Analyzing the Prophet Joseph’s Story
The Prophet Joseph is exalted in the Holy Book as an example of chastity. In his childhood, he was envied by his brothers and thrown into a well. A caravan passing by found him and later sold him as a slave to a high official, probably a minister, of the Egyptian court, whose name is mentioned in the Bible as Potiphar.
The Prophet Joseph descended from a family of Prophets. When someone told God’s Messenger that he was a noble man, the Messenger alluded to this fact, saying: The noble one, son of a noble one who is the son of a noble one who is the son of a noble one – this is Joseph, the son of Jacob, who is the son of Isaac, who is the son of Abraham, the intimate friend of God. Joseph was still a child in the well, when God revealed to him that he would one day tell his brothers the truth of what they had done (12:15). Therefore, he was, from the beginning, closed, protected from any kind of vice.
Joseph was an exceptionally handsome young man when the lady of the house fell in love with him. In the words of the ladies of the capital city, quoted by the Holy Book, Joseph ‘inspired her with violent love’ (12:30). In order to seduce him, she fastened the doors one day and called to Joseph, ‘Now come, you (dear one)!’ Joseph, whom God Almighty had granted knowledge, sound judgment and discernment, replied unhesitatingly:
God forbid! Truly my Lord has treated me honorably. Assuredly, wrongdoers never prosper (12:23).
The Prophet Joseph had already attained the rank of benevolence, described by God’s Messenger as ‘one’s worshipping God as if he were seeing God in front of him’. That is, he felt, at every instant of his life, that he was under the supervision of God Almighty. He was also one made sincere, pure-hearted and of pure intentions by God. Therefore, it was inconceivable that he would betray God’s blessings on him by agreeing to what he was invited. If — God forbid — he had conceived of taking even a single step toward what the lady invited him to do, he would have been a wrongdoer. Or, if he meant his master by ‘my lord’, then he would still have done nothing to betray his trust in him; if he had done so, he would, again, have been a wrongdoer.
So, Joseph refused the lady’s suggestion without hesitation. While narrating the rest of the story, the Holy Book says:
“Certainly, she burnt inwardly because of him; and he burnt inwardly because of her until he saw the evidence of his Lord: thus We did that we might turn away from him all evil and shameful deeds. For he was one of Our servants, made beforehand sincere and pure (12:24)”
The sentence translated here as she burnt inwardly because of him; and he burnt inwardly because of her until he saw the evidence of his Lord, has unfortunately been misunderstood by some interpreters of the Holy Book to mean ‘she desired, and was moved towards him; and he desired, and was moved towards her, but just at that point he saw the evidence of his Lord and stopped’. Some have, in interpreting the ’evidence of God’ which Joseph saw, even gone so far as to invent a story that Jacob appeared with his hand on his lips and saved his son from committing a grave sin. This is, however, besides being a misunderstanding of the worst kind, a slander against a Prophet who was honored and presented by God as ‘a most excellent model of chastity’, and by God’s Messenger as the noblest of all. In order to clarify the point and remove such doubts, we should concentrate on the meaning of the verb, hamma, which we have translated literally ‘to burn inwardly’, and which has confused the interpreters mentioned earlier.
Hamma literally means ‘to suffer, burn and be troubled inwardly and to be consumed with passion and longing’. There is a principle in the sciences of morphology and semantics that the first and most common meaning of a word is preferred unless an inconsistency or unconformity appears in the context. This principle, together with two other principles to be explained below, allow us no way other than to take hamma in its first meaning:
One: Joseph and his lady were worlds apart from each other with respect to their beliefs, ambitions, characters and ways of life. Therefore, each had suffering and anxiety of his or her own, and each was being consumed with completely different ambitions.
Two: The verse containing the verb hamma is a parenthetical one explaining the virtue of belief and sincerity, which bring God’s special favor and protection. It is not there merely as a part of the story. It should also be noted that there are stops after each phrase to show that they do not link a chain of events, but express three different realities. In this case, the exact meaning of the verse will be as follows:
‘Truly, the woman was burning inwardly because of her love for Joseph. As for Joseph, he got into a great trouble because of the woman; his chastity, good character and reputation might have been damaged. He had to find a way out to escape that situation. At this juncture, God’s evidence — His protection, or something else — came to his aid and turned all evil away from him, because he was among those servants of God made by Him sincere and pure. He was not mukhlis, one purified and who attained sincerity as a result of self-discipline and spiritual training, but he was mukhlas, one created by God sincere and pure.’
There is another point worth mentioning here that the verb hamma in the verse in question does not express ‘starting an action’. Because, we read in the previous verse that the woman had already started the action: she fastened the door and called Joseph to come to her. But Joseph refused. So, to take the verb hamma in the meaning of ‘to start towards’ for both Joseph and the woman, will be contradictory to the previous verse, as well as to the next one which comes to describe the rest of the story: So they both hurried to the door, and she tore his shirt from the back. It is clear in this verse that the Prophet Joseph first hurried to the door to escape, and the woman ran after him to catch him, and tore his shirt from the back.
Some, however, have suggested that the woman desired Joseph, and Joseph might have had a desire for her if he had not seen the evidence of his Lord. Since he had been protected from the beginning against sins, he did not have any desire for the woman. In either case, the Prophet Joseph did not feel any inclination towards the woman and therefore did nothing to start towards her. In conclusion, like every other Prophet, he too, was infallible.
By M. Fethullah Gulen