Sūrah Yūsuf is unique among Qur’ānic narratives as the entire sūrah is devoted to the story of Prophet Yūsuf. Further, his story, unlike other stories, is not mentioned anywhere else. The sūrah is filled with moral lessons, for which a good tafsīr should be consulted. Here are only some of those lessons.
اقْتُلُوا يُوسُفَ أَوِ اطْرَحُوهُ أَرْضًا يَخْلُ لَكُمْ وَجْهُ أَبِيكُمْ وَتَكُونُوا مِن بَعْدِهِ قَوْمًا صَالِحِينَ
“Let us kill Yūsuf, or throw him at some place on earth, and thus your father’s full attention will be devoted for you alone, and after doing that, you may become a righteous people.” (Yūsuf, 12:9)
The brothers of Prophet Yūsuf were Muslims. They were driven by jealousy and not by an ideological conflict. But this jealousy led them to commit serious wrongs. Torn between their negative emotions and their sense of right and wrong, they were the in-between Muslims. They must have felt the pricks of conscience in formulating their evil plan. This is how they assuaged their guilt feeling. “Do this one wrong now, and afterward lead a virtuous life.” Anyone resorting to the same justification for any wrong should realize the hollowness of this logic.
This sūrah gives extremely valuable insights into human nature. It also tears apart the idea that good people are above lusts and desires or that there can be such a thing as platonic love. This idea only helps remove the safeguards thereby making succumbing to those desires easier. This is the story of a Prophet, whose innocence is attested to by the Qur’ān. Yet it also says clearly that he could have succumbed to the lust, except for the help from Allāh. The following āyahs make it very clear.
وَلَقَدْ هَمَّتْ بِهِ ۖ وَهَمَّ بِهَا لَوْلَا أَن رَّأَىٰ بُرْهَانَ رَبِّهِ ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ لِنَصْرِفَ عَنْهُ السُّوءَ وَالْفَحْشَاءَ ۚ إِنَّهُ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا الْمُخْلَصِينَ
She certainly desired him, and he might have desired her, had he not seen the proof from his Lord. Thus We did, to turn evil and lewdness away from him. Surely, he was one of Our chosen servants. (Yūsuf, 12:24)
قَالَ رَبِّ السِّجْنُ أَحَبُّ إِلَيَّ مِمَّا يَدْعُونَنِي إِلَيْهِ ۖ وَإِلَّا تَصْرِفْ عَنِّي كَيْدَهُنَّ أَصْبُ إِلَيْهِنَّ وَأَكُن مِّنَ الْجَاهِلِينَ
He (Yūsuf ) said, “My Lord, the prison is dearer to me than what these women invite me to do. If You do not turn their guile away from me, I might yet yield to their allure and become one of those who are unaware (of right and wrong). (Yūsuf, 12:33)
وَمَا أُبَرِّئُ نَفْسِي ۚ إِنَّ النَّفْسَ لَأَمَّارَةٌ بِالسُّوءِ إِلَّا مَا رَحِمَ رَبِّي ۚ إِنَّ رَبِّي غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
And yet, I am not trying to absolve myself: for, verily, man’s inner self does incite (him) to evil, and saved are only they upon whom my Sustainer bestows His grace. Certainly, my Sustainer is the Most- Forgiving, Very-Merciful. (Yūsuf 12:53)
In the first āyah Allāh is saying that Prophet Yūsuf might have desired her. In the second āyah Prophet Yūsuf is seeking Allāh’s help against their seduction since without that help he might yield to their allure. The third āyah is a general observation about human nature which has inclinations to evil.
The idea that human beings can be reformed against their nature is a fantastic one. This story should liberate us from such illusions. The proper moral reform consists in recognizing human nature and eliminating the opportunities for it taking the wrong course. The attraction between the sexes is an important force of nature, which makes family life possible, which is the basic unit of society. When it spills outside marriage, it becomes a destructive force, which must be curbed. And the way to do that is to restrict the exposure and opportunities for interaction between the sexes in those situations. Hence the laws of hijab and the restrictions against free-mixing, which are based on a perfect knowledge of the human nature. All those who try to water them down are working against the forces of nature.
It should also be noted that Zulaykha was older than Prophet Yūsuf. He had entered their house as a child to be possibly adopted as a son. This removes any grounds for relaxation of the requirements of hijab for an older (as opposed to an old) woman. As long as the two are of marriageable age, the restrictions are to be observed.
Sermon in the Prison
قَالَ لَا يَأْتِيكُمَا طَعَامٌ تُرْزَقَانِهِ إِلَّا نَبَّأْتُكُمَا بِتَأْوِيلِهِ قَبْلَ أَن يَأْتِيَكُمَا ۚ ذَٰلِكُمَا مِمَّا عَلَّمَنِي رَبِّي ۚ إِنِّي تَرَكْتُ مِلَّةَ قَوْمٍ لَّا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَهُم بِالْآخِرَةِ هُمْ كَافِرُونَ. وَاتَّبَعْتُ مِلَّةَ آبَائِي إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَإِسْحَاقَ وَيَعْقُوبَ ۚ مَا كَانَ لَنَا أَن نُّشْرِكَ بِاللَّهِ مِن شَيْءٍ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ مِن فَضْلِ اللَّهِ عَلَيْنَا وَعَلَى النَّاسِ وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَشْكُرُونَ. يَا صَاحِبَيِ السِّجْنِ أَأَرْبَابٌ مُّتَفَرِّقُونَ خَيْرٌ أَمِ اللَّهُ الْوَاحِدُ الْقَهَّارُ. مَا تَعْبُدُونَ مِن دُونِهِ إِلَّا أَسْمَاءً سَمَّيْتُمُوهَا أَنتُمْ وَآبَاؤُكُم مَّا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ بِهَا مِن سُلْطَانٍ ۚ إِنِ الْحُكْمُ إِلَّا لِلَّهِ ۚ أَمَرَ أَلَّا تَعْبُدُوا إِلَّا إِيَّاهُ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
I have abandoned the way of those who do not believe in Allāh, and who are deniers of the Hereafter. And I follow the creed of my forefathers Ibrāhīm (Abraham), Isḥāq (Isaac), and Yaʿqūb ( Jacob). It is not conceivable that we should (be allowed to) ascribe divinity to anyone beside Allāh: this is (an outcome) of Allāh’s bounty unto us and unto all mankind – but most people are ungrateful. O my companions in imprisonment! Which is more reasonable: (belief in the existence of numerous divine) lords, each of them different from the other—or (in) Allāh, the One God, who holds absolute sway over all that exists? All that you worship instead of Allāh is nothing but (empty) names which you have invented—you and your forefathers—(and) for which Allāh has bestowed no warrant from on high. Sovereignty belongs to none but Allāh. He has ordained that you shall not worship anyone but Him. This is the only right path. But most of the people do not know. (Yūsuf 12:37-40)
This is a very powerful sermon that passionately appeals to our ingrained sense of truth and falsehood to show the truth of the universal call of Islam. Prophet Yūsuf, like all prophets, is constantly on the lookout to call people to Allāh. He gets an opportunity when the inmates approach him for interpretation of their dreams. With great wisdom and passion he uses the occasion to deliver them the message. It is a penetrating question, which can be posed to all the polytheists of the world: “Which is more reasonable: (belief in the existence of numerous divine) lords, each of them different from the other—or (in) Allāh, the One God, who holds absolute sway over all that exists?”
It is telling that this important part of the story is completely missing from the narrative in the Torah, which otherwise has many historical details (names, places, numbers) not mentioned in the Qur’ān. Such details are a characteristic of human story telling. On the other hand the Qur’ān ignores such details and focuses totally on telling the stories to highlight the guidance for humanity inherent in them.
وَقَالَ يَا بَنِيَّ لَا تَدْخُلُوا مِن بَابٍ وَاحِدٍ وَادْخُلُوا مِنْ أَبْوَابٍ مُّتَفَرِّقَةٍ ۖ وَمَا أُغْنِي عَنكُم مِّنَ اللَّهِ مِن شَيْءٍ ۖ إِنِ الْحُكْمُ إِلَّا لِلَّهِ ۖ عَلَيْهِ تَوَكَّلْتُ ۖ وَعَلَيْهِ فَلْيَتَوَكَّلِ الْمُتَوَكِّلُونَ
And he said, “O my sons, do not enter (the city) all of you from the same gate; rather, enter from different gates. And I cannot help you in any way against (the will of ) Allāh. Sovereignty belongs to none but Allāh. In Him I place my trust, and all those who trust should trust in Him alone.” (Yūsuf, 12:67)
For security reasons Prophet Yaʿqūb (Jacob) asked his sons not to travel together. But after advising them of the necessary precaution, he made it very clear that his trust was not in his prudence but in Allāh. This is a lesson in the very important concept of tawakkul: We should take the best steps needed based on our knowledge and understanding, then leave the results to Allāh. Tawakkul means making and executing the plans to the best of our ability and then putting our trust in Allāh to make our plans and actions bring out the desired outcomes. This is Islam’s middle way between the extremes of taking matters completely in our hands or leaving them altogether and hoping for desired outcomes without any effort. Tawakkul ends worries and anxieties without compromising on our plans and actions.
قَالَ لَا تَثْرِيبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْيَوْمَ ۖ يَغْفِرُ اللَّهُ لَكُمْ ۖ وَهُوَ أَرْحَمُ الرَّاحِمِينَ
He said, “No reproach upon you today! May Allāh forgive you, and He is the Most- Merciful of all those who show mercy. (Yūsuf, 12:92)
قَدْ أَحْسَنَ بِي إِذْ أَخْرَجَنِي مِنَ السِّجْنِ وَجَاءَ بِكُم مِّنَ الْبَدْوِ مِن بَعْدِ أَن نَّزَغَ الشَّيْطَانُ بَيْنِي وَبَيْنَ إِخْوَتِي
(My Lord) favored me when he released me from the prison, and brought you from the countryside after Satan had caused a rift between me and my brothers. (Yūsuf, 12:100)
This is the greatness of the Prophetic character, an example in both forgiveness and thankfulness. After all the ordeals through which his brothers had put him as a young child, he forgave them. And the forgiveness referred to in the first āyah mentioned above was really meant as we can see in the second āyah quoted above. Prophet Yūsuf, instead of blaming his brothers, simply referred to whatever happened to the inspirations of Satan.
When Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ conquered Makkah and he was in a position to take revenge from the Quraysh leaders who had left no stone unturned in hurting him and his followers for more than a decade, he used the same words to forgive them.
Prophet Yūsuf had faced three great tribulations. First, he was mistreated by his brothers. Second, he had to withstand long separation from his parents. Third, he was unjustly put in prison. Here in summing up his story he is giving a profound lesson in thankfulness. First, he reversed the order making the last incident the most important and the first, which had started it all and for which his brothers were directly responsible, the least. Second, he focused not on the ordeal but on the ending of the ordeal. He thanked Allāh for helping him get out of the prison, and for bringing back his parents and family. No complaints about his long ordeal, no ill feeling about his brothers. Only thanks and rejoicing.
Knowledge, Wisdom, Blindness
أَفَمَن يَعْلَمُ أَنَّمَا أُنزِلَ إِلَيْكَ مِن رَّبِّكَ الْحَقُّ كَمَنْ هُوَ أَعْمَىٰ ۚ إِنَّمَا يَتَذَكَّرُ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ
Now, can the one who knows that whatever has been revealed to you from your Lord is the truth, be equal to one who is blind? But only men of understanding heed. (Ar-Raʿd, 13:19)
Allāh’s guidance has been mentioned in many places as the light. This light makes the believers see the truth as truth. Others are in utter darkness and therefore they cannot see it. That is, they are blind to it.
اللَّهُ يَبْسُطُ الرِّزْقَ لِمَن يَشَاءُ وَيَقْدِرُ ۚ وَفَرِحُوا بِالْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا فِي الْآخِرَةِ إِلَّا مَتَاعٌ
Allāh expands the provision for whom He wills and narrows it (for whom He wills). And they (who are given abundance) rejoice in the life of this world—even though, as compared with the life to come, the life of this world is nothing but a fleeting pleasure. (Ar-Raʿd, 13:26)
Too many people get deceived into thinking that their economic achievements are a result of their own smarts. This āyah should help destroy this myth. A person who truly believes in this statement will always be thankful to Allāh for all his provisions and earnings, will not be tempted by ḥarām sources of income, and will be a contented person.
Peace of Mind
الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَتَطْمَئِنُّ قُلُوبُهُم بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ ۗ أَلَا بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ
The ones who believe and their hearts are peaceful with the remembrance of Allāh. Listen, the hearts find peace only in the remembrance of Allāh. (Ar-Raʿd, 13:28)
This is the real recipe for achieving that elusive peace of mind. Remembrance of Allāh (dhikr) brings one closer to Allāh. And as one gets closer to Allāh his worries and anxieties are replaced by tranquility and contentment.
Dhikr is the food for the soul. Nothing else would satisfy a healthy soul. On the other hand a sick soul may not be able to digest it, but it will find nothing else either that can provide proper nourishment for it. That is why the āyah first says that the guidance of Allāh is for those whose hearts find peace in the remembrance of Allāh. In other words those who have healthy souls. Then it tells that real peace lies only in the remembrance of Allāh.
اللَّهُ الَّذِي خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ وَأَنزَلَ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مَاءً فَأَخْرَجَ بِهِ مِنَ الثَّمَرَاتِ رِزْقًا لَّكُمْ ۖ وَسَخَّرَ لَكُمُ الْفُلْكَ لِتَجْرِيَ فِي الْبَحْرِ بِأَمْرِهِ ۖ وَسَخَّرَ لَكُمُ الْأَنْهَارَ. وَسَخَّرَ لَكُمُ الشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ دَائِبَيْنِ ۖ وَسَخَّرَ لَكُمُ اللَّيْلَ وَالنَّهَارَ
It is Allāh Who has created the heavens and the earth and sends down rain from the skies, and with it brings out fruits wherewith to feed you; it is He Who has made the ships subject to you, that they may sail through the sea by His command; and the rivers (also) has He made subject to you. And He has made subject to you the sun and the moon, both diligently pursuing their courses; and the night and the day has He (also) made subject to you. (Ibrāhīm 14:32-33)
Here is the cure for the delusion of modern science that it is conquering nature. We constantly hear how man has conquered the earth and is now out to conquer space. The apparent control over rivers and seas, mountains and deserts, and plants and animals that mankind seems to exert, the astounding ability with which the powers of the sun and the moon have been harnessed to serve human needs, the wonderful inventions that seem to put gigantic forces of nature at our disposal-all of these result from His Will. It is Allāh who created the universe and it is He who has granted us control over it. (And whenever He wills, He takes it back as well.) Instead of congratulating ourselves for “conquering” it, we should be thanking Allāh for granting us this domination.
The disasters that modern science has produced, especially the environmental disaster, are a result of its delusion. A scientist informed by this āyah will be freed from this debilitating sickness that is threatening the humanity. He would act responsibly, knowing that he is accountable before Allāh for how he uses the domination given to him as a test. He would be a grateful and humble servant of Allāh instead of the mad scientist out to maximize his power and profits. He would know that Allāh created the universe to serve us and created us to serve Him.