|The unifying concern of Surah Yusuf is human conscience – how it is informed, how it is trained and tested, how it is supported and rewarded. This concern is not presented as an argument or doctrine but as a story. We need to reflect on the central concern of the surah and also on why the form of a story works so well to convey it.What human beings aspire to achieve in life and how they strive to achieve are strongly influenced (even, to a large extent, determined) by their circumstances and by the habits of the people around them. Their ambition and their method are modelled on what has been done before, with some individuals being distinguished by their desire to do better or more than has been done before. Means are generally assessed as right or wrong on the basis of their ability to deliver the desired ends. The criteria are generally practical: we look at the situation and say, this is do-able, this is not do-able; this is better done like this, not like that. Right and wrong in this sense depend on practical experience, on the ability to learn from (and contribute to) history.
But people also have another sense of right and wrong, which is not practical, but moral. They have a sense that some behaviour is pleasing to God and some behaviour is not. Surah Yusuf is a demonstration of how conscience survives and operates in circumstances where, judging by practical experience, it should be impossible. Circumstances rob father and son of any practical, sensible reason to hope, but they maintain hope. Similarly, circumstances rob them of any means to do the right thing – they have no power; nobody believes them – nevertheless, they always do the right thing.
Conscience is located in the deep interior of a person; it is separate and removed (in some ways, protected) from the external world and from the habits of other people. The unfolding of the story in this surah is a demonstration that the integrity of a person’s conscience is sustained by their commitment to connection with God. The attitude and behaviour of Ya’qub and Yusuf (as), throughout the intricately woven incidents, demonstrate that these two men are, at all times, aware of being in the presence of God and answerable to Him. The feeling never leaves them that God is present and God is good: when there is not the least sign of things turning out well for them, they seem able to wait with a gracious patience for things to turn out well. At no point do either of them neglect to think, speak and act in the best way, i.e. in the way most pleasing to God.
Conscience is a personal teacher. What it teaches is sometimes also taught by social convention and religious rules, and laws derived from these. But in the end, norms and conventions, the rules and laws in society, are not sufficient to deter people from doing wrong – if they see other people do something wrong and get away with it, they think: why shouldn’t I do the same? Only a strong, healthy conscience can prevent people from following the habits and manners of the people around them and, instead, doing what pleases God and doing it in the way that pleases God.
However, God is not the Creator and Lord and Nurturer of only the people of good conscience. He cares for all His creatures and desires what is best for each of them. His will for those who are not meek or humble before Him is that they should be forgiven their wrongs and be guided to good conduct. That is what happens in the story of Yusuf, and that is why it is called the most beautiful of stories.
There is no person, of whatever religion, who does not feel that Yusuf behaves with the highest nobility and magnanimity of character when, finally, the brothers who sought to harm him are in his power. Yusuf forgives them, because they do at last recognise their own wrongs and they do at last understand why Yusuf was “nearer and dearer” to their father and to God than they were. No person, of whatever religion, can possibly feel that it would make a better ending if the brothers were not reconciled; if there were no forgiveness; if, because he has power over them, Yusuf punished his brothers – banished them, or threw them into a well, or sold them into slavery, imprisoned them, etc. These are things he suffered; but he does not desire that for his brothers. Rather, he desires for them guidance, forgiveness, understanding and peace.
In the same way, the Prophet (saw) did not wish those of his kinfolk among the Quraysh who persecuted him and tormented his followers to be punished for that. Rather, he wished that they should be guided out of that to what was better for them. It is fitting that, at the conquest of Makkah when the power of Quraysh was broken, he used words from this surah to proclaim reconciliation and forgiveness.
This surah has the most moving and beautiful of endings, not only because a family is reconciled and a prophecy of greatness is fulfilled, but because it prefigures for us the possible reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of God in the Hereafter. After a lifetime of jealous rancour, the brothers are liberated– they recognise not only the quality of Yusuf but also their own quality. In this way, this surah teaches us that all the circumstances of life in this world – the different ups and downs in power and status, of rich or poor beginnings, of glad or grievous outcomes – are in their entirety only the means whereby we come to the end of understanding our quality as servants of God. The surah seems to show us that the purpose of human life is to move from relative ignorance of ourselves to full knowledge, from darkness to light. From other surahs in the Qur’an we learn that every particle of good and evil that we experience and do is recorded and stored in a perfect register: we get to read this register. Nothing is wasted. Everything is preserved in an intelligible and recoverable form. Everyone is forgivable who, believing in God and the Last Day, sincerely desires that forgiveness and desires it from Him.
There is an important difference in the knowledge that is conveyed by, on the one hand, a series of propositions in an ordered argument and, on the other hand, a series of incidents sequentially connected into a story. A story enables us, the listeners, to enter into it, to build its meanings for ourselves. A story does not come “ready-made” in the form of carefully worded propositions and teachings; it is not “specialist” or “technical”. A story has, so to speak, no definitions in it. Accordingly, it makes space for the involvement of the listeners. A story enables us to care, that is to take the risk of building its meaning for ourselves: it is the same care that we deploy in our lives insofar as we live them in the knowledge that what we do is important, of consequence, in the connections it makes with our past and future.
A story has subtle details capable of affecting listeners in different degrees, sometimes without their being fully aware of it. A story can convey the complexity of life, and resolve it, without (as formal knowledge has to do) first sacrificing that complexity by reducing it to simpler questions that can be managed by the formal discourse. As just one example, consider how rich is the detail of the brothers’ plot to do away with Yusuf. They consider killing him, but they do not do that in fact, even though that would have been easy enough in practical terms. In reality, they only do as little as they can of harm to Yusuf while “getting rid of” him. Why? Is it because, though morally disoriented by their jealousy and self-love, they are, nevertheless, not murderers? Are they just incompetent when it comes to providing supporting evidence for their false story about the wolf? Or do they have a secret wish that Yusuf should not be dead? That fits with their anticipating that a passing caravan will find Yusuf – their throwing him in the well was not a way of killing him. Perhaps then, do they make the ridiculous mistake with the blood-soaked shirt in order to leave themselves, and their father, with some hope?
Pondering the incidents of this story conveys to us, among much else, the dense texture of motivations, the lack of human self-knowledge, and the foolish plotting and pretensions that flow from that lack. Because the incidents are connected to each other and moving in a direction, we are able simultaneously to make and reserve moral judgements –as the story does, we are able to give the brothers the time and opportunity to reform and repair their consciences. Necessarily, the unfolding of the story feeds the hope that, also for ourselves, God has left open the possibility of self-reform and forgiveness. Indeed, that is the promise of the Qur’an, the whole point of the Revelation. Interlaced with the moral aspect of the incidents there is also the intense emotional aspect, the patient suffering and grief, focused eventually in the blindness that afflicts the grieving father. In the repairing of his sight we have an anticipation of the brothers’ ignorance changed into insight, of their sin being forgiven. This is what “life is all about”; to convey that, an argument is quite ineffective – only a story can do that without reducing the complexity of inter-relation between persons, incidents and the flow of time.