The Story of Jonah in Qur’an Tafsir

The classical tafsīr (Qur’an commentary) tradition contains, in addition to the grammatical, mystical, theological, philogical, and other disciplines we tend to think of as ‘high-brow’ and befitting religious discourse, material drawn from the (so-called) stratum of ‘popular’ religion. Of course, as my use of scare-quotes should make clear, dividing any religious discourse, oral or written, into ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ components is immediately problematic, and reflects more on twentieth and early twenty-first century presuppositions about culture and religion than the realities of medieval religion and culture. For instance, the reading and extemporaneous composition of tafsīr by imams and others seems to have been a feature of public life in mosques and perhaps even in the streets and markets- a movement of ‘elite’ culture into the world of the non-elite. We should also keep in mind that particularly for medieval Islam, the social and economic distinctions between ulama and others was not quite as bright a line as between Christian clergy, East and West. And in addition to the ulama proper there were other figures, existing somewhere between the learned religious realm and the realm of the non-ulama, who drew upon both the scriptural traditions (of Jews, Christians, and Muslims), their interpretative traditions, and a collection of stories and elaborations upon those traditions. These figures- story-tellers, popular preachers, demagogues according to some- have an ambiguous place in the discourse of the ulama proper and their works of exegesis. The stories of the Prophets that formed the canon of the ‘popular preacher’ are often censured by more learned religious figures- yet they also appear in those figures’ works. So we see ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ crossing back and forth into each other- distinguishable, perhaps, yet refusing to abide by strict hierarchies of cultural value and location.

The other ‘site’ of ‘popular’ religion is one that feels considerably more foreign and perhaps uncomfortable to us moderns, but was arguably more integral and accepted than ‘popular’ story-telling in exegesis. ‘Magic’ and the use of scripture as talisman is not only widespread in the exegetical tradition, it is as much a component of ‘elite’ culture as ‘popular.’ In fact, any distinction that can be drawn is in measure, not in kind. Mystical and other-world oriented ‘benefits’ transmute easily- in a single text- into very this-world oriented, almost automatic effects. Recitation of a given verse will ensure victory over enemies. Swallowing water that has soaked a written copy of a verse will cure stomach illness. And so on. Granted, there were critics of this approach to this sort of thing- the benefits of verses, for instance, elicited some displeasure- but they remained, firmly part of the ulama’s way of working with scripture. And, we may rightly assume judging from the proliferation of talismanic renderings of Qur’an verses, some of which are still with us (and in use in the Islamic world to this day), such usages cannot be pinned into ulama and poplar quarters, but were equally common to both- the ulama, perhaps, acting as the rightly-guided suppliers for popular consumption.

Below is an example of the first phenomenon, the use of popular stories about the Prophets to elucidate a verse. In this case we have a classical scenario of Qur’anic exegesis: the verse in question, Q. 10.98 (Surah al-Yunus), contains a frustratingly elliptical allusion to Jonah (Yunus in Arabic) and his mission (but not his famed encounter with the whale, which is elucidated elsewhere in the Qur’an, sans a description of his prophetic mission): ‘So if it were not so, no rural community (qarīa) believed so that its faith benefited it, except the people of Yunus [Jonah]- when they believed, we lifted from them the torment of shame in this life below, and we made them to enjoy good things for a while.’ That’s it- the reader must supply the details of Jonah’s life, using the handful of other Qur’anic details alongside non-Qur’anic material- which in this case forms the bulk of the story. Our exegete, the generally accessible al-Tabrisī, has made sure to supply several versions of the Jonah story. In its outlines it will be familiar to those used to the Biblical story of Jonah; but it also- in both the versions I translate here- includes elements that do not show up on Sunday School (or the Veggie-Tales version, though some of the second story could easily have been in a cartoon). Like the Veggie-Tales version, parts of these stories have the feel of elaboration for the sake of entertaining elucidation- not simply entertainment, mind you, but purposeful entertainment. When God tells the whale that Jonah is not his food, but a prisoner in his belly, we are probably meant not only to find it a little humorous, but to understand that God can communicate His will to anyone and anything- including great whales. If we understand these stories as drawn from the ‘popular preacher’ milieu, there is no reason not to think that such preachers crafted their stories with ‘proper’ exegetical goals and techniques in mind- such as moral edification. We know that Christian writers, from the Syriac to the Anglo-Saxon traditions, re-worked scripture along ‘popular’ veins for the purpose of moral edification. A similar process seems to be at work here.


From the Tafsīr of al-Tabrisī: The story (al-qissa): this is part of the story of Yunus, as it was told by Sa’īd ibn Jabīr, al-Sadī, Wahab, and others. The people of Yunus were in Nineveh, in the region of Mosul. He called them to Islam, but they rejected him, so he reported to them that tormenting punishment would dawn on them in three days if they did not repent. So they said: verily, we have not attempted to deceive him. So behold- if he [Yunus] passes the night amongst you then nothing will happen, but if he does not then you will know that the punishment will dawn upon you. So when it was midnight, Yunus left from their sight, and when morning dawned on them the punishment descended. Wahab says: the skies were overcast with a black cloud, a strong dark smoke smoking, and it descended until their city was covered in it, making their roofs black. And ibn ‘Abbas says: The punishment was right above their heads- when they saw that they knew for sure that the promised destruction was true, so they looked for their Prophet [Yunus], but did not find him. So they went out to a high hill- themselves, their wives, their children, and their animals. And they dressed in sackcloth, made manifest their faith and repentance, making their intention [to repent] sincere, and they set apart each mother from her son- both humans and animals- so that each one longed for the other. And they [the mothers] lifted up their voices and the voices of [the mothers] mixed with the voices of [the men], and they humbled themselves towards God. They said: we believe in what Yunus brought [i.e. his prophetic message]. So their Lord had mercy on them, and answered their call, and lifted from them the punishment, after they humbled themselves.

It is related … Abū ‘Abdallah said: there was among them [the people of Nineveh] a man named Malikha, a servant, and another man, named Rūbīl, a scholar, and the servant paid attention to Yunus’s call to the people, and the scholar informed him, saying to him: ‘Do not set this against them! Truly, God will answer your prayer and will not desire the destruction of His servant.’ And Yunus accepted the speech of the servant, so he [Yunus] called to them, and God inspired him with the message that punishment would come upon them in such-and-such month on such-and-such day. When the time approached, Yunus, with the servant, left them, but the scholar remained among them. And when it was the day of the descent of the punishment, the scholar said to them: ‘Take refuge in God, and perhaps He will have mercy on you and remove the punishment from you.’ So they went out to the desert, and separated the women from the children and the animals and their young. Then they wept and called out, acting and turning aside from them the punishment [which] had descended to them and drew near to them. And Yunus passed angrily over the face [of the city] just as God had related to him, until he ended up at the shore of the sea, where there was a ship which was all loaded and the [sailors] desiring to shove off. Yunus asked them to carry him aboard, so they did. When they were in the middle of the sea, God sent a giant whale (al-hūt) against them, and it held back the ship. So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Yunus. Then they expelled him and cast him into the sea, and the whale swallowed him and Yunus went through the water inside it.

And it is said: the sailors said [before Yunus was thrown to the whale]: we will cast lots, and whoever the lot strikes, we will throw him into the water. For there is surely a disobedient runaway slave (‘abadan) here. So the lot fell seven times to Yunus. So he stood up and said: ‘I am the runaway slave!’ So he threw himself into the water, then the whale swallowed him. And God spoke to the whale lest he harm one of Yunus’ hairs, [saying]: ‘I have put a prisoner in your belly- he is not your food!’ So he lingered in its belly for three days (or, it is said, seven days, or forty days) … So he entered a sea and remained until he went out to the sea of Egypt [the Nile], then traveled from it to the sea of Tabaristan [the Caspian], then went out through the Tigris.

‘Abdallah ibn Masa’ūd said: the whale swallowed another whale, so it made off with it to the depths of the earth, and it was in its belly for forty nights. So [Yunus] cried out in the darkness: ‘There is no god but God! You are glorified, while I am in the deep darkness!’ So God answered his prayer, and commanded the whale so that he spit him out onto the beach of the sea, and he was like a plucked baby bird, so God made to grow a squash-tree, making shade under it. And God entrusted [Yunus] with a mountain-goat whose milk he drank. Then the tree dried up, and [Yunus] wept over it. God spoke to him: ‘You weep over a tree which dried up, but you don’t weep over a hundred thousand or more people who were going to be destroyed!’ So Yunus left, and there was a servant-boy whom he espied. He said to him: ‘Who are you?’ He replied: ‘I am of the people of Yunus.’ So [Yunus] said to him: when you return to them, report to them that you encountered Yunus.’ So the servant-boy reported to them. And God restored to [Yunus] his body, and he returned to his people and they believed in him. And it is said: that he was [also] sent to other people, but his people were first.


From the Tafsīr of al-Baydawī: So were it not so, no rural communities believed: Is there not a community that believes before seeing the destruction [of God’s judgment], from among the communities which We destroyed? And He did not wait for them as He waited for Pharoah. So its faith benefited it: In that God turned [His judgment] from it and lifted torment from it. Except the people of Yunus: But the people of Yunus, upon whom be peace. When they believed: Right away- they did not behold the occasion of torment and they did not put off [believing] until the falling apart of things. We lifted from them the torment of shame in this life below: [it is possible that the meaning of the verse, rephrased, is]: no people of any rural community, from among the disobedient rural communities, believed so that their faith benefited them, except the people of Yunus. … [The following story] is told: Yunus [Jonah] was sent [by God] to the people of Nineveh in [the region of] Mosul, and they deceived and mistreated him, so he threatened them with tormenting punishment within three days (though some say thirty, others say forty). And when the threatened occasion drew near, the sky became overcast with a black cloud of strong dark smoke. Then it descended and covered their city, so they were terrified and searched for Yunus but did not find him, and they knew for sure that he was telling the truth. So they put on sackcloth and went out together to a high hill- themselves, their wives, their children, and their animals, and they set apart every mother from her son and each one longed for each other. And their voices and loud cryings were lifted up, and they sincerely repented, manifested their faith, and humbled themselves towards God. So He had mercy on them and lifted [the punishment] from them. And it was on a Friday…

The Good Tree of the Heart

The following is an excerpt from the Qur’an commentary of the important eleventh-century Sufi writer al-Sulami, who wrote a prodigious number of texts, the most significant- in terms of later use and emulation- where the tafsir excerpted here and his Tabaqat al-Sufiyya, a collection of biographies of Sufis of preceding generations. Much of his work- such as the example here- involves compiling and reworking material from previous Sufis (and other sources); some of it, including- perhaps- the final paragraph here, are al-Sulami’s own compositions. At any rate, al-Sulami represents a consolidation of the early stages of Sufi thought and practice, as well as the reconciliation- or attempt at it- of conflicting or divergent strands of Sufi teachings and other forms of mystical practice.

I thought this selection gives a quite readable and approachable example of how eleventh-century Sufis are doing Qu’ran commentary; instead of the specialized grammatical and syntactical vocabulary of ‘conventional’ commentaries, Sufi technical terms are worked into the exegesis, at once reinforcing Sufi concepts and practices with Qur’anic dicta, while also ‘Sufi-ising’ the Qur’anic text itself. Another significant difference in all early Sufi tafsir, and even most later ones, is the selective nature of Sufi commentaries. Rather than go verse by verse, they select certain verses as locii for interpretations and explanations, usually- though not always- forgoing more conventional explanations for an interpretation that ties the text into Sufi understanding and practice. The following is an lovely example that also reveals the relative freedom and resulting artistry this particular exegetical technique can unlock.

To make the translation a little clearer for those not familiar with Sufi terminology, I have placed expansions of certain terms in brackets. Some words are simply impossible to really get across; a couple- including the bit about the wind blowing upon (or blowing into place?) a ‘mark’ on the heart- I don’t exactly understand myself. That’s part of the fun: and quite possibly the intended experience.


His saying, mighty and glorious is He: ‘And the likeness of a good word is a good tree.’ (Q. 14.24)

Ibn ‘Ata’ said: The good word is ‘No god but God’ in regards to the assertation, and the good tree is the triumphing of the secrets (asrār) of the professors of God’s oneness over the filth of desires, through faith in God, and through the cutting off for His sake of whatever is other than Him.

Muhammad bin ‘Alī said: the good tree is faith, God establishing it in the hearts of those He loves, and He makes its earth congruity [with His commands], its leaves sainthood/governance, its sky assistance, its water soliciting guidance, and its branches sufficiency. Its leaves are sainthood, its fruit union [with God], its shade intimacy. Its branches (aghsānuhā) are rooted firmly in the heart/core of the friend/saint, and its twigs (farū’uhā) are firmly rooted in the sky, through the superabundance of the presence of the Omnipotent. The root tends to the branch through continuious compassion and watchfulness, and the branch guides the root through what is gathered from the state of witnessing and proximity [to God]; thus, the heart of the believer and his benefits is disclosed.

I heard Muhammad bin ‘Abd Allah al-Damashqī saying: I heard ibn al-Mawlad saying: Abū Sa’īd al-Khrāz said: the treasures of God in the sky are the unseen (al-ghayūb), and His treasures upon the earth are hearts. For God the Exalted created the heart of the believer as a house of His treasures, then sent a wind which blew upon it a spot of unbelief, associationism (shirk), hypocrisy, and deceit. Then He created praise, and it rained down in [the heart], then He firmly roots in it a tree. Then it bore fruit of good pleasure [with God], love, gratitude, purity, sincerity, obedience- so His saying ‘Like a good tree its root is firmly established and its brances are in the sky.’

Some say: Every tree in this world below, whenever it does not have its portion of water, it dries up. And the tree that is in your heart dries up whenever you do not water it with the water of repentance and the water of remorse, then with the water of sorrow, then with the water of holy desire. Then come clouds of grace, and they rain upon your heart the rain of [divine] mercy until there is the water of service [to God] beneath and the water of [divine] mercy above, so that it will be fresh and pleasant. Then three things come: the way of servanthood in the lower self (fī ‘l-nafs), the way of praise in the heart, and the way of remembrance (dhikr) in the secret (al-sirr). The service of the lower self is obedience, the service of the heart is intention, and the service of the secret is continual watchfulness. Then there rains upon it, rains upon the lower self the rain of guidance, upon the tongue the rain of subtletly, upon the heart the rain of sublimity, upon the secret the rain of grace, upon the spirit the rain of nobility. Then there sprouts from the rain of the tongue gratitude and trust; from the rain of the lower self obedience and piety; from the rain of the heart truthfulness and purity, and from the rain of the secret, holy desire and diffidence; and from the rain of the spirit, vision and encounter [with God].

Abū ‘Abd al-Rahman Mahmud bin al-Hussayn bin Mūsā al-Azdī al-Sulamī, Haqā’iq al-Tafsīr, Vol. 1 (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Almīa, 2001), 344.