The Story of Joseph: Illuminating the Relationship between the Bahá’í Faith and Islam: Dr. Todd Lawson’s Web Talk
Dr. Todd Lawson described his September 25 Web Talk, entitled “Bahá’u’lláh: The Return of Joseph” this way: “The story of Joseph in the Qur’an has a profoundly spiritual and historical connection with the Bahá’í Faith. We may say that the Bahá’í Faith began with the Báb’s explanation of the Sura of Joseph during the fateful meeting with Mulla Husayn on the evening of May 22, 1844. Indeed, the Báb dates the beginning of the new dispensation from the moment the truth of his words of explanation penetrated the heart and mind of his guest. How does the spiritual reality of Joseph continue to function in and determine the faith and teachings of Bahá’ís and the ethos of the Bahá’í Faith?” Reflections on these topics provided the substance for Todd’s Web Talk.
Being reminded of the centrality of the story of Joseph for the beginning of the Bábí and Bahá’í faiths was essential to understanding Todd’s talk, which emphasized a number of important themes based on Bahá’í teachings: the unique relationship between the Bahá’í Faith and Islam; the inerrancy of the Qur’an; the many kinds of Muslims in the world and the two beliefs that unify the many variations among them; the role of figure of Joseph in the Bahá’í teachings and spirituality; the way the story of Joseph exemplifies what it means to be a True Prophet or Manifestation of God.
The Relationship between Islam and the Bahá’í Faith. Todd started his Web Talk by talking about the various communities of Muslims in the world, the rapid growth of the religion of Islam that claims some two billion adherents, the beauty of the religion, and the fact that, according to Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’ís owe everything to Islam. Then he said he would focus on the relationship between the Bahá’í Faith and Islam through the Qur’an’s Sura of Joseph and the Báb’s commentary on the same Sura, which commentary is also known as the Qayyúm’l-Asmá’.
Even among Shi‘ihs and Sunnis, the two major divisions in Islam, there are many varying identities within each division, Todd said, and all these perspectives have produced a great deal of commentary on the Qur’an and various understandings of the role of Muhammad. But all Muslims agree on and take pride in two points: one, their veneration of the Qur’an as the inerrant and sacred Word of God, and, two, the exceptional character of Muhammad. Thus there is overarching unity in Islam and much variation, one example, perhaps, being what Bahá’ís esteem as “unity in diversity.”
Bahá’ís also love Muhammad and Islam, but they consider the Bahá’í Faith an independent world religion, not a sect of Islam. Bahá’ís are not Muslims (literally, “one who submits”), but they do “submit to the Word of God” and thus might be called (in lowercase) “submitters/muslims.”
The Advent of Divine Justice and the Bahá’í Faith and Islam. Then Todd put up on the screen a passage from The Advent of Divine Justice (75: 49) in which Shoghi Effendi discusses the preparations those who participate in teaching campaigns should undertake. About half way through the long paragraph, which details what Bahá’ís should know about the teachings of their own Faith, Shoghi Effendi says this:
They must strive to obtain, from sources that are authoritative and unbiased, a sound knowledge of the history and tenets of Islám—the source and background of their Faith—and approach reverently and with a mind purged from preconceived ideas the study of the Qur’án which, apart from the sacred scriptures of the Bábí and Bahá’í Revelations, constitutes the only Book which can be regarded as an absolutely authenticated Repository of the Word of God.
Stressing the authenticity and inerrancy of the Qur’an, Todd moved on to his discussion of the story of Joseph.
The Story of Joseph. The story of Joseph, who believed in peace and forgiveness, is found in the Hebrew Bible, in the Qur’an, and in the Bahá’í writings. A brief synopsis of the story is as follows:
- Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son by his favorite wife.
- Joseph had a dream in which his brothers bowed down to him, and Jacob told him not to tell his brothers about the dream, for they would be jealous.
- Joseph’s father gave him a beautiful coat (the coat of many colors in some versions).
- Joseph was betrayed by his jealous brothers, who threw him in a well, put animal blood on his coat, and returned it to their father, telling him that an animal had killed Joseph.
- Traders found the young Joseph in the well and sold him into slavery in Egypt.
- His Egyptian “stepmother” (the wife of the Egyptian who bought him), drawn to his handsomeness, tried to violate him.
- Joseph was exonerated because his shirt was torn from the back, not the front.
- But he was put in prison for a long time anyway, where he interpreted dreams of his fellow prisoners, some of whom were released.
- The king had troubling dreams that none of the learned at court could interpret. They told the king that his dreams were unintelligible.
- The ex-prisoner, who had returned to court, finally remembered Joseph, who was brought back to court, where he interpreted the dream as meaning seven prosperous years followed by seven years of drought.
- The king elevated Joseph and put him in charge of the royal storehouses of grain.
- During the years of famine, Jacob sent Joseph’s brothers from Canaan to Egypt for grain.
- Joseph recognized his brothers who did not recognize him and, on one trip, sent back a shirt with his brothers to restore his father’s sight (which he had lost weeping for the loss of his two beloved sons, Joseph and the younger Benjamin.
- Jacob smelled the fragrance of the shirt long before the brothers returned home.
- Even though Joseph had suffered horribly at his brothers’ hands, he forgave them, provided them with grain, and eventually united his family under his protection in Egypt.
Why is the story of Joseph important to Bahá’ís? Todd asked. Not only do Muslims consider it a special story, but the Báb made His claim to Prophethood with His commentary on the Sura of Joseph on the night of His declaration. Mulla Husayn, the Báb’s guest on that fateful night, had asked his mentor Siyyid Kázim to write a commentary on the Sura of Joseph, but he declined, saying that it was beyond him. But, he said that the One coming after him would do that, unasked. That One, the Báb, revealed the commentary without being asked.
What does the story of Joseph do? Todd explained that it fills out what it means to be a True Manifestation or Prophet of God, a Being with a heightened ability to interpret the signs of God, a spiritual power, and with secular (civil and administrative) power. In line with the example of Joseph, a True Manifestation is One Who establishes justice, unity, and peace.
Todd then talked about four (of many) typological characteristics of Joseph that prefigure characteristics of Bahá’u’lláh: Joseph’s shirt, His Covenant, His fragrance, and His beauty.
Joseph’s Shirt. Before discussing Joseph’s shirt (coat), Todd stopped to recommend a book written by Kenneth Cragg, the former assistant Bishop of Jerusalem: The Iron in the Soul: Joseph and the Undoing of Violence. The book about Joseph explains why the Palestinians and Israelis should look to the story of Joseph, with his gratitude and forgiveness, for solutions. Todd also explained that Joseph is also a typological prefiguration that helps one to understand Jesus, as there are many parallels between the two. Then, he said, it is no accident that Joseph is important in the Bahá’í Faith.
Joseph’s shirt (coat of many colors) almost becomes a “character” in the Joseph story. First, there is the shirt given to Joseph as a symbol of his father’s great love, then the shirt returned to Joseph’s father covered animal blood. Third, it is the torn shirt that proves Joseph’s innocence after his stepmother chases after him. Fourth is the shirt that Joseph sends with his brothers to restore Jacob’s eyesight, the fragrance of which Jacob smells long before it reaches him. Bahá’u’lláh uses the image of a shirt (one example being the hem of the robe) many times in His writings, which evokes for Muslims (among others) the story of Joseph. Thus the shirt signifies reunion, civilization (material and spiritual), and awakening or enlightenment. “Shirt” or “garment” is, indeed, a Josephian metaphor.
Joseph and the Covenant. The Covenant is another theme symbolized in the Joseph story—as when the sun, moon, and stars bow down to Joseph in his dream. Todd talked about the Qur’an 7:172, in which God, before creation, called together all future generations and asked them, “Am I not your Lord?” to which they answered—or “bowed down”— “Yea, verily!” Bahá’u’lláh alludes to this same Covenant in his Arabic Hidden Word 19. The Qur’an alludes to it in the first three verses of the Sura of Joseph (12:1–3). The Báb revealed 42verses in each of the 111 chapters of the Qayyum’l-Asma’, 42 being numerically equal to that very same “Yea, verily!” in Qur’an 7:72
Joseph and Fragrance. Fragrance is another Josephian theme found in the Bahá’í writings. It symbolizes holiness, sanctity, knowledge, and truth. In the Joseph story, Jacob raises up in his sick bed and detects the fragrance of Joseph, even though the brothers bringing the shirt to Jacob are many, many miles away. Scent, Todd said, represents a mode of knowing different from syllogisms and discursive reasoning; it is a metaphor for spiritual understanding.
Joseph and Beauty. In Genesis and in the Qur’an, Joseph’s beauty is central to the story, and Joseph is venerated for his beauty (both physical and moral). His father gives him a beautiful shirt or coat. His brothers hate him and the coat he is given for his beauty. In Egypt his stepmother tries to seduce him because he is beautiful. Thus beauty is a symbol from the Joseph tradition. In the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh Himself is referred to as the Blessed Beauty. Hence Bahá’u’lláh is the return of Joseph, a metaphor for a Manifestation of God.
From the Joseph story, the Shirt (robe/hem of the garment), the Covenant, Fragrance (scent), and Beauty are all symbols representing and, therefore, prefiguring Manifestations of God—in the present time, Bahá’u’lláh.
Following his talk, Todd answered a number of questions. In an answer to one of them, Todd added that the Bahá’í Faith is unique in that it honors its previous religion, Islam. When asked for more information about the story of Joseph and its relationship to the Bahá’í Faith, Todd recommended his article “The Baha’i Tradition: The Return of Joseph and the Peaceable Imagination” (published in Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts, ed. John Renard [Berkeley: U of California P, 2012] 135–57). It is now posted on the Wilmette Institute’s public website on Todd’s Web Talk page. Todd also noted that excerpts from a number of the chapters in the Báb’s Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, or Commentary on the Sura of Joseph, can be found in Selections from the Writings of the Báb 41–74.
As always with summaries of Web Talks, we can only capture the highlights, not the nuances. Hence we recommend that you listen to the talk itself. Todd Lawson’s talk on “Bahá’u’lláh: The Return of Joseph” is no exception. You can find it on the Wilmette Institute’s public website and on its YouTube site.
Todd Lawson is Professor Emeritus of Islamic Thought, University of Toronto. He has been a Bahá’í since 1968 and has been a member, since 1975, of the Association for Bahá’í Studies who this year awarded him the distinguished book award for his study of the Qayyúm al-Asmá, Gnostic apocalypse in Islam (Routledge, 2012) Todd has published numerous articles and books on the relationship between the Bahá’í Faith and Islam, Qur’an commentary, Sufism and Shi’ism. He lives in Montreal with his wife, daughter, and grandchildren.