Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi
Head of PASSIA, Jerusalem
Religion has always been one of the major factors responsible for shaping people’s lives, especially in the Middle East, and many people now consider religious dialogue a modern tool for examining and understanding people’s attitudes, perceptions and judgments. In recent years, researchers and professionals in academic circles have undoubtedly become increasingly interested in investigating even further the various aspects of religion, especially the revival or religiosity witnessed amongst different communities and the ways in which religion in general, and this revival in particular, affect the stands they adopt in response to certain crises.
In attempting to understand holy texts such as the Old Testament, the Bible, and the Qur’an, people generally turn to a whole range of interpretations, which together, form a religious culture. This religious culture, which determines the way in which individuals relate to the past as well as the future, is based amongst other things on acceptance of the idea that people should live their lives according to a given set of moral values and acknowledge this set of values as a system capable of governing society. Whether one’s understanding of the holy texts of one’s religion is the result of casually gleaned knowledge or else of many years spent engaged in serious discussion of their context and significance, the fact remains that in most cases, it is religious culture, more than anything else, that determines the way in which an individual lives his/her life.
In order to understand where religion is about to lead societies, it is vitally important that dialogue forums continue. The story of Joseph (Peace be upon him) highlights a number of angles that enrich religious dialogue, not least of all because it helps in fostering understanding of the interrelations between religion, history and legend. It comes as no surprise to those who have studied it in some detail that in the Holy Qur’an, God refers to it as “the best of stories”.
Reading the three monotheistic holy texts, we learn that Joseph’s personality was formed by five major episodes in his life. The first episode involves the unique, intimate relation that Joseph shared with his father, and reflects, the extent to which most individuals are attached to their roots, heritage, family, history, and identity.
The second episode, meanwhile, relates to Joseph’s relationship with his brothers, who were so jealous of the extremely close relationship that developed between son and father that their jealousy and anger resulted in their plotting against the former and deceiving the latter. Yet, with God’s help, Joseph was saved. We can say, therefore, that this particular episode is concerned with the relationship between the individual and his or her destiny.
As to the third episode, it relates to Joseph’s relationship with the wife of the ruler of Egypt, who was intent on seducing Joseph, and who therefore symbolizes the tendency of so many to go after what they want, regardless of the legality or morality of their actions, believing, misguidedly of course, that “the end justifies the means.” The behavior of Joseph, on the other hand, represents one’s ability to resist personal desires and impulses and accept the consequences, which in Joseph’s case, was imprisonment.
With regard to the fourth episode, it relates to the way in which Joseph’s life was transformed (from the well to the palace of the ruler of Egypt, from being imprisoned to playing a leading role in shaping politics). It also provides us with a perfect example of the need for modesty, compassion and forgiveness; Joseph was eventually granted authority, which he undoubtedly enjoyed, yet he remained modest, acknowledged his past and acted justly toward those who had sought to harm him, including his brothers, with whom he willingly shared his prosperity.
Coming to the last episode responsible for shaping Joseph’s character, we find that it involves his remarkable ability to interpret visions and dreams. It therefore represents the striving on the part of individuals and communities to analyze and understand the deeper meanings of the variables surrounding them, as well as their desire to prepare for the future.
To discuss the story of Joseph in the context of the perspectives of the three monotheistic faiths is to learn about different interpretations of the same text, share its value and beauty, and fully understand God’s message that this is “the best of stories.” The fact that the three views were presented at a PASSIA meeting in the midst of a serious conflict shows that even when circumstances are less than ideal, religious dialogue is still possible. It also shows that there are still those who believe, with good reason, that in order to overcome crises, we need to focus not on our differences, but on the things that unite us.
PASSIA’s Religious Studies Unit remains committed to promoting and facilitating the reading and understanding of holy texts, encouraging scholars and religious figures to explore their skills and knowledge, and working toward creating an environment characterized by better understanding, be it between private individuals, public figures, or entire communities.