A segment of the story of Prophet Yunus (peace be upon him) is mentioned in two places in the Qur’an: Chapter 21 (Al-Anbiya) and Chapter 37 (As-Saffat). In Chapter 21, he is presented as Dhu al-Nun which means, the Companion of the Fish. Notwithstanding, the Chapter 10 is named after this prophet.
There is no doubt, according to the Qur’an, and even the narration in the Bible (The Book of Jonah), that Yunus was swallowed by a great fish and God delivered him after spending some days in the belly of the fish. The following is the gist of the story mentioned in tafsir al-Mizan:
Yunus was sent to the people of Ninevah and he called them to the religion of God and they belied him. Thus he asked God to punish them. When the punishment was about to descend upon them, they repented and believed so God removed the punishment from them. Since Yunus had left his people, God tested him with a great fish that swallowed him. Thereupon, Yunus called God while in the belly of the fish and thus God delivered him and sent him to his people the second time. (, English volume 28)
The question is whether Yunus did any wrong leaving his people and why did God test him with a great fish if he did not do any wrong?
The story mentioned in Chapter 37 (As-Saffat) begins like this:
And Yunus was one of the messengers. Behold, he fled to the laden ship. And cast lots, and was one of those who were cast off. So the fish swallowed him while he was blameworthy.Qur’an – 37:139-142
Allamah Tabataba’i, in commenting on these verses says:
“Here, the verb abaqa (translated as, he fled) implies that he left and turned away from his people. He did not disobey his Lord when he left them since his Lord had not forbidden him from doing so; however, it was similar to how a slave might flee his master, and so God took him to task for that.”
Unlike the explanation offered by other exegetes, Tabataba’i makes another interesting comment about the above verses. He explains that it appears that a particular fish (based on the article “the fish”) was burdening the ship (al-fulk) so the sailors were compelled to throw one of their own overboard into the sea for it to eat, so that it would leave the ship alone. They cast lots, and the lot fell to Yunus.
Other exegetes explain that there was a violent storm in the sea (as depicted in the image above) and it was customary for the people to cast lots and throw someone overboard to get rid of the bad omen. When the lot fell to Yunus, he was thrown overboard and while in the sea, a fish swallowed him. Some of the exegetes also say that the swallowing of Yunus by the fish was a punishment for him leaving his people. The Qur’an does not mention anything of this sort.
As a matter of fact, the swallowing of Yunus by the fish can be deemed as an honor for God’s messenger according to the following tradition in ʿIlal al-Sharāʾiʿ:
I [Abu Basir] asked Imam al-Sadiq, “Why did God deflect punishment from the people of Yunus when it was hanging over them, but He did not do that for any other people?”
He (the Imam) said, “This was because it was in the knowledge of God that He would deflect it from them due to their repenting. However, He did not inform Yunus of that because He wanted to free him [from other considerations] for worship in the belly of the whale, and for him to merit being rewarded and honored for this.”
The above tradition shows that the Divine intent (irādah ʿazm) intended that Prophet Yunus should leave his people so that he ends up in the belly of the fish. If Yunus had not left his people, he would have overpowered the Divine intent!
For detail explanation of the story of Yunus in tafsir al-Mizan, readers are advised to refer to English volume 28 and the upcoming English volume 33.