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Potiphar's wife was a woman that attempted and failed to seduce and commit adultery with the prophet Joseph (Yusuf). When Joseph rejected her advances, she retaliated by falsely accusing Joseph of rape. Surah 12 of the Quran and chapter 39 of Genesis recount the attempted seduction and accusation. The Qur'an and the Bible do not state her name, but some traditions and commentaries name her name as Zulaykha (variations include Zulaikha and Zuleika).


Joseph was Jacob's favorite son. Moreover, God granted Joseph the power of prophesy, and Joseph had a dream where he saw eleven planets (Joseph's eleven brothers), the Sun (his father Jacob), and the Moon (his mother Rachel) bowing down before him.

Joseph's brothers were jealous of him and sought to do away with him. At urging of their brother Reuben, the scheming brothers opted to throw Joseph down a well instead of killing him. A caravan passing by obtained Joseph and sold him to Potiphar, an Egyptian royal guard captain. Meanwhile, Joseph's brothers presented a coat stained with goat's blood and claimed that wolves killed and ate Joseph.

Potiphar's wife was attracted to the handsome Joseph and sought to establish a sexual relationship with him. Joseph rejected her advances, but Potiphar's wife persisted. The Qur'an and the Bible diverge in what occurred afterward.

Qur'anic account of the rape accusation and Joseph's imprisonment[edit]

Potiphar's wife attempted to force herself upon Joseph. Joseph attempted to get away from her, but she grabbed a hold of Joseph's clothes. As Joseph fled, his shirt tore from behind. Just as Joseph reached the door, Potiphar appeared, and his wife reacted by accusing Joseph of attempted rape and suggesting imprisoning or torturing him.

Joseph denied the accusations. A person in their company suggested examining Joseph's torn shirt: If it were ripped from the back, then Joseph was fleeing, but if it were ripped from the front, then Potiphar's wife was fending off a rapist. Potiphar saw that the shirt was torn from behind, and using the aforementioned person's logic, he determined that Joseph was innocent. Potiphar acknowledged his wife's wrongdoing and asked her to seek Joseph's forgiveness.

The women of the city gossiped about the incident, berating and peeving off Potiphar's wife. Potiphar's wife then prepared a veiled demonstration of Joseph's alluring presence. She invited the women to a banquet and gave them all knives. Potiphar's wife then had Joseph walk out in view of them. The women became enthralled by Joseph's presence and accidentally cut themselves with their knives, causing them to acknowledge Joseph's intense allure.

Potiphar's wife then proclaimed that Joseph will either be hers or imprisoned:

So now you see. This is he you blamed me for. Yes, I solicited him, but he abstained. Yet if he will not do what I command him, he shall be imprisoned, and be one of the humbled.

— Surah 12:32 (Arberry)

Joseph prayed and told God that he would prefer prison to being seduced. God answered Joseph's pleads and had the women seek Joseph's imprisonment instead of attempting to seduce him. Joseph was thus imprisoned.

One day, the king learned of Joseph's ability to prophetically interpret dreams and sent a messenger to retrieve him. Joseph sent the messenger back, asking for the king to question the women who had him put in prison. The king did as requested, and Potiphar's wife confessed to her crimes and testified to Joseph's innocence.

After hearing Joseph's interpretation of his dreams and this, the king made Joseph one of his advisors.

Biblical account of the rape accusation and Joseph's imprisonment[edit]

Potiphar's wife attempted to force herself upon Joseph. She took Joseph's robe, and Joseph fled, leaving his robe behind. Having been denied, Potiphar's wife accused Joseph of raping her. She told her husband:

The Hebrew servant, whom you brought among us, came to me to mock and insult me; then as soon as I raised my voice and screamed, he left his robe with me and ran outside [the house].

— Geneis 39:17–39:18 (AMP)

Potiphar became enraged and imprisoned Joseph, but a couple of years later, the Pharaoh learns of Joseph's dream interpretation skills and summons him to his court. After hearing Joseph, the Pharaoh makes Joseph one of his advisors.


Some poets and artists, especially Sufi practitioners, developed the story of Joseph and Zulaikha beyond the bounds of the account given in the Qur'an and into a romantic love story.[1]

In 2015, Return of Kings contributor Oscar Zach notes the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife as an early yet still relevant account of false rape accusations.[2]


  1. Khan, Inayat (1914). "Yusuf and Zulaikha". A Sufi Message of Spiritual Liberty. London.
  2. Zach, Oscar (2015-06-27). "How The Analogy Of Potiphar’s Wife Applies To Modern Society". Return of Kings. Retrieved 2016-09-08.