The story of Prophet Yusuf and its misconceptions

Updated on Sept 28, 2008

The story of Prophet Yusuf has generated an overwhelming amount of Muslim literature and unfortunately most of them can be described as fictional and sensational which have ultimately rendered this great Prophet as an ordinary man who could not resist the temptations of a woman. Much of these fanciful stories are derived and influenced by the biblical stories. In this short study I will discuss the most controversial verse; 12:24 which was the source of these fictional stories and misconceptions. The rendered English translation of  this verse is the most common version by Muhammad Assad and other translations vary slightly but convey the same meaning. Just to point out that I am not in favor of these translations but for the purpose of this study I will employ them first and then based on the final conclusion I will offer an alternative translation which would conform to the arrived possible meaning.

12:24 And, indeed, she desired him, and he desired her; [and he would have succumbed] had he not seen [in this temptation] an evidence of his Sustainer’s truth: thus [We willed it to be] in order that We might avert from him all evil and all deeds of abomination -for, behold, he was truly one of Our servants. (Muhammad Assad)

وَلَقَدْ هَمَّتْ بِهِ وَهَمَّ بِهَا لَوْلا أَن رَّأَى بُرْهَانَ رَبِّهِ كَذَلِكَ لِنَصْرِفَ عَنْهُ السُّوءَ وَالْفَحْشَاء إِنَّهُ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا الْمُخْلَصِينَ (12:24)

Literal meaning of the word “hamm”

According to the Arabic language, the literal meaning of the word “al-ham” are several meanings as follows:

1- It is the intent to do an act accompanied with the intention to abstain from doing it. ((1)

2-Also it is a matter which occupies the mind accompanied with distress and worry as to how you can execute the act. Or worries and sadness, distress (2)

3- Al ham is the first stage of intention to do an act. (2)

4- Derivative; ihtamma means he gave extra care to a matter. hawam means tiny insects such as lice’s in the head which causes discomfort, worries and pain. (2).

The Quran and the other uses of the word “hamm”

There are about four different places in the Quran where the term “ham” occurred. And these are as follows:

1- The  first time where the word “hamma” is used in the Quran is in 3:122, in the dual form:

3:122 Remember two of your parties Meditated cowardice هَمَّت;

Ith hammat taifatani minkum an tafshala  (3:122)

إِذْ هَمَّت طَّآئِفَتَانِ مِنكُمْ أَن تَفْشَلاَ

2- The second place where the word “ham” is used  in the Quran is in the plural form as in “hammoo” in 9:13:

“Will ye not fight a people who broke their oaths, and intended to expel the Apostle? 9:13″tr. E.H. Palmer

أَلاَ تُقَاتِلُونَ قَوْمًا نَّكَثُواْ أَيْمَانَهُمْ وَهَمُّواْ بِإِخْرَاجِ الرَّسُولِ

In this verse 9:13, we see the word “hammoo” , which is in the plural form, its meaning rendered as “intended” and not necessarily has any sexual connotation. In other translations we find it not much different from the meaning rendered here; such as, “purpose; aggressive, schemed and so on.

3- The third time where the Quran employs this word is in verse 9:74 which is in the plural form and whatever the meaning of this word, in verse 9:74, might be we see the notion of “ham” was shared among all members of the group who intended to commit an act towards the prophet as this verse reflect:

9:74 …and they had determined to execute-hammoo, a plan  which they were unable to carry out:

wa-hammoo bima lam yanaloo وَهَمُّواْ بِمَا لَمْ يَنَالُواْ (9:74)

4- And the fourth time the word “hammat” is used is in verse 40:5 which is strikingly similar to the verse in question 12:24; this verse uses the same word “hammat” as follows:

and every nation schemed against their messenger aiming to lay their hands on him“..40:5

وَهَمَّتْ كُلُّ أُمَّةٍ بِرَسُولِهِمْ لِيَأْخُذُوهُ (40:5

In verse 40:5 the word “hammat” is rendered as “schemed” and it is followed by the final desired act of the group and that is “to lay their hands on him” Now if we were to take the common adopted meaning of “hammat” as in 12:24 and that is to have a sexual connotation as suggested then this should imply that in verse 40:5 also must have the same meaning as to have a sexual connotation; such scenario is absolutely rejected. Therefore it is not appropriate to render the word “hammat” as sexual desire in verse 12:24 where it is clearly not so in verse 40:5.

Hence in all of these four cases; 3:122, 9:13, 9:74, and 40:5, the word “hamma , hammoo or hammat” did not include any sexual connotation and their meanings are; “determined to execute, Meditated, schemed and intend to do an act“. This fact should really present a concern with the common rendering of the word “hamma” in 12:24, and why is it that the word “hamma” has been taken in the context of sexual desire in 12:24 and not to be as such in other places in the Quran. This is for all of us to ponder about. Perhaps we can assume that in these verses; 3:122, 9:13, 9:74, and 40:5 there are not much sensation to dwell in where as in verse 12:24 there was such reasons to adopt their assumptions of Yusuf”s sexual possible encounters.

Quran commentators and verse 12:24

Most Quran commentators suggest that Yusuf would have succumbed had he not seen in this temptation, an evidence of his Sustainer’s truth. The word Succumbed” means “give in; surrender; submit; yield” In other words most, if not all, Quran commentators suggest that Prophet Yusuf (as) had fallen to the temptations of alaziz’s wife.  I must reiterate here is that this view is not supported by verse 12:24. After extensive examination of this verse there was nothing to suggest that Yusuf (as) actually yielded or about to yield to his master lady’s temptations in the palace. Such view by our respected scholars seems to rest on the key word “hamma” and “hammat” where they have given a sexual connotation to them. In my humble study I did not see any sexual meaning to the word “hamm” In other words Quran commentators try to extract a meaning from this verse which is not there.

Let’s see some of those great Quran commentators have to say on verse 12:24 and please keep in mind that their opinions are valuables and appreciated and they are fundamental to further contemplations but we must remember that such opinions are not conclusive. We can explore other possible meanings to the verse provided that we must follow a proper guideline of study of the Quran.

According to Muhammad Assad’s Note 23 (Quran Ref: 12:24 ), where he states:

“The interpolated phrase “and he would have succumbed”, is, according to Zamakhshari, implied in the above sentence. In his commentary on this verse, he further points out that the moral significance of “virtue” consists in one’s inner victory over a wrongful desire, and not in the absence of such a desire. Cf. the well-known saying of the Prophet, recorded, on the authority of Abu Hurayrah, by Bukhari and Muslim: “God, exalted be He, says: ‘If a servant of Mine [merely] desires to do a good deed, I shall count this [desire] as a good deed; and if he does it, I shall count it tenfold. And if he desires to commit a bad deed, but does not commit it, I shall count this as a good deed, seeing that he refrained from it only for My sake…”‘ -i.e., in consequence of a moral consideration (which, in the present instance, is described as “an evidence of God’s truth”

And according to albaidawi commentary(3); he states that: “the notion of “Yusuf’s ham-desire or intent to approach her” is his intention to commit the act of sexual attraction which is driven by his natural predispositions and the natural struggle of his “shahwa-innate sexual desire toward the opposite sex” but this natural inclination is not driven by his free will, which commands such intention to commit the act. Such intended act is not under the fold of the moral obligations of man. In fact in reality it is obligatory to say that man deserves commending and merits a reward and blessing from Allah if he abstains from committing an evil act when he is ready or has the willingness of committing this act; it is like you say “I have killed him had I not have feared Allah

But Almizan (4) reject such opinion and he indicates that: “such opinion is in clear conflict with whatever has been established by the Arabic language in relationship to the literal meanings of the word “al-ham” that is the “intent to commit an act” which is related to various manifested acts; such acts include a physical movement towards committing that desired act or at least it include some minimum physical activities precedes the final intended act but it may falls short from completing the intended act; for example if you intend to beat up someone, you first attempt to make a small actual, physical move towards the man you intend to hit but you abstain from completing the act of the physical beating for some perceived reason. This follows that by suggesting that the meaning of “al-ham” is in reference to the notion of man’s inner innate nature struggle and his sexual predispositions; this notion cannot be called “al-ham” Furthermore, “al-ham” in its literal meaning has a negative connotation which may not be emanated from a Prophet of God. Where as the natural innate nature has not such negative connotations for it is not subjected to any moral obligations and it can not be called “ham”

Looking closely at these opinions which represent a cross section of both Muslim school of thoughts; Sunni and Shi’a, we find those opinions somehow meet even though they vary slightly. All of them rest on the assumption that Yusuf have yieldedو or could have yielded to the wife of al’aziz’s temptations had he not seen the evidence of his Lord. Or some imply that Yusuf inner sexual feelings towards her do not fall within the moral obligations of Man towards God’s teachings because, they say , those feelings, if they existed emanated from his innate nature and not from his weakness. However I do not seem to see any of these scenarios and possibilities in this particular verse because this verse did not allude to the notion of the inner feelings of both sides rather it alluded to the psychological worrisome of both sides, Yusuf and his lady master, as I will explain below.

What did really happen in the palace of al’aziz’s wife?

What really happen inside the palace is certainly not a clear cut case because the Quran did not go into details but it had touched upon the events very briefly and concisely which would enable us to draw some reasonable accounts of what really happen. Some of the important aspects of the affairs were very brilliantly alluded to the point that we can actually feel and experience the powerful sexually charged atmosphere which she had created to lure Prophet Yusuf. The verse mentioned how she wanted to trap him into the room for herself, as stated in 12:23; “and she had over bolted the doors“. And she invited herself to him: 12:23 Come thou unto me!” ;  هَيْتَ لَكَ

Thus far, it is fair to say that the meaning of the word “hamma” dose not necessarily have a sexual connotation. Therefore I believe that the best scenario to be adopted here is that Yusuf had attempted to protect himself from her and she had attempted to gain control over him. In such case horrible consequences may have resulted in the process of self defense. Hence Yusuf were saved from the consequences of his anticipated attempt to avoid her which may have included some physical activities on his part to free himself from her. Such physical attempt of Yusuf against her to free himself, is classified by the verse as “al su’a– or evil “. It is worth noting here that the term “alsu’a” which is employed in this verse does not signify sexual activities or feelings and usually it signifies a bad action such as, physical quarrel, verbal abuse due to anger, or things of that nature. Such scenario would have caused some serious consequences against Yusuf but he was saved from such consequences particularly the consequences of him avoiding her attempt to gain control of him. Such attempts, on the part of alaziz’s wife, is classified as “al fa’hisha– or repugnant acts”. In simple words; his attempt was defined as “alsu’a-evil” and her attempt was defined as “al fa’hisha-repugnant act”

In addition we see that both terrible situations that is “all evil-alsu’a and all deeds of abomination-alfa’hisha” are being averted away from him and not he is averted away from them by Allah. This follows that this suggested repugnant act-fa’hisha which was potentially committed by the woman of al’aziz, and the unintended evil consequences which potentially may have been resulted in the process of self defense of Yusuf against his attacker, the wife of al’aziz– as it had occurred to Prophet Moses when he aided his friend which resulted in killing his opponent- both scenarios which may have occurred in the palace, were not caused by him nor emanated from him rather they were emanated from her and directed towards him. In other words, the “alsu’a-evil” scenario may have occurred as a result of provocation by the wife of alaziz against Yusuf. And the repugnant act or alfa’hisha is emanated from the wife of alaziz. Hence Yusuf in reality is not responsible for both scenarios that is “all evil-alsu’a, and all deeds of abomination-alfa’hisha”. Furthermore it seems Yusuf was able to avoid all of the evil consequences of both scenarios, as mentioned, by his own efforts and reliance on God, as stated in:

had he not seen an evidence of his Sustainer’s truth لَوْلا أَن رَّأَى بُرْهَانَ رَبِّهِ

This part of verse truly signify the greatness of Yusuf and his special status in the grand schemes of things and his awareness of his true reality in relationship to the Glory of God and the universal principle of existence. This notion can be seen in the concept that Yusuf had initiated the process of seeing the evidence of Allah and not the other way around. In another word Allah did not make or enabled him see His evidence through some kind of divine intervention. Otherwise the Quranic words should have been something like this “ We have made him to see our evidence or We have enabled him to see our evidence” or some words along these lines. But the actual wording of the verse refer to a wonderful fact that is seeing the evidence of Allah was initiated and achieved in the absolute sense by Yusuf which was the main reason for Allah SW to averting evil and repugnant acts from him as indicated by the following statement:

“thus that is how We might avert from him all evil (alsoo’a) and all deeds of abomination (alfa’hsha’a)” كَذَلِكَ لِنَصْرِفَ عَنْهُ السُّوءَ وَالْفَحْشَاء

Averting evil from him is the true acknowledgment and appreciation of the Beloved towards his lover. Allah is saying here that is how he repays his sincere devotees and followers should they maintain the principle of unity within them at all given times, at ease and hardship. Allah is telling us that He is prepared to subjugate and manipulate all natural laws; in nature and in ourselves to serve us and protect us from an inevitable evil and acts of abominations. This means that Yusuf’s sexual innate nature was protected and may have been made unresponsive to the enticing invitation of al’aziz’s wife at her palace. Such intervention was seen in the case of the fire of Nemrood which had engulfed our Prophet Ibrahim but God had commanded the fire to be cold and safe upon Ibrahim. So it is very possible that the fire of the human sexual desire in the case of Yusuf in such difficult circumstances, may have been dealt with by Allah’s command for Yusuf‘s sincere efforts in seeking refuge in Allah at these crucial moments upon her sexual invitation when she said:

“12:23 Come thou unto me!” هَيْتَ لَكَ

And the powerful response of Yusuf, at this precise moment of her invitation, was in reality a sincere plea to the only deity which really occupies his mind at all moments when he said:

May God preserve me! قَالَ مَعَاذَ اللّهِ

Yusuf’s plea consist of two words only, in the Arabic, but it represent a extraordinary distressed message from one of God’s sincere servants. This message has traveled faster than the speed of our physical light rather it has traveled in the speed of the Beloved’s light and the response was swift and saved Yusuf from the inevitable consequences of such difficult experience. The divine response was stated in:

“thus that is how We might avert from him all evil (alsu’a) and all deeds of abomination(alfa’hsha’a)” كَذَلِكَ لِنَصْرِفَ عَنْهُ السُّوءَ وَالْفَحْشَاء

Did Prophet Yusuf (as) desired the wife of al’aziz of Egypt

It is worth noting here is that the term “hammat bihi– she attempted towards him” is mentioned twice with each one of them. In other words if we were to accept the common suggested notion regarding this word “hammat” to be “sexual desire” then this follows also that Yusuf has shared this sexual desire due to his natural sexual innate nature; as suggested. Therefore if these sexual feelings are shared by both of them then the word “hammat” should have been mentioned once in the dual form as in “hammaa” with the letter “alif” at the end or in the plural form as in “wa-hammoo biba’ath” or “they desired each other”.

But regarding verse 12:24 the word “ham” were used twice separately with each one of them. This follows that the word “ham” in each one of them is different from the other one. If it was the same type of “ham” or sexual desire on both parties then it should not have been mentioned twice as in “she desired him and he desired her” or it should have been something like “they desired each other” which is more appropriate linguistically. But these two separate suggested desires ought to be different types of desires essentially. It may not necessarily mean as sexual desire rather it could be a desire to do a necessary act to achieve a desired purpose. And their ultimate purposes are different from each other. In her case she intended to gain a full control over him after he refused her invitation. So first she attempted towards him to subdue him and then ultimately she could have achieve her goal of fornication, where as his “ham” or desire is to free himself from her and ultimately avoid any evil act as a consequences of this difficult situation. It is also clear from the testimony of the wife of al’aziz which clearly stated that Yusuf did not desire her nor has any sexual feelings nor he responded to her invitation, whether by virtue of his weakness or by virtue of his sexual innate nature, which can be seen from her testimony when she said in his defense that “he sought a divine shield” as it is stated:

12:32 ..I did try to make him yield himself unto me, but he sought a divine shield.

وَلَقَدْ رَاوَدتُّهُ عَن نَّفْسِهِ فَاسَتَعْصَم(12:32

Thus far some one may ask that if according to what is established above that Yusuf (as) did not desire this woman in a sexual way despite all of the suitable circumstances to awaken the sexual desire of any Man and may break down his will, that then it may lead to the assumption that I am suggesting that Yusuf is impotent and he could not response naturally to the powerful temptations he experienced in the palace alone with his lady master. The answer to this is absolutely NO; Yusuf was not impotent and I am not suggesting this at all. What I am saying here is that this verse did not allude to this aspect of these circumstances rather it alluded to what occupied Yusuf mind in respect to how he could deal with the temptations and avoid the harm-alsu’a السوء,  and immoral consequences, and on the other hand it alluded to what had occupied the mind of the woman that is to gain control over him; no more than that. So as far as Yusuf sexual abilities it was not discussed nor alluded to in this verse at all.

Based on whatever is discussed so far I am offering a legitimate alternative translation of verse 12:24 as follows:

12:24 And, indeed, she attempted against him(to subdue him) هَمَّتْ بِه ِand he attempted against her وَهَمَّ بِهَا (in self defense); had he not seen an evidence of his Sustainer thus [We willed it to be] in order that We might avert from him all evil and all deeds of abomination -for, behold, he was truly one of Our selected ones.

May Allah forgive me if I had erred in this presentation and Allah knows of intentions here and that is to truly shed some light on the misconceptions of this sensational story of Yusuf alaihiassalm and Allah knows best.



(1) almizan see note 4 below. And for M.H. Fadtlaah, he is known as allama Muhamm Hussain Fadlalallah who is currently living in Lebanon; of a Lebanese origin and graduate of the renown religious Muslim school of the Shi’a Muslim sect, in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq.

(2) almisbah almunir by alfayoomy; an Arabic dictionary.

(3) albaidtawi Quran commentary-anwar altanzeel wa asrar alta’weel- انوار التنزيل واسرار التأويل pub. 791 هجريHijri; translated by Adill Hissan

(4) almizan Quran commentary by allama Muhammad Hussain tabataba’i of the 20th Centuray; one of the most renoun Muslim scholars of Iran and he is the most recognized philosophers of the 20th century.

3 thoughts on “The story of Prophet Yusuf and its misconceptions”

  1. Very interesting and elaborate explanation. I personally have heard many scholars speak on this issue. The “writers” you quote have it in their best interest to explain things from a point of perfection for a Prophet. That is to say, they reject the idea that a Prophet would err. Even Prophet Muhammad pbuh erred. (‘Abasa wa tawalla).

    Therefore, the view I have of those who explained it is different and is not based on my own deductions. Maybe Allah swt wanted us to see His wisdom in a Prophet so desirable to women as Yusuf was, that he may have fallen into such temptation as well just so that we may learn the lesson.. the lesson for which we realize that Allah’s mercy and forgiveness is tenfold when we abstain from such intentions.

    The struggle is within all of us. The level of one’s iman is the shield against a bad intent. Yusuf, therefore may have indeed “hamma” (or the intention crossed his mind) to do this but very quickly, because of Allah’s blessings and his (Yusuf’s) ‘awakening” from this passing desire, he was saved.

    After all, the hadith is clear: that one of the people who is in the “shade” of Allah on the day of judgment is one who was “invited” by a beautiful woman to fulfill a sexual desire yet he abstained by remembering Allah and stating that “he fears Allah, Lord of the Universe.”

    Allah knows best.




  2. Waalaikum asslam ATW

    Thank you for your input. This issue of the infallibility of prophets is very controversial and debatable. In short I hold the view that a prophet of God is very much capable of committing sins but they choose not to because of their pure souls and they are continuously on clear evidence of their Lord; as the Quran stated in many verses; so in the case of prophet Yusuf, his experience of God’s glory is ever present before his eyes and within his heart and whatever the temptations are they shall not compromise such glory and beauty. However in future postings I may expand on this issue.

    Allah knows best

    Thank you again.




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