Was Prophet Yusuf a King or a Governor

Syed Sharfuddin

There is a verse in Surah Yusuf (Chapter 12) in the holy Quran in which prophet Yusuf Alaihey Salam (AS) recounts the blessings of Allah on him and asks to be re-joined with his forefathers who were among the righteous persons for whom Allah has promised a great reward:

۞ رَبِّ قَدۡ ءَاتَیۡتَنِی مِنَ ٱلۡمُلۡكِ وَعَلَّمۡتَنِی مِن تَأۡوِیلِ ٱلۡأَحَادِیثِۚ فَاطِرَ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَ ٰ⁠تِ وَٱلۡأَرۡضِ أَنتَ وَلِیِّۦ فِی ٱلدُّنۡیَا وَٱلۡـَٔاخِرَةِۖ تَوَفَّنِی مُسۡلِمࣰا وَأَلۡحِقۡنِی بِٱلصَّـٰلِحِینَ﴿ ١٠١ ﴾

Translation: “My Lord! You have given me authority; You have taught me something about the interpretation of dreams; Creator of the heavens and the earth, You are my protector in this world and in the hereafter. Let me die in true devotion to You. Join me with the righteous.” [12:101].

In other English translations of this verse, the first part containing the word Mulk is also translated as: “Lord You have given me [something] of sovereignty” (Sahih International); “Lord Thou hast given me [something] of sovereignty” (Pickthall); “Lord! Thou hast indeed bestowed on me some power” (Yusuf Ali); “Lord Thou hast given me of the kingdom” (Shakir); “Lord, You have given me the kingdom” (Muhammad Sarwar); “Lord You have indeed bestowed on me of the sovereignty” (Mohsin Khan); “Lord, Thou hast given me to rule” (Arberry), “Lord, You gave me rule: (Ahsan Al Bayan); “Lord You bestowed on me authority”. (Tafheem al Quran); “Lord You have bestowed dominion upon me (Zafar Ishak Ansari); and “Lord, You gave me a kingdom” (Tayasar Al Rahman Le Bayan Al Quran).

The translations of the Arabic word “Mulk” as rule, kingdom, dominion, sovereignty, power, and authority have raised a query whether prophet Yusuf (AS) was a king or a viceroy who exercised authority in the name of the king of Egypt. Perhaps this query also considers verse 72 of Surah Yusuf in which the official responsible for the royal inventory declares that the cup of the king is missing and announces a reward for whoever finds it.

قَالُوا۟ نَفۡقِدُ صُوَاعَ ٱلۡمَلِكِ وَلِمَن جَاۤءَ بِهِۦ حِمۡلُ بَعِیرࣲ وَأَنَا۠ بِهِۦ زَعِیمࣱ﴿ ٧٢ ﴾

Translation: They replied, ‘The king’s drinking-cup is missing,’ and, ‘Whoever returns it will get a camel-load [of grain],’ and, ‘I give you my word.’ (12:72).

But as we will see in the succeeding paragraphs there is no clear evidence that Yusuf (AS) was the king of Egypt.

Answering this query does not change fact that this is only an academic point and is not fundamental to the many lessons of Surah Yusuf which are discussed elsewhere in another essay.

When we compare verse 101 with other verses in the holy Quran where the word Mulk is mentioned, we can see that in verse 12:101 the addition of the word Min before Mulk slightly changes the meaning, making it “Lord, you gave me a part of the kingdom”.

رَبِّ قَدْ آتَيْتَنِي مِنَ الْمُلْكِ

In another verse (4:53) Allah ridicules the followers of earlier scriptures who rejected Quran and went astray. Allah asks: “Do they have any share of Allah’s kingdom? If they had, they would not give away even as much as the groove of the seed of the date”. (4:53).

أَمۡ لَهُمۡ نَصِیبࣱ مِّنَ ٱلۡمُلۡكِ فَإِذࣰا لَّا یُؤۡتُونَ ٱلنَّاسَ نَقِیرًا﴿ ٥٣ ﴾

In the above verse, the addition of Min before Mulk means a part of the kingdom but not the whole kingdom. Now compare this verse to the verses where Allah has mentioned Mulk without the prefix Min.


وَقَالَ لَهُمۡ نَبِیُّهُمۡ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ قَدۡ بَعَثَ لَكُمۡ طَالُوتَ مَلِكࣰاۚ قَالُوۤا۟ أَنَّىٰ یَكُونُ لَهُ ٱلۡمُلۡكُ عَلَیۡنَا وَنَحۡنُ أَحَقُّ بِٱلۡمُلۡكِ مِنۡهُ وَلَمۡ یُؤۡتَ سَعَةࣰ مِّنَ ٱلۡمَالِۚ قَالَ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ ٱصۡطَفَىٰهُ عَلَیۡكُمۡ وَزَادَهُۥ بَسۡطَةࣰ فِی ٱلۡعِلۡمِ وَٱلۡجِسۡمِۖ وَٱللَّهُ یُؤۡتِی مُلۡكَهُۥ مَن یَشَاۤءُۚ وَٱللَّهُ وَ ٰ⁠سِعٌ عَلِیمࣱ﴿ ٢٤٧ ﴾

Translation: “Their prophet said to them, ‘Allah has now appointed Talut to be your king,’ but they said, ‘How can he be king over us when we have a greater right to rule than he? He does not even have great wealth.’ He said, ‘Allah has chosen him over you, and has given him great knowledge and stature. Allah grants His authority to whoever He pleases: Allah is magnanimous, all knowing.” (Al-Baqarah, Ayah 247)

Now see another verse:

فَهَزَمُوهُم بِإِذۡنِ ٱللَّهِ وَقَتَلَ دَاوُۥدُ جَالُوتَ وَءَاتَىٰهُ ٱللَّهُ ٱلۡمُلۡكَ وَٱلۡحِكۡمَةَ وَعَلَّمَهُۥ مِمَّا یَشَاۤءُۗ وَلَوۡلَا دَفۡعُ ٱللَّهِ ٱلنَّاسَ بَعۡضَهُم بِبَعۡضࣲ لَّفَسَدَتِ ٱلۡأَرۡضُ وَلَـٰكِنَّ ٱللَّهَ ذُو فَضۡلٍ عَلَى ٱلۡعَـٰلَمِینَ﴿ ٢٥١ ﴾

Translation: “And so with Allah’s permission they defeated them. Dawood killed Jalut and Allah gave him sovereignty and wisdom and taught him what He pleased. If Allah did not drive some {people} back by means of others, the earth would be completely corrupt, but Allah is bountiful to all.” (Al-Baqarah, Ayah 251)

This point can be understood better by going back to Talmudic accounts of prophet Yusuf (AS) as the prophet of Bani Israel. He preceded prophet Musa (AS) by about 400 years. During his time the king of Egypt belonged to the dynasty of Hyksos. It is also said that Yusuf (AS) came at the time of the 18th dynasty of Pharaohs, namely Amenophis III or Amenophis IV. According to some commentators, the king who permitted prophet Yusuf (AS) to exercise authority in his name was Rayyan.

According to another account Yusuf (AS) became a confidante of the king of Egypt after interpreting his dream and was appointed a viceroy or governor of Canaan. It is also said that because of his wisdom and integrity he became the de-facto ruler of Egypt just we see today’ Crown Prince MBS exercising authority on behalf of the king in Saudi Arabia. It is also possible that prophet Yusuf (AS) became ruler of Egypt for a short period after the death of the king when he recited this dua (12:101) asking Allah to give him a blissful death like that of his father Yakub, grandfather Ishaq and great grandfather Ibrahim after attaining the best of knowledge, height of power and perfection of character.

It is reported that prophet Yusuf (AS) died before his other older brothers. His death is also interesting because when he died, people in every province in Egypt wanted to bury him in their province for barakah. They finally agreed to bury him in the Nile so that the waters of Nile carrying his remains could bless all of Egypt. Allah preserved the sarcophagus of Yusuf (AS) for 400 years until Musa (AS) found it in the Nile and took it with him to Jerusalem at the exodus to be buried close to the grave of Ibrahim (AS).

In Surah Al-Kahaf (18) when the blessed wise man Khizr answers prophet Musa’s three questions, he says that he damaged the barge of the old woman because the king was pursuing it to acquire it for his inventory (Ayah 79). Although the word used in the verse is king, it does not mean that the king of that country was himself chasing the boat of an old subject in his kingdom; instead, it were his officials who were acting in his authority.

A strong evidence to support the interpretation that Yusuf (AS) was not king, but a governor comes from Surah Yusuf itself. When Yusuf (AS) planned to have his blood brother Benyamin stay with him, he could not do so under Egyptian law (12:76). He had to devise a plan to implicate Benyamin on some charge. Had Yusuf (AS) been king himself, he would have simply ordered the guards to detain Benyamin as in those days the word of the king was law. But the fact that Yusuf (AS) followed the law of the land shows that he did not have sovereign authority. He was not a follower of the religion of his king nor was he himself a king to change the law.

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