Twenty miles south of Beirut is a sandy beach called Jiyeh. It’s a rare interlude in Lebanon’s rocky coastline, and if you were out in the Mediterranean, crying for deliverance as currents swirled about you, waves and breakers sweeping over you, this is where you’d want God to command a fish to vomit you onto dry land.
And this is, in fact, the spot where ancient legend says that the Hebrew prophet Jonah was delivered safely to shore.
Jonah has long been honored here. Mosaics found in the ruins of a 1,500-year-old Byzantine church show the prophet who tried to run away from his mission to Nineveh getting turned around by a large fish. And today there is a Muslim mosque on the site with a shrine to Jonah.
The Hebrew story of the reluctant prophet is beloved not only by Christians but also by those who hold the Qur’an to be the final revelation of God. And chiseled on the shrine is the verse that he prayed from the belly of the fish, which Muhammad urged Muslims to recite when in trouble.
“The most common prayer of Muslims during times of crisis is the prayer of Jonah,” Emad Botros, professor of Old Testament at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, told CT. “We share a heritage with Muslims. And what is better to share than stories?”
Botros is one of a few scholars turning to Jonah as a site of common interest connecting Christians and Muslims. He has written a book, Jonah: Bible Commentaries from Muslim Contexts, the second volume in a series on reading the Bible in the context of Islam. He thinks the story of the prophet—along with other shared stories—can help start a conversation across the faiths.
“The prophets of old were the heroes of Muhammad,” Botros said. “Knowing his reflections helps us communicate our biblical stories more effectively.”
The Qur’an’s account of Jonah—which Muslims believe was divinely revealed through the archangel Gabriel—is different from the version in the Hebrew Bible. In the Muslim version, the city he’s going to is not named as Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire. It’s only a city with 100,000 people or more. The Qur’an does not mention how long the prophet was in the belly of a fish, compared to the biblical three days, and it emphasizes how dark it was. The fleeing prophet is also compared to a fugitive slave, something the Bible doesn’t do.
Jonah also has a different name. In the Arabic-language translations of the Bible, he’s known as Yunan. In the Qur’an, he’s Yunis.
According to Botros, some Christians engaged in apologetics have called these differences errors. Some have even argued that Muhammad willfully altered the details of the original, showing he didn’t really respect the Bible. Botros says this is the wrong way for Christians to think about the differences.
Muhammad’s use of Jonah is similar to Paul’s retelling of the story of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians, he said, or even Jesus’ reference to Jonah in Matthew 12:39–41. These are extrapolations and new applications, not meant to challenge the original.
“The Qur’an is a sermon,” Botros said. “It narrates the stories of prophets as illustrations, just as a preacher in church. … As a Christian reader, it helps me know how they understand it and the questions it raises for them.”
Mustafa Akyol, author of The Islamic Jesus, said early Muslims recognized that many of the Qur’an’s accounts of Bible prophets, including Jonah, Job, Elijah, and Elisha, were very truncated. They were encouraged to “ask those who were before you” if they had doubts and developed a body of literature called the Israiliyyat that drew from Scripture and Jewish tradition.
“In many cases, the Qur’an merely alludes to the Bible, assuming that it is already known,” Akyol said. Early followers of Muhammad didn’t mind turning to the stories with biblical details, because they didn’t have “any doubt it is a former revelation of God.”
As polemics among Muslims, Jews, and Christians increased, however, many Muslim scholars grew uncomfortable with the Israiliyyat, Akyol said. They emphasized the concept of tahrif—altering or distorting—and started to vehemently object to any suggestion the Qur’an was riffing on the Hebrew Bible.
“Today, Muslims theoretically respect the Bible,” Akyol said, “but hardly ever learn from it.” The story of Jonah is intriguing enough, though, that some Muslims might pick up a Bible to learn more.
And in the other direction, Jonah provides Christians with a chance to engage with the perspectives of another faith tradition.
At the shrine in Jiyeh, the Sunni imam Milad al-Khatib thinks the prophet’s story applies beyond each tradition, to Muslims, Christians, and everyone.
“You, me, and everyone are commissioned to call others to God,” he tells visitors to the mosque on the beach in Lebanon. “If sent on a mission, do not depart from it.”
A number of Christian scholars are also urging Christians to listen to more Islamic voices, including Muslim views of biblical figures, such as Jonah. Ida Glaser, cofounder of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies in Oxford, is coediting a series called Reading the Bible in Islamic Context. One volume offers a Muslim commentary on Galatians while another, still in progress, looks at Daniel.
Although she doesn’t believe the Qur’an is inspired, Glaser said Christians can learn from it.
“The Qur’an functions as the authoritative commentary on the Bible for a large segment of the world’s population,” she said. “But Christian scholars consult every book besides it.”
Understanding the Muslim view may help Christians explain their faith better. But it could also help them understand their faith better. Looking at the versions of a story can draw attention to details that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.
In the Qur’an’s Jonah story, for example, the prophet prays, “Glory be to you, for I have certainly done wrong.” In the Bible, Jonah never agrees he’s erred. God relents, but Jonah never does.
“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love,” Jonah complains in 4:2–3. “Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
He doesn’t want the people he’s preached to to receive God’s grace. And the book ends with a question that Jonah doesn’t answer.
Readers should be surprised by that, said John Kaltner, professor of Muslim-Christian relations and coauthor, with Younus Mirza, of The Bible and the Qur’an. “They can then reflect on their response, if God’s mercy takes them somewhere they don’t expect to go.”
Botros, an Egyptian evangelical, says that studying the story of Jonah convicted him about his need to love his Muslim neighbors.
“Like Jonah, I had anger in my heart, but toward Muslims,” he said. “And instead of taking it to God, I ran away.”
As a student at the seminary in Lebanon where he now teaches, he resisted sharing about his faith. Many Middle Eastern Christians see Muslims as the source of their problems, he said, and he felt that if he talked to them about Jesus, he would be rejected.
But then he read about Jonah. In the Qur’an, the account of the prophet includes a call for tolerance: “Had God willed, all people on earth would be believers. Will you then force them?” He realized he wasn’t forcing anyone to believe anything, and was only responsible for having a conversation.
In recent years, he’s been thinking about how the biblical account of Jonah teaches about God’s great concern for people. But it also corresponds to Muhammad’s plea for Muslims to think of Jonah when they are in trouble. God tells the prophet he cares about the many children in Nineveh, the animals, and also believers who run away—anyone lost in the belly of a big fish.
“Jonah teaches us about the compassion of God,” Botros said. “In times of crisis, Christians and Muslims both call out to God, and he hears their prayers. Let us pray with them; it shows
Jayson Casper is Middle East correspondent for Christianity Today.
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