Allegorical Interpretation of the Story of Joseph/Yusuf(Episode 2-2)

Wahba Mahmoud Diyab

She waited in faith and longing. At length there came the news of great sensation in the market. A foreign merchant was bringing –they said- a slave like of whom had never been seen, whether for looks, or wit, or integrity, or purity of word and mind. It was no slave, but a son of splendor, a moon of goodness, a king in the realm of love! The caravan had yet barely entered the city. But the king heard of it, and ordered the Wazir (Zulaikha’s nominal husband) to go and see and bring this new prodigy into the king’s presence. When the Wazir came to the caravan and saw Yusuf, he found his beauty was even greater than rumor had described. He bowed down, with feelings akin to worship. But Yusuf gently raised him and taught him the Gospel of Unity;- that worship was due to God alone. When the merchant was told of the king’s order he pleaded delay on the ground that they were travel-stained and unfit to appear before the king until they had washed in the Nile and made themselves presentable.
Meanwhile the fame of Yusuf’s beauty, goodness, purity, and truth spread like wild-fire. Each one –man or woman- who possessed –or thought –he or she- possessed any of these qualities even in a minute degree, grew jealous that another –stranger and slave- should draw away all hearts. The merchant; the value of his “treasure” went up the more it was talked about. The king might perhaps pay the whole revenue of Egypt to purchase him. But there was one to whom Yusuf’s beauty was worth more than all the revenues of Egypt and who could outbid the king himself. This was Zulaikha, the lovely Princess of the West, whose jewels were worth the revenues of twenty kingdoms, but who took no pleasure in them in pining for the love of her dreams. She –too- heard of this wonderful prodigy, and came to have a peep at it through the curtains of her litter. Behold! When she saw Yusuf, it was the very face she had seen in her dreams, – for which she had left home and people and country, and for which she had been praying and pining these many years! She had no doubt about it whatever. She had found her love! But to see is not to attain. The whole rabble saw Yusuf, and he was to be presented to the king. She told her husband to present a humble petition to the king. The king knew that he –the Wazir- had no son and could have none. The king knew the services which he –as Wazir- had rendered to the king, his dynasty, and his country. Would the king permit him to bid for this wondrous slave with the Wazir’s own money? If so, the king would get the slave just the same, but would afford his Wazir the happiness of having a wonderful son in his house to carry on his name? The king saw Yusuf and accorded the Wazir the very reasonable request which he had made. Perhaps –though the poet does not say so- the king wondered whether the Wazir would be able to put up the whole of the money, and may have intended benevolently to supplement the good Wazir’s sources, should the need arise.
Then came a strange scene, typical of Vanity Fair, Yusuf was put up to auction. Every petty individual thought he or she could purchase Yusuf! One old woman had nothing but a little yarn she had spun. ‘Enough’ she thought ‘to give me the honor of standing in the market and boasting for ever that I had bid for Yusuf’. Some came from motives of curiosity: some from motives of jealousy. Why should the world go mad after a beauty or virtue of a kind different from what they themselves possessed, however homely? Some came with pride of purse. “A thousand gold pieces!” they shouted as if to stifle all competition. The bid went on to hundred times as much. Nor did it stop there. “Of fragrant musk I will give to full weight of Yusuf!” said one who had travelled to the uttermost ends of the earth in search of costly perfumes. “No good!” said another: “I offer the same weight of the most costly rubies and diamonds!” Poor deluded mortals! “The heaven’s glorious sun” was “not to be deep searched with saucy looks!” The Wazir’s resources –and indeed the kingdom’s revenues- had been exceeded many times already in the bidding. But Zulaikha –the Princess of the West- had untold wealth in her casket of gems. Yusuf was more than life itself to her. She bade the Wazir double the highest bid. This was conclusive. Yusuf went to the Wazir. And poor Zulaikha! She knew that Yusuf was worth more than the price she had paid for him! Yet –in her feminine weakness- she thought Yusuf had a price! She thought that her beauty, her birth, her constancy, her unflinching gift of her person to him, would weight in the scale. Alas! Even these things were not enough for Yusuf. The sale in the phenomenal world was all illusory in the real world. As Zulaikha had not yet learnt this, she had yet to pass through many trials, temptations, sins, and sorrows, before her grosser self could be purged out and she could be fit to receive Yusuf. Meanwhile, he who could talk to the lowest in prison on equal terms was unattainable to Zulaikha. The dust of his feet had made the merchant –who had looked after him- fabulously wealthy, but Yusuf was still to be the prey to many prying glances, the mark of many poisoned arrows, the quarry of many cunning traps. But his soul was spotless, and his manhood remained unsullied.
At this point –about the middle of the story- we are introduced by the poet to a mysterious figure; the lovely Baziga, who is in some respects a foil to Zulaikha. Baziga’s speech is the key to the whole allegory. She is a princess of the ‘Ad race, a people of Abraham antiquity referred to in many places in the Qur’an, and described in the commentary to verse 65 from Surat Al-A’raf 7. She had heard of Yusuf, and had also come with wealth to bid for him. She had had an interview and talk with Yusuf, and he had turned her attention from himself to the Great Creator, and given her the precious Message of Unity and Truth. ‘This world of visible beauty’ he said ‘is but the screen of the invisible and ineffable beauty within. Any beauty of goodness that you see here is but a reflection or image of the perfect , real, and eternal Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, which you should seek’. Convinced by this teaching, she resigns all folly, and bursts into a splendid rhapsody, concluding with these words:-
{Mine eyes have been touched by the Truth’s pure ray, and the dream of folly has passed away. Mine eyes thou hast opened –God bless thee for it! – And mine heart to the Soul of the soul thou hast knit! From a fond strange love thou hast turned my feet, the Lord of creatures to know and meet; if I bore a tongue in each single hair, each and all should thy praise declare?”}
She resigned her wealth and her pomp, attended to the needy, and spent her days in prayer and praise on the banks of the Nile.
Zulaikha is not of that temperament, and she reaches Truth and Peace by a different and much – more- thorny path. She is still in the grip of the beauty of sense. She burns with the flames of animal love, and tempts Yusuf. He is above any passion inconsistent with truth and fidelity, but his heart is sore distressed to think that he should bring sorrow on those who loved him. His father loved him, and that caused his brothers the pain of jealousy and his father himself the pain of separation. He would gladly serve her and the Wazir in all that was reasonable. But why seek to go beyond, on the road to evil? Zulaikha placed all sorts of temptations in his way, but he stood firm as a rock. At length she trapped him into a garden house and made overtures to him. But he fled. She pursued, and in the struggle, tore his shirt at the back. He made good of his escape. Outside the house he met the Wazir, but he was too kindly and forbearing, too solicitous of Zulaikha’s honor to betray her or say anything of what had happened. Nor did the Wazir press him. Zulaikha –seeing them thus enter- linked in mutual confidence, had a cruel and baseless suspicion – that she had been humiliated and betrayed by Yusuf. Her guilty conscience and injured pride spurred her on to impulsive lies and false accusations. Then was Yusuf compelled –in a few simple words- to tell so much of the truth as would save the Wazir from committing an act of injustice;- an act inconsistent with his high office. The condition of the shirt decided the matter: the Wazir asked Zulaikha to seek God’s pardon and charged Yusuf to say nothing more of this affair, lest the Wazir’s own position should be compromised.
Yusuf had no need of the Wazir’s words to make him discreet. But –says the poet- it suits not love to seek a corner of safety. Zulaikha, roused by anger and revenge, threw prudence to the winds. Her conduct accused –rather than excused- her. Tongues wagged. Society exaggerated, or distorted, the voice of rumor itself fed on exaggeration and distortion. The society pointed the finger of scorn at her. Good, bad, or hypocritical, the ladies all reviled her. ‘That Shameless woman, she is to throw herself on her slave; and he to scorn her! What was Egypt coming to? If she had had their spirit or their charm; who is that who could have resisted it?’- Stung by their insolence, Zulaikha determined to have her revenge on the ladies. She invited them to a sumptuous banquet. At desert, just as they were about to cut their oranges with their knives, Yusuf was admitted to the assembly. The very sight of him dazzled the ladies. ‘He is no man, but a noble angel!’ they cried. In their extreme emotion they cut their fingers. Zulaikha was more than justified in their eyes. But they had their own lower motives. Each lady thought in her heart that she could win his love where Zulaikha had failed. Jealousy further inflamed Zulaikha’s passion. They advised her to soften the steel in the fire, to soften Yusuf’s heart in prison. Yusuf was now beset with the persecution –not of one woman- but of many women, and he himself prayed for safety in prison. Many motives on the part of various people thus combined to send him to prison. They are analyzed in the notes of verse 35. So to prison Yusuf went, with all marks of disgrace and ignominy.
To the men in prison Yusuf’s advent was a blessing, for he taught them the Truth and showed them the Light. Such men as Yusuf –says the poet- turn a hell into Paradise. To Zulaikha’s heart came new sorrow, new penitence, and new tortures of conscience. Her heart gave way. In torturing and killing her false Self, she began almost to regain her true Self.
Meanwhile Yusuf’s goodness of heart made him a king among his fellow-prisoners. If any were ill, he tended them; if there was anything on their mind he sympathized with them and consoled them. They had unbounded faith in him, and they gladly took his teaching and profited by it. Two of them took their dreams to him and he interpreted them correctly. One of them was restored to the King’s favor. When the king in his turn dreamed a dream, this man remembered Yusuf and obtained the interpretation of the king’s dream through him. Yusuf was released from prison, raised to high honor, and given full authority in the land. The old Wazir –Zulaikha’s husband- was dead, and Yusuf was charged with the arrangements for meeting the great famine that was prognosticated. This part of the story is touched upon, but lightly by the poet, as his theme is the love of Zulaikha.
She –a widow- bereft of youth, honor, beauty, resources, health, even eyesight, yet cherishes the memory of Yusuf and waters it with her tears. He is now far above her in worldly station, as he always was above her in spiritual worth. Her humbled pride opens her spiritual eyes. She cries to him in her agony, and he listens. He knows the true from the false, and he is just. The woman whom repelled when she was in the bloom of health, youth, and beauty are restored, and they are married in pure and true love. Even so, their love was not perfect until they united their hearts in pure worship to God.
The core of the allegory is in its definition of love, – the true and the eternal as distinguished from the false and the ephemeral. Life is subject to many changes, and so is what is (ordinary called) Love among men: “One is cast down to the earth, and one is lifted on high like the glorious sun. Blessed is he who has wit to learn how the flavor of fortune may change and turn. Whose head is not raised in his high estate, nor his heart in misfortune made desolate”.
False love is only a toy for self-indulgence. Self –not the other- is the governing motive:
“When love is not perfect, with one sole, thought himself, is the heart of the lover fraught. He looks on his love as a charming toy, the spring and source of his selfish joy. One rose he would pluck from his love, a leave a hundred thorns her lone heart to grieve”.
Just as –in human affairs- there is true and false love, so in our inner and higher life, there is a divine love that transcends all human love. This is the contrast between the Al-‘ishiq al-haqiqi: and the Al-‘Ishq Al-Majazi =
“ How blest is he who can close his eye and let the vain pageants of life pass by!—Untouched by the magic of earth can keep his soul awake while the senses sleep; scorn the false and the fleeting that meet the view, and see what is hidden and firm and true!”
To the meek and lowly, who seek God’s love in sincerity and are willing to sacrifice all that the external world holds dear, God grants His love in abundant measure. For every sin, followed by repentance and right will, there is forgiveness; but for persistent pride and hardness of heart there is nothing but the abyss.
This allegory has sometimes been compared to that of Cupid and Psyche in western literature. It goes back to Greek and Roman times. Cupid (or Eros) is Love (masculine); Psyche (feminine) is the human soul. The Platonic and Neo-Platonism philosophy built up a doctrine of the human soul, caught in the snare of matter and sensuality, which must be raised up to its pristine purity by Love. The most picturesque form in which the allegory was worked up was by Apuleius (born about 125 A.D.). it forms an episode in his Latin work: [The Metamorphoses, or the Golden Ass]. Here Psyche is the human soul whom Cupid (love) carries off to a secluded spot. She is charged to check her curiosity and enjoy her bliss. Venus (earthly love) is jealous and makes Psyche break Love’s condition, whereupon Love leaves her, and she falls into servitude to Venus (carnal love). After many adventures she is restored again by Cupid (true love) and they are re-united. The allegory has attracted many modern writers, including Robert Bridges (who has translated it) and Walter Pater who has adapted it in his: Marius the Epicurean. William Morris has also introduced in his: Earthly Paradise. Among French writers whom it has attracted may be mentioned: La Fontaine the fabulist, and Moliere the dramatist. But the theme of that allegory is not as wide as the theme of the allegory of Yusuf and Zulaikha.

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