Almighty Allah called Yunus to preach to the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was a great city, the capital of Assyria, and it had become a very wicked place. Yunus went to the people there and told them to give up their bad ways and to turn, instead, to Allah. But they wouldn’t listen to him and so Yunus left them. This is the first very human touch in the story of Yunus. Even though he was a prophet, Yunus was still a man and he stormed off out of the city when he didn’t achieve what he had hoped. He even felt that he knew what these people deserved. We can identify with Yunus here, can’t we? On a human level, we often give up too soon, and we often stomp off when we don’t get what we want. On a spiritual level, we see lots of wickedness in the world and think we know how the evildoers should be treated. Some people even take it upon themselves to punish them.
Having left the city behind, Yunus boards a ship. He has had enough and he sets sail far away from the scene of his failure. Once at sea, though, a storm grows up and the crew are terrified. These pagan sailors feel that the gods of the sea must be displeased with them, so they draw lots to throw one man overboard to calm the storm. They draw the lot indicating that Yunus should be thrown overboard. This happens not once but three times, and the terrified crew throw him overboard thinking that in doing so they will be protecting themselves and their ship.
Once in the water, something extraordinary happens. Allah sends a great fish, some describe it as a whale, to swallow Yunus whole. Once in its belly, Yunus descends to the bottom of the sea, filled with total despair. How can he possibly survive this disaster? What way out of his situation could there possibly be? He is engulfed by darkness: the darkness of the creature’s stomach; the darkness of the deep; and, worst of all, the darkness of despair. Even though he was a religious man, called upon to be a prophet, he experiences doubt, and it is when he is in the depths of despair that things change for him. In the noble Qur’an, we read that Yunus “cried through the darkness.” He realized that Almighty Allah, not he, was in control of things. He cries out, “there is no god but You,” and asks for help. In asking for help, his prayer is heard.
There is a very beautiful book, called Stories of the Prophets, written in the Middle Ages by Hafez ibn Kathir. It is easily available and well worth reading. In it, Ibn Kathir has a moving commentary on this part of Yunus’s story. He says that once Yunus admits that there is no god but Allah and that only Allah can save him, something wonderful happens. First, the whale begins to sing the praises of Allah, then all the little fish around it, then all the creatures of the sea, each in its own way, until there is a great chorus of praise. The whale swims up to the surface and ejects Yunus onto the shore. Just as Allah had used it to save Yunus from the storm and from drowning in the sea, so He also uses it to bring Yunus safely to land again.
And there is more. Yunus is feeling sick and sore as he lies on the sand in the scorching heat, still not knowing what will become of him. Allah takes even more care of him and causes a plant to grow up over him and to cover Yunus with its shade. Once he has recovered from his ordeal and his skin has stopped smarting from the acids in the creature’s stomach, he decides to return to Nineveh, his travels over, to see what has become of the city and its people. When he arrives there, to his great surprise, he sees that the city and its people have not been destroyed, but have all turned to Allah. His message had got through to them. Perhaps when they saw the terrible storm as it grew up in the distance, they saw in it an image of what would happen to them if they did not repent. Who knows why they turned back to Allah, but they did. Yunus, then, after all his adventures, is finally content that his mission has been accomplished.
There is so much that the story of Yunus can teach us. First of all, read it yourself in the noble Qur’an. You will find it in the following verses: 4:163, 6:86, 10:98, 21:87, 37:139-148, and 68:48-50. Ponder over the meaning of the words and listen to what they say to you. Yunus’s story is timeless. It is for the whole world and it is for each one of us.
Nineveh, for example, the great city and the capital of a great empire, doesn’t even exist anymore. Scholars say it lies in Iraq on the other side of the river from the city of Mosul, but its temples and monuments have gone. All worldly power will go the same way. Even today’s superpowers, who behave as though they are Allah, and believe that everyone must obey them, will one day wither and fade and, like all great empires before them, cease to exist. Remember, Allah is in control, not this country or that. Allah will decide the course of events.
Another lesson from the story of Prophet Yunus (peace be upon him) is that we never know the effect our deeds will have on others. We, like Yunus, are called to tell others about Islam, but the results might never be known to us. A word we say to one person might touch them deeply and yet we may never see the effect of that word. But we must keep trying. We never know what effect ourda`wah will have.
What we must never do, though, is to think that we are in control or that it is we who call others to Islam. Allah is in control and He, alone, calls others to Himself. We shouldn’t get down-hearted or angry when our efforts seem to fail. Muslims trust in Allah. In His own time and in His own way, He will deal with those who do evil, just as He will reward the righteous:
[No soul knows what comfort is kept hidden for them, as a reward for their deeds.](As-Sajdah 32:17)
Allah uses all things to work out His plan. In the story of Prophet Yunus (peace be upon him), He not only uses Yunus, but He uses the sailors and the whale and the plant, to do His will. So we should never presume to know the will of Allah, nor to make decisions on His behalf.
Finally, if you have ever felt as though you are in the belly of the whale, surrounded by darkness and with no way out, do what Prophet Yunus did.[He cried through the darkness](Al-Anbiyaa’ 21:87) and admitted that there is no god but Allah and that only Allah can rescue.
Never give up. Trust in Allah. He can use us and all situations to do great things beyond our wildest imagination. It is by Allah’s will that we are Muslim. Just as [his Lord chose him and made him of the righteous,] (Al-Qalam 68:50) so we, too, like Prophet Yunus can respond to the call of Almighty Allah and make a difference in our world.