فَلَوْلَا كَانَتْ قَرْيَةٌ آمَنَتْ فَنَفَعَهَا إِيمَانُهَا إِلَّا قَوْمَ يُونُسَ لَمَّا آمَنُوا كَشَفْنَا عَنْهُمْ عَذَابَ الْخِزْيِ فِي الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَمَتَّعْنَاهُمْ إِلَىٰ حِينٍ
If only there had been a community that believed (just when God’s decree of punishment was issued) and profited by their belief—there was none except the people of Jonah. When they came to believe, We withdrew from them the punishment of disgrace in the life of this world, and We allowed them to enjoy life for a term. (Yūnus 10:98)
The withdrawal of the decreed punishment mentioned in this verse about the people of Jonah can be interpreted in the following ways:
First, this can be a treatment of God particular to them and the likes of which has never happened in history, neither before nor after it.
Second, it sometimes occurs that the signs of a disaster appear, but a good deed like sincere repentance, prayer, or charity performed just at that time attracts God’s pardoning and causes the withdrawal of the disaster. Although individual cases of this can be witnessed many times, the withdrawal of punishment from a whole people occurred only once. When Prophet Jonah, upon him be peace, left his people, they came to their senses, turned towards God with belief, and sincerely repented. According to some reports, they began expressing their repentance and belief, saying: “All-Glorified are You (in the sense that You are absolutely free from and exalted above having partners). There is no Deity but You. Surely we have wronged ourselves (by associating partners with You).” According to other more reliable reports, they turned to God with an encompassing supplication containing the acknowledgement and proclamation of God’s Unity and His glorification, exaltation, and praise. They exclaimed: “All-Glorified is Allāh, and all praise is for Allāh, and there is no deity but Allāh. Allāh is the All-Great. There is no power and no strength save with Allāh.” In return, God withdrew His punishment from them out of His special mercy and forgiveness and allowed them to remain in the world for some time more in submission to Him.
Third, according to the Divine Law, when God willed to punish a community, He always commanded His Messenger among that community to leave it before the punishment came. As for Prophet Jonah, he left the land of his community before he received the command. Therefore, God judged that he would be swallowed by a fish while he was voyaging in the sea. Prophet Jonah, peace be upon him, turned to God in the belly of the fish, saying: “There is no deity but You, All-Glorified You are (in that You are absolutely above having any defect). Surely, I have been one of the wrongdoers (who have wronged themselves)” (Al-Anbiyā’ 21:87). The sincere prayers of both Prophet Jonah and his people attracted God’s particular forgiveness and favor.
Considering the fact that “falaw-lā”—the first word of the verse under discussion—means “if only” like its synonym of “hal-lā,” the verse is interpreted as, “If only there had been a community that believed (just when God’s decree of punishment was issued) and profited by their belief.” Therefore, it encourages believers to turn to God, repent, and atone for their sins sincerely in order to be protected against God’s punishment, which sometimes comes in the form of disasters in the world. We should approach whatever takes place in life and history from the perspective that the Qur’ān provides for us and take the necessary lesson, living carefully in submission to God in the face of any possible disaster.
Our Lord! Show us the truth as true and enable us to follow it, and show us falsehood as false and enable us to refrain from it.