One of the greatest mystical love stories of the Islamic world, the archetypal story of Yūsuf (Joseph) and Zulaykhā is known throughout world literature. This genre tells of an unusually handsome and virtuous young man who resists the advances of an older woman. The story is widely known as the tale in the Biblical book of Genesis in which Joseph is sold into slavery and firmly resists the approaches of the wife of his master, the Egyptian official Potiphar.
Medieval Persian versions of the story presented Yūsuf as a universal image of the human soul, and at least 18 Persian poets are known to have recounted and embellished the tale. In 1484 the great poet and religious authority Jāmī wrote a version considered by many to be the best of all. In it, Yūsuf eventually becomes a high-ranking minister and marries Zulaykhā, as they unite in shared spiritual aspiration. The ultimate symbol of the beloved, the Joseph of Jāmī is inspired by the chapter named "Yūsuf" in the Qurʾān.
Manuscript of Jāmī's Yūsuf and Zulaykhā, copied in 1533. Persian stories make frequent use of premonitions and dreams that foreshadow events in the lives of protagonists. Here Yūsuf makes use of his ability to interpret dreams to gain release from prison and eventual reunion with Zulaykhā. Their fate has been set in a dream of Zulaykhā's that begins the story. (MS. Hyde 10, fols. 39b)
Manuscript of Jāmī's Yūsuf and Zulaykhā, copied c. 1550-70. Jāmī's version of the Yūsuf and Zulaykhā story has many twists. Although unremittingly virtuous and innocent of any wrongdoing, Yūsuf is accused by Zulaykhā of various transgressions, including being the father of her child. This illustration includes a whimsically drawn upper register in which the artist has included onlookers, often seen in manuscripts of this period. They observe the unfolding of the story from behind a wall. (MS. Marsh 431, fols. 111b)Leaf from a disbound manuscript of Jāmī's Haft Awrang or Seven Thrones, copied c. 1570. Zulaykhā believes that the beautiful youth she has seen in her dreams is actually the ʿAzīz or Grand-Vizier of Egypt, and as she is pining for him, her father sends her to Egypt to marry him. A great reception is arranged and the Vizier's soldiers escort Zulaykhā to the palace. But when Zulaykhā, desperate for a glimpse of her beloved, looks out from her litter she sees that the ʿAzīz is in fact not Yūsuf and she falls once again into despair. (MS. Elliott 149, fol. 182b)
Manuscript of Jāmī's Yūsuf and Zulaykhā, copied in 1595. Yusuf and Zulaykha are depicted here in a highly symbolic garden. Yusuf's sanctity and prophethood are signalled by the flaming aureole around his head. The trees symbolise the 'lover' and the 'beloved'. They are metaphorically entwined like the real-life lovers in the foreground, who gently take each other's hands in this rendition of their mystical marriage. The concept of the merging of twin souls also suggests entwinement with the Divine which mystics regarded as the highest love of all and the natural progression of earthly love. (MS. Elliott 418, fol. 55b-56a)
Leaf from a disbound manuscript of Jāmī's Haft Awrang or Seven Thrones, copied c. 1570. Zulaykhā sets out to seduce Yūsuf by numerous means, including building a palace decorated with wall paintings of the two of them in amorous poses, thereby hoping to lead him into temptation. Here they are shown in the pose of lover and beloved, seated on a raised couch. Above, the painter has included the incident that follows, in which Zulaykhā reaches out to prevent Yūsuf leaving, tearing his robe as he flees. (MS. Elliott 149, fol. 199v)