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Surah Yusuf: A Timeless Beacon of Knowledge and Wisdom

“In the Surah Yusuf, universal messages filled with knowledge and wisdom have been presented to all believers until the Day of Judgment. For instance, hints have been given on settling and spreading in a place, creating new avenues for preaching, and developing movement strategies. Noble virtues such as patience, enduring hardships from people, forgiving those who err, expecting nothing in return for acts of kindness from anyone but Allah, and longing for the hereafter even at the pinnacle of worldly life have been highlighted…”

“If I had been imprisoned for as long as Yusuf was, I would have immediately responded to the person who came to release me.”

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)

Before embarking on a journey through the life of Prophet Yusuf, deemed worthy of the “best of stories” accolade by our noble book, in the light of Fethullah Gülen Hocaefendi’s latest published work ‘Surah Yusuf: The Magical Horizon of the Quran’, it will be beneficial to look at the context, environment, and reasons for its revelation.

However, first and foremost, it is necessary to briefly touch upon an important evaluation by Hocaefendi regarding “Asbab al-Nuzul”: “All commentators have preferred to use the term ‘asbab al-nuzul’. However, it’s true that there are some deficiencies in this term from a fundamental perspective. If we were to assess the matter within the cause-and-effect framework, it’s natural that without the cause, there wouldn’t be an effect. This implies that ‘had those reasons not existed, these verses would not have been revealed,’ which is absolutely not correct to accept.

I suppose it would be more appropriate to approach the issue with the term ‘conjunction’. Let’s ponder on this approach: Allah (swt) was going to reveal the verse related to any reason with His eternal wisdom, but this verse has been associated with a certain wisdom due to any reason and revealed as such.” (From Phase to Phase 2, p89)

Again, Gülen in his latest book, while explaining the reasons for revelation, comments: “Some verses and surahs, apparently, were revealed following certain events, questions, and situations. The term ‘reason for revelation’ or in its plural form ‘asbab al-nuzul’, translates directly to ‘reason for descent’ and explains the events, questions, and situations that led to the revelation of these surahs. However, the term ‘reason’ here does not denote causality as we understand in Turkish. It refers to the time and context of revelation. That is, it explains under which circumstances or events the surah was revealed. Nevertheless, it is more appropriate to approach the issue with the term ‘conjunction’ rather than ‘asbab al-nuzul’.”

Mr. Gulen probably borrows the term “conjunction” from Bediüzzaman: “Those deceived by worshipping apparent causes; the coming or presence of two things together is termed ‘conjunction’, their mistaking one for the cause of the other.” (The Rays, p160)

Returning to our Surah…

Surah Yusuf is the twelfth surah in the Mushaf’s arrangement and the fifty-third in terms of revelation order. It was revealed in Mecca, after Surah Hud and before Surah Hijr.

Let’s first learn about the period and environment…

“It was revealed between the 8th and 10th years of prophethood. The reason for its revelation was the companions’ request from Prophet Muhammad to recite verses of a narrative nature. Some also explain the wisdom behind the surah’s revelation as consoling the Messenger of Allah (we’ll delve into the details shortly), as it narrates how Yusuf was mistreated by his brothers; thus, indicating that Prophet Muhammad would eventually triumph over the unbelievers just as Yusuf did.” (TDV Islam Enc.)

An interesting detail found in sources is Abu Mansur al-Maturidi’s interpretation of the best of stories as “the most accurate story.”

Do not miss the immense duality…

Another original observation comes from Shihabuddin al-Alusi: The story contains opposites such as the envied and the envious, the master and the slave, the witness and the testified, the lover and the beloved, the imprisoned and the freed, abundance and famine, sin and forgiveness, separation and reunion, illness and health, disgrace and honor, indicating that envy leads to deprivation, patience is the key to salvation, and the triumph of reason over emotions ensures life’s order. (Ruh al-Ma’ani, Vol. 12, p507)

The prevailing opinion is that the entire surah was revealed in Mecca. However, a saying transmitted from Ibn Abbas and Qatada (RA) suggests that the first three verses were revealed in Medina, though this view is not widely accepted. A report given by many hadith scholars describes Rifaa ibn Rafi coming to Mecca to listen to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and converting to Islam, wherein this incident, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) specifically taught him Surah Yusuf and Surah Alaq.

It has been narrated that it was revealed in response to the Meccan polytheists’ question to Prophet Muhammad, “Why did the Children of Israel go to Egypt?” influenced by the Jews, or upon the Muslims’ request for the Prophet to tell them a story. However, according to Muhammad ibn Ishaq, the reason for the surah’s revelation was to console Prophet Muhammad, who was oppressed by his people (Elmalili, p2841).

Facing the pressures and tortures of his people, the Messenger of Allah and his companions were distressed; they were looking for a way out. At such a difficult time, the revelation of this surah was a consolation and good news for the Muslims. For, the hero of the story, Prophet Yusuf, had also suffered from some evils of his brothers in Palestine. Eventually, he became a significant government official in Egypt, and his brothers were also appointed in the government there.

Indirectly, this story also promised Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his companions (RA) that if they were patient, they would be rewarded similarly to Prophet Yusuf, and the Quraysh would submit to them. Indeed, after the pressure of his people led to his migration to Medina, the Messenger of Allah conquered Mecca eight years later, and the Quraysh submitted to him. However, Prophet Muhammad told the Quraysh the same words that Prophet Yusuf said to his brothers in Egypt: “There is no blame on you today; may Allah forgive you! He is the Most Merciful of the merciful” (Ibn Sa’d, Tabakat, II, 142). “Go, you are free!” (Ibn Kathir, As-Sirah, III, 570). The content and the topics addressed in the surah indicate that it was revealed all at once during the events leading up to the migration, that is, when the Quraysh were plotting to kill, exile, or imprison the Prophet.

The transmission by Nehhas, who reports the reason for revelation differently, is interesting.

Nehhas, an Egyptian scholar who lived around 270 Hijri (M883), states that the Jews did not come to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) directly but advised the Meccan polytheists to ask him: “Tell us about a prophet who was in Sham and his son went to Egypt, and he cried for him until he became blind.” This led to the revelation of the entire Surah Yusuf and says that since the surah was entirely revealed in Mecca and there were no people of the Book in Mecca, he finds it unlikely that the Jews directly asked Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) about Jacob (as). (Quoted from Kurtubi by Bedreddin Çetiner, Reasons for Revelation, p508)

It’s possible to expand on the examples, but Hocaefendi categorizes the reasons for the revelation of Surah Yusuf into three main phases.

  1. Our Lord had lost his two great supporters, his wife Khadijah and Abu Talib. On the other hand, the tortures and threats from the Meccans to him and his companions continued. Therefore, the Noble Prophet was in great loneliness and sorrow. In fact, nothing had changed in the fate of the believers. In the past, Yusuf’s brothers had oppressed him, and now the Prophet’s relatives were oppressing him. Relatives coming from the same lineage, branches of the same tree, and converging a few generations above were subjecting him to these oppressions. The Prophet of Sorrow, facing consecutive problems, needed consolation for his saddened heart. Almighty God consoled the Prophet by revealing the story of Yusuf (as), and as stated at the end of the previous surah, fortified his heart.
  2. Hearing that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) mentioned prophets, the Jews came to the polytheists and said, “Ask Muhammad how did the sons of Jacob go from Sham to Egypt?” They asked this to the Prophet, and then Surah Yusuf was revealed.
  3. According to one narration, the surah was revealed upon the companions’ request for relief and respite. For, up until that day, every verse that was revealed imposed a responsibility on the companions, causing a kind of shock effect in that golden generation, who were extremely meticulous in living every commandment from God, creating a spiritual tension. Faced with such an unprecedented lifestyle, they were looking for something to relax, occasionally coming to the Prophet and saying, “O Messenger of Allah, could you tell us something comforting?” Once, when they asked for something like this, Almighty God revealed Surah Yusuf.” (p18) Fethullah Gülen, after presenting these three main phases, adds his own opinion:

“I am reluctant to believe that the companions made such a request. For they were living their religion with sensitivity, striving hard to understand and apply every revealed verse. They listened to every verse as if they were hearing it directly from the Eternal Speaker. Therefore, they were constantly in a metaphysical tension. I believe that this metaphysical tension would not allow them to make such a request from the Prophet to relax. For this metaphysical tension was taking away their burdens, stress, anxieties, and worries, granting their souls tranquility and expansion.”

Look at the immense beauty in this conjecture!

But then immediately comes respect for the truth:

“Even though this is my contemplation, I do not want to ignore a human reality. For humans, in the face of the truths told, the responsibilities imposed, and the reminders of faith and moral intricacies, might sometimes feel as if their backs are broken, their throats are choked. They might feel and look for a means to relax. They want to listen to heart-soothing talks, hear words that provide expansion.”

So, what does Surah Yusuf tell us when we look at it broadly?

Of course, the surah has a main backbone and orbit, but let’s start this section by saving that for the last part:

The first three verses of the surah announce that the verses in this surah are from the Quran, that the Quran was revealed in the Arabic language, and that the best of stories will be told in this surah. Then, until verse 101, the story of Prophet Yusuf is narrated. The story covers topics such as Prophet Yusuf being thrown into a well by his brothers, being rescued from the well by a caravan and sold as a slave in Egypt, being imprisoned due to a false accusation, being released from prison and appointed as a high-ranking official in charge of finance after interpreting the dream of the king of Egypt, and reuniting with his father and brothers after a long separation. The following verses offer glad tidings and advice to the believers…

Gülen Hocaefendi, reminding that every surah has an axis or orbit, says: “Each surah revolves around a central theme. All the verses in the surah are woven around that main orbit. A careful look at the Quran reveals this reality in all surahs, both long and short. The axis of Surah Yusuf, as pointed out by a contemporary scholar, is knowledge.”

Gülen references the late Sayyid Qutb at this point.

Let’s continue…

“Adding wisdom to it, we can say that the surah revolves around knowledge and wisdom. At the end of the previous surah, Hud, it was implied that the secrets of the heavens and the earth belong to Allah, indicating that He knows everything. Then, at the beginning of Surah Yusuf, attention is drawn to Allah’s names, Alim (All-Knowing) and Hakim (All-Wise). Throughout the surah, Allah’s name Alim appears eight times, and in three of those instances, it is mentioned alongside the name Hakim. Apart from this, the concepts of knowledge and judgment/wisdom are also mentioned in various forms throughout the surah. In addition to the literal mention of knowledge and wisdom; dream interpretation, agricultural policies to be followed during famine, taking advantage of opportunities for preaching, and many other events revolving around the orbit of knowledge and wisdom are also included in this surah.”

Yes, Gülen gives us two golden concepts to focus on: Knowledge and Wisdom!

The word wisdom is a noun derived from the masdar (verbal noun) of “judging,” from the root “h-k-m.” The root “h-k-m” in the dictionary primarily means to correct, to prevent something for placement, to make an affair firm, to strengthen, to rule, to judge.

In the Quran, the verb forms of the judge and its derivatives appear in 84 places; “wisdom” (hikmah) appears in 19 verses 20 times, and “wise” (hakim), denoting someone who possesses wisdom, appears 97 times. The concept of wisdom in the Quran is mentioned alongside “book” in ten places, “kingdom” in three places, “Torah and Gospel” in two places, and once each alongside “admonition,” “good,” “decisive speech,” and “verse.” The compound “hikmatun baligha” (profound wisdom), which appears only once, refers to the Quran itself.

The Wise Revelation generally speaks of wisdom being given to all prophets, specifically to Prophets David, Jesus, Abraham, and Muhammad. The verse that states all prophets were given wisdom says: “Allah took a covenant from the prophets, saying: ‘I have given you a book and wisdom; then a messenger will come to you confirming what is with you. You must believe in him and help him.’ He asked: ‘Do you agree and take this as a heavy responsibility?’ They replied: ‘We agree.’ He said: ‘Then bear witness, and I am with you among the witnesses.'” (Al-Imran, 81)

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, explaining the book and wisdom in the verse, says, “The word ‘book’ refers to something that is revealed and recited; ‘wisdom’ refers to revelation that is not included in the book and imposes broad responsibilities.” (Mafatih al-Ghayb, p277)

Let’s immediately note that one of the scholars Gülen mentions in the first point while analyzing the surah’s orbit is Razi.

The author closes this section by referring to the universality of the verses: “On the other hand, among the topics, universal messages filled with knowledge and wisdom have been presented to the Prophet, the companions, and all believers until the Day of Judgment. For instance, hints have been given on settling and spreading in a place, creating new avenues for preaching, and developing movement strategies. Noble virtues such as patience, enduring hardships from people, forgiving those who err, expecting nothing in return for acts of kindness from anyone but Allah, and longing for the hereafter even at the pinnacle of worldly life have been highlighted separately.”

From this perspective, it’s not hard to grasp that Surah Yusuf also has many messages for our times.

We will continue…

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