any partners whatever to God: that (comes) of the grace of God to us and to mankind: yet most men are not grateful. O my two companions of the prison! (I ask you): are many lords differing among themselves better, or the One God, Supreme and Irresistible? If not Him, ye worship nothing but names which ye have named – ye and your fathers – for which God hath sent down no authority: the command is for none but God: He hath commanded that ye worship none but Him: that is the right religion, but most men understand not. O my two companions of the prison! As to one of you, he will pour out the wine for his lord to drink: as for the other, he will hang from the cross, and the birds will eat from off his head. (So) hath been decreed that matter whereof ye twain do enquire.”

And of the two, to that one whom he considers about to be saved, he said: “Mention me to thy lord.” But Satan made him forget to mention him to his lord: and (Joseph) lingered in prison a few (more) years. (12: 35–42)

This dialogue discusses a crucial matter in the domain of calling to the way of God. It is that Muslim activists should not make imprisonment, if they ever experience it, a prelude to surrendering to their personal predicament. They should not overindulge in looking forward to freedom at the expense of their noble task, i.e. that of serving the Message, to the extent that they might risk becoming far removed from it. Rather, they should turn the prison into a hive of industry in the cause of God. Prisons could be fertile grounds for sowing the seeds of good thought because of the nature of the environment. Such surroundings are conducive to bringing inmates closer to spiritual tranquility, and pulling them away from all materialistic and social influences, which in turn can make them feel the proximity of God and His Omnipotence. On the other hand, a prison environment can make the inmates more receptive to dialogue and lend a listening ear to what is said because they feel the need to escape mentally from the situation they are in and spend more time on new things that are capable of filling their time.

This is evident from the prison chapter of Joseph’s story. He listened to his prison mates speaking about the dreams they saw in their sleep and asking for interpretations. He entertained their request, seizing the opportunity to resume his work from within the prison walls in calling to the way of God. At the outset, he put them at ease, promising them that he was very well versed in interpreting dreams in order to finally win them over to the belief in the One and Only God.

He started the conversation by speaking about himself and his faith, which had come as a result of deep-rooted conviction based on strong evidence. He then attacked the misguided thoughts that were based on worshipping gods other than God, or setting up partners to Him. He made it clear to them that that type of worship did not make sense and had no logical basis. However, he did not hide his desire to come out of prison, asking the inmate, whom he thought was going to be released and reinstated in his job, to mention his name during his audience with the king. Nevertheless, his companion forgot to do so, leaving Joseph languishing in prison several more years. This is the tale of a divinely guided prophet who lived every moment of his life thinking of his noble task, with scant regard for his personal matters.

In this day and age, we have witnessed the importance of prison environments, in that they offer the opportunity for spreading the Message and engaging in dialogue. This state of affairs has led many organizations and political parties to send some of their elements to prisons to propagate their doctrines among the inmates.