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Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (14)

  Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (14)
Joseph, a free man

We are given more morals and lessons in the final chapters of Joseph’s story. However, we are not going to dwell on those chapters here. We will, however, conclude our discussion by bringing to the fore the dialogue between Joseph and the king, when Joseph was summoned by the king to be informed of his appointment as secretary to the treasury, in order to handle the impending economic crisis the country would go through, according to Joseph’s reading of the king’s dream. Joseph made his acceptance of the post conditional on clearing his name of the charge of attempting to rape the wife of the chief minister, by insisting on calling the women – whom the wife of the chief minister had invited and confessed in their presence that she was after Joseph (a.s.) – to give evidence and exonerate him:

The king (of Egypt) said: “I do see (in a vision) seven fat kine [cows], whom seven lean ones devour, and seven green ears of corn, and seven (others) withered. O ye chiefs! Expound to me my vision if it be that ye can interpret visions.” They said: “A confused medley of dreams: and we are not skilled in the interpretation of dreams.” But the man who had been released, one of the two (who had been in prison) and who now bethought him after (so long) a space of time, said: “I will tell you the truth of its interpretation: send ye me (therefore).” “O Joseph!” (He said) “O man of truth! Expound to us (the dream) of seven fat kine whom seven lean ones devour, and of seven green ears of corn and (seven) others withered: that I may return to the people, and that they may understand.” (Joseph) said: “For seven years shall ye diligently sow as is your wont: and the harvests that ye reap, ye shall leave them in the ear – except a little, of which ye shall eat. Then will come after that (period) seven dreadful (years), which will devour what ye shall have laid by in advance for them – (all) except a little which ye shall have (specially) guarded. Then will come after that (period) a year in which the people will have abundant water, and in which they will press (wine and oil).”

So the king said: “Bring ye him unto me.” But when the messenger came to him, (Joseph) said: “Go thou back to thy lord, and ask him, ‘What is the state of mind of the ladies who cut their hands’? For my Lord is certainly well aware of their snare.” (The king) said (to the ladies): “What was your affair when ye did seek to seduce Joseph from his (true) self?” The ladies said: “God preserve us! No evil know we against him!” Said the Aziz’s wife: “Now is the truth manifest (to all): it was I who sought to seduce him from his (true) self: He is indeed of those who are (ever) true (and virtuous).” “This (say I), in order that He may know that I have never been false to him in his absence, and that God will never guide the snare of the false ones. Nor do I absolve my own self (of blame): the (human) soul is certainly prone to evil, unless my Lord do bestow His Mercy: but surely my Lord is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (12: 43-53).

From this dialogue, we can learn the following:

1. Shouldering responsibility calls for a clean record

In order to accept the appointment, Joseph had no choice but to demand the clearance of his name from the unproven charges that landed him in prison. According to him, this was a prerequisite because his office meant that he had to regain public confidence. He looked at the affair from a public, rather than a personal, perspective. To his mind, the public office he was going to hold would necessitate that he should clear his name. Failure to do so would constitute a hindrance to his message reaching a wider audience.

By sticking to his guns and the strength of his position, Joseph succeeded in forcing the culprits to publicly confess that they lied. Then, and only then, he accepted the appointment with confidence and peace of mind. Here is a lesson for Muslim activists to be drawn from Joseph’s uncompromising stand. They should abide by the strength of their conviction and case. It is very important that they discuss the charges made against them and defend themselves where possible, leaving that which could not be clarified fully to some other opportune time. This has a bearing on the interests of the noble task they are entrusted with. The activists should not be in a position to say: We do not need to protest our innocence as long as we know for sure that we are innocent and God Almighty is aware that we are truthful in submitting to Him and earning His pleasure. There is no way they can do that because personal satisfaction that one is wrongfully accused should not be a license to keep quiet and not contest the charges, so long as they can do so. They should go about this by making their mind up that it is not a personal matter. Rather, it is a public right. It is within everyone’s right to be in the right position to discuss all issues, with a view to arriving at satisfactory and clear conclusions. Such conclusions would then be turned into added force to boost the movement and its activists.

2. The activists between acquiring knowledge and taking part in power

We should be able to understand from Joseph’s story, especially his dialogue while he was in prison and after his release, one of life’s fundamental realities. That is, it is incumbent on the workers in the way of God to pursue the acquisition of knowledge, to better the chances of their own advancement, which would, in turn, gives good returns to society. In so doing, they would be better positioned to influence the masses.

This, however, may lead to taking part in running the affairs of the nation (ummah), which would in the end serve to achieve the objective.

It goes without saying that should this happen, they must be absolutely sure that they are going to maintain their integrity and religion from falling prey to the lure and trappings of power. In the final analysis, what should matter is one’s noble task in life, which should be discharged with self-denial. So, should they be not so sure about resisting the temptations of power and keeping on the straight path, they should stay put and do their level best without much ado.

This is the reality of Joseph’s story. His expertise in interpreting dreams opened the door wide for him to win his two prison mates over to his cause and eventually secure his own release from prison. His knowledge earned him the king’s confidence and paved the way for him to occupy one of the highest echelons of power, the official in charge of the economy. This had stood him in good stead in the field of calling to the way of God and steering the economy towards serving social justice that God and His messenger are pleased to see done.

3. Miracles top the list of knowledge

In the nature of the miracles performed by the prophets, there is a manifestation that they come at the top of any field of knowledge or skill prevailing at their time. This would make people grow in confidence and identify with the prophet for seeing him far more knowledgeable than them. At the time of Prophet Moses (a.s.) sorcery was widespread. His staff, which turned into a serpent devouring all the trickery the magicians had shown, came at the top of that craft. The act was so sublime that it was outside the reach of witchcraft, to the extent that the magicians had no choice but to prostrate themselves to God and become believers in His message without waiting for permission from Pharaoh. In the case of Prophet Jesus (a.s.), medicine was the number one discipline. God sent him with the miracle of raising the dead, giving back the blessing of sight to the blind, and curing lepers. Those were feats, which made him win the people’s hearts and minds, so much so that a section of them went astray into believing that he was divine. Literary excellence and linguistic elocution were the prime virtues of the Arab society at the time of Prophet Mohammad (p.). The Holy Quran was his miracle, as it challenged all men of letters and eloquent speakers into imitating its style, and yet they could not.

All this gives us a clear idea about the place of knowledge and the role well-informed activists could play in the service of their mission on the way of God. It is capable of earning them the respect of people and defeating the challenges of unbelievers and hypocrites.

4. Evangelism exploits knowledge to serve its design

The missionary movement and colonial powers planned very well and got prepared for spreading the Gospel. Many of their activists majored in many disciplines and fields of knowledge, which would eventually open the doors of universities, hospitals, international conferences… etc. for them. This has made their entry into society through its widest doors a foregone conclusion. Consequently, they have had great influence, if not a stranglehold over the culture, well being and system of society. On another level, the European orientalist movement was made subservient to the aims of the missionary movement, which was bent on sullying the image of Islam, its Prophet and all that it stands for in culture, and finally drove it out from the lives of people. We have experienced first hand the designs of imperialistic organizations, which seek to have an impact on society by sending much-needed people with the required know-how. This is bound to make them pull strings in people’s lives.

5. The sublime position of Joseph towards his brothers

At the end of this remarkable story, we come face to face with yet another noble position taken by Joseph. This time, it is his magnanimous position on his brothers, who confessed their crime in plotting to kill or get rid of him out of envy. His faith in God and his steadfastness in adversity, which led him eventually to rule supreme, made him forgive and be kind to them without their knowledge. Once they came to know about it, that gracious position made them apologize to him for their wrongdoings. For his part, he pardoned them without overbearing, thus: “They said: ‘By God! Indeed has God preferred thee above us, and we certainly have been guilty of sin!’ He said: ‘This day let no reproach be (cast) on you: God will forgive you, and He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy!” (12: 91–92).

Here, we see Joseph again in a situation where he expresses his submission before God, when he was reunited with his parents and elevated them to the throne. He did not talk about his story in detail, apart from the fact that he concluded that it was, in all its phases, a grace from Him. He was self-effacing before his parents and brothers, whom he did not reproach for their transgression against him because, to his mind, their problem was that of Satan’s instigation. For their part, once they discovered that they had been in the wrong, they returned to the right path where God is.

In the end, Joseph (a.s.) turned in prayer to God to make Him bear witness to his real feelings about all the trials, tribulations, and successes he went through, of asking for His support and protection:

And he raised his parents high on the throne (of dignity), and they fell down in prostration, (all) before him. He said: “O my father! This is the fulfilment of my vision of old! God hath made it come true! He was indeed good to me when He took me out of prison and brought you (all here) out of the desert, (even) after Satan had sown enmity between me and my brothers. Verily my Lord understandeth best the mysteries of all that He planneth to do, for verily He is full of knowledge and wisdom. O my Lord! Thou hast indeed bestowed on me some power, and taught me something of the interpretation of dreams and events – O Thou Creator of the heavens and the earth! Thou art my Protector in this world and in the Hereafter. Take Thou my soul (at death) as one submitting to Thy will (as a Muslim), and unite me with the righteous.” (12: 100–01)

The ultimate lesson

In Joseph’s story there are many lessons for the workers in the way of God to draw. They should follow his footsteps when they progress from small positions and make great leaps, after experiencing thick and thin and utilizing all their energy in the arena of struggle. They should, when their time comes in reaching the summit, not be like peacocks prone to showing off. They should not be like those who cannot resist the trappings of power and fall to its temptations, forgetting in the process their duty towards their Lord, and doing themselves injustice. They may also turn all the divine triumphs into ones that have been achieved by their personal efforts per se.

And yet, there are others, who are among the very few, who stand tall to assert that the procession of the divine messages should take precedence over life’s aspirations and that divine successes are not the exclusive preserve of the individual. They are divine graces that God bestows on the workers in His way, endowing them with talent and competence to be used in spreading the Message. Thus, there should be no place for conceit or looking down on people. Rather, there is only a place for humility based on man’s faith in his Lord and his feeling of dependency on Him in everything, and that there is neither power nor refuge except with God, the Most High, the Omnipotent.

This story is a practical lesson that the workers in the way of God should learn, so that they follow in the footsteps of the prophets who felt a sense of humility before victories and prayed to Him for any glimmer of success or progress. You should also invoke the power of prayer in adversity because His is the final word. So, in success or in failure, you have to turn to Him.

A great part of Joseph’s story discusses the emotional side of the human soul. Here we would like to dwell on this subject by raising two mind-provoking thoughts, which we can deduce from the way the Quran has told the story:

1. Religion does not disapprove of passions

Religion has not declared the subject of discussing emotional matters a taboo. People should feel free to talk about this subject, including love stories, provided that they serve the intents and purposes of the Message. These stories would in the end depict a position where man’s will triumphs over the human feelings and sexual drive. Thus, the person who emerges gaining the upper hand over his desires would represent the true person who is entwined with God’s Message. Such a person would serve as a paradigm to Islam’s realism in its laws and doctrines. The stories may depict some tragic episodes for men and women who had followed the crooked way in satisfying their sexual needs. Such stories should serve as a deterrent to others as not to tread the same path. This should help to start planning for responsible Islamic literature, in which there can be a love story beside social, political, and other matters.

In so doing, the Islamic approach to calling to the way of God would open a window of opportunity through which Islam’s law and ideology shine on people’s lives. This is with the aim of making it abundantly clear that Islam is not confined to certain aspects of life. It is there to permeate those domains of man’s life that relate to feelings and emotions too. This would render false the notion that Islam would not have anything to do with these sentimental issues. There is no way that this can be true after the Holy Quran and Scripture have talked about these issues in many places.

However, artistic guidelines have to be put in place, with a view to putting this literary activity on an even keel, within the main Islamic framework for ideology and calling to the way of God, as is the case with other literary trends.

2. Religion and sexual education

Religion talks about sexual relations, both normal and abnormal ones, in a natural manner, precisely as is the case with any other human relationships. This is indicative of the fact that knowledge about that aspect of human relationships is not a demeaning one, as social customs seem to suggest. On the contrary, Islam does not stand in the way of spreading sexual education within a sound plan, away from the climate of sexual arousal, like any other domain of education. This is particularly so, when it is evident that many Quranic verses and prophetic traditions call a spade a spade.

We can go further to say that Islam encourages such education, not least because many legal injunctions relate to sexual relationships between men and women. Examples of this are ritual bathing (ghusl) after sexual intercourse, restoring physical purity to the body after a monthly period or childbirth, etc. Upholding these commands and fulfilling such duties satisfactorily would not be achieved unless one knew in detail the functions of male and female reproduction organs/systems. The adage has it, “There is no place for shyness in religious matters”.

In this light, we can say that Islam is in favor of the call for sexual education, not from the perspective that maintains that ignorance would engender psychological complexes but rather, from a standpoint that rejects the mentality that considers dabbling in sexual matters a shameless behavior or a taboo. Furthermore, sexual education has a bearing on practicing certain acts of worship or stopping short of embarking on others. This would render sexual education a sacred religious duty. In a nutshell, we aspire to spread sexual education through the Quranic stories and Islamic law giving, besides the solid building of the Islamic character, away from all inferiority complexes and negative influences.

It is quite natural, therefore, that we put a lot of effort into studying the Book and the prophetic traditions, so that we can arrive at Islam’s comprehensive view on the sexual question. This is because it is considered one of the central issues that occupy a big part in social and educational thinking these days. This would be in response to a fundamental stance that makes it incumbent on us to exert the effort in deducing Islam’s position on any issue that comes to the fore and every trend that imposes itself on life, lest Muslims should remain at a loss in the midst of conflicting opinions.