When and Why Revealed?
The subject matter of this Surah indicates that it was revealed
during the last stage of the Holy Prophet's residence at Makkah,
when the Quraish were considering the question of killing or
exiling or imprisoning him. At that time some of the unbelievers
put this question (probably at the instigation of the Jews)
to test him :"Why did the Israelites go to Egypt?" This question
was asked because they knew that their story was not known
to the Arabs for there was no mention of it whatever in their
traditions and the Holy Prophet had never even referred to
Therefore they expected that he would not be able to give any
satisfactory answer to this question or would first evade it,
and afterwards try to enquire about it from some Jew, and thus
he would be totally exposed. But, contrary to their expectations,
the tables were turned on them, for Allah revealed the whole
story of Prophet Joseph then and there, and the Holy Prophet
recited it on the spot. This put the Quraish in a very awkward
position because it not only foiled their scheme but also administered
a warning to them by aptly applying it to their case, as if
to say, "As you are behaving towards this Prophet, exactly
in the same way the brothers of Prophet Joseph behaved towards
him; so you shall meet with the same end."
Objects of Revelation
From the above it is clear that this Surah was sent down for
The first object was to give the proof of the Prophethood of
Muhammad (Allah's peace be upon him), and that too, the one
demanded by the opponents themselves so as to prove conclusively
that his knowledge was not based on mere hearsay, but was gained
through Revelation. This aspect has been stated explicitly
in its introductory verses and explained plainly in its concluding
The second object was to apply it to the Quraish and warn them
that ultimately the conflict between them and the Holy Prophet
would end in his victory over them. As they were then persecuting
their brother, the Holy Prophet, in the same way the brothers
of Prophet Joseph had treated him. The Quraish were told indirectly
that they would also fail in their evil designs just as the
brothers of Prophet Joseph had failed in his case, even after
casting him into the well.
This is because none has the power to defeat the Divine will.
And just as the brothers of Prophet Joseph had to humble themselves
before him, so one day the Quraish shall have to beg forgiveness
from their brother whom they were then trying to crush down.
This, too, has been made quite plain in v. 7: "Indeed there
are signs in this story of Joseph and his brothers for these
inquirers from among the Quraish."
The fact is that by applying this story to the conflict, the
Quran had made a bold and clear prophecy, which was fulfilled
literally by the events that happened in the succeeding ten
years. Hardly two years had passed after its revelation, when
the Quraish conspired to kill the Holy Prophet like the brothers
of Prophet Joseph, and he had to emigrate from Makkah to Al-Madinah,
where he gained the same kind of power as Prophet Joseph had
gained in Egypt.
Again, in the end the Quraish had to humble themselves before
him just like the brothers of Prophet Joseph, when they humbly
requested, "Show mercy to us for Allah rewards richly those
who show mercy" (V. 88), and Prophet Joseph generously forgave
them, (though he had complete power to wreak vengeance on them,)
saying, " today no penalty shall be inflicted on you. May Allah
forgive you:He is the greatest of all those who forgive" (V.
The same story of mercy was repeated, when after the conquest
of Makkah, the crest fallen Quraish stood meekly before the
Holy Prophet, who had full power to wreak his vengeance on
them for each and every cruelty committed by them. But instead,
he merely asked them, "What treatment do you expect from me
now?" They replied, "You are a generous brother and the son
of a generous brother." At this, he very generously forgave
them, saying, "I will give the same answer to your request
that Joseph gave to his brothers: '. . . today, no penalty
shall be inflicted on you: you are forgiven."
Topics of Discussion
Moreover, the Quran does not relate this story as a mere narrative
but uses it, as usual, for the propagation of the Message in
the following ways:-
Throughout the narrative the Quran has made it clear that the
Faith of Prophets Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph (Allah's
peace be upon them all) was the same as that of Prophet Muhammad
(Allah's peace be upon him) and they invited the people to
the same Message to which Muhammad (Allah's peace be upon him)
was inviting them.
Then it places the characters of Prophet Jacob and Prophet
Joseph side by side with the characters of the brothers of
Joseph, the members of the trade caravan, the court dignitary;
Al Aziz of Egypt and his wife, the "ladies" of Egypt and the
rulers of Egypt and poses a silent question to the reader,
as if to say, "Contrast the former characters moulded by
Islam on the bedrock of the worship of Allah and accountability
in the Hereafter with the latter moulded by kufr and "ignorance" on
the worship of the world and disregard of Allah and the Hereafter,
and decide for yourselves which of these two patterns you would
The Quran has used this story to bring forth another truth:
whatever Allah wills, He fulfills it anyhow, and man can never
defeat His plan with his counterplans nor prevent it from happening
nor change it in any way whatever. Nay, it often so happens
that man adopts some measure to fulfill his own design and
believes that he has done that very thing which would fulfill
his design, but in the end he finds to his dismay that he had
done something which was against his own and conducive to the
When the brothers of Prophet Joseph cast him into the well,
they believed that they had once for all got rid of the obstacle
in their way but in fact, they had paved the way for the Divine
purpose of making him the ruler of Egypt, before whom they
would have to humble themselves in the end. Likewise, the wife
of Aziz had sent Prophet Joseph to the prison, floating over
the thought that she had wreaked her vengeance on him, but,
in fact, she had provided for him the opportunity for becoming
the ruler of Egypt and for putting herself to the shame of
confessing her own sin publicly.
And these are not the solitary instances which prove the truth
that even if the whole world united to bring about the down
fall of the one whom Allah willed to raise high, it could not
succeed. Nay, the very "sure and effective" measures that were
adopted by the brothers to degrade Joseph were used by Allah
for the success of Joseph and for the humiliation and disgrace
of his brothers. On the other hand, if Allah willed the fall
of one, no measure, howsoever effective, could raise him high
: nay, it helped to bring about his fall and the disgrace of
those who adopted them.
Moreover, the story contains other lessons for those who intend
to follow the way of Allah. The first lesson it teaches is
that one should remain within the limits, prescribed by the
Divine Law, in one's aims and objects and measures, for success
and failure are entirely in the hands of Allah. Therefore if
one adopts pure aims and lawful measures but fails, at least
one will escape ignominy and disgrace. On the other hand, the
one who adopts an impure aim and unlawful measures to achieve
it, shall not only inevitably meet with ignominy and disgrace
in the Hereafter, but also runs the risk of ignominy and disgrace
in this world.
The second lesson it teaches is that those who exert for the
cause of truth and righteousness and put their trust in Allah
and entrust all their affairs to Him, get consolation and comfort
from Him, for this helps them face their opponents with confidence
and courage and they do not lose heart, when they encounter
the apparently terrifying measures of the powerful enemies.
They will persevere in their task without fear and leave the
results to Allah.
But the greatest lesson this story teaches is that if the Believer
possesses true Islamic character and is endowed with wisdom,
he can conquer a whole country with the strength of his character
alone. The marvelous example of Prophet Joseph teaches us that
a man of high and pure character comes out successful even
under the most adverse circumstances. When Prophet Joseph went
to Egypt, he was only a lad of seventeen years, a foreigner,
all alone and without any provisions; nay, he had been sold
there as a slave. And the horrible condition of the slaves
during that period is known to every student of history. Then
he was charged with a heinous moral Crime and sent to prison
for an indefinite term. But throughout this period of affliction,
he evinced the highest moral qualities which raised him to
the highest rank in the country.
Historical and Geographical Background
The following historical and geographical details will help
understand the story:-
Prophet Joseph was a son of Prophet Jacob and a grandson of
Prophet Isaac and a great grandson of Prophet Abraham (Allah's
peace be upon them all). The Bible says (and the allusions
in the Quran also confirm this) that Prophet Jacob had twelve
sons from four wives. Prophet Joseph and his younger brother
Benjamin were from one wife and the other ten from the other
wives. Prophet Jacob had settled at Hebron (Palestine) where
his father Prophet Isaac and before him Prophet Abraham lived
and owned a piece of land at Shechem as well.
According to the research scholars of the Bible, Prophet Joseph
was born in or about 906 B. C. and the incident with which
this story begins happened in or about 890 B. C. He was seventeen
when he saw the dream and was thrown into the well. This well
was near Dothan to the north of Shechem according to Biblical
and Talmudic traditions, and the caravan, which took him out
of the well, was coming from Gilead (Trans-Jordan), and was
on its way to Egypt.
At that time Fifteenth Dynasty ruled over Egypt, whose rulers
are known in history as the Hyksos kings. They belonged to
the Arab race, but had migrated from Palestine and Syria to
Egypt in or about 2000 B. C. and taken possession of the country.
The Arab historians and the commentators of the Quran have
given them the name of Amaliq (the Amalekites), and this has
been corroborated by the recent researches made by the Egyptologists.
They were foreign invaders who had got the opportunity of establishing
their kingdom because of the internal feuds in the country.
That is why there was no prejudice in the way of Prophet Joseph's
ascendancy to power and in the subsequent settlement of the
Children of Israel in the most fertile region of Egypt. They
could gain that power and influence which they did, because
they belonged to the same race as the foreign rulers of Egypt.
The Hyksos ruled over Egypt up to the end of the fifteenth
century B. C., and practically all the powers remained in the
hands of the Israelites. The Quran has made a reference to
this in v. 20 of Al-Ma'idah: ..... He raised Prophets among
you and made you rulers. . ., Then there arose a great nationalist
movement which overthrew the power of this dynasty and exiled
250,000 or so of the Amalekites. As a result of this, a very
bigoted dynasty of Copts came into power and uprooted everything
connected with the Amalekites. Then started that persecution
of the Israelites which has been mentioned in connection with
the story of Prophet Moses.
We also learn from the history of Egypt that the "Hyksos kings" did
not acknowledge the gods of Egypt and, therefore, had imported
their own gods from Syria, with a view to spreading their own
religion in Egypt. This is the reason why the Quran has not
called the king who was the contemporary of Prophet Joseph
by the title of "Pharaoh," because this title was associated
with the religion of the original people of Egypt and the Hyksos
did not believe in it, but the Bible erroneously calls him "Pharaoh".
It appears that the editors of the Bible had the misunderstanding
that all the kings of Egypt were "Pharaohs."
The modern research scholars who have made a comparative study
of the Bible and the Egyptian history are generally of the
opinion that Apophis was the Hyksos king, who was the contemporary
of Prophet Joseph.
At that time Memphis was the capital of Egypt, whose ruins
are still found on the Nile at a distance of 4 miles south
of Cairo. When Prophet Joseph was taken there, he was 17 or
18 years old. He remained in the house of Aziz for three years
and spent nine years in prison, and then became the ruler of
the land at the age of thirty and ruled over Egypt independently
for eighty years.
In the ninth or tenth year of his rule he sent for his father,
Prophet Jacob, to come from Palestine to Egypt with all the
members of his family and, according to the Bible, settled
them in the land of Goshen, where they lived up to the time
of Prophet Moses. The Bible says that before his death, Prophet
Joseph bound his kindred by an oath: "when you return from
this country to the house of your forefathers you must take
my bones out of this country with you. So he died a hundred
and ten years old, and they embalmed him . . ."
Though the story of Prophet Joseph as given in the Quran differs
very much in its details from that given in the Bible and the
Talmud, the Three generally agree in regard to its component
parts. We shall explain the differences, when and where necessary,
in our Explanatory Notes.