Today is the first of three (or maybe four) posts from this seamless surah about the famous patriarch Joseph.  First, we will look at how the story of Joseph differs in the Qur’an from what Christians are used to in the Bible.  Second, let’s notice how women are depicted in this surah.  Last, we will focus in on how divine providence is depicted in each account. 

As has been noted before, the Qur’an is unapologetically “supersessionist,” that is, it does not claim to be something brand new as much as it is the next chapter in the ongoing revelation from the same God of the Bible.  However, the Islamic claim is that the Qur’an supersedes the authority and accuracy of the previous revelations.  All of that to say, it is no surprise that Joseph shows up in the Qur’an. 

Much of the story is the same many of us Christians are used to from flannel-graph lesson boards, Veggie Tales, some VBS drama, or whatever other form of media our generation used.  At the same time there are differences in the Qur’an:

  • Interestingly, there is no “coat of many colors” (nor an amazing technicolor dreamcoat either!) in the Qur’anic version.  Joseph is still Jacob’s favorite but that is not shown with any symbol of any sort.  However, Joseph’s “shirt” does factor into the surah three times.  First, the brothers bring back Joseph’s nondescript shirt to Jacob “deceptively” covered in blood to convince their father that Joseph had been killed.  Second, Potiphar’s wife rips Joseph’s shirt when he flees from her and the way she rips it shows her guilt.  Third, when the Egyptian governor Joseph send his brothers back to Jacob to bring him to Egypt, Joseph gives them his shirt to place on Jacob’s blind eyes and this restores his sight.  Commentator Ali aptly says that just as the first shirt broke Jacob’s heart, the last one restores his health.  Nice literary device!
  • Joseph only tells his father about his constellation dream and then is commanded by Jacob not to share it with his brothers.  This in effect removes the flaw of conceit seen in the young biblical Joseph.  Faults are an important element in the narrative of Genesis as each patriarch is significantly flawed but elected by God nonetheless.  In the Qur’an, Joseph is entirely without blemish: “We know nothing bad of him!” (12:51)
  • There are several inconsequential differences:
    • The caravaners simply come along after Joseph’s brothers leave and find him in the well instead of buying him from the brothers. 
    • One of the men in the prison is crucified instead of hanged.
    • Pharaoh has dreams of corn not wheat.
    • Joseph reveals himself to the unnamed Benjamin before the rest of the brothers.
    • The dialogue in the “reveal” scene is rather different.
  • The Potiphar story is elaborately greatly.  There is more dialogue and psychology.  Much more detail is given in the seduction scene.  The Qur’an even adds a whole new story about Potiphar’s wife throwing a feast for all the women of her town at which Joseph is paraded out like an underwear model.  The women are all so enamored by Joseph’s beauty that they all cut their hands, probably some sort of exaggerated humor meaning they were so taken by his beauty that they inadvertently cut themselves instead of their food (see Ali’s explanation).    
  • The prison scene is entirely used as an opportunity to denounce idolatry when false worship never makes its way into the biblical story at all.   
  • Most of the characters are not named at all, other than Joseph and Jacob.  They are simply “one of the brothers,” “an Egyptian governor” or “two young men” in jail with Joseph.  This really calls into question how well the author knew these biblical stories.
  • Maybe the most significant difference is how active a role God plays in each of these accounts.  More about this in a couple of days. 

Don’t despair if you cannot read the whole surah today.  We will camp out here a couple more days.  Actually, this surah reads faster than most because it is one of the few narrative sections we have come to so far.