“My Lord, many a servant of yours is living through his evenings and mornings in the darkness of the seas, in the storms and the winds, through horrors and billows. He anticipates complete and utter ruin, he anticipates drowning. He does not have any means in his power. He may be afflicted by a thunderbolt, or by demolition, or burning, or choking, or the swallowing of the earth… While I am safe from all of this. So, all praise be to You, O Lord.” – Imam Musa Al-Kathim (as) in Dua Jawshan Al-Sagheer
My greatest fear growing up was to be stranded at sea on my own. I would imagine being in a plane and it falling into the ocean, yet I remain, the only survivor soon to be devoured by sharks. Quite an imagination, taking into consideration that I would of course also give myself some sort of super powers to get out of the sticky situation. Perhaps that’s why I was astounded to find that a Prophet of God once lived through my greatest fear, except instead of a plane there was a ship, and instead of sharks it was a whale.
The story of Prophet Yunus and the whale is one we were told as children. Many of us loved Pinocchio, and so perhaps that is why we found the story to resonate with us. As children we loved the magic of the story. The unlikelihood that something like Prophet Yunus’ experience inside the whale could happen in real life was astounding to the child as he/she watched adults speak about it as if it were true, and as Muslims, the Quran was all that the adults needed to prove it. This article is not to prove the possibility of such an event, but to take a lesson from it that we may not have caught as children, lost in the magic of possibility.
As far as the eye can see is water and you are in the middle of it. In the middle of nothingness, pitch black darkness all around you. You have no form of technology on you. If you screamed, no one could hear you. No one knows you are here or if you are even alive. You are surrounded by all the creatures and beasts of the wide seas, known and unknown. To make matters worse, a whale swallows you whole. You are now inside the whale’s murky belly, surrounded by the remains of all the dead creatures it has eaten. The stench of its intestines lurks around your nostrils as you struggle to stand straight whilst covered in its saliva. You can see nothing. Even if you were to somehow escape the belly of the whale you’ll be in the middle of the sea with nowhere to go, and will most likely drown soon enough.
In the same way we thought of Pinocchio when we envisioned Prophet Yunus inside of the whale as children, I invite you to do the same with another contemporary film. It could have been Titanic if Jack was alone and not surrounded by thousands of people (and a floating wardrobe that had enough room for him AND Rose), but for those who have watched Life of Pi, that image hits closer to home (albeit without the flashy lights). The following video paints a pretty picture of a problematic situation to say the least, but I want you to imagine the solitude. Imagine the hazardous beauty of the creatures of the sea, the roaring noise of the deafening silence.
So Prophet Yunus left the people he was sent to as a messenger in disappointment and anger. He gave up on them due to their heedlessness before he should have, and set off to sea. He joined a crew on a ship that he was later thrown off of into the depths of the ocean. Alone and in need, he was soon engulfed by further pits of darkness when the famous whale of the story swallowed him whole.
“And the man of the fish, when he went off in anger and thought that We would never straiten [the provision] over him. And he called out within the darknesses, “There is no deity except You; exalted are You. Indeed, I have been of the unjust.” So We responded to him and saved him from the distress. And thus do We save the believers.” (21:87-88)
The depth of this verse is so profound in its detailed use of wording when read in its original Arabic form. The word ‘thought’ here is a translation of the word ‘thanna’ in Arabic, which means to think something is probable to occur. In truth, there are many meanings to the word ‘thanna’, this being only one of them. What ‘thanna’ truly means in this particular verse is to ‘know’. It is to be sure of with utmost certainty. The question that poses itself is then what is Prophet Yunus – the man of the fish that is mentioned in the verse – so sure of?
The words that are used to answer this question are ‘We would never straiten’ in the translation or ‘lan naqdira’ in Arabic. ‘Lam’ in Arabic means ‘to not’, whereas ‘lan’ means ‘to never’. Never. There is wisdom in ‘lan’ being used here rather than ‘lam’, and that becomes clear when we look at the word ‘naqdira’. In this verse however, it means to restrict, as in to restrict the provision or ‘rizq’ that Allah sends down upon his creation. So what this means is that despite finding himself in the dire and hopeless situation many of us would be losing our minds in, Prophet Yunus is absolutely ASSURED that no matter what happens, Allah – the One whom sends down the provision of a creature such as the ant – will NEVER restrict his rizq to Yunus even within the belly of the whale.
The verse goes on to explain that whilst in this state Yunus cried something out in what is described as ‘the darknesses’. Imam Al-Ridha (as) explains that these darknesses were three: the darkness around Yunus within the whale, which was covered by the second darkness of the vast sea, which was consumed by the third darkness of the titanic sky. Whatever Prophet Yunus was to do, he would still be overwhelmed by one of the three darknesses, and he would still be haunted by the piercing blackness. So what did he cry out?
“There is no deity except You; exalted are You. Indeed, I have been of the unjust.”
‘La ilaha illa anta subhanak, inni kuntu min althaalimeen.’
This thikr is one we should all keep close to our hearts, known as the thikr of Yunus. It is the same thikr recited by Imam Hussain (as) in Dua Arafah, and it is the same thikr we recite 100 times every year on the night of power in the month of Ramadan when we read Dua Jawshan. It is the thikr of the hopeless, when one has been blinded by all the darkness in their life; this is the thikr that provides the light for one who wishes to see. To call out the thikr of Yunus in all humility with your forehead placed onto the earth (or in a whale for that matter), you yourself become the lantern.
Prophet Yunus’ call was answered and Allah ordered the whale to take Yunus to shore, to bring him to land alive and safe. This story is an example to us, to show us that even in the darkest depths of the ocean, one was so sure and trustworthy in the love of Allah that he knew there was no way Allah would ever leave him. Brothers and sisters, whatever you are going through right now, whatever darkness you are surrounded by, if you look to Him, there is no way Allah will leave you. Never. In the relative words of Andrea Gibson:
‘I know our wounds are deep as the Atlantic.
But every ocean has a shoreline
and every shoreline has a tide
that is constantly returning
to wake the songbirds in our hands,
to wake the music in our bones,
to place one fearless kiss on the mouth of that brave river
that has to run through the centre of our hearts
to find its way home.’
He is always with us; be sure of it. It is time we are with Him.
“So We responded to him and saved him from the distress. And thus do We save the believers.”