Monotheism in the Poem The Tale of Yusuf

27 December 2023

An integral part of pre-revolutionary Tatar literature is the images from the Holy Quran and Sunnah, which appear to readers of fiction works as a set of universal values. Such a development of the ideas contained in the Holy Scripture helped to protect and disseminate them in society, thus contributing to the spiritual enrichment of readers. This is especially true of Tatar medieval literature, which grew out of Islamic mythology, history, and ethics.

Religious worldview, conveyed through verbal artistic creation, allows the reader or listener to form a more complete and clear picture of the world in their own mind. On the other hand, thanks to the work of artists, religious symbols and images can be enriched aesthetically and filled with new meanings. Often the instructive, mysterious, and magical destinies of religious characters, based on a literary plot, acquired new content.

The poem Kyssa-i Yusuf, or The Tale of Yusuf, by the medieval poet Kul Gali is a vivid example of creative reworking of canonical subjects. Biographical information about the poet is few and contradictory, and refers to the work History of Bulgaria by scientist-historian Tadgetdin Yalchygul. According to the source, Kul Gali was born in the XII century in Volga Bulgaria, was educated in Khorezm, and died in the troubling times of the Mongol conquests. However, later the historical value of the History of Bulgaria was refuted by scholars.

The poem The Tale of Yusuf was written in the Old Tatar language, which later served as the prototype of the language of the Kazan Tatars. The work of Kul Gali, a highly educated man for his time, who was well versed in Arabic-Persian literature, had a strong influence on the formation of Tatar writing, especially poetry. Kul Gali wrote about the date of completion of his most famous poem at the end of the work - according to the new chronology it is 12 May 1233. Unfortunately, the original poem The Tale of Yusuf has not survived, but more than 150 manuscript copies of the work are known.

The plot of the poem is based on an artistic interpretation of the Quranic story of Prophet Yusuf told in the twelfth surah. He was betrayed by his jealous brothers (thrown into a well full of poisonous snakes), then taken to a foreign country, sold into slavery and imprisoned. But the character did not lose heart, did not commit a single unworthy deed, and always remained the embodiment of faith, truth, steadfastness, incorruptibility, simplicity and humanity.

While in prison, Yusuf gives supremacy to the principle of monotheism, asking his fellow inmates whether it is worthy to worship pagan gods. In his reasoning, the author of the poem, Kul Gali, repeatedly puts idols on one scale and the might of Allah on the other, and each time the Almighty triumphs. Opposition to polytheism on the pages of the work was dictated by the spirit of the time. Singing the Unity of God, Kul Gali pursued the goal of spreading Islam among the small peoples of Volga Bulgaria, the ancestors of modern Mari, Udmurts and Mordvins, thus contributing to the strengthening of the medieval state.

Yusuf is imprisoned at the instigation of Zuleikha, the daughter of the king of Maghreb, who is in love with the protagonist of the poem. At the time of their meeting, the girl is the wife of Kytfir, the king of Egypt. Yusuf does not succumb to Zuleikha’s seduction - the character prefers imprisonment to the sin of adultery. Nevertheless, after his release, Yusuf meets weary Zuleikha, still in love with him, and the couple marry. His faith in the Almighty helps Yusuf to overcome his trials and find true love, which convinces Zuleikha, who once worshipped idols, of the truth of her lover’s chosen spiritual path.

On the pages of his work, Kul Gali enters into polemics not only with pagans, but also with representatives of other monotheistic religions. The author was well acquainted with the religious situation in the neighboring state - the Khazar Khanate. Kul Gali was not sympathetic to the conversion of part of the Khazars, a people related to the Bulgars, to Judaism.

Highly honoring the sacred books of other monotheistic religions, Kul Gali considered Muslims to be true followers of the Unity of God, continuators of the prophetic traditions of Ibrahim. The dialogue described in the poem between Prophet Muhammad and the Jews, who demanded that the meaning of Yusuf’s dream be revealed, serves to elevate Islam above other religions. Under the influence of the Prophet’s impeccable answers and convincing arguments, some of the Jews convert to Islam. Both with regard to the pagans and the Jews, the call to convert to Islam is made without coercion, in the form of a contest between characters in intellectual ability.

The dreams of the poem’s characters epitomize the connection between the two worlds - the unstable material world and the eternal beyond, at the intersection of which is human life. Following the Quran, Kul Gali considers the Creator of the universe and man to be the One and Almighty Allah, by whose will everyone’s birth and death are predetermined. The beautiful palace built by Zuleikha to seduce Yusuf is incomparable to the splendor of the buildings in Paradise.

According to Kul Gali, a person’s spiritual beauty, his dreams and good deeds are the product of the soul granted by the Almighty. Without it, the human body loses its beauty and value. For example, the death of Yusuf’s father, Prophet Yaqub, is seen by the author as a beautiful embodiment of the soul in the form of a bird of paradise and its resettlement in a new house built by angels and decorated with flowers. Belief in the Unity of God frees man from the fear of death.

The image of Yusuf in the poem differs from the idealized Quranic prototype. Like all earthly people, he is not free from faults. For instance, he is arrogant because of his own beauty. Nevertheless, his loyalty to the Creator, which Kul Gali considers the main condition for achieving happiness, allows the prophet to preach the righteous words and wise teachings of the Almighty received through the intermediary of angels among people. Thanks to the qualities bestowed on Yusuf by Allah, he establishes a just administration of the state.

The fate of the protagonist embodies the idea of man’s ascent from the lowest to the highest, supreme power, which was innovative for that time. King Rayyan, who ascended to the throne of the ruler of Egypt after Kyftir, orders Yusuf to be released from his imprisonment. The protagonist rejects the king’s noble gesture until all the other prisoners are released. Rayyan then cedes the throne to Yusuf as a more worthy claimant. The happy life of the Egyptians, who began to live according to the prophet’s example on the basis of the principle of monotheism, is contrasted with the slave state, where paganism is practiced.

Yusuf’s loyalty to his beliefs, namely his faith in the Unity of God, acquires different meanings in different situations: loyalty to his oath, to duty, to his native tribe and its customs, becoming the leitmotif of the whole poem. The image of Prophet Yusuf, combining loyalty to the Almighty and love for the earthly woman Zuleikha, is one of the significant artistic discoveries of Bulgar-Tatar literature of the XIII century. The high achievement becomes possible due to the fact that the author of the poem Kyssa-i Yusuf Kul Gali throughout the work remains faithful to the main tenet of Islam - Unity of God, expressed by the formula “There is no God but Allah”.



GSV "Russia - Islamic World"

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