The Sabbath Breakers

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This story relates to a small fishing community comprised of Bani Israel. During this time, because of their persistent disobedience and stubbornness, Allah decreed many injunctions against them as a punishment for their rebellious behaviour but also as a means of them cleansing their sins. Much of these injunctions and rules were therefore trials for the Bani Israel.

One of these injunctions was the observance of the Sabbath (Saturday), where Bani Israel was completely prohibited from doing any work or lighting a fire. For this fishing village, it meant that they were not allowed to fish on Saturdays.

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This injunction was particularly difficult to comply with, because by the power of Allah, the seas in which they fished proved to be poor fishing ground for six days of the week, but on every Saturday, all types of fish would appear in the same sea, and were so abundant and prominent that they could even be seen playing at the surface. On all other days, the same fish would vanish and the fishermen would come back empty handed. The appearance of the plentiful fish was a trial from Allah to test the faith, obedience and patience of the community.

This greatly frustrated the fishermen. They could not tolerate the observance of the Sabbath any longer, but at the same time, did not want to outrightly disobey Allah. Therefore, they devised a scheme to circumvent Allah’s order. They would lay out their fishing traps on Fridays, and the fish that visited on Saturdays were caught in the traps. On Sundays, the fishermen would collect the fish. In doing so, they deliberately disobeyed Allah – even if technically they did not fish on Saturdays, the fish in fact were caught because of their trickery and deception. They understood that they were breaching the observance of Sabbath in substance. As time passed they became more daring and flouted Allah’s command openly.

In actual fact, the trial was to be a cleansing for their sins and disobedience, but they were unable to withstand that trial.

Allah the Almighty says: “And ask them (O Muhammad) (SAW) about the town that was by the sea; when they transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath (i.e. Saturday): when their fish came to them openly on the Sabbath day, and did not come to them on the day they had no Sabbath. Thus We made a trial of them, for they used to rebel against Allah’s Command (disobey Allah).” (Al Qur’an 7:163)

The rest of the villagers, who did not participate in such sinful acts, were divided into two groups. The first actively disapproved of the actions and warned the wrongdoers to rectify their ways before the punishment and torment of Allah fell upon them.

The second remained silent in the face of all this wrongdoing. They did nothing to reprimand the wrongdoers. They allowed the disobedience to continue, even though they did not actively participate in such wrongdoing. They also disapproved of the first group’s (the ones that tried to forbid the wrong) actions, asking: “Why do you preach to a people whom Allah is about to destroy or to punish with a severe torment?” meaning, in today’s terms, why bother correcting these people, because Allah will punish them anyway?

The first group was aware that if they did not actively try to stop the wrongs that were openly committed, then the torture and punishment of Allah would descend upon the whole community, and not just on the wrongdoers. They wanted to clearly disassociate themselves from the disobedient actions of the others, and realized that standing by passively would not provide them with an adequate defence against Allah.

Week after week, the disobedient fishermen continued to defy Allah’s orders, bringing with them abundant fish from the sea. Fearing the torture of Allah, the first group continued warning them against such actions and continued trying to forbid the wrong and command the good, but these reminders were ignored. Repeatedly, despite the multitude of warnings, the disobedient ones continued to transgress, and exceed their limits with Allah.

A UNIQUE PUNISHMENT

Finally, the curse and wrath of Allah fell upon the community. The ones who were commanding the right and prohibiting the wrong were spared from torment, however, the rest of the community, even the passive bystanders, were severely punished. This was a unique and unprecedented form of punishment, both terrifying and humiliating in equal measures:

So when they exceeded the limits of what they were prohibited, We said to them: “Be you monkeys, despised and rejected” (Al Quran 7:163 -7:166)

Some scholars debate about whether they were turned into physical monkeys, or whether this was just a metaphor. We prefer to take the literal interpretation and not go into detail over matters which Allah had chosen not to reveal to mankind.

And indeed you knew those amongst you who transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath (i.e. Saturday). We said to them: “Be you monkeys, despised and rejected.” So We made this punishment an example to their own and to succeeding generations and a lesson to those who are Al-Muttaqun (the pious). (Al Qur’an 2:65 – 2:66)

“Or curse them as We cursed the Sabbath¬ breakers.” (Al Qur’an 4:47)

From the above verses, there is no doubt of the severity of Allah’s anger upon the Sabbath breakers and how they were cursed in this world and the next.

LESSONS TO BE LEARNT

The Price of Disobedience

When Allah prohibits something, it is not wise for one who claims to believe in Allah to find loopholes, technicalities and other excuses to get around the prohibitions. These actions are not justified at all, and will place one in great peril. Obedience to Allah should be in substance, not just in technical terms.

It goes without saying that sins bring the calamity of Allah upon us. Do not think that you are smarter than Allah, for this is a challenge that you will most definitely lose.

The “in-betweeners”

The Sabbath breaker’s community was split into three:

Righteous people – those who stayed on the path of Allah and actively called upon others to do the same

Sinners – those who disobeyed the message of Allah and tried to suppress the believers, together with their supporters

“In-betweeners” – those who did not participate with the sinners, but who refused to participate in the calling of goodness or the prohibition of evil

The “in-betweeners” want to be left alone, to live in their own bubble, too indifferent and cowardly to stand up for goodness or speak up against falsehood. These are the people who assume that as long as they are worshipping Allah, what anyone else does is not their problem.

Why did Allah give us a story of a community that lived and died hundreds of generations ago? It is because there is an alarming parallel between the above communities and the Muslimummah.

Allah gave us the difference between the quality of the believer and the quality of Bani Israil. Today, many so-called Muslims want to be left alone and remain in their spiritual status quo. They do not want to be involved in spreading the deen or guiding the rest of society. They adhere to Allah’s teachings, but are wishy-washy with others (even other Muslims) who disobey. They even indirectly participate in the wrongdoing without realizing the gravity of their actions.

This is the exact behaviour of the Sabbath breakers, and the curse of Allah will continue to all the people bearing these characteristics until the end of time. In public they appear to be devout and compliant, but in their hearts, they behave just like the cursed monkeys of the Sabbath breakers.

This is not a matter to be taken lightly. Commanding the right and prohibiting the wrong is a collective responsibility for all the Muslims. Rasulullah (SAW) warned that the one who stays silent from telling the truth is a silent devil. The story of the Sabbath breakers prove that there is no rescue from Allah’s torment unless we remind and advise others to fear Allah and remedy their behaviour.

The one who invited others towards goodness were spared the torment and humiliating punishment of Allah. That is the only way you will be saved from a time of calamity when the rest of the mass majority Muslim society around you is falling into evil ways and not enough are engaged in the correction of their behaviour or giving da’wah. There is no other option: just being good is not good enough. If you believe in Allah, it is incumbent to continue inviting others to goodness, in order to preserve your own safety in this world and the next. We cannot just sit passively and take no action.

And your Lord would not have destroyed the cities unjustly while their people were reformers.(Al Qur’an 11:117)

An important note: commanding the right and forbidding the wrong has manner and protocol to it. There are certain measures that we have to take, sequences that we have to observe and corrective actions that are prohibited. Please study this topic and consult with a scholar or a learned person who is superior to you in Islamic knowledge, to make sure that you are on the right track and discharge these duties with wisdom.

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