An Insight Into the Prayer of Jonah (p) in the Qur’an
Asma Mermer and Umeyye Yazicioglu
University of Virginia
Then he cried out in the deep darkness: “there is no deity save Thee! Limitless are Thee in Thy glory! Verily, I have done wrong.” And so We responded unto him and delivered him from [his] distress: for thus do We deliver all who have faith.
Qur’an 21: 87-88
The purpose of this essay is to discuss an interpretation of Jonah’s (p) [i] prayer quoted in the Qur’an by a contemporary Muslim scholar, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1876-1960). [ii] Before we start our discussion, however, we will first give a general background on the story of Jonah (p) in the Islamic tradition along with the basic principles in interpreting the prophet stories in the Qur’an.
Quranic Account of Jonah (p)
The Qur’anic account of the story of Prophet Jonah (p) is similar to the Biblical story in many grounds. However, less historical details are given in the Qur’anic account, for the purpose of the Qur’an in narrating the prophetic stories is not to give historical information, but to provide guidance to believers. The Qur’an shows how each story points to a universal truth that is relevant to everyone at all times. Hence, the Qur’an teaches how each prophet is a model for the believer. [iii]
The story of Jonah (p) goes as follows. Jonah (p) is sent as a messenger to a people. When the people reject his message, Jonah (p) abandons them in anger, and, in the words of the Qur’an, flees “like a runaway slave,” ( Qur’an, 37: 140 ) thinking that God would not put him in distress. ( Q, 21:87 ) He will, however, be held accountable for this flight. The ship that he boards runs into a storm and he ends up being thrown into the sea.
According to one tradition, the people at that time believed that if there were a slave who has run away from his master in a ship, it would bring ill luck to the ship. Since no one in the ship admitted to being a fugitive slave, people decided to take lots. The lot fell on Jonah (p), and thus he was cast into the sea, whereupon a fish swallowed him. ( Q, 37:141 ) Here the implication is that Jonah (p) was indeed a fugitive slave, for he did not trust his Master and escaped from the mission that his Master assigned to him.
There in that deep darkness Jonah (p) says a prayer, which becomes the key for his deliverance. If it were not for this honest repentance (or “remembrance,”) Jonah (p) would have never got out of the fish. ( Q, 37:143 ) In this sense, Jonah’s (p) prayer is the turning point of the story. Soon after his prayer, God rescues Jonah (p) (or “the man of the big fish” as the Qur’an also calls him), bringing him to the shore. Thereafter, he is sent back to his people, who this time believe in his message. Consequently, God foregoes the impeding destruction, and allows them “to enjoy their life during the time allotted to them.” ( Q, 10:98 )
Key Principles in Interpreting the Stories of the Prophets in the Qur’an
Perhaps the first thing we need to note before actually taking up Nursi’s reflection on the story of Jonah (p) is a definition of the Qur’an. Our commentator, in line with the mainstream Islamic position, defines the Qur’an in relation to the creation. He defines the Qur’an as “the pre-eternal translator of the mighty book of the universe;” and ” the interpreter of the various tongues reciting the verses of creation.” [iv] According to Nursi, God creates and speaks at the same time, just like an artist explains his art as he performs it. [v] The Qur’an interprets the language that the universe speaks, and the universe functions as evidence for the assertions of the Qur’an.
Another principle, one that we alluded to earlier, is that the Qur’an speaks of beings not for the sake of the things themselves but for the sake of their Creator. That is, its aim is to show how beings make their Creator known. The Qur’an instructs human beings how to look at beings on account of their Maker, i.e., as signs ( ayat ) pointing to their Creator. [vi]
Also, according to Muslim exegetes, as long as one does not violate rules of Arabic language and the inner consistency of the text, there is no limit to interpretation. That is, since God is the author of the text, and God is All Knowing, there is no problem of plurality of interpretations nor is there the problem of “authorial intention.” The Qur’an includes and intends numerous meanings according to the varying understanding of its addressees. [vii]
Another crucial principle in Qur’anic hermeneutics is that particular events related in the Qur’an point to universal truths. In other words, if the Qur’an mentions an event, such as the story of Prophet Jonah (p), the aim is not to narrate a historical event. Rather, the stories and parables in the Qur’an facilitate the conveying of profound universal principles, which otherwise would be very difficult to grasp. As Nursi puts it, particular events are “tips” of universal truths: “There are in the All-Wise Qur’an numerous minor events behind which are concealed universal principles, and which are shown as the tips of general laws.” [viii]
Given that the story of Jonah (p) is the “tip” of the iceberg, in order to genuinely understand it, one has to consider the principles that lie beneath it. Indeed, there are important lessons to draw from the state of Jonah’s (p) people, from their conversion and from the fact that their “enjoyment” of this world follows their conversion to faith. The focus of this essay is, however, to explore what principles can be deduced from one particular episode of the story — the moment Jonah (p) prays to God.
Nursi interprets the prayer in two steps. First, he analyzes the prayer within the context of Jonah’s (p) difficult situation and the following deliverance. In the second step, he correlates Jonah’s (p) situation with the human condition so as to show that we also need to seek refuge in God like Jonah (p). The following analyzes these steps in more detail.
Part I: The Secret of Jonah’s (p) Prayer
According to the Qur’an, Jonah (p) calls upon God in the midst of “darkness.” In a dark night, in the darkness of the belly of the fish, Jonah (p) was buried in a spiritual darkness of helplessness. [ix] It seemed that all creation — including the sea, the night, and the fish — was united against Jonah (p). At that point, Jonah (p) realized that nothing in all creation could save him. There was no way, no avail, and no help from any creature. Even if the entire creation had become his servants or helpers, they would not have been able to deliver Jonah (p) from that situation. [x] Jonah (p) fully realized that only the One whose power subdues everything on earth could save him. Thus, Jonah (p) experienced the reality that the Sustainer is one, He is the Causer of the causes and of their effects. Nursi reads this as the culmination of affirmation of Divine Unity, the foundation stone of Islam. [xi]
As Jonah (p) witnessed the reality of Divine Unity, he turned to his Sustainer and prayed: “There is no god, but You. Limitless are You in Your glory! Verily, I have done wrong.” The Qur’an tells us that as a result of his supplication, the stormy sea calmed down, and the fish became a vehicle for Jonah (p), carrying him to the “shore of salvation.” [xii] That is, with the command of the Merciful Creator, the creation that seemed hostile to him was put into his service. Indeed, Jonah (p) had perceived his situation as unbearable because for a while he overlooked the fact that nothing happens haphazardly. When Jonah (p) remembered that every single thing and every event is created on purpose by the Merciful Creator of All Things, he understood that he had misinterpreted his situation.
When one interprets her experience forgetting that beings and causes are all interrelated and all under the command of the Dispenser of All Things, then she will inevitably despair and fall into spiritual darkness. Jonah’s (p) prayer undoes this illusion through a threefold affirmation.
- With the phrase “There is no god but You”, Jonah (p) affirms the unity of God, i.e that nothing acts on its own; there is no real causer other than God,
- With the second phrase, “Glory be Unto You” [xiii] he declares that the Creator is free from any fault, or injustice, because all He creates is purposeful and appropriate.
- With the third phrase “Indeed, I have done wrong,” he admits that by viewing his experience in absence of these two tenets, he has done wrong and wronged himself.
One can note that it is also because of this threefold re-affirmation and recognition that Jonah (p) was able to take upon his mission again. The obstinacy of his people would not be unbearable this time, for he would keep in mind that nothing that befalls him could be hopeless or meaningless, since everything is being created by a Merciful and Glorious Creator.
Part II: How Can Jonah’s (p) Prayer Become Ours?
The Prophet Muhammad (p) is reported to have said that if a Muslim recites the prayer of Jonah (p), God would definitely respond to him/her. [xiv] Hence, the prayer of Jonah (p) in the Qur’an is well known among Muslims and is often invoked in time of distress. After having disclosed the “secret” in Jonah’s (p) prayer, Nursi relates the prayer to our own situation.
Jonah (p) found himself in a difficult situation; and our existence on earth is not any better; it is even much more frightening than his: His dark night corresponds to our dark future , his stormy sea corresponds to our instable world , and the fish that swallowed him is in our case the lowly desires of our soul ( nafs ). [xv]
Hence, we are in deep darkness like Jonah (p). First, when viewed with forgetfulness of God, our future is indeed extremely dark. It is uncertain, unpredictable, we do not know what awaits us in the next moment, and we have no basis whatsoever to feel secure. Similarly, the world we find ourselves in resembles the stormy sea into which Jonah (p) was thrown. Death and separation is an inherent quality of this world: “Each wave of this sea [of world] bears on it thousands of corpses, and is thus a thousand times more frightening than his [Jonah’s (p)] sea.” [xvi] There is constant flux in the world; things we love depart rapidly, we can neither hold onto our youth and beloveds, nor can we make sense of what is going on around us. [xvii] Meanwhile, our lowly soul that seeks to engulf us is more dangerous than the big fish that swallowed Jonah (p). For, the worst thing that the fish could do to Jonah (p) would be to extinguish his earthly existence, which was to end one day anyway. But, in the case of our lowly soul, much more is at stake: our lowly souls threaten a life of eternity. If we give in to the evil-commanding part in us, we will lose eternal happiness. [xviii]
By noting how dark the picture of our lives is without the recognition of God’s presence, Nursi points that we desperately need Jonah’s (p) prayer: “we should in imitation of Jonah (p) avert ourselves from all causes and take refuge directly in the Causer of Causes, that is, our Sustainer. We should say: There is no god but You, Glory be unto You! Indeed I was among the wrongdoers. ” [xix] In order for this prayer to be effective, it should be accompanied with the right set of mind. Just like Jonah (p) had realized that only the Disposer of All Things could be his rescuer, we should recognize that only the one who has power over the future, the world, and our souls can help us. Can anyone other than the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who knows the deep anxieties, yearnings of our inner self and who is able to answer our longing for eternity with the creation of hereafter, be our source of hope? [xx] Here, Nursi emphasizes that only the Creator and the Sustainer of All Things can be the refuge of human beings.
Nursi’s interpretation of Jonah’s (p) prayer is an example of how particular events narrated in the Qur’an point to universal truths. The minor event of Jonah’s (p) salvation points to a universal truth, namely that a needy human being can only be delivered from the threatening vicissitudes of life through forming a connection with his/her Omnipotent and Merciful Maker. Heedlessness is the source of the evil that befalls one. For, when in a state of heedlessness, man forgets that every thing is under the control of his Creator, and he imagines that events are unrelated and meaningless. Thus, he falls into despair. It is only when he re-affirms Divine Unity that he can seek refuge in the mercy of God and attain salvation. Thus, although Jonah’s prayer is talking about an event that occurred in the past, it is possible to witness to its truthfulness because it refers to a truth which everyone experiences.
[i] “P” is the shortened form of the traditional Islamic phrase “peace be upon him.” Muslims are required to evoke this blessing whenever they mention the name of a prophet.
[ii] For a biography of this influential Muslim theologian see: Sukran Vahide, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (Istanbul: Sozler, 1992). Also the forthcoming book would be of interest: Islam at the Crossroads: On the Life and Thought of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi , ed. Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi’. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003.)
[iii] “There is indeed in them [in the Prophets] an excellent example for everyone who looks forward [with hope and awe] to God, and the Last Day.” (Q, 60:6) See also Q, 60:4; 33:21.
[iv] B. Said Nursi, The Words: From the Risale-i Nur Collection (Istanbul: Sozler Publications, 1998), 376. (All of his works that are translated into English are available online at http://www.sozler.com.tr )
[v] Ibid.,444; Nursi, Kaynakli Indeksli Risale-i Nur Kulliyati , 2 Vols. (Istanbul: Yeni Asya Publications, 1996), 2:1362, 1404.
[vi] Ibid., 251.
[vii] Ibid., 407.
[viii] Nursi, Words, 253.
[ix] Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, The Flashes Collection , trans, Sukran Vahide (Istanbul: Sozler Publication, 1995), 18.
[x] See also: “O men! Here is a parable set forth! Listen to it! Those onto whom, besides God, ye call, cannot create (even) a fly, if they all met together for the purpose! And, if the fly should snatch away anything from them, they would have no power to release it from the fly. Feeble are those who petition and those whom they petition!” (Q, 22:73)
[xii] Ibid., 19.
[xiii] The Arabic phrase “ Subhanaka ” literally means “You are above any imperfection.”
[xiv] This tradition is recorded as reliable in the following collections: Ahmad 170/1; Tirmidhi 3572; Hakim 282/2 and 505/1; also see Suyuti, Bayhaki and Nasai.
[xv] “ Nafs ” is a term used in the Quran in two senses; one, as the human self as a whole and the other, as the part in the human soul that inclines toward evil and forgetfulness of God. Here, Nursi is referring to its latter meaning.
[xvi] Nursi, Flashes , 19.
[xvii] See: Nursi, Words , 368.
[xviii] It is significant that Nursi perceives hereafter is as real as this world—this is typically Islamic given the emphasis of the Qur’an on hereafter.