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Tuesday, 08 May 2018

Allegorical Interpretation of the Story of Joseph / Yusuf (1)

(Author: Scholar Abdalla Yusuf Ali- Translator Commentator of the Holy Quran 1934-1938)

Spiritual things can only be understood by symbols taken from things which are familiar to us in this life. The whole phenomenal world is a symbol. The reality lies behind it, like the real light behind the cave, in Plato’s Theory of Ideas. This is not to say that Islam agrees with the Vedantists (Vedan’ta-Vedan’tic= any one of the four Hindu holy books) in calling this whole visible world an illusion. It is an illusion to suppose that it is the only world. But it is equally an illusion to suppose this world is of no consequence. It is of as much consequence as our thoughts, feelings, dreams, and Life. We have to make use of them, study and respect their laws, and obey the duties imposed on us by the spiritual part of us being entangled in their chain. But they are not eternal, and they will pass away. Our duty is to prepare ourselves for the truer life, the eternal life: We emancipate ourselves from them, not by feeling them {for that is impossible}, but by fulfilling our obligations in them, as an apprentice or probationer attains his real position by completing his apprenticeship or probation satisfactorily and so ceasing to be an apprentice or probationer.     
From this point of view there is an allegorical meaning in all experience, history, and spiritual teaching; the temporary relationship, the fleeting events, our triumphs, defeats, and difficulties in this phenomenal world. Our temporal experiences are the foundation on which our greater and real Life is built up. This greater and real Life is not merely a thing of the future. It is within us all the time, if we only seek its truer light and tries to fulfill our lower and temporal functions by the more stable principles with which it furnishes us. The glimpses of the spiritual Joseph/Yusuf –as I understand them in the Qur’an- are to afford us {IN ORDER THAT WE MAY LEARN WISDOM- S. 12 V 2}. Stories, events, visions, dreams seem all to be assimilated under the Arabic word Ahadith= [conversation/talk/narration]. The real ones among them –as opposed to futile fancies- have all an inner meaning. It is only given to a few chosen spirits to understand and expound them. Joseph/Yusuf was one of these choicer spirits. From his boyhood he had an inner vision which he treasured up in his mind. Its meaning –or full meaning- only dawned on him afterwards. When it did, he was able to fulfill his mission in life. The Mission had many aspects. His father Jacob/Ya’qub was also a Seer or Prophet, but Joseph/Yusuf in his maturity surpassed him in rank, and Joseph/Yusuf’s life and filial love were as it being necessary to his father to complete and crown the full achievement of his life. Then Joseph/Yusuf among his ten half-brothers, and one full-brother, had a protective and guiding mission. To Benjamin –his one full-brother- and the youngest in the family, he was almost like a father when Jacob/Ya’qub reached old age and resigned the headship of the family. The other brothers reflect all the pettiness, wickedness, jealousy, spite, hatred, injustice, and lower propensities of human life, combined with the latent reasonableness and the capacity to repent and turn over a new leaf, which was Joseph/Yusuf’s Mission to awaken at the expense of much suffering to himself. The ten brothers are shown to us collectively as acting as human social group, with all their arrogance based on numbers and physical strength, and contempt of older and wiser experience. But we are also shown how the better side of human nature sometimes struggles to assert itself as against the baser and grosser standards of mass mentality, as when one of them advised them not to take Joseph/Yusuf’s life [V10], and again, later, when one of them felt ashamed to show himself before his father without Benjamin and offered to stay behind if perchance he could release Benjamin [verse 78, 80]. But it will be noticed that in both cases there was a good deal of alloy with gold. The better nature of individual has always a hard fight against the lower collective standards, which to unregenerate human nature seem to be the last word in morality, like the hard instinct in the lower animals. This is also shown in the actions and reactions between Zulaikha and Society women. Sometimes Zulaikha was almost on the point of seeing the error of her ways, when her passion is inflamed and her higher nature suppressed by bitter taste of what the world says and the discovery that those who cast the first stone at a delinquent would be first to take all the so-called enjoyment of the sin which they are so prompt to reprobate in others.  To the merchants who found and purchased Joseph /Yusuf -the handsome young slave- of their winning ways, it was indeed “a Treasure –V 19”. They understood that treasure in a material and grasping commercial spirit, but no doubt the road journey from Canaan to the Egyptian capital showed them the divinely-inspired virtuous side of Joseph/Yusuf, and it is impossible to suppose that they had not much spiritual profit out of it. The ‘Aziz of Egypt’ the high official, who bought him, expected much good out of him, wanted to treat him with honor, and adopt him as a son [v 21]. He –no doubt- saw [even if but vaguely] the moral and spiritual grandeur of Joseph/Yusuf, but his highest privilege [though he may not have known it] was that he was able to be the instrument by which Joseph/Yusuf was “Established in the land –v 21”; and that through him the strange, romantic, wholly feminine character of Zulaikha was brought into touch with her ideal, and through sorrow, suffering, sin, and repentance, was at last able to catch a glimpse of that heavenly love of which she had dreamed and which she had so much misunderstood under the stress of human passion. On Zulaikha our romantic Sufi poetry has concentrated its attention in the story of Joseph/Yusuf, and of this we shall speak presently. In the A’ziz’s house Joseph/Yusuf attained his full manhood and endowment of Power and Knowledge from God [v-22]. In her ardent way as a sinner Zulaikha had a share in Joseph/Yusuf’s development, for his virtue was tried through her beauty and passion and emerged triumphant. The Society ladies who taunted Zulaikha represent the prudish element in femininity. The contest between jealous prude and the frank, impulsive victim of ardent love is well-figured in the relations between the ladies and Zulaikha right to the end. Calculating hypocrisy and intolerant slander are farther from true love than a misconceived desire in earthly love, and this point is well brought out in Joseph/Yusuf’s story. The ladies, when they cut their fingers at Zulaikha’s feast, are the type of women who figuratively cut their souls in straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. Joseph/Yusuf’s slavery and prison are the types of what a righteous man has to suffer the sins and follies of others, in order: (1) that he may bring some good to others, and (2) that he may develop his own character and high destiny. Without sorrow, suffering and striving –spiritual Jihad- even the best men cannot attain their full stature. Throw them we are taught a true sense of values. The slave must work, must labor –not for own self- but for others. If he does it in the right spirit, he exposes the hollowness of idleness, the ridiculous position of arrogance, and the futility of power which permits injustice. The prisoner who is being innocent is put into a human prison, enlarges his own spiritual liberty and opportunity, and perhaps shows up by contrast the darker and more impenetrable prison in whose grip, his unjust incarcerators are held. The test is whether the innocent man who is put into prison or subjection is able to hold up his head. If so, he is able to achieve Burns’s [Scottish poet -1759-1769] ideal “Preserve the dignity of man, with soul erect”:   for Tawakkul= {Trust/Confidence/Reliance/Dependability} of Islam will have made it a part of his nature to know for certain that “The Universal Plan will all protect”.  The spiritual benefit which the two fellow-prisoners derived from Joseph/Yusuf’s spiritual influence is explained in the notes of verses 36-40. And then comes the period of Joseph/ Yusuf’s exaltation in worldly position, his strenuous administration of Egypt during fourteen eventual years, and perhaps to the end of his life, his opportunities to make the Pharaoh’s power real and beneficent, instead of a mere simulacrum and a nerveless show, behind which lurked injustice and oppression. There is also the touching reunion of the family. The little artifice of which Joseph/Yusuf induces the brothers to confess their own hatred and spite [v-77] leads to their own self-exposure, preparatory to their repentance and forgiveness. On this and innumerable other points whole volumes could be written. But I will now pass to Zulaikha and her treatment in our mystic romantic poetry; for it forms an interesting commentary on Islam has understood from one episode of Joseph/Yusuf’s career. In almost all Islamic languages the romance of Yusuf and Zulaikha has justly attracted much attention in mystic poetry. Perhaps the order of the names should really be reversed and the romance should be called that of Zulaikha and Yusuf. In Persian the great Firdausi tried his hand on it. But the great masterpiece is that of Jami whose dates fall between 817-898 A.H. equivalents to l4l4-l492 A.D., I consider it one of the masterpieces of the world’s literature. There is a good German translation by Rosenzweig, and an English translation by R.T.H. Griffith. The translation by A. Rogers is not so good. The original Persian is so grand and instructive that it is a pity that our Islamic students do not study it with the attention which it deserves. I shall give a very brief account of the version as developed by Jami; where I quote in English verse, I shall use Griffith’s version (of 1881): According to Jami; Zulaikha is a beautiful princess, a daughter of a king of the West [Maghrib]. In her youth she dreamt a dream, in which she saw a handsome man, as noble and true as he was handsome, and she fell in love with him. So deep and constant was her love she pinned away for the love of the ideal man of her dream. She nursed her love and sorrow in secret, making only her nurse is her confidante, in the hope that the nurse might -by her secret invention- procure a meeting with the dear love of her dreams. She had second and a third dreams, and in the third, she had the courage to ask the man in the vision his name and country. He did not tell her his name, but he said he was the Wazir=minister of Egypt.      Armed with this clue, Zulaikha refused all offers of marriage from kings and princes, cherishing in her heart only the image of the man she had seen in her dream, who she had learnt was the Wazir of Egypt. At length her father is induced to send a wise man to Egypt, to arrange the marriage with the Wazir, though he could not understand why the Princess should have refused the offers of kings and princes from all over the world. The wise man interviews the Wazir of Egypt, who is torn internally with many feelings. Here is a Princess who had refused the offers of great kings. His ambition was all a flame. How could he refuse? Yet he knew his own condition. He was a eunuch. How could he accept? He pleaded that the king of Egypt needed him so much that he could not be absent a single hour. But he would send 200 golden litters and a 1000 slave girls to wait on Zulaikha and convey her with honor to Egypt. The agent of Zulaikha’s father knew that Zulaikha’s heart was so set upon the Wazir of Egypt that it would be death to her if she could not get him. So he arranged the match and returned with what he supposed was good news. And Zulaikha, too, was delighted. Her bliss knew no bounds. She now –she thought- had the prospect of union with the man of her dreams. Thus moralizes the Poet: “OUR JOYS AND SORROWS COME FROM DREAMS AND FANCIES”! 
     Great preparations were made for Zulaikha’s bridal, procession to Egypt. Zulaikha’s litter/palanquin/pavilion was carved with aloe and sandalwood; its roof was resplendent with gems and gold like Jamshid tent/Jampan = [Indian Sedan chair carried by four men]; its curtains were hung with gold brocade. And in it was Zulaikha –radiant and happy that she is now going to meet the lord of her love, whom she knew from her dreams, and to whom she would now be united forever. When the approached the Egyptian Capital, the Wazir came out to meet his bride with a splendid equipage. Zulaikha was all eagerness to feast her eyes with a sight of her beloved. She peeped through a hole in her curtain, when lo! She was full of dismay. This Wazir was not the man of her dreams! Not the man to whom she had plighted her troth, and to whom she would be faithful for life. She had in her dreams seen the image of Yusuf, not of this Aziz. Never would she give her faith or her love or her virgin honor to another. She began to bemoan her fate {I planted a date-palm; what has come out but thorns!}. She was in utter despair. What was to be done? A voice came to her from the unseen world, it said: “True, this is not your love! But your desire for true love will be satisfied through him. Fear him not. The jewel of your virgin honor is safe with him. If a great sleeve is shown, but there is hand within, what is there to hold a dagger?” Zulaikha had, of her own deliberate choice, had this marriage arranged. She must wed the eunuch. Whatever hr grief, she must not complain. She went through the brilliant ceremony. But her heart was empty. It was given to the man of her dreams! And it would never be another’s! And so she spent her days in outward splendor and inward grief, pining away in love unsatisfied.                 At this time, perhaps, she had a glimpse of that true love in which herself is blotted out. In her despair, in her anguish, she could see things which were later obscured to her in her pride and in the allurements of her sense. She poured out her soul in music. She had faith. “Surely” she thought “You gave me no lying vision! Why you call yourself Wazir of Egypt? And I left my home and country to be with thee, to be thine! I know I shall be winning you in the end! When that happy day comes, I shall be not I, but you! May I see you soon?”-
 “I shall roll up the carpet of life when I see your dear face again; and shall cease to be;  For self will be lost in that rapture, and all the threads of my thought from my hand will fall;   Not me with thou/you find, for this Self will have fled; Thou will be my soul in mine own soul stead; All thought of Self will be swept from my mind,  and you –only- in my place shall it find;                   More precious than heaven, than earth more dear;                                                                                     Myself were forgotten if you were near”                                                                                                              She waited in faith and longing. At length spread the news of a great sensation in the market. A foreign merchant was bringing –they said- a slave the like of whom had never been seen, whether for looks, or wit, or integrity, or purity of word and mind. It was no slave, but a sun of splendor, a moon of goodness, a king in the realm of love! The caravan had yet barely entered the city. But the king heard of it, and ordered the Wazir [Zulaikha’s nominal husband] to go and seen and bring this new prodigy into the king’s presence. When the Wazir came to the caravan and saw Yusuf, he found his beauty was even greater than the rumor had described. He bowed down, with a feeling akin to worship, but Yusuf gently raised him and taught him the Gospel of Unity that Worship was due to God alone. When the merchant was told the king’s order he pleaded delay on the ground that they were travel-stained and unfit to appear before the king until they had washed in the Nile and made themselves presentable.