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SIDIC Periodical XVIII - 1985/1
The Prophet Jonah (Pages 20 - 21)

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The Prophet Jonah in the Qur'an
Thomas Michel


The prophet Jonah, called Yunus in the Qur'an. must be considered one of the "minor"prophets of Islam. His name appears four times and his story is told yet another time without mention of his name. Chapter (Sum) 10 of the Qur'an is entitled the "Sura of Jonah" because of the prominent mention of his prophetic mission.

Of the five references to Jonah in the Qur'an, verses 4:163 and 6:87 are mere citations of his name in a list of God's prophets. There are three accounts of his story, the first of which reads as follows:

If only there had been a community of people who believed and profited by their belief as did the people of Jonah! When they believed, We refrained from (delivering) the severe punishment (intended for them) in this life and gave them comfort for a time. (10:99)

The people of Nineveh are held up as an example of a people who, when the messenger was sent to warn them of their sins and the need for repentance, believed the teaching of the prophet and returned to God. Qur'anic exegetes like Al-Qurtubi and Ibn al-Jawzi recount the acts of penance performed by the people of Nineveh — the fasting, darkening their faces with ashes, wearing sackcloth — in details parallel to those in the Biblical Book of Jonah. God relented from the punishment which He had intended for them when He saw their faith in the prophet and their repentance, and instead God blessed and comforted them. The last words of the verse "for a time° emphasize the Qur'anic notion that repentance is not a one-time affair but must be a continuing element of true faith. Nineveh later rejected faith and was ultimately destroyed.

The second account of the story of Jonah in the Qur'an is the most complete:

Jonah was one of those sent (to warn), but he fled onto a cargo ship. When the lots were cast he was rejected and, blameworthy, he was swallowed by the fish. Had he not been one of those who give glory to God, he would have remained in its belly until the Day when the (dead) are raised. But We cast him. wasting away, on a desert shore and We caused a gourd plant to grow above him. Then We sent him to a hundred thousand or more people. They believed and so We gave them comfort for a time. (37:139-148)

From the sketchiness of this account in the Qur'an, it is clear that the story of Jonah must have been already well-known to the listeners of these verses, and they were expected to fill in the details. The Qur'anic message is that one chosen by God to warn people must obey and carry out his mission; otherwise, he is liable to God's punishment. Though disobedient, Jonah still prayed to God in the belly of the fish, and God heard his prayer and saved him. The number of people to whom he prophesied must have been impressive to the listeners in sparsely populated Arabia. As this great people repented and believed when they heard the message of Jonah, so should the Quraysh repent and believe in the messenger sent to them.

The final reference to Jonah in the Qur'an does not mention him by name:

Wait for your Lord's decree, and do not be like him of the fish who cried out in despair. Had it not been that his Lord's favor reached him, he would surely have been cast into the wilderness while he was reprobate. But his Lord chose him and placed him among the righteous. (68:48-50)

Muhammad was often discouraged by the poor reception his preaching received in Mecca. He was mocked, threatened, and ignored; he was called a madman, dreamer, and fraud. At times he was tempted to give up the whole project and return to the quiet life of business and family. These Qur'anic verses are addressed to him to warn him by the example of Jonah that a prophet must not abandon his call. Had it not been for God's mercy and grace to Jonah when he abandoned his prophetic mission, he would have been lost. But God forgave him and gave him a second chance to carry out his mission.

The material in the Qur'an about Jonah is not plentiful, but it teaches central Qur'anic themes. Any people, no matter how evil, can repent and obtain God's forgiveness. The disobedient person cannot escape from God's presence and power, although God is merciful to those who worship Ilim. The prophet must not turn back from his mission through fear or discourage- ment; God, who takes special care of His messengers, will confirm their efforts and grant them success against all odds. It would seem that the lessons of the Qur'anic stories of Jonah are still worth consideration today by all the descendants in faith of Abraham.


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