By Emad Botros
As I was reading my colleague Martin Accad’s ABTS Blog article from last year, “What’s in a Name?: A Case for Using ‘Isa in Arabic Translations of the Bible,” my mind continually turned to another Biblical figure, Jonah, who appears in the Arabic Bible under the name Yunan and in the Qur’an under the name Yūnus. While Martin took us on a journey to explore some possible suggestions for the Qur’anic use of the name Issa, rather than the Arabic name Yasu‘ in Arabic translations, I thought more about the relationship between the Biblical story of Jonah (Yunan) and that of Yūnus in the Qur’an and how our understanding of these stories affects our attitude towards the Qur’an. Furthermore, I considered the implications this understanding of the relationship between sacred texts has on our approaches to thinking about and engaging with Muslims.
I recently taught a seminary course on Reading Jonah in a Middle Eastern Context. In this class, students asked some questions: Is Yūnus the same person as Jonah? Why does the Qur’an change the name of the prophet Jonah to Yūnus? Why do we have a different “version” of the story of Jonah in the Qur’an? All these questions, and many others, are common, legitimate, and have been entertained by scholars and practitioners for some time.
If we carefully examine these kinds of questions, then we can identify two main presuppositions. The first is the notion that Muhammad and the authors of the Qur’an purposely and with ill will changed the details of the story to show the “true” version of it. The second is the assumption that when we have two different accounts of the same story, it must be that one is true and the other is “corrupted”, particularly in the context of religious dialogue. For my students, however, they firmly asserted that our ‘own’ story, the Biblical account, is THE true story, not only because it is the oldest version but also because there are pieces/details of the story that Qur’an leaves out.
The practical implications of such assumptions affect the church’s engagement with the Qur’an, and consequently Muslims, as it leads many Christians today to avoid any interaction with Muslims and their sacred text. This reality manifests itself in the classroom, particularly when I ask students to read the story of Yūnus in the Qur’an or read it with a Muslim friend. The first and quick response I get is simply this: “We never read the Qur’an, and we don’t have Muslim friends”- even though they live in a Muslim majority context. Indeed, these are very common responses by many throughout the region as they wrestle with the idea of understanding relationships between Christian and Islamic faiths.
Allow me to share the following thoughts that I have discussed with students about the Jonah narratives found in the Bible and the Quran. These thoughts can help us become more relevant to our ministry contexts and re-examine our attitude towards Muslims and their sacred text.
When we read the four accounts of Yūnus’ story in the Qur’an (al-Qalam 68:48–50, al-Anbiyāʾ 21:87–88, aṣ-Ṣāffāt 37:139–148, and Yūnus 10:98), we see that these accounts are brief and condensed. They appear in various contexts in the middle of a chain of other prophets. Each account is purposefully situated to correspond thematically with the message of the surrounding texts. This understanding of the characteristics of the narrative of Yūnus, and of prophetic narratives in the Qur’an in general, shows that the Qur’an does not attempt to re-tell the exact “version” found in the Bible. Rather, they function as illustrations, where Muhammad and his community draw out moral lessons for application to their lives and contexts. In this sense, these stories illuminate the immediate literary concerns that the Qur’an attempts to address. For example, Yūnus is presented as a man of prayer whom God saves, and thus becomes a model for Muhammad and his community to follow (al-Anbiyāʾ 21:87–88). When Muhammad and his community face severe criticism or go through trials, they should follow the example of Yūnus by calling upon God and trust that God will save them as he saved Yūnus.
It is misleading to use the term Qur’anic version of a Biblical narrative with reference to prophetic narratives in the Qur’an in general, and the narrative of Yūnus in particular. This common assumption supposes that the Qur’an is quoting directly from the Bible and that Muhammad and the Qur’an purposely, and with ill will, changed the details of the story to show the “true version” of it. A careful analysis of the material found in classical Islamic exegesis of the Qur’an shows that Muhammad, his community, and the author(s) of the Qur’an had access to the Jewish-Christian religious heritage and combined both Biblical and extra Biblical traditions in rendering Jewish and Christian stories.
As Muhammad and his community reflected on the Jewish-Christian heritage on the story of Jonah, it is likely that their primary purpose was to make the story relevant to their own life and contexts. This understanding of how the Qur’an uses the prophetic narratives suits well its own claims about these narratives as lessons, reminders, points of guidance, and teaching of mercy for the believers while encouraging Muhammad as he faces severe criticism:
So, (Prophet), We have relayed the accounts of the (earlier) messengers to you in order to make your heart firm. The truth comes to you through these accounts, as well as lessons and reminders for the believers. (Hūd 11:120)
In the stories of these men, there is a lesson for those who understand. (As for this Qur’an), it could not possibly be a discourse invented (by the Prophet). No, it is a confirmation of what is available to him from prior revelations, clearly spelling out everything, and (offering) guidance and mercy to people who will believe. (Yūsuf 12:111)
Thus, the stories of the prophets and their moral orientation invites us to view Muhammad and his community in the Qur’an as a community inspired by the wonders and the experiences of ancient heroes who are meant to exemplify in their moral behaviors the true believer. Is there then a lesson we can learn from Jonah/Yūnus in this discussion?
Anger or Compassion? Jonah and Yūnus in Conversation!
Indeed, if we look carefully at the story of Jonah in the Bible, we cannot help but reflect on the prophet’s angry attitude. Even the Qur’an takes note of this prohibited behavior, and warns Muhamad and the people “to not be like the angry Yūnus” (al-Qalam 68:48). At the end of the Biblical story, however, God challenges Jonah and, through the illustration of the gourd plant, he shows him his compassionate character as related to his creation. If there is one lesson the followers of Christ should learn from the story of Jonah, it is simply this: we must reflect the character of a compassionate God.
One practical way to do this is in the way in which we relate to Muslims and their sacred text. For example, we should be compassionate as we learn that the Muslim community is inspired by prophetic narratives. The relationship between the Biblical and Quranic narratives should not be developed into a polemical argument, but rather into a compassionate and relational discourse that encourages conversation with one another. In this sense, we should not discard the sacred texts of the other tradition. Rather, we are encouraged to read the sacred texts of both traditions, seeking to build on common grounds, while keeping the distinctive character of each story. With this compassionate attitude, we can let Jonah and Yūnus continue their conversation with one another. The question remains: Would it be possible to learn from the Qur’an? Could this knowledge help us as we develop our theology in a Middle Eastern context? I will leave the answer to these questions for another blog!
Emad Botros is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at ABTS and is currently part of a writing project that Windows on the Biblical Text: Reading the Bible in the Context of Islam.