In August, four scholars and a small group of Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders met to discuss the story of Prophet Joseph in the Qur’an and in the Torah. They are four reflections, by two Muslim women and two Jewish women, about the significance of Zuleikha in the story and in their respective traditions.
We publish today two of these reflections, to resume the remaining two in a second part.
Muslim’s reflection By Asma T. Uddin
In the Qur’an, Joseph, son of Jacob, had a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with his brothers, who resented him for being the favored, most beloved, son of their father. On one occasion, Joseph's brothers took him on a picnic and decided to get rid of him by throwing him into a well. After they left, a passing caravan happened to stop at the well, where the caravan's water-scout found Joseph, and decided to take him to Egypt. Once there, Joseph was sold for a paltry price to a high-ranking nobleman. As the Qur'an tells us, the nobleman who bought Joseph, al-Aziz, said to his wife, Zuleikha, "Tend graciously to his dwelling, he may benefit us, or we may take him as a son." From the nobleman's statements, we are led to believe that the nobleman and Zuleikha did not have any children, and that Joseph could thus have been taken as an adopted son. This is, in fact, the interpretation of many scholars. The lack of children suggests sexual intimacy may be lacking in the couple’s relationship. With the story framed by Zuleikha and al-Aziz’s relationship, the Qur’an goes on to the widely-known story of seduction and resistance:
Zuleikha felt deeply and passionately attracted to Joseph, and on one occasion, when her husband was out, Zuleikha called Joseph to her room. As soon as he entered, she locked the door and said as the holy Qur’an tells us: (Now come to me, my dear one.) Taken aback by this advance, Joseph told her: (God forbid. My master has been generous to me; I cannot betray his trust. Those who do evil can never prosper.) So saying, he rushed towards the door and tried to unlock it. Zuleikha caught hold of his tunic from behind and, in the tussle, it was torn. Joseph managed to unlock the door, but only to find his master outside. Zuleikha cried: (What is the fitting punishment, my master!, against one who has evil design against your wife, but prison and chastisement!) Joseph denied the charge and said that it was Zuleikha who had sought to seduce him. An advisor from the household, a lady of reputation, was asked to settle the dispute. If Joseph's tunic was torn from the front, she said, then he was guilty; but if it was torn from the back, then Zuleikha should be held accountable. The husband saw that the tunic was torn from the back; he told his wife that she had been at fault. He asked her to seek forgiveness, for truly it was she who had sinned.
Although this account of Zuleikha’s attempted seduction of Joseph seems to lend credence to allegations all too often found in Islamic scholarly texts about the evil charms of women, it is important to note that the story was preceded by the suggestion that Zuleikha and al-Aziz were childless, and that al-Aziz may in fact have been a eunuch.
Further, as the Qur’anic story progresses, we are told that Zuleikha, when mocked by the women of Egypt for her lust, invites them for a meal. As they are holding knives in their hands to pare some fruit, Joseph walks into the room and the women end up cutting their fingers out of absolute awe over Joseph’s beauty.
The women were so struck by the extraordinarily good-looking young man that they could not take their eyes off him; in the excitement they cut their fingers with their knives in their hands. They exclaimed: (O God preserve our chastity. He is not a man! He looks an angel.)
Two important points are made by this bookending of the story of Zuleikha’s seduction: first, she is craving intimacy in her life, and seeks fulfillment of her basic needs. This emphasizes the reality that women, too, have sexual needs, and their sexuality is as real and as valid as men’s sexuality.
Islam is often contrasted with Judaism and Christianity in its affirmation of sexuality and its articulation of both men and women’s sexual needs. Women, like men, have certain sexual “rights” in marriage which it is incumbent upon their spouse to fulfill. And the fulfillment of those rights is considered a religious duty – an act of worship, in fact. With her husband unable to fulfill her sexual rights, Zuleikha is, from an Islamic perspective, legitimately suffering, though of course the Qur’an makes clear that her sexual advances outside of marriage are prohibited. Second, the women of Egypt’s unanimous reaction of wonder to Joseph’s beauty underscores that Zuleikha is not a representation of female guile, but of the human response to Joseph. His beauty was above subjective desires and something so absolute that the response to it was unanimous and uncontrollable. The “story of seduction” is therefore constructed to be more about Joseph’s irresistible beauty than it is about Zuleikha’s – or any female’s – charms.
Jewish’s Reflection By Rachel Barenblat
In studying the Joseph/Yusuf story as it appears in the Qur'an, the Torah, midrash and tafsir, one of the biggest revelations for me is how differently our two traditions speak of Zuleikha. Our texts agree that Joseph rises to prominence in the house of one of Pharaoh's viziers and that the vizier's wife makes a pass at Joseph, which Joseph refuses. But there the stories diverge. Jews read the Joseph story as a parable about descent for the sake of ascent. Joseph descends into Egypt in order to rise in Potiphar's (or “al-Aziz” as mentioned in the holy Qur’an) house, and descends into jail in order to rise as a servant to Pharaoh (and in order to waken to God's providence in his life.)
Thus his family and community descend into Egypt and are saved from famine, in order that when "a Pharaoh arises who knew not Joseph," and the people are enslaved, God can liberate the Jewish community with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. This liberation is the central narrative of Jewish peoplehood: it leads us to Sinai and to the revelation of Torah, our covenant with God. Zuleikha has only a minor role to play in this story. She exists in the narrative primarily to give Potiphar a pretext for jailing Joseph; after that, she disappears from the Torah text.
When she appears in midrash (classical exegetical stories), she is often depicted through an uncharitable lens. One midrash declares that Zuleikha speaks "like an animal" when she commands Joseph to "lie with me." Reading that text, I see the early roots of the western literary trope of the sexually ravenous "Other," the foreign woman whose wiles put the hero's virtue at risk. Another midrash shows Joseph "unmanned" -- the spirit may be willing, but in the critical moment he finds his body incapable of committing sin, thanks to God's grace. It seems to me that both of these texts show Zuleikha in a negative light. But classical midrash was written by men, who have their own fears and agendas. Over the last few decades, however, a tradition of contemporary feminist midrash has arisen in Judaism. Jewish women have written stories and poems which give voice to Eve and Lilith, Sarah and Hagar, Rebecca and Rachel and Leah.
I look forward to the day when Jewish women reclaim Zuleikha, too.