Seasons came and went, and again the memory of Allah faded from the hearts and minds of humankind. Communities lapsed to their old traditions of their forefathers and became disbelievers and idol worshippers.
Against this backdrop, a Messenger was sent to the community of disbelievers. However, this is a unique story which had never occurred before or since. Allah chastised this particular Messenger with a curious punishment which is stranger than fiction.
Yunus ibn Matta (Jonah) AS preached to a community in Iraq which scholars identify as the town of Niniveh. According to the Qur'an, it had a population of around 100,000 people: And We sent him to [his people of] a hundred thousand or more. (37:147) Yunus AS was a direct descendant of Yaqub AS and was also referred to in the Qur’an by the name of Dhan-Nun.
His people were idolators and led decadent and shameless lives. As with his brothers in prophethood before him, Yunus AS attempted to instil monotheistic belief and to promote good behaviour. He was met with resistance, and received similar reactions and accusations as that of the previous Messengers and Prophets.
He preached day and night but to no avail. The community clung on to their licentious lifestyles. They resisted the path of the truth and the efforts of Yunus AS bore little fruit.
As time dragged on, Yunus AS became discouraged and enraged by the dismal results. All Prophets and Messengers are granted one supplication of their choice which Allah will fulfill, and when Yunus AS finally had enough of his community, he prayed for their destruction, and warned them of the impending torture of Allah.
However, Yunus AS made one error in judgment for which he later paid a heavy personal price. He took it upon himself to leave the town in anger, without waiting for Allah's command. He assumed that the townspeople were beyond salvation and thus abandoned them to face Allah's retribution. In doing so, he incurred Allah's displeasure.
This may have seemed like an innocuous oversight for most of us, but it was a terrible mistake for a man of Yunus' AS stature. Unlike ordinary human beings, Prophets and Messengers are compelled to display the highest possible levels of human piety and obedience to Allah. Therefore, whenever Prophets and Messengers disobeyed, their mistakes were amplified, and their chastisement was swift and often severe.
The Fate of the Townspeople
Accounts of the previous Prophets and Messengers had a common thread, which was that only a handful of people followed the teachings of the Messengers sent to their midst, while the rest of them were destroyed by some catastrophe or other.
In this case, however, something peculiar occurred. Allah sowed into the hearts of the disbelievers the fear of Him. The abrupt departure of Yunus AS made his community realize that it was a portent of their own doom. Suddenly, every man, woman and child understood the gravity of their actions and became regretful of their treatment of their Messenger.
Discarding their normal clothing, they donned hairclothes as part of their repentance, went outside the valley and unanimously prayed, beseeched and begged Allah for mercy and forgiveness. This was a momentous occasion and must have been extremely moving to watch, for never before had the hearts of a people collectively become united in such penitence.
This in itself was a trial and lesson for Yunus AS, for having left them before his mission had been completed. Allah demonstrated that while all efforts may have been made by Yunus AS, it was ultimately Allah who could open the hearts of the people to His guidance, with or without the intervention of a Messenger.
Hence, upon these townspeople, Allah bestowed His mercy and removed the punishment that was to have befallen them. Allah said: "Then has there not been a [single] city that believed so its faith benefited it except the people of Yunus? When they believed, We removed from them the punishment of disgrace in worldly life and gave them enjoyment for a time. " (10:98)
This turning of hearts was unprecedented in human history and is the only incident of its kind ever reported.
Meanwhile, Yunus AS boarded a ship in order to leave his community far behind. Some reports mention that the ship was already loaded to capacity, but the passengers, recognizing the marks of piety on him, persuaded the captain to squeeze Yunus AS in.
They set sail peacefully. However, a storm suddenly erupted and the sea became choppy. Wave after wave of saltwater crashed in upon them. One pious person on the ship mentioned that this was not an ordinary storm, for its sudden manifestation and ferocity were abnormal. According to the traditions of the time, this was an indication that the ship carried a sinner in their midst. There was an extra passenger who was not meant to be there.
The ship was tossed around in the open waters and the force of the pounding waves was threatening to break the hull and drown them all. The passengers unloaded all the excess cargo, but this was not sufficient for the ship to stay afloat. It was apparent that this condition no longer had any connection to the weight onboard, but something more ominous.
The only solution was to throw the sinning passenger overboard, but which one was he?
The passengers and crew consulted with each other, and decided to draw lots to decide the matter. The first round was against Yunus AS. Given his appearance of piety, the passengers thought there was a mistake, so they drew lots a second time. Again, the odds were against him. This process was repeated a third time, but Yunus AS was still the clear loser.
Yunus AS understood that this was the decree of Allah. "And indeed, Yunus was among the messengers. [Mention] when he ran away to the laden ship. And he drew lots and was among the losers. " (37:139 – 37:141)
He was thrown into the churning waters. Anyone who has been caught in a rough sea will know the feeling of helplessness when tossed about by the huge waves, with limited mobility and even ability to see and breathe. Violent waves can bring disorientation and debilitating seasickness, powerful currents can jettison one uncontrollably off course, and the cold water can cause hypothermia and the cramping of the muscles. One can drown in minutes, even with a life jacket and swimming experience.
In the Whale’s belly
Now a bizarre sequence of events unfolded. At the command of Allah, a huge whale came and swallowed him. "Then the fish swallowed him, while he was blameworthy." (37:142) Miraculously, Yunus AS was not pulverized, but remained whole, for the whale was not allowed by Allah to scratch his flesh or even break his bones. When he came to, he realized that he was still intact and alive. He fell in prostration and said "Oh my Lord! I have made a place of prayer where nobody else has even worshipped you. "
Thus began the oddest aquatic journey in mankind’s history. The whale descended into the depth of the sea. Imprisoned in its belly, Yunus AS could hear voices, which Allah revealed to him was the sound of the marine life, and even the pebbles at the base of the sea, glorifying Him.