The Jonah Question of Sura 68 – Part 6


The Jonah Question

In the previous article, we saw that Muhammad was told not to be like Jonah.

This is a complex, but critical issue.  With God’s command to Jonah – it was an outreach from the Hebrew people to the Ninevites (which is in modern day Iraq).  It was unheard of.  Jonah at first rejected it!  But then, with some “encouragement” from God – Jonah went on his mission.  And he succeeded.

So how does this relate to Muhammad?

The only way to know is to look into the roots of Jonah’s experience, and how that fits in with both Christianity and Islam.  After all – both of them were prominent in Muhammad’s time.  

It’s complicated.  It’s not easy.  But I believe it will be most enlightening.

So I welcome you to come along on the journey.

To really understand what’s happening here with The Jonah Question, I highly recommend at least reading the article that raised the issue.


Review

[68:48] You shall steadfastly persevere in carrying out the commands of your Lord. Do not be like (Jonah) who called from inside the fish.
[68:49] If it were not for his Lord’s grace, he would have been ejected into the desert as a sinner.
[68:50] But his Lord blessed him, and made him righteous.
[68:51] Those who disbelieved show their ridicule in their eyes when they hear the message and say, “He is crazy!”
[68:52] It is in fact a message to the world

This is the closing for Sura 68 –
telling Muhammad to not be like Jonah.

At the end of Part 5 – I asked you to pray about the what this command meant.
It appears to be an odd statement.  One that can only be answered by looking at the Old Testament – (although Jonah is not part of the Torah, which is the primary OT reference for Muslims today).  It seems to be an odd analogy, given that Jonah preached to ancestors of today’s Arabs.  Especially since Jonah was upset that God didn’t kill them!

So – what was it about?

A starting point for examination

Well – we have to start somewhere, so let’s pick a hypothesis, and see where it goes.  BTW – this is not necessarily where it ends, so please don’t think this is the conclusion – whether you like it , or if you don’t like it.  Keep an open mind – and let’s see where this leads.

To me – it seems that the initial best conclusion one can come to is that the giver of the revelation is telling Muhammad not to complain – not to cry out to God like Jonah did.

Notice – it says – Do not be like (Jonah) who called from inside the fish.

I’ve bolded part of this – who called from inside the fish

The questions raised in part 5 are still valid.  This is a very odd reference for someone to make in regards to being a prophet to Arabs.  (BTW, I know I’m generalizing with the use of the word Arabs.  Not all Arabs are Muslims – or vice versa.  It’s meant more as a talking about the people of that region of the world.)
As mentioned in part 5 – there are much better references to use.  Even allowing for the possibility that the only part of the Jonah reference is to his crying out while in the fish – why would the giver of the revelation use this instance rather than one of the many others that could apply?

It’s very odd.

Seems to indicate either a lack of understanding of the Bible and what Jonah was about, or else an amazing insensitivity to the audience that Muhammad was to speak to.

But the giver of the revelation is supposed to be an angel of God.  Surely the issues of (1) lack of understanding and (2) insensitivity could not be real.  So there’s still a big question here.

In any case –
there are still more questions that answers as to why this passage was chosen.

More on that later.


Let’s get back to the possibility that this reference was solely to tell Muhammad not to complain.  Don’t cry out to God while you’re in a bad place.  Don’t be like Jonah.

On one hand – this makes sense.

Muhammad was in a bad place.  People weren’t happy with what he had to say.  An we’re talking his own people here.  He wasn’t even going to Jews and Christians at this point in time.  He wasn’t sure that the first revelation was from God – but maybe it was from a Jinn (evil spirit).

All of those things would be enough to make anyone cry out to God!

And yet – the angel is telling Muhammad not to cry out to God?!?!

Why not?

Remember the reference to Elijah from part 5?

Elijah Flees to Horeb

1Ki 19:1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.  2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”

1Ki 19:3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there,  4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”  5 Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”  6 He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

1Ki 19:7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”  8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.  9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.

When Elijah was in a bad place, God didn’t tell him to be quiet and stop complaining.

No – God sent an angel to Elijah.  But unlike Muhammad’s angel, Elijah’s angel told him to get up and eat, because he wasn’t strong enough for what he had to do.

Both Elijah and Muhammad had people angry with them for the message they were relaying.  Both of them had contact with an angel – supposedly from God.  But the responses they got from the angels were totally different.

Again –
why?


 Maybe we should look at what was said to Jonah.

We see – after the people of Nineveh changed their ways (which is what Muhammad wanted) –
after God relented and didn’t kill them (which is also what Muhammad wanted) –
after Jonah complained both within the fish and about the outcome –
God’s response is in Jonah 4:1-11 –

Jnh 4:1 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jnh 4:4 But the LORD replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”

Jnh 4:5 Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Jnh 4:9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”

“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”

Jnh 4:10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

 Notice the final word from God –

Jnh 4:10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

God isn’t telling Jonah to be quiet and don’t complain.

In fact – God is asking a question of Jonah!

There’s another thing to note here –

The messenger to Jonah isn’t an angel –
it’s God Himself.

This is yet another reason to question the use of Jonah as the reference in this Sura.



 By the way, God asking a question of Jonah at the end is not at all unusual.  This is God’s way.  Throughout the Bible.

We see it in Isaiah 1:18-20 –

Isa 1:18 “Come now, let us reason together,”
says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.

Isa 1:19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;
Isa 1:20 but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Again –

“Come now, let us reason together,”
says the LORD.

This is God’s way for those who are trying to follow Him.

For those who resist and rebel it’s a different story.  It’s warnings.  More warnings. Opportunities for changing and following Him.  Eventually, if necessary, condemnation.

But so far, we see neither of these with the Jonah verses.

Why – or why not?



I’ve raised lot’s of questions.  Have provided no answers.  That’s because, as usual with this series, you have a part of your own to be involved with.  Prayer.  Prayer to the God of Abraham.  

Notes from The Message of The Qur’an

But before I end this section, I’d like to give you some info from The Message of The Qur’an.

For the book itself, The Message of The Qur'an, although not written expressly for this purpose, it is distributed by The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).  It was first published in 1980.  The version I have is a 2012 reprint.  The title page of the book has special thanks to the State of Qatar.  I include this so you'll know the background of the primary commentary I've chosen to use.

There are 3 notes to the Jonah verses in this commentary.

Note 1: reference to the Prophet Jonah

First – note the word Prophet is capitalized.  This indicates that it considered not just a noun – but a title.  Further, given that this is the first reference to Jonah in the Qur’an (in chronological order), I want to re-emphasize the expectation that Muhammad either (a) already knows of Jonah from the Hebrew Bible or (b) is expected to look up Jonah in the Hebrew Bible.

Second – the note refers to two other locations in the Qur’an where Jonah is mentioned:  [21:87] and [37:140].  These references are disingenuous at best.  Remember – at this time, there was no Qur’an.  Sure 68, although it appears to come after Suras 21 and 37, in fact came later!  Sura 21 was the 73rd to be revealed (of a total of 114).  Sura 37 was 56th in order of revelation.  

Neither of these could possibly shed light on what was behind the command to Muhammad in Sura 68.  Neither of them had been revealed to him yet!  While they may provide some explanation – after the fact – neither of them was available to him at the time the command to not be like Jonah was issued.  To that end, neither of them could have been used by him to determine what the command meant.  Therefore, neither of them was available to him to help determine his actions relevant to that command.

Note 2: refers to [37:143]

As shown above, this Sura did had not been revealed yet, so is not relevant to this discussion.  If you do look it up, you’ll find this to be the case.  I just didn’t want to add anything unnecessary to the already long article.

Note 3: a reference to repentance and grace

The note says – referring to the word “sinner” (“disgrace” in The Message version) –

Literally, “while he was still blameworthy”, I.E. burdened with sin and unredeemed by repentance: implying that but for God’s grace he would have died as a sinner.

This is interesting.  Perhaps also disingenuous.  
I say this because as Christians, we would interpret this quite differently than a Muslim – at least compared to a Christian and a Muslim who know the foundation of their respective religions.  You see – Christians have the concept of “original sin” – that all humans are “fallen” and live in a state of sin, due to Eve and then Adam ignoring God’s command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And Jesus is the one who saves us from this fallen condition.

In Islam, the Adam and Eve story is close – but not quite the same.  In Islam, they did eat from the forbidden tree.  But they were also forgiven.  Therefore, the concept of original sin doesn’t exist in Islam.  Therefore, there is also no need for a redeeming Savior.

And so while Jews, Christians, and Muslims will all read these words and “understand” them, they will all have a different understanding.

So we see, the concepts of sin and grace mean totally different things to Christians and Muslims.

I may get deeper into this later.  It’s very interesting.  But it would take away from continuing the discussion of the Jonah question.  Anyway – if the topic sounds interesting to, let me know.  The objective here is to set the reference point for you – the reader – as to what this verse means.  If you’re a Christian reader – you need to temporarily abandon what you’ve learned about grace and sin – and look at this the way a Muslim would.  Essentially – everyone comes into the world starting at zero.  If “good” deeds outweigh “bad” deeds, you go to Heaven.  It’s a totally works based religion.


 non-Conclusion

There are serious questions here –
questions that need to be answered.

We need to know –
why is the revelation to Muhammad so different from those of others of God’s prophets?  Islam recognizes many of those same prophets, so it’s not like there’s a total disconnect and nothing from the Old or New Testaments applies.

What is the reason for this?

What are we to learn from that reason?


 

Again –

At this time –
I leave it to you to pray to God –
the God of Abraham –
the God who heard Hagar –
the God who protected Ishmael –
pray to Him for insight into this question of what happened with this revelation.

When we honestly pray to Him –
and are open to hearing His answer –
an answer totally in truth –
He will give it to us.


 

It occurs to me, you may wonder why I often close with the lines above about praying-

I leave it to you to pray to God –
the God of Abraham –
the God who heard Hagar –
the God who protected Ishmael –

It’s because these are statements that we all agree on – whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim.  These things are common in all three Holy Books.  Our goal is to examine “what happened”.  How did we go from this common point to where we are today.  And where does God want us to go from where we are now – in order to reach where He wants us to be.

Just in case anyone thinks this isn’t true – the lines above – go check out your Book.  It’s in there.  It’s a common starting point.  For all of us.  From One God.  

So – please keep praying on this.  And I hope to see you again in the next article, where we’ll continue to look into the Jonah Question.

 


 

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