Tafsir Zone - Surah 10: Yunus (Jonah)

Tafsir Zone

Surah Yunus 10:0

Overview (Verses 1 - 2)

This sūrah is a single unit, difficult to divide into sections and subunits. In this respect it is similar to Sūrah 6, Cattle, which takes up Volume V of this work. However, each of the two sūrahs has its own distinctive character. This sūrah also flows in successive waves to inspire our hearts, choosing various rhythms for its address. It wonders at the outset how the unbelievers received the Qur’ān, the new revelation from on high, and follows this with scenes of the universe which reflect the truth of God’s creation and His control of the universe. This is followed with scenes of the Day of Judgement. It reflects on how people react to the events they witness and on the fate of earlier communities. Its other themes have already been referred to in the Prologue.
If we have to divide the sūrah into sections, then the first one occupies more than its first half and this flows with perfect ease. This is followed by a short account of the Prophet Noah and his mission, and a brief reference to the prophets sent after him, before giving an account of the history of the Prophet Moses and a reference to the Prophet Jonah and his community. These accounts and references form another section. The final verses in the sūrah form a section of their own. In view of the nature of this sūrah, we will attempt to discuss it in groups of waves addressing related themes.
This first section begins with three individual letters, Alif, Lām, Rā, in the same way as Sūrahs 2, 3 and 7 discussed in Volumes I, II and VI respectively. We explained in our commentary on these earlier sūrahs our view about why these sūrahs begin with such individual letters. To recap, from a linguistic point of view, these three individual letters form a subject while the predicate is the sentence that follows: ‘These are verses of the divine book, full of wisdom.’ (Verse 1)
The sūrah then refers to a number of things which reflect the wisdom to which reference is made in the description of this book, the Qur’ān. These start with a revelation to God’s Messenger so that he could warn all people and deliver a piece of happy news to the believers. It refutes the objection voiced by some people that God has chosen a human being to be the recipient of His revelations. It also refers to the creation of the heavens and the earth and how their affairs are conducted and regulated, as well as making the sun a source of bright light while the moon reflects light. Mention is also made of the stages the moon goes through and how people use these to calculate the years and measure time. The alternation of the night and day is also mentioned by way of reference to the wisdom involved in such alternation.
After presenting these scenes, the sūrah moves on to speak of those who do not reflect on such miracles and who do not expect to meet with their Lord, who creates and regulates all things. It refers to the black end that awaits those who choose to remain unaware of the import of God’s creation and, by contrast, the perfect happiness that is in store for believers. The sūrah also refers to the wisdom behind delaying the punishment till its appointed day. Had God decided to speed up the awful result of their work, they would immediately face their end.
The sūrah then reflects on the attitude of human beings to good and evil. It shows how they appeal earnestly to God to lift their suffering, and how they forget Him after He has responded to their appeals: they unhesitatingly go back to their old, errant ways. In short, they take no lesson from what happened to earlier communities who met their doom.
Although the fate of those communities was clear to the Arabs whom the Prophet Muĥammad addressed, calling on them to accept God’s message, the unbelievers asked the Prophet to bring them a different Qur’ān or change parts of it. They would not consider that the Qur’ān was revealed by God, and as such admits no change or modification. They worshipped idols which could bring them no benefit and cause them no harm, and they relied on no sound proof to support their beliefs. At the same time they denied God in spite of the revelations they received from on high supporting the call to believe in Him alone.
Furthermore, they demanded miracles, ignoring the clearly miraculous nature of the Qur’ān itself, and turning a blind eye to all signs scattered in the world around them confirming that God is the Lord of the universe.
This first passage then portrays a vivid example of how people receive God’s grace and how they react when hardship or disaster befalls them. This is given in a scene that is full of life, with people boarding ships that go easily in the sea before they face a raging storm that brings them into contact with ferocious waves from every direction.
This passage then draws another scene which describes the deceptive fleeting nature of this life, and how all its glitter vanishes in an instant, while people are dazzled by its brightness, unaware of the impending doom. At the same time, God calls on them to seek the life of peace, security and reassurance which does not end suddenly, like the present life. He states that all these signs are explained for a definite purpose: ‘Thus do We spell out Our revelations to people who think.” (Verse 24) It is such people who understand God’s wisdom in His creation and the way He conducts and regulates all matters.
Something to Marvel at
“Alif. Lām. Rā. These are verses of the divine book, full of wisdom.” (Verse 1) These are three letters of the Arabic alphabet from which all the verses of this divine book that is full of wisdom are composed. The unbelievers deny that God revealed this book to His Messenger. Furthermore, whilst they realize that these are the letters of their language, they are unable to produce a single verse similar to what the Qur’ān contains. In fact the sūrah includes a challenge to them to do so. Yet their inability to take up that challenge does not lead them to reflect that the thing which God’s Messenger has and they lack is the revelation he receives from on high. Had it not been for revelation, he would have had the same difficulty, and would have been unable to compose out of these letters that are available to all a single verse like the Qur’ān.
“These are verses of the divine book, full of wisdom.” (Verse 1) It is indeed a wise book which addresses human beings with what suits human nature. It portrays in the present sūrah some aspects that are always true of human nature, reflected across every generation. In its wisdom it calls on those who remain unaware to wake up and reflect on the signs they see all around them in the wide universe, in the heavens and the earth, in the sun and the moon, in the night and day, in the fate of earlier communities and how they had responded to the appeals of their messengers, and in everything that points to the great power that conducts and regulates all existence.
“Does it seem strange to people that We have inspired a man from their own midst: ‘Warn all mankind, and give those who believe the glad tidings that they are on a sound footing with their Lord?’ The unbelievers say: ‘This is plainly a skilled enchanter.’” (Verse 2) This is a rhetorical question which wonders at the attitude which considers the very concept of revelation strange.
Every one of God’s messengers was received with the same disbelieving question: “Has God sent a human being as His messenger?” (17: 94) This question stems from the fact that people do not appreciate the value of ‘humanity’ which they themselves represent. They find it hard to believe that a human being could be chosen as God’s messenger and that God sends down to him revelations, commanding him to make the way of guidance for others clear. They imagine that God would send an angel or some other creature belonging to a category superior to mankind. They do not realize how God has honoured man, and part of that honour is that man is well qualified to bear God’s message, and that God chooses certain human beings with whom He has this special relationship.
At the time of the Prophet Muĥammad (peace be upon him), this was the main point of contention among the unbelievers who refused to believe in his message. The same was true of the unbelievers of earlier generations and communities. In this modern age of ours, some people invent a similarly absurd doubt. They wonder: how does contact happen between a human being with his limited physical nature and God who is totally unlike everything else and whose nature is unlike the nature of everything He has created?
Such a question cannot be asked except by one who fully comprehends the nature of God Himself with all its aspects, and who also understands all the characteristics God has given to man. No one in his right mind, aware of the limitations of his reason, would make such a claim. Such a person knows that the characteristics of human nature are still being discovered today, and that scientific discovery has not come to an end. Beyond the reach of human perception and understanding there will always remain worlds unknown to man.
What this means is that human beings have latent potential known only to God. God certainly knows best to whom to assign His message. Knowing this ability is beyond all people and it may even be unknown to the person who is chosen for the task, until that choice is made. God, who has breathed of His soul into man knows every little detail of every nature. He can endow any human being with the ability to undertake this unique contact and bond in a way which can be appreciated only by those who experience it.
A number of contemporary commentators on the Qur’ān have endeavoured to prove the fact of revelation through scientific means so as to make it easier to understand. We however object to this approach. Science has its own scope and domain, and it has certain tools to suit its domain and to move within its scope. Science has not even claimed to have arrived at any certainty with regard to the spirit and human soul, because it is well beyond its domain. The spirit is not subject to the sort of material experiment which science can make. Therefore, those scientific disciplines that work within recognized scientific principles have avoided discussion of anything relating to the spirit. So-called ‘spiritual studies’ are merely attempts that have doubtful methods and very suspicious aims. The only way to arrive at any certainty in this area is to refer to the only sources of certainty which we have, namely, the Qur’ān and the Ĥadīth. We take any statement in these two sources at its face value, without adding anything to it or modifying it in any way and without drawing any conclusion on the basis of analogy. Addition, modification and analogy are all mental processes, but in this area the human mind is outside of its domain, and has no suitable tools to work with.
“Does it seem strange to people that We have inspired a man from their own midst: Warn all mankind, and give those who believe the glad tidings that they are on a sound footing with their Lord?” (Verse 2) This is in a nutshell the purpose of revelation: to warn people of the consequences of their disobedience and to deliver happy news to the believers as to the outcome of their obedience. This inevitably includes an outline of the duties that are to be fulfilled and the prohibitions to be avoided. The warning is addressed to all mankind, because it should be conveyed to all people, who must be made aware of the consequences of their actions. The happy news though is given only to the believers.
Indeed all human beings need to be warned so that they are aware of what may happen to them when they reject God’s message and refuse to follow His guidance. On the other hand, only the believers receive the happy news of reassurance and of being on firm ground. The connotations generated here by the Arabic text all point to a general atmosphere of warning. The believers are ‘on a sound footing’ which means that they are sure of their steps, unhesitating, unshakeable even during the most worrying of times. They are “on a sound footing with their Lord,” in a presence where believers find reassurance and safety while others worry as they contemplate their impending doom.