In the name of God, the Lord of Grace, the Ever Merciful Jonah too was one of Our messengers. He deserted, going on the laden ship. They cast lots, and he was the one who lost. The whale swallowed him, for he was to blame. Had he not been of those who truly glorified God, he would have remained in the whale’s belly till Resurrection Day. We caused him to be cast out, sick, on a barren shore and caused a gourd tree to grow over him. Then We sent him to (a community of) one hundred thousand or more, They believed, so We let them enjoy life for a while. (Ranged in Rank, Al-Saffat: 37: 139-148)
After giving us the powerful scene of the sacrifice Abraham and Ishmael were required to give, in fulfillment of God’s command, the surah gave us a few glimpses of some of Abraham’s descendants including Isaac, Moses, Aaron, and Elijah, then added a glimpse of Lot and the fate of his people. The last of these glimpses from the history of earlier messengers is the one we are looking at today. It concerns Jonah and what happened to him.
The Qur’an does not mention where Jonah’s people lived, but it is understood that they were not far from the sea. Reports tell us that Jonah was frustrated by his people’s continued denial of his message and the truth it made clear. He warned them against God’s impending punishment and then abandoned them in anger. His anger led him to the seashore, where he boarded a laden ship.
When the ship was in the middle of the sea, it was hit by a raging storm. It was widely believed at that time that such a disaster signaled that among the passengers there must be someone who had incurred God’s anger. For the ship to withstand the storm that person had to be thrown overboard.
They, thus, drew lots and Jonah was the one who lost. Although they knew him to be a virtuous and God-fearing man, the drawing of his lot was confirmed. Therefore, they threw him into the sea, or he might have jumped himself.
Nonetheless, he was swallowed by the whale, deserving of blame, because he had abandoned the assignment God had given him, leaving his people in anger before seeking God’s permission.
When he felt acute distress inside the whale’s belly, he glorified God and prayed for His forgiveness, stating that he had wronged himself. He said in his prayer: “There is no deity other than You! Limitless are You in Your glory! I have done wrong indeed!” God answered his prayer, and the whale cast him out.
The surah makes it clear that “had he not been of those who truly glorified God, he would have remained in the whale’s belly till Resurrection Day.” When he was cast out, he was both sick and naked. Therefore God “caused a gourd tree to grow over him,” its broad leaves covering him. It also protected him against flies, which are said not to come near this plant. This was part of the favor God bestowed on him. When he had recovered, God returned him to the people whom he had left in anger. In turn, they feared that his warnings would come true, and they believed, praying for God’s forgiveness. God thus accepted them, sparing them the punishment He inflicts on people who deny His message: “They believed, so We let them enjoy life for a while.” They numbered a hundred thousand or more, and all of them became believers.
This brief account of Jonah’s story explains the fate of those who believe, so contrasting the fate of the unbelievers in the other stories. Let the Arabs, who received the message of Muhammad (peace be upon him), choose which fate they prefer.
After this comes the last part in which the surah builds on the main themes already discussed, particularly the historical accounts given in the second part which explain the true nature of the relation between God and His servants to refute the superstitions circulated among the Arabs. In one such superstition, the Arabs claimed that the angels were God’s daughters, and in another, they alleged that a marriage relation existed between God and the jinn. The surah now puts before them what they said before God’s message was delivered to them.
This was when they expressed dear hopes that God would send them a messenger and when they emphasized that they would follow the guidance such a messenger provided. Yet when God sent them the Messenger they asked for they resorted to disbelief. The surah concludes by stating God’s promise to His messengers that they will end victorious, disassociating God from all the unbelievers’ claims, and praising God, the Lord of all the worlds.
– Commentary by Sayyid Qutb