Monday, February 12, 2018

God’s Promises: The Miraculous Fulfillment of Prophecy in the Quran (Part I)

A couple weeks ago I gave a talk on a phenomenon in the Quran that I find to be one of the most stunning signs of its miraculous provenance.  These are the prophecies of the Quran.  These prophecies take two forms:
  1. Some are explicit prophecies, and these tend to be the most well-known.
  2. Others are implicit prophecies, which are embedded for example in the stories the Quran revealed in order to make certain assurances to the Prophet and his followers.
I will argue that the fulfillment of these prophecies is striking in the following ways:
  1. These prophecies were not trivial, but they made claims that were bold and shocking given the historical context of their revelation.  They promised that these events or outcomes would transpire by God’s leave, despite there being every reason for believing the contrary. Some of these prophecies stipulated that they would occur within a specific time frame, such as during the life of the Prophet or his companions.
  2. These prophecies not only came true, but came true in a timeframe, manner, and scale that is without historical parallel, again reinforcing that the Quran’s point that these would only occur as a result of divine planning and intervention.

Over the course of the next few posts, I will be describing some examples of this, God-willing. I will in particular be drawing attention to prophecies or divine promises embedded in the stories of the Quran, since these are the most overlooked.  The first one will be on God's promises in the story of Joseph in the Quran.

1. The story of Joseph

Sura 12, “Joseph” (Yusuf), is the only sura of the Quran dedicated to a full chronological narrative.  The themes, language, and style of the sura place it firmly in the context of the late Meccan period, in which it would have had the most relevance to the Prophet Muhammad and his followers.  During this time, they were being persecuted by their own people—their own fellow tribe and kin—to the point that they were about to be driven out from their home town of Mecca.  It is especially during this period that the Quran narrated stories in order to reassure the hearts of the Muslims.  These were typically stories that already existed in Biblical lore, but were retold with new purposes in the Quran.  For example, these stories would console the believers and ensure them that God would reward their patience and constancy with success and victory.  But how was this possible?  They were a small group, they had no power, they were being persecuted by a much more powerful group, and they were being dispossessed of their homes and assets.  How could they possibly attain victory?

It was in this context that the sura of Joseph was revealed.  Think about what happens in the story.  Joseph experienced one tragic difficulty after another.  He was a young man who was persecuted by his own brothers, exiled from his home to a foreign land, enslaved, accused, and imprisoned, but over these many hard years he held onto his faith.  Then God created unique circumstances that allowed Joseph to rise to a prominent place of respect and authority and to prosper.  Through a dramatic turn of events, he was eventually brought face-to-face with the brothers who persecuted them.  He had the upper hand over them.  Yet he forgave them, they sincerely repented from their crimes against him, and they were reunited as a family.

What was this story supposed to signal to its first Muslim audience?  It is that despite the seemingly hopeless situation you are in, God will create unique circumstances by which He will save you, raise you to a position of success and prominence, cause you to triumph—and maybe even turn the hearts of your families and tribesmen so that they will repent from their wrongs against you and reconcile with you.  As Mustansir Mir, in his essay on irony in the story of Joseph, writes:
Muhammad is identified with Joseph, and the tribe of Quraysh, to which Muhammad belonged and which had turned hostile to him, with Joseph’s brothers. In addition, the story predicts that just as Joseph finally triumphed over the obstacles put in his way by his brothers, so Muhammad will eventually emerge a victor in his struggle against the Quraysh. When, in 630, Muhammad conquered Mecca and the Quraysh anxiously waited for the verdict on their fate, Muhammad addressed them, asking them how they expected him to treat his former enemies. Their plea for mercy was made in the form of praise: “You are a noble brother and the son of a noble brothers.” Muhammad issued a general amnesty, saying: lā tathrība ‘alaykumu ’l- yawm, “No blame rests on you today.” These words were taken from v. 92 of the twelfth sūra of the Qur’ān—Joseph. The story had worked itself out in history. And so had the irony.[1] 

 Think about it:
  • Joseph is hated and persecuted by his own, more powerful older brothers (an ʿuba, or a "strong clan"—12:8, 14), just like the Prophet and his followers were despised and persecuted by their own tribesmen.
  • In the story, Joseph is exiled by his brothers to a foreign land.  Similarly, the Prophet and his companions would be exiled to Medina.
  • In the foreign land, Joseph eventually rises to a place of respect and authority.  Likewise, the Prophet and his followers would rise to a position of respect and authority, and within only a number years become the dominant power in the Arabian Peninsula—and later, the entire Near East.

وَكَذَٰلِكَ مَكَّنَّا لِيُوسُفَ فِي الْأَرْضِ 
يَتَبَوَّأُ مِنْهَا حَيْثُ يَشَاءُ ۚ 
نُصِيبُ بِرَحْمَتِنَا مَن نَّشَاءُ ۖ 
وَلَا نُضِيعُ أَجْرَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ

Thus did We establish Joseph with authority in the land, 
free to settle in it wherever he pleased. 
We bestow our Mercy on whomever We wish, 
and We do not allow the reward of those who do good to be lost. 

  • Joseph is eventually brought face-to-face with his own brothers who persecuted him, but he forgave them.  Likewise, the Prophet would return to Mecca and have the upper hand over the Quraysh, yet he forgave them.
  • Finally, the brothers prostrate to Joseph, they repent of their wrongs, and the brothers become reconciled and form a single family again.  In the same way, the Quraysh end up submitting to the Prophet’s authority, and even accept his message, joining the community of believers.  They are reunited, but now not as Arab polytheists, but as faithful devotees of the one God of Abraham.

Who could have predicted such an outcome?  As the Quran stresses, the only people at this time who could credit the idea of such a story playing out in their own lives were those who recognized that God has promised it and that He is fully in control of events and their outcomes:

وَكَذَٰلِكَ مَكَّنَّا لِيُوسُفَ فِي الْأَرْضِ 
وَلِنُعَلِّمَهُ مِن تَأْوِيلِ الْأَحَادِيثِ ۚ 
وَاللَّهُ غَالِبٌ عَلَىٰ أَمْرِهِ 
وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

Thus We established Joseph with authority in the land, 
to teach him the true meaning of dreams 
and the fulfillment of prophecies (ta’wīl al-aḥādīth).
God is fully in control of His affair,
but most of the people do not know it.

Hence, as the Quran fittingly says:

لَّقَدْ كَانَ فِي يُوسُفَ وَإِخْوَتِهِ 
آيَاتٌ لِّلسَّائِلِينَ

Certainly in (the story of) Joseph and his brothers 
there are signs for those who inquire.

[1] Mustansir Mir, “Irony in the Qur’ān: A Study of the Story of Joseph,” Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur’ān (Richmond, Surrey: Routledge, 2000), 126.

1 comment:

  1. Assalamu alaikum,
    Glad to see you Sharif, after a long time. Continue your good work.