The Best of Stories (Ahsan al-Qasas):
Joseph Motifs and the Bábí-Bahá'í Interpretation of the Joseph Narrative

By Stephen Lambden

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #18
Trent Park Campus: London, England
August 21–24, 1998
(see list of papers from #18)

Next presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #20
Louhelen Bahá'í School: Michigan, USA
October 9–12, 1998
(see list of papers from #20)

    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'anic narrative — an aspect of the "best of stories" (ahsan al-qasas). In Sunni and Shi'i Islamic sources Joseph is pre-eminently a model of righteous piety (al-siddiq) and a paragon of handsome beauty (husn; jamal). The latter hagiographical motif is, for example, indicated in the Shi'i Tafsir núr al-thaqalayn ('Commentary [expressive] of the Light of the Twin Weights') of al-Huwayzj (d. 1112/1700) where it is recorded that the sixth Twelver Imam, Muhammad al-Baqír (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 (jamal) 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 the fifth Twelver Imam, "The inner sense (al-ta'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-shams) it is Rachael (Rahil) the mother of Joseph while the "moon" (al-qamar) is Jacob (Yaqúb). Now the eleven stars (alkawákib) 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 Bahrani, Kitáb al-burhan, 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 Sura Yusuf (Commentary on the Sura of Joseph) and Qayyum al-asma' (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) Imam. 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-asma' is thus more of a remodelling 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 Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310/923) or 'Alí al-Tabarsi (d. 548/1114). It is usually towards the end of the new suras of the Báb's Qayyum al-asma' that a verse of the qur'anic 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 Tasfir 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" (thamarat al-batu'l) by which Fatimah'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 Fatima (="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 kalimat al-tawhid, the Islamic affirmation of the Divine Unity (= the 12 letters of la ilaha ila Allah = 'There is none other god but God').

    In his later writings the Báb associated the beauteous Joseph (Yu'suf al-bahá) with the Bábí messiah figure man yuzhiruhu'lláh ("He Whom God shall make manifest") as well as with an expected theophany of Imam 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 baha as that 'beauty-glory' which he identified with the greatest Name of God (al-ism Allah al-a'zam).

    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 Mirza Yahya 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 will be sketched and analysed.

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