The story of the wife of the Egyptian Dignitary (Egypt’s ‘Aziz) is mentioned as a part of the story of Prophet Joseph (PBUH) in the Sura named after him (Chapter 12). One of the specific characteristics of the story of Prophet Joseph (PBUH) is that it was mentioned in its totality in one Sura. The part of the story that we are concerned with here starts when the caravan from Egypt found Prophet Joseph (PBUH) in the well. He had been thrown there earlier by his brothers. He was bought in slavery by a person who is described as the Egyptian Dignitary. Some scholars are of the opinion that he was the Governor of Egypt, while others are of the opinion that he was the first minister. However, we know that Joseph’s (PBUH) time of difficulty has ended and that he is now secure in this new place, “The man in Egypt who bought him, said to his wife, ‘Make his stay (among us) honorable, he may bring us much good, or we shall adopt him as a son.’” (12: 21) The man asked his wife to make Joseph’s (PBUH) stay with them pleasant. He hoped that Joseph (PBUH) would bring goodness to his house or that they may even adopt him as a son – some scholars are of the opinion that the couple did not have children.
The narrative digressed to emphasize that these developments happened by God’s leave. Establishing Joseph (PBUH) in the land started by settling him securely in the house of the Governor. God’s will cannot be overturned, “Thus, did We establish Joseph in the land, that We might teach him the interpretation of narratives (dreams and events).” Joseph’s (PBUH) brothers plotted to harm him, but God’s will have foiled their plotting and saved Joseph (PBUH), “God has full power and control over His affairs; but most among humankind know it not.” (12: 21)
The verses continued to follow Joseph (PBUH) as he grew up, “When Joseph attained His full manhood, We gave him power and knowledge. Thus, do We reward those who do right.” (12: 22) Joseph (PBUH) was given insight and wisdom to discharge the affairs that he was entrusted with. However, it was not long before Joseph (PBUH) faced the second time of difficulty in his life. This time he faced a worse trial than the one he faced before, “But she, in whose house he was, sought to seduce him to do an evil act. She bolted the doors, and said, “Now come, you (dear one).” He said, “God forbid. Truly, he (your husband) is my lord. He treated me honorably. Certainly, the wrongdoers do not prosper.” (12: 23) Joseph (PBUH must have been a teenager at that time and he was facing the temptation of a grown up woman who knew what she wanted, she plotted to get it, and she was determined to get it. Her invitation to Joseph (PBUH) was unambiguous; she bolted the doors and prepared herself to seduce him.
The subsequent verse may pose a problem in reconciling the chastity of Joseph (PBUH) and the fact that he could have had entertained a desire to succumb to her temptation, but the following translation agrees with the interpretation given by most of the scholars, “And (with passion) did she desire him, and he would have desired her, had it not that he saw the evidence of his Lord. Thus (did We order) that We ward off from him (all) evil and shameful deeds, for he was one of Our chosen servants.” (12: 24) The language of this verse describes the persistence of the woman in trying to seduce Joseph (PBUH) and the steadfastness of Joseph (PBUH) in refusing her. When at a moment of human weakness, he was about to fall for her, God intervened and saved him from this fall.
When he “saw the evidence of his Lord,” he ran towards the door to escape and she was in pursuit, she was about to catch him but instead she ripped his shirt off his back, “And they raced each other to the door, and she tore his shirt from behind,” Suddenly, they came face to face with her husband, “and they met her husband at the door.” But she was an intelligent woman. She was able to find a way out of the trap she found herself in, “She said, ‘What shall be his reward the one who intended evil to your wife, save prison or a painful chastisement?’” (12: 25)
Joseph (PBUH) responded truthfully, “It was she that sought to seduce me.” A member of her family provided a resolution to the dispute; he suggested that they should examine the ripped shirt, “If his shirt is torn from the front, then she has told the truth and he is of the liars, and if his shirt is torn from behind, then she has lied and he is of the truthful.” (12: 26) The verses do not detail the circumstances during which the dispute was resolved. We do not know when or where her family member was consulted, but the verse intimates that he was consulted and he gave his suggestion. However, it is interesting to note the reaction of the husband when he realized that his wife lied, “So when he saw his shirt was torn at the back, (her husband) said, ‘This is another instance of your cunning. Indeed, your (women’s) cunning is great. Joseph, turn away from this, and you, (woman), ask forgiveness for your sin. Indeed, you were of the sinful.” (12; 28) First, he deflected the blame to the whole feminine sex, blaming her act of seduction on women’s cunning nature. Then, he turned to the innocent Joseph (PBUH) to say, “, turn away from this,” meaning that Joseph (PBUH) not only should ignore the whole story but he should also keep it a secret. This was the important thing for him, not to make the story public. He was afraid of the scandal. Finally, he asked his wife to repent for her sin.
Life in the palace continued as usual; Joseph (PBUH) continued to live in the palace in close proximity with the woman who tried to seduce him. Very soon after that, rumors started to circulate, “And some women in the city said, ‘The governor’s wife is seeking to seduce her slave-boy; indeed, he has impassioned her with love. We see her (to be) in plain error.’” (12: 30)
Her reaction reflected both her audacity and her cunning, “When she heard of their malicious talk, she sent for them and prepared a banquet for them. She gave each of them a knife; and she said (to Joseph), ‘Come out before them.’ When they saw him, they were stunned with his beauty and (in their amazement) they cut their hands. They said, “God is perfect. This is not a human being. This is none but a gracious angel.” (12: 31) She invited those aristocratic women to a party in her house. They were leaning on cushions while eating. She gave each one of them a knife to use in cutting up food. She then, commanded Joseph (PBUH) to come out before them while they were busy cutting meat or peeling fruits using the knives. They were stunned when they saw Joseph (PBUH). They said, “God is Perfect,” expressing their amazement of how perfect God’s creation can be.
This was the reaction she expected of them and thus, she felt vindicated, “She said, ‘There before you is the man about whom you did blame me.’” See for yourselves how handsome he is. Like you, I admired him and, “I did seek to seduce him but he did firmly save himself guiltless;” (12: 32) She did not refrain from admitting her guilt in front of her women friends. She did not show any remorse, instead she promised to relentlessly pursue him and punish him if he does not yield to her wishes, “but if he does not do what I command him to do, he shall certainly be cast into prison, and shall be of those who are in a state of ignominy.” (12: 32)
When Joseph (PBUH) heard the conversation, he had no choice but to seek God’s help, “He said, ‘My Lord, I would prefer prison to that which they are inviting me to. Unless You protect me from their plotting, I shall incline to them and become of the foolish.’” (12: 33) This is the prayer of a man who knew the inherent human weaknesses and he did not want to expose himself to the risk, so he prayed for the help of God to strengthen him while facing this difficult test. God responded favorably to his prayer, “So his Lord heard his prayer and fended off their cunning from him. He is All-Hearing, Omniscient.” (12: 34) God’s support could come in different ways. God may have made the women despair of being able to seduce Joseph (PBUH) so they would leave him alone, or God may have strengthened Joseph (PBUH) so he would become immune to their seduction. Thus, Joseph (PBUH) was able to cross safely the second trial in his life.
After years of incarceration, Joseph (PBUH) had the chance to request that the king to investigate the incident. The king asked the women, “What happened when you tried to seduce Joseph?” They answered, “God is perfect. We know no evil about him.” (12: 51) Joseph (PBUH) was declared innocent and the wife of the Governor had to admit her guilt, she said, “Now the truth is out. I tried to seduce him, and he is indeed of the truthful.” (12: 52)
- Joseph (PBUH) faced several trials. He was thrown in the well by his brothers, he was sold in slavery, he was wrongfully accused and incarcerated, and he was seduced by the wife of the Governor of Egypt. In all his trials, he persevered. However, when he was seduced by the Governor’s wife, it was the only time that he prayed God to support him and protect him from this seduction.
- Although the wife of the Governor was able to put Joseph (PBUH) behind bars for a few years, his innocent eventually was declared and she confessed to her crime.
- It is ironic that the imprisonment of Joseph (PBUH) paved the way for him to gain the trust of the king of Egypt and to become the first minister of Egypt.