Aug 312006
This article is from The Prophet Joseph In The Qur’an, The Bible, And History

وَجَاءُوا عَلَى قَمِيصِهِ بِدَمٍ كَذِبٍ قَالَ بَلْ سَوَّلَتْ لَكُمْ أَنفُسُكُمْ أَمْرًا فَصَبْرٌ جَمِيلٌ وَاللَّهُ الْمُسْتَعَانُ عَلَى مَا تَصِفُونَ (يوسف: 18).

And they came with false blood on his shirt. He said: “[No,] rather your souls have suggested to you [doing] something [evil]; so, [my course is] perfect patience. And it is Allah whose help is sought against what you describe” (18).
Joseph’s brothers brought his shirt to their father after smearing it with blood, which was not actually Joseph’s, as proof that their brother was devoured by a wolf. The plan that Joseph’s brothers followed to deceive Jacob reflects their failure to appreciate the depth of the knowledge of this prophet. Allah conferred on Jacob “ta’wil al ahadith (the interpretation of talks),” making him able to read through simple things and signs present and future events, as we saw in his interpretation of his son’s dream. Jacob, therefore, was not going to believe his sons’ story about the death of Joseph. He knew through Joseph’s dream, and whatever other sources of knowledge that Allah made available to him, certain facts about the future of Joseph and the rest of the family. Indeed, we will see later how Jacob tells critics of his undiminished hope of seeing Joseph again, years after his disappearance: “and I know from Allah what you do not know” (from 12.86).
I should cite a particular event that reveals the extent of Jacob’s sons’ underestimation of the knowledge and paranormal abilities that Allah conferred on their father. Many years after the sudden disappearance of Joseph, Jacob was one day able to smell the scent of his son through a shirt that Joseph sent to him, when the shirt was still at a far distance from Jacob’s living place: “And when the camel caravan had departed, their father said: ‘I perceive the scent of Joseph; may you not disbelieve me!’” (12.94). The recipient of such divine favor was undoubtedly able to know that the blood on the shirt, which he could touch and carefully examine, was not Joseph’s.
Indeed, Jacob’s first reaction to his sons’ claims was: “ [No,] rather your souls have suggested to you [doing] something [evil].” This is a direct accusation from Jacob to his sons that they have worked out a scheme for Joseph and that their account of what happened had no relation to truth. Jacob’s words “so, [my course is] perfect patience” refer to his reaction to what happened. The صَبْرٌ جَمِيلٌsabrun jamilun,” which I translate as “perfect patience,” is “the patience that is not associated with any complaint,” as explained by the Prophet.1
Note that Jacob’s reply “so, [my course is] perfect patience” refers to his patience not only with Joseph’s calamity, but also with the state of his sons. Jacob did not react negatively to what his sons did. He did not throw them out of the house, for example. He followed those words with the sentence “and it is Allah whose help is sought against what you describe.” Here, Jacob refers to his sons’ lies about what happened and asks Allah for help in exposing those lies and revealing the truth.
Before moving to the next verse, we need to stop a little to ponder on Jacob’s reaction in this extremely difficult situation. There is no doubt that losing the son that he had special love for caused great sadness to Jacob, especially as he did not know the condition of his son then, and what was going to happen to him. Jacob’s knowledge that Allah had ordained great good for Joseph in the future was a source of consolation for him, but that would not have prevented him from feeling sad for his son whom he could not see anymore, know his condition, or help.
Jacob’s sadness must have been amplified by the fact that Joseph’s brothers were responsible for his disappearance, and that the good faith that he put in them had contributed directly to the sad unfolding of events. Despite all that, faith and wisdom never departed Jacob when he was disputing his sons’ story and later asking for patience and help from Allah during that crisis. How beautiful, then, is the reaction of this knowledgeable prophet to his grave calamity, and how great is his perfect patience! This divine test has made Jacob draw nearer to Allah.
No doubt, Jacob would have remembered in this grave calamity his great grandfather, prophet Abraham, whom Allah also tested with his son. One day, Allah ordered Abraham in a dream to slaughter his son Ishmael. When Abraham and Ishmael were about to carry out Allah’s command, Allah intervened. He ordered Abraham not to sacrifice his son, and gave him a huge animal to sacrifice instead:

فَلَمَّا بَلَغَ مَعَهُ السَّعْيَ قَالَ يَابُنَيَّ إِنِّي أَرَى فِي الْمَنَامِ أَنِّي أَذْبَحُكَ فَانظُرْ مَاذَا تَرَى قَالَ يَا أَبَتِ افْعَلْ مَا تُؤْمَرُ سَتَجِدُنِي إِنْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ مِنْ الصَّابِرِينَ (102). فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ (103). وَنَادَيْنَاهُ أَنْ يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ (104). قَد صَدَّقْتَ الرُّؤْيَا إِنَّا كَذَلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ (105). إِنَّ هَذَا لَهُوَ الْبَلاَءُ الْمُبِينُ (106). وَفَدَيْنَاهُ بِذِبْحٍ عَظِيمٍ (الصافات: 107).

And when he (Abraham’s son, Ishmael) was old enough to work with him (his father Abraham), he (Abraham) said: “O son! I see in a dream that I am sacrificing you, so let me know what you think.” He (Ishmael) said: “O father! Do what you are commanded to do; Allah willing, you will find me one of those with patience” (37.102). So when they submitted [to Allah’s command], and he (Abraham) laid him (Ishmael) on his forehead (37.103). And We called to him saying: “O Abraham! (37.104). You have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, this is how we reward the good doers (37.105). Surely this was a manifest trial (37.106). And we ransomed him (Ishmael) with a tremendous sacrifice (37.107). Great stances such as these reveal some of the unique nature of Allah’s prophets and the close servants whom He has chosen for Himself and distinguished from other people.


1 This use of the adjective جَمِيلٌjamil (beautiful)” suggests that it shares the same root with كامِلkamil (perfect),” and the same applies to the nouns of these two adjectives, جَمالjamal (beauty)” and كمالkamal (perfection).” Patience that is Jamil is one that is kamil, and something can be “perfect” only if it is free of any flaw. The flaw of patience is complaint.


 Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Mar 262006
This article is from The Prophet Joseph In The Qur’an, The Bible, And History

قَالُوا يَا أَبَانَا إِنَّا ذَهَبْنَا نَسْتَبِقُ وَتَرَكْنَا يُوسُفَ عِنْدَ مَتَاعِنَا فَأَكَلَهُ الذِّئْبُ وَمَا أَنْتَ بِمُؤْمِنٍ لَنَا وَلَوْ كُنَّا صَادِقِينَ (يوسف: 17).

They said: “O our father! We went to race with one another and left Joseph with our belongings, so a wolf devoured him; and you will not believe us though we are truthful” (17). Joseph’s brothers started their speech to their father with the loving phrase “O our father!” to create a friendly atmosphere that might help to make him believe the painful details they were going to tell him.
The use of Joseph’s brothers of the clause ذَهَبْنَا نَسْتَبِقُwe went to race with one another” instead of the verb استبقناwe raced with one another” means that their race included going to a relatively far distance from the starting point. The fake story about the race was used by Joseph’s brothers to justify leaving Joseph alone with their belongings, as it is obvious that young Joseph could not take part in this activity.
Joseph’s brothers deliberately combined their claim of being busy racing with the claim about Joseph being devoured by a wolf. The latter is a danger that Jacob himself suggested: “and I fear that a wolf might devour him while you are not attending to him.” They thought that their story was thus more likely to be believed by their father as he himself had acknowledged this possibility.

It is clear from their plan that Joseph’s brothers wanted to convince their father that Joseph was actually dead, not merely missing. They thought that only Joseph’s death would make Jacob ultimately forget his son.

By saying to their father “you will not believe us though we are truthful,” Jacob’s sons suggested that they had to convey to him what happened even though they were aware of his suspicions about their intention. They stressed that their story was true by reminding their father that his failure to believe them was due to the suspicions that he already had, not because their story was fake. They tried to make their father develop doubts about the suspicions that were inevitably going to appear in his mind about their story, and thus making him believe it.


 Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Jun 272005
This article is from The Prophet Joseph In The Qur’an, The Bible, And History

وَجَآءُوٓ أَبَاهُمْ عِشَآءً يَبْكُونَ (يوسف: 16).

And they came to their father isha‘an (at night), weeping (12.16). Joseph’s brothers returned home pretending to cry for their brother.
The mention of the verse that the time of the return was عِشَآءًisha‘an (at night)” confirms my interpretation of the word “ghadan” in verse 12.12 as meaning “in the early morning.” Allah tells us that after taking their brother with them in the early morning, Joseph’s brothers came back at night without him.
Al-Qurtubi believes that Joseph’s brothers chose to return at night because that would have helped them make up the story about what happened, as their faces would not be seen in the darkness of the night. But even if that was true, they must have given their father another reason for getting back late. Let us remember that verse 12.12 indicates that Joseph was with his brothers in the early hours of the morning in summer, which means that they got back 10-12 hours after they should have brought Joseph back to his father. They were supposed to return him before the sun reached a high point in the sky and it became too hot.

Joseph’s brothers were keen on pretending that they cared about Joseph and were sad to lose him, so they would have been expected to tell their father about Joseph’s death immediately after they knew about it. What, then, was their excuse for returning late? We will see in the next two verses Joseph’s brothers untruthfully claim that a wolf has devoured Joseph, and that they could find only his blood stained shirt. This leads me to conclude that Joseph’s brothers must have claimed that they could not come back before night because they kept on looking for Joseph’s body until the night set in.

Probably, Joseph’s brothers thought that getting back at night would provide cover for their lie. If they had told their father about what had happened to Joseph in the morning he would have certainly asked them to take him to where they left Joseph or found his shirt. By returning during the night, they guaranteed that Jacob would not be able to go before the next morning to wherever Joseph was supposed to have been devoured by the wolf and they found his shirt. If Jacob went there in the morning and did not find anything supporting his sons’ claims, that would not represent a problem for them. They could claim that beasts or the elements had removed any trace of their brother. In fact, we will see in verse 12.18 that Jacob knew that it was useless to try to search for Joseph, so his only reaction to the news of losing his son was to leave the matter in the hands of Allah.

The well that Joseph’s brothers chose was far enough from their home to prevent Joseph from returning home should the person who found him try to identify his family and return him home. This could have been one reason that forced them not to come back before night.


 Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Mar 232005
This article is from The Prophet Joseph In The Qur’an, The Bible, And History

 فَلَمَّا ذَهَبُوا بِهِ وَأَجْمَعُوا أَنْ يَجْعَلُوهُ فِي غَيَابَتِ الْجُبِّ وَأَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْهِ لَتُنَبِّئَنَّهُمْ بِأَمْرِهِمْ هَذَا وَهُمْ لاَ يَشْعُرُونَ (يوسف: 15).

So when they took him away and agreed that they should throw him to the bottom of the well, and We revealed to him: “You will certainly inform them of this affair of theirs while they are unaware” (12.15).
Although stressing that Joseph’s brothers took him, the verse does not state explicitly whether that happened with or without Jacob’s permission. Significantly, this verse occurs after a verse in which Jacob’s sons had the last words in their conversation with their father as they tried to convince him: “They said: ‘If a wolf would devour him despite the fact that we are a band, we are then certainly a failing group’.” This implies that Joseph’s brothers took him with their father’s permission. Indeed, we will see later in the story Jacob remind his sons, when they asked him to send Benjamin with them to Egypt, that he “entrusted” them with Joseph but they betrayed that trust: “He said: ‘Should I entrust you with him, would I be doing other than what I did before when I entrusted you with his brother? So, Allah is the best protector, and He is the most Merciful of the merciful ones’” (12.64). This proves that Jacob’s sons took Joseph with the permission of their father. Note that the verb آمَنَ على “entrust someone with” is the same verb that occurred in Joseph’s brothers’ request, “O our father! Why do you not entrust us with Joseph? Surely we seek good for him,” implying that at the end Jacob agreed to the request.
I have already shown that Jacob was aware that Joseph’s brothers harbored evil for their brother; why, then, did he agree that they take him? The answer to this question has two sides that may be described as “apparent” and “subtle.” I will start with the former. We have seen in our study of Jacob’s reply, “It saddens me that you should take him away, and I fear that a wolf might devour him while you are not attending to him,” that he was so keen on changing the attitude of his sons toward Joseph that he did not want to say explicitly that he saw them as a source of potential danger to Joseph. He preferred to attribute any harm that may occur to Joseph to an external source, mentioning a wolf. It seems that Jacob reckoned that if Joseph’s brothers would take him with them that might improve the way they felt about Joseph, so he agreed to their request.
We should not forget that the verse “send him with us ghadan (in the early morning) to enjoy himself and play, and surely we shall be protective of him” does not refer to a discussion that occurred on one day between Jacob and his sons and ended up with him agreeing to their request to take Joseph with them the next day. This is what many may think because of mistaking the word غَدًاghadan” to mean “the following day,” when in fact it means “in the early morning” of any day. This verse refers to the pretext that Joseph’s brothers used to persuade their father to send Joseph with them, a pretext that they would have used in their discussion with him over many days until he agreed in good faith to their request.
Jacob’s keenness on changing his sons’ feelings toward Joseph may not be sufficient to explain the great risk that he took by allowing them to take Joseph away. This takes us from the “apparent” to the “subtle” explanation of Jacob’s acceptance of his sons’ request: Allah made Jacob agree to his sons’ request so that the story of Joseph would unravel as He decreed.
The verb وَأَجْمَعُواand [they] agreed” indicates that all of Joseph’s brothers agreed to throw him to the bottom of the well. This is in line with my already mentioned conclusion that the fact that the conversation about how to get rid of Joseph ended with the verse “one of them said: ‘Do not kill Joseph, but cast him down into the bottom of the well where some caravanners will pick him up, if you would do something [to him]’” (12.10) means that they all agreed to that plan. Note that the verb يَجْعَلُوهُ[they] should put him” shows that by putting Joseph in the well, Joseph’s brothers did not intend to kill him, but wanted some passers by to rescue him and take him to a land far from where his father lived.
After Jacob’s sons lowered Joseph to the bottom of the well, Allah revealed to him: “You will certainly inform them of this affair of theirs while they are unaware.” He told Joseph that one day he will mention this plot to his brothers, and that this would come as a complete surprise to them. Indeed, this is what happened many years later in Egypt. Verses 12.89-90 describe how Joseph reminded his brothers of their evil scheme against him while they were totally unaware that the dignitary they had been visiting was in fact their brother Joseph whom they cast to the bottom of the well years earlier: “He said: ‘Do you know how you treated Joseph and his brother when you were ignorant?’ (12.89). They said: ‘Are you indeed Joseph?’. He said: ‘I am Joseph and this is my brother; Allah has indeed conferred on us favors; surely, as for he who acts dutifully and patiently, Allah does not waste the reward of the good doers’ (12.90).”
Allah’s revelation brought much kindness, care, and mercy to the child Joseph who was in grave distress. Joseph would have badly missed his father when he realized what his brothers were going to do to him. Allah’s consolation, however, was greater than any consolation that Joseph could have received from any human being, including his father.1


1 Some exegetes have referred to the absence of the answer to لَمَّاlamma (when)” from the verse. It looks as if Allah said: “and when Joseph’s brothers took him away and agreed to cast him at the bottom of the well,” but then instead of going on to talk about what happened, He diverted to talk about His revelation to Joseph. Exegetes have suggested a number of reasons for the omission of the answer of “lamma” from this verse. For instance, this is what atTabatabai has to say:

The answer to “lamma” has been omitted to highlight the horrendous and terrible nature of the matter, which is a common usage in language. You may find a speaker describing a heinous matter, such as the killing of an innocent person, that makes the heart burn with pain and which the ear cannot bear to hear. He then starts to detail the causes and circumstances that led to it. When he reaches the event itself, he goes into deep silence, before starting to talk about events that followed the killing. This indicates that the murder was so heinous that the speaker would not be able to describe it and the listener would not bear hearing it.

The situation here is as if when the story teller, glory be to His name, said: “So when they took him away and agreed that they should throw him to the bottom of the well,” He went silent and refrained from describing what Joseph’s brothers did to him in sadness and regret, because the ear would not bear hearing what they did to this wronged, infallible prophet and son of prophets. He did not commit anything that deserves what his brothers did to him while in full knowledge of how much his father, the noble prophet, loved him.

AtTusi thinks that “the answer to ‘lamma‘ is’ omitted and that it is equivalent to the clause ‘their plot was so grave or that what they intended to do was so serious’.” He also refers to an opinion of linguists of the school of the Iraqi city of Kufa that the particle æ “wa (and)” in وَأَجْمَعُواwa ajma’u (and [they] agreed)” has been “forced in,” and that the meaning is أجمعوا “[they] agreed.” The linguists of the school of the Iraqi city of Basra have rejected this view. AtTabari is one exegete who adopted the view of the linguists of Kufa. The problem with this interpretation is that it suggests that Joseph’s brothers agreed to cast him in the well after they took him away, when in fact they took him in order to cast him in the well.
The interpretation of al-Jalalayn states that the omission of the answer of “lamma” means that they did throw Joseph in the well. Al-Qurtubi mentions the view of some that the answer of “lamma” is the sentence قَالُوا يَا أَبَانَا إِنَّا ذَهَبْنَا نَسْتَبِقُThey said: ‘O our father! We went to race with one another’” in verse 12.17, which we will study later. He indicates that according to the Basra linguists, the implied answer of “lamma” is جعلوه فيها “they cast him in it.” He also mentions an opinion of the Kufa linguists that there is a “forced in” “wa (and),” though he refers to “wa” in وَأَوْحَيْنَاwa awhayna (and We revealed)” not in وَأَجْمَعُواwa ajma’u (and [they] agreed).” Al-Qurtubi points out that the Kufa linguists think that “wa” can be added superfluously to “lamma” and حَتَّىhatta(until).” He cites some examples from the Qur’an, including the following use of hatta:

وَسِيقَ الَّذِينَ اتَّقَوْا رَبَّهُمْ إِلَى الْجَنَّةِ زُمَرًا حَتَّى إِذَا جَاءُوهَا وَفُتِحَتْ أَبْوَابُهَا وَقَالَ لَهُمْ خَزَنَتُهَا سَلاَمٌ عَلَيْكُمْ طِبْتُمْ فَادْخُلُوهَا خَالِدِينَ (الزمر: 73).

And those who were dutiful toward their Lord shall be driven to paradise in groups; until when they come to it, and its doors shall be opened, and its keepers shall say to them: “Peace be on you, you shall be happy; therefore enter it to abide thereinto for ever” (39.73).
He indicates that “wa” in وَفُتِحَتْwa futihat(and [its doors] shall be opened)” is زائدة “superfluous” and that the implied meaning is فُتِحَتْfutihat ([its doors] shall be opened),” as in the following very similar verse from the same sura:

وَسِيقَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا إِلَى جَهَنَّمَ زُمَرًا حَتَّى إِذَا جَاءُوهَا فُتِحَتْ أَبْوَابُهَا وَقَالَ لَهُمْ خَزَنَتُهَا أَلَمْ يَأْتِكُمْ رُسُلٌ مِنْكُمْ يَتْلُونَ عَلَيْكُمْ آيَاتِ رَبِّكُمْ وَيُنْذِرُونَكُمْ لِقَاءَ يَوْمِكُمْ هَذَا قَالُوا بَلَى وَلَكِنْ حَقَّتْ كَلِمَةُ الْعَذَابِ عَلَى الْكَافِرِينَ (الزمر: 71).

And those who disbelieved shall be driven to hell in groups; until when they come to it, its doors shall be opened, and its keepers shall say to them: “Did messengers from among yourselves not come to you, recite the verses of your Lord, and warn you about the meeting of this day of yours?” They shall say: “Yes.” But the word of punishment is due against the disbelievers (39.71).
As another example on the presence of a superfluous “wa” in the answer of “lamma,” al-Qurtubi mentions verses 37.103-104, stressing that the word وَنَادَيْنَاهُwa nadaynahu(and We called him)” is equivalent to نَادَيْنَاهُnadaynahu(We called him)”:

فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ (103). وَنَادَيْنَاهُ أَنْ يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ (104). قَد صَدَّقْتَ الرُّؤْيَا إِنَّا كَذَلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ (الصافّات: 105).

So when they submitted [to Allah’s command], and he [Abraham] laid him [Ishmael] on his forehead (37.103). And We called to him saying: “O Abraham! (37.104). You have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, this is how we reward the good doers (37.105).
It is clear that there are many verses, of which I have cited only a few, in which the answer of “lamma” and “hatta” is absent. Therefore, an interpretation such as that advocated by atTabatabai does not seem plausible, because it tries to explain the absence of the answer of “lamma” from verse 12.15 as if it was a phenomenon that is unique to that verse, rather than seen in many Qur’anic verses.
I find more acceptable the view of the linguistic school of Kufa that the answer to “lamma” and “hatta” is not actually absent from those verses, but that it looks that way because of the presence of a superfluous “wa (and)” in the answer, causing it to look absent. In the case of verse 12.15, the superfluous “and” could be the one in “wa ajma’u(and [they] agreed)” or “wa awhayna(and We revealed).” We have already ruled out the former; the latter possibility means that the superfluous “and” separates between the description of the acts of Joseph’s brothers, “so when they took him away and agreed that they should throw him to the bottom of the well,” and that of the divine act, “and We revealed to him: ‘You will certainly inform them of this affair of theirs while they are unaware’.” This, in turn, means that Allah’s act is the answer of “lamma,” and represents the response to the acts of Joseph’s brothers. The reason for the presence of the superfluous “and” may be for stressing the verb in “awhayna(We revealed),” thus ultimately emphasizing Allah’s act.


 Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
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Jan 012005


In a recent poll on this website, visitors were asked the following question: “The text of the Qur’an remains unchanged. Should its interpretation develop with time?”. There were three available answers: “yes”, “no”, and “I do not know.” In total, 163 visitors cast their votes. About 59% (96 people) answered yes to the question, 33% (54 people) said no, and a minority of 8% (13 votes) were undecided. 163 may not be a large number to read much into these figures, but the results cannot be dismissed completely, and regardless of their statistical significance they serve well a discussion of a very important issue in Qur’anic exegesis (Arabic: Tafsir), which is whether the interpretation of the Qur’anic text can evolve with time or not.

The question clearly stresses the unchanging nature of the Qur’anic text, but it also implies that its interpretation could evolve. The “yes” answers of the majority clearly means that they accept that the interpretation of the Qur’an can and should evolve. The minority who voted “I do not know” were unable to completely rule out any of the two mutually exclusive possibilities. A third of the participants, who voted “no”, clearly thought that the interpretation of the sacred text should not evolve.

The main problem of the “no” vote, which may also be implied in some votes of the undecided group, is the underlying assumption that there is something specific and unambiguously defined called “the interpretation of the Qur’an,” more or less in the same way that the Qur’an itself is specifically and unambiguously identified. But is this image of the interpretation of the Qur’an realistic? The Qur’an is a book whose text has not changed since it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago. But is there similarly a book, group of books, or specific text that can be exclusively called “the interpretation of the Qur’an”? The simple answer is no, there isn’t. In fact, there has never been.

The concept of the unchangeability of the interpretation of the Qur’an can be attributed mainly to the misunderstanding of the following two facts: first, the Prophet Muhammad interpreted the Qur’an to the early Muslims; and second, the existence of highly respected classical exegetical works of the whole Qur’an. I will show below that neither of these facts justify the wrong conclusions – or, more accurately, assumptions — that there is something specific called the interpretation of the Qur’an and that this interpretation should not evolve.

Prophet Muhammad and the Interpretation of the Qur’an

There are three main points about the role of Prophet Muhammad in interpreting the Qur’an that are relevant to our discussion:

1) Although the Prophet did indeed interpret the Qur’an to Muslims, this does not mean that we have today his interpretation of every verse of the Qur’anic text. It is almost certain that a lot of what the Prophet said has gone unrecorded and has not reached us. Unless one claims that there was a divine plan to make sure that every word of the Prophet and every comment he made about the Qur’an or a Qur’anic verse reached us — and there is no evidence that there was such a plan — then we have to accept that some of the Prophet’s words were ever only heard by a few people. This means that there is room to further evolve the interpretation of the Qur’an.

2) Any assumption that everything that the Prophet said and reached us was transmitted exactly as he uttered it lacks any evidence. In fact, there are clear proofs that this was not the case at all. Note, for instance, the centuries old disagreement even among Muslim scholars about the authenticity of some of the sayings (Arabic: ḥadīth) that are attributed to the Prophet, including sayings that explain Qur’anic verses. This disagreement is not found only between scholars from different Islamic schools of thought or denominations (Arabic: madhahib), but also between scholars who share the same doctrinal background. Some scholars reject as unauthentic sayings that other accept as authentic.

The point here is not to suggest who is right or wrong, or to point a finger of accusation to the intention of those who first wrote and those who copied the sayings. Even the most intelligent, dedicated, and sincere person can make honest mistakes. The Qur’an is the only Islamic literature that has been completely preserved and whose integrity has been protected, not because people protected it, but because it was and is divinely guarded. This is how the Qur’an describes how Allah has protected it: 

Verily, it is We who revealed the Remembrance [the Qur’an], and verily, We are its Guardian (15.9).

Surely those who disbelieved in the Remembrance [the Qur’an] when it came to them [were wrong]; surely it is an impregnable Book (41.41). Falsehood cannot come to it from anywhere; [it is] a revelation from One who is Wise and Praised (41.42).

The Qur’an does not tell us that Allah has protected any other Islamic literature — not even the sayings of the Prophet. Even the available compilations of sayings of the Prophet cannot be described as being free of sayings that have been inaccurately recorded and others that are completely inauthentic, i.e. the Prophet never said.

3) As a divine book, the Qur’an is a book of endless miracles. One hadith that is attributed to the Prophet describes the Qur’an as a book “whose lessons never end and whose miracles never end.”[1] As man’s general knowledge and understanding developed, scholars started to discover new meanings in the Qur’an that were unknown to people in the past. It is a totally unsupported assumption to claim that the Prophet told Muslims at that time about what scientific facts would be discovered and how the Qur’an had already mentioned them. There is no justification for this assumption. If that had really happened, we would not have had to wait for centuries after the revelation of the Qur’an for those discoveries to be made. The Qur’anic text has many meanings, and some of these meanings can be understood only when particular conditions are met. A verse that refers to an unknown scientific or historical fact cannot be really fully understood and interpreted until our knowledge of that science or history has advanced. For instance, the recent progress of our understanding of embryology has allowed us to understand in more depth verses that talk about the development of human embryos.

These three points show that the interpretation of the Qur’an can and must evolve because of its inherent nature and because of practical problems in the transmission of Islamic literature.

Exegetical Literature and the Interpretation of the Qur’an

There are many highly rated exegetical books of the Qur’an. The very presence of this literature undermines the claim that the interpretation of the Qur’an is one, well-defined corpus of literature that we ought not add to or develop in any way. There is not one exegetical book of the Qur’an, but there are many. Some of the better known classical works include those by atTabari (9th-10th century), atTusi (11th century), Ibn ‘Arabi (12th-13th century), al-Qurtubi (13th century), Ibn Kathir (14th century), al-Jalalayn (15th century), and atTabatabai (20th century), to name only a few. There are many more. If there is one interpretation of the Qur’an, why do we have tens and hundreds of books of exegesis? A partial answer to this question is that different interpretational books were written by scholars who followed different schools of thought. For instance, atTabatabai was a Shia, al-Qurtubi was a Sunni, and Ibn ‘Arabi was a Sufi, and differences between the doctrines of the three exegetes explain some of the differences between their interpretations. However, this fact does not fully answer the question above.

A naïve sectarian reaction to these very different interpretations of the same Qur’an would be to pick one school of thought as the “right” one and accuse the others of being misguided or wrong. This way it may be suggested that, for instance, the Sunni interpretation is correct and the Sufi and Shia are not. But I called this response naïve because the concept of “one interpretation of the Qur’an” does not exist even within any one denomination! Differences exist and are considerable even between works written from the perspective of the same school of thought. For instance, the Sunni interpretations of al-Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir are not one and the same; the Shia exegetical works of AtTabatabai and atTusi have many differences; and the Sufi books of tafsir of Ibn ‘Arabi and al-Qushayri do differ considerably.

So, the concept of “one interpretation of the Qur’an” does not exist across all Islamic denominations, and it is not found even within any one of them. In fact, this concept does not exist even within any one exegetical work! If you look up the interpretation of a verse in, say, the tafsir of al-Qurtubi, the likelihood is that you would not find one authoritative statement about the interpretation of that verse and a rejection of alternative interpretations. This is not what you would see. Most of the time you would find al-Qurtubi cite a number of previous scholars who offered similar and different views on the meaning of that verse and, at many times, even on a word in that verse. Some of the different meanings are compatible and can be all supposed to be correct or at least plausible, but others are contradictory. There is no “one interpretation of the Qur’an” even in any one book of exegesis. This is why the statement that the interpretation of the Qur’an should not evolve is a nothing more than a fallacy.

The interpretation of the Qur’an has always been evolving, and any exegetical work we choose to read would have contributed to by many people who lived at different times and who agreed at times and disagreed at others in their interpretations. There may be one person who compiled that book of exegesis, but that person would have cited tens if not hundreds of other scholars.

Clearly, the availability of a large collection of interpretational books — even within the same school of thought — and the presence of many interpretations within the same book reflect the fact that there is nothing called “the Prophet’s interpretation of the Qur’an” that one could have simply learned or copied. Of course, all works cite at times narratives that link this interpretation or that to the Prophet, but these are narrative that may or may not be accurate.

Qur’anic exegesis has evolved by a principle known as “ijtihad”, or the use of one’s knowledge, reasoning, and best judgement to offer his or her view on a matter, including interpreting the Qur’anic text. The person who practices ijtihad, known as “mujtahid”, is clearly not infallible. As a human being, even if very knowledgeable, the mujtahid’s view on a particular issue may be right or wrong. This is why no interpretation book can claim to be right in everything it says. Surely, some books are better and more accurate than others, but no book can claim to be the exclusive authority on the interpretation of the book of Allah. Scholars over the centuries continued to add their own works to the already massive library of exegetical books. For instance, if Ibn Kathir did not believe that his exegesis of the Qur’an can add to and/or improve on atTabari‘s and other earlier works, he would not have written it. Similarly, Sayyid Qutb (20th century) or ash-Sha’rawi (20th century) must have believed that they can add/or improve on Ibn Kathir’s and older works. The door of ijtihad in Islam has and will always be wide open. Those who want it shut closed are attempting to change a fundamental aspect of Islamic thought and practice that is attested to by every era of Islamic history.


The life of the Muslim is one of continuous exertion of his/her best effort, or jihad, to get closer to the qualities of the ideal Muslim. Learning the Qur’an and developing one’s knowledge of it is one aspect of that endless jihad. There is no one book that we can read that would make us suddenly fully understand the Qur’an. This is an extremely simplistic view not only of the interpretation of the Qur’an, but also of the Qur’an itself. Nothing of value, let alone understanding the Qur’an, can be achieved through such a passive and lazy attitude. All great scholars realized that learning the Qur’an is an endless process and that its goal cannot be to know everything about the Qur’an or reach only correct interpretations of the divine text. As is the case with the learning of any subject, the more we study and the more sincere our efforts are, the more knowledgeable we become, though we would never gain absolute knowledge.

In order to advance our knowledge of the Qur’an we need to read for various old and modern scholars and think about what they had to say. Learning can take place only if the learner took an active role in the process. The Qur’an is full of verses that command and encourage us to think. Receiving passively what we are told is not learning; it is pseudo learning. We are not robots and we should not behave like them. We do not become more knowledgeable by merely memorizing information, but by learning how to process this information intelligently. Those thinking and analyzing skills are essential. Muslims need to keep an open-mind and be ready to raise questions rather than accept passively anything and everything they read or hear. Additionally, we must not forget that one critical requirement to gaining access to the inner knowledge of the Qur’an is piety: “Feat Allah, and Allah will teach you” (2.282).


1 This Prophetic saying has been reported by Abu al-Fadhl ar-Razi al-Qari’ in his book Fadha‘il al-Qur’an wa tilawatih (The Virtues of the Qur’an and its Recitation).


Copyright © 2005 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Dec 312004

This is the “Introduction” to The Prophet Joseph In The Qur’an, The Bible, And History

The full knowledge contained in the Qur’an will always be beyond what anyone can encompass. This is due to the depth and breadth of the knowledge imbedded in the divine text, on the one hand, and the limitedness of how much any person can fathom of that knowledge, on the other. It is virtually impossible for any interpretation of the Qur’an, regardless of the degree of knowledge of the exegete, to claim to be complete and inclusive of all meanings of a Qur’anic text, or to have the final say on its meanings. There will always be an opportunity to learn something new from and about this divine Book. This is one fact underlined by Prophet Muhammad’s description of the Qur’an as a Book “whose lessons never end and whose miracles never vanish.” The depth of the knowledge contained in the Qur’an combined with the limited means of any exegete mean that the attempts to study and interpret the Qur’anic text must never cease.

Since the revelation of the Qur’an fourteen centuries ago, numerous scholars have assiduously studied it. These tremendous efforts resulted in countless studies and interpretations of the Qur’an that helped and will continue to help billions of people study this divine text. However, unlike the unerring text that was revealed by Allah, exegeses of the Qur’an reflect the understanding and views of their human authors, and human beings do err.

Many exegetical books of the Qur’an suffer from a serious methodological flaw. When interpreting the Qur’anic text, these books systematically rely on information whose accuracy and authenticity are unverifiable or questionable, or that is simply incorrect and inauthentic. Because of this fundamental shortcoming, which is discussed in Chapter 1, many interpretational attempts read into the Qur’anic text meanings that it does not really have.
In addition to abandoning this flawed method completely, exegetes also need to make as much use as possible of the well known methodology of using the Qur’anic text to interpret itself. This double approach, which I have diligently followed in this book, protects the exegetical attempt against many potential errors and inaccuracies.
It is necessary for the person who studies any Qur’anic text to be acquainted with previous interpretational attempts. More important, the exegete needs to be able to look at the Qur’anic text and examine it independently of its common interpretations. This is essential to ensure that the exegete reads the Qur’anic text directly, rather than through a particular understanding of that text. Unfortunately, most exegetes show undue influence by particular interpretations. This prevents them from approaching the Qur’anic text with impartiality and open mindedness.
Each of the 114 Qur’anic “suwar (chapters)” has its special characteristics, and so has the “sura (chapter)” of Joseph. Through relating a unique story whose episodes were carefully and skillfully weaved by the subtle hand of Allah, this sura offers great lessons that capture the heart with its beauty and humble the mind with its wisdom. Like all other Qur’anic suwar, which scholars have been studying since the revelation of the Qur’an, the sura of Joseph has had its share of research and interpretational attempts by the exegetes of the Qur’an. Offering another analysis and interpretation of this sura must, therefore, be justified by the interpretation being genuinely new and significantly different from or adding to the already existing interpretations. The interpretation in this book differs considerably from the classical interpretations of the sura of Joseph. Its analysis of the Qur’anic verses leads to many conclusions that are different from views that are commonly accepted by exegetes.
I stated above that the success of an interpretational attempt of a Qur’anic text does not mean more than a success in unveiling some of its meanings. Naturally, any exegetical attempt is also subject to failure. I cannot claim that this interpretation is free of mistakes, or that I have succeeded in interpreting all the Qur’anic text that I studied. No doubt, this study has its own mistakes and shortcomings, as is the case with any modest, limited human attempt to study the sublime divine text. The most that I can say in favor of this interpretation is that it has avoided many of the flaws that are common in interpretations of the Qur’an in general and of the sura of Joseph in particular. I think that this attempt is, in general, more accurate than previous attempts to interpret this sura.
While I explained in detail how each interpretation of a Qur’anic text was arrived at, I highlighted in many places my inability to choose between more than one possible interpretation. I have also carefully distinguished between interpretations that I see “possible,” i.e. are apparently consistent with the text but lack supportive evidence, and those that I consider “probable,” i.e. possible interpretations that are supported by evidence.
This exegetical journey may be described as an attempt to relive the story of Joseph with all of its explicit and implicitly details in the Qur’an. I have found it at times useful, or even necessary, to mention possible details that could be linked with the story of Joseph, although they are not supported by Qur’anic evidence. I hope I have worked hard enough to differentiate between such possible details and those that the Qur’anic text mentions explicitly or implicitly.
I have not restricted myself to giving my interpretation, but mentioned also the most important or common alternatives that have been suggested by others. Furthermore, I have not concentrated exclusively on arguments that support my interpretation, but also mentioned what might be seen as counter arguments and explained what made me discard them.
The material of this book occupies twelve chapters which are briefly reviewed here.
The first Chapter tackles two topics that are essential to cover before embarking on the attempt to interpret the sura of Joseph in the following chapters. The first topic is the Qur’an’s special style in relating history. The second concerns common problems that many interpretational attempts of the Qur’anic text suffer from. Examples of common flaws in the interpretations of the sura of Joseph are given. The chapter also contains a brief outline of the story of Joseph.
The next nine chapters, from the second to the tenth, include an analysis and interpretation of the whole of the sura of Joseph. The verses are studied sequentially. Each verse is first cited in full and then followed with my commentary. The verses under study have been highlighted with a special printing style.
The sura of Joseph starts with three and ends with ten general verses that are not part of the story of Joseph. Chapter two has been dedicated to the study of the first three (1.3) verses, and Chapter ten to the last ten (102.111). The story of Joseph, which occupies ninety eight (4.101) verses, is studied in Chapters 3.9. Each one of these seven chapters focuses on a particular stage of the story.
Chapter three analyzes verses 4.14 which describe events that took place when Joseph was still living in his father’s house. The fourth Chapter interprets verses 15.20 which recount how Joseph was taken to Egypt.
The period from the entry of Joseph into Egypt until he was put in jail, which is related in verses 21.35, is studied in Chapter five. Verses 36.53, which cover the time that Joseph spent in prison, are analyzed in Chapter six.
In Chapter seven, verses 54.68 are examined. These verses describe Joseph’s release from prison and his subsequent appointment to a high office in Egypt. The chapter also studies the visit of Joseph’s half brothers to him during the years of drought and his attempt to make them bring his brother to Egypt. Verses 69.79 are covered in Chapter eight which looks at Joseph’s meeting with his brother and how he kept him in Egypt.
Chapter nine focuses on the last verses of the story of Joseph, 80.101. These verses describe how Jacob, Joseph’s father, lost his sight because of his grief, how his sight was miraculously restored by Joseph’s shirt, and finally how he came with the rest of his extended family to live with Joseph in Egypt. The last ten verses of the sura of Joseph, 102.111, which contain general sermons, are studied in Chapter ten.
Chapters 2.10 study miraculous aspects of the Qur’an through analyzing its text. Chapter eleven takes a different approach to the study of the miraculousness of the Qur’an. It compares information from the story of Joseph with historical information about ancient Egypt. The chapter attempts to determine the time and place in Egypt in which Joseph lived. The research approach of this chapter is the same one used to study the story of prophet Moses and the early history of the Israelites in our book History Testifies to the Infallibility of the Qur’an: Early History of the Children of Israel (Malaysia: A. S. Noordeen, 1999).
A third approach to studying the miraculous nature of the Qur’an is represented by comparing the Qur’anic text with other religious texts. The most suitable text to compare the sura of Joseph with is the Biblical story of this prophet. This is dealt with in Chapter twelve, which is the last chapter of the book.
The book has two appendices containing the transliteration conventions and the Qur’anic terms and names used in the book.
Although this book contains a great deal of linguistic analysis of Qur’anic text, reading it does not require familiarity with the Arabic language or the Qur’an. I have taken every effort to explain everything that needs explaining to the reader who is unfamiliar with the Qur’an and/or Arabic.
I have tried my best to make this book as complete and comprehensive as it should be while maintaining the readability and smooth flow of the text. Additional details and background information have, therefore, been put in endnotes.
Each cited verse has been followed by a combination of two numbers identifying its sura and its position in that sura. For instance, the combination 12.11 refers to the 11th verse of the 12th sura.
In recognition of the fact that the deep Qur’anic text can be translated only with limited accuracy, I have included the original Arabic text in addition to my suggested translation. Those who understand Arabic can refer to the original instead of relying completely on the provided translation.
I have also added in square brackets any explanatory text needed to clarify the translation. Round brackets have been used to add alternative texts, such as the English meaning of a term that is cited in its Arabic origin.
A number of different printing styles are used in the book. A special font has been used for the English translation of the Qur’anic text. The same font, but in italics, is also used for the Roman transliterations of the Qur’an. Roman transliterations of non Qur’anic Arabic text use the same font of the ordinary text, but in italics.
Writing this book has been a dream that I have had for a long time. I thank Allah who has made it come true. Ever since Allah guided me to the Qur’an I have found in the sura of Joseph special beauty that took over my heart, and deep knowledge and insightful wisdom that captured my mind.
Among the people who helped me with this book, I would like to thank in particular my wife Dr Shetha Al Dargazelli for her many invaluable comments on earlier drafts. I would also like to thank my brothers Duraid and Faiz for their important comments. Shetha, Duraid, and Faiz have also kindly made the Qur’anic text very close to the Uthmani script. I am also deeply indebted to my friends Tariq Chaudhry and Alessandro Ansa for their excellent reviews of the book.
Allah is the source of every good, and all thanks are due to Him. I thank Allah Almighty for any success this book has had in its interpretation of the Qur’anic text whose full meanings are beyond the comprehension of any creature. I ask Him for forgiveness for every mistake that I have made. The Messenger of Allah, our Master Muhammad, said: “Deeds are judged by the intentions behind them, and every person earns according to what he has intended.” May Allah make this book the fruit of good intention.
Prayer and peace be upon the Prophet of the Qur’an our Master Muhammad and upon his lineage and companions.


Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved