From Slave to Temptation, By Zubeyda Avcı
This second episode of the story of Yusuf tells about the life of Yusuf in Egypt. He is sold to a man from Egypt as a slave. And then the story goes on as following: “This man from Egypt who bought him said unto his wife, “Give him honorable accommodation. It may be that he will bring us some benefit, or that we may take him as a son.” (Q, 12:21) “This man from Egypt who bought him” refers to someone by the title al-Aziz (vv. 30, 51, 78, 88), a term that is used to describe anyone occupying a high ranking position, maybe Egypt’s chief minister.
Yusuf too is later called al-Aziz in the Qur’an (vv. 78, 88) when he becomes the keeper of the storehouses of the kingdom. The wife of al-Aziz is known as Zulaikha or Ra’il in some Islamic sources, but she is not identified in the Qur’an by her name. We note here that the statement “It may be that he will bring us some benefit, or that we may take him as a son” (Q, 12:21) has the same wording with what Pharaoh’s wife says to Pharaoh about Moses in (Q, 28:9). Yusuf is now established in the land through God’s arrangement. We know this from the continuation of (v.21): “And thus did We establish Yusuf in the land, that We might teach him the interpretation of events.”
Abdullah Yusuf Ali interprets “And thus did We establish Yusuf in the land” in his commentary as the following: “How unerringly God’s plan works! To teach Joseph (Yusuf) wisdom and power, he had to be tested and proved in righteousness, and advanced and established in Egypt, so that Zulaikha should be tested and purified of her dross the women and men of Egypt should have a glimpse of God’s message, and the way prepared for Israel and his posterity to proclaim God’s truth to the world and to make possible the subsequent missions of Moses (Musa) and Mustafa.”1 This means that it is God, who saved Yusuf from death, took him out of the well, and now placed him in the house of al-Aziz, where Yusuf faces up to his second trial, a trial of temptation. God also reinforces Yusuf by teaching him the interpretation of events, which refers to vv. 6, 36-37, 41, 43-49.
The ability of interpreting dreams accurately and properly is given Yusuf by God, so that he can achieve ascendency in Egyptian society (vv.54, 56). The verse 21 goes on by the statement that “And God prevails over his affair, but most of mankind know not.” Remember the purpose of the brothers, who threw Yusuf in the well, yet God’s purpose is different than theirs. God prevails over in whatever He wills to happen, and He wills to exalt Yusuf. Note that “most of mankind know not” is seen in Surah Yusuftwo more times, in v. 40 and in v. 68. In the following verse, God’s Will for Yusuf is perceived better: “When he reached his maturity, We gave him wisdom and knowledge. Thus, do we recompense the virtuous” (Q, 12:22). The Qur’an emphasizes here that Yusuf is virtuous. This word “virtuous” related to Yusuf occurs in vv. 36, 56, 78, and 90 as well.
According to Sayyid Qutb, “He was given a good sense to judge matters well, and also knowledge of the meaning of statements or the interpretation of dreams, or what is more general, such as knowledge of life and its different circumstances.”2 In his view, this is Yusuf’s reward for having done well in both belief and behavior. According to another interpretation, “wisdom” is prophethood or the ability to judge between people with justice, and “knowledge” refers to knowledge of dream interpretation and future events or knowledge of the mysteries and the proper etiquette of servanthood toward God.3 Vv. 23-29 describe Yusuf’s second test, resisting temptation, which is much more severe than his first trial.
The master’s wife, in whose house Yusuf lives, tries to seduce Yusuf. She locks the doors and says “Come, thou!” This is an open attempt at seduction. However, Yusuf rejects her straightforwardly, and says that “God be my refuge! Truly He is my lord, and has made beautiful my accommodation. Verily the wrongdoers will not prosper!” (Q, 12:23) He knows the limits very well, and explains here that why they should not violate these limits, which are eloquently expressed in this verse by leaving the reference of “my lord” open-ended: “My lord” here may be a reference to the master, al-Aziz, because of the reason that he orders his wife in v. 21 to give Yusuf an honorable accommodation. Yusuf believes that he owes a duty and gratitude, and so does the wife, to al-Aziz.
Therefore, he would not betray him. Alternately, “my lord” may be a reference to God. This can be derived from v. 21. From this point of view, we may understand that God rescued Yusuf from the well, and gave him a valuable place in the eyes of al-Aziz, who provided for Yusuf an honorable accommodation. Yusuf spends all his adolescent years there. Although the Qur’an does not give the ages Yusuf and the woman, it may be estimated that while Yusuf was at his adolescent years, the wife of al-Aziz, who witnesses Yusuf’s growth and becoming a young man, was between 30 and 40 years of age, when her femininity was at its peak; at the time of the event, the woman was at least 40, and Yusuf was probably 25, or close to that.4
The Qur’an also mentions that Yusuf too desires the woman, just as does she, but he does not follow his feelings because he sees “the proof of his Lord” (Q, 12:24). According to the Qur’an, “the proof” is showed Yusuf, because Yusuf is one of God’s sincere and purified servants. A widely reported incident explains “the proof” as follows: The wife of al-Aziz, who is a Pagan, covers an idol in the room. When Yusuf asks why she covers it, she answers that she is ashamed to sin before it. Upon hearing her explanation, Yusuf realizes that the idols do not hear or see, but God, all Hearing and Seeing. This consciousness of Yusuf functions as “the proof”. Thus, he is turned away from evil and indecency.5
There are many such groundless reports, which are probably fabricated. According to al-Razi (d.606, 1210), for instance, “the proof” is the Archangel Gabriel’s appearance before Yusuf. The angel hits Yusuf in the chest at the moment in order to save him from committing sin. Although Yusuf is a human being, and therefore, may have some weaknesses, he is a chosen one by God. Therefore, God protects Yusuf at the moment of weakness. By means of God’s help, Yusuf immediately takes refuge in God from disobeying Him by being a wrongdoer, and thus, be able to resist temptation. When he comes to himself, he attempts to flee from the woman, she runs after him to detain him, and tears his shirt from behind. At this moment, they encounter al-Aziz at the door. The wife pretends as if she is fleeing from Yusuf. Then, she says to her husband: “What is the (fitting) punishment for one who formed an evil design against the wife but prison or a grievous chastisement” (Q, 12: 25).
Yusuf does not accept this false accusation, and defends himself: “It was she that sought to seduce me from myself” (Q, 12:26). A witness from the woman’s own people testifies here in order to put an end to the dispute. He provides a way for establishing the truth: if Yusuf’s shirt is torn from the front, then she is telling the truth; if it is torn from the back, it means that it is torn while the wife chases Yusuf to keep him from escaping, then, she is lying and Yusuf is the truthful one. According to many traditional sources, this wise man, who testifies, refers to one of the woman’s parental cousins.6However, the Qur’an does not give any information about this man other than his testimony.
When the master sees that Yusuf’s shirt is torn from the back, he merely says to his wife: “Verily this is among the schemes of you woman-your scheming is great indeed! Yusuf, turn away from this. And you, seek forgiveness for your sin. Truly you were among those at fault” (Q, 12: 28-29). He does not take any other action against his wife, whose guilt is established, while he asks Yusuf, whose innocence is established, to let the matter drop. According to Sayyid Qutb, this is a picture of high class in ignorance, or jahiliyyah society, and it is still applicable today. He states that “The same sort of low morality is found in aristocratic classes,” and “There is clear complacency when faced with sex scandals, followed by attempts to suppress them.”7 However, the news of this event spreads throughout Egypt. The wife hears that some women of the city speak about her attempt to seduce her slave boy, and say: “He has filled her with ardent love. Truly we consider her to be in manifest error.” (Q, 12:30) She replies to their gossip by inviting them to her palace for a sumptuous banquet. They sit together. The wife gives each one of her guests a knife, and then instructs Yusuf to come out before them.
When the women see Yusuf, they admire him, so much so that they cut their hands with the knives given by the wife of al-Aziz. Then, the women of the city make their feelings public, and say: “God be praised! This is no human being. This is naught but a noble angel” (Q, 12:31). “God be praised!” is normally used as an expression of amazement at God’s wonderful creations. Moreover, the expression of the women “a noble angel” reflects their amazement towards Yusuf’s exceptional beauty not only outwardly, but inwardly as well. At this point, the wife admits what she has done, and declares Yusuf’s innocence by saying that “This is the one on whose account you blamed me. I indeed sought to lure him from himself, but he remained chaste” (Q, 12:32). Right after this confession, she goes on that if Yusuf does not do what she commands, which refers to her first command to Yusuf “Come, thou!”, he will be thrown into prison, where he is sure to be among those humbled. Remember that Yusuf spent his adolescent years as a slave, who resisted temptations and wicked designs of his master’s wife for a long time in such an environment, which allows such attitudes mentioned in vv. 31, 32.
When all these factors are put together, we may be able to feel how hard Yusuf’s long trial was. We see ones more that Yusuf turns to his Lord and he says: “My Lord! Prison is dearer to me than that to which they call me” (Q, 12:33). Here Yusuf does not say “she calls me,” but “they call me”. This means that he is not the target of only the wife of his master’s temptation anymore. Now he is the target of all the women in the room. He feels that he can only be saved from this by God’s assistance and protection. That may be why he proclaims that “If thou dost not turn their scheming away from me, I shall incline toward them and be among the ignorant” (Q, 12:33). Verse 34, the last verse of the second episode of the Yusuf story, announces that God hears Yusuf’s appeal, and responds him by giving strength to his ability to resist the women. Thus, Yusuf succeeds to stand firm through this second test of his life.
Written by wiseinstitute