What Storytellers Can Learn from Surah Yusuf
How to benefit as a writer, speaker, or in general, from one of the greatest of stories ever told
We relate to you, oh Prophet, the best of stories through Our revelation, though before this you were unaware of them. (Quran 12:3)
The twelfth chapter in the Quran of the story of Prophet Yusuf (AS), son of Jacob AS, has always been one of my favorites in the entirety of the book. Each chapter, verse, and letter in the Quran is perfect; and as we live our individual experiences as Muslims across history and the globe, some chapters prove more intimate to us over time than others and relate to us some comfort, lesson, sometimes even an instruction, on how to face our struggles with strength and humility. It’s a perfect story about love, envy, forgiveness, the reunion of father and son, but even more, it represents the evolution of the believer who never gives up and remains patient in spite of his torture in this world.
Surah Yusuf was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed ﷺ in Mecca when his conflict with the pagan chieftains of Quraysh was nearing its breaking point. His companions were under constant ridicule and random bouts of torture and humiliation, and his exile and/or death were being considered as the final solution by his enemies. At one point, the Jews of Madinah, the city he would later emigrate to, advised the chieftains to challenge the Prophet ﷺ by asking him multiple questions only their true messiah would know - among them the story of Yusuf (AS) and his brothers. It was at this moment when they asked the Prophet ﷺ about him that he was gifted the chapter in one sitting, reciting it all to their astonishment.
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That is the how of the revelation, and our main concern also is the why, which relates to the contents of the story. It was not merely a deflection to the critiques of Quraysh, nor a simple history lesson. It was revealed to strengthen the heart of the Prophet ﷺ and of the hearts of all who followed him, to increase their resolve and faith. If you’re a writer of stories yourself, it’s invaluable to look at it not just for personal benefit but as an eternal set of lessons for writing stories that inspire, uplift, and charm others into believing more in themselves and each other.
So what makes the story so special to us, looking at it as such?
Brevity and Clarity: an inch wide, yet infinitely deep
This is a characteristic kept not just in Surah Yusuf but is something common across all the stories and descriptions of the Quran. What Allah places as a single verb or adjective, though is simple to read out and though the layman doesn’t grasp it right away, is filled with meanings and images that tie the abstract concept together. This is combined with the fact that the story of Yusuf (AS), though comprehensive in its depth, is told with extreme brevity with not a single unnecessary detail. Not a word is out of place, not a mark on the page without a deliberate meaning behind it either to confirm a historical/moral fact or to dispel a misconception. Older biblical scriptures (that we can’t confirm the authenticity of) are the opposite of this; many of them are filled to the brim with unnecessary details and tangents that bring the reader nowhere near the point of the story.
Every experienced story writer among mortals will tell you — from the most elite of published authors downwards — that the greatest skill you can hone in your practice of writing stories is to cut out as much fat as possible from your beginning drafts. I’ve been told by some writers that you should go as far as cutting out half the word count of your stories as practice, to see for yourself how your story can indeed survive without all the extraneous details you’ve fooled yourself into including. Stephen King refers to this strategy as “kill your darlings.” The goal, as it’s commonly said, is to say as much as possible with as few words as possible.
This is something many writers are told as amateurs, but you see it to its best effect in the Surah. One hundred and eleven verses of a story more powerful than most of us will ever understand to its fullest, and Allah knows best.1
The Heroes We Understand
The core of what makes the story of Yusuf (AS) so compelling are his and his family’s trials. The Prophets have been, and will always be a grade above the average mortal. They carried burdens beyond what we had the capacity for, and endured them with a beautiful patience whilst performing their duties; so it’s absurd to say that we will ever reach such heights. But we can and are encouraged to follow their examples as best we can, and it helps with that quite a bit to see in this chapter the kinds of spirit-shaking challenges that we endure in daily life. The story of Yusuf takes the reader through an adventure littered with hardship. Every single person Yusuf meets, other than his father and Egypt’s king, betrays him either out of negligence or malice. His brothers kidnapped and deserted him out of envy. The caravan that found him sold him into slavery. His master’s wife attempted to seduce him, then throws a fatal accusation upon him when it fails. His master doesn’t protect him out of cowardice - and it goes on.
It seems like Yusuf (AS) can’t catch a break, and up until the great turnaround when the king frees him and makes him the treasurer, he doesn’t, yet remains patient and vigilant throughout. Everyone whose lived long enough knows what it’s like to be cheated, lied to, neglected, seduced and crept on by an illicit character (maybe not most of you, but hey), and many of us still carry the hurt and resentment from those people who wronged us. Yusuf’s story shows that perseverance — and eventually, forgiveness and reunion — is possible when injured in these ways.
And it was this set of lessons that was meant to console our Prophet ﷺ and the believers when their situation had worsened. It was at this moment — when the blessed Chosen One was threatened from all sides, had lost his familial protection, and had witnessed so many of his companions tortured and/or killed, that God told him that once he gains power, once his authority is unquestionable, forgiveness and reconciliation were the answer.
They admitted, “By Allah! He has truly preferred you over us, and we have surely been sinful.”
Joseph said, “There is no blame on you today. May Allah forgive you! He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy!” (Quran 12:91-92)
And it was those very words our Prophet ﷺ spoke to his tribe after he’d taken Mecca without spilling a drop of blood. After all, they’d been complicit and engaged in, our beloved Messenger ﷺ did what his brother Yusuf (AS) had done.
Yusuf (AS) also wasn’t the only hero we rooted for in this story. There were others throughout who played their parts ranging from the most wretched of villains to the best of heroes in their character alone — some transforming from beginning to end. Here we see the greatest developments of character in those who needed it, and the best exemplifications of it from those who didn’t. Jacob AS is the patron of patience in this story — betrayed and lied to by his own sons, left helpless as an old man unable to act because of his age and position, kept his faith, and never lost hope no matter how much time passed.
And when the caravan departed, their father [Jacob] said, “You believe me to be senile, but I smell the scent of Joseph.” (Quran 12:94)
We see the change that strikes those who wronged Yusuf (AS). His brothers started off as a group of envious criminals who took God’s rulings lightly, who through their extreme malice alienated the father they sought the love of so much. Near the end, we see how they’re willing to do anything so Benyamin doesn’t suffer Yusuf’s fate. The eldest of them goes as far as refusing to leave Egypt until Benyamin is released (unknowing of Yusuf’s ruse).
This change is satisfying to us and gives us hope, because it wasn’t granted to them with ease. We know how much and how long they’ve suffered from their mistakes. Their conversations with their father Jacob after the loss of Yusuf (AS) are labored and tense — you sense the dissatisfaction of Jacob with them no matter what they say or how they justify themselves. This is poetic irony at its finest, they committed their crime thinking it would bring their father closer to them, but all it did was push him further away. He never stops remembering or mentioning Yusuf. Even at the end when reunited with him, Jacob doesn’t even have it in him to forgive his other sons at that moment. He says he’ll ask Allah to forgive them — but later.
This is an obvious characteristic of a divine story; even in these small details, we notice how intimately Allah projects these emotions we experience so often in our lives. When we get hurt by someone and they ask for our forgiveness, even if we do forgive them, does that mean we forget all the hurt they caused us? For most of us no, and that’s okay. Now think of all the stories you’ve read or seen of the opposite: unrealistic, rushed, unfulfilling endings where the protagonist “forgives” the person/s that hurt them, despite there being none of the retribution or realism of time to process the human emotion displayed in a story like this.
All of these details aren’t separate or hold individual meanings, but are all tied together leading to that climactic ending, to build up to the great crescendo of the story: when Yusuf (AS) forgives them.
The Greatest of Conclusions: what makes a story ending great?
The impact Yusuf’s (AS) forgiveness holds as the “peak” of the story is layered and gives us such joy and closure for many reasons. First, it’s powerful and holds meaning because at that moment, disregarding the feelings of everyone involved, Yusuf is one of the most powerful men in the world when he forgives them. The new king of Egypt allows his full authority as treasurer, and at this time Egypt is the greatest and richest kingdom in the Mediterranean, the center of civilization before, during, and for many centuries after the Bronze Age. It’s because he can do whatever he wants to his brothers that his forgiveness is impactful. He transcended his need for revenge and punishment and chose to spite Satan instead.
Another reason is, as mentioned above, that his brothers earned it and were already shown to have paid their dues. Every character in this story who committed a wrong worked for their retribution or was humiliated for refusing to humble themselves. Yusuf (AS), though directed by the divine, saw firsthand the great change that had affected his brothers over the decades he’d been gone. They learned their lesson after all, so any punishment wouldn’t have meant true justice — but heedless cruelty.
The story of Yusuf (AS) ends by filling your heart to the brim with one of the Quran’s most beautiful scenes: Yusuf places his father and aunt2 on the throne, his brothers fall in prostration to him, and he sees the fulfillment of his dream as a child:
Then he raised his parents to the throne, and they all fell down in prostration to Joseph, who then said, “O my dear father! This is the interpretation of my old dream. My Lord has made it come true. He was kind to me when He freed me from prison, and brought you all from the desert after Satan had ignited rivalry between me and my siblings. Indeed my Lord is subtle in fulfilling what He wills. Surely He ˹alone˺ is the All-Knowing, All-Wise.” (Quran 12:100)
A story of envy, truth and deception, power and weakness, the importance of dreams, and the reunion and unbreakable bond between father and son, ends by tying all these themes together in synchronicity. All envy is shattered, the truth triumphs, power lands in the hands of those deserving of it — and the heartbroken father and son find one another in each other’s arms once again.
And so it is, that indeed as Allah tells us at the beginning of the story, it is He who tells us the best of stories. He creates perfections we’re unable to match, but due to His infinite mercy He allows us glimpses that allow us not only to improve our own character and re-establish the ties of kinship and love in our lives, but also to show us what the perfect story looks like.
Here comes a disclaimer of mine I’m sure most of you don’t need: I’m not saying we can imitate or come close to anything near the Quran’s literary style. This doesn’t even need saying. The point of this post is for people to take general points from our holy scripture’s stories to improve our capabilities at spreading Islamic, positive messages and lessons — this applies to all matters of communicating as well, such as public speaking for Dawah. Remember that the revelation of the Quran caused the complete overhaul of the everyday Arabic language for the early Muslims.
According to reports in the Old Testament and most Muslim scholars (including Ibn Abbas), Jacob marries Rachel’s sister after her passing, who was the mother of Yusuf and Benyamin; and in Islam, the maternal aunt holds the same level of respect and honor for the Muslim as his mother, hence why Allah names both her and Jacob as Yusuf’s (AS) parents.