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Joseph in the Qur’an

The biblical story of Joseph and his brothers is also found in the Qur’an, where it resembles its counterpart in Genesis but reflects Islamic theology.

Joseph being sold as a slave
Joseph being sold as a slave

The Bible and the Qur’an have a lot more in common than most people realize, including the story of Joseph—a soap opera-like tale of betrayal, adultery, sibling rivalry, and mistaken identity all rolled into one. Chapter 12 of the Qur’an is titled “Joseph,” and it contains the Islamic account of the story of Joseph that appears in Gen 37-50. About a hundred verses long, the story takes up almost the entirety of the chapter; it is the longest single story in the Qur’an.

The Qur’an’s version has the same characters as the Bible’s, and the two texts share the same outline, with both describing Joseph’s brothers abandoning him in a pit, his being taken to Egypt and thrown into prison before rising to a position of authority in Pharaoh’s court, and his eventual reunion with his father Jacob and his brothers. As is typical of biblical traditions found in the Qur’an, the Islamic text has a briefer version of events, and it presents them in a way that supports Islamic belief and theology.

The most significant difference between the two accounts is the more active role God plays in the Qur’an as compared to Genesis. The deity is mentioned several times in the biblical account but does not have the level of involvement in the story that is found in the Qur’an. In moments of crisis, the characters in the Qur’an version rely upon God to come to their assistance. God reassures Joseph, after his brothers throw him into the pit, that he will survive the ordeal and confront them about what they have done. When he receives word of his son’s presumed death, Jacob exhibits a level of faith and trust in God that is missing from his biblical counterpart. In the scene where his master’s wife attempts to seduce him, Joseph does not succumb to the temptation because God is with him.

Once they are reunited with him, Joseph’s brothers admit their guilt and ask forgiveness from God. God’s higher profile in the Qur’an is due to Islam’s view of the deity as the one who has supreme authority over all that exists. All of creation is dependent upon God and is subject to the divine will, and so God is intimately involved in all that happens in the story. Of course, this same idea is central to the biblical literature as well, but sometimes the Qur’an makes God’s presence more obvious as seen here in the Joseph story. Another key element of Islamic theology is that God is not responsible for the evil actions of human beings. For this reason, the Qur’an mentions twice that Satan is the one behind the brothers’ decision to rid themselves of Joseph.

Islam teaches that Joseph was a prophet, and certain aspects of his story in the Qur’an that are not in the Bible reflect this belief. The text repeatedly mentions that he has been given special knowledge by God that makes him wise and sets him apart from other people. While he is in prison Joseph delivers a mini-sermon to his fellow prisoners that instructs them on the nature of God and true faith, and he urges them to reject their polytheistic ways and embrace monotheism. His final words in the Qur’an are an appeal to God that he be allowed to die as one who has submitted his life to God (in Arabic, a muslim). The Bible and the Qur’an present a tale of two Josephs who aren’t identical twins, but they certainly have a strong family resemblance.

  • John Kaltner

    John Kaltner is the Virginia Ballou McGehee Professor of Muslim-Christian Relations at Rhodes College (Memphis, Tennessee), where he teaches courses on the Bible, Islam, and Arabic.