The unique quality about the story of Prophet Yusuf [علیہ السلام] is that it has been narrated in one go in the Qurʾān, and it has been described by Allāh as “Ahsan Al-Qasas” - the most beautiful of stories. This is because it has a beautiful example of human nature that can guarantee us success should we choose to adopt and follow it in our personal lives.
The way it has been narrated, providing dialogue and details of what happened to Prophet Yusuf at the different phases of his life, throws light on the ways people dealt with him throughout his young years, and how his consistently good reactions to their actions ultimately worked in his favor and led to his success.
Yusuf was one of twelve sons of Prophet Yaqoub [علیہ السلام]. His ten older brothers felt envious of the love and affection felt for him and his younger brother by their father.
إِذْ قَالُواْ لَيُوسُفُ وَأَخُوهُ أَحَبُّ إِلَى أَبِينَا مِنَّا وَنَحْنُ عُصْبَةٌ إِنَّ أَبَانَا لَفِي ضَلاَلٍ مُّبِينٍ
Now [Yusuf's brothers] spoke [thus to one another:] “Truly, Yusuf and his brother [Ben Yamin] are dearer to our father than we, even though we are so many. Behold, our father is surely suffering from a clear misguidance!” [12:8]
A few points to consider when evaluating the cause of this situation: It could be that Prophet Yaqoub actually did express more love and affection for his youngest two sons. However, given that he was a Prophet of Allāh, this is highly unlikely. First, he already had 8 older sons – so why would he feel especially inclined towards the youngest 2? Second, why would he display open affection for Yusuf and Bin Yamin, when he was well aware of his older sons' nature? This knowledge of his is obvious when he replies to Yusuf about the latter's dream of future success and high worldly status (including becoming a Prophet):
قَالَ يَا بُنَيَّ لاَ تَقْصُصْ رُؤْيَاكَ عَلَى إِخْوَتِكَ فَيَكِيدُواْ لَكَ كَيْدًا إِنَّ الشَّيْطَانَ لِلإِنسَانِ عَدُوٌّ مُّبِينٌ
[Yaqoub] replied: “O my dear son! Do not relate your dream to your brothers lest [out of envy] they devise an evil scheme against you; verily, Satan is man's open foe! [12:5]
The sons of Prophet Yaqoub were in the habit of thinking negatively, and prone to envy. It is clearly observed among people that some may possess stronger emotions than others, or a negative trait that another may not have at all. For example, some people are more short-tempered – easily flying into a rage at trivial matters. Others are impatient; they cannot stand waiting for what they want; they desire immediate gratification. Still others are extremely emotional – they jump to conclusions about things and get depressed, euphoric, despondent, or grief-stricken at the drop of a hat. It is highly likely that, having raised his older sons, Prophet Yaqoub had identified their envious nature.
Not only that, but as Yusuf flowered into a handsome, talented youth, Prophet Yaqoub recognized his imminent prospects of success: wisdom, knowledge, lofty manners, gracious conduct when dealing with others, and last but not least, physical beauty. It is also probable that, even before hearing the account of Yusuf's dream, he had a strong inkling that Yusuf would be chosen as a Prophet. His intuition was confirmed when his beautiful son confided his dream to him.
As a parent to young children, I can testify to the fact that a person's future personality, comprising positive as well as negative traits, which they will display as an adult, is apparent to his or her parent from a very young age. For example, qualities such as neatness and organization, pro-activeness in accepting and discharging responsibilities, eloquence and effectiveness of verbal expression, empathy and compassion for the lesser privileged, whole-hearted, unprompted sharing and giving, and eagerness to obey elders – these and other positive traits are apparent as early as age 2.
Therefore, we can conclude that it was not that Yusuf tried to outshine his older brothers. He just did, because he had been blessed with numerous positive qualities from his Creator. This was something that his father recognized very early on.
Lastly, sibling envy/rivalry is an innate human emotion and weakness, especially when it involves competing for the attention, love or approval of a parent. Throughout my teen years, I have had friends who had issues with siblings. Being one of two children myself, there were times when I too, flew into a rage when my brother got something that I did not have. Even if I knew that he had taken our mother out for errands and they had lunch at some fancy place, I felt a pang of envy. I'd also half-jokingly tell Mum that she owed me a lunch at the same place with her, too. :)
Sisters might sometimes secretly rival each other over good looks, clothes, accessories and popularity in school. Sadly, I have also had the very painful experience of watching two sisters, who had been otherwise extremely close (akin to bosom buddies), grow apart to the point of not speaking a word to each other, over a guy in their college. I also personally know of two other sisters belonging to the previous generation, the younger and prettier one of whom got involved with, and eventually married, the fiancé of the older one. They did not speak for years.
Therefore, everyone can vouch for the fact that when siblings fight, they mostly do because one is covetous/envious of the other's possessions – this starts from a very young age. It is the reason why, a 2-year-old will try to pinch, hit, or bite the newborn sibling that has just arrived, because he or she has never seen his or her mother loving, feeding and carrying around anyone younger than himself. Similarly, that is why a girl in her early twenties will forbid her prettier younger sister from appearing before a family visiting their house to negotiate a prospective marriage proposal. And, that is why, a young guy will sulk in a corner when his older brother graduates summa cum laude from the prestigious institution of his dreams, into which he did not qualify enough to gain admission.
Envy blinded Yusuf's brothers' sense and judgment, until they devised a plan to eliminate – yes, eliminate – him from their lives. It is obvious throughout the narration of Surah Yusuf that they had not inherited their father's intrinsically pure, good Prophetic nature, relentless fortitude and positive thinking. How could anyone plot to kill off another, no matter how much envy he feels? However, a little reflection reveals that the first ever murder of mankind was also committed by one of two blood brothers, and its basis was one's envy at the acceptance of his brother's sacrifice by Allāh, combined with rage at having his own sacrifice rejected [reference- 5:27].
Therefore, the potential harm of sibling envy or rivalry cannot be undermined. The motive Yusuf's brothers hoped to achieve by his murder was having their father's exclusive attention and love (“wajh”), which they felt was more inclined towards Yusuf than them:
اقْتُلُواْ يُوسُفَ أَوِ اطْرَحُوهُ أَرْضًا يَخْلُ لَكُمْ وَجْهُ أَبِيكُمْ وَتَكُونُواْ مِن بَعْدِهِ قَوْمًا صَالِحِينَ
[Said one of them:] “Kill Yusuf, or else drive him away to some [faraway] land, so that your father's regard may be for you alone: and after this is done, you will be [free to repent and to live once again as] righteous people!” [12:9]
However, as most negative thoughts deplete a person of rationality or wisdom, they did not pause to think that adopting the beautiful character, manners and conduct that Yusuf embodied would have been the recommended and praiseworthy route to achieving the same objective. Rather, Satan suggested the negative and destructive route to them, and they fell into his trap:
مِن بَعْدِ أَن نَّزغَ الشَّيْطَانُ بَيْنِي وَبَيْنَ إِخْوَتِي
[Yusuf said]… “after Satan had sown discord between me and my brothers.” [12:100]
The lesson for us in this incident is that envy – particularly that which is felt towards a sibling who is more talented, morally upright and physically beautiful – is a negative and destructive trait that can cause us to commit a major sin if not curbed in time.
The most effective way of curbing envy and repelling the negative thoughts that it causes, is to (i) focus on our own strengths, instead of comparing ourselves with our sibling/object of envy, and (ii) proactively work hard to polish our talents to achieve success in the niche that Allāh made us to naturally excel in. Allāh's help descended for Yusuf when one of the plotting brothers themselves, who was an active part of their murderous scheming, suggested that Yusuf not be killed, but thrown into a well and picked up by passing caravans.
The important lessons we can glean from the initial portion of Surah Yusuf are thus:
- Envy is an extremely destructive emotion, which can rip apart even close, familial relationships within a home. The worst harm it inflicts is on the envier himself, who is prevented from personal improvement and professional advancement because of constantly monitoring, observing, and plotting and planning against the object of his envy.
- Parents need to be very careful when expressing their love towards their children. If they praise one, they should express some form of love or praise for the other children present, within the same time-frame and physical setting, in order to prevent envy from being born in their hearts.
- The same can be said about favoring some children over others whilst giving gifts. Prophet Muḥammad [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] forbade giving a gift to one child/adult offspring without giving the same to the others:
Nu'maan ibn Basheer said: “My father gave me a gift of some of his wealth, but my mother, 'Amrah bint Rawaahah, said, 'I will not approve of it until you ask the Messenger of Allāh [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] to bear witness to it.' So my father went to the Prophet to ask him to bear witness to the gift. The Messenger of Allāh [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] said to him, 'Have you done the same for all of your children?' He said, 'No.' He said, 'Fear Allāh and treat your children justly.' So my father came back and took back that gift.”
[Sahih Al Bukhāri, Muslim]
How often we see parents deliberately choose to give the best clothes and jewelry (usually the precious family heirlooms) to their eldest (or most beloved) daughter, if they have only girls (of course it is anybody's guess who will get the family heirloom if they have a son!). Or, when they choose the most well-qualified, well-placed, highest-earning son to bequeath their house to after all their children are married off, so that they can dwell therein with him in their old age, as his job has the best medical plan for dependents? Or the most common scenario (at least here in the Asian and IndoPak region:) when parents choose their son to get the family business as a bequest, while the daughters get just a few appliances, jewelry, clothes and furniture at their weddings as compensation/consolation? In some Muslim families, its common to see the son get the more pricey education (as an investment), whilst daughters are made to sit at home beyond high school or Intermediate, waiting to get married, even if they are more talented or if they want to pursue higher education.
How often parents 'pick and choose' which of their children to give which blessing/asset to, solely out of selfish motives geared towards safeguarding their own future interest? Is it not a grave error, one which they should fear Allāh about? Will they not stand before Him one day, answerable about why they chose to give one child something better than the other children?
Parents should, therefore, fear Allāh regarding their children, in order to not just obey Prophet Muḥammad's command, but also to prevent any deep-rooted, psychological impact on their children's psyche caused by envy and malice, and not give preference or more love to any offspring more than his or her siblings, as a personal “future investment”.
- If you are talented, religiously practicing, gifted, physically very good-looking, charismatic in nature, and enigmatic in persona, you are bound to be the object of others' envy throughout your life. Very few people can tolerate someone who “has it all” – the love of people, worldly success, all-around popularity, a picture-perfect family, a charming and attractive personality, multi-faceted talents, superfluous wealth, spotless character and reputation, unflinching guidance towards the Haqq, and Islamic deeds that are at par with the scholars of the era. For such people, facing the sometimes illogical and unexpected antagonism of close relatives and old “friends” gives a great blow to their psyche and confidence, because they do not expect their own kith and kin to turn against them. However, it happens.
Whenever it does, the example of the young Yusuf should be brought to mind, who was mercilessly tossed into a well by ten of his own blood brothers! Nay, before that they even considered murdering him, proceeding to plot how to go about it. In front of his calamity, our own circumstances automatically pale in comparison.
- Further, Yusuf's case should strengthen our trust in Allāh, that even if a group plots against us, Allāh can inspire any one of them to avert a bad end for us, just the way one of the ten brothers himself suggested that instead of murder, kidnapping should be carried out. Allāh says in the Qurʾān:
قَالَ قَآئِلٌ مَّنْهُمْ لاَ تَقْتُلُواْ يُوسُفَ وَأَلْقُوهُ فِي غَيَابَةِ الْجُبِّ يَلْتَقِطْهُ بَعْضُ السَّيَّارَةِ إِن كُنتُمْ فَاعِلِينَ
Another of them said: “Do not slay Yusuf, but rather – if you must do something – cast him into the dark depths of this well, [whence] some caravan may pick him up.” [12:10]
Last but not least, this portion of Surah Yusuf teaches us about staunch, unending positivism – the strategy of turning your ardent enemy into a best friend. This strategy is seen in the reactionary demeanor of Prophet Yaqoub, when his sons did what he had feared – they eliminated Yusuf from their lives. He said:
[But Yaqoub] exclaimed: “Nay, but it is your [own] minds that have made [so terrible] a happening seem a matter of little account to you! But [as for myself] patience in adversity is most goodly [in the sight of Allāh]; and it is to Allāh [alone] that I pray to give me strength to bear the misfortune which you have described to me.” [12:18]
He did not stoop to their level of deception and crime. Instead, He turned to ask Allāh for help, whom he knew to be the real caretaker of Yusuf's and his affairs.
In the next post, in particular, we will see how Yusuf was further tested and how Allāh planned for him to be rescued from the well, inshā'Allāh.