Jami's Yusuf and Zulaikha:

A Study in the Method of

Appropriation of Sacred Text


David Beutel
March 14, 1997
Prof. Robert Gregg
Peoples of the Book
Religious Studies 121

   The interpretation and appropriation of religious texts has been an important part of the traditions of the Peoples of the Book: Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Because each of these religious communities is organized around a sacred text, their interpretation of that text serves as the continual, ongoing process for the communities to reappropriate and better understand the content of their faiths. Once an oral tradition is reduced to writing and the text becomes relatively fixed, interpretation and exegesis of that text then informs the life of the community. A comparison of the Joseph/Yusuf stories in the three traditions suggests at least eight common types of interpretations or embellishments: those that 1) resolve conflicting narrative elements, 2) complete narrative gaps, 3) answer narrative questions raised by the text, 4) answer moral questions raised by the text, 5) use similar passages from other sacred writ to cast greater light on the passage in question, 6) draw out moral lessons, 7) make dogmatic points, and 8) justify later ritual practice and socio-political norms. Often substantial additions to a textual tradition increase the entertainment value of the story, but this virtually never occurs without another motivation, for example, moral exhortation. The first five types of interpretation deal with understanding the text itself, while the last three aim at using the text to meet the later needs of the communityís doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and socio-political needs-to appropriate compelling meaning for life from the text.

The Joseph/Yusuf story has been especially popular in Persia. The most famous version was written in verse by Hakim Nuruddin Abdurrahman Jami (1414-1492), a Sufi. Jamiís classic text, Yusuf and Zulaikha (1483), is an excellent example of how a religious community takes a story from its sacred text and appropriates it in a religio-socio-cultural setting different from the one in which the original was written. Underlying Jamiís epic poem, are numerous traditions, starting with those in the Muslim holy book, the Qurían, which were synthesized, reworked, enlarged, interpreted, and reinterpreted, in the eight centuries between Muhammed and Jami. By analyzing the way these traditions were incorporated into Yusuf and Zulaikha, we will gain a better appreciation for how Peoples of the Book appropriate meaning from a sacred text.

To be able to appreciate and analyze Jamiís work, we must first learn some of the teachings of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Sufism traces its roots to the Prophet Muhammedís esoteric teachings, which he gave to his close followers while he was receiving the revelation of the Qurían. The teachings have been passed down, generation-by-generation through a initiatic chain of shaykhs (Glasse 376). Sufis differ considerably in specific beliefs, so most of the following will describe Jamiís Sufism, which follows the pattern of the "Mysticism of Infinity" (Schimmel 5).

As a mystic of infinity, the Sufi seeks absorption or dissolution of the self into the transcendent Absolute. This goal has been compared with the vanishing of a drop of water into the ocean (Schimmel 5). Since the self has no absolute existence, but only appears to be independent of the Absolute, Sufis seek to have their vestiges effaced and their essences annihilated by the essence of Allah, so that even their traces are "lost in anotherís traces" (Fatemi 40). The subsequent non-existence of the self is portrayed in this aphorism:

"Somebody asked Abu Hafs: ĎWho is a Sufi?í He answered: ĎA Sufi does not ask who a Sufi isí" (Schimmel 2). The Sufi is not, so the question is nonsense.

The method Sufism uses to achieve this non-existence springs from its view of the world as a limited reality, behind which stands the Absolute, the ultimate reality we are to seek. A well-known maxim of the Sufis says that "the apparent is the bridge to the real," i.e. by experiencing the objects of the world, we may pass through them to get at the Absolute. However, the phenomenal world is not, for the Sufis, complete illusion of no consequence, as some Buddhists and Vedanists suggest (Jami 170, Qurían 592). No, this world "is neither wholly real nor wholly unreal: it is provisional, relative, an allegory from which reality may be inferred-ían intricately written page, in which perceptive spirits can decipher the handiwork of the pure and living Godí" (Jami 170, 71). The wise will use this world of limited existence, of forms and appearances, as a bridge or means of reaching the Absolute. Jami adds, "Cross that bridge as quickly as you can" (Jami 6). The unwise, which constitute the majority of humanity, are trapped by their desires, lingering long on the bridge of appearances, "asleep, concerned only with what is useless, living in a wrong world [and] . . . upside down in relation to reality," as Sanai of Afghanistan wrote in 1131 (Shah vii). Jami hopes his telling of the Yusuf story will wake up his readers to this state of reality.

According to Sufism, the primary vehicle for crossing this bridge is love. In the introduction to Yusuf and Zulaikha, Jami describes a potential disciple, a seeker, who came to ask a sage for guidance on the Sufi way of life and was told, "If you have never trodden the path of love, go away and fall in love; then come back and see us" (Jami 6). Carnal love, because it is a physical allegory for a spiritual truth-love of the Infinite, must initiate the Sufi path (though when carnal love leads to sin, this is a hindrance to devotion-Jami 80). Love in its earthly guise must precede supreme Truth just as learning the alphabet must precede reading the Qurían (Jami 6). According to Jami, "knowingly or unknowingly, every heart that loves is in love with [Absolute beauty, i.e. God] alone" (Jami 5). So, whenever someone loves another person and feels their captive heart trembling, they do so because behind that person is the Absolute, who "quickens the heart and fills the soul with rapture" (Jami 5). The object of oneís love, oneself, and other people are all mirrors in which the essence of God is reflected. Since people are also bundles of lust, the quality of their reflection of Beauty varies considerably-which is why people should clean their mirrors of the rust of desires, forgetting their existence (Jami 2). This view of what life means and how it is to be lived-the Sufi path-are the basis for Jamiís interpretation of the Yusuf story.

Now, we approach Jamiís text. Structurally, Jami has organized his poem into three main parts, a Prologue, a Narrative, and an Epilogue. Within the narrative, Jami frequently interrupts the story with commentary, usually just a few sentences long, but occasionally as long as two or three paragraphs. In his commentary, Jami sometimes addresses his audience, sometimes addresses himself, but most often simply gives several statements or rhetorical questions pertinent to the surrounding narrative which intimate its mystical meaning. This commentary provides clear guidance for comprehension of the Sufi allegorical meaning at every point, yet often leaves the readers/listeners to make the connections for themselves. Jami has localized most of his Sufi material in the Prologue, the Epilogue, and the narrative commentary. Were these three parts of the text removed-about one-fifth of the text-the Sufi message would be almost completely lost. In other words, one could almost read the story without suspecting it was a Sufi allegory.

In comparison to the Quríannic version of the Yusuf story (Surah XII), Yusuf and Zulaikha tells a radically different story. In the Qurían, Zulaikha is never mentioned by name and appears in only eleven verses (Qurían XII.23-32, 51). In Jamiís version of the Yusuf story, she is the main character-even more important thematically and narratively than Yusuf. By comparison, Yusuf is a flat, two-dimensional character with whom it is difficult if not impossible to empathize. The second half of the story (Qurían XII.57-111) has no parallel at all in Yusuf and Zulaikha, and Jami does not mention Yusufís family again after the brothers sell Yusuf to the Midianities. Jami uses the Quríannic narrative only inasmuch as is necessary to explain how Yusuf arrived in Egypt. The overwhelming majority of Jamiís material is thus unrelated to the Qurían at all.

Looking over Jamiís poem, the important initial question arises, Is Jami working with a pre-existent narrative tradition that was originally unrelated to Sufism? If so, are his Prologue, Epilogue, and commentary the only means he uses to interpret Sufi meaning into the text? There is no clear internal evidence to fully answer these questions. Exactly how much is purely original, besides the Prologue, Epilogue, and commentary is difficult to determine. However, at several places in the text, Jami alludes to a pre-existent tradition: "the poet tells us . . ." (Jami 13), "the narrator of this sweet story tells us . . ." (Jami 60), "the gardener who marked out the flowerbeds of this ancient tale . . ." (Jami 71), the "architects of this narrative edifice tell us . . ." (Jami 77), and the "eloquent narrator of this mystical tale now reveals. . ." (Jami 81). Jamiís use of the word "us" and the word "architects" (plural) indicates that he is not simply speaking of himself in the third person, i.e. that there is a pre-existent tradition. However, since these are the only times he makes any reference to such a tradition, can we infer that only the sections immediately following are pre-existent; or can we infer that these comments should be understood more broadly? Since the romance of Yusuf and Zulaikha was a popular story in Persia even before Jamiís time, it is likely that he received at least the majority of the narrative. His last allusion to the tradition above refers to it as a "mystical tale," so probably the received tradition had been developed by and for Sufis. There is some internal evidence that this is the case. The story of Bazigha, for example, is part of the narrative and has explicit Sufi meaning. In another example within the narrative, Jami relates that Zulaikha dreamt with her fleshy eyes closed but with the eyes of her heart open (Jami 14); in Sufism, it is the "eye of the heart" which sees the "supraformal essence" (GlassИ 377) . In the case of Bazigha, however, the episode may be lifted out of the narrative with no loss of continuity; so it may be that this mystical pericope was Jamiís (or his Sufi predecessorsí) original composition. In the "eyes of the heart" example, it is unclear whether Jami redacted this or not. Particular examples such as these are unlikely to help us much here. Nevertheless, when taken as a whole, the ease with which the narrative adapts itself to mystical allegory suggests strongly that either Jami received a mystical tradition or that he himself invented most of it. Since the latter is contradicted by the explicit references described above, he most likely received at least a very great deal of a pre-existent Sufi tradition. That this is the case is supported by A. Yusuf Aliís statement that, "In almost all Islamic languages the romance of Yusuf and Zulaikha has justly attracted much attention in mystic poetry" (Qurían 594). So, what was Jamiís level of actively shaping the tradition? At the very least, his Prologue, Epilogue, and commentary, all exhibiting his distinctive gentle, didactic style, can be attributed to Jami. As for the rest, we should understand that our descriptions of Jamiís work may actually refer to earlier writers developing the tradition which Jami, with his poetic and literary brilliance, reduced to an enduring text.

Now we will work our way through Jamiís text, drawing attention to and analyzing whatever interpretive elements we encounter. Jami opens his poem with worship and prayer, then provides some crucial interpretive information about love as the necessary means of release from oneself. He also outlines Sufi metaphysics to explain how the appearances (which veil the Absolute) came into being. At the end of the Prologue, he gives an important interpretive clue which will be helpful in our analysis: "Never was there a beloved to compare with Yusuf, whose beauty exceeded that of all others [and] . . . Among lovers none was ever the equal of Zulaikha, [who] . . . never ceased to devote herself to love: she was born, she lived, and she died-in love" (Jami 7-8). Many exaggerated elements of the narrative should be understood according to this clue, namely the superlative nature of Zulaikha and Yusuf as lover and beloved. Since his poem is an allegory of the soulís pursuit of union with the Absolute, it is fitting that Jami superlativizes his main characters in as many ways as possible.

At the beginning of the narrative portion of the text, Jami recounts that at the creation of the world, Adam choose to have two-thirds of all the beauty destined for mankind allotted to Yusuf. This is precisely the kind of exaggeration alluded to in the previous paragraph and which will recur throughout the story. From this detail, we are to understand that Yusufís beauty surpasses our experience and see him as an appropriate symbol of divine Beauty in contingent form. Jami includes a brief account of the succession of divine messengers of revelation from Adam to Jacob, to provide narrative continuity from the Sufi creation account in the Prologue to the time of Yusuf and to advance the Muslim doctrine of the prophets. Next comes a short pericope about Yusufís aunt and a stratagem she employs with a belt. This tradition, also in al-Tabari (al-Tabari 148-149), seems extraneous to Jamiís text. Unlike al-Tabari, he does not link it to the cryptic passage in the Qurían which it explains. Moreover, it is not necessary for the continuity of the story and Jami makes no Sufi point about it. This is one of the very few extraneous sections of Jamiís entire poem. He probably included it because it was a familiar and perhaps popular part of the tradition he received.

Jami continues the narrative with a description of Zulaikhaís background and how she comes to in Egypt. It is unclear why the tradition that Zulaikha comes from a faraway Western kingdom developed, but Jami tells us he received this tradition from another poet, and he makes no Sufi point from it. After relating Zulaikhaís dream of a Yusuf-like apparition (he avoids saying that the apparition is of Yusuf, probably to avoid the problem of why the apparition lies to her-falsely claiming to be the Vizier of Egypt), Jami describes her total obsession with desire for him. Jami then interrupts the narrative with commentary to insure that his audience does not miss the mystical meaning:

[Zulaikha] stopped short of grasping the true significance of her experience. If only she had been aware of that deeper meaning, she would have numbered among those who have joined the path of Truth; but being captivated by the outward form, she was oblivious at first to the underlying reality. All of us are like Zulaikha: slaves of opinion and victims of appearances. If reality did not peep out from behind appearances how should the sincere of heart ever reach the fashioner of appearances? (Jami 15).

Most of Jamiís commentary resembles this one. He calls the readersí attention to a specific event just related, insures that they realize it has a deeper meaning, then explains what that deeper meaning is. This style of storytelling, i.e. recounting an event, alluding to its latent "signs for Seekers (after Truth)" (Qurían XII.7), and explaining that meaning, resembles that found in the Qurían. In comparison with the Qurían, though, Jami is much more explicit in outlining the specific meaning he wants to be drawn from the story. Perhaps Jami anticipates that he and others will use the poem in public recitation for entertainment and education. Since this would likely involve the young and the uneducated, perhaps this explains why he is so explicit about the storyís spiritual meaning.

Jami continues with straightforward narrative about Zulaikhaís dream, interrupting with commentary at several points to remark on the single-mindedness of the lover and the all-consuming power of love, as exemplified in Zulaikha. Several more short episodes, follow, drawing such points as the good fortune of the lover who forgets the cares of the world. In the next few episodes, Zulaikha dreams of Yusuf again, experiences increasing heartache, and becomes betrothed to the Vizier of Egypt (who she mistakenly thinks is the man from her dreams). Jami makes his mystical points-that love humbles reason and wisdom and that we mistakenly let illusory dreams and fantasies determine our joys and griefs-in commentary. In a very important scene at the end of this section, Jami introduces Sufism directly into the narrative (since the episode is not crucial to the narrativeís continuity, though, its localization in the narrative and not the commentary suggests very little about its origin). Zulaikha reaches an apex of grief and declares, "At the sight of you, I shall become non-existent [and] . . . totally absorbed in ecstasy. It will no longer be myself that you see occupying my body: the soul animating that body will be yours. All idea of personality will be put aside" (Jami 37). The reader is to understand though, that Zulaikha is misled, that she is still trapped in the world of appearances, not comprehending the ultimate object of her passion. An important theme in all these episodes of Zulaikhaís passion is that love is difficult and messy and slow, but it frees us precisely by these means because it breaks our attachments to and desires for this illusory world of shadows. Thus heartbrokenness is good. Jami writes, "The heart which is free of lovesickness is not a heart at all; the body bereft of the pangs of love is nothing but clay and water. . . . let not a heart escape [loveís] sweet torments" (Jami 6). Zulaikha, we are to understand, is being refined by the sufferings of love on the Sufi path to Truth. She will be refined, too, for Jami foretells it: "we shall bring her the cure of union with the beloved" (Jami 39). Though Jami foretells the union, he leaves answered the question, "how will union with the beloved cure her, if she is trapped in illusions?" His unanswered question draws the audience further into the story.

The next section of the poem recounts Yusufís background and how he comes to Zulaikhaís household. The virtual independence of the Yusuf and Zulaikha tradition from the Qurían is demonstrated in that this is the first instance (one-third of the way through the story) of a parallel passage between the two. The account of Josephís dream in the two traditions is very similar, though Jami (or the tradition Jami is using) adds commentary on how quickly secrets spread in order to explain how the brothers became so upsets at Yusuf after his father tells him not to disclose his dream to them (the Qurían leaves a significant narrative gap at this point). On reflection, it may actually be more likely that the tradition about gossip originated in a non-Sufi environment, especially since the Yusuf and Zulaikha tradition as a whole shows little concern for explaining literal level problems in the Qurían (more on this later). In the midst of the narrative about the brothersí treatment of Yusuf, Jami inserts a paragraph of commentary on "true men of generosity [who have] escaped from self" (Jami 42), apparently as a foil to emphasize the brothersí bondage to jealousy and self-seeking greed, which will keep them far from the Sufi path. The additions about the brothers beating Yusuf after they are out of Jacobís sight intensify the picture of the brothers as base creatures. Other additions include Yusufís presence transforming the stinking water and air in the well (signifies his prophethood), Gabriel delivering the message of comfort (which answers the question left by the Quríannic account as to how God put the message into Yusufís heart), the mention of the Midianites (the Qurían does not identify which travelers rescued Yusuf from the well), and the account of the brothers "roaming around in the neighborhood" and demanding payment for Yusuf from the man who rescued him (which attempts to bridge the disjunction in the Qurían between the brothers abandoning Yusuf in the well and their selling him for a paltry sum). Interestingly, in the last addition, Jami omits the entire episode of the brothers going to tell their father Yusuf is dead. This is yet another indication of just how independent the Quríannic and the Yusuf and Zulaikha traditions are. Jami probably omits the scene because by doing so he eliminates narrative tension, and more importantly, because it is completely extraneous-even distracting-to the story he wants to tell about Yusuf and Zulaikha. His only purpose in this rather brief section (only eight pages) is to explain how Yusuf comes to be sold from his home in Canaan. All the additions listed above, or very similar traditions to them, are found in al-Tabari (839-923). It is not surprising that these traditions originated so early because they are about purely literal-level exegesis and have no real value for the Sufi allegorical interpretation. Since Jami and the mystics involved in the Yusuf and Zulaikha tradition before him were operating fairly independently of the Qurían, and looking to the stories for spiritual meaning and not literal meaning, it would be very unlikely for such interpretive elements to have originated with them.

The next section of the poem describes how Yusuf came to be in Zulaikhaís household. In the Qurían, the narrative gap is not nearly so significant as in the Yusuf and Zulaikha tradition because in the Qurían, Yusufís seductress is merely "she in whose house he was" (Qurían XII.23), not a character whose life has been followed from childhood for the purpose of being united with Yusuf. Thus, it is not surprising that al-Tabari lacks accounts of Yusufís purchase similar to Jamiís. Jami relates that after much bidding, Yusuf is finally purchased at a slave auction for an amount twice as large as the Vizierís entire treasury. Jami uses this exaggerated episode to further intensify his portrayal of Yusufís beauty. This intensification of Yusufís beauty is relevant to the Sufi interpretation, for readers are to be reminded that the Absolute reality behind its appearance in Yusuf is the true object of Zulaikhaís love.

Bazighaís key scene follows. Unlike earlier parts of the poem not in the Qurían (e.g. Zulaikhaís childhood), this scene has no crucial narrative role. Its value and use stem completely from its Sufist meaning. Bazigha comes to buy Yusuf for herself, but he convinces her to escape from herself "into the delights of non-existence" (Jami 56). He tells her,

From the atoms of the world, [the Creator made] a multitude of mirrors, and into each of them he cast the image of his face; for to the perceptive eye, anything which appears to be beautiful is only a reflection of that countenance. . . . Beware of lingering far from that primal source; or else when the reflection fades you will be left in darkness (Jami 56).

She understands what Zulaikha has as yet failed to comprehend. She tells him, "You have raised the veil from my desire, and guided me from the mote in the sunbeam to the sun itself. Now that my heart is open to the secret truth-that falling in love with you is a mere allegory of reality-it is better for me to cease dwelling in vain appearances" (Jami 57). Bazigha renounces her wealth, builds a cell on the Nile, and spends the rest of her life devoted to prayer and piety. Here, the Sufi nature of the entire pericope is unmistakable. Yet, just to make sure that the point is not missed, Jami adds commentary. He does so by addressing himself, which allows him to reemphasize his point without appearing to belabor it. He writes, "O heart of mine, . . . consider how your life has been spent in the worship of appearances, without your ever escaping for a moment from your attachment to their fickle, fading beauty. . . . Rise above time and space, and build your nest in the palace of Reality" (Jami 58). In this episode, Jami has masterfully combined text and commentary to draw his reader to the higher, spiritual appreciation of the allegory.

Jamiís tradition resumes its overlap with the Qurían again as it depicts Zulaikhaís attempts to seduce Yusuf. By the time of al-Tabari, a number of seduction-related traditions had already developed. Even though many of Jamiís seduction incidents are not found in al-Tabari, similarities abound, and all seem to be aiming at answering the same questions raised by the Quríannic text such as: 1) just how did he go about seducing him?, 2) how far did they go?, 3) how much of a willing party was Yusuf?, and 4) just what "evidence of his Lord" (Qurían XII.24) did Yusuf see that enabled him to resist? These questions apparently address literal and moral level issues raised by the Quríannic account, and are not directly relevant to Jamiís mystical purposes. For these reasons, it seems likely that these traditions were developed significantly earlier than Jamiís time. Nevertheless, Jami is able to work these traditions, almost certainly developed independently of mystical intentions, toward a mystical interpretation.

This, then, is the first example (besides the brothersí greed as indicative of how not to live the Sufi life) we have observed so far of real active interpretive work that we can credit to Jami (and the forebears of the Yusuf and Zulaikha tradition). After all, most of the tradition appears to have developed with a mystical structure in mind, from only the most minimal connections to the Qurían. Why did the Sufis choose the story of Yusuf, and not another story from the Muslim holy book to build up a tradition around? In the Prologue, Jami gives the reason that the story is such an excellent love story-and for the Sufis, love is the main vehicle for crossing the bridge from appearances to Reality. Besides the seduction scene, the other places where we have seen the Yusuf and Zulaikha tradition overlap with the Qurían (e.g., Yusufís background), involve very little real interpretive work on Jamiís part because he leaves these non-mystic traditions at the literal level, content to use them only to advance the plot. Thus it is not at all surprising that we find here for the first time substantial interpretive work. Jami and his forebears have here taken a pre-existent non-mystical tradition and interpreted it spiritually, reappropriating the text for their age in a way that most likely was not intended by the original. Jami may be making the assumption that God knew in advance how later disciples would interpret a text beyond its literal level when he inspired it. This assumption is explicit in Augustine, a Latin Christian mystic: "certainly the Spirit of God, who worked through that [original] author, undoubtedly foresaw that this meaning would occur to the reader or listener" (Augustine 102). Jami, however, must have seen in Surah XII itself justification for his finding a deeper meaning in the story: "Verily in Joseph and his brethren/ Are signs (or Symbols)/ For Seekers (after Truth)" (Qurían XII.7). Similarly, Origen of Alexandria, another early Christian, believed that the scriptures are "pre-eminently concerned with the unspeakable mysteries connected with the affairs of men . . . [i.e.] souls that make use of bodies" (Origen 282), that every passage has a spiritual meaning (Origen 297), and that these deep spiritual meanings are hidden "deeply underneath narratives that appear to be records of actual events" (Origen 305). He also takes internal scripture as authorization for his interpretive method, especially "let us leave behind the doctrine of the first principles of Christ [and] press on to perfection, that the wisdom which is spoken to the perfect may be spoken also to us" and "We have the mind of Christ, that we may know the things that were freely given us by God. Which things also we speak, not in words which manís wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth" (Origen 268, 274).

This raises the important question of what controls should be used for esoteric interpretations. Augustine urged that other sacred writings of right faith be used as a control (Augustine 102). This becomes very tricky, though, for which passages are the be taken normatively? Could not these too be interpreted spiritually in light of other scriptures? One suspects that Augustineís controls are primarily those of his own experience and millieu as well. It seems that both Jami and Origen, freer in their mystical interpretations, took the accepted metaphysics of their day and collective spiritual experience as the normative, higher principle for interpreting scripture spiritually.

So, how does Jami interpret the seduction scenes mystically? Two of the seduction episodes merit discussion. The garden incident in which Zulaikha has Yusuf spend the night with one hundred maidens hoping to slip in when he is about to sleep with one has very little Sufi content. Her plan fails and the next morning she finds the maidens plying rosary beads and reciting the declaration of faith. Yusufís teaching to the maidens is basically orthodox Muslim teaching with little or no mystical content. Comparing this scene with the Bazigha episode, it seems odd that Yusuf here passes up an opportunity to teach the Sufi path. Various reasons might be suggested, for example that none of them were ready for esoteric teaching, but these seem far less likely than the explanation that this is a pre-existing, non-mystical tradition that Jami uses because, in the bigger picture (though the scene itself has minimal Sufi content), the scene can be understood as an example of just how devoted Zulaikha is in her pursuit of Yusuf.

The second seduction scene worth examining is the Palace scene. In yet another attempt to seduce Yusuf, Zulaikha builds a palace and has the walls, floors, and ceilings covered with pictures of him in amorous embrace with her. She entices him through seven successive locked chambers. He tells her to forbear, that one day he will satisfy her desires. He is vacillating when he sees her idol covered and realizes that the real God-who sees everything-is watching him, and he decides to flee. Probably the majority of this narrative comes from non-Sufi sources, for the following reasons: 1) the moral significance of the scene is primary at the immediate, literal level of the text, 2) the narrative answers questions raised by a passage in the Qurían, and 3) many elements of the narrative are contained in al-Tabari. Nevertheless, Jami has managed to work the tradition, perhaps aided by some minor additions, to convey several Sufi concepts. Zulaikhaís fruitless pursuit of Yusuf through seven successive rooms shows fairly plainly the intensity of her love and devotion. Jamiís commentary exploits this point: "One must never lose heart on the path . . . Even if a hundred doors should stay closed at your hopes, there is still no need to eat your heart out: knock at one more, and suddenly it will open" (Jami 81). Jami interprets Zulaikhaís difficulty in seducing Yusuf as representative of the length and difficulty of the Sufi path, and he uses this as an occasion to encourage weary Sufi pilgrims.

Yusufís assurance that he will one day satisfy her desires seems unintelligible. How does he know? Is this a genuine promise or a lie to get out of an uncomfortable situation? Is it moral for him to make such a promise? The literal and moral level exegete, stuck here, must propose an elaboration or addition to explain this problem. However, Jami is manifestly not interested in these levels of interpretation, and so we-in analyzing his interpretive method-need not be either. Instead, we should consider what mystical meaning may be latent in Jamiís text. Using the just-quoted passage as a hint, we may infer that Yusufís statement is to be understood as evidence that she is not yet ready because she is still trapped in the world of appearances and that if she perseveres on the path, she cannot fail to achieve union with that which is behind Yusuf, the Absolute. If so, God may be speaking to Zulaikha through Yusuf. Did Jami leave this point unclear precisely to puzzle readers into pondering over the spiritual meaning? Origen suggests this, though in a slightly different form: the Spirit of God superintended literal level "stumbling blocks" in the text for this express purpose, though the author himself was probably unaware this was happening (Origen 285). A more likely explanation is that Jami, more concerned with the spiritual meaning of the story, left familiar traditions intact, even despite their literal level problems.

The traditions which follow have additional literal level problems. In Jamiís version, the Vizier sends Yusuf to prison before his innocence is vindicated by a three-month old baby (another early tradition which answers the question left by the Qurían as to which "one of her household" suggested the examination of the torn shirt). The miraculous element, uncharacteristic of the rest of the text (excepting two appearances of the angel Gabriel)-which, though given to exaggeration, is not to miraculous events-has no mystical meaning attributed to it, so it is not surprising that it is an early non-Sufi tradition (al-Tabari 157). An important point here is that this imprisonment does not occur in the Qurían; in the Qurían the entire seduction-Vizier appears-vindication sequence is spatially and temporally continuous. Why does Jami recount the story differently? No readily apparent answers suggest themselves. Further, Jami is very ambiguous about whether or not Yusuf was released from prison following his vindication upon the examination of the shirt. The Vizier tells Yusuf to let no one know about the affair (Jami 90), suggesting that Yusuf remains in prison, for surely his release would raise suspicions about Zulaikhaís reputation. Conversely, in the banquet scene, Zulaikha sends for Yusuf, who is "alone in his room" (Jami 93), i.e. not in prison. Moreover, when Zulaikha later persuades the Vizier to imprison Yusuf in order to quiet rumors, she indicates no awareness of his earlier imprisonment. All this is rather hazy: Was Yusuf released from prison after his vindication and before her request to the Vizier? When were these rumors about Zulaikha circulating? The discontinuity in Jamiís narrative suggests a seam in source traditions. It is not entirely unexpected that we find such a seam here since the Qurían leaves a major narrative gap in its cryptic explanation, "Then it occurred to the men/ After they had seen the Signs,/ (That it was best)/ To imprison him/ For a time" (Qurían XII.35). Probably several traditions developed to try to explain: 1) who these men are, 2) what Signs they saw, 3) why it seemed best for them to imprison him after his innocence has just been vindicated, and 4) why only for a time. The traditions in al-Tabari about Yusufís imprisonment do not resolve these questions fully; neither does Jamiís narrative. Probably Jami (or his forebears) pieced together some of these traditions without adequately ironing out the bumps. As in the palace seduction scene, Jami seems unconcerned with the literal level meaning and probably would admonish us for devoting so much time into looking at the literal level problems. What is important is not to miss the spiritual meaning in the story. Not unexpectedly then, Jami interprets these episodes mystically, although it is unclear how much of the narrative is Sufi invention and how much a pre-existing tradition he is interpreting. One strong interpretive commentary suggests that the censure and reproof Zulaikha receives from the women of the city on account of her love for Yusuf are representative for the scorn and misunderstandings a Sufi lover must undergo as part of the mystical path (Jami 91). A fairly obvious, but effective redaction in this section is Jamiís statement that one of the ladies of the city, overwhelmed by Yusufís beauty "completely escaped from the illusion of existence" (Jami 94). Jami suggests in commentary that Zulaikhaís request to the Vizier to he send Yusuf to prison is motivated by her self-seeking love-she is following her friendsí advice that having him thrown in prison will soften his resistance. Such self-absorption in love constitutes an serious imperfection in a true Lover. Jami interprets, "as long as love has not attained perfection, the loverís sole preoccupation is to satisfy his own desire. When he loved someone it is his own advantage he has in view; and all his actions are dictated by egoism. . . . he is prepared to prick the beloved with a hundred thorns" (Jami 98). In other words, Zulaikhaís deliberate injury of Yusuf for selfish ends shows that her carnal love still has yet to be refined to true Love. Accordingly, carnal love is not part of Sufi love, but only a means-yes, the necessary means-to reach it. The Sufi interpretation of this narrative episode is not immediately obvious, suggesting that perhaps it is of non-Sufi origin. However, as an attempt to explain the literal-level problems in the Quríannic text, it performs poorly, since it contradicts the Qurían on several points (only one man makes the decision, no sign from God is involved in the decision, and the decision has no temporary element) rather than expound from it. For this reason, it appears more likely that this episode is part of the Yusuf and Zulaikha tradition fashioned with mystical import in mind.

Just before his second imprisonment, a herald leads Yusuf through the streets of the city on as ass to be publicly dishonored. This raises the literal level question, What good is the public proclamation that he has tread "with dishonorable intent on his masterís carpet" (Jami 100)-apparently a euphemism for committing adultery with his wife, when Zulaikha has already publicly announced to the women at the banquet that Yusuf has spurned her approaches? Again, it seems certain that Jami is here working with an older pericope that has minimal narrative value, but which he can use to intensify his demonstration of the extent of her devotion, misguided though it is. Zulaikhaís ensuing suicide attempts may be likewise understood. The tradition about the ass bears remarkable similarity to the story of Mordecai in the Hebrew Bible (Bible Esther 6:11), who is led through the streets of Susa on horseback by a herald. Perhaps some narrative borrowing was involved in the development of this pericope, though this would be hard to prove.

Jami proceeds with a description of Zulaikhaís complete loss of herself as she becomes absorbed into remembrance of Yusuf. In adjacent commentary, Jami addresses himself:

You too, Jami, come out of your own self and enter into the abode of eternal joy! You know the path which leads there, so why this dreadful sluggishness? Leave this illusory world of bovine spirits, and enter into the domain of non-existence. Formerly you did not exist; and no harm ever befell you because of that. Likewise it is in ceasing to be that your advantage lies (107).

Like earlier passages where Jami addresses himself, this passage demonstrates Jamiís genius as a Sufi teacher; he reinforces the spiritual lesson while at the same time expresses his own sincere mystical impulses, which keeps the audience constantly aware that this is not an irrelevant story of long ago, but one which has tremendous meaning in the present-and requires some sort of personal decision. At the same time, by addressing himself, Jami avoids the appearance of being too explicit in his commentary (as to make the audience feel stupid) or too overbearing toward his audience (as to turn it away from embracing Sufism).

Jamiís poem returns to Quríannic material again briefly. Yusuf, in prison, interprets the dreams of two courtiers, but is forgotten by the royal courtier who is restored to his position-despite Yusufís plea that the courtier mention him before the king. Jamiís treatment of the dreams is even shorter than that in the Qurían. Yusufís role as prophet, attested by the dreams, is of little relevance to the story Jami is telling, so he mentions the dreams only in passing to advance the narrative. Accordingly, Jami completely omits Yusufís lecture to the courtiers against paganism found in the Qurían. Because Yusufís attempt to get out of prison by human means fails, he empties himself of all presumption of personal value and finds that God is his "only real protection in adversity" (Jami 110). Here, Jami portrays Yusuf as a person on the path, which is uncharacteristic of the text, in which Yusuf allegorically represents the divine Beloved who stands behind him. Not surprisingly, this episode is an earlier non-Sufi tradition found both in al-Tabari (al-Tabari 163) and in Genesis Rabbah (Rabbah 249). Thus, we observe Jami engaged in active interpretation of non-Sufi tradition once more. Jami explains the mystical significance of the scene as follows: "As soon as God chooses a being, . . . he closes to him all other avenues of help, and will not allow him to depend on anyone else. . . . The captive caught in his net is to be his, and his alone" (Jami 109). Thus, we are to understand that the forgetfulness of the courtier was an act of God to teach Yusuf not to rely on the help of another finite being, a crucial lesson for the Sufi in process.

In the next event, Yusufís elevation to the Vizierís position, Jami again continues to actively interpret pre-existing, Quríannic, non-Sufi material. Jamiís commentary suggests that Yusufís elevation is to be understood as the reward of a patient Lover: "If it happens that the key to a lock is lost, and there seems no way of ever opening it; . . . suddenly, without the cunning locksmithís intervention, a means to unlock it emerges from the realm of mystery; and the way is open to all we desire" (110). While cryptic in comparison with Jamiís usually lucid commentary, the Sufi interpretation suggested seems justified for three reasons. First, its bears strong thematic resemblance to the earlier commentary "even if a hundred doors should stay closed to your hopes . . ." (Jami 81). Second, Jami describes Yusufís elevation from prison as "leav[ing] this abode of affliction" (Jami 112), an epithet for escaping the world of forms. Third, another internal commentary explicitly draws from Yusufís long suffering and eventual elevation the Sufi lesson that "without bitterness, life can never become sweet" (Jami 113). Once again, though, to interpret the episode in terms of Sufi concepts, Jami has to break the structure of his allegory, i.e. he must make Yusuf into a lover and not the beloved, the role Jami explicitly assigns to him at the outset of the poem (Jami 7).

Jami has Yusuf elevated to the Grand Vizierís position, displacing him. Out of grief at this fall, the old Vizier dies. Subsequently Yusuf and Zulaikha marry. While all three of these traditions are found in al-Tabari (al-Tabari 166), Jami adds something not found in al-Tabari, though: he imposes a significant interval of time between the Vizierís loss of position and the marriage of Yusuf and Zulaikha. During this interval, Zulaikha loses all her early possessions, including her beauty and her sight, which she loses through weeping "tears of blood" from not being able to see Yusuf (Jami 124). She prays to her idol to restore her sight, that she may see Yusuf again. When her prayer goes unanswered, she destroys the idol and repents before God. After praying to God, she is reunited with Yusuf, has her sight and beauty restored, and they marry, following Gabrielís announcement of Godís consent. Jami (or his forbears) makes several interpretive moves in the interval he has created. First, his commentary highlights the Sufi lesson of Yusufís elevation and Zulaikhaís fall, namely, not to attach oneself too strongly to either prosperity or adversity, for such is the nature of the things of this world, that they will pass (Jami 115). Second, her persistent devotion to Yusuf after losing everything intensifies still further Jamiís portrait of Zulaikha as the ideal lover, as does her lifelong preservation of her virginity for him. Third, her achievement of union with Yusuf at last demonstrates that persistence in the Sufi path will be rewarded, even against all odds: "The lover who sincerely commits himself to the path of love will himself ultimately attain to the title of beloved" (Jami 128). A final Sufi interpretation of the episode is that the relaxation following Yusuf and Zulaikhaís intercourse represents the "unruly carnal soul start[ing] out on its impetuous career - only to come at last to rest, shorn of all selfishness" (Jami 127). (This last interpretation, in its unexpectedness and plausibility, is even worthy of Origen! It may justly be compared with Origenís interpretation that the turning of the water into blood in Exodus demonstrates that "those who follow the slippery teachings of the philosophers will pay the price in blood.")

After living with Yusuf for some time, "the curtain before Zulaikhaís eyes was finally torn asunder; and a ray of the sun of Truth struck her with such overwhelming brilliance that Yusuf was lost in it like a mote in a sunbeam" (Jami 123). Jamiís analogy of the mote in the sunbeam recalls Bazighaís realization of true Reality, which she expressed in exactly the same words. Jamiís repetition reinforces the Sufi lesson with even more forcefulness. The last episode of the narrative describes Yusufís longing to depart the world of shadows and enter the mysterious. He dies, and Zulaikha laments upon his grave, tearing out her eyeballs (exclaiming that they are no longer of any use since she cannot see Yusuf), plunging her bloodstained face to the earth, and joining him in the realm of mystery. This narrative almost certainly developed from a Sufi source, for its interpretation is too smooth otherwise: "What a blessed lover was Zulaikha, who being separated from her beloved, died in order to join her soul to his in his solitary resting place! . . . First she made herself blind to all that was not the beloved; then she laid down life itself for him" (Jami 136). Jami reiterates once more that readers should understand Zulaikha to represent the superlative lover, exemplary in her devotion unto death.

Jami closes his poem with an Epilogue. The epilogue begins with a reflection on the inevitable despair of separation from oneís earthly loved ones. Jami, very appropriately for the close of an epic Sufi poem, addresses the inescapable problem of death. He expresses concern that his audience may die with a heart yet full of vain illusions, yearning still for "this desolate heap of ruins" (Jami 139). He advises them to lose themselves "in that splendor like a mote in the sunbeam [for in this way they] . . . will be released at last from the burning torments of separation and loss" (Jami 139). The sunbeam imagery recollects both Bazigha and Zulaikha, and encourages the audience to apply to their lives what they have learned from the two characters. Following exhortations to moral life and study, Jami turns to himself once more, counseling himself also to "turn from existence towards annihilation" (Jami 144). He ends with a prayer and bids himself be silent. Jami thus uses the Epilogue to reiterate the crucial lessons he wants the audience (and himself) to learn and fully take to heart.

Looking back on our analysis of the text, several observations are in order. First, tracing the interpretive traditions is complex and necessarily tentative work. Second, the Yusuf and Zulaikha tradition probably developed as Sufis, taking their Sufi grid as normative, searched the Qurían for the signs and symbols that it promises are there to be found by truth-seekers. The major interpretive move was to conceive the seduction scenes of Surah XII as representative of the Sufi lover, still in the carnal stage of the Sufi path. No doubt the elaborate, entertaining, and no doubt popular traditions about Zulaikhaís fervor in pursuit of Yusuf (already centuries old in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writings) inclined the Sufis to chose this text and to interpret the story this way. This crucial move shows that the Sufis were very free in their use of sacred text in appropriating it for their situation. Once that first interpretive move was made, the Sufis took the kernel of Quríannic material and extended the traditions backwards in time to explain Zulaikhaís background and forward in time to explain her eventual union with Yusuf. Thus, the Yusuf and Zulaikha tradition, by the time Jami received it, consisted of a giant narrative almost entirely independent of the Qurían and consistent throughout with an obvious, Sufi allegorical meaning. Thus most of Jamiís interpretations in the Prologue, narrative commentary, and Epilogue are simple explications of the allegory as it progresses. Strictly speaking, they are not interpretations at all, because the Sufis most likely composed the narrative with the meaning already decided. In those places where the Sufi Yusuf and Zulaikha tradition and the Quríannic and post-Quríannic literal level traditions (Jamiís two major sources) overlap-namely, the seduction scenes, Zulaikhaís censure, Yusufís imprisonment and elevation, and the marriage and consummation), we can see active interpretive work, most likely on Jamiís part. Each of these interpretations breaks from the allegorical mold into which most of the interpretations fall and makes Sufi points that relate to only specific instances in the text-for example, the courtierís failure to help Yusuf represents the exclusive reliance on God required for the Sufi lover, and Yusufís shift of fortunes represents the fact that a Sufi can only achieve bliss through tremendous suffering. All these "active" interpretations arise from tensions between the two major traditions that underlie the text-one with a much freer interpretive method than the other, evidenced by the Sufisí relative disconcern with literal level textual problems. The active interpretations and the original interpretive move in the initation of the Yusuf and Zulaikha tradition are the most instructive examples from Jamiís poem for study in the method of interpretation. Jamiís and the Sufisí interpretative work, like that of Origen and Augustine (to a lesser degree), seeks latent spiritual meaning in the text that can inform the ongoing religious experience of their day. None were particularly bothered by literal level problems, since they believed that the text itself is an interpretation and that the truly fruitful meaning is hidden and esoteric. None were excessively bothered by the relative lack of controls either. All would have agreed that to lose oneself in the literal level of the text is not only misguided, but also unfruitful. An uninterpreted text, or a text interpreted only at the level of its composers, provides at best information about the past which, in itself, bears little or no relevance to the present and future. Spiritual interpretation is absolutely essential for the religious community to properly understand their holy book and to use it as a fruitful means of appropriating truth in continually changing life situations.



_____. The Holy Bible. Colorado Springs, CO: International Bible Society, 1984.


_____. A Yusuf Ali, trans. The Holy Qurían: Text, Translation, and Commentary. N.p: The Holy Koran Publishing House, 1934.


al-Tabari. William Brinner, trans. The History of al-Tabari: Prophets and Patriarchs. Vol. 2. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1987.


Augustine. On Christian Doctrine. N.p: n.p., n.d.


Fatemi, Nasrollah, Faramarz, and Fariborz. Sufism: Message of Brotherhood, Harmony, and Hope. New York: A. S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1976.


GlassИ, Cyril. The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.


Jami, Hakim. David Pendlebury, trans. Yusuf and Zulaikha: An Allegorical Romance. London: Octagon Press, 1980.


Lings, Martin. What is Sufism? London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1975.


Neusner, Jacob. Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary to the Book of Genesis, A New American Translation. Vol. 3. Atlanta: Scholars Press, n.d.


Origen. On First Principles. New York: Harper and Row, n.d.


Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.


Shah, Idries. The Sufis. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.

Hosted by uCoz