"Friday Sermon" Series: The "Best of Stories"


In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful

Praise be to the Most Precious, I am launching the occasional “Friday Sermon” series. I have been blessed to give the sermon at Friday prayers at various mosques in the Chicago area. Many of the sermons I have given were either blog posts before the sermon or became blog posts after the sermon. Every once in a while, I will publish the sermon I either have given or will give on this blog. I would like to do it every Friday, but: (1) I don’t give the sermon every week, and (2) I don’t have that kind of free time.

But, I will try my best to do publish sermons on the Fridays in which I give them. Today, God willing, I will talk about the story of the Prophet Joseph (pbuh).

Joseph (pbuh) was mentioned by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as the best of people, because he is the noble one, son of the noble one, who was son of the noble one, who was the son of the noble one. In other words, he is Joseph son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. He is a prophet with a father, grandfather, and great grandfather who were also prophets. What better lineage than this?

And his story was mentioned by the Qur’an as the best of stories: “We narrate unto thee the best of stories…” (12:3) Yet, I am not going to start at the beginning of the story, as is customary when story telling. Rather, I am going to skip ahead to the part of the story which is of utmost importance in our day and age.

The Qur’an says (all verses are italicized): When he attained maturity, We gave him wisdom and knowledge. That is how We recompense those who do good. But she whose house he was in tried to seduce him against his will…

Joseph, as most people know, was thrown into a well by his jealous brothers when he was a young boy. A caravan came by and found him, subsequently selling him into slavery to the “Prime Minister” of Egypt. Now, Joseph (pbuh) was absolutely gorgeous. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was reported to have said in a hadith that Joseph (pbuh) was given half of all beauty. And the Minister’s wife was also beautiful and wealthy. So, her attempt to seduce him was an enormous temptation and test for the young prophet.

She shut the doors and said, “Come!” He said, “I take refuge in God; for my master has made my abode agreeable. Surely oppressors will not succeed.”

Now, there are two ways the Arabic can be read: the word rabbee can mean – as is currently translated – “my master,” meaning the Prime Minister. Yet, it can also mean my Lord, i.e., God, as well, and one could translate the verse as: I take refuge in God; for my Lord has made my abode agreeable. Surely oppressors will not succeed. Each translation is an equally eloquent reason for his refusal of her evil request.

Yet, she was not deterred. She continued to press for him to sleep with her. In fact, as was noted by a scholar, for this woman to come to the point of forcing herself on him, she must have been contemplating this for a long time. She had seen Joseph (pbuh) in all of his beauty for years in her own house, and he was also seeing her. So, this was an ongoing temptation; it did not come out of nothing.

Yet she did desire him, and he desired her but for the fact that he saw evidence of his Lord. Thus it was, so that we might divert evil and indecencies from him; for he was one of Our purified servants.

Some scholars have said that his desire for her was transient, because he “saw evidence of his Lord.” Yet, others have said – and I like this opinion better – that he did not desire her at all, because of his seeing “evidence of his Lord.” It is like saying, “I would have fallen had my brother not stopped me.” Did I fall? No. The same with Joseph (pbuh).

Yet, she would not take “no” for an answer. She continued to push for Joseph (pbuh) to commit evil with her, so he ran away from her:

The two raced to the door, and she tore his shirt from behind. And they found her husband at the door. She said, “What is the due of one who desires evil of your wife, but imprisonment or torture?”

She yelled “rape” to cover her sin. And everyone would have believed her and not Joseph (pbuh), because she is of the nobility, and he is a servant. Joseph (pbuh) told him the truth:

He said, “She tried to seduce me.”

How can this be proven? God sent a witness from her family to prove his innocence:

And a witness from her household testified, “If his shirt is torn from the front, then she is telling the truth and he is a liar. But is his shirt is torn from the back, then she is lying, and he is telling the truth.”

They all looked and right away knew the truth: Joseph (pbuh) was innocent.

Se when he looked at the shirt, it was torn from the back; he [the Prime Minister] said, “This was a trick of you women. Your trick is serious indeed! Joseph, turn away from this. And you, wife, seek forgiveness for your sin; it was you who were in the wrong.”

The reaction of the Prime Minister was as surprising as it was cold and nonchalant. He simply told Joseph (pbuh) to not talk about this incident, and he told his wife (who tried to cheat on him with their servant) to ask forgiveness. He wanted this potentially embarrassing incident from becoming a scandal. But a scandal it became.

Women in the city said, “The wife of the grandee is trying to seduce her manservant; he has infatuated her. We see she’s in obvious error.”

When she heard this gossip, the wife of the Minister became angry, and she decided to teach them a lesson:

Now when she heard of their conniving, she sent for them and prepared them a banquet; she gave each of them a knife, then told Joseph to come out before them. Now when they saw him, the praised him, and they cut their hands; and they said, “God forbid! This is not a human being; this is no less than a noble angel!”

Now, there is something that is glaringly missing from the translation, and there is nothing that can be done about it. The word in Arabic – translated as “cut their hands” – is qatta’na. It means that they continually cut their hands. They were so enchanted by Joseph’s (pbuh) beauty, that they cut their hands over and over again.

“Here you have the one about whom you censured me,” she said. “I did try to seduce him, but he resisted.”

She admitted her guilt.

And if her does not do what I order him to, he will be imprisoned and will be one of the despised.”

Now, she threatens Joseph (pbuh) will jail if he does not sleep with her. And this time, the women of the city who continually cut their hands are pushing him to do it. Let us stop here and reflect over this situation: here is Joseph (pbuh), a beautiful young man who is being seduced by a beautiful, wealthy woman. She is threatening him with jail if he does not commit adultery with her. And jails in ancient Egypt did not have cable TV, basketball hoops, and the like. They were terrible places. All he had to do was to give in to a request for something that is pleasurable to the flesh. Yet, what was Joseph’s (pbuh) response:

He [Joseph] said, “My Lord, prison is preferable to me to what they are inviting me to; and unless You divert their cunning from me, I would be attracted to them, and would behave foolishly too.”

Unbelievable! He would rather go to jail than commit adultery with a beautiful and wealthy woman. So, the Lord answered his prayer:

So his Lord answered him, diverting their cunning from him. For God is the all-hearing, the all-knowing. Then it occurred to the men, after they had seen the signs, that they should imprison him for a while.

He went to jail even though he was innocent. This part of the story, to me, is perhaps the most important. It shows how evil the sin of adultery is. It is so evil that Joseph (pbuh) preferred the pain of jail than the pleasure of sex, simply because God forbids sex outside of the bond of marriage.

In our day and age, the attitude toward sex outside of marriage – whether pre-marital or extra-marital – is so lax. “Who cares?” many people feel; they were “two consenting adults.” And this attitude has, unfortunately, seeped into the Muslim community. Well, God cares. He cares a lot:

And do not approach adultery, for it is an abomination and an evil way. (17:32)

It is a big deal; always has been, always will be. When President Clinton revealed that he cheated on his wife, everyone made a big deal that he lied about it. He was actually impeached by Congress for it! But, amid the whole Lewinski scandal, there were very few people who raised the objection that he cheated on his wife; that is what bothered me the most about the whole thing.

So, let this story be a reminder to all of us. Sexuality and sexual relations are a beautiful thing; they are a gift and mercy of God. But they are to be enjoyed only within the bonds of marriage. That is what God says, and whatever God says, goes.

Yet, there is one thing we must always remember: if someone were to make this, or any other, mistake, all is not lost. God is Oft-Forgiving, and Most Merciful. His forgiveness falls like a cool, spring rain, cleaning and refreshing our souls like the rain cleans and refreshes the earth. All we have to do is ask for it.

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