"The Best of Stories" (Ahsan al-Qasas)
Joseph Motifs and the Bábí-Bahá’í Interpretation of the Joseph Narrative
By Stephen Lambden
Presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #20 (English)
Louhelen Bahá'í School: Michigan, US
October 9-12, 1998.
(This paper was also presented, in slightly different form, at Session #18.)
The person and story of Joseph is important in both the Bible (Genesis 37-50) and the Qur'án (sura 12) where the account of this patriarch-prophet is the longest Qur’ánic narrative-an aspect of the "best of stories" (ahsan al-qasas). In Sunni and Shí’i Islamic sources Joseph is preeminently a model of righteous piety (al-siddiq) and a paragon of handsome beauty (husn; jamál). The latter hagiographical motif is, for example, indicated in the Shí’i Tafsir núr al-thaqalayn ('Commentary [expressive] of the Light of the Twin Weights') of al-Huwayzi (d. 1112/ 1700) where it is recorded that the sixth Twelver Imam, Abi 'Abdu'lláh, Ja’far al-Sádiq (d. c. 126/743) stated that "Whoso reciteth the Sura of Joseph each day or during every night will be raised up by God on the Day of Resurrection such that their beauty (jamál) will be consonant with the beauty of Joseph ...." (11:408). Qur’án 12:4 records the dream-vision of Joseph; "Behold, Joseph said to his father: 'O my father! I saw eleven stars, and the sun and the moon, I saw them bowing down before me!'" Among the interpretations of this verse are the following words again from one of the Twelver Imams, "The inner sense (al-tá'wil) of this dream-vision (al-ru'ya') is that he [Joseph] will rule Egypt; and there shall enter before him his father [Jacob-Israel] and his brothers. As for the "sun" (al-hams) it is Rachael (Rahíl) the mother of Joseph while the "moon" (al-qamar) is Jacob (Ya'qub). Now the eleven stars (alka-wákib) are his [eleven] brothers. When they entered before him they prostrated in gratitude before God alone; the moment they caught sight of him was that of the prostration before God." (cited Bahrini, Kitáb al-burhán, 11:243).
The Shi'i imamological understanding of the Joseph narrative is registered in various authoritative traditions (ahadíth; khabar) and tafsir works. Aspects of its non-literal (allegorical-typological...) exegesis had messianic implications relative to the ghayba ("occultation") and eventual advent or "return" of the expected (hidden 12th) Imam. This provides the background to the Bábí-Bahá’í interpretation of the Joseph narrative which is often eschatological; messianic and theophanological.
The first major work of Sayyid 'Alí Muhammad, the Báb, (1819-1850 CE) was (loosely speaking) a tafsir (exegetical) work composed in mid-1844 CE (=1260 AH). It is variously (among other titles) known as the Tafsir Surat Yusuf (Commentary on the Sura of Joseph) and Qayyum al-asmá' (lit. 'Self-subsisting [Deity] of the Names') the divine attribute Qayyum and the personal name Yusuf have an identical numerical (abjad) value (= 156). A fairly lengthy (roughly 300+ pages) wholly Arabic work this revelatory, partially rewritten neo-tafsir frequently contains non-literal, often imamologically and eschatologically oriented expository rewrites of most of the 111 verses of the twelfth Surat Yusuf of the Qur'án. A novel 'Bábí Qur’án,' it was communicated by the Báb speaking with the voice of God as the earthly representative of the hidden (messianic) Imám. This new sacred book is modelled upon and very closely related to the Qur’án though it transcends it in being overtly Shi'i, sometimes Sufistic, mystical-qabbalistic and suggestive of an all but realized eschatological hope. The Qayyum al-asmá' is thus more of a remodeling or partial rewriting of select pericopae ('paragraphs') of the Islamic holy book than a commentary in the classical sense of say that of Muhammad ibn Jarír al-Tabarí (d. 310/923) or 'Alí al-Tabarsí (d. 548/1114). It is usually towards the end of the new suras of the Báb's Qayyum al-asmá' that a verse of the Qur’ánic Joseph narrative is exegetically or (more precisely) eisegetically rewritten. One is reminded of such Jewish targumic often paraphrastic, interpretive (Aramaic) 'translations' of the Hebrew Bible-such as that referred to as the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan.
The Báb's initial remarks on the Qur’ánic story of Joseph are found in the Vth chapter of his Tafsir which is entitled Sura Husayn. Here the dream-vision of Joseph (Q. 12:4) is cited and commented upon. Among other things, it is asserted that God intended by Joseph the nafs, the "Logos-Self" of the Messenger (=Muhammad) and the "fruit of the [womb of the] the Virgin" (thamarát al-batu'l) by which Fátimah's son, the martyred and expected to "return" [Imam] Husayn (4/626-61/680) is intended. The sun, moon and eleven stars seen by Joseph in his vision symbolize Fátima (="the sun"), Muhammad (="the moon") and the [Twelver] Imams (presumably 'Ali ...Hasan al-Askari ="the stars"; see Q.12:7). The twelve Imams are also representative of the 12 letters of the kalimit al-tawhid, the Islamic affirmation of the Divine Unity (=the 12 letters of lá iláha ilá Alláh = 'There is none other god but God').
In certain of his later writings such as his Kitáb al-asmá' ("Book of Names") the Báb associated the beauteous Joseph (Yusuf al-bahá) with the Bábí messiah figure man yuzhiruhu'lláh ("He Whom God shall make manifest") as well as with an expected theophany of Imám Husayn. It was in this light that Bahá’u’lláh came to claim to be the 'True Joseph,' the returned Husayn and an incarnation of bahá as that 'beauty-glory' which he identified with the greatest Name of God (al-ism Alláh al-a'zam).
Bahá’u’lláh frequently expressed his claims through an allegorical-mystical use of Joseph motifs. He referred to himself as the "Ancient [Pre-existent] Beauty" (jamál al-qidam) and frequently, for example, (directly or indirectly) highlighted his theophanological Joseph-like "Beauty" (bahá, jamál, husn, ) and associated resplendent 'Garment[s]" diffusing an exquisite, captivating eschatological scent. One of the major features of many of the tablets of the Edirne [Adrianople] period (1863-68 CE; e.g. Lawh-i Sarráj; Lawh-i Sayyáh and Surat al-Qamís) is the presence of Joseph motifs; often rooted in Persian poetry and the Qayyum al-Asmá'. Numerous elevated proclamatory claims are framed in terms of a new Joseph theophany.
For Bahá’ís Joseph was a Manifestation of God. His life story prefigures and reflects that of Bahá’u’lláh. Just as Joseph was abandoned by his jealous brothers and subsequently imprisoned so was Bahá’u’lláh rejected by his half-brother Mírzá Yahyá Núrí (c. 1830-1912) and incarcerated by the Ottoman authorities for several decades of the nineteenth century. In this paper these and related themes and motifs including that of Joseph's (traditionally) "coat of many colours" (Heb. ketnot passim; Gen. 37:3b; so AV [KJV] of 1611) or scent diffusing "garment" (Arabic, qamis) will be sketched and analyzed.
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