Assalamualaikum ustaz. Who is al-Niswah mentioned in surah Yusuf? Did they accidentally cut their hands due to their punishment or because they are in awe of the beauty of the Prophet Joseph (Yusuf) AS?
Waalaikumussalam wrt. wbt.,
Alhamdulillah, praise and gratitude to Allah SWT for His countless blessings for us all. Praise and salutations to our beloved Prophet Muhammad PBUH, his family, companions, and all those who follow his footsteps until the Final day.
Allah SWT states:
وَقَالَ نِسْوَةٌ فِي الْمَدِينَةِ امْرَأَتُ الْعَزِيزِ تُرَاوِدُ فَتَاهَا عَن نَّفْسِهِ ۖ قَدْ شَغَفَهَا حُبًّا ۖ إِنَّا لَنَرَاهَا فِي ضَلَالٍ مُّبِينٍ٣٠﴾ فَلَمَّا سَمِعَتْ بِمَكْرِهِنَّ أَرْسَلَتْ إِلَيْهِنَّ وَأَعْتَدَتْ لَهُنَّ مُتَّكَأً وَآتَتْ كُلَّ وَاحِدَةٍ مِّنْهُنَّ سِكِّينًا وَقَالَتِ اخْرُجْ عَلَيْهِنَّ ۖ فَلَمَّا رَأَيْنَهُ أَكْبَرْنَهُ وَقَطَّعْنَ أَيْدِيَهُنَّ وَقُلْنَ حَاشَ لِلَّهِ مَا هَٰذَا بَشَرًا إِنْ هَٰذَا إِلَّا مَلَكٌ كَرِيمٌ
“And women in the city said, “The wife of al-‘Azeez is seeking to seduce her slave boy; he has impassioned her with love. Indeed, we see her [to be] in clear error.” 
According to Ibn Kathir, al-Niswah meant in this verse is the wives of rulers and ministers. They contradict and criticize the wife of al-‘Aziz for her actions towards Yusuf for she is the wife of a minister. 
While al-Baghawi in his commentary of the verse “وَقالَ نِسْوَةٌ فِي الْمَدِينَةِ”: The story of Yusuf and the wife of al-Aziz was spread throughout the city of Egypt. It is said that it also spread to the city of Ain Syams. It is narrated that the five women according to the opinion of al-Muqatil were:
- The wife of the king’s guard
- The wife of the animal keeper
- The wife of the baker
- The wife of the drink server
- The wife of the prison guard
It is also said that al-Niswah mentioned here are the women from the Egyptian nobles. 
Ibn Kathir further stated in his commentary :
Hence, when the wife of al-‘Aziz heard the critics of these women, the interpreter scholars said: “Hearing the words of the women claiming that her love led to such actions.” Muhammad bin Ishaq said: “After receiving news about the beauty of Yusuf AS, they wanted to see it for themselves.” They said as such so that they can see it themselves.
Al-‘Aziz’s wife invited them for a feast in her house where she prepared a place for them to sit on a carpet and cushions where food is served and among them are food that need to be cut with a knife such as fruits and others according to the opinion of Ibn Abbas, Sa’id bin Jubair, Mujahid, al-Hasan, as-Suddi.
The wife of al-‘Aziz gave the women each a knife. It is a part of al-‘Aziz’s wife’s plan as revenge for their efforts to see Yusuf. She then said to Yusuf: ‘Go out to them’. The reason is she has been hiding Yusuf in another place.
When Yusuf went out and the women saw him, they were in awe of the beauty of Yusuf’s physical appearance, unknowingly cutting their fingers (as they were cutting the food with their hands), astounded by his good looks and grace. They thought they were cutting the fruits in their hands with the knife. It means that they cut their hands with the knife. Such is the opinion of most commentary scholars. Then, they said: “O the Most Perfect Allah, this isn’t human. Indeed, he is none other than the honoured angel.”
Prophet Yusuf AS is a very handsome guy as stated in a hadith narrated in a long hadith that tells the story of isra’ and mikraj, from Anas bin Malik RA, Rasullullah PBUH said:
فَإِذَا أَنَا بِيُوسُفَ عَلَيْهِ السَّلَامُ، وَإِذَا هُوَ قَدْ أُعْطِيَ شَطْرَ الْحُسْنِ قَالَ: فَرَحَّبَ بِي وَدَعَا لِي بِخَيْرٍ
“And I saw Yusuf (peace of Allah be upon him) who had been given half of (world) beauty. He welcomed me prayed for my well-being.” 
Ibn al-Qayyim explained the meaning of this hadith is: The apparent meaning of the hadith is that Yusuf AS was specially blessed with half of the world’s beauty. While the other half is divided to all mankind. 
He then proceeded to present the opinion of some other scholars who said: Most scholars stated that it means Yusuf AS was given half of the beauty of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. It is as such that the Prophet PBUH is at the pinnacle of beauty, whilst Yusuf reached half of his beauty. 
Al-San’ani in al-Tanwir Syarh al-Jami’ al-Saghir said: It is said that none was given beauty more than Yusuf, for it is a favour and advantage Allah SWT gave to Yusuf.
Whereas Ibn Kathir in al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah said it means, Yusuf was given half of the beauty of Prophet Adam. 
Due to the beauty of the Prophet Yusuf AS, the women were awestruck and astounded that they cut their hands without them realizing it.
Lastly, we’d like to state that al-Niswah in Surah Yusuf means the wives of governors and rulers of Egypt as stated in the opinion of Ibn Kathir. While the reason they cut their hands with the knife given by the wife of al-‘Aziz is that they were awestruck by the beauty and good looks of Prophet Yusuf AS and as a result of the plot by the wife of al-‘Aziz herself as a punishment for them who criticized her despicable act. Wallahu a’lam.
However, the actions of the wife of al-‘Aziz and al-Niswah in surah Yusuf don’t mean that they are evil, rather their actions are due to their overwhelming jealousy and passion when seeing the beauty of Prophet Yusuf AS.
Finally, may Allah SWT grant us all understanding in this religion. We end with the supplication:
اللَّهُمَّ أَرِنَا الْحَقّ حَقًّا وَارْزُقْنَا اِتِّبَاعه وَأَرِنَا الْبَاطِل بَاطِلًا وَارْزُقْنَا اجْتِنَابه وَلَا تَجْعَلهُ مُتَلَبِّسًا عَلَيْنَا فَنَضِلَّ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا
“O Allah, show us the truth as the truth and grant us the strength to follow it. And show us falsehood as falsehood and grant us strength to avoid it and don’t confuse us and make us from those who deviate from the truth and make our leaders from those who have taqwa.”
 Surah Yusuf: 30
 See Tafsir Ibn Kathir, 4/284
 See Tafsir al-Baghawi, 2/488
 See Tafsir Ibn Kathir, 4/285
 Narrated by Muslim (162)
 See Badai al-Fawaid, 3/723
 See Badai al-Fawaid, 3/723
 See al-Tanwir Syarh al-Jami’ al-Saghir, 2/496
 See al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, 1/97