Glory and Urgent Need: Explanation of the Special Supplication of Prophet Yunus

Answered by Shaykh Shuaib Ally

Question: Assalam alaykum,

Can you please teach me the supplication of Yunus (peace be upon him)? Is it the dua’ that one can read in any type of distress, such as having a mental illness?

Answer: Wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatullah,

What is the Supplication of Yunus (peace be upon him)?

The supplication is recounted in a chapter of the Qur’an known as ‘The Prophets’:

87-Surah Al-Anbya - The Noble Qur'an - القرآن الكريم

88-Surah Al-Anbya - The Noble Qur'an - القرآن الكريم

And remember the man with the whale, when he went off angrily, thinking We would not take him to task, but then cried out in the deep darkness, ‘There is no God but You, glory be to You, I was one of the wrongdoers.’(la ilaha illa ant(a), subhanak(a), inni kuntu mina’dh dhalimin) We answered him and saved him from distress; this is how we save the faithful (Qur’an, 21.87-8).

What makes this Supplication Special?

The supplication is made up of three main components:

The First Component

This part is concerned with establishing oneness of divinity, and its concomitant attributes of perfection, such as in terms of knowledge, power, mercy, wisdom, and goodness to humanity, all of which demand the highest levels of both love and humility.

This is accomplished by the Prophet Yunus declaring that there is no God or anything worthy of being worshipped but Him.

In his context of dire need, being in the belly of the whale, it also serves as his indicating that God is the only one worthy of being called upon and the only one who can possibly deliver him.

The Second Component

This second section is concerned with negating from the Divine the attribution of any type or form of imperfection.

Subhanak! to Negate

This is accomplished by the Prophet Yunus declaring “Subhanak!” This is often rendered as “Glory be to you,” but exegetes describe it as encompassing the idea of removing from the Divine any hint of imperfection.

In the Prophet Yunus’ case, his declaring so has special significance. Here, he wants to deny of God any trace of injustice, and the possibility that he was punished without cause. Rather, he seeks to indicate that he was the one who wronged himself, and is therefore deserving of his current predicament.

In this manner, his declaration mirrors the Qur’anic trope: “we have not been unjust to them; rather, they themselves are the ones who are unjust” [Qur’an; 43.76].

His declaration thus also serves as a natural prelude to his own clear admission of wrongdoing, which is the final part of his supplication.

Subhanak! to Affirm

It is also worth noting that while “Subhanak!” is often thought of as a negating of imperfection with respect to the Divine, it is also meant to denote the opposite; that is, the Divine’s positive traits of perfection.

This is, generally speaking, a Qur’anic method as well. One example is when it describes God in the Throne Verse, saying “neither tiredness nor sleep overtakes Him” [Qur’an; 2.255]; while this is a denial of certain negative characteristics, it is also meant to attribute to Him the opposite, such as complete power and ability to do as He pleases.

In the Prophet Yunus’ case, his declaration doesn’t simply negate the possibility that He has been unjust with him, but is an affirmation of His dealing with him, and by extension all others, in the most just of manners.

The Third Component

In this final portion of his supplication, the Prophet Yunus articulates his request. Imam al-Biqa’i says that he does this by attributing to himself the kind of deficiency he had just negated with respect to God.

This is an admission from him that he had been one of the wrongdoers, in that he left his community and task at hand before having being granted divine permission.

He has thus, in this short supplication, contrasted the perfect lordship of the Divine with his having fallen short in fulfilling the rights demanded by the One characterized as such.

Why does he ask in an Indirect Manner?

It is readily apparent that the supplication of the Prophet Yunus doesn’t include a direct request for forgiveness. However his confession of wrongdoing also subliminally includes such a request.

This is because at times a petitioner will ask in the form of a clear and direct request; other times, they will ask by describing their own state of need, or by describing the state of the person being asked, or both.

This is common in the Qur’an. The Prophet Noah (peace be upon him) says, “Lord, I seek refuge in you from asking for something I have no knowledge of; if you do not forgive me and have mercy on me, I will be among the losers” [Qur’an, 11.48]. Here, he describes what would happen were God to not forgive and have mercy on him.

Likewise, the Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) says, “Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves; if you do not forgive us and have mercy on us, we will be among the losers” [Qur’an; 7.23]. The expression of need here thus is also meant to include a request for forgiveness.

While both forms of supplication – direct and indirect – are used, it has been noted that the indirect form is a softer form of asking, and is thus reflective of good conduct and humility in supplicating. Moreover, it is a good way of asking because it makes clear one’s own state of need with utmost humility.

This is akin to telling someone you are in a poor financial condition, or are hungry, or the like, instead of openly asking for financial assistance. A magnanimous person will understand from your description of your own state that they are being asked for help.

In the case of Prophet Yunus, he describes his own state that requires forgiveness. He also describes his Lord in a manner that seemingly necessitates His answering his prayer, and indicates that he has none to turn to but Him.

Moreover, his own situation, which is one of confession of his own misdeed, calls for not using a direct request, because he felt that he was the one who had brought this upon himself. It was thus appropriate to mention what would remove the cause of his predicament, which was a clear confession on his part.

Can I Recite this Supplication for any type of Distress?

One can and should recite this supplication in any and all forms of distress. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported to have indicated divine deliverance to anyone who recites it. He (peace be upon him) is reported to have said in a hadith, recorded by Tirmidhi and others:
The supplication of my brother Dhu al-Nun, “There is no God but you; Glory be to You; I was one of the wrongdoers”: Every person in a state of distress who has used this supplication has had God remove his distress [Tirmidhi].

General Note on Benefiting from Stories in the Qur’an

One should keep in mind that Qur’anic stories are not meant to entertain. Rather, they are told so that we can benefit from them, either by following good conduct, or abstaining from the described poor conduct.

Stories of the Prophets or righteous people in the Qur’an are meant to demonstrate to us God’s grace to those who prioritize Him. Importantly, we are meant to realize that if we follow in their footsteps, we too can similarly attain His grace. If this were out of reach, or did not apply to us, there would be no benefit in telling us these stories.

This is why God himself ends the narrative on the deliverance of Yunus with an assurance to us, saying, “In the same manner, we grant deliverance to believers.” This is to indicate to us that his grace is in reach and attainable by normal people who turn to Him in repentance, and not a specific elect.

For more, please see Ibn Taymiyyah’s excellent discussion of this prayer in his collection of legal opinions and writings, from which this answer largely derives.

Source: Majmu’ Fatawa Ibn Taymiyyah

Shuaib Ally