Fiction, Islam and the story of Zulaikha

Elif Shafak in Words Without Borders:

In the history of Islam, perhaps no woman has been as widely (mis)interpreted as Zulaikha—the beautiful and perfidious wife of Potiphar in the story of Joseph. It was she who tried to seduce Joseph into the whirl of adultery and unbridled hedonism. It was she who upon being rejected by Joseph accused him of raping her, thus causing him to be incarcerated for years in the terrible dungeons of Potiphar’s regime. And it was she who has over and over been blamed, condemned, and vilified by conservative religious authorities in the Islamic world. Throughout the centuries, in the eyes of the conservative-minded, Zulaikha has stood out as a despicable symbol of lust, hedonism, and, ultimately, feminine evil.

As wicked as Zulaikha might be in the eyes of the conservative Muslims, she was considered in a completely different way by the Sufis. For the Sufi mystic, Zulaikha simply represented someone purely and madly in love. Nothing more and nothing less. This ages-old discrepancy between the exoteric (zahiri) and esoteric (batini) interpretations of Qur’an is little known in the Western world today. Likewise, this hermeneutical tradition is not well known by the contemporary reformist, modernist cultural elite of Muslim countries either. Therein the novel as a genre being the vehicle of Westernization and mostly shaped by the privileged cultural elite, it is not a coincidence that the esoteric shadow of Zulaikha has not been able to reflect in the “Middle Eastern novel,” much less in the Turkish novel—a country where the process of Westernization and modernization has been carried out to the furthest extreme possible by detaching from the past as quickly as possible and erasing the Sufi legacy completely.