(Sura 12: verse 99 – 101) – The Fulfillment of Yusuf’s dream – the sun, the moon, and eleven stars
(First published on Irshad Hussain’s blog, www.islamfrominside.com, on December 29, 2008) Article republished on khutbahbank by kind permission of Irshad Hussain
“Then when they came in to Yusuf, he took his parents to lodge with him and said: Enter safe into Egypt, if Allah please.” (Qur’an 12:99)
“And he raised his parents upon the throne and they (the brothers) fell down in prostration before him, and he said: O my father! (yaa abati) this is the significance (tawil) of my vision of old; my Lord has indeed made it to be true; and He was indeed kind to me when He brought me forth from the prison and brought you from the desert after the Shaitan (Satan) had sown dissensions between me and my brothers, surely my Lord is benignant to whom He pleases; surely He is the Knowing, the Wise.” (Qur’an 12:100)
“My Lord! Thou hast given me of the kingdom and taught me of the interpretation of sayings: Originator/Splitter of the heavens and the earth! Thou art my guardian in this world and the hereafter; make me die (ta-waffa) a Muslim and join me with the good.” (Qur’an 12:101)
Although in a narrative sense the sura of Joseph (Yusuf) is one of the most accessible and straightforward chapters of the Qur’an, describing in chronological order the story of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers, his rise to prominence in Egypt, and his reunion with his family, it is simultaneously a narrative whose surface conceals immense depths of meaning. The apparent meaning is a veil over multiple layers of hidden significance. This is indicated by the verses themselves as they connote a deep level of purport in the narrative:
“Certainly in Yusuf and his brothers there are deep signs for the inquirers.” (Qur’an 12:7)
And the repeated references in the sura to the science of tawil is a pointer to the fact that what occurs in this sura requires a multi-layered interpretation for its significance to be understood.
In verse 100 (as well as in verses 4 and 5 of the sura), Yusuf addresses his father as “yaa abati” which is a personal form of address, whereas the brothers address their father using a more formal means of address. This is an indicator of the special spiritual bond between Jacob and Joseph. A bond that remains intact even through their years of separation – a symbol of this bond is Joesph’s cloak or shirt. Joseph’s cloak (or his shirt) was given to Joseph by Jacob as a gift. According to the story in Genesis, the giving of this cloak marked the beginning of the envy felt by Joseph’s brothers. The passing of a cloak in Islam (especially in Sufism or Shi’ite Islam) indicates a transfer of spiritual authority from one person to another or connotes an acknowledgement of a person’s spiritual stature. Joseph receives the cloak and this is symbolic of the connection between the heart of Jacob and that of Joseph and it is also an indicator of Joseph’s connection to the Divine. Joseph’s spiritual stature grows and increases over time, and the cloak/shirt later becomes a means of healing to his aged father (restoring the vision he lost through weeping over his separation from Joseph). This is symbolic of the great increase in Joseph’s own spiritual authority and ability as well as the deep mystical bond between him and his father.
So Joseph’s cloak/shirt is a symbol of the bond of deep love and shared spiritual knowledge between Joseph and Jacob. This is a bond that passes through higher worlds even as it connects two hearts. From Joseph’s heart, to God, to Jacob’s heart – a spiritual connection between two people passes through God. When traditional love, that is normal earthly love, witnesses such a deep, powerful bond of knowledge and spiritual attraction it may cause the arising of jealousy within earthly hearts. It is similar to the jealousy Rumi’s adherents felt when Rumi was in the company of Shams-al-din with whom he had an intensely close spiritual linkage. Or like the jealousy that some people in the Prophet’s time felt when they witnessed the bond between the Prophet and Ali or between the Prophet and some of his dearest companions. For those who have a ritualistic or predominantly exoteric connection to their religion but without the dominance of spirit within themselves – seeing such a powerful attraction and extreme intensity of spirit can, perhaps, lead to a spiritual jealousy and envy – it can bring out negative qualities of the nafs. In Yusuf’s brothers this manifests in their lowering Yusuf into a pit – which itself is symbolic of their desire to lower him in status. They “agreed that they should lower him down into the bottom of the pit….” (Qur’an 12:15)
Note: The lowering into the well is countered by an actual raising of spiritual status. In the darkness of the well Joseph is illuminated by the light of inspiration: “….We revealed to him: You will most certainly inform them of this their affair while they do not perceive.” (Qur’an 12:15). God illuminates his soul with knowledge of what is to come and so bestows calm upon him in a desperate situation. When the outcome is determined, all anxiety disappears – the only unknown is how the conclusion will be arrived at, not the ending itself.
When Yusuf is lowered into the well, for Jacob also it is a lowering of status as his spirit has a connection with Joseph – his continued attachment and weeping over Joseph irks the brothers causing a continual annoyance and disrespect to flow from them – and the father lives in state of loss. So in verse 99 and 100 Joseph restores Jacob to his proper spiritual hierarchy by raising him to the throne – a sign of the restoration of his status after so long a period of time: “….he took his parents to lodge with him and said: Enter safely into Egypt….And he raised his parents upon the throne….” (Qur’an 12:100)
Also in verse 12:100 we arrive at the fulfillment of Joseph’s dream which is initially described in 12:4. After he has the dream, we are told that a part of Joseph’s prohethood is the ability to reveal the tawil (the hidden interpretation) of dreams and of events. And Joseph demonstrates this ability by interpreting the dreams/visions of the prisoners (when he is in jail) and of the king (when he is released). He does this by showing what events the dreams signify. In other words he maps the dreams onto real events in the world. But his own dream remains unexplained till verse 100. And at that point we learn that while interpretation of the dreams of others demonstrates his mastery of tawil, Joseph’s dream encompasses a sort of double tawil.
Joseph dreams (in verse 4) that he saw the sun, and the moon, and eleven stars prostrating to him. “When Yusuf said to his father: O my father! surely I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon – I saw them making obeisance to me.” (Qur’an 12:4) The meaning of this is that he will come to a position of authority and will be reunited with his family who will recognize his authority. The further meaning of this is that he will become the spiritual centre of the constellation of his family and they will orbit around him and be guided (suggested by their prostration) through his spiritual authority. A further aspect is that the dream displays the eventual elevated spiritual position of all his family since they are all symbolized by heavenly lights or heavenly bodies.
If we reverse the chronology of these events (the dream and the final reunion with his family) then we see that the dream (from Qur’an 12:4) was displaying the true spiritual reality underlying all the events in this world leading up to Joseph’s reunion with his family and their prostration before him. So Joseph’s family prostrating before him indicates that his spiritual stature was such that he became the central gravitational fulcrum about which their souls orbited – he becomes the means by which his brothers are uplifted from their errors so that they become lights in their own right under the pull and influence and guidance of Joseph. Joseph becomes the guide who, though his identity is not known to the brothers, corrects the faults in their souls.
Joseph’s dream of the sun, moon, and stars is more indicative of reality and the true state of affairs than the material reality around him. The dream is a revelatory witnessing of spiritual realities. The actual events in this world are a shadow of this reality. So Joseph witnesses the true inner reality of events in his dream. Eventually that inner reality unfolds in the form of actual events in this world and Joseph says, “This is the interpretation of my dream.” (Qur’an 12:100)
But the dream was the truer reality as it was not simply a dream that maps onto this world but a witnessing of the spiritual bedrock underlying events – it was revelation. The dream is an explanation of the true meaning of the actual events that transpire later in time. The dream provides a deep explanation of the events even as the events show the true prophetic nature of the dream. It is a paradoxical double tawil that rises above the other dream interpretations made by Joseph. The meaning of the events preceded the events. So when spiritual realities are perceived in Joseph’s revelatory dream, that dream is more real than the events it foreshadows in the sense that it gives a truer picture of the nature underlying the events in this world.
His dream is when he is truly awake because he is witnessing higher spiritual realities in it, realities that are concealed in this waking world. And the Qur’an says that when we awake after death in a higher spiritual reality, our sight (our understanding) will be piercing, awake. Joseph is already truly awake in that higher reality through his dream. He is armed with that experience when he acts in this world. Everything he does arises from a continuous process of tawil. His dreams apprise him of the spiritual reality underlying events in this world. And so Joseph, armed with the gift of tawil, acts with perfect balance and equanimity, guiding individuals (his family) and entire societies (Egypt) to that which is most felicitous.
As well, the dream of Joseph is an indication of the divine lights illuminating Joseph’s soul. When such lights open within an individual this is a sign that events of this world will be in submission to higher decrees. Joseph glimpses the divine decree in his dream. When Joseph is placed in a pit and later in prison, this is only a path to the fulfillment displayed in the dream. Joseph will be elevated. Those who wish him harm will be subdued by him – and through their submission to the nobility of Joseph (and thus to God), they find their salvation and they find mercy. The outcome of Joseph’s road was guided by Allah as stated in Qur’an 12:21: “And Allah was pre-dominant in his career, but most of mankind know not. (Qur’an 12:21)
When verse 100 speaks of Joseph’s family prostrating before him it uses a term that occurs in several places in the Qur’an to describe the action and inner state of someone who witnessed a manifestation of God and fell down prostrate in reaction to this divine theophany (as when Moses’ swooned when experiencing the Divine presence) or in reaction to experiencing the true power of the Qur’an’s verses. For example Qur’an 19:58 says, “….When the revelations of the Beneficent were recited to them they fell down prostrating, adoring, weeping.” (Qur’an 19:58) Joseph’s brothers experienced an inner transformation brought about by Joseph’s guidance, so their prostration also encompassed an inner recognition of Joseph’s spiritual authority and their newly awakened spirits prostrated out of gratitude and realization.
In Qur’an 12:88 the brothers asked Joseph for charity, for sadaqa. They used a verbal form of the root s-d-q. They used it in its ordinary meaning of being charitable. They were unaware of the immense extent of Joseph’s charity towards them – he gives them not simply material charity but also a spiritual charity which is to be their salvation. He gives to them exactly what they ask for but in a manner far more deep and profound than they could have imagined. He gives them the gift of their own souls set right, of inner truthfulness (sidq). Their request is worth reiterating so we can become aware, in hindsight, of its double meaning. They ask: “O Mighty one, we and our family have been beset by hardship, and we have brought unworthy goods! So fill up the measure for us, and be charitable with us: surely God rewards those who are charitable!” (Qur’an 12:88) They asked for material goods, and received both material and spiritual goods. The hardship is the hardship of the fractures within their own souls caused by their placing Joseph into the well. The unworthy goods they brought were their own selves. They wish Joseph to fill up their measure and the measure he fills up is to raise their souls/selves to the proper measure – to place in their souls what was lacking. They wish Joseph to be charitable and he bestows upon them the ultimate charity by guiding them to a state of spiritual restoration and by bestowing upon them forgiveness and mercy.
“He (Joseph) said: (There shall be) no reproof against you this day; Allah will forgive you, and He is the most Merciful of the merciful.” (Qur’an 12:92)
In Qur’an 12:91 the brothers say: “By Allah! Allah has certainly chosen you over us, and we were certainly sinners.” (Qur’an 12:91) Joseph has, through careful and studied guidance brought them to a realization about their own selves. They experience a recognition of their former corrupted inner state and the corrections Joseph has brought about within them. This is a sign that Joseph has worked within his brothers an alchemical change that transforms them from a fallen state to a state of spiritual restoration. He lifts them out of the blind alley of the nafs al-amarra (the soul that commands to evil) to the state of nafs al-lawamma (the blaming soul – the active conscience) and activates within them the workings of spirit. The activity of this process is evident when they are told in verse 87, “….despair not of the spirit of Allah….” (Qur’an 12:87)
Joseph and his father had to reverse within the brothers the effects of their past wrongdoing and their past recalcitrance towards correction – to reverse the process by which they came under the influence of evil, of Shaitan (Satan). As Jacob mentions concerning the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers (early in the sura), “Lo, Shaitan (Satan) is for man an open foe.” (Qur’an 12:5) The brothers undergo a fall, akin to the fall of Adam, in that they are tempted and they succumb and act against Joseph. Joseph’s task is to lead them back from this fall, to liberate them from the grip of Shaitan, and restore their own souls to them. They have to be lifted out of the spiritual darkness into which they cast themselves by their actions against Joseph and returned to light. The inevitability of a successful conclusion is prefigured in Joseph’s dream in which his brother’s appear as heavenly lights. But for them to reach a stage of spiritual restoration it is not sufficient for Joseph simply to speak to them or lecture them. They have to learn through lived experience and they have to be guided through the appropriate experiences – Joseph acts as their guide – a spiritual guide of whom they are completely unaware. He shapes the difficulties and hardships they must go through, he maneuvers the twists and turns and stratagems that eventually bring them to a position of reunion, recognition, repentance, and salvation. The apparent plot convolutions in the sura can initially appear to be a tangle of different threads, but these resolve eventually into a concentrated spiritual tapestry. The threads of Joseph’s brothers are those of souls being purified of sins and faults. The thread of Joseph is a binding thread that connects all the disparate portions of the tapestry into a unified whole. Joseph’s position is one of deep spiritual authority.
In one sense , Joseph’s position of authority and power, and the actions he takes to correct and straighten the crooked souls of his brothers, and the gracious mercy he shows to all those who wronged him can also be seen as an earthly example and symbol of a higher guidance and judgement. God’s intention is not simply to discharge His wrath and vengeance upon humans, nor to doom them for slips of the soul, but rather the Prophets and revelation and the endless signs that are manifest out in the world and within our own selves are all a form of guidance and correction to steer us to felicity. The aim is to guide us, sometimes with rewards and sometimes with a stick, just as Joseph armed with knowledge that his brothers’ lacked, forced them into situations which were uncomfortable and trying for them but which ultimately had the aim of straightening the crookedness in their souls. And when the brothers were helpless in front of Joseph and subject to his command – he showed them only mercy. Just as Joseph had a hidden knowledge of his brothers’ situation and guided them to a spiritual realization which would allow them to turn in a new direction, so God has hidden knowledge of all our situations.
Verse 101 (“My Lord! Thou hast given me of the kingdom and taught me of the interpretation of sayings….”) uses similar wording to verse 6, except now Joseph recognizes through personal experience and knowledge the promise that was made in verse 6. And this expands further, if any such expansion was possible, Joseph’s profound gratefulness to God for the protecting bond that has guided him and his family to felicity and union through mysterious and astounding routes. It is here that we realize that Joseph’s position is a truly elevated one as he has a position of proximity to Allah denoted by the term wali. “Thou art my wali (proximate loving guardian) in this world and the hereafter….” (Qur’an 12:101) God is his wali in the two domains of this world and the hereafter, the material universe and the spiritual worlds.
This verse also uses the term Fatir, translated as Creator or Originator but which literally means “splitter” and possibly also referring to fitra (the primordial nature with which things are created). In this case it likely refers to the dual nature of creation which consists of both matter and spirit, form and substance, earth and heaven. “Creator/Splitter of the heavens and earth” says the verse. And God’s guidance of Joseph unites both these dimensions as Joseph’s every action in this world is one that originates in and descends from a higher realm and takes root in this world. While the two worlds, dunya (this world) and akhira (the hereafter), are in one sense separate it is also the case that the higher worlds encompass and envelop the lower ones. So when a command issues from the higher worlds, it operates irresistibly in the lower world, the world of the dunya – “He regulates the affair from the heaven to the earth….” (Qur’an 32:5) In sura Yusuf, verse 6 says: “…thy Lord will prefer thee and will teach thee the interpretation of events, and will perfect His grace upon the family of Jacob….” (Qur’an 12:6) This is like a command which issues from heaven and then, from that point on, invisibly but irresistibly regulates all matters concerning Joseph and Jacob and their family until they are brought to a state of felicity in verse 100. Everything that happens in between in this sura is guided by the promise of verse 6. And the patience of Jacob and Joseph is a sign of their proximity and surrender to God and His infallible promise. The word ta-waffa (also used in verse 101) refers to the moment of death when each soul is received by the angel or by God, and Joseph, recognizing in full the intense transcendence of the station he has reached in verse 100, asks God to preserve this elevated state of awareness and surrender within him, till he arrives at the moment of his death: “….make me die (ta-waffa) a Muslim and join me with the good.” (Qur’an 12:101)