“What’s your fav surah?”
I surprised myself with that answer that night. I’d normally say Al-Inshirah, or Ar-Rahman, but I spoke faster than my brain, and the questioner nodded his head quietly. I couldn’t even quite remember the content of surah Yusuf then, but it didn’t matter.
I began listening to Surah Yusuf on repeat since that day, a habit I’d developed through the years. My heart gets set on a particular surah and I listen to it over and over again until some of it gets written in me.
I tried to do taraweeh again on my first night here in Thulusdhoo, Maldives, after multiple failed attempts back at home due to panic attacks. I had Lily by my side and figured it was worth a shot.
“The rakaahs are long,” she’d warned me. “We do only 8 rakaah here but we complete the Quran.” (You can do the maths)
At the beginning of the 4th rakaah, I was ready to be done with the night’s attempt. A panic attack was welling up within and I needed to get out. But just before the 5th rakaah began, a group of 3 left the row 2 rows ahead of us, and Lily and I found ourselves pushed ahead by the aunties. The imam had started. There was no way I could leave.
I made a silent prayer for God to make it easy for me, in between listening to the AlFatihah recitated by the imam and doing breathing exercises.
And then after the Fatihah, he’d read out:
Alif-Laaam-Raa; tilka Aayaatul Kitaabil Mubeen. Innaaa anzalnaahu quraanan ‘Arabiyyal la ‘allakum ta’qiloon. Nahnu naqussu ‘alaika ahsanal qasasi bimaaa awhainaaa ilaika haazal quraana wa in kunta min qablihee laminal ghaafileen. Iz qaala Yoosufu li abeehi yaaa abati innee ra aytu ahada ‘ashara kawkabanw wash shamsa walqamara ra aytuhum lee saajideen.
I nearly buckled. Surah Yusuf! The imam was reading surah Yusuf! By some miraculous mercy and grace, I found strength to continue taraweeh till the end. My heart was still palpitating and my body was still tense, but my breath had steadied and I wasn’t losing focus. My heart soared and dipped with every verse, and the verses of which translation I can understand, I’d took so much heart in. I couldn’t believe the coincidence – oh my heart couldn’t be more thankful. He’s got my back.
I went back to my room that night and crashed, but early the next morning during suhoor, I’d scrambled to look up the meaning of surah Yusuf as well as some scholars’ explanations of it. I cannot even begin to explain what I found. In His infinite wisdom and knowledge, I can only bow down and hope for His love. Below are some gems I’d learnt in my quest. There are so many lessons, so many beautiful du’as, and so many AHA moments!
At this point, I’m going to clarify that written below are an amalgamation of my personal learnings, and by no means are exhaustive. I’m not a scholar nor in any way knowledgeable about tafseer of the Quran. We see the world as a reflection of what is within us, and you may thread the same path and see different things, so venture out and do your own search as well. I will be citing the sources I got these gems from at the end as well, so you may seek as well. Please also remember to seek from trusted and credible sources.
There are many things to delve into with regard to Surah Yusuf, but I am going to focus on three: the theme of grief and sadness, the names Allah used for Himself in the surah, and the beautiful du’as contained in it. Collectively, these three point towards a very powerful reminder for our relationship with God.
(It could get a bit long so I recommend taking this post part by part, so that you can remain steadfast. It’ll stay here – you can keep coming back, sweetheart.)
The whole surah Yusuf is nothing but a story – a story of a past prophet that the Arabs had no knowledge of. Yusuf (as) is the son of Yaakub (as), grandson of Ishaq (as) and the great-grandson of Ibrahim (as).
It’s a story of a young boy whose father loves him very much. His brothers were very jealous of their close father-son relationship. As a result of their jealousy, they made an entire plan where they’d kidnapped him and put him into a well, where he was found by traders and taken away to be illegally sold as a child slave. He lives his young life as a servant in a castle in Egypt, and here we begin to uncover the kinds of pain involved in this – of a child taken away from the love and comfort of his father and of a father whose grief of losing a child is unimaginable. The story continues by following through the life of Yusuf (as), from his trials and tribulations to his subsequent victory. The story is so beautiful and profound (and long), so please read it at this link.
We know the power of stories – it allows us to empathise, to take lessons from, and to be inspired. Yusuf’s (as) story inspires us with a feeling for the depth of Allah’s power and supremacy and the beautiful execution of His decree despite the challenge of human intervention.
Surah on Grief and Sadness
There’s a lot of contradicting narratives about sadness today. For a very long time, I struggled with choosing between showing up in the face of sadness and numbing down. You know how it is. The latter comes easy, because shutting down and moving on is what we’re told to do constantly. The more I learn about the surah, the more my heart feels secure in my humanity.
There is nothing wrong with experiencing grief and sadness – we’re so absorbed with the dangerous notion that these two things are signs of weakness and weak faith. I say it’s dangerous because when we deny ourselves the essential experience of accepting these two very human emotions, we are blocking ourselves from growing, learning, and humbling ourselves – we make ourselves hard. We’re feeling beings who think. It may seem the most rational response to deny and shut down emotions, and ply through, thinking that time will heal the wounds and we’d be okay soon enough. But the thing is: You’re supposed to feel, however you feel. When you don’t allow yourself to feel pain, you’re not allowing yourself to feel joy, love and triumph as well.
Surah Yusuf is a surah that teaches us how to deal with sadness, how to deal with grief, and how to deal with difficult situations in life.
Surah Yusuf was revealed in the Year of Grief. In that year, three things happened consecutively which were the most painful for the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). There was no time in the history of the Prophet (pbuh) when he was more demoralized than this period, which is why the scholars of seerah call this period ‘aam al-huzn, the Year of Grief. The Prophet (pbuh) was feeling grief throughout that year.
The three painful things that happened were as follows:
- The death of Saiyiditina Khadijah (as), his wife, his source of moral strength and comfort, and greatest supporter. We know how instrumental Khadijah (as) was to the Prophet as an individual and as a messenger, as well as to Islam. Personally, one of my favourite hadiths is one where the Prophet described Khadijah: “Indeed I was nourished by her love”
- The death of Abu Talib, his uncle who was one of his strongest support and ally in society. He was the only non-Muslim to live with the Muslims at the time of boycott, when he’d voluntarily gave up everything and suffered along with the Muslims because he felt that the boycott was injustice, and that he had to do it as the uncle and protector of the Prophet (pbuh). He did everything he could. As long as Abu Talib was alive, the Quraisy could not do anything else to harm the Prophet (pbuh). With his death, the persecution reached its max. This eventually led the Prophet (pbuh) to leave for Madinah because he could not live in Makkah anymore.
- The incident at Ta’if, where the Prophet (pbuh) was humiliated and publicly scorned and the children of Ta’if stoned him. He had gone to the nearby city of Ta’if to see if they can accept him and his message. What happened there made it the worst day of his life. Aisha (radhi Allahu ‘anha) said, “Oh Messenger of Allah, was there any day that was more difficult for you to bear than the Day of Uhud?” He (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “Yes. The most difficult day for me was the day when I was rejected by the chieftains of Ta’if.”
These three incidents occurred within two months – I’m not sure how anyone could withstand such trials in good stead.
It was at this point that Allah revealed surah Yusuf, the only surah in the Qur’an that has a unified story from the beginning to the end. Here we can begin to understand that Surah Yusuf was meant to console, strengthen and uplift the Prophet (pbuh) during a time he was facing such immense trials and tribulations. It was the light that will lead him out of this depressing time and time of pain and anguish. Which means – therein lies the map and light for us to navigate our own grief and struggles. This surah makes us more sensitive and softens us up.
There are 2 people whose pain are explicitly mentioned in the surah: Yusuf (as) and Yaqub (as). What I found exceptionally moving was when, the first time he lost Yusuf (as), his favourite son, Yaqub (as) said:
“So (for me) patience is most fitting And it is Allah (Alone) Whose help can be sought against that which you assert.” [12:18]
I will discuss this verse further later in this post.
Then, after losing Yusuf (as) as a young boy, Yaqub (as) lost Binyamin, his second most beloved son as an adult, and he’d said this:
“So patience is most fitting (for me). May be Allah will bring them (back) all to me. Truly He! only He is All-Knowing, All-Wise. And he turned away from them and said, “Oh, my sorrow over Joseph,” and his eyes became white from grief, for he was [of that] a suppressor. [12:83-84]
Bottom line is this: It is ok to feel these emotions. We are not any less of a believer if we have anxiety or feel sadness or feel grief. The distinction between the believer and non-believer is that the believer remains patient and turns to Allah for assistance.
Patience is a response, a verb – something that we do, not a noun, or something we ask for.
Muaz bin Jabal (ra) narrates:
When the Rasul of Allah (saw) heard a man praying, “O Allah, please grant me patience!” he said, “You just asked for difficulty and hardship! Ask instead for pardon and freedom and welfare!”
We fail to realise that when we ask for patience, we are acknowledging that the difficulty is going to stay. Instead, patience should be the response if the hardship remains, but when we ask Allah swt, we ask Allah to get us out of the difficult situation. And then we have the good thoughts and expectations of Allah, that even if He doesn’t take us out of the situation, there is a wisdom behind it and we will be patient. But don’t ask Allah for hardship or trial.
Some of the unique things about Allah & how we think of Allah
His names that Allah mentioned in the surah is really fascinating. These are not just stories of people that died a long time ago; these stories are alive in our lives. We learn about Allah in these stories. We learn how to think about Allah in these stories.
- Wallahu ghalibun aala amrihi (And Allah is Dominant/Overpowers over all of His affairs)
This was the only time in the Quran that Allah uses this name for himself. Here, He says that whatever happens to Yusuf (as), Allah is keeping a profound eye on it and He has complete control over it. No matter whatever hardship Yusuf (as) was going through, it is by His decree, even though to the human mind, it seemed like Yusuf (as) was abandoned.
- Inna rabbi lateefun lima yasha (Indeed, my Lord is Subtle in what He wills)
This balances the above trait when he mentions that He is Dominant and in control over everything, yet He is subtle. This means that the way Allah does things is subtle – He doesn’t announce that He is always at work in the background and we don’t even notice. Everything that Yusuf (as) had to go through eventually led to his rise in stature and power, and to the saving of entire nations of people from drought, and subsequently to lifting Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) up when he’d hit an extreme low.
- ‘Alimul Hakeem (The One who knows and the One who has wisdom)
These two names balances the earlier 2 names. Allah’s dominance and subtlety is coupled with His knowledge and His wisdom. Allah knew that whatever Yusuf (as) was going through was going to be important for him to grow into the person he needed to be, as well as to be profound inspiration for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the Year of Grief when he himself was exiled by his own brothers
- These names were mentioned in three different contexts: in hope and optimism in the future, in teaching us trust in Allah’s plans in bad times, and in gratitude during retrospect. When things happen beyond our control and we are in pain and grieving, we should rely on Allah’s knowledge and wisdom. We will realise that everything that happens henceforth can only happen because of that one bad thing we needed to go through. Sometimes, something really bad needs to happen to allow for good things for ourselves and others to happen – I know this is true for me personally.
Allah knows and Allah is wise. It reminds me of this beautiful hadith:
The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “The affair of the believer is amazing! The whole of his life is beneficial, and that is only in the case of the believer. When good times come to him, he is thankful and it is good for him, and when bad times befall him, he is patient and it is also good for him.” [Muslim]
It’s so important to have good thoughts and hopes of Allah – acknowledge it wholeheartedly that He only sends what is good for you.
Beautiful du’as from the surah
- Fasaabrun jameel (Patience is most fitting)
Patience is such a strong theme in this surah. The above du’a was repeated twice by Yaqub (as), both times when he was told that he lost his beloved son (Yusuf as and Binyamin). If we have patience in hardship, continuously counting our blessings, we will truly be victorious in both hardship and ease. Can you count how many times Yusuf (as) was patient? He was patient while awaiting the fulfillment of his dream. He was patient when his brothers abandoned him in the well. He was patient when he was sold as a slave. He was patient when the king’s wife accused him of seduction. Yusuf (as) continued to be patient when he was put in jail. Even when his fellow inmate was released and forgot about him, Yusuf (as) continued to be patient.
However, just as mentioned earlier – patience is a response to hardship, not a state of being.
- Innama ashku bassi wa huzni ilallaah (I only complain of my suffering and my grief to Allah)
Yaqub (as) says to his sons when they bring the news that his son was accused of stealing, “So patience is most fitting (for me).” But then in the next verse, Allah describes that he turned away from them and said privately, “Alas, my grief for Yusuf!” And he lost his sight because of the sorrow that he was suppressing.”Yaqub (as) did not say this in front of his family, but it was between himself and Allah. Allah says that he was “suppressing” and this means when someone holds their breath back to control their tears and their agony. It is to the point that they have trouble breathing because they cried so much. He was full of grief but he was not wailing and crying out loud, but rather holding back his anger. When his sons saw how much distress this news has caused him, they said to him, “By Allah! You will never cease remembering Yusuf until you become weak with old age, or until you be of the dead.” Then during the height of this anxiety he says, “I only complain of my suffering and sorrow to Allah, and I know from Allah that which you know not.”
What a beautiful reminder to turn to Allah in full dependence and surrender.
Fallahu khairun hafeezun wa huwa Arhamur Rahimeen (But Allah is the best Guardian, and He is the most merciful of those who show mercy.)
- Wala tayasoo min rawhi Allah (Despair not of relief from Allah)
Allah is Merciful and Compassionate. Allah purifies us when we experience these emotions or pain. He is also our Best Guardian, so hang on to the faith in His protection and dominance.
The Prophet (pbuh) said, “No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that.” [Bukhari]
As someone who has a panic disorder and recovering from ptsd, this surah is exceptionally special to me at this point in my life and on this trip. It allows me the space to navigate my circumstances gently and without beating myself up for perceived weaknesses and lack of faith. It emphasises the beauty of struggle and patience, as well as the constant turning back to Allah in both times of trials and times of ease. It inspires much love and hope in my heart when I cultivate and nurture faith and trust in His plans. I may not understand the things I’ve gone through and am going through, but Allah is ‘Alimul Hakeem – knowledgeable and wise – and no matter what is happening, it is part of Allah’s knowledge and his wisdom. It is always the case that Allah has some benefit in it for the believer. Allah has something in this for me. And for you going through your own silent battles and wars – Allah has something in it for you too.
I pray this has been beneficial for you. Verily, everything is from and by Allah. Feel free to share this, and may it continue to be beneficial and reach whoever may need to read it.