Why was there not a single township (among those We warned), which believed,- so its faith should have profited it,- except the people of Jonah? When they believed, We removed from them the penalty of ignominy in the life of the present, and permitted them to enjoy (their life) for a while.
In the seventh verse (98), the heedless deniers of truth have been
admonished for their failure to make the optimum use of the time of
life allowed to them. There was still time for them to leave denial and
contumacy. Otherwise, an ominous time was due to come when they
will make Taubah but their Taubah will not be accepted. They will say
that they believed but their belief will not be welcome. And that time
will be the time when the punishment of the Hereafter will appear
right before their eyes at the time of death. It was in this connection
that an event relating to Sayyidna Yunus (pbuh) and his people was
mentioned – that has good counsels and great lessons in it.
It has been asked in this verse that the people who denied truth
could have believed at a time when their believing would have been of
benefit to them. It means that there was no use for it at the hour of
death, or the punishment, or after being neck deep in it, or at the time
Doomsday sets in for the doors of repentance will then be closed and
no repentance or belief from anyone will be acceptable. Now that they
still had the time, they could put their contumacy aside and become
believers very much like the people of Prophet Yunus (pbuh), did.
When they, much before the worse happened, saw the Divine punishment coming, they lost no time, repented and believed. For this reason, Allah Ta’ala removed the painful punishment from them.
The gist of the tafsir given above is that the door of Taubah does
not close even when the worldly punishment comes face to face. However, Taubah is not accepted at the time the punishment of the Hereafter comes face to face. As for the coming of the punishment of the
Hereafter face to face, it would either be on the day of Qiyamah or at
the time of death, whether it is natural death or death as a victim of
some worldly punishment as was the case with the Pharaoh.
Therefore, the acceptance of the Taubah of the people of Sayyidna
Yunus (pbuh) is not contrary to the Divine law. In fact, it falls under it
because they, no doubt, made their Taubah when they saw the punishment coming, but they certainly did so before the punishment overtook
them, and did it before death too. This is contrary to what the Pharaoh
and others did. They did their Taubah only after the punishment had
overtaken them, and did that at the time of the last rattle of death,
saying that they believed. Therefore, their believing was not valid and
trustworthy and the Taubah they made was not accepted.
A precedent of the event relating to the people of Sayyidna Yunus
is the event relating to Bani Isra’il which finds mention in the
Holy Quran itself. In this event, the mount of Tur was left dangling
over their heads so that they were scared enough to repent. They repented and their Taubah was accepted. This appears in Surah al Baqarah where it was said
And raised high above you the (Mount of) TLr: “Hold fast to
what We have given to you” – 2:63
The reason was that they had, much before the punishment mate-
rialized and death overtook them, repented simply by noticing the imminent danger of punishment. Similarly, when the people of Sayyidna Yunus (pbuh) saw the punishment coming, they sincerely wept and
wailed and repented details of which will appear a little later. So, the
acceptance of this Taubah is not counter to the Divine law stated
At this stage, some contemporaries have made a grave error. They
attribute shortcomings to Sayyidna Yunus in the discharge of
his duties as a prophet. They declare that the cause of the removal of
punishment from the people was the failing of the prophet and that
this very failing was the cause of Divine displeasure which is men tioned in Surah al-Anbiya’ and Surah As-Saffat. Their words are as given below:
“By considering the hints of the Qur’an and the details of the
book of Jonah, at least this much becomes clear that some
shortcomings had issued forth from Hadrat Yunus (pbuh),
peace be on him, in the performance of his duty as a prophet.
And, most probably, becoming impatient, he had abandoned
his permanent station before time. Therefore, having seen the
signs of punishment, the Assyrians repented and sought forgiveness, then Allah Ta’ala forgave them. Out of the principles and universals of Divine Law described in the Qur’an, there is
this standing article as well – that Allah Ta’ala does not punish a people until He establishes His argument against them conclusively. So, when the prophet went about falling short in
doing his duty as a prophet and, on his own, vacated his station (of duty) before the time determined by Allah, then, the justice of Allah Ta’ala did not bear by punishing those people.”
(Tafhimul-Qur’an’ by Maulana Mawdudi, p. 321, volume 2, published
The first thing to look at here is that the prophets, peace be upon
them all, are protected from sins (ma’sum). This is an uncontested belief on which there is a consensus of the Muslim Ummah. In its details, some partial differences do exist, for instance, is this protection
(‘ismah) from all kinds of minor sins (saghirah), or from the major ones
(kabirah) only, and whether or not this protection (‘ismah) includes the
period of time before being inducted as a prophet? But, no difference
exists among any individuals or groups in the belief that the blessed
prophets, all of them, can never fall short in carrying out their duty as prophets. The reason is that there could be no greater sin for prophets than that they themselves fall short in taking care of the mission for
which Allah Ta’ala had chosen them. This is an open breach of trust in
assigned duty, something beyond even ordinary nice people anywhere.
If a prophet does not stand protected (ma’sum) even from this shortcoming, then, there is no use for protection from other sins.
If there were something somewhere even in the Qur’an, and Hadith, seemingly contrary to the established principles of Qur’an, and Sunnah, and the collective Muslim belief in prophets being protected
from sins, it would have been necessary to interpret it in a way that
would not have left it discordant and different from the absolutely
proven principles of Qur’an, and Hadith.
But, things are strange here. What the learned author has presented with reference to ‘Qur’anic hints and details of the book of Jonah’
may possibly be in the book of Jonah, and so be it, being something
having no validity in the sight of the people of Islam. As for a ‘Qur’anic
hint, there is none, not just one. In fact, what has happened here is
that this presumption has been forced out of a patched pattern of several premises. First of all, it was presumed that the removal of the
punishment from the people of Sayyidna Yunus took place contrary to Divine law – which is totally contrary to the context of this
very verse, and equally contrary to the explications of recognized authorities in the field of Tafsir. Along with it, it was also assumed that
Divine law was broken on this occasion because the prophet himself
had failed to fulfill his duty as a prophet. Again, along with that, it
was also assumed that some particular time had been fixed by Allah
Ta’ala when he was supposed to leave the place – and he, much before
this supposedly fixed time, abandoned his duty of calling people to
truth and ran for life!
If seen with the least deliberation and fairness, it will stand proved
that no hint from the Qur’an, or Hadith points out to these assumed
To consider what precedes in the verse of the Qur’an itself, let us
look at the words of the verse:
So, how is it that there never was a town which could have be-
lieved and its belief would have been of benefit to it, except
the people of Yunus (pbuh) (Jonah)!
The sense, as already clear, is that of regret over the state of inertia prevailing among common residents of habitations around the
world. It is in that spirit that it was said: How would they not become
such as would have believed at a time when believing is acceptable
and beneficial? In other words, they could have believed before being
hit by punishment or death, in which case, their believing would have
been accepted. But, the people of Sayyidna Yunus (pbuh) were an exception to this rule, for they, by seeing the signs of punishment, and
much before being hit by the punishment, believed and their believing
and repentance came to be accepted.
This evident sense of the verse is itself telling us that no Divine
law has been broken here, in fact, exactly in accordance with Divine
practice, their faith and repentance have been accepted.
Most commentators – Ab Hayyan, Al-Qurtubi, Al-Zamakhshari,
Qadi Thani’ullah, ‘Allamah Alusi and others – have given this very
sense of the verse according to which the acceptance of repentance
from the people of Sayyidna Yunus (pbuh), comes under the customary
Divine law. The words of Al-Qurtubi appear as given below:
“Ibn Jubayr says that the punishment had covered them up
like the sheet of cloth on the grave. Then, as their Taubah
turned out to be sound (being before the punishment materialized), Allah Ta’ala lifted the punishment from them. And At Tabari says that the people of Sayyidna Yunus have
been given a special place among all other peoples in that
their Taubah was accepted after they had seen the punishment. And that has been mentioned by a large number of commentators. However, Az-Zajjaj says that the punishment had
not yet fallen on those people. They had only seen the signs
that proved the coming of the punishment. And if they had
seen the very punishment falling upon them, their believing
would have then been no good for them (and their Taubah too
would have not been accepted). Al-Qurtubi says that the statement of Az-Zajjaj is better because the seeing of a punishment
after which Taubah is not accepted means that in which one is
seized – as it happened in the case of Pharaoh. Therefore, in
this very Surah, the event of the people of Sayyidna Yunus
has been taken up immediately after the event relating to
the Pharaoh. (So that the difference becomes clear in that the
belief of the Pharaoh came after having been seized by the
punishment, contrary to the people of Sayyidna Yinus,
who came to believe before the punishment actually seized
them). This is confirmed by a saying of the Holy Prophet
(S) ‘Allah Ta’ala accepts the Taubah of the servant until
he is rattled by death.’ And ‘al-ghargharah’ (as in the Hadith)
is the rattling sound that comes from the throat and that is
what happens on being seized by death. And the same thing is
evident from the riwayah of Sayyidna ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’id (RA) in which it has been said that the people of Sayyidna Yunus had repented before the actual falling of the punishment. And Al-Qurtubi says, as based on this explanation,
there remains no difficulty, or contradiction, or particularization (of the people of Sayyidna Yunus (pbuh).
As for At-Tabari and other commentators who have deemed this
event to be special to the people of Sayyidna Yunus (pbuh) none of
them have said that the reason of this special treatment was the
‘shortcomings’ of Sayyidna Yunus. Instead, the honest
repentance of those people and their sincere belief in Divine
knowledge are the kind of reasons that they have given to that end.
And now, when we know that the removal of the punishment from
the people of Sayyidna Yunus (pbuh) was just not against the Divine
law, in fact, was exactly in accordance with it, then, the very
foundation of what has been postulated here stands demolished.
Similarly, there is no Qur’anic hint to prove that Sayyidna Yunus
(pbuh), once he had given the warning of punishment, broke away
from his people without prior Divine permission. Instead, the context
of verses and reports from Tafsir tell us that things happened here as
they had happened with all past communities, that is, when the
decision was made to send Divine punishment on a people, Allah
Ta’ala would command his Messenger and his companions to leave
that area. This has been clearly mentioned in the Qur’an in connection
with the story of Sayyidna Lut (pbuh). Very similarly, here too, when
this command of Allah was delivered to those people through Sayyidna
Yunus (pbuh) – that the punishment will come after three days – then,
the departure of Sayyidna Yunus (pbuh) from that area has, obviously
enough, taken place under Divine orders.
Of course, there was a slip from Sayyidna Yunus (pbuh) in terms of
the elegant prophetic station he was blessed with. Words of
displeasure about it appear in Shah al-Anbiya’ (21:87,88) and Surah as-Saffat (37:139-148) and, as a result of which, came the event of his staying in the belly of a fish. But, this slip has nothing to do with the
assumed assertion that he fell short in fulfilling his duty as a prophet.
In fact, what actually happened is what has been stated earlier with
reference to authentic Tafsirs. In brief, after Sayyidna Yunus had delivered the warning to his people that the punishment will come after three days as willed by Allah, he left his place and went out.
Later, it was proved that the punishment did not materialize. Now,
Sayyidna Yunus was worried as to how he would go back to his
people. If he did, they would charge him to be a liar. And the law of
those people required that a proven liar must be killed. Now, this
added the danger of the likely loss of life in returning to his people.
Under such circumstances, he had no way out but to migrate from that
very country. But, the customary practice of the blessed prophets is
that they do not migrate simply on the authority of their personal
opinion – unless the signal to migrate comes from Allah Ta’ala. So, the
slip of Sayyidna Yunus, was no more than that he boarded a
boat with the intention of migration, before came the permission of
Allah. This was, though no sin in itself, but different from the
customary practice of prophets it was. If we were to ponder over the
words of the verse of the Qur’an, the slip of Sayyidna Yunus will not turn out to be a shortcoming in the fulfillment of his duty as a prophet. In fact, it would prove not to be anything else but migration
before permission with the aim of staying safe against the oppression
of his people. The verse of Surah as-Saffat is virtually explicit
regarding this subject. It was said: (when he ran away
towards the laden boat – 37:140). the act of boarding a boat with
the intention of migration has been expressed through the word: (abaqa denoting displeasure. It means the running away or fleeing of a slave without the permission of his master. And in the verse of Surah
al-Anbiya’, it has been said: (and the
man of the fish, when he left in anger assuming that We shall not keep
him tight – 21:87). Here the tenor of speech is that of displeasure over
the act of migration that was resorted to because of natural
apprehension and the desire to stay protected from a hostile people. It
is worth keeping in mind that all this happened after the perfect
fulfillment of the duties of prophethood, only when a return to his
people posed a certain danger to his life. Tafsir Ruh al-Ma’ani has
taken up this subject in the following words:
(Sayyidna Yunus pbuh) left his people in anger against
their bitter hostility and adamant infidelity despite that he
had spent a long time as a prophet inviting them to faith. This
journey of his was a kind of migration but he had not yet received the permission for it.
Here, it has been made clear that some shortcoming in carrying
out the prophetic mission was not the cause of Divine displeasure, instead, it was migration before permission that did become its cause -which, by itself, was no sin. But, because of being contrary to the customary practice of blessed prophets, it was received with displeasure. When some ‘Ulama sounded the learned contemporary about this error, he chose to report the sayings of many commentators relating to
the Tafsir of Surah as-Saffat, in support of his stand.
Among these – with the exception of some Israelite reports of
Wahb ibn Munabbih and others – not a single report proves his stand,
that shortcomings were committed (God forbid) by Sayyidna Yunus (RA) in the fulfillment of his duty as a prophet, as correct.
And it is not hidden from the people of knowledge that commentators generally include Israelite reports in their Tafsirs about which all of them agree that these are not authentic and trustworthy. No Islamic legal ruling can be based on them. It is only through the crutches of these Israelite reports, whether they appear in the books of Muslim
commentators or in the book of Jonah, that this grave accusation can
be leveled against Sayyidna Yunus (pbuh) that ‘he had committed
shortcomings in the fulfillment of his duties as a prophet.’ No commentator of Islam has ever approved of it.
And Allah, He is Pure and High and the Most Knowledgeable
and before Him is our plaint that He protects us from all errors and lapses
Details of the Event relating to Sayyidni Yunus
Part of the details of the event relating to Sayyidna Yunus has been mentioned in the Qur’an while some of it has its proof in reports of Hadith and history. According to these sources, the people of
Sayyidna Yunus lived in the well-known place, Nineveh near
Mousel, Iraq. Their number has been given as more than one hundred
thousand in the Holy Qur’an. It was for their guidance that Allah
Ta’ala sent Sayyidna Yunus. They refused to believe. Allah
Ta’ala asked Sayyidna Yunus to warn these people that Divine
punishment was going to overtake them within three days. Sayyidna
Yunus, made the announcement before his people. When they
went in consultation with each other, they agreed that they had never
found Sayyidna Yunus lying, therefore, this thing from him
was not to be ignored. Finally, they devised a plan to see whether or
not Sayyidna Yunus stays among them at his place during the
night. If he did, they were to understand that nothing would happen.
And if he went somewhere else from there, then, they should be certain that the punishment would descend upon them the next morning.
Sayyidna Yunus moved out of his dwelling place during the
night as Divinely commanded. When morning came, the Divine punishment, in the form of a cloud-like black smoke started hovering over their heads tending to be descending down closer to them. They then became certain that they all were going to be destroyed. Seeing this, they looked for Sayyidna Yunus, so that they could confess to
their past denial, repent and believe with him as the witness. But, when they did not find him, they took it upon themselves to come up with repentance and prayers for forgiveness in the best spirit of sincerity at their command. To do that, they left homes, came out on open grounds, women, children and animals all huddled there. Wearing
rags, weeping and wailing, repenting and begging refuge from Divine
punishment, they made the whole area resound with a massive collective plaint. Allah Ta’ala accepted their repentance and removed the punishment from them – as mentioned in this verse. Reports indicate
that this was ‘Ashura, that is, the day of the tenth of Muharram.
On the other side, Sayyidna Yunus was waiting outside the
township expecting that the Divine punishment will be about to hit
the people there. He knew nothing about how they had repented and
sought forgiveness. When the punishment stood removed, he started
worrying about himself for his people would now declare him to be a
liar – because he had announced that the punishment would strike
within three days. According to the law of those people, if a person
whose lying was known did not produce a witness in his support, he
would be killed. Sayyidna Yinus was concerned apprehending
that he would be declared a liar and killed.
The noble prophets are protected from every act of sin and disobedience, but are not set apart from others in terms of human nature and temperament. At that time, Sayyidna Yunus naturally
grieved that he had made the announcement as Divinely commanded
and now it was because of the announcement he made he would be declared a liar. How could he go back to his place under these circumstances and take the risk of being killed in accordance with the law of
his people? Deep in this anxiety, he started off with the intention of
getting out of that town until he reached the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. There he saw a boat being boarded by people. They recognized Sayyidna Yunus and let him board gratis. The boat
sailed. But, when it reached off shore, it stopped suddenly. It refused
to move any further, neither forward, nor backward. The boat people
made an announcement. They said that Allah had made their boat
special. When an oppressive sinner or a slave in flight boards it, the
boat stops on its own. So, they said, let that person show himself up so
that others do not suffer because of one person.
Sayyidna Yunus spoke out that he was the sinner and the
fleeing slave. As the act of leaving his town and boarding the boat was
prompted by a natural apprehension and not by Divine permission,
the dignified bearing of Sayyidna Yunus as a prophet had no
hesitation in declaring this act, of coming towards the boat without
that permission, a sin. The rule was that no movement of a prophet
should have been without Divine permission. So he said, ‘Throw me
into the sea and be spared of the punishment.’ The people of the boat
would not do that. They drew lots so that the person thus named could
be thrown into the sea. By chance, the lot drawn had the name of
Sayyidna Yunus on it. They were intrigued. They drew lots
again and again. But, as Divine decree would have it, the name that
kept appearing repeatedly was that of Sayyidna Yunus. The
Holy Qur’an mentions this drawing of lots and the incidence of the
name of Sayyidna Yunus being drawn therein (to be the one to
be thrown overboard): (and he drew lots and was
among the losers – 37:141).
This dealing of Allah Ta’ala with Sayyidna Yunus was in
view of his special status as a prophet. He had done no contravention
of any Divine command that could be called sin or disobedience – for
that matter, there exists no possibility of these issuing forth from any
prophet because they are ma’sum (Divinely protected). But, it was not
appropriate to the high station of a prophet that he would transfer to
another place without Divine permission simply on the basis of natural apprehension. It was this contra-dignity conduct which brought displeasure and resultant action.
On the one hand, names were being drawn in lots. The named was
waiting to be thrown overboard. On the other hand, a large fish under
Divine orders was lurking by the boat with her mouth agape, waiting
for the incumbent to be thrown into the sea and right into her belly.
Allah Ta’ala had already commanded the fish that the body of Sayyidna Yunus that was to be deposited in her belly was no food for her, instead, was his home for a while. When Sayyidna Yunus was lowered into the sea, the fish received him. Sayyidna ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud said that Sayyidna Yunus, lived in the belly
of the fish for forty days. It would take him down to the sea bed and to
nautical journeys far and wide. The period of his stay in the belly of
the fish has also been reported as, five, and one day and few hours.
(Mazhari) Only Allah Ta’ala knows the truth about it. Living in that
state, Sayyidna Yunus made the following du’a:
There is no god but You. Pure are You. Indeed, I have been of
the wrongdoers – 21: 87.
Allah Ta’ala accepted this prayer and Sayyidna Yunus, was
put on the shore alive and unharmed.
But, the heat in the belly of the fish had left no hair on his body.
Allah Ta’ala caused a gourd vine to grow near him. Even the shade
provided by the leaves on it became a blessing for Sayyidna Yunus. And signaled by Allah Ta’ala, a wild goat would come every morning and evening, stand near him and he would have milk to drink.
Thus, Sayyidna Yunus was alerted to that slip, and later
on, his people too came to know the whole story.
In this story, as for parts that have been mentioned in the Qur’an,
or stand proved from authentic narratives of Hadith, they are certain.
The rest of them come from historical reports – and no ruling of Islamic law can be based on them.
Shafi, Muhammad (2008). Maariful Quran. (Vol .4 surah 10 verse 98). English-MaarifulQuran-MuftiShafiUsmaniRA-Vol-4.pdf (islamicweblibrary.com)