From Prison to Palace

Here is the third episode of the story of Yusuf, relating the final test that Yusuf has to endure. He is thrown into prison despite his innocence has been proven: “Then it occurred to them, after they had seen the signs, that they should imprison him for a time” (Q, 12:35).

Here is the third episode of the story of Yusuf, relating the final test that Yusuf has to endure. He is thrown into prison despite his innocence has been proven: “Then it occurred to them, after they had seen the signs, that they should imprison him for a time” (Q, 12:35). After all the shameful behaviors towards an innocent young man, making such decision in order to safeguard the reputation of high class families reflects the low morality of the aristocracy.

The story immediately moves on to the two other young men, who enter the prison with Yusuf. In this scene, these two young men relate their dreams to Yusuf. Although the Qur’an does not bring out how Yusuf is recognized, and won the trust as a man of wisdom in prison, v.36 states these two men’s impression of Yusuf that “Truly we see you as being among the virtuous,” such that they ask Yusuf to interpret their dreams for them. Thus, God’s design would develop, and Yusuf would get in touch with Pharaoh for the salvation of Egypt. The two men respectively relate their dreams: “One of them said, ‘Truly I see myself [in a dream] pressing wine.’ The other said, ‘Truly I see myself [in a dream] carrying bread atop my head, from which the birds eat’” (Q, 12:36). Then Joseph says that he will inform them of the meaning of these dreams before their next meal is served. For Yusuf, this is an opportunity to perform his duty to preach, and speak to the prisoners about his true faith. Yusuf says to the prisoners that:

No food with which you are provided will come unto you, save that I shall inform you of its interpretation before it comes. This is among the things my Lord has taught me. I forsake the creed of a people who believe not in God, and they who are disbelievers in the Hereafter. And I follow the creed of my fathers, Abraham [Ibrahim], and Isaac [Ishaq], and Jacob [Ya’qub]. It is not for us to ascribe any partners unto God. That is from the bounty God has bestowed upon us and upon mankind, but most of mankind do not give thanks. (Q, 12:37-38)

Notice the manner that Yusuf employs. When they ask him the interpretation of their dreams, he immediately reminds the prisoners that it is God who taught his knowledge of dream interpretation. Since Yusuf does not believe the religion being practiced by the people of Egypt, who know about God but they also worship divinities as partners or intercessors, he makes his faith clear in the first place by declaring that his family, the family of Ibrahim, hold the knowledge of the Oneness of God, and that his faith do not attribute any partners to God. He also emphasizes that believing in the Day of Judgment is essential for his true faith. After introducing his faith properly and establishing God’s Oneness rationally and ontologically, he interprets the dreams of his two companions in prison as follows:

O my fellow prisoners! As for one of you, he shall serve wine to his lord. But as for the other, he shall be crucified, and the birds will eat from his head. The matter about which you inquired has been decreed. (Q, 12:41)

We understand from the following verses that Yusuf’s interpretation of these dreams come true exactly as he had said that it would. Yusuf approaches the companion who destines to be saved, and says “Mention me to your lord” (Q, 12:42), hoping that the king would investigate his situation properly, and free him. However, Satan causes the companion to forget mentioning Yusuf to the king, and therefore, he remains in prison for several years more. Most commentators, such as Ibn Katheer (d.774, 1373), believe that he remained in prison seven years in total. In al-Tabari’s ‘Jami’ al-bayan ‘an ta’wil ay al-Qur’an’, the Prophet is reported to have said, “God have mercy on Yusuf. Had it not been for a statement he made- Mention me to your lord-he would not have remained in the prison as long as he did.” Thus, God gives Yusuf a lesson that he should not be dependent on anything related to human beings, and should dedicate himself completely to God. Right after this, the surah carries the story into the court of King, who requests to his courtiers and priests to interpret the dream he has: “Verily I see [in a dream] seven fat caws being eaten by seven lean ones; and seven green heads of grain, and others dry” (Q, 12: 43). The courtiers and priests of the King agree that the dream is just a confused dream, and say that they are not able to give a deep meaning of dreams. The wine carrier, Yusuf’s companion from the prison, hears the king’s dream, and remembers Yusuf. He convinces the king to consult Yusuf about the dream by saying that he will tell them the real meaning of the dream. With the king’s permission, he goes to the prison, and relates the dream to Yusuf. He calls Yusuf “a man of truth,” and requests the interpretation of the king’s dream. Yusuf offers his interpretation of the dream as follows:

You will sow diligently for seven years. Then whatever you harvest, leave in its ear, save a little that you eat. Then after this will come seven hard [years] which will devour that which you have saved in advance for them, save a little of that which you have stored. Then after this will come a year wherein people will be granted succor, and wherein they will press [wine and oil]. (Q, 12:47-49)

Not only does Yusuf give the meaning of the dream, he also suggests a course of action. Yusuf’s interpretation makes the king amazed, and demands Yusuf to be brought before him. However, Yusuf seeks to exonerate himself. When the wine carrier approached Yusuf, in order to free him from prison, he wants the messenger return to the king asking him, “What of the women who cut their hands?” (Q, 12:50) Although he has spent so long in prison, he does not want to leave prison until his innocence was established. We see that his present attitude, which he is in no hurry, is different from the previous one, which he had said to his prison companion that “Mention me to your lord.” It must be distinguished that Yusuf uses the term “Rabb,” or “lord” in two different forms in the surah: the king as the messenger’s lord and God as Yusuf’s Lord. The messenger goes back, and informs the king about Yusuf’s answer, and then, the king gathers the women to interrogate them:

He said, ‘What was your purpose when you sought to lure Yusuf from himself?’ They said ‘God be praised! We know no evil against him.’ The viceroy’s wife said, ‘now the truth has come to light. It was I who sought to lure him from himself, and verily he is among the truthful.’ (Q, 12: 51)

This full confession of the wife of al-Aziz, and her full testimony of Yusuf’s innocence before the king and the noble of the state is followed by the v. 52 stating that “This is so, that he may know that I betrayed him not in his absence.” Although it is argued by some, such as al-Razi, that the speaker here could be the wife of al-Aziz, most commentators, such as al-Baghawi and al-Zamakhshari, think that these words belong to Yusuf, who seeks to clear himself of any blame before al-Aziz. In the following verse, Yusuf points out that it is God, Who protected him from committing evil. Once Yusuf’s innocence is established, the king becomes more impressed, and wants Yusuf to be brought before him, so that he might reserve him exclusively for himself. When the king speaks with Yusuf, he says that “Truly this day thou shalt be of high rank and trusted in our presence” (Q, 12:54). Yusuf then deliberately asks to be put in charge of the store houses by saying that “Set me over the storehouses of the land. Truly I am skilled keeper” (Q, 12:55). Aware of the trials about to face Egypt during the next fifteen years, Yusuf knows what would happen, and therefore, asks to be entrusted with this very difficult task by insuring that he is capable of preventing the danger inherent in a time of famine. He does not ask something for himself, indeed, he offers a help for the country that is not his own – a model for the world and care of foreigners who are also God’s people. After Yusuf undergoes a course of trial and hardship, he is set over the storehouses. His life now takes a great turn. In v. 56, the Qur’an uses the same wording as in v. 21 stating that “Thus did We establish Yusuf in the land.” He now “might settle wheresoever he will.” This means that, according to al-Kashani (d. 1091-1680), Yusuf could “establish his home in any of Egypt’s cities because of his control ever all of them.” Vv. 56-57 indicate that Yusuf’s total submission to God’s Will, along with his patience and perseverance in the face of difficulty, already results in a great reward with his new position of power; however, the better reward for those who believe and are reverent would be in the Hereafter.

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