For the second time in his young life, Prophet Yusuf [عليه السلام] found himself treated unjustly, oppressed and punished for committing absolutely no crime or offence. It is interesting how he appealed to Allāh that living in a prison cell would be better for him than what the women of the city were calling him towards, and it was through his life in the cell that Allāh decreed for him to have future honor and respect. Despite his innocence being publicly proven and acknowledged by onlookers and witnesses, he was imprisoned.
Through this event we derive important lessons. First, it proves that oppressors in this world can get away with the wrong that they intentionally do to sincere believers, especially if they have worldly power and authority over the oppressed righteous individuals. Just as his brothers had thrown him into the well, the power and social influence wielded by Aziz's wife facilitated her oppression of Yusuf, and even Aziz – who liked Yusuf – let her get her way. A sincere believer in Allāh might suffer the same fate today, with oppressors getting him thrown out of a job, slandered, or deported from somewhere, as those who know of his innocence stand by and let it happen. This, by no means, should lead a believer to despair of Allāh being by his side, but rather, as mentioned in the previous posts of this series, he should focus on accepting the decree of Allāh and convincing himself that if Allāh has willed this for him, it must be good for him in some way. Besides, Yusuf already opted for the prison to escape the shenanigans of Aziz's wife and her circle.
وَدَخَلَ مَعَهُ السِّجْنَ فَتَيَانَ قَالَ أَحَدُهُمَآ إِنِّي أَرَانِي أَعْصِرُ خَمْرًا وَقَالَ الآخَرُ إِنِّي أَرَانِي أَحْمِلُ فَوْقَ رَأْسِي خُبْزًا تَأْكُلُ الطَّيْرُ مِنْهُ نَبِّئْنَا بِتَأْوِيلِهِ إِنَّا نَرَاكَ مِنَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ
“Two young men happened to go to prison at the same time as Yusuf. One of them said: “Behold, I saw myself [in a dream] pressing wine.” And the other said: “Behold, I saw myself [in a dream] carrying bread on my head, and birds were eating thereof.” [And both entreated Yusuf:] “Let us know the real meaning of this! Verily, we see that you are one of those who do well.” [12:36]
Yusuf's good conduct and special, Allāh-given expertise of dream interpretation soon attracted his first two “students” or “clients”. These two were youths who had been sent to prison at the same time as he, as the verse above states. This means that they too, were probably intimidated at first by the prison environs, and sought his company when they observed him to be righteous and agreeable in nature.
There are important lessons for us in this as well. First, each and every human being is granted some talent, skill or natural aptitude at something with which he or she can be of benefit to others or earn their livelihood. That talent just needs to be nurtured or polished through observation, practice or an environment conducive to foster progress in its early stages. Children who are still very young show natural affinity or aptitude for certain vocations, hobbies and occupations. Thus Allāh grants a person his or her “key” to success in this life.
The other important lesson in this verse, especially for da'ees or callers towards Islam, is that proactively inviting others to their faith is albeit very important, but just one aspect of da'wah. By consistent good actions and conduct, a person portrays the practical picture of what it is like to be a sincere believer, and onlookers learn about Islam from him just by observation. There are very small gestures that we, as Muslims, can do in public that would invite others towards Islam e.g. giving up our seat on the tube to an elderly person who has just come on board, or offering our snack to the person sitting next to us on the bus/in a public waiting lounge, before eating from it. These small gestures paint a very positive picture of our faith, and undoubtedly it was this 'silent' da'wah by Yusuf that earned him not just the respect, but also the confidence, of his two prison mates.
It was after they approached him with their queries that he called them towards monotheism. A da'ee must therefore, first win the trust of people before he or she starts to proclaim/convey the message of Islam to them. Once the audience is keenly listening in, it is important to remember what to talk about first and which issues should be given priority. No doubt, a person's basic belief or aqeedah is the first thing that needs to be checked and rectified. Therefore, after assuring his two listeners that he would be able to tell them their dream interpretations in a jiffy, he spoke about himself thus:
That his ability to interpret dreams was taught to him by Allāh ذَلِكُمَا مِمَّا عَلَّمَنِي رَبِّي
He had left the way of a nation/people who did not believe in Allāh, and who denied the Hereafter:
إِنِّي تَرَكْتُ مِلَّةَ قَوْمٍ لاَّ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللّهِ وَهُم بِالآخِرَةِ هُمْ كَافِرُونَ
He instead followed the monotheistic message brought by his forefathers, Prophets Ibrahim, Ishaaq and Yaqoub [عليهم السلام]:
وَاتَّبَعْتُ مِلَّةَ آبَآئِـي إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَإِسْحَقَ وَيَعْقُوبَ
These Prophets did not commit polytheism, which was a great favor of Allāh upon them and mankind, but most of mankind was ungrateful about this:
مَا كَانَ لَنَا أَن نُّشْرِكَ بِاللّهِ مِن شَيْءٍ ذَلِكَ مِن فَضْلِ اللّهِ عَلَيْنَا وَعَلَى النَّاسِ وَلَـكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لاَ يَشْكُرُونَ
Yusuf then addressed his two cell mates in an endearing manner, before asking them a question aimed at establishing the proof of tauheed/oneness of Allāh:
يَا صَاحِبَيِ السِّجْنِ
“O my prison companions! Are different gods better, or Allāh, The One, The Almighty?”
To sum it up, Yusuf waited to 'strike when the iron was hot', so to speak. He waited for the right, most appropriate moment to preach to them the oneness of Allāh, when he had their full attention, just before telling them the interpretations of their respective dreams.
The lesson for us in this as da'ees is to focus on our own conduct (akhlaq) with others first, befriending them and making them feel at ease, and thereby earning us their trust. When we have their attention, we should make concise but powerful, logical arguments based on tauheeed, the oneness of Allāh, and address our listeners in an endearing, affectionate manner. Even in other places in the Qurʾān, the Prophets have addressed their sinning/erring nations as “O my people!”: a manner of address that establishes a link between the speaker and the audience.
Eventually, Yusuf told both of them their respective dream interpretations. One of them was soon to be released from prison and destined to become the ruling King's cupbearer. When his release was imminent, Yusuf requested him to mention him positively to the King; however, Iblis made the released prisoner forget to do that. As a result, Yusuf stayed in the prison for several more years.
Several more years!
The thing with Allāh's decree is that it cannot be changed by Shaitan or anyone else. Had Allāh willed, Yusuf would have been able to get out of prison immediately. But Allāh had decreed for him to stay there longer, among a diverse population of convicts and criminals, for a purpose which only He knows best. Isolation and social debasement probably comprised a stringent “training program”, specially designed by Allāh, for the talented future leader of Egypt. It does seem “harsh”, at first glance, that Allāh would make a future Prophet spend several years of his youth in confinement, with limited, low-quality food for nourishment, and only the bare necessities of living met in a decrepit shelter, with only criminals and convicts for companions. Our lives seem so luxurious in comparison, don't they?
Although I admit it is not a fair analogy, but whilst reflecting upon the situation of Yusuf, I was reminded of the many times I have counselled young girls and women in my social and da'wah circle, who suffer from the feeling of “isolation” after marriage. Most of them go through some bouts of depression, especially if/when they're pregnant due to being away from their biological family, friends, and relatives. Cut off from their pre-marriage career, da'wah and social activities, they sometimes ask themselves if marriage is really “worth the sacrifice” they are making, viz. giving up their “whole life” to live with a man who is still relatively a stranger, and his family, around whom they have to be careful not to complain or show sorrow. With their husband away for most of the day, spending their time in a small apartment, in a country foreign to them, their old friends and relatives thousands of miles away, they soon become very depressed. For those living with in-laws, it is somewhat better, as they have company. Nevertheless, it can be a challenge to live away from familiar people with whom they can be frank and no-holds-barred, as opposed to 'walking on eggshells,' so to speak. Fortunate are those who do not experience such adjustment woes.
Mischief-seeking gossipers make matters no better, when they say things like, “What a talented, lovely, educated girl; and look how she is living! Since she got married, all she does is stay at home with the baby. Do they make her bake bread? She deserves to live in a palace like a princess, with servants doing all the work for her!” The girl's mother nods tearfully in melancholy acquiescence. Hearsay reaches the bride in question, and she promptly descends another notch in her negative perception of life after marriage: “Am I really so unworthy that I have to spend my life in a small room that doesn't even have an attached bath?!”
To all such girls out there, I'd say, reflect upon what happened to Yusuf. He was young, talented, righteous in behavior, and super-handsome in appearance. Yet, Allāh made him dwell in a prison for years. He had committed no crime; he had always been good to others, but after suffering misery at the hands of his envious brothers, he was slandered and thrown into prison by female oppressors. He lived for years with only basic amenities, amid convicts. Yet, he endeavored to convey his religion to those around him, and accepted Allāh's decree. No doubt, this imprisonment was to be good for his future role.
Further, we can look at some more examples of righteous people living a threadbare and/or isolated existence e.g. Prophet Muḥammad [صلّى اللّهُ عليه و سلّم] living in self-imposed, semi-exile in the cave of Hira before he received his first revelation; his daughter Fatimah living a life of poverty and hardship, and dying very young, after giving birth to future leaders; Maryam [عليها السلام] living in isolation in the mihraab, spending her time in worship and remembrance of Allāh; Prophet Yunus [عليه السلام] being swallowed by a whale, in which he dwelled until he repented. Ponder on the lives of the Prophets and righteous people who have gone before you, and thank Allāh for the isolation that you are temporarily going through. This time will surely pass, and some day you will be powerful and independent. But for now, reap the tremendous personal benefits of isolation, because it surely brings about self-actualization. Its greatest benefit is that it allows you to reconnect with Allāh without distractions, remember him exclusively, and worship him with sincerity. Isolation also allows a person to explore their inner strengths, analayze their goals for the future i.e. what they want out of life, polish their personal talents and abilities without the interference of others, and keep away from negative social company, burdensome events and useless pastimes. Many successful people impose isolation upon themselves to relax, read, do research, and generate ideas for future projects.
When Yusuf had reached the requisite level of self-actualization, Allāh caused the King of Egypt to have a dream that none of his courtiers could interpret. It was at this time that his cupbearer finally remembered Yusuf's dream-interpreting talent from his prison days. This was not just a mere coincidence, but Allāh's decree at work. It was finally the time for Yusuf to come out and benefit society with his knowledge and talents.
When his ex-cellmate came to him after many years to ask him about the King's dream, Yusuf was once more the epitome of the easy-going “nice guy”: he neither rebuked nor chastised him for forgetting to mention his dream-interpreting talent to the King upon his release from prison, nor did he refuse to tell him the dream interpretation as revenge.
Rather, his main concern, even as the King ordered his release, was the threat to his chastity that still existed outside the prison walls – the “cougars”:
فَلَمَّا جَاءهُ الرَّسُولُ قَالَ ارْجِعْ إِلَى رَبِّكَ فَاسْأَلْهُ مَا بَالُ النِّسْوَةِ اللاَّتِي قَطَّعْنَ أَيْدِيَهُنَّ إِنَّ رَبِّي بِكَيْدِهِنَّ عَلِيمٌ
And when the messenger came unto him, he (Yusuf) said: “Return to your lord and ask him what was the case of the women who cut their hands. Lo! My lord knows their guile.” [12:50]
Yusuf knew that he had been sent to prison because the women had threatened him to either do as they wished, or be imprisoned. He knew that they were still out there, and that majority of the town's people might still be in the dark about who actually was guilty of betraying Aziz.
قَالَ مَا خَطْبُكُنَّ إِذْ رَاوَدتُّنَّ يُوسُفَ عَن نَّفْسِهِ قُلْنَ حَاشَ لِلّهِ مَا عَلِمْنَا عَلَيْهِ مِن سُوءٍ قَالَتِ امْرَأَةُ الْعَزِيزِ الآنَ حَصْحَصَ الْحَقُّ أَنَاْ رَاوَدتُّهُ عَن نَّفْسِهِ وَإِنَّهُ لَمِنَ الصَّادِقِينَ
He (the king) (then sent for those women and) said: What happened when you asked an evil act of Yusuf? They answered: “Allāh preserve us! We know no evil of him.” Said the wife of Aziz: “Now the truth is out. I asked of him an evil act, and he is surely of the truthful ones.” [12:51]
At long last, the truth surfaced. Aziz's wife confessed and proclaimed Yusuf's innocence and righteousness before all. Thus, Allāh publicly cleared Yusuf of the false charges/rumors against him, and he was honorably discharged from prison. What he said then is a lesson in humility and wisdom for all time to come:
ذَلِكَ لِيَعْلَمَ أَنِّي لَمْ أَخُنْهُ بِالْغَيْبِ وَأَنَّ اللّهَ لاَ يَهْدِي كَيْدَ الْخَائِنِينَ وَمَا أُبَرِّىءُ نَفْسِي إِنَّ النَّفْسَ لأَمَّارَةٌ بِالسُّوءِ إِلاَّ مَا رَحِمَ رَبِّيَ إِنَّ رَبِّي غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
Then (Yusuf) said: “(I asked for) this, that he (Aziz) may know that I did not betray him in secret, and that surely Allāh guides not the snare of the betrayers. I do not absolve myself of blame. Indeed, the (human) soul enjoins unto evil, except the one on whom my Lord has mercy. My Lord is Forgiving, Merciful.” [12:52-53]
Despite being a Prophet of Allāh and having opted for prison to escape from the women's invitation towards adultery, he didn't preach his “holier-than-thou-ness” or act self-righteously before everyone, after the confession was made by the Aziz's wife. He didn't absolve himself from evil, making it clear to the public that the human self is naturally prone to evil desires, and it is only Allāh's mercy that saves anyone – anyone – from becoming a slave to them. This statement of his could also have been directed as a measure to save Aziz's wife from being condemned by society for her action, for which she had clearly repented. Otherwise, her confession could have triggered her public humiliation and ostracization, had Yusuf not testified to the fact that every human being is prone to evil, so no one should consider himself above it or protected from it.
This was his ultimate “moment of truth”. He could have said something tinted with disdain or arrogance to his former oppressor, as her guile and his innocence became public. But he stuck to the same nature of action of his, which is apparent throughout Surah Yusuf – that of being a “muhsin” – a doer of good. No matter what anyone did to him, he returned their actions with good. No wonder Allāh calls this surah of the Qurʾān احسن القصص ["Ahsan Al-Qasas"]: the most beautiful of stories!