The story of Joseph عليه السلام in the Qur’an and the Old Testament

The story of Joseph عليه السلام in the Qur’an and the Old Testament



The story of Joseph عليه السلام in the Qur’ān has been approached by many nonwho were content to list which details of the biblical story have been missed out from the biblical story and which points have been added, maintaining that these had their origins in biblical or other Jewish sources. Our treatment here concentrates on the texts of the story in the Qur’ān and the Old Testament, attempting to identify the differing functions and preoccupations of the two accounts in their respective contexts, to show how this difference affects the choice of material and the treatment given to it. This article concludes that the two versions should be approached by readers, Muslims and non-Muslims, with this difference in mind in order to appreciate the message and the qualities of each.


In their stories there is a moral for men of understanding. (Q. 12:111)

We relate to you the stories of the apostles to strengthen your heart: in them there comes to you the Truth, an admonition and a reminder to the believers. (Q. 11:120)

Haste ye, and go up to my father and say unto him, Thus saith thy son Joseph , God hath made me lord of all Egypt: come down unto me, tarry not: And thou shalt dwell in the land of Goshen and thou shalt be near unto me, thou, and thy children, and thy children’s children, and thy flocks and thy herds, and all that thou hast. (Gen. 45:9-10) .. .

all the souls of the house of Jacob which came to Egypt were three score and ten. (Gen. 46:27)

The story of Joseph عليه السلام is common to both the Old Testament (Genesis 37-50) and the Qur’an (Surat Yusuf [Sura 12]). In the Old Testament, outside of Genesis the personality of Joseph receives scant attention 2 ; in the Qur’an Yusuf is mentioned only twice outside Sura 12 — in 6:84 and 40:34. This article deals with the story as related in Genesis and Surat Yusuf. On reading the two texts it becomes clear that the main events of the story are the same and their consequences are the same, but the function of the story is different. Hence its tone, its timespan, the characterization and the artistic forms are also different.

The Genesis story is part of a history; it continues the story of the patriarchs of the family of Abraham and follows the story of Esau and the early story of Jacob, taking its place ‘in the concatenation of events that
led to the migration of the Israelites to Egypt, their enslavement and redemption’.3 We shall see how this national historical aspect colours the Genesis version and makes it different from that of the Qur’an. In the
Qur’an the story is not part of a continuous relation of history. It does not follow from Sura 11, it ends before the end of Sura 12 and does not continue in Sura 13. Like other similar stories in the Qur’an it is min anbd’
al-rusul — ‘stories of the apostles’ to strengthen the believers and give them guidance.

Surat Yusuf consists of 111 verses. Verse 1-2 are about the revelation of the Qur’an and the importance of understanding it. In verse 3 God speaks in the first person plural:

‘We relate to you the best of stories in revealing the Qur’an to you…’. Verses 4-6

are an introduction to the story of Joseph عليه السلام, giving a preview of what is to follow.

In verse 4 Joseph عليه السلام relates his dream to his father.

In Verses 5 and 6 Jacob عليه السلام warns Joseph عليه السلام against telling his dream to his brothers lest they plot against him and interprets it, foreseeing a great eventual future for Joseph عليه السلام and the house of
Jacob عليه السلام.

Verses 7-101 relate the stages of the story, which ends in the Qur’an with the arrival of the whole of Jacob’s family in Egypt, fulfilling the dream with which the story began.

Verse 102 in the Qur’an is an immediate comment on the story stating that it is a revelation to the Prophet عليه السلام of things previously unknown (to him and his people)4, and 103— 111 are a general comment on the Prophet’s عليه السلام call and the unbelievers’ response, confirming that a good future lies ahead for prophets — a lesson
to be learned from their stories in the Qur’an.


The introduction to the story relates the dream, which is in fact a preview, forecasting in a symbolic manner the outcome, of the story. Joseph says to his father.

‘Father, I dreamed of eleven stars and the sun and the moon, I saw them
prostrate themselves before me.’ ‘My son,’ he replied, ‘relate nothing of this
dream to your brothers lest they plot evil against you: Satan is the sworn
enemy of man. So will your Lord choose you, teach you to interpret dreams
and perfect His blessing upon you and on the House of Jacob as He perfected
it formerly on your fathers Abraham and Isaac; surely your Lord is all-
knowing and wise.’ (4-6)

The essence of Joseph’s عليه السلام story is that the evil act committed against him turns out eventually to his advantage and through him to the advantage of Jacob and his wife, as well as all his children, who will need Joseph عليه السلام and benefit from his elevated position in Egypt. All this is contained in the dream of stars, sun and moon, to which the Qur’an goes directly, so we do not find the other dream about sheaves given in Genesis, in which only the brothers are involved.

Beginning a long story, like that of Joseph عليه السلام, with such an introduction, which has been described as ‘a summary’ is one of the techniques of storytelling in the Qur’an, observed for instance in Sura 18:9-12.5 Since a main objective of telling the story in the Qur’an is to strengthen the hearts of the believers, we see even at the beginning a forecast of eventual good, given in a symbolic brief manner which leaves the whole story still to be told. In the Qur’an Jacob عليه السلام is a prophet who can interpret the dream.

Realizing its significance and clearly aware of the brothers’ jealousy and ill-feeling towards Joseph عليه السلام, he addresses him tenderly (using the diminutive bunayya to denote endearment and tender age) advising him not to tell his brothers about it. Naturally he is pleased to read in the dream that Joseph عليه السلام would be chosen as a Prophet عليه السلام and that God would perfect his blessing upon him (and on Jacob’s عليه السلام house) as He did with his fathers Abraham عليه السلام and Isaac عليه السلام before. It is a joy for Jacob عليه السلام to see the line of prophethood continue in his family, and good education to tell young Joseph عليه السلام that he descends from such a line, so that his beliefs and conduct may be appropriate to such ancestry. We shall see Joseph عليه السلام refer to this later when in prison in Egypt.

Genesis begins in a different way, as a continuation of the story of Jacob عليه السلام . It announces at the beginning of Chapter 37 that it will list his descendants. It goes through the stages of the story at greater length in chapters 37, 39-50. Whereas the Qur’an ends the story with the arrival of Jacob’s family in Egypt which fulfils the dream, Genesis goes on to see Jacob die in Egypt after 17 years and later Joseph عليه السلام die at the age of 110.
From the beginning the story gives the impression of a chronicler’s function:

 ‘And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of
Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years
old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of
Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives: and Joseph brought
unto his father their evil report. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his
children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of
many colours. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more
than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto
him’, (w 1-4)

This states precisely Joseph’s عليه السلام age and the names of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives with whose sons he was feeding the flock. Identification of exact names, precise times, locations and quantities is clearly a prominent feature in Genesis which the Qur’an does not take into account, con- centrating as it does on events and lessons, a point to which we will return later.

Joseph عليه السلام then tells his brothers of his dream that they were binding sheaves in a field when their sheaves gathered around and bowed low before his, and there is another dream which he tells to his father and
brothers, that the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed down to him.

And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him,
and said unto him, ‘What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and
thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to
the earth?’ (v 10)

Jacob عليه السلام here takes the patriarchal attitude and rebukes his favourite son for not conducting himself properly towards his parents and older brothers even in his dream! — he is clearly not an interpreter of dreams and Joseph عليه السلام should not have dreamt the second dream. In fact we find no reference to it in the story later on. In the Qur’an Jacob عليه السلام rejoices to perceive a blessing coming to his son, that God will perfect His favour upon him (and the whole house of Jacob عليه السلام) as He perfected it on his fathers Isaac عليه السلام and Abraham عليه السلام.

In the Qur’an after the introductory dream and interpretation, the story begins, giving the reasons for the brothers hating Joseph عليه السلام, and their plan to dispose of him:

They said (to each other), ‘Joseph عليه السلام and his brother are dearer to our father
than ourselves, though we are many. Truly our father is in manifest error. Kill
Joseph عليه السلام or cast him away in some far-off land so that your father’s face may be
free for you and thereafter you may be righteous men.’ One of them said, ‘Do
not kill Joseph عليه السلام; if you must, rather cast him into a dark pit. Some caravan will
take him up.’ They said to their father, ‘Why do you not trust us with Joseph عليه السلام?
Surely we wish him well. Send him with us tomorrow, that he may play and
enjoy himself. We will take good care of him.’ He replied, ‘It would much
grieve me to let him go with you; for I fear lest the wolf should eat him when
you are off your guard.’ They said, ‘If the wolf could eat him despite our
number, then we should surely be lost!’ (12:8-14)

Genesis gives three reasons for the brothers’ hatred of Joseph عليه السلام:

1. He reported their misdeeds to their father

2. Jacob showed obvious favouritism to him, making him a ‘coat of many colours’ (a beautiful detail), a favouritism for which he was taken to task by some rabbis.6 This second reason is the only one given in the Qur’an, but Jacob عليه السلام is not said directly to have shown favouritism, rather it was the brothers who conceived it so

3. Joseph’s عليه السلام dreams showed him as the object of his brothers’ adoration.

In the Qur’an Jacob is shown to be more aware of the brothers’ attitude to Joseph عليه السلام, and advises him not to tell them his dream. In spite of the terrible harm the brothers are about to do to Joseph عليه السلام, Jacob عليه السلام is pictured in Genesis not to have had any suspicion of their ill-feeling and even takes the initiative in sending his beloved lad to see whether the band often men and the flock are all right. In the Qur’an he only reluctantly allows the brothers to accompany Joseph عليه السلام to play and enjoy himself where they will take good care of him.

Genesis gives much detail tracing Joseph’s عليه السلام movement on his way to his brothers, where he meets a man who asks him, ‘Who are you looking for?’ When he answers, ‘My brothers’, he tells him, ‘I heard them say “Let us go to Dothan”‘. So he goes.

The brothers sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked,
and, behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels
bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. (15-25)

This is a full report, useful perhaps for a would-be detective investigating
every available detail surrounding the crime (although we find no explana-
tion for the absence of Reuben at the crucial moment of Joseph’s عليه السلام sale) and
to students of history and ancient trade. The Qur’an has a different task:

‘And when they took him with them, they resolved to cast him into a dark pit.
We revealed to him Our will, (saying) ‘You shall tell them of all this when they
will not know.’ At nightfall they returned weeping to their father. They said.
‘We went off to compete together, and left Joseph عليه السلام with our packs. The wolf
devoured him. But you will not believe us, though we speak the truth.’ And
they showed him their brother’s shirt, stained with false blood. ‘No!’ he cried.
‘Your souls have tempted you to evil. Sweet patience! God alone can help me
bear the loss you speak of.'(15-18)176

Jacob is a prophet in the Qur’an. He always speaks of God and patience, trusts in Him and seeks His assistance. With Joseph عليه السلام too God figures prominently, protecting and aiding him, speaking in the first person plural
of his revelation to Joseph عليه السلام in the pit to reassure him, protecting him, then teaching him to interpret dreams, when he is sold in Egypt (21); and later elevating him (56). In Genesis, on the other hand, it has been observed:

Most striking and, in fact, unique, is the secularistic complexion of the narrative. There are no miraculous or supernatural elements, no divine revelations are experienced by Joseph.7

In the Qur’an the brothers report to their father is expressive of their pretence; he does not appear convinced by the wolf tale, clearly seeing the stained shirt is not torn. This is important for the development of the qur’anic story as Jacob عليه السلام the prophet never loses faith in the grace of God that may bring Joseph عليه السلام back one day (84-87). In Genesis the brothers report to their father is cool and detached. He himself offers the explanation of the wolf and for him Joseph عليه السلام is finished for ever.

And they took Joseph’s  coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the
coat in the blood; and they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it
to their father and said, ‘This have we found; know now whether it be thy
son’s coat or no.* And he knew it, and said, ‘It is my son’s coat; an evil beast
hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces.’ And Jacob rent
his clothes,’ and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many
days. (37:31-34)

This is followed in Genesis with Chapter 38:30 verses which have nothing to do with the story of Joseph عليه السلام, but which talk about Judah who had sexual intercourse for payment with Tamar, his daughter-in-law, who pretended to be a harlot and became pregnant by him. The chapter ends with very vivid and interesting details of the babies being received by a midwife and named. Here again we have an example of difference in style between the Qur’an and the Bible. The Qur’an would not give such details as those given in Genesis 38; such a deed would also be accompanied in the Qur’an by an explicit condemnation.


Joseph’s عليه السلام story resumes in Chapter 39 with Joseph عليه السلام being sold in Egypt where, unlike the Qur’an which merely speaks of the Egyptian who ‘bought him’ or the ‘noble’ (21,30), the buyer is fully identified in Genesis as ‘Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, Captain of the Guard, an Egyptian’, the Arabic Bible saying ‘one of Pharaoh’s eunuchs’.9 The qur’anic version shows tenderness towards Joseph عليه السلام, who is pictured as a likable boy and man throughout. We feel the cry of jubilation of the man who finds him:

‘Rejoice, here is a boy!’ and in Potiphar’s saying to his wife ‘Be kind to him. He may prove useful to us, or we may adopt him as our son.’ Then God speaks: “Thus We established Joseph in the land and taught him to interpret dreams’ (a fitting introduction to what will happen in prison). ‘God has full powers over His affairs, though most men do not know’ — again a fitting comment on the situation and how the story will develop: the very ordeal of slavery inflicted on Joseph by his brothers is destined by divine providence to lead to his elevation — ‘And when he reached maturity, We bestowed on him wisdom and knowledge. Thus do We reward the righteous’ (21-22).

In Genesis we read: ‘And the Lord was with Joseph and he was a prosperous man… his master saw that the Lord was with him and made all that he did to prosper in his hand .. . and he had made him overseer’ (39:2-5). Unlike in the Qur’an where reference to God’s care of Joseph is constant in all situations, this is one of only a few occasions where such reference is made in Genesis. In the Qur’an, moreover, God’s grace, which has been shown to Joseph, is made universal at the end of the verse: “Thus do We reward the righteous.’

Joseph عليه السلام, however, was destined to go through another ordeal as a result of Potiphar’s wife’s attempts to solicit him. Faced with her repeated attempts, the Qur’an tells us that he would have succumbed, were it not
for the fact that he ‘saw the proof of his Lord. So was it that We might turn away from him evil and abomination; he was one of our devoted servants’ (24). Joseph’s عليه السلامloyalty to his master is clear in both scriptures.
Non-Muslim writers10 have observed with surprise, and considered it an embellishment by Muhammad صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم, that in the Qur’an Joseph’s عليه السلام shirt (which was torn as he tried to escape from her) was torn from behind, a proof that she had not protected herself from Joseph عليه السلام, but rather that she tried to get hold of him when he was fleeing (25-6). In Genesis, however, ‘she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me”: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled’ (39:12). As this stands, either he slipped himself out of his garment and left it with her, or she stripped it off him and he just left the garment with her and fled. Genesis speaks in more detail about her cunning and wicked allegation to her husband at which he throws Joseph into prison. The Qur’an tells that certain women in the city mocked the noble’s wife for soliciting her slave-boy at which she invites them to a meal, and presents Joseph to them. They are so enraptured by his beauty, that they cut their fingers with their knives. She threatens Joseph with imprisonment if he does not succumb. He prays: ‘Lord, prison is dearer to me than what they call me to. Shield me from their cunning or I shall yield to them and lapse into folly.’ His Lord answered his prayer and warded off their wiles from him. They thought it right to jail him for a time (30-5).


In the Qur’an when Joseph عليه السلام is asked by the two prisoners to interpret their dream, for they can see he is a ‘good’ man, he replies that he can interpret since

‘My Lord has taught me (this teaching is mentioned four
times 6,21,37,101) for I have left the faith of those that disbelieve in God
and deny the life to come. I follow the faith of my fathers Abraham, Isaac,
and Jacob. It is not for us to worship anything beside God. That (comes)
of the grace of God to us and to mankind, yet most men do not give
thanks. Fellow prisoners, are sundry gods better, or God the One, the
Omnipotent?… Judgement rests only with God; He has commanded you
to worship none but Him. That is the true faith, yet most men do not
know it’ (37-40).

Jacob عليه السلام the Prophet foresaw in Joseph’s عليه السلام dream that he would be chosen as a prophet to follow in the footsteps of his forefathers (6). We now see the fulfilment of this. Joseph’s عليه السلام statement here echoes what
is said by Abraham عليه السلام and Isaac عليه السلام elsewhere in the Qur’an.” The difference of emphasis between the Qur’an and the Old Testament may be explained by comparing this long statement with the brief one in Genesis (which on other occasions gives lengthy statements and a wealth of details). When the prisoners say they have had dreams and there was no interpreter, Joseph replies,

‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me them’

Pharaoh’s two dreams and request for interpretation are expressed in the Qur’an in two and a half lines in Arabic and related to Joseph عليه السلام again with the request for interpretation in two and a half lines (43, 46). The cup-bearer’s suggestion that he was the one to interpret is one line; yet the statements are very clear as they stand. In Genesis this takes a full 32 verses (41:1-32). This is an example of the remarkable brevity of the
qur’anic expressions with which we will deal later. The dreams are the same and, apart from the fact that the Qur’an adds a year of abundance which Joseph عليه السلام the Prophet could see coming after the lean ones, the
interpretation is the same, as is the suggested solution, but there is a difference in the order of events. Joseph عليه السلام, a prophet wrongly imprisoned, considers it important and asks to be first declared innocent of the accusation of Potiphar’s wife — she confesses her misdeeds and declares his truthfulness (50-3). Joseph عليه السلام then goes to meet Pharaoh (the Qur’an speaks of him as ‘the king’).

Genesis gives delightful details not omitting that Joseph shaved and changed his clothes before appearing in front of Pharaoh (41:14). After his appointment ‘Over the storehouses of the land’, we have the comment in the Qur’an, with God speaking in the divine plural:

Thus We established Joseph in the land to dwell there where he wishes. We
bestow Our mercy on whom We will and We waste not the reward of those who do good. The reward of the hereafter is better for those who believe and are righteous. (56-7)

Again God appears on every occasion and the aid he gives to Joseph is universalized as attainable by anybody who follows the course described here. The lessons are there and the way is open throughout the sura. Genesis delights in listing the profuse honours conferred on Joseph عليه السلام and how powerful he has become, how he ‘gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering’ (41:49) with a wealth of beautiful personal and environmental detail.

In this connection it is interesting to note that there is a continuous pattern in Genesis to put Joseph عليه السلام in charge of everything, wherever he goes, after he is sold to Potiphar. Thus we find that Potiphar ‘made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his’hand… And he left all that he had in Joseph’s عليه السلام hand; and he knew not aught he had, save the bread which he did eat’ (39:4,6). Likewise, when he is in prison, ‘the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners that were in the prison… and looked not to anything that was under his hand’ (39:22-23). Then, when he meets Pharaoh, he says to him, ‘I have set thee over all the land of Egypt… and he made him to ride in the second chariot and they cried before him, “Bow the knee!” And he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt… and said to him, “Without thee shall no man lift up his hand
or foot in all the land of Egypt”‘ (42:41-44).


Now all countries came into Egypt to Joseph عليه السلام  for to buy corn: because that the famine was so sore in all lands (57).

Jacob عليه السلام saw there was corn in Egypt and said unto his sons,

‘Why do ye look one upon another?… I have heard there is corn in Egypt: get ye down thither
and buy for us from thence, that we may live and not die.’ (42:1-2)

The two scriptures concur that when they come before Joseph عليه السلام he recognizes them but does not declare himself and asks them to bring his younger brother for him to see, but Genesis shows him to appear rough, and accuse them of spying, keeping Simeon in prison as security for their return with Benjamin (42:16-24).

In the Qur’an he does not use this device but generous treatment and persuasion (59-60). This is in keeping with the general picture of Joseph عليه السلام in the Qur’an as a pleasant, gentle and kind man min al-muhsinui. This is different from the picture given in Genesis later of Joseph عليه السلام distributing corn in Egypt and the price he exacts for that. Nevertheless, from the time he sees his brothers to the point of reconcili- ation, Genesis provides very touching situations on the personal level. Faced with the accusation of spying, the brothers are shown to remember and recognize their guilt, with young Joseph عليه السلام seeing their present predica- ment as divine retribution and Reuben reminds them of his plea ‘not to sin against the child’. When Joseph عليه السلام(whom they think does not understand their tongue) hears this,

‘he turned himself about from them and wept’ (42:24).

Both texts (Qur’an 63-66 and Genesis 42:38-43:14) show the brothers pleading hard with Jacob عليه السلام to send Benjamin. In the Qur’an he makes them promise in the name of God to bring him back and when they do, he says,

‘God is the witness of what we say.’

He advises them when in Egypt not to enter in one band from one gate, but as a prophet عليه السلام he comments,

‘I cannot avail you from anything against God. Judgement is
His alone. In Him I put my trust. In Him let all put their trust’ (67).

In Genesis, characteristically, he asks them to take a present to ‘the man’, (i.e. Joseph) ‘a little balm, and a little honey, spices and myrrh, nuts and almonds’ (43:11). (What a nice present from this old man!)

‘When they went to Joseph he embraced his brother and said, “I am
your brother. Do not grieve at what they did”‘ (Q. 12:69).

In Genesis this declaration comes later, but Joseph asks his steward to take them to the house and prepare for lunch. The apprehension of these strangers at the house of a high official in a foreign land is touchingly expressed as they fear the man may seize their asses and make them slaves for the silver that had been replaced in their bags on their return from their first trip to Egypt. They submissively explain they have brought it back and ‘the man’ reassures them they are safe.

Joseph speaks to Benjamin:’ “God be gracious unto thee, my son.” And Joseph made haste, for his bowels did yearn for his brother: and he sought where to weep’ (43:30). When they sit for the meal ‘he took and sent messes unto them from before him: but Benjamin’s mess was five times so much as any of theirs. And they drank and were merry with him (43:34).

Both texts speak of placing the goblet in Benjamin’s bag as a device to keep him in Egypt and the brothers’ plea to Joseph (when it was found and Benjamin was to be kept) to let him go back to his old father and take one of them into bondage instead, ‘as we see you are a good, kind man’ (Q. 12:78-80, Gen. 43:18-34).

In Genesis we have the very moving speech of Judah before Joseph, repeating material that had been said before but all the more effective for that in the situation, since the intention was to bind Joseph and make him see that the men’s present predicament was the result of his own earlier instructions:

When I come to thy servant my father, and the lad be not with us; seeing that
his life is bound up in the lad’s life… when he seeth that the lad is not with us
he will die and thy servants shall bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our
father with sorrow to the grave .. . let thy servant abide instead of the lad, a
bondsman to my Lord, and let the lad go up with his brethren .. . Joseph
could not restrain himself and wept aloud and the Egyptians and house of
Pharaoh heard.’

At that point he declares himself to his brothers and reconciliation takes place.

In the Qur’an this is delayed. They go back to Jacob without Benjamin and the eldest brother. As a prophet عليه السلام he never loses faith in God’s grace:

God may bring them all to me. He alone is all-knowing and wise (83).

And He turned away from them and cried, ‘Alas for Joseph!’ His eyes went
white with grief… His sons complained, ‘In God’s name, will you not cease
to think of Joseph until you ruin your health and die?’ He replied, ‘I complain
to God for my sorrow and sadness. God has made known to me things that
you know not. Go, my sons, and seek news of Joseph and his brother. Do not
despair of God’s spirit. None but unbelievers despair of God’s spirit’. (84-7)



When they go back to Joseph عليه السلام, more touched with distress than before, and ask him to be charitable with them, ‘God rewards the charitable’, he replies, ‘Do you know what you did to Joseph and his brother when you
were ignorant?’ Thus the revelation made to the young Joseph in the pit (v 15) is fulfilled here. He declares himself and reconciliation takes place (88-92). He tells them to:

Take this shirt of mine, throw it on my father’s face and he will recover his
sight. Then return to me with all your people. (93)

Jacob could smell the scent of Joseph عليه السلام (in the shirt) from a distance. Joseph’s عليه السلام shirt figures three times in the qur’anic sura: first stained with blood to grieve Jacob, then used as evidence of Joseph’s عليه السلام innocence with Potiphar’s wife, and now, placed upon Jacob’s عليه السلام face to bring about the recovery of his sight.

In Genesis God tells Jacob in a dream to go to Egypt:

‘Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes’ (46:4).


With such faith and expectation, Jacob  عليه السلام in the Qur’an has no apprehension about going to Egypt. In Genesis, where he is convinced from the beginning that Joseph عليه السلام has been devoured by a wolf, when they tell him Joseph عليه السلام is alive in Egypt

‘his heart fainted, for he believed them not’

Genesis gives details of the carriages Pharaoh orders to be sent to carry Jacob عليه السلام to Egypt, how they come with all their cattle, and then gives a full list of all the names totalling Jacob’s souls in Egypt as 70 (46:8-27) — we will come to this point later.


In the Qur’an Joseph عليه السلام embraces his parents, saying:

Welcome to Egypt, safe, God willing! He raised his parents on the dais and
they all bowed down to him and he said to his father, ‘This is the
interpretation of my old dream: my Lord has fulfilled it. He has been gracious
to me. He has released me from prison, and brought you out of the desert
after Satan has stirred up strife between me and my brothers. My Lord is
subtle in disposing what He wills. He alone is the all-knowing and wise.’ (100)

The Qur’an here speaks of the parents and brothers bowing down to Joseph عليه السلام, fulfilling his dream of seeing eleven stars, the sun and the moon bowing to him.

In Genesis only ten brothers bow to Joseph عليه السلام when they first come to buy com (42:6) leaving the rest of the dream apparently unfulfilled.

In the Qur’an after telling his father of the fulfilment of the dream, Joseph عليه السلام prays in his supreme moment:

Lord, you have given me authority, taught me to interpret dreams. Creator of
the heavens and the earth, you are my protector in this world and in the
hereafter, make me die in true submission (to you) and join me with the
righteous. (101)

In the qur’anic story, the first thing Jacob عليه السلام says of the dream when Joseph عليه السلام speaks to him about it in the beginning is:

‘So will your Lord choose you, teach you to interpret dreams and perfect his
blessing on you and on the house of Jacob…’

Joseph’s عليه السلام last statement echoes these words and completes this cycle; the story does not go any further in the Qur’an. Joseph عليه السلام in his last words is a true prophet عليه السلام in Abraham’s عليه السلام line. The picture given in Genesis on the other hand of Joseph عليه السلام later having taken all the people’s silver, then cattle, then land, then bodies in exchange for bread (47:13-22) does not fit with the picture given in the Qur’an. With the arrival of Joseph’s عليه السلام family in Egypt all has ended well and he prays that the end of his life, when it comes, will
be in true submission to God and that He may join him in the Hereafter with the righteous. These last words of Joseph’s عليه السلام, which end his story in the Qur’an also differ from the last words said at the end of the story in

So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old, and they embalmed him,
and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. (50:26)

In Genesis, from the beginning of the story to the time when all the family join Joseph in Egypt, the only single time Jacob عليه السلام talks about God or refers to Him is at the peak of his anxiety and utter helplessness: sending
his sons to Egypt the second time, with Benjamin as requested, he says:

‘God Almighty give you mercy before the man, that he may send away your
other brother and Benjamin. If I be bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.’

In the Qur’an, on the other hand, he always speaks of God; the qur’anic Jacob عليه السلام is a prophet, descendant of the great Prophet Abraham عليه السلام. For both Jacob عليه السلامand Joseph عليه السلام, in the Qur’an all hope and trust is placed with God (e.g. 6, 18, 21, 24, 38, 56, 64, 67, 83, 98, 101).


The story of Joseph عليه السلام in the Qur’an is unquestionably that of a Prophet عليه السلام min anbd’ al-rnsul.12 The only personal names mentioned in the story are those of four prophets: Abrahamعليه السلا م, Isaac عليه السلام, Jacob عليه السلام and Joseph عليه السلام. The writer of the article on Yusuf عليه السلام in the Encyclopaedia of Islam states:

The Yusuf sura is strikingly uncertain and hesitating in that it mentions no one by name except Ya’qub and Yusuf and gives no numbers or time. The only references are to one of the brothers, or at best the eldest of the brothers, a king, a noble, his wife, a witness.”

The explanation of ‘uncertain’ and ‘hesitating’ shows no grasp of the qur’anic style, particularly in connection with personal names. This writer’s logic would have us believe that the Qur’an and the Prophet عليه السلام were uncertain about the name of the Prophet’s صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم  closest friend and father-in-law (Abu Bakr رضي الله عنه), for instance, who is spoken of twice without using his name or ‘at best’ saying ‘his companion’ in the cave.14 After God, names of Prophets are the most important names in the Qur’an (Muhammad صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم is mentioned by name only five times — the Qur’an does not begin with or contain a biography or genealogy of him). Apart from prophets and angels, Satan and some idols, the only names mentioned are Mary عـلـيـهـا الـسـلام, for obvious reasons, Zayd رضي الله عنه  Zayd  (33:37 for reasons of legislation and the nickname Abu Lahab (the Father of Flames) (111:1) for reasons of condemnation.

With this in mind, it is clear that the Qur’an conveys its message without reference to personal names. It was not important for the Qur’an to say that Joseph was sold specifically to Potiphar. More important is that this
boy in his affliction arrived (by the grace of God who is ‘subtle in disposing His will’) at a safe place in the house of an important person who looked after him well, that it was this very house that later led to another ordeal in prison, which in turn led to him meeting and being elevated by the king or pharaoh. (Genesis does not give the name of the pharaoh although it gives the name of everybody else, but loses none of its
effect for that.)

In Genesis the picture is different as the function of the text is different. Clearly the story there is part of Jewish history. In Chapter 46 we have the names of seventy persons who migrated to Egypt.15 The statistical nature of the text here even required a grand total to be given at the end of the list. It matters very much to Jewish readers to know the names of their ancestors—it does not matter to Muslim readers to know these names or,
if it did matter, they could be sought in history textbooks, but not in the revealed text of the Qur’an. In connection with revelation it matters very much for Muslims to know the names of Abraham عليه السلام, Isaac عليه السلام, Jacob عليه السلام, Joseph عليه السلام, etc. because being Muslim means believing in these prophets.

We make no distinction between one and another of His apostles. (2:285)

In any case, for Muslims, Joseph’s عليه السلام ordeal starts because his older half- brothers are jealous of this clearly gifted, pleasant, lad whom they consider favoured by their father (not an uncommon human situation).
The moral of the story is quite undiminished by the fact that it follows the regular pattern of the Qur’an as regards personal names. Thus it is not a matter of being uncertain about names as is suggested in the Encylopaedia of Islam. (In connection with the story of Joseph عليه السلام in the Encyclopaedia of Islam the writer makes the extraordinary claim that ‘the Sh’is do not recognise Sura XII’.)16

The story of Joseph عليه السلام is told in the Qur’an in 100 verses, 10 pages in Arabic; in Genesis it contains more than 450 verses and falls in 26 pages of the Arabic Bible. The difference in size is due partly to the longer timespan in Genesis, but mainly to the different style and function of the two texts. Genesis talks about Joseph’s marriage after meeting Pharaoh and the subsequent birth of two children whose names are included in the long list of Jacob’s offspring in Egypt because this is part of Jewish history.

The Qur’an on the other hand concentrates on the major issue of the famine and its results which were part of the fulfilment of Joseph’s عليه السلام old dream. His marriage and the exact names of his children are not part of this. Genesis also uses more narration. It obviously delights in including a wealth of personal and local detail, and long lists of names; and within the style of narration it sometimes includes long statements repeated verbatim (e.g. Pharaoh’s long statement of his dream narrated, then repeated before Joseph; compare also 42:29-35 with the earlier part of the chapter.)

The Qur’an, on the other hand, uses a different technique for telling the story, which has been called dramatic. The story falls into 28 scenes17 in which the structure is built on movement and dialogue with little narration, mainly to introduce the characters by ‘he said’, written as one word in Arabic and followed by the direct speech of the character. I counted 75 occurrences of ‘he/they said’ in the 100 Arabic verses of the story. Thus in vv 8-10 we see the brothers conferring to decide how to dispose of Joseph; in 11-13 they attempt to persuade the father to let him go with them; in 16-18 they go back to Jacob with the stained shirt… and so on in quick succession. As in a play the curtain falls and rises between scenes with gaps where time and actions are left out because they are understood from the remaining text — in Surat Yusuf find that in spite of the gaps between the scenes the whole text is clearly understood in Arabic.18 Thus in v 35 it is decided to send Joseph عليه السلام to prison, in 36, two young men who went to prison with him are already telling him their dreams. In a masterly, concise style, both dreams are told in all clarity in two lines altogether. We have observed earlier how Pharaoh’s dream and request for interpretation were told in two and a half lines, then reported to Joseph عليه السلام in the same amount of space, but take in Genesis nine times as many lines (in the Arabic version).

This technique, which relies on scenes (with gaps in between) and dialogue, is sufficient for the purpose of the story in the Qur’an and by no means unique to the story of Josephعليه السلام .19 Naturally such a technique of gaps
does not leave room for such detailed narrative or genealogies as in Genesis. In v 69 of the qur’anic version the brothers come to Joseph with Benjamin as requested, he embraces him, declares himself to him, and reassures him (all in one and a half lines — clearly expressed). Immediately, in v 70 they are already provided with the corn they came to buy, the goblet is placed in Benjamin’s bag and the cry has gone out: ‘Travellers, you are thieves’ — all this in less than two lines. The technique here does not have the intention of the narrative in Genesis where lie delightful meal is served with detailed seating plan, an explanation of why the Egyptians will not sit with Hebrews when eating, and Joseph عليه السلام apportioning food from before him and sending it to his brothers, making Benjamin’s portion five times as big as any of theirs!

It is truly remarkable that with all the gaps and great economy of expression in the Qur’an the story is very clear in Arabic and does not need anything from outside the Qur’an for it to be appreciated and its message to be fully understood there. With all the varieties of scenes and dialogue the story has a special ring that runs through it, giving the flavour of the afflictions of Jacob عليه السلام and Joseph عليه السلام — a ring which none of the translators of the Qur’an into English has been able to capture. In this connection a word should be said about translations of the Qur’an into English. Whereas the authorized version of the Bible was translated into English by 47 scholars, clerics and men of letters working together to produce a translation for the king, qur’anic translation has a different history. The first, printed in 1649, was made by a Southampton grammar school teacher, Alexander Ross, who did not know Arabic but based his translation on a French version and called it: The Alcoran of Mahomet .. . newley Englished for the satisfaction of those that desire to look into the Turkish vanityes. There are now numerous translations into English but in contrast to Bible translations, not one of them has been made by more than one person at a time, and no Arab Muslim, specializing in qur’anic studies has participated in any of these translations. To an Arab reader the existing translations of Surat Yusuf (and of the whole of the Qur’an) are very disappointing; a proper translation is yet to appear.

In the qur’anic version, the structure of the story is very controlled, bound together in those scenes that fall between the introductory ‘summary’ (4-6) and the final restatement by Joseph عليه السلام (100). This is strengthened by certain expressions and comments that keep recurring to describe how Joseph عليه السلام is taught, the knowledge and wisdom of God and His grace made universal, Jacob’s عليه السلام and Joseph’s عليه السلام patience, their abhorrence of injustice, their truthfulness, Joseph being good {min al-muhsimn) (e.g. 6,17,19,21- 22, 27, 34, 37, 40, 46, 51, 55, 67-68, 77, 80-83, 86, 96, 101).

Compared to the style of the story in the Qur’an described above, with its scenes following each other in quick succession, it has been suggested of the style in Genesis:

Of all the Genesis narratives, those about Joseph are the longest, and most
detailed. They are not a collection of isolated and fragmentary incidents, but
a continuous biography, novelistic in complexion, the artistic creation of a
consummate storyteller even though it may have utilized variant traditions.20

Gerhard von Rad also observed that ‘the Joseph narrative [in the Bible] is a novel through and through’.21 Part of this technique is the wealth of detail we have witnessed in Genesis, better appreciated in the Authorized Version than the New English Bible. The latter has flattened much of the freshness, beautifully simple statements and local colour found in the former.

It has been noted earlier that in Genesis the story is part of the national history of the Jews. This appears to have affected the emphasis and the selection of the material. “The biblical narrative is probably intended to emphasize the great indebtedness of the crown to Joseph and hence the base ingratitude of the later Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph”‘ (Ex. 1I8).22 Naturally to the Jews the story of Joseph is important from the religious point of view because it forms part of the sacred history. It is part of the process that culminates in the giving of the Torah to Moses.23 The sacred history in the Old Testament is important also to the Christians because it prepares for the ministry of Jesus.

However, in addition to the general movement of history in which God’s purpose is fulfilled, it seems there is clearly the intention of giving such a wealth of detail, of the national history. This is witnessed in the naming of every one of seventy individuals who went to Egypt and took their cattle and their goods with them, as well as details of customs and daily life, delightful as we have seen, in the Joseph  عليه السلام story. ‘National history’ and ‘novelistic… artistic creation of a consummate storyteller’ have been perceived to have their important role in the Genesis story. In the Qur’an its role is ‘one of the stories of the apostles’ ‘to strengthen your heart… an admonition and a reminder to the believers, and a moral to men of understanding.’ It strengthened the Prophet’s صَلّى اللهُ عليهِ وسلّم heart, coming, it was suggested, at the height of his difficulties and the persecution of the Muslim community in Mecca between ‘the year of grief in which the Prophet صَلّى اللهُ عليهِ وسلّم lost his wife and uncle, and the new hope of some Medinans accepting Islam which led to the emigration of the Muslims to Medina to
establish the Islamic state there. It remains in the Qur’an ‘a moral to men of understanding’ especially as the protection and aid of God to Joseph عليه السلام has, as we said, been universalized in such comments as ‘Thus We reward those who do good’ (22,56) and Joseph عليه السلام saying, about the belief in the One God which he held following his fathers Abrahamعليه السلام, Isaac عليه السلام and Jacob عليه السلام: ‘

Such is the grace that God has bestowed on us and on mankind’ (38).

The function of a revealed text in Islam is not to give detailed national history; Muslims are not used to this; the Qur’an does not contain a history of Muhammad’s صَلّى اللهُ عليهِ وسلّم tribe. Nor is it the function of a revealed text in Islam to be like a ‘novel through and through’. Naturally a revealed text may utilize historical information and literary style, as the Qur’an does, but as a means to an end. The end in Surat Yusufis different from that in Genesis.

In the Qur’an both Jacob عليه السلام and Joseph عليه السلام: are Prophets, their stories are ‘for guidance’ (12:111) and prophets are models to be followed (33:21). In Genesis, Jacob عليه السلام is not presented as a Prophet. Accordingly, the picture given of him does not meet this criterion: a father who obviously favours one child, takes the initiative of sending him away to those who would harm him, readily offers the explanation of a wolf eating him even when the shirt is not torn, then tears his own garment in uncontrolled grief and up to the time the whole family is gathered in Egypt mentions the name of God only once. In fact this is surprising from a man of his advanced age who would be expected to refer to God more often, a man, moreover, who was the grandson of Abraham and the son of Isaac. In the qur’anic version Jacob عليه السلام: certainly fulfils the function of guidance; so does Joseph عليه السلام. Joseph عليه السلام in the Qur’an is not just a pleasant, handsome, gifted and able Hebrew economist who played an important role in the history of his nation, but a prophet whose story offers permanent universal guidance to


As we have said from the beginning, the story serves different functions in the two scriptures and should be approached with this in mind. Muslims who approach it in Genesis in the light of their experience of the Qur’an would quickly begin to feel something very important was missing and would find the national chronicling nature an intrusion; this would interfere with their response to it as a great story expressed in a delightful style of writing. Likewise, non-Muslims who are accustomed to Genesis and the functions the story serves there, if they approach the Qur’an in their frame of mind would not find what they were looking for, and might even find the religious spirit in Surat Yusuf an intrusion,24 which would interfere with their appreciation of the Qur’anic version which has greatly inspired and given guidance and delight to Muslims throughout the ages.

However, when all is told, when each story has run its course in its own style, with its own preoccupations, all readers can see how God has supported young Joseph عليه السلام when his brothers plotted against him, and read
what he said to his brothers:

‘Ye thought evil against me; but God meant it
unto good to bring to pass as it is this day, to save much people alive’ (Gen

and what he said when they all met in Egypt:

‘This is the interpretation of my old dream: my Lord has fulfilled it. He has
been gracious to me. He has released me from prison, and brought you out of
the desert after Satan has stirred up strife between me and my brothers. My
Lord is subtle in disposing what He wills. He alone is the all-knowing and

Lord, you have given me authority, taught me to interpret dreams, Creator of
the heavens and the earth, you are my protector in this world and in the
hereafter, make me die in true submission (to you) and join me with the
righteous. (Q. 12:100-101)

Indeed, in the story of Joseph عليه السلام there will always be a moral for men of understanding’ (12:111).


Notes :

1. See for instance The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1st edition, FV(2), under ‘Yusuf, pp.1178—
79; Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol.10, Jerusalem 1971, pp.212-3; E.LJ. Rosenthal, Judaism
and Islam, London 1961, pp.15-16; H. Speyer, Die Biblischen Erzahlungen im Quran,
New York 1961, pp.187-224. However, a different approach from all these was taken by
A.H. Johns in ‘Joseph in the Qur’an: Dramatic Dialogue, Human Emotion and
Prophetic Wisdom’ Islamochristiana, 7, 1981, pp.29-55.

2. EJ. lO.p.209.

3. Op. cit. p.203.

4. Compare 12:102 with 11:49.

5. Sayyid Qu(b Al-taswir al-fannifi’l-qur’an, Cairo, 1966, pp.148-49.

6. E.J.,p.2O9.

7. EJ., p.209.

8. Reuben also rent his clothes when he returned to the pit and found Joseph was not there
(37:29); Joseph’s brothers rent their clothes in Egypt when the cup was found in
Benjamin’s sack (44:13) — clearly an interesting (costly!) custom of the time.

9. Al-Kilab al-muqaddas {The Bible) translated into Arabic from the original languages,
Hebrew, Chaldean and Greek. Printed at the expense of The British and Foreign Society
for the Dissemination of the Holy Bible, Oxford, 1871, p.63.

10. EJ., 10, p.212. See also E.I., IV(2), 1178.

11. See for instance Q.2:128-33; 6:161-63; 26:69-89.

12. ll:120;12:109-10.

13. EJ., 1st edition, IV(Part 2), p.l 178.

14. 9:40; 24:22.

15. In Islam such lists are given in sura books: compare for instance the list of Muslims
who emigrated from Mecca to Abyssinia in The Life of Muhammad translated by
A. Guillaume, OUP 1970, pp. 146-48.

16. Op.cit, p.l 179. Compare two ShTT commentaries on the Qur’an, one classical: Tafsir al-
bayan by Abu Ja’far al-Tusi, Vol.6, Beirut 1963, pp.91-210; the other modern by M.H.
Al-Tabataba’i, al-Mizanfi tafsir al-Qur’an, vol.11, Beirut 1973, pp.73-282.

17. This was observed by the late S. Qutb, op.cit. p.l54;fi zildl al-Qur’an, vol.4, Cairo
(Shuruq) 1985, p. 1962. See also A. Johns op.cit.

18. A. Johns remarked that ‘as a first encounter, the qur’anic presentation of the material
may to the Westerner appear disjointed and incomplete, requiring its readers to supply
out of their imaginations or prior knowledge, both the links between the events
occurring in the narative and the framework in which they are set, without which the
story could not exist’ Op.cit. p.30. This is certainly not the case with the Arabic version.
Everything that has been left out has been alluded to in the scenes. What may appear to
the Westerner as disjointed and incomplete is the poor translations. But the reason for
this is also likely to be connected to what Johns has rightly observed: for anyone brought
up in the ambience of the Judaic or Christian tradition, the Genesis version of the story is
inevitably regarded as the norm. Loc.cit.

19. S. Qu(b observed that the technique of scenes and gaps is followed in nearly all qur’anic
stories Al-taswir al-fanmfi’l-Qur’an, p.154.

20. EJ., 10, p.208.

21. “The Joseph Narrative and Ancient Wisdom”, in The Problem of the Hexateuch and
other Essays, Edinburgh and London, 1966, pp.292-300.

22. EJ., p.208.

23. Wolfhart Pannenberg remarked: Within the reality characterized by the constantly
creative work of God, history arises because God makes promises and fulfils these
promises. History is even so suspended in tension between promise and fulfilment that
through the promise it is irreversibly pointed toward the goal of future fulfilment. This
structure is pregnantly expressed for instance, in Deuteronomy 7:8ff:

. . .it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he sware to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharoah, King of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations.

‘Redemptive Event and History’, in Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics, ed. Claus Westermann, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979, pp.316-17.

24. “Thus a scholar of the stature of Torrey treats it almost frivolously. Of the vision which warns Joseph against adultery when Zulaikha tempts him, he remarks “This is characteristic of the Angel Gabriel’s manner of spoiling a good story.”. A.H. Johns, op.cit., p.30.



source : M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (1990) The story of Joseph in the Qur’an and the old testament, Islam and Christian‐Muslim Relations, 1:2, 171-191, DOI: 10.1080/09596419008720933