After the brothers of Yusuf [علیہ السلام] threw him into a well, the trial of both Prophet Yaqoub [علیہ السلام] and his would-be Prophet son commenced. What the young Yusuf must have felt as he clung to the walls of the well for his life, we can only imagine, as I am sure none of us have had our siblings do such a thing to us. However, Allāh was fully in control of his affair, even though it looked like his brothers – the apparent “bad” guys – had gotten away with their ill-intentioned treachery. The incident of the well turned out to be good for Yusuf in the long term as Allāh, the All-Knower had intended.
The lesson for us at this point is to remember that even if someone close to us intentionally harms us, and it looks like we are the losers and that they have gotten away with it, we should strive to remain patient. The hope that the undesirable event might turn out to be good for us in the long term, and trust in Allāh, should see us through such a trial. More often than not, this is exactly what happens. We might have heard the adage: 'what goes around comes around'. People who intentionally wrong others eventually suffer the “evil karma” of their deeds even in this world, and sometimes, it so happens that the one they oppressed eventually has the upper hand or a more powerful position than them, a few years down the road.
Allāh planned to save Yusuf's life. He sent a caravan that way, which sent a water-drawer to dole out water from the well. Slavery being rampant at that time, the caravan-travelers were thrilled to find a young lad floundering in the well – because of the possibility of selling him off for a quick buck in the slave market.
وَجَاءتْ سَيَّارَةٌ فَأَرْسَلُواْ وَارِدَهُمْ فَأَدْلَى دَلْوَهُ قَالَ يَا بُشْرَى هَـذَا غُلاَمٌ وَأَسَرُّوهُ بِضَاعَةً وَاللّهُ عَلِيمٌ بِمَا يَعْمَلُونَ
Some travellers came that way and then dispatched their water-drawer who let his bucket down. He said, “Good news for me, I've found a boy!” They then hid him away among their goods. Allāh knew very well what they were doing. [12:19]
Little did they know how precious Yusuf was! Would they have decided to sell him off had they known they had a future ruler in their possession; one who could foretell futuristic dream interpretations and judge between people with justice? No! Allāh deliberately blinded them and made them oblivious to his as-yet-latent talents and knowledge, so that they would sell him for a few measly dirhams.
وَشَرَوْهُ بِثَمَنٍ بَخْسٍ دَرَاهِمَ مَعْدُودَةٍ وَكَانُواْ فِيهِ مِنَ الزَّاهِدِينَ
They sold him for a pittance, a few small coins, considering him to be of little worth. [12:20]
This was all part of Allāh's plan to dwell Yusuf in a well-off, respectable house in Egypt. This would not have been possible had he roamed around with the caravan as a slave or servant. His sale to a wealthy, well-established man in Egypt was Allāh's decree, because He planned for Yusuf to eventually rise in worldly ranks therein.
The lesson in this part of Yusuf's life is that if people – family, schoolmates, friends or colleagues – undermine your talents, abilities, skills or knowledge where you live or work, do not let it lower your self-confidence or self-esteem. Imagine a young lad, a future Prophet to be appointed by Allāh, a future ruler of the land, who had dreamt of the sun, moon and stars prostrating to him, standing dirty and bedraggled among other slaves, with shackles around their ankles, possibly herded inside cages like animals, on sale for a few dirhams to the elite upper crust of Egyptian society? How must he have felt to be separated from his family and to have become a vagabond this way?
However, whatever happened to him was a part of Allāh's plan, and did not in the least affect the good that he already possessed, or the further blessings that were to come his way a few years later. In this trial and hardship, he was actually being trained for his future role.
وَكَذَلِكَ مَكَّنِّا لِيُوسُفَ فِي الأَرْضِ وَلِنُعَلِّمَهُ مِن تَأْوِيلِ الأَحَادِيثِ وَاللّهُ غَالِبٌ عَلَى أَمْرِهِ وَلَـكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لاَ يَعْلَمُونَ
And thus We established Yusuf in the land, to teach him the true meaning of events. Allāh was in control of His affair. However, most of mankind do not know. [12:21]
Allāh wanted to teach him “Ta'weel al Ahadith” - how to get to the depth of matters, and all the adverse events that he went through were somehow a crash course in achieving that objective. We must also remember that those individuals who are born with silver spoons in their mouths, so to speak, or who have all luxuries of life, in addition to fame and fortune at a very young age, have to make an extra effort to learn life's valuable lessons and the true worth of hard-earned money. They have a high chance of growing up to become “spoiled brats”, viz. pampered, unproductive adults, unless their guardians go the extra mile to train them in values of discipline, working to earn money, and giving in charity, despite having everything.
On the other hand, facing extreme poverty and impoverished circumstances during childhood and adolescence mostly brings out a youth's best talents and makes him or her strong, hard working, humble and productive. Such an individual rises up from rock bottom and experiences poverty and hunger firsthand on his way up. When they resort to honest hard work, relying on the talents that their Creator has gifted them with, they rise to the top, because Allāh grants them success as compensation even in this world.
An example of one such “icon” of the current age, who grew up in poverty and suffered partial separation from her parent(s), is a famous African American talk-show host and media maven; today, she is one of the most influential women in the world. Forbes.com says about her:
“Born in rural Mississippi, she spent her early years living in poverty on her grandmother's farm. Wanting a way out, she moved to Wisconsin to be with her mother, but was sexually molested by her male relatives. At age 14, she reportedly gave birth to a premature baby who died. Only after moving to Nashville to be with her father did her luck finally start to turn.”
Every “self-made” person viz. who was not born into royalty or a wealthy family but who is successful today in worldly terms, inevitably faced tough times at some point during their lives, and lived through moments of dejection in which they doubted their talents, skills and abilities.
Therefore, the point I am trying to make is, that having a difficult, impoverished and deprived childhood or adolescence sometimes teaches valuable lessons, and imparts ”training for success” in life to a young individual. Such a person usually goes on to become self-sufficient, independent, humble, hardworking and a humanitarian as an adult, giving back from his resources to the under-privileged of society and actively reaching out to improve their lot.
The Aggressive Older Woman's Call
When Aziz bought Yusuf, his heart was filled with care and love for the latter. He liked him so much, that he asked his wife to honor the boy and expressed his desire to eventually adopt him as their son.
وَقَالَ الَّذِي اشْتَرَاهُ مِن مِّصْرَ لاِمْرَأَتِهِ أَكْرِمِي مَثْوَاهُ عَسَى أَن يَنفَعَنَا أَوْ نَتَّخِذَهُ وَلَدًا
The Egyptian who had bought him told his wife, “Look after him with honour and respect. It's possible he will be of use to us or perhaps we might adopt him as a son.” [12:21]
Actually, just as Pharaoh and his wife fell in love with a cute baby boy (Musa [علیہ السلام]) floating down a stream and took him in to raise as their son, Aziz's affection for Yusuf, too, was again Allāh's Divine decree at work.
The lesson for us in this is that when Allāh wants to dwell a person with honor and abundant provision in a comfortable place, he turns people's hearts towards him, making them take them in with warmth and love. This happened with Prophet Musa [علیہ السلام] too, first when he was floating on a stream as a baby, and later when he fled Egypt and reached the watering place where two sisters were waiting. Their father, too, took him in as an employee under contract and immediately expressed his desire to make him his son-in-law in the future. Also, when Allāh doesn't will for a person to live in a certain environment (viz. the caravan that found Yusuf), he makes their hearts disinterested in him. Thus, he makes means for that person to move elsewhere. Such was what also happened to Prophet Musa [علیہ السلام], when he had to flee Egypt due to his having killed one of the Copts by mistake.
The fact that Aziz suggested to his wife that they eventually adopt Yusuf as their son, suggests one significant thing that becomes particularly relevant when we consider the events that would take place a few years down the road. It shows that there was a considerable age difference between Aziz's wife and Yusuf. Perhaps she and Aziz were childless, or barren.
The word used to describe Yusuf when he was found from the well, is غلام (“ghulaam“), which, according to the rules of the Arabic language, is used for ”a young boy whose moustache is growing forth” i.e. a boy ranging in age from 12 to 17. We can thus conclude that Aziz's wife was, therefore, some years older than him at the time she and her husband purchased him.
He lived with his 'owners' or foster parents until he reached his adulthood, whence Allāh blessed him with wisdom and knowledge. His physical beauty, too, reached its peak.
وَلَمَّا بَلَغَ أَشُدَّهُ آتَيْنَاهُ حُكْمًا وَعِلْمًا وَكَذَلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ
And then when he became a full-grown man, We gave him knowledge and right judgement too. That is how We reward all doers of good. [12:22]
It is difficult to ascertain the cause behind what happened next. But it so happened that the woman in whose house he spent his adolescent years, growing up and maturing, who undoubtedly held a more dominant, authoritative and stronger position than him in the housheold, tried to get him to commit adultery with her.
وَرَاوَدَتْهُ الَّتِي هُوَ فِي بَيْتِهَا عَن نَّفْسِهِ وَغَلَّقَتِ الأَبْوَابَ وَقَالَتْ هَيْتَ لَكَ قَالَ مَعَاذَ اللّهِ إِنَّهُ رَبِّي أَحْسَنَ مَثْوَايَ إِنَّهُ لاَ يُفْلِحُ الظَّالِمُونَ
وَلَقَدْ هَمَّتْ بِهِ وَهَمَّ بِهَا لَوْلا أَن رَّأَى بُرْهَانَ رَبِّهِ كَذَلِكَ لِنَصْرِفَ عَنْهُ السُّوءَ وَالْفَحْشَاء إِنَّهُ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا الْمُخْلَصِينَ
وَاسُتَبَقَا الْبَابَ وَقَدَّتْ قَمِيصَهُ مِن دُبُرٍ وَأَلْفَيَا سَيِّدَهَا لَدَى الْبَابِ قَالَتْ مَا جَزَاء مَنْ أَرَادَ بِأَهْلِكَ سُوَءًا إِلاَّ أَن يُسْجَنَ أَوْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
The woman whose house it was wanted to seduce him. She barred the doors and said, “Come over here!” He said, “Allāh is my refuge! He is my Lord and has been good to me with where I live. Those who do wrong will surely not succeed.” She wanted him and he would have wanted her, had he not seen the clear proof of his Lord. That happened so We might avert from him all evil and lust. He was Our chosen servant.
They raced to the door. She tore his shirt at the back. They met her husband by the door. She said, “How should a man whose intention was to harm your family be punished for what he did except with prison or painful punishment?” [12: 23-25]
Was it only lust that drove her to aggressively desire him? Was it her power and authority over him that made her so zealous in his pursuit that she tore his shirt even after he turned her down and tried to escape? Or was she just aggressive by nature, not accustomed to having her orders defied? Was it her being much older in age than him, and holding an influential status in Egyptian society?
Perhaps a little of all.
Yusuf lived in the house with her and the other domestic staff whilst her husband was away at work, and it is probable that his youth and handsomeness being at a pinnacle caught her gaze. We know that the gaze is the starting point of zina or adultery, if left unchecked. In addition, “khulwah” or being alone with a person of the opposite gender who is not a mahrum, also becomes an invitation for Satan to call the shots towards adultery.
Another point to consider is the polarization of their intrinsic nature that could have caused this. She was quite obviously lacking in piety – as not only did she try to seduce a man while being married to another (within the walls of the latter's house), but also resorted to slander when caught red-handed. Yusuf, on the other hand, was pious and benign, obedient to Aziz and loyal to the house. Therefore, it is possible that his good character encouraged her to think that she could get away with anything as far as he was concerned. It is not uncommon for people to take advantage of someone's piety, honesty, and good conduct; for example, the woman who threw trash over Prophet Muḥammad [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم]; knowing that he'd never retaliate with an action at the same low level of evil probably gave her the guts to go on doing it.
Regardless of the motive behind her aggression, we should note the reason Yusuf gave for his refusal – he mentioned Allāh and how well He had kept him in that house – and that committing this act would thus be a great wrong; a severe ingratitude of Allāh's blessings on Yusuf. Another interpretation of this statement made by Yusuf is that by saying, ”He is my Lord”, he meant Aziz (his “master”, who bought him as a slave), viz. that Aziz had given him shelter in his house and kept him there very well, and sleeping with his wife behind his back would thus be the greatest wrong Yusuf could do to him in return. Either way, Yusuf's lofty morals, alert conscience towards sin, and inner strength in face of temptation is apparent here.
It was when he took this stand towards his oppressor that Allāh turned away from him evil and adultery by making him see a “burhaan” – “clear proof”. Tafsir Ibn Kathir explains what this clear proof, or evidence, could have been:
“As for the evidence that Yusuf saw at that moment, there are conflicting opinions to what it was. Ibn Jarir At-Tabari said, “The correct opinion is that we should say that he saw an āyah from among Allāh's ayaat that repelled the thought that crossed his mind. This 'evidence' might have been the image of Yaqoub, or the image of an angel, or a divine statement that forbade him from doing that evil sin, etc. There are no clear proofs to support any of these statements in specific, so it should be left vague, as Allāh left it.”
The lesson for us in this event is that we cannot place the blame for being weak in the face of temptation on anyone except ourselves. We cannot say, “Allāh knows how difficult it is for me not to give in, with such temptation around me. He will not call me to account for such a trial.” Yusuf was young and unmarried; trapped inside a locked room with a woman calling him to herself – a woman dominant to him in social standing. Yet, not only did he openly refuse her, but ran when she persisted. It was when he refused outright that Allāh's help came to him, and he saw a clear proof that prevented him from wanting her too. Allāh's help comes when we take the first step to remove the temptation and avert it from ourselves.
Despite being caught by Aziz at the door, and being slandered by his wife; Yusuf spoke the truth in face of his oppressor:
He said, “It was she who tried to seduce me.” A witness from the household then declared, “If his shirt is torn in front, she speaks the truth and he has clearly told a shameless lie. If his shirt is torn at the back, then she has lied and he has clearly told the simple truth.” [12:26-27]
Thus, Yusuf's innocence was publicly proven. Someone from among the household's witnesses spoke up in his favor, turning everyone's attention to his shirt's torn part as the proof. Aziz believed his version of the event, and told him to turn away from the deeds of his wife.
He saw the shirt torn at the back and said, “The source of this is women's deviousness. Without a doubt your guile is very great. Yusuf, ignore all this, and you, my wife, should ask forgiveness for your evil act. There is no doubt that you are in the wrong.” [12: 28-29]
Aziz's good character again comes to light. He had always been good to Yusuf, and now he pardons his wife, telling her to repent for her deed, after her advances towards his slave had been publicly proved to him! It takes a man of great strength and character to let such an incident go and not see red. As the events that occurred thereafter prove, Yusuf continued to live in the house even after this, and the incident was most likely hushed up or covered.
However, Aziz's wife was far from thwarted. When the local grapevine caught wind of this incident, the gossiping women mocked her pursuit of her slave-boy (since her guilt had been publicly proven by the shirt torn from the back). Incensed, she devised a plot to prove to them why she pursued Yusuf, and convened a “dinner party” for them, where she ordered Yusuf to enter upon them. (So much for letting the whole thing go as her husband had said!) Notice how Yusuf complied – obviously he was still upholding the high virtuous conduct that was in his nature.
This conduct should be a beacon for young Muslim men nowadays. The first thing a guy usually does when a member of the opposite sex expresses her interest in him, is to boast of his “conquest” to his circle at his school/college/office. The more exploitative of such men go ahead and 'have a good time' with the lady in question, even if they are not interested in her. As for Yusuf, not only did he forgive Aziz's wife and overlook what she did to him (seduction plus slandering his chastity), but also continued to obey her as mistress of the house thereafter. This is what really “being a man” is! Forgiving women who are outright liars and slanderers, upholding virtuous behavior no matter what, and going on as if nothing ever happened.
As for the sense of “manhood” and “honor” that the world today associates with Muslim men, it usually involves an axe or a knife that is used to hack up or slaughter a “philandering” wife, daughter or sister, without possessing any proof of her supposed “infidelity” – a far, far cry from pardoning her even after her guilt is proven! We can contrast the lessons the Qurʾān gives us about morailty to the present-day conduct of supposedly ”modern and educated” Muslim men towards their women. If they or their sons take girlfriends, it's because “men will be men”, but if an unproven report of any of “their women” being involved with a man reaches them, they rush to get their axe or rifle for the hot pursuit and barbaric murder to restore their “honor”! Our Prophet Muḥammad [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] turned away and ignored the woman who came to him with an open confession of having committed zina, requesting to have herself stoned for the act. He kept turning away from her until her persistence made it clear that she would not relent in her request!
When Yusuf entered upon the party of gathered city women, being the benign server that he was, not suspecting the true intention behind his being sent in their midst, they were flabbergasted at his beauty.
Aziz's wife then made her grand entrance with a gloating, “I-told-you-so” declaration:
قَالَتْ فَذَلِكُنَّ الَّذِي لُمْتُنَّنِي فِيهِ وَلَقَدْ رَاوَدتُّهُ عَن نَّفْسِهِ فَاسَتَعْصَمَ وَلَئِن لَّمْ يَفْعَلْ مَا آمُرُهُ لَيُسْجَنَنَّ وَلَيَكُونًا مِّنَ الصَّاغِرِينَ
She said, “You see! It's him you blamed me for. I tried seducing him but he refused. If he does not do what I order him, he will be put in prison and brought low.” [12:32]
Yusuf suddenly realized that she was still in his pursuit, now armed with a vengeance to get back at him for having rejected her advances, and through the dinner party, she was taking the women in her social circle into her confidence as accomplices in her scheme for his entrapment. He realized their power over him (his status in society still being that of a slave) and that Aziz might be unable to save him from them this time. He hence did what only a morally strong person and a sincere slave of Allāh can do – he opted for the prison cell:
قَالَ رَبِّ السِّجْنُ أَحَبُّ إِلَيَّ مِمَّا يَدْعُونَنِي إِلَيْهِ وَإِلاَّ تَصْرِفْ عَنِّي كَيْدَهُنَّ أَصْبُ إِلَيْهِنَّ وَأَكُن مِّنَ الْجَاهِلِينَ
He said, “My Lord, the prison is preferable to me than what they call on me to do. Unless You turn their guile away from me, it may well be that I will fall for them and so become a man of ignorance.” His Lord replied to him and turned away from him their guile and deviousness. He is the One Who Hears, the One Who Knows. [12:33-34]
Allāh again responds to Yusuf's sincere plea, and notice how He calls Yusuf's going to prison as “turning (the women's) guile and deviousness away from him”. In this, there is a great lesson for us: that sometimes, adverse events are a blessing in disguise – Allāh saves us from major trials and sins by making us endure unfavorable circumstances, such as living in a threadbare condition. We should try to be happy with Allāh's decree, with the faith that what He decrees is better for us, even if we are not sure how it is better. Older people usually reflect on their past lives and acknowledge how certain bad events were better for them in the long term, although when they were living through them, they were mostly complaining because their wisdom and insight was not enough to make them see the big picture.
The second is that, in order to save our faith from corruption and our selves from falling into sin, we should be willing to relinquish comfortable environments to go to places that might be adverse for living, but better for safeguarding our Deen and chastity.
The third lesson for us is that we have to take the proactive step first, and ask Allāh to help us in protecting ourselves from the evil of people; only then does Allāh's help come. We cannot be weak and lazy in our actions, and then claim that, “Why does Allāh not guide me?” Yusuf could have given in to the plot of the women, in order to go on living in Aziz's comfortable and well-provided-for residence. However, he 'took the high road 'to avoid disobeying Allāh. Apparently, he lost out - he didn't lie, he didn't succumb to his mistress' advances, and he didn't seek to take revenge on her. He forgave her, and thus she got the chance to try to trap him again. He was thus thrown into prison for no crime, except his “ihsan” - lofty moral conduct. Being the good guy, he “lost”. However, this “loss” was only short-term, as we will find out later.
I thought about the Companions of the Cave – Ashaab Al Kahf – as I reflected upon Yusuf's plea to Allāh. They too, were young men who withdrew willingly into a cave to save themselves from the vices rampant in their society. Prophet Muḥammad [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] too, withdrew into the cave of Hira to ponder on the purpose of life, when the ignorance and polytheism in Arabian society turned him off. It seems then, that withdrawing into a cave, prison, or secluded spot to save themselves from the evil of people, has been the way of many of our pious predecessors, as a means to protect themselves from corruption.
In the next post about Surah Yusuf, we will try to garner more lessons for ourselves as we see Yusuf's life finally take a turn for the better, inshā'Allāh.