Linguistic Features of Sūrah Yūsuf Part 1— “Neutral” Language

I’ve finally wrapped up some longer projects (more on this eventually), and so I’ve decided to get back to blogging. For a long time now I’ve intended to devote some time studying the Qurʾān from a linguistic perspective. And so, this is the first in my series of posts about some interesting linguistic features in sūra Yūsuf (chapter 12 of the Qurʾān). This series will cover the structure of the sūra, biblical and extrabiblical engagement, wordplay (including some interlinguistic examples), and other various features of this chapter of the Qurʾān that I find interesting.

This first post is about what I would describe as the phenomenon of “neutral” or “mundane” language that is employed exclusively in this sūra. There are certain words and phrases in the Qurʾān that frequently carry strong religious or theological connotations, or are otherwise often used in such a context. Sūra Yūsuf, however, deliberately employs these same words and phrases in a totally “mundane” manner, without any of these aforementioned religious connotations. For example, the minister in Egypt who takes in Joseph is named al-ʿAzīz (“noble”, 12:30), a word that elsewhere in the Qurʾān always refers to God (2:209, 11:66, 30:5 and other verses). Similarly, the word dīn in 12:76 is used to refer to the king of Egypt’s law, but elsewhere in the Qurʾān it is used to refer to religion (2:132, 3:19) or the final Judgment (24:25, 82:15) in the hereafter.

This literary device sometimes extends to whole phrases— for example, after Joseph’s brothers tell the men what they would do with the alleged thief of the king’s cup (12:75), they speak the formula ka-dhālika najzī al-ẓālimīn (“this is how we repay the wrongdoers”). This phrase (and its variants) are always presented as a direct statement of God elsewhere in the Qurʾān (7:41, 21:29) where He speaks about the punishment for the disbelievers in the hereafter. Here, however, it is employed by Joseph’s brothers in a totally neutral way, referring to a more immediate recompense for the person who stole the king’s cup in Egypt. As a final example, the phrase fī ḍalālin mubīnin(“in obvious error”) outside of this sūra describes people who are (or were) committed to theological falsehood, either in reality (3:164, 19:38, 31:11, etc.) or at least in the mind of the speaker (7:60, 36:47). By contrast, in sūra Yusuf (12:30), Joseph’s brothers use this phrase in jealousy to speak about their father’s love for Joseph.

This interesting linguistic feature is quite apparent to anyone who’s read or listened to the Qurʾān often enough to be familiar with its stock vocabulary and turns of phrase. This break in convention, at least in my opinion, is quite ear-catching— since the Qurʾān is very formulaic in the way it speaks, this rather unique and deliberate use of old and familiar formulas in a totally new sense would stand out in the minds of the audiences. There is also another possible reason for this stylistic shift— I’ve been told that the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis has some examples of the same usage of theological terminology in a neutral context, although in its own way. If this is the case, then what we’re seeing is a direct engagement with the Hebrew bible alongside a pretty interesting linguistic feature in itself. However, the relevant studies on this are pending publication (I will do a follow up post if these studies turn out to be compelling).

I’ve included a list below with all the other examples of this mundane use of theological language in sūra Yusuf that come to mind from a brief reading. It goes without saying that there may be more that I have missed. Regardless, I believe that basic consideration of all the examples in the would make it clear that the scale of this phenomenon is unique to sūra Yusuf, and also clearly deliberate.

Appendix— A Full List of Examples of Neutral Language in Sūra Yusuf

The examples are structured as follows— firstly, I provide a transliteration of the Arabic word followed by its translation as it is used in sūra Yusuf. Then, I provide the verse number in sūra Yusuf where the word is employed, followed by one verse outside sūra Yusuf where this word is used with its usual theologically charged meaning, separated by a slash. I may add comments next to specific words or phrases that I find interesting. My list is as follows (please mention more in the comments I might have missed):

  1. alālin mubīnin, “obvious error” (12:8 / 3:164);
  2. Ghāfilūn, “forgetful ones” (12:13 / 10:7);
  3. Khāsirūn, “losers” (12:14 / 7:178);
  4. Wa-hum lā yashʿurūn, “and they were unaware” (12:15 / 43:66). This phrase typically speaks about disbelievers who will be caught unawares by God’s punishment. There are some notable exceptions, although there is enough of a pattern in sūra Yusuf to think this is another deliberate use of neutralizing vocabulary.
  5. ādiq[ūn/īn], “truthful” (12:17 / 6:40). Usually the Qurʾān uses this word in the context of theological disputes (e.g. 6:40, 11:13), or otherwise as a descriptor of pious people (33:24). In sūra Yusuf it is used multiple times in a mundane context.
  6. Kādhibīn, “liars / deniers” (12:26 / 24:8);
  7. Al-ʿAzīz, “noble” (12:30 / 2:129). Potiphar’s Qurʾānic name or title.
  8. Malak (12:31 / 6:8). In 12:31, the women of the city use this phrase to describe Joseph, saying that he cannot be a human being, but must be a noble angel (malakun karīmun). One could possibly extend this at a thematic level, as 12:31 could be inverting a theme elsewhere in the Qurʾān, where God tells the disbelievers that prophets are always men and not angels (17:95), or similarly where the disbelievers reject prophets because they are not angels (23:24).
  9. Muḥsinīn, “good-doers” (12:36 / 5:85);
  10. Al-rasūl, “messenger” (12:50 / 3:86);
  11. Al-ghayb, “the unseen” (12:52 / 72:26). Typically has extramaterial connotations in the Qurʾān, again employed mundanely in Sūra Yusuf (cf. 12:81).
  12. Khazāʾin, “treasures” (12:55 / 17:100). This word (almost?) always refers to God’s treasures or possessions (11:31, 15:21, 38:9, 63:7 and others) however here refers to Egypt’s material wealth.
  13. ʿAlīmun (12:55 / 2:127). One could possibly include the accompanying word ḥafīdh here.
  14. Munzilīn, “sending down” (12:59 / 56:69). Usually speaks about God sending things down from the heavens (23:29, 36:28) with the exception of its occurrence in sūra Yusuf.
  15. ʾAdhdhana muʾadhdhin, “a caller cried” (12:70 /  7:44). In sūra al-Aʿrāf this refers to the caller on the day of Judgement that damns the disbelievers. Here in sūra Yusuf, the subject is far more terrestrial.
  16. Ka-dhālika najzī al-ẓālimīn,“this is how we repay the wrongdoers” (12:75 / 21:29).
  17. Dīn, “law” (12:76 / 2:132).
  18. Sharrun Makānun, “a low station” (12:77 / 25:34).
  19. Jāhilūn (12:89 / 39:64). This word and others from the same root typically speak about people in religious error or false theological concepts.

One thought on “Linguistic Features of Sūrah Yūsuf Part 1— “Neutral” Language

  1. The Qur’anic engagement with Biblical & extra-Biblical material used to really bother me from a faith perspective, but more and more the detail and nuance of this engagement, and its literary purposes, can be layered to build an argument for inimitably, as the social profile of the Prophet (arguably) precludes this level of knowledge.

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