Even in the trials and troubles of this life, God responds to those who fully depend upon Him, those who deliberately give up their wrongdoings and bad behavior.
RETURNING TO WHAT GOD REQUIRES – LEARNING FROM JONAH
The Biblical account of Prophet Jonah (Arabic Yûnus) is an electrifying account of how one prophet lived to tell of his divine rescue from the most dire of circumstances. Below are excerpts lifted from this Biblical narrative of return to God’s guidance and repentance from wrongdoing and disobedience. In fact, the whole population of a mega-city in the 7th century BCE (Ninevah, more than 120,000 people, Jonah 4:11), upon hearing Jonah’s message —its king in the vanguard— responded in the most absolute manner. All this resulted in spite of Jonah’s own personal absolute unwillingness to carry out his Lord’s bidding—until he had to be rescued from the results of his own attempt to be independent from Allah!
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me. Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the Lord’s service. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. But the Lord cast a mighty wind upon the sea, and such a great tempest came upon the sea that the ship was in danger of breaking up.
… [The sailors] heaved Jonah overboard, and the sea stopped raging. …
The Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah; and Jonah remained in the fish’s belly three days and three nights.
Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from deep inside the fish: “In my distress, O Lord, I called to you, and you answered me. From deep in the world of the dead I cried for help, and you heard me”. … “Deliverance is the Lord’s!” The Lord commanded the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon dry land.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it what I tell you.” Jonah went at once to Nineveh in accordance with the Lord’s command. … the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast … [even] the king of Nineveh… : “No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water! They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast— and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. …”
God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.
This displeased Jonah greatly, and he was grieved. … The Lord replied, “Are you that deeply grieved? … And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left [children] and many beasts as well!” (Bible, Book of Jonah, excerpts from chapters 1-4)
The Quran reinforces for us in multiple passages (4:163; 6:86; 10:98; 21:87-88; 37:139-148; and 68:48-50) aspects and reminders of Jonah’s story.
And [remember] him of the great fish [Jonah] —when he went off in wrath, thinking that We had no power over him! But then he cried out in the deep darkness [of his distress]: “There is no deity but You! Limitless are You in Your 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. [Sûrah Al-Anbiyâ’, 21:87-88]
Faith in Allah requires the complete Muslim to recognize his dependence upon his merciful Creator-Sustainer and to act accordingly.
- Like Jonah, we may refuse, at first, to follow clear guidance (Sûrah Al-Nisâ’, 4:163; Sûrah Al-An’âm, 6:86-87; Sûrah Al-Saffât, 37:140, 143; Sûrah Al-Qalam, 68:48).
Jonah resisted the definitive instructions of God which came to him specifically—in fact, once safely on the ship, he managed to sleep through the intensifying storm (Jonah 1:6). But, in fact, what he did was worse than ignoring his duty: He knew full well the mission assigned to him and he knew full well that he was skipping out on the Lord his God.
In the eye of the storm, he even explained his guilt to the sailors on the ship and admitted to them that it was his personal wrongdoing which was the reason that their lives, cargo and sea vessel were all in imminent danger of complete destruction: They should throw him overboard, he told them. (Jonah 1:4-5, 12)
- Like Jonah, we may run away —literally or figuratively— from what We know that Allah requires of us (Sûrah Al-Saffât, 37:140; Sûrah Al-Qalam, 68:48).
Jonah did indeed respond to God’s call for him to warn the sizeable (Jonah 3:3) but now depraved capital city of the once great Assyrian Empire, the power which had previously conquered Jonah’s Hebrew people and taken them away into exile. And his response was unequivocal: He literally fled from that da’wah assignment for which he had been chosen by God (Jonah 1:1).
Nor did Jonah sit idly by and mull over in his mind whether God had really spoken to him or what the meaning of his prophetic call could be. We have no indication that Jonah doubted either the meaning of the message or its authenticity. In fact, he took definitive, bold action upon receiving that call: He hired passage on a ship that would take him as far away as possible from his appointed mission! Though he divulged his own ethnic and religious identity to the sailors (Jonah 1:9-10), he forgot that his God was the true Lord of all geographical locations; God could empower Jonah —as He had empowered Moses— to fulfill his overwhelming assignment.
- Like Jonah, we may not take seriously Allah’s faithfulness in providing for us until we are forced to beseech His intervention in a crisis (Sûrah Al-Saffât, 37:140, 143; Sûrah Al-Qalam, 68:48).
At Jonah’s desperate cry for his Lord’s help, God provided a large sea creature to save Prophet Jonah from sure death by drowning (Jonah 2:1a). Having been swallowed by this large animal, Jonah was in safekeeping therein for three days and three nights (Jonah 2:1b) —until the time when he would be spewed out on dry land (Jonah 2:11)!
- Like Jonah, we may be given a second chance when we take responsibility for our wrongdoing and ask for God’s forgiveness. We, too, may then need to beseech Him for further rescue from the outcome of our disobedience, and seek His further guidance (Sûrah Al-Saffât, 37:140, 143; Sûrah Al-Qalam, 68: 49-50).
After Jonah had learned to honor the requirements of his Lord, God’s original call (Jonah 1:1) was renewed to him (Jonah 3:1); Jonah was given a ‘second chance.’ This time he immediately went to Nineveh and his proclaimed warning to this city got results. The population of Nineveh —the people who had once conquered Jonah’s Hebrew people, Bani Isra’il— as a whole community, repented to God at Jonah’s proclamation!!!
- Like Jonah, we may be angry at God —or begrudge His handling of our affairs— when He doesn’t play by our rules (or by our interpretation of His rules) (Sûrah Al-Saffât, 37:148; Sûrah Al-Qalam, 68:48).
Jonah was apparently displeased with God when the people —supported by their king— publicly demonstrated their citywide repentance, cleaned up their corrupt and evil ways and thereby averted the divine punishment ready to strike them.
Was Jonah’s credibility with the Ninevites at stake when God accepted Ninevah’s repentance and decided not to send the punishment that Jonah had, in no uncertain terms, pronounced upon them (Jonah 4:1-4)? Jonah had even left the city and stationed himself on a lookout point where he could watch the destruction of the city (Jonah 4:5)!
- Like Jonah, we may forget that all human beings are dependent upon their Creator, willingly or unwillingly and whether they recognize it or not: All comes from Allah’s provision —even for those who do not look to Him for help from their difficulties and even when we do not ask for His forgiveness to purify our condition in front of Him.
- Like Jonah, we may forget that God provides for us.
God provided for Jonah throughout the story:
- God provided a teaching moment for Jonah:
Jonah had elected to run away from God’s prophetic mission for him, but God orchestrated the testing-training scenario that would unfold.
- God provided an extraordinary means for Jonah’s rescue from drowning in the turbulent sea during the raging storm (Sûrah Al-Qalam, 68:49; Sûrah Al-Saffât, 37:142) :
A huge sea creature swallowed Jonah and kept him safe for three days and nights—giving him time to think over his predicament. In fact, to thank and praise Allah for this most unconventional deliverance (Jonah 2:3-10).
- God provided Jonah a time and place for him to fully accept God’s intent for him—with praise and thanksgiving (Sûrah Al-Saffât, 37:143).
- God provided another teaching moment about Jonah’s attitude (Sûrah Al-Saffât, 37:146-148):
Having delivered God’s message, Jonah built himself a shelter from which to watch the disaster about to befall the ungodly people. A day passed with no punitive event to celebrate! Furthermore, the lush, shade-providing vegetation that was providing him a comfortable front-row seat was ruined by a worm. Thereupon, Jonah projected his disappointment onto the sun’s full heat and wind beating down on him. At that point Jonah was a “captive audience” and ready to listen to guidance. God had a word with His reluctant prophet concerning His compassion for all of His creatures, human and animal: “Should I not care about Nineveh…”
The repentance of the whole population of Nineveh is an amazing story in itself (Sûrah Yûnus, 10:98; Sûrah Al-Saffât, 37:147-148). An unenthusiastic prophet enters the capital city of the former Assyrian Empire, after having been reproached by God for his insubordination and escape from duties. As Jonah later exclaims (Jonah 4:2-3), he had known that God was compassionate and reluctant to mete out punishment. Perhaps Jonah had assumed that God’s mercy was exclusively for his own people, Bani Isra’il, not for the Assyrians who had once conquered them. When Jonah is disappointed at the outcome of the Ninevites’ repentance, God instructs him to put this into perspective: Jonah had fulfilled his mission and the Ninevites has believed God’s message to them; as a community they had changed their ways! Allah then responds to them in His mercy.
Yet if only there had been a single town that had believed [among those forewarned of God’s nearing Judgment], such that its faith profited it—besides [that of] the people of Jonah! When [truly] they believed, We removed the torment of disgrace from them in the life of this world, and We gave them [its] enjoyment, for a time. [Sûrah Yûnus, 10:98]
The successful (penitent) outcome of Jonah’s prophetic warning is in sharp contrast to what befell the people among whom Lot was living: They, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah —as well as others in numerous other examples mentioned in the Quran— rejected God’s call to decent and righteous behavior—dismissing the moral law inherent in the Creator’s universe.
Then Lot’s people [too] gave the lie to all [Our] warnings: [and so,] behold, We let loose upon them a deadly tempest, and only Lot’s kinsfolk did We save at the break of dawn, as a blessing from Us: thus do We reward all who are grateful. For he had truly warned them of Our punishing might; but they stubbornly cast doubt on these warnings … [Sûrah A-Qamar, 54:33-39]
The case of Noah’s repeated prophetic warnings is even more sobering in its results, given the extended length of time for which he persevered in warning his Mesopotamian people and given the small number of people who responded to his call:
And very truly, We sent Noah to his people. So he remained [patiently] among them [calling them to worship God for] a thousand years, less fifty years. Then, suddenly, the flood seized them, for they were wrongdoers, [godless in heart]. So We delivered him and the people of the Ark. And We made it a sign [of admonition, preserved] for all the worlds. [Sûrah Al-‘Ankabût, 29:14-15]
Jonah’s people had willingly responded to his message and reaped the reward. The response to Prophet Muhammad’s twenty-three years of prophetic teaching and exemplary living among his people was not, like Jonah’s, a short-term blanket success. On the other hand, the career of the final messenger and prophet of Allah can be said to be an outstanding success in the long-term:
Note how The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History by American Jewish astrophysicist and thinker, Michael H. Hart (1978/2007, 572 pages), puts Prophet Muhammad in #1 position in its ranking—due to the degree of the Prophet’s success over a 14 century span of time, as well as the worldwide geographical reach and the range of areas in which Muhammad affected world history and helped shape socio-political affairs. Dr. Michael H. Hart is furthermore co-author, with NASA scientist and climate researcher, Claire L. Parkinson, of The Newton Awards: A History of Genius in Science and Technology (2013).
Muhammad was given a reason why his message would not be universally accepted —nor are his followers allowed to to more than to proclaim his message and leave the rest to Allah:
But had your Lord so willed, all who are on the earth would have believed [in your message]—each [one] of them and all [of them] together. Will you, then, [be the one to] compel people [to faith] so that they become believers, [O Prophet]? … Say [O Prophet]: O humankind! Most assuredly, the [very essence of all] truth has come to you from your Lord [in this Quran]. … [As for you, O Muhammad,] follow all that is revealed to you, and be patient [with the unbelievers] until God judges [between you]—[for] He is the very best of judges. [Surah Yûnus, 10:99, 108-109]
He [Allah] is the One who has sent His Messenger [Muhammad] with the guidance [of the Quran] and the religion of truth, that He may cause it to prevail [on its own merit] over all [false] religion—even if the idolaters hate [it]. [Sûrah Al-Saff, 61:9]
Jonah’s call to repentance is the only community-wide successful preaching mission mentioned in the Quran. Repeatedly we are reminded in the Quran that the universe has its moral law and that those who refuse to accept this fact, making themselves independent of God, do suffer harmful consequences—ranging from the type of natural disasters so amply attested in the Quran to what would be called in the modern world ‘psycho-somatic’ disturbances or diseases.
It is a simple truth that humankind did not create themselves; we humans are meant to acknowledge our dependence upon our Creator. He it is who provides us with a mandatory boot camp in regard to the moral laws of the universe, as well as —for those who graduate from boot camp—advanced training all along life’s journey.
…To be continued in Part 9