This story relates to a small fishing community comprised of Bani Israel. During this time, because of their persistent disobedience and stubbornness, Allah decreed many injunctions against them as a punishment for their rebellious behaviour but also as a means of them cleansing their sins. Much of these injunctions and rules were therefore trials for the Bani Israel.
One of these injunctions was the observance of the Sabbath (Saturday), where Bani Israel was completely prohibited from doing any work or lighting a fire. For this fishing village, it meant that they were not allowed to fish on Saturdays.
This injunction was particularly difficult to comply with, because by the power of Allah, the seas in which they fished proved to be poor fishing ground for six days of the week, but on every Saturday, all types of fish would appear in the same sea, and were so abundant and prominent that they could even be seen playing at the surface. On all other days, the same fish would vanish and the fishermen would come back empty handed. The appearance of the plentiful fish was a trial from Allah to test the faith, obedience and patience of the community.
This greatly frustrated the fishermen. They could not tolerate the observance of the Sabbath any longer, but at the same time, did not want to outrightly disobey Allah. Therefore, they devised a scheme to circumvent Allah’s order. They would lay out their fishing traps on Fridays, and the fish that visited on Saturdays were caught in the traps. On Sundays, the fishermen would collect the fish. In doing so, they deliberately disobeyed Allah – even if technically they did not fish on Saturdays, the fish in fact were caught because of their trickery and deception. They understood that they were breaching the observance of Sabbath in substance. As time passed they became more daring and flouted Allah’s command openly.
In actual fact, the trial was to be a cleansing for their sins and disobedience, but they were unable to withstand that trial.
Allah the Almighty says: “And ask them (O Muhammad) (SAW) about the town that was by the sea; when they transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath (i.e. Saturday): when their fish came to them openly on the Sabbath day, and did not come to them on the day they had no Sabbath. Thus We made a trial of them, for they used to rebel against Allah’s Command (disobey Allah).” (Al Qur’an 7:163)
The rest of the villagers, who did not participate in such sinful acts, were divided into two groups. The first actively disapproved of the actions and warned the wrongdoers to rectify their ways before the punishment and torment of Allah fell upon them.
The second remained silent in the face of all this wrongdoing. They did nothing to reprimand the wrongdoers. They allowed the disobedience to continue, even though they did not actively participate in such wrongdoing. They also disapproved of the first group’s (the ones that tried to forbid the wrong) actions, asking: “Why do you preach to a people whom Allah is about to destroy or to punish with a severe torment?” meaning, in today’s terms, why bother correcting these people, because Allah will punish them anyway?
The first group was aware that if they did not actively try to stop the wrongs that were openly committed, then the torture and punishment of Allah would descend upon the whole community, and not just on the wrongdoers. They wanted to clearly disassociate themselves from the disobedient actions of the others, and realized that standing by passively would not provide them with an adequate defence against Allah.
Week after week, the disobedient fishermen continued to defy Allah’s orders, bringing with them abundant fish from the sea. Fearing the torture of Allah, the first group continued warning them against such actions and continued trying to forbid the wrong and command the good, but these reminders were ignored. Repeatedly, despite the multitude of warnings, the disobedient ones continued to transgress, and exceed their limits with Allah.
A UNIQUE PUNISHMENT
Finally, the curse and wrath of Allah fell upon the community. The ones who were commanding the right and prohibiting the wrong were spared from torment, however, the rest of the community, even the passive bystanders, were severely punished. This was a unique and unprecedented form of punishment, both terrifying and humiliating in equal measures:
So when they exceeded the limits of what they were prohibited, We said to them: “Be you monkeys, despised and rejected” (Al Quran 7:163 -7:166)
Some scholars debate about whether they were turned into physical monkeys, or whether this was just a metaphor. We prefer to take the literal interpretation and not go into detail over matters which Allah had chosen not to reveal to mankind.