Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Joseph: From Prison to Prominence

Roland Clarke

According to the Qur'an, the account of Joseph's life is “the most beautiful of stories” (Surah 12:3). One reason for this is the amazing way Joseph was promoted from being a slave to being ruler of Egypt. Not only so, when a famine forced his brothers to go to Egypt in search of food, they bowed before him, not knowing he was their brother. In this way Joseph's boyhood dreams were fulfilled.

There is, however, another less well known aspect of this story – the heartwarming scene where Joseph is reunited with his brothers. Joseph did not harbour a spirit of revenge toward them. Amazingly, he rescued the very people who tried to kill him (his brothers). They didn't deserve to be shown mercy but he showed them love and forgiveness.

Genesis 45:1-7 recounts a tearful scene where Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers,

It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he is the one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh – the manager of his entire palace and the governor of all Egypt. (Genesis 45:1-7; see also 50:15-21)

Let's pause and consider how God overturned the evil intentions of Joseph's brothers and made good come out of it! Isn't it amazing how God outsmarted their schemes, reversing their murderous intentions and accomplishing a momentous deliverance! The Bible records many other examples where God in his wisdom outwitted the schemes of evil men. (See footnote 1 for further discussion.)

Before Joseph was promoted to be governor and, thus, could provide food for his starving brothers, he first had to be humbled and tested as a slave. After this he was humbled even further, suffering unjustly as a criminal in prison. The psalmist summarizes this saying:

The LORD God ... sent someone to Egypt ahead of them – Joseph who was sold as a slave. They bruised his feet with fetters and placed his neck in an iron collar. Until the time came to fulfill his dreams, the LORD tested Joseph's character. Then Pharaoh sent for him and set him free; the ruler of the nation opened his prison door. Joseph was put in charge of all the king's household; he became ruler over all the king's possessions. (Psalm 105:17-21)

As I have pondered this amazing turn of events, I realized this isn't so unusual. There are many other stories where God has turned the tables in a remarkable way.

The Messiah Would Also Be Exalted

Isaiah prophesied a similar situation would happen in the Messiah's life. He foretold that the Messiah would be exalted after being a humble servant, indeed, after much suffering. We see this in Isaiah chapter 52 & 53:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns! The watchmen shout and sing with joy, for before their very eyes they see the LORD returning to Jerusalem. Let the ruins of Jerusalem break into joyful song, for the LORD has comforted his people. He has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has demonstrated his holy power before the eyes of all the nations. All the ends of the earth will see the victory of our God... See, my servant will prosper; he will be highly exalted. But many were amazed when they saw him. His face was so disfigured he seemed hardly human, and from his appearance, one would scarcely know he was a man. And he will startle many nations. Kings will stand speechless in his presence. For they will see what they had not been told; they will understand what they had not heard about.

Who has believed our message? To whom has the LORD revealed his powerful arm? My servant grew up in the LORD’S presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected –– a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. ... Yet it was ... our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion. He was beaten so we could be whole. ... the LORD laid on him the sins of us all. He was oppressed and harshly treated... Unjustly condemned, he was led away... And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins. (Isaiah 52:7 - 53:11)

If you compare the life of Joseph with this Messianic prophecy, you notice that both servants of the Lord experienced deep humiliation and suffering before being highly exalted. Furthermore, as God used Joseph's unjust suffering to save many lives, so also he allowed Jesus Christ to suffer gross injustice and, indeed, the LORD used it to save many people. As it is written,

God knew what would happen and his prearranged plan was carried out when Jesus was betrayed. With the help of lawless Gentiles you nailed him to a cross and killed him. But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip. (Acts 2:23,24)

Another scripture describes how God intervened in response to Jesus' prayers,

While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God. Even though Jesus was God's Son, he learned obedience from the things he SUFFERED. In this way God qualified him as a perfect High Priest and he became the source of eternal SALVATION for all those who obey him. (Hebrews 5:7-9)

The two highlighted words emphasize how similar Jesus' life was to Joseph's life. Their suffering was instrumental in bringing salvation to others.

Elsewhere we read, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18, ESV)

It is noteworthy that the Bible uses the word “suffer” two dozen times with reference to the severe whipping and other afflictions which Christ suffered, leading up to, and including his crucifixion.

Accompanying this excruciating physical pain Christ also experienced deep emotional pain. The prophet Isaiah described the Messiah as “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.” (Isaiah 53:3)

Son, Servant and then Ruler

Another interesting parallel between Joseph and Jesus is that each of them began as a beloved son. This was followed by a period when they served in humility before being exalted to a position of authority and high honor.

The Bible clearly states that Jesus Christ is God's Son. The angel who announced Christ's birth said “he will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:32) Also we read, “a voice from heaven said, 'This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.'” (Matthew 3:17)

The Bible also teaches that Christ lived as a servant, suffered and was exalted.

Though he was God he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal's death on a cross. Therefore God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names... (Philippians 2:5-9)

Do Muslims Believe Al Masih was a Servant of God?

According to the Qur'an, Isa was a faultless, completely obedient servant of Allah. Moreover, the Bible repeatedly affirms that Jesus Christ is the servant of the LORD. Unfortunately, Christians have tended to emphasize honorific titles of Jesus, such as, Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Son of the Most High. Have we, perhaps, emphasized these titles to the neglect of his lowly attributes? Could it be that this imbalance has caused misunderstandings among the very people with whom we want to share the good news?

Did the Messiah Emphasize Servanthood?

Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else... You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people and officials flaunt their authority over those under them but among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 9:35; Matthew 20:25-28)

Is There Possibly a Connection Between Servanthood and
(i.e. becoming nothing or emptying oneself)

Muslims, (especially Sufis) pursue a path called fana'a (selflessness). While I was discussing this with one Sufi leader he explained fana'a in terms of “becoming nothing”. After giving this much thought, it seems that there might be a similarity between fana'a and what Jesus taught his disciples,

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:34-37)

The similarity between fana'a and the cross becomes clearer when we examine Philippians 2:7, which was quoted earlier. The Greek verb kenoo in Philippians. 2:7 literally means Christ “emptied himself”. It is significant that the NIV and ESV versions render this phrase, “[Christ] made himself nothing”. (See footnote 2 for further discussion.)

Do Muslims Believe Isa Was Exalted? (After Humbly Serving Allah)

Once again, the answer is “Yes”. The Qur'an says that Al Masihu Isa, the son of Mary is “held in honour in this world and the hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to God.” (Surah 3:45) We also read in Surah 3:55, “Behold! God said: 'O Jesus I will take thee and raise thee to Myself'...”

To What Extent Are the Bible and the Qur'an Similar?
(i.e. regarding Christ's exaltation)

A careful reading of the Bible shows that Christ's exaltation is portrayed in a way that makes him preeminent. “God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Philippians 2:9,10) The Bible exalts Christ to a unique position of preeminence – unlike the Qur'an which makes him one among others in the “company of those nearest to God”. (Surah 3:45)

The Bible describes Christ's exaltation so that it corresponds to Joseph who was promoted to be the chief governor, over the land of Egypt. Of course, Joseph deferred to Pharaoh as the final authority, but for all practical purposes Joseph was the ruler. It was similar to the situation in England today, where the Prime Minister has the reigns of power, although the Queen holds the highest authority (as figurehead ruler). The biblical description of Messiah's exaltation concludes by saying, “every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10,11) It is fitting that glory is given to God as the ultimate sovereign (compare 1 Corinthians 15:27,28).

There are other differences between the Qur'an and the Bible with regards to Messiah's exaltation. We will look at four more points as we consider which of these two scriptures fulfills prophesy.

1) The Qur'an does not mention that Jesus brought worldwide salvation (as the prophets clearly foretold). You may recall the prophesy we read earlier which says that the Messiah will bring “good news of peace and salvation ... before the eyes of all the nations.” (Isaiah 52:7-10) This is confirmed in another scripture,

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob ... I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6)

Seven hundred years after Isaiah, Messiah's salvation mission was confirmed. An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and also separately to his fiancée Mary, telling them she would conceive a son. He instructed them to name the baby “Yeshua”, meaning “salvation of God”. Not only so, the angel appeared to shepherds and told them, “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior – yes the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today.” (Luke 2:10,11)

The monumental scope of this task – bringing salvation to the world – is glimpsed in the words “all people”. However, the global scope of Messiah's work is clearly taught in John 3:16,17; 4:42; 12:47; Luke 24:44-47; 1 John 2:2; 4:14. The Muslim scripture says Isa healed people who were severely ill. In this sense one could say that the Qur'an acknowledges Jesus performed a saving/rescuing work. However, it does not specifically mention that Messiah brought salvation as such. Neither does the Qur'an confirm the worldwide scope of Christ's saving mission. It does not say (as the Bible does) that Jesus Christ redeemed people from every tribe and nation. (Revelation 5:1-9)

2) There is a second reason to doubt the Qur'an. It does not describe the depths of suffering and emotional anguish which Christ suffered before he was exalted. Perhaps you recall reading the earlier description of the Messiah as “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.” This is fulfilled in the New Testament where it says Jesus felt “crushed with grief to the point of death.... He offered prayers and pleadings with a loud cry and tears” (Mark 14:34; Hebrews 5:7). Nowhere do we find these sufferings of Christ recorded in the Qur'an.

3) There is a third reason for not accepting the Muslim perspective on Messiah's exaltation. Surah 4:157 makes a statement to the effect that Isa was raised to God WITHOUT dying on the cross. This statement in Surah 4:157 is ambiguous, giving rise to various interpretations. Several highly respected commentators of the Qur'an have acknowledged this. The Bible, however, makes it very clear that Jesus died on the cross and was raised up to God. Many scriptures could be cited but let me quote three passages.

Jesus said to the thief hanging on the cross next to him, “I assure you today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Also we read in Hebrews 4:14; 9:24-26,

We have a great High Priest, who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God ... He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf. And he did not enter heaven to offer himself again and again, like the High Priest here on earth who enters the Most Holy Place, year after year with the blood of an animal. If that had been necessary, Christ would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice.

4) A fourth reason is that the Qur'an denies that anyone can bear the burden of someone else's guilt. This plainly contradicts Bible prophesies saying that the Messiah will bear the sins of others. For example, we read that “the LORD laid on him the sins of us all... And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.” (Isaiah 53:6,11)

Furthermore, Isaiah's prophesy is fulfilled in 1 Peter 2:22-24 which explains that Jesus

never sinned ... He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly. He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right.


God rescued Joseph's sinful brothers from starving to death by allowing an innocent man (Joseph) to suffer enslavement and oppression. In a similar way, God saved sinners by allowing Jesus Christ to suffer unjustly, being sentenced to die on the cross.

Notice how Joseph's story climaxes in a similar way to Jesus' story. As Joseph's brothers were reconciled and reunited with him so also humans have been reconciled and reunited in fellowship with God. The Bible says,

God brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people's sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ's ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, 'Come back to God!' For God made Christ who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin so that we could be made right with God through Christ... For God says, 'At just the right time I heard you. On the day of salvation I helped you.' Indeed the 'right time' is now. Today is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 5:18-6:2)

If you have other questions or you want to trust in the Messiah as your Savior please contact me.

Note: All Biblical quotations (unless specified otherwise) are taken from the New Living Translation. All Qur’anic quotations are from Yusuf Ali’s translation.


1 Joseph's story is one of many examples where God, in his wisdom, outwitted the schemes of evil doers. Consider how Pharaoh attacked the Israelites when they camped at Pi-hahiroth – appearing as if they were hemmed in between Migdol and the sea. The LORD explained to Moses, “Pharaoh will think the Israelites are confused. They are trapped in the wilderness! And once again I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will chase after you. I have planned this in order to display my glory through Pharaoh and his whole army.” (Exodus 14:3,4)

The basic lesson we learn from this story is is that “Human defiance only enhances your glory, for you use it as a weapon.” (Psalm 76:10) Notice the words preceding this statement, “You stand up to judge those who do evil, O God, and to rescue the oppressed of the earth.” It is easy to see how this applies to Pharaoh's oppression of the Israelites and their eventual rescue by God!

This truth is repeated again, hundreds of years later, by the apostle Paul, “The wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say, 'He traps the wise in the snare of their own cleverness.'” (1 Corinthians 3:19) You may recall the story of Haman which also illustrates this principle. The Lord caused “Haman's evil plot to backfire.” (Esther 9:25) He ended up hanging on the very gallows where he had planned to hang Mordecai the Jew. Not only so, the final outcome of the story was that the Jewish people were delivered from Haman's genocidal schemes. (Esther 7:10; also chapter 9)

2 The word nothing may seem the same as annihilation (fana'a) but it isn't quite the same. The way this word nothing is used in Philippians 2:6 (see also 1 Corinthians 1:28) does not mean being eliminated as fana'a implies. When Christ “become nothing” he gave up (or emptied himself of) the privileges of deity that had been his all along. (see John 17:1-5)

This biblical idea of giving up and humbling oneself is not a destruction of individuality and personality. Sufis, on the other hand, usually understand "becoming nothing” as a step in their journey of becoming one with God. Attaining union with God, for Sufis is more like the pantheistic idea whereby a "drop of water dissolves in the ocean" and disappears. Most Sufis do not understand fana'a in terms of an active personal relationship with God but rather a losing of one's personality.

The biblical idea of servanthood and "emptying oneself" means we GAIN stature and true greatness. We are not dissolved into a sea of anonymity but rather we become more like God intended us when we humble ourselves and live in total obedience to him.