Surah al-Yunus, or The Chapter of Jonah, contains a total of *one* ayat about Jonah. I had thought this might happen when I set out to write my previous Jonah post, but maybe didn’t expect Jonah’s mention to be quite so brief. Most of this surah is spent in the ministries of Noah, Moses, and Muhammad. Jonah’s presence is striking though, and by the end of the surah we’ll recognize why his name gets top billing in this chapter.
I’m going to start off by saying that al-Yunus does not present us with very much new material to go through. It repeats many messages and stories from the prior suwar, and in particular it resembles al-An’am. They both were revealed during Muhammad’s fledgling ministry in Mecca where he faced strong rejection from the ruling tribe. Again here, the Quran consoles Muhammad by describing retribution towards his opposition, putting the burden of success or failure upon God’s will, supplying him with arguments, and likening his struggles with those of previous prophets. Today’s material is not going to add any new themes or material to our building knowledge of the Quran, but there will be occasional nuances and details to pick out as we go.
A Calmer Polemic
I remember that Surah al-An’am really got under my skin with its caustic exasperation at the unbelievers. While this surah is in many ways similar, its material is more temperate: incredulity rings out in place of exasperation, and views of the unbelievers are merely, rather than aggressively, cynical. There is less of God’s handiwork involved in their unbelief except through glimpses of predestination in terms of God’s decree (33,96) or free will in terms of His non-interference (19).
Muhammad is reassured also in more positive terms. He is reminded of his finitude when he fails to get through to the unbelievers with his preaching, like last time, and told that he is only accountable for himself. This time he is reassured with visions of his own reward more than graphic descriptions of the disbelievers. The visions of unbelievers’ judgement and torture aren’t so closely paired with their rejections of Muhammad, making them feel less cathartic in purpose.
Preaching and Conflict
While the tone of the criticism is less hostile, the material is much the same. In the preaching we find three tenets: the existence and supremacy of God, the nature of the Quran as God’s written guidance, and the reality of a final judgement. This book does not teach any rules or rituals, but only these three mandatory tenets. Muhammad’s authority isn’t even on the table, as we find in later suwar. He is not really anyone of consequence except that he is a prophet and, as we’ll see later, that doesn’t necessarily mean much to him yet.
On the tenet of monotheism, this surah uses three angles of argument, all of which we have heard before. One is that the people deep in their hearts only trust one God. Again, a picture is painted that in cases when people feel most helpless, like sailing through a deadly storm, they pray only to God, even if they forget as much when they’ve made it through the storm. The second point is through observing nature, particularly astronomy, using images much like those I focused on in The Cattle, Part 2. The argument is implied that since nature serves mankind, even though mankind has no control over it, there must have been some design and designer behind that nature.
The third argument for God is also the surah’s second tenet: the Quran. It is supposed to affirm Muhammad’s teaching by being inimitable. The pagans are challenged to produce a surah that could compare with anything Muhammad preaches, and dares them to credit their production to an alternate god. The surah declares Muhammad’s recitations to be immutable products of God. Its purpose is to give divine guidance, contrasted with the assumed traditions of the pagans, and also to confirm and clarify the prior Scriptures (36-37). Some pagans have asked Muhammad to change the material to make it a little less offensive to them, and by the wording of the verse I gather it’s the doomsday parts. The Surah commands Muhammad to deny any control in the matter. The inability of the Quran to be changed is praised as its greatest attainment, since that means the promises of reward within it are also unchanging. One interesting evidence given is that the Quran has come to Muhammad later in his life. Up to that point Muhammad has lived a normal life amongst them, it says. There is something to be said about an established man, who has already some wealth and standing in the community, taking up a message that alienates himself and destroys his public character.
And of course, the last tenet is about the Day of Judgement. Descriptions of the cool, flowing streams of Paradise are contrasted with the fire and drinks of scalding water in Hell. There’s not much new material here. The material that stands out most is that the pagans are telling Muhammad not to just show them a miracle, but to make the judgement happen and prove them wrong. The surah rightly questions the rationality of this request, since the immediate coming of the judgement Muhammad is describing wouldn’t fare well for the pagans asking for it.
Within this surah, there’s a provocative statement: that every nation has received a prophet from within its own ranks. This statement is attacking the Meccan’s incredulity that Muhammad, one of their own, should bring something new to their ears. This verse has been fertile fodder for speculation. Some Muslims use it to interpret influential people like Zoroaster as mis-remembered prophets, or find Islamic-ish features within other religions. It also becomes a point of challenge from (modern) unbelievers. If God placed a prophet within every nation, who were these prophets and when did they live? Why do we not hear of them in other histories? Why are prophets so generally unsuccessful? And doesn’t that reflect poorly backward upon the God who works through them that they were so ineffectual?
All other prophets are mentioned in order to validate and console Muhammad, starting with Noah in ayat 71-73. A surprising thing within Noah’s preaching is an emphasis on martyrdom unlike what we’ve seen in the Quran yet. Martyrdom has been praised and validated within the battlefield, but otherwise persecution has been a thing to avenge. The closest thing we’ve seen to voluntary martyrdom so far has been Abel telling Cain to go ahead and kill him, but that was done while gloating at the hellfire Cain would bring upon himself. Noah threatens no consequences to his persecutors as he submits himself. He testifies that he has never asked them for money. These messages combine to portray Noah as being selfless, neither seeking his own advantage or threatening his enemies. His only sense of self is linked to his good standing with God and expectation of reward in the afterlife. Judgement is still part of Noah’s story, and we know it’s implied as part of his sermons too, but this story only tells of earthly judgement rather than hellfire. When Noah’s opponents are drowned, Muhammad’s opponents are told to take heed. Muhammad’s preaching to the Meccans threatens earthly consequences as well as heavenly.
Then comes Moses, but only his face-off against the Pharaoh. Early in this surah it is mentioned that people are calling Muhammad a sorcerer, and this is mirrored in how the Egyptians defame Moses. The Egyptians accuse Moses and Aaron of using sorcery and challenging their cultural religion in order to become the new rulers of Egypt. This accusation reflects a similar thing to what Noah was denying, and what Muhammad is also called to deny later in the surah. Moses does not succeed in getting a following except for amongst the youngest members of his own community. I’ve heard it said, but haven’t been able to confirm in traditional resources, that Muhammad’s earliest followers tended to be young and disenfranchised people, so this could be mentioned as a parallel to Muhammad.
Moses’ followers, unlike Noah, aren’t too keen on submitting to persecution. Their prayers are just for relief, however, and God answers them by telling them to settle down in houses, establish mosques, and wait for their reward. It is Moses who prays to God that He will harden the Egyptians’ hearts so that their judgement will be complete earthly obliteration and a place in Hell. God agrees to this, and the story cuts next to Pharaoh’s army drowning in the sea. An interesting addition to the story here is that, as the water envelopes him, Pharaoh converts and declares himself a Muslim. God mocks this confession, however, and says it’s too late. Instead He promises Pharaoh that his body shall be preserved as a testimony to all future rulers. The testimony for the Meccans is that if they wait until the last moment, until the judgement is right upon them like they’ve been asking Muhammad for, it will be too late for their souls.
That these stories are retellings of Biblical stories could have an added purpose. Ayah 94 tells Muhammad “so if you are in doubt about that which We have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Scripture before you.” This command could mean two things: it could be telling Muhammad to find comfort in comparing his struggles with the prophets (i.e. “those who have been reading Scripture”) of ages past, or it could be a command to take his preaching to those who are already familiar with the Torah, Psalms, and Gospel in order to be validated by them. Traditional accounts say that at the very beginning of his ministry, Muhammad’s wife Khadija sent Muhammad to her cousin, Waraqa, who was described as a Christian and also a scholar of Hebrew. (Note, there is a lot of assumption about what Waraqah believed, but it needs to be noted that our only primary sources I could find concerning Waraqa are these two hadith, which are in themselves secondary sources: 1, 2) Waraqa declared Muhammad’s visions as genuine and parallel to Moses’, though he died before Muhammad’s ministry came to fruition, and thus offered the kind of affirmation this ayah might be recommending.
Only one city has ever listened to its prophet and benefited from it, says ayah 98, and that is Jonah’s city. How much benefit they got is a little questionable from the wording of the verse: it looks as if they only got deferment of earthly judgement, with no mention of their eternal fate. Perhaps that is because the verse is talking about the city, not directly the people, and so the city might have survived without destruction for a time as long as the people within it were Muslims. It’s a weirdly worded verse. Without knowing how Jonah’s ministry went down, it is conspicuous that his is the only ministry that seems to have been measurably successful.
All these stories give an interesting insight into Muhammad’s life. When we think of The Prophet, we maybe imagine that he just knew how important he was, and could see himself leading a nation of people, and that he knew he was going to be at the center of a fifth of the world’s religious hearts. This surah challenges that. It “comforts” Muhammad by showing him failure and even bracing him for it. Now, Moses might have prayed for the failure of his ministry to Pharaoh, but he still couldn’t save the Israelites from themselves. Jonah, and Jonah alone –though all nations have received a prophet from their own numbers!– had any earthly success to show for it. Muhammad, rather than sensing himself as The Chosen One, might have already seen himself as destined for earthly failure. There is no hope given that he might do better than Jonah. To give real comfort, the surah closes by telling Muhammad that he is only accountable for himself, and that whatever the response to his ministry is, if he holds to his faith he shall be rewarded.
Post Script: Trivia
Ayah 1: Alif, laam, ra, these mysterious letters start the surah. It is odd that they do not get assigned their own ayah like in previous instances, but even without punctuation or visual division it is obvious that there they’re their own thing. Why? Because the only way to translate them is as “the R.” So there.
Ayat 28-29: I have a theory that Islam’s take on its polytheist history is partially modeled off of the Christian tradition of saint veneration (i.e. that a holier person who is dead and purified in heaven makes a better advocate to God than one’s sinful self, and thus becoming an alternate focus for supplication, thanks, and praise). These ayat support that at least some of the pantheon were understood to be based off of real people who became venerated after their death. In a passage similar to Jesus’s testimony against the Christians in al-Ma’idah, God takes the “partners” and asks them whether they taught men to worship them. The “partners” deny any knowledge or responsibility for their cult. What is interesting is that the “partners” are removed from within the pagans’ own numbers, suggesting that they were once humans too.
Ayah 61: Sahih International, and several other translations, translate the word dharra as “atom.” The word would’ve probably been understood originally as “larva,” or “seed,” (dh-r-r is also the root for the word translated as “youth” in Moses’ story) or “speck,” and simply would’ve meant the smallest thing the Quran’s first listeners would’ve conceived. Arabs at that point in time would not have pictured scientific atoms. This translation shows how understandings sometimes can’t help but be updated as time continues. There could also be a little amount of pride in using the word “atom” here. For a long time, the Islamic Empire was leader of the scientific world. After having conquered lands of Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, and Hindus, they were in a great position to consolidate and build upon the philosophy and sciences of those cultures. They added to the Greek and Hindu philosophical concept of the atom by considering that atoms came in different kinds and were reactive to each other. Ironically, this would become a big factor in the eventual suppression of free thought in Islamic science. Watch five minutes of this video to get an overview of how philosophical dissonance arose as Muslims explored nature, coming to a head on the topic of atoms, and then another three minutes of the same video to see how politics would enforce the less scientific theology for its own advantage.