Then follow the stories of various prophets, all revolving around their rejection by perverse and obstinate unbelievers. Allah tells the story of Noah and the ark, with a significant difference from the Biblical story (11:25-49). In Genesis 6-9, Noah has nothing to do with the unbelievers at all; God tells him, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth” (Genesis 6:13), and tells him to build the ark, but he doesn’t tell him to go warn the people about the flood. But in the Qur’an, Noah comes to his people with a “clear warning” (11:25) that they should “serve none but Allah” (11:26). So the corruption and violence of which the people are guilty in the Biblical account in the Qur’an become simply idolatry, or more precisely, shirk, the association of partners with Allah.
Of course, Muhammad came to his people with a clear warning (14:52) that they should serve none but Allah (3:64), and so in this account Noah is kind of a proto-Muhammad, preaching a message identical to his. And that is, indeed, how Islam views all the Biblical prophets. They, like Muhammad, taught Islam — it was their followers who corrupted their teachings to create modern Judaism and Christianity. Even the reception Noah receives resembles how the pagan Quraysh received Muhammad. The unbelievers tell him he is just a man and charge him and his followers with lying (11:27), and even claim he is forging the messages he claims are from Allah (11:35). Noah counters by saying that it won’t matter what he says to them if Allah has determined to lead them astray (11:34). This, of course, almost exactly replicates Muhammad’s experience: Allah tells him to tell the unbelievers that he is just a man (18:110); they charge him with lying (42:24) and with forging the Qur’an (11:13); and of course Muhammad also teaches that if Allah wills to lead someone astray, no one can guide him (11:186).
Noah is, then, essentially a stand-in for Muhammad. Indirectly emphasized is the identity of the messages of all the prophets, and the obstinacy of the unbelievers before the manifest truth of Allah. One of those unbelievers is Noah’s son, who declines to enter the ark and instead says, “I will take refuge on a mountain to protect me from the water” (v. 43). His son dies in flood, and Noah reminds Allah of his promise to save his family (which came in v. 40): “My Lord, indeed my son is of my family” (v. 45). But Allah tells him, “O Noah, indeed he is not of your family; indeed, he is one whose work was other than righteous” (v. 46). Belief and unbelief in Islam supersede even family ties. Ibn Kathir explains: “Thus, for his son, it had already been decreed that he would be drowned due to his disbelief and his opposition to his father.”
The story of Hud (verses 50-60) follows a roughly similar pattern. He tells the people of Ad to repent (v. 52), but they complain that he has brought them no clear sign (v. 53), and are destroyed — although Hud and his people are saved (v. 58). Allah repeats the same pattern in telling the story of Salih (vv. 61-68), who was sent sometime after Noah’s time to the Thamud people, who lived in northern Arabia. Allah gives them a sign of his power: the “she-camel of Allah is a symbol to you” (v. 64) — which according to some traditions emerged miraculously from a mountain. The Thamud are told not to harm it, but they do anyway (v. 65) and are destroyed (v. 67), except for Salih and the believers (v. 66).
Allah then retells the Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah and Lot (vv. 69-83), culminating in the destruction of an unnamed Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 82) with a strong hint of an unnamed crime of sodomy (v. 79). Then he tells the story of Shu’aib, prophet to the Midianites, in language very similar, and with an identical outcome, to the story of Hud (vv. 84-95).
Then in verses 96-123, Allah recapitulates many themes of the entire sura, with passing reference to Moses and Pharaoh (vv. 96-98). Both those who reject Allah and those who accept him will face a fearsome judgment, leading to hellfire for the unbelievers and Paradise for the believers (vv. 103-108). Allah gave Moses the Torah, but there are disputes about it (v. 110), which Allah would have already settled except that he has decided to “delay His chastisement from your nation,” according to the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas. The believers should pray and be steadfast (vv. 114-115), for all this is Allah’s will: “And if your Lord had willed, He could have made mankind one community; but they will not cease to differ.” (v. 118). Yet believers must trust in him (v. 123) — or else.
Here is yet another Biblical story recast and retold in the Qur’an, and like the overwhelming majority of Biblical stories in the Qur’an, is employed to make the same point: Muhammad is a true prophet, he is being mistreated like all other prophets, and those who are ridiculing and rejecting him will be severely punished.
Sura 12, “Joseph,” is another late Meccan sura. It was revealed, says Maududi, “when the Quraish” — the pagan Arabs of Mecca, and the tribe of which Muhammad was a member — “were considering the question of killing or exiling or imprisoning him.” It tells the story of the patriarch Joseph, again — as we saw in sura 11 with the stories of other prophets — with a clear message relating to Muhammad and his opponents.
Allah begins in verses 1-3 with another panegyric to the Qur’an. Ibn Kathir expresses the mainstream Islamic view when he says: “The Arabic language is the most eloquent, plain, deep and expressive of the meanings that might arise in one’s mind. Therefore, the most honorable Book, was revealed in the most honorable language, to the most honorable Prophet and Messenger, delivered by the most honorable angel, in the most honorable land on earth, and its revelation started during the most honorable month of the year, Ramadan. Therefore, the Qur’an is perfect in every respect.”
This is not, of course, a perspective that tends to be welcoming of critical examination of the book — as was in the news in 2008 with the discovery of 450 rolls of film of ancient manuscripts of the Qur’an that had been concealed, apparently to avoid offending delicate Muslim sensibilities.
Then Allah tells the story of Joseph (vv. 4-101). According to Maududi, one of the principal purposes of this account was — yet again — to warn people not to reject Muhammad. Its aim, he said, was to apply the story of Joseph being rejected by his brothers to Muhammad’s tribe that rejected him, the Quraysh, “and warn them that ultimately the conflict between them and the Holy Prophet would end in his victory over them. As they were then persecuting their brother, the Holy Prophet, in the same way the brothers of Prophet Joseph had treated him…And just as the brothers of Prophet Joseph had to humble themselves before him, so one day the Quraish shall have to beg forgiveness from their brother whom they were then trying to crush down.” He points to verse 7, “Certainly were there in Joseph and his brothers signs for those who ask,” as referring to the Quraysh, who should heed the warning given them in this sura.
The Qur’anic tale of Joseph is an abbreviated version of the story in Genesis 37-50, with some notable differences from the Biblical account. Joseph has a dream that eleven stars and the sun and the moon prostrate themselves to him (v. 4) — that is, his parents and brothers. Dreams are to be taken seriously: according to Abdullah bin Abbas, “the dreams of Prophets are revelations from Allah.” Muhammad himself explained this as not applying just to the prophets, but as a general principle: “A good dream is from Allah, and a bad dream is from Satan. So whoever has seen (in a dream) something he dislike, then he should spit without saliva, thrice on his left and seek refuge with Allah from Satan, for it will not harm him, and Satan cannot appear in my shape.” (Bukhari 9.87.124)
The brothers, jealous, want to kill him (v. 9), but finally decide to throw him down a well and tell their father, Jacob, that he is dead (vv. 15-18). In a departure from the Biblical account, Jacob doesn’t believe them (v. 18). The Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas says “he did not believe them because in another occasion they said that Joseph was killed by thieves.”
Anyway, then Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt, is the target of an attempted seduction by the ruler’s wife (v. 30). Another detail not contained in the Biblical account is that Joseph “would have inclined to her had he not seen the proof of his Lord,” and Allah warded him off “from him evil and immorality. Indeed, he was of Our chosen servants” (v. 24). The sharp dualism in Islam appears as Maududi sees a lesson in this: “Contrast the former characters [Jacob and Joseph] molded by Islam on the bedrock of the worship of Allah and accountability in the Hereafter with the latter molded by kufr [unbelief] and ‘ignorance’ on the worship of the world and disregard of Allah and the Hereafter.” She accuses him of impropriety (v. 25), but Joseph’s innocence is established when it is found that his cloak is torn in the back, not in the front — he was, in other words, fleeing from her (vv. 27-28). Her husband laments: “Indeed, it is of the women’s plan. Indeed, your plan is great.” (v. 28)
The wife then holds a banquet for the women of the city, who are so awed by Joseph’s good looks that they begin cutting their hands (v. 31). Ibn Kathir explains: “They thought highly of him and were astonished at what they saw. They started cutting their hands in amazement at his beauty, while thinking that they were cutting the citron with their knives.” The ruler’s wife felt exonerated: “When they felt the pain, they started screaming and she said to them, ‘You did all this from one look at him, so how can I be blamed?’”
Joseph is ultimately imprisoned (v. 35). When two fellow prisoners ask him to interpret their dreams (v. 36), he first tells them that he is a good Muslim: “I have left the religion of a people who do not believe in Allah, and they, in the Hereafter, are disbelievers” (v. 37). He follows the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and “it was not for us to associate anything with Allah” (v. 38). He languishes in prison for awhile longer, but ultimately gets a chance to interpret the king’s dream (vv. 46-49). The ruler’s wife confesses her wrongdoing (v. 51).