Responses to Islamic Awareness

Al-`Azīz & Potiphar


Saifullah and Co.'s article on Al-`Azīz & Potiphar is probably the most brutal attack on a "straw man" argument that I have ever seen. In their never ending task of extricating the Qur'an from its many inaccuracies, contradictions, and inconsistencies, our brothers at Islamic Awareness have, once again, created more questions and problems that they have answered or solved.

It is claimed by the Christian missionaries that there is a historical contradiction in the Qur'ān concerning the names Potiphar and 'Aziz' in the story of Joseph(P). Their argument is:

Potiphar vs. Aziz

Mohammad relates the story of Joseph, whom Potiphar and the men of his city imprisoned out of jealousy. In the Quranic version of the story, Mohammad gives the name of the master of the house as "Aziz." Aside from the variations between the Biblical and Quranic versions, it is important to note that the name Aziz is uniquely Arabic. In fact, the name Aziz was not Egyptian, nor is it known to have been in use by any Egyptian during the period Joseph lived.

Honestly, I have never heard of this argument. Dr. Saifullah apparently found this quote on a webpage which no longer exists, therefore, I will take him at his word. Let us now examine how Dr. Saifullah makes a major issue out of a fairly minor statement.

The argument here is that the Biblical name of 'Potiphar' is a historically accurate attribution, while the Qur'ānic 'Aziz' is a name erroneously attributed to the same historical character. Further, it is argued that 'Aziz' was not an Egyptian name, nor was it knowing to have been used by the Egyptians during Joseph's(P) time.

I doubt that the name Aziz or the title al-Aziz were common among the ancient Egyptians! These are Arabic terms. Addressing someone with this name [Aziz], or title [al-Aziz], would probably have elicited nothing more than a blank stare in ancient Egypt.

As far as the variations between the two narratives are concerned, the Qur'ān supercedes the Bible in historical accuracy by correctly referring to Egypt's ruler . The Biblical use of the word 'Pharaoh' as a title for Egypt's ruler is but an anachronism when applied to Joseph's(P) time.

The Qur'an does not supercede the Bible in historical accuracy, or in any other area. One of Dr. Saifullah's favorite arguments is that the Biblical usage of the term Pharaoh is anachronistic, being used long before the title was applied to the King of Egypt.

In an earlier article on the subject, Dr. Saifullah presented us with a self-annihilating argument concerning the historical usage of the term Pharaoh:

"The term has since evolved into a generic name for all ancient Egyptian kings, although it was never formally the king's title"!

Since it is "incorrect" to call the King of Egypt "Pharaoh", both the Bible and the Qur'an would be in error according to Saifullah's argument.

Apparently, Dr. Saifullah has "abrogated" [or contradicted] his earlier article with his more extensive Qur'ānic Accuracy Vs. Biblical Error: The Kings & Pharaohs Of Egypt which tells us:

According to modern linguist research the word "Pharaoh" comes from the Egyptian Per-aa, meaning Great House and originally referred to the palace rather than the king himself.....However, the Egyptians did not call their ruler "Pharaoh" until the 18th Dynasty (c.1552 - 1295 BC). In the language of the hieroglyphs, "Pharaoh" was first used to refer to the king during the reign of Amenhophis IV (c.1352-1338 BC).

The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us:

The Biblical use of the term reflects Egyptian usage with fair accuracy. The early kings are always mentioned under the general title Pharao, or Pharao the King of Egypt; but personal names begin to appear with the twenty-second dynasty, though the older designation is still used, especially when contemporary rulers are spoken of. The absence of proper names in the first books of the Bible is no indication of the late date of their composition and of writer's vague knowledge of Egyptian history, rather the contrary. The same is true of the use of the title Pharao for kings earlier than the eighteenth dynasty, which is quite in keeping with Egyptian usage at the time of the nineteenth dynasty.

What Does The Qur'ān Actually Say?

Let us first start with the quotes from the Qur'ān.

Ladies said in the City: "The wife of the `Aziz is seeking to seduce her slave from his (true) self: Truly hath he inspired her with violent love: we see she is evidently going astray." [Qur'ān 12:30]

(The king) said (to the ladies): "What was your affair when ye did seek to seduce Joseph from his (true) self?" The ladies said: "Allah preserve us! no evil know we against him!" Said the `Aziz's wife: "Now is the truth manifest (to all): it was I who sought to seduce him from his (true) self: He is indeed of those who are (ever) true (and virtuous). [Qur'ān 12:51]

In the quotation above, we have underlined the Qur'ānic word used to describe the historical character otherwise referred to as 'Potiphar' in the Bible. The word used is al-`Azīz, not `Azīz as incorrectly understood by the Christian missionaries. Even the translation reads the `Azīz, and not simply `Azīz. Moreover, when we read Islamic literature (see below) on this matter, nowhere can one find the assertion that `Azīz was believed to be this individual's actual name. Clearly, the presence of the definite article "al" before `Aziz is a strong indication that it was a title not a name. Even in modern times, Christian and Jewish Arabs might call themselves `Azīz (e.g., Tarek `Azīz, the Iraqi minister) but none calls himself al-`Azīz.

Yes, "al" makes al-`Azīz a title. Yusuf Ali translates this as "(great) 'Aziz" while Pickthall translates the term as "ruler" and Shakir translates it as "chief". The question is : would Potiphar have been given such a title in ancient Egypt, or is this the title that Muhammad wished to impose upon him? Incidentally, the traditions do record a man named Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz [son of the slave of the master].

In this scope, the claim that `Azīz was the name of the historical individual in question results from either misreading or treachery. The claim that 'Aziz' was the actual name of the Bible's 'Potiphar' is ridiculous, let alone being a historical contradiction! Regardless, let us consult the Biblical and Qur'ānic sources on this matter and judge for ourselves.

Treachery? Let's not be overly dramatic about this! The claim that Aziz was Potiphar's proper name is as absurd as the claim that al-Aziz [or the Egyptian equivalent of this] was his, or anyone else's, title in ancient Egypt. This still presents a problem for the Qur'an and its claims.

Al-`Azīz In The Qur'ānic Commentaries

Briefly, Dr. Saifullah tells us that the Qur'an commentators agree that al-Aziz is a title and not a proper name. But does this observation save the Qur'an in any way from the discussed problem?

Potiphar In The Bible

Two individuals are mentioned in the Bible in connection with the events in Egypt surrounding Joseph(P): Potiphar and Potiphera.

Potiphar is the one to whom Joseph(P) was sold and mentioned in the following verses:

And Joseph ; . . . thither. . . ; . [Genesis 39:1-2]

Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. [Genesis 39:4]

From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the LORD was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. [Genesis 39:5]

From the verses in Genesis 39:1-2 it is clear that Potiphar was an officer of the Pharaoh and when we browse Strong's Concordance for terms and phrases like "Potiphar", "captain of the guard" and "his master", we see something really interesting.

Dr. Saifullah then uses a series of Biblical definitions to build his case. First, he correctly cites the meaning of Potiphar - which signifies one "devoted to the sun" - the local deity of On or Heliopolis. He then sites the term for officer [cariyc] and captain [sar] and concludes that Potiphar was a powerful man. This is hardly a surprise to Jews or Christians since the term for captain means, literally, "prince of the Pharaoh" - that is, a civil servant of the Egyptian government. The original term for "captain of the guard" has been interpreted in various ways. Some consider it to mean "chief cook," others, "chief inspector of plantations". However, the term which seems best founded is "chief of the executioners," the same as the captain of the watch, or the zabut of modern Egypt.

From the above discussion on Genesis 39:1-2, it is clear that Potiphar was a powerful person of Egypt during the time of Jospeh(P) and the title al-`Azīz which means the mighty or the powerful as used in the Qur'ān fits very well here. Further, it is also to be added that Potiphar probably originated from which means "the one whom Ra has given/sent".

Yes, Potiphar was a powerful man, but would he have been known as al-Aziz, or a similar Egyptian term, in those days? Why did the Qur'an call him al-Aziz instead of his proper Egyptian name or title? This presents us with a problem, which we will soon discuss.

Ra is infamously known the Sun God of ancient Egypt. It would be inappropriate to use the name Potiphar in the Qur'ān because of the connotations of shirk, i.e., paganism or associating partners with God. Hence the title al-`Azīz is more suitable. And Allah knows best!

Allah, indeed, knows best, but I am shocked at the "Islamic unawareness" of the statement:

It would be inappropriate to use the name Potiphar in the Qur'ān because of the connotations of shirk, i.e., paganism or associating partners with God.

The Qur'an DOES mention Pagan deities:

Sura 37:125 :

Will ye call upon Baal and forsake the Best of Creators,-

Sura 53:19-20 :

Have ye seen Lat and 'Uzza, And another, the third (goddess), Manat?


The attempts made by Dr. Saifullah to extricate the Qur'an from its difficulties raises some interesting problems. The Qur'an, according to Sunni Muslims, is considered to be the uncreated and eternal speech of a transcendent, non-contingent, self-sufficient, and self-reliant God. However, the self-reliant God apparently must rely on human terms which are not transcendent, but are set in the framework of human history and culture, and are separated by a large span of time from the events in question. The Qur'an could have avoided this problem if it had called Potiphar by his Egyptian name, or title, or at least used an approximate Arabic equivalent of his title, rather than imposing a generic Arabic title which neither he, nor the people of his day, would have recognized. By its use of the generic Arabic term al-Aziz, the Qur'an negates its claim to be the eternal and uncreated Word of God.

Saifullah continues to say:

It is also important to mention that their methodology is that since that Bible says Potiphar, it must be historically true. It is also important to establish missionary logic in this case, which entails the assertion that if the Bible cites the name Potiphar, then the name is historically accurate. Regardless, their argument is circular and no attempt has been made by the Christian missionaries to verify the historicity of person called Potiphar before claiming a contradiction.

In most academic disciplines, the older, or "established" body of knowledge [or paradigm] is challenged by a new paradigm which must conclusively demonstrate that it is a better explanation than the old paradigm in order to be accepted. We do not judge an entire corpus of knowledge by the newest hypothesis or theory put forth. The Bible, in this case, is the older document and the Qur'an provides us with absolutely no proper evidence that the Bible is incorrect. I would never judge the Bible by the claims of any "would be" Prophet, I would judge the "would be" Prophet according to the teachings of the established Prophets of the Bible. If this is circular reasoning, according to Dr. Saifullah's definition, I wonder if he would ever evaluate the Qur'an and Muhammad according to the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Bah'a'ullah, or Elijah Muhammad? Or would Dr. Saifullah tell us that Muhammad said so, therefore it is so? Also, have Muslim scholars conducted any research in order to verify the historicity of a person with the title al-Aziz, or its Egyptian equivalent, in ancient Egypt, or is this question, along with many others, covered by the intellectual embargo on the Qur'an?

After all the noise about the issue, it still remains that "Potiphar", the name reported in the Bible, is unmistakably Egyptian and likely authentic, while the title "al-`Aziz" used by the Qur'an is Arabic, and certainly not authentic.

Andrew Vargo

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