The Best Tafsir (Interpretation) of the Qur’an
So, when they (Joseph’s brothers) despaired of [convincing] him (Joseph), they conferred privately. The eldest among them said: “Do you not know that your father has taken from you a covenant in Allah’s name, and how you gave away Joseph before? Therefore I will not depart from this land until my father permits me or Allah judges for me, and He is the best of judges.” (12.80)
In his commentary on this verse, al Qurtubi attributes the following narrative to the old exegete Ibn ‘Abbas:
When Judah (one of Joseph’s brothers) would get angry and take the sword, not even a hundred thousand [fighters] would be able to repel him. The hairs of his chest would stand like large needles and penetrate his clothes. It was reported that Judah, who was the most volatile among his brothers, said to them: “Either you sort out the king (meaning Joseph who had detained his brother Benjamin) and I sort out the people of Egypt, or you sort out the people of Egypt and I sort out the king and those who are with him.” His brothers said: “You sort out the king and those who are with him, and we will sort out the people of Egypt.” So, he sent out one of his brothers to count the markets in Egypt, which they found to be nine. Each of them picked a market.
Judah then entered Joseph’s office and said: “O king! If you do not give us back our brother I will make such a cry that would make every pregnant woman in your city suffer a miscarriage.” That was a special attribute in them (Joseph’s brothers) when they got angry. Joseph angered Judah by saying something to him. Judah, therefore, got angry, his anger increased, and his body hair stood. This was the case with everyone of Jacob’s sons. When one of them would get angry, he would get goose bumps, his body would grow, the hairs of his back would protrude through his clothes, and a drop of blood would fall from each hair. If he would hit the ground with his foot, the earth would quake and buildings would collapse. If he would make a cry, every pregnant woman, animal, and bird would give birth, whether what they carried were fully developed or not. His anger would not go unless he shed blood or was touched by the hand of one of the offspring of Jacob.
When Joseph realized that the anger of his brother Judah had reached its climax, he asked in Coptic a young son of his to touch Judah between his shoulders without letting the latter see him. He did that, so Judah’s anger disappeared and he threw away the sword. He turned right and left expecting to see one of his brothers but he could not see any. He went out in a hurry to his brothers and asked them: “Was anyone of you with me [in the presence of Joseph]?” They replied: “No.” He said: “Where has Simeon (one of their brothers) gone?” They answered: “To the mountain.”
Judah left and met his brother who was carrying a massive rock. Judah asked Simeon: “What do you want to do with this?” Simeon replied: “I will go to the market that was assigned to me and smash the head of everyone there with this rock.” Judah said: “Return this rock or throw it in the sea, and do not say anything to anyone. I swear by the One who took [prophet] Abraham as His close friend that a hand of someone from Jacob’s offspring has touched me.”
Then, they entered Joseph’s office. The latter, who was the strongest among them, said: “O you Hebrews! Do you think that there is no one who is stronger than you?” He turned to a massive rock of the rocks of the mill and kicked it with his foot, pushing it through the wall. Then he caught Judah with one hand and wrestled him to the ground!
This incredible narrative has absolutely nothing to do with the Qur’an. None of its many absurd details comes from the Qur’an, yet it is mentioned in the context of interpreting the Qur’anic chapter of Joseph. But this story is not confined to the exegesis of al Qurtubi. It occurs in different and similar, and longer and shorter, versions in many exegetical books, such as those of at–Tabari, al-‘Ayyashi (d. 320 H / 932 CE), al-Qummi (d. 329 H / 940 CE), as-Suyuti, and al-Huwayzi (d. 1112 H / 1700 CE). Any genuine attempt to interpret the Qur’an must be respected, but that respect must not prevent us from properly assessing it and taking a view on where it succeeds and where it falls short.
To sum up, I consider the exegesis of at–Tabataba‘i superior to other exegetical works, because of its modern tone and the higher depth and quality of its analysis. But at–Tabataba‘i’s work has its own problems. There is no perfect interpretation of the Qur’an. This is why it is essential that the student of the Qur’an does not rely on any one source but consults a number of works by scholars from different periods, denominations, and schools of thought.
Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
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