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Can We Learn From the Qur’an?: The Prayer of Yūnus

by Emad Botros

In a previous ABTS Blog post I made the argument that the Jonah of the Bible and the Yūnus of the Quran are the same character. The post concluded with the questions: is it possible to learn from the Qur’an? Can the Qur’an help us as we develop theology in a Middle Eastern context?

When I first heard this phrase “learning from the Qur’an” during my PhD studies I resisted the idea and answered firmly with “NO!” As a committed Evangelical, the Bible is the only authoritative book to learn from. How then can I learn from another religious book other than the Bible? What could I learn from the Qur’an? If I learn from another religious book, like the Qur’an, would I not give this book authority over my life and allow it to impact me spiritually?

As I began to entertain these questions, I thought it would be better to put the idea into practice by reading the prayer of Yūnus in the Qur’an and other Islamic literature. From this exercise I have learned the followings:

1) I have learned new things about my own text and how others apply it to their lives. When it comes to the story of Yūnus, I grew up in Sunday school listening to this “cool” story of a man swallowed by a whale, and for some today this is the most important well-known part of the story. This is also the case in Islam, particularly the Qur’an. The name of Yūnus in the Qur’an is associated by this well-known accident; He is defined in the Qur’an as the Man of the fish “ذا النون” (21:87) and the Companion of the Whale “صاحب الحوت” (68:48). However, it was illuminating to know that the prayer of Yūnus while in the belly of the whale is the most important prayer that Muslims pray during times of distress: “There is no Allah but you, glory be to you, I was one of the wrongdoers,” (Q 21:87).

Unsurprisingly, this led me to shift my focus from this “cool” part of the story to other important events that I had not paid enough attention to before. Here, I began to understand how my Muslim friends and neighbours relate to the story of Yūnus on a daily basis, and maybe how we should too. Questions such as whether Yūnus chapter 2 is a late interpolation, as some Western scholars suggest, become irrelevant in my own context. This too helped me to be very careful about the kind of questions that I need to address while working towards developing resources and commentaries in Islamic contexts. We can conclude that it is more effective to focus on the questions that are more relevant to my own context and to learn about how Muslims relate to my own text.

2) I have learned about the similarities and differences between the prayer of Yūnus in both traditions. As I continued my exercise of reading the payer of Yūnus in the Qur’an, I discovered that while Yūnus thanks God for his salvation (in a thanksgiving psalm), Yūnus asks for God’s forgiveness. At this point I tried to develop the habit of understanding the Qur’an on its own terms. This kind of practice requires listening to what the Qur’an is saying while temporarily suspending my own judgements. This, however, does not ignore the fact that there is a distinctive worldview presented in each book. It rather attempts to sympathetically consider the kind of questions that my Muslims friends might have as they read the prayer of Yūnus. Indeed, there is no better illustration to explain this idea than the imagery of family members sitting around camp fire that John Kaltner offers:

[Family members decided] to set up a camp, sit down around the hearth, and begin to heal the centuries-old rift that has divided the family for too long. Nothing brings family together like reminiscing and remembering days gone by. The wonderful thing about such gatherings is that no two family members recall the same event in exactly the same way, and as each person shares his or her own memories, the complexity and richness of the family history are revealed to all. The Bible and the Qur’an are, in a sense, the written record of one such family history told from different perspectives. Imagine a reconciliation between Ishmael and Isaac in which they sit around the fire swapping family stories and telling their own versions of what happened. How much they would learn about themselves and each other.[1]

3) I have learned to tell our biblical story more effectively. As I read about the prayer of Yūnus in the Qur’an, I began to understand the kind of questions Muslims might have as they read the same story in the Bible. These questions can be of great help in pointing to certain “blind spots” that I have not considered when trying to explain my faith in a Middle Eastern context. For example, there are two main questions my Muslim friends might ask: Why does Yūnus not demonstrate repentance in his prayer? Why does he thank and praise God instead of repenting? These questions arise from the distinctive role of the whale in both traditions; while the whale is a means of salvation in Bible, it is a means of punishment in the Qur’an. It also shows the irony that the Bible tries to present of how Yūnus approaches his own salvation with praise and thanksgiving, while the salvation of Nineveh raises his anger!

As someone who attempts to interpret the Bible in the context of Islam, I have learned that my reading of the Qur’an can aid in communicating my own story by taking into considerations the kind of questions Muslims might have as they read the Bible. Thus, Islamic literature in general, and the Qur’an in particular, can be a great resource as I attempt to interpret the prayer of Yūnus in the context of Islam.

I understand the kind of resistance some might have to the idea that one could benefit or receive any help from reading the Qur’an to interpret the Bible. I can relate to this as someone who, like many other Christians in the Middle East- and maybe around the world- could not see how reading the Qur’an could help me interpret the biblical text better in my own context. Therefore, we have decided to avoid engaging the Qur’an. It is time to re-think our attitudes towards the Qur’an if we desire to interpret our biblical text ways that are understandable to the majority around us.

Indeed, I can learn a lot from reading the Qur’an! I can learn about the religious other with whom I live and interact on a daily basis; I can learn things about my own text that I easily missed because my focus was somewhere else; I can learn about how others relate to my own biblical stories in a very practical way. All these insights have been very helpful as I am trying to interpret the Bible in the context of Islam.

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.

 [1] Kaltner, Ishmael Instructs Isaac, 20.

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