The Story of Prophet Yunus (peace be upon him) in the Qur’an is told only briefly in Surah al-Anbiya and Surah Saffat, although he is referred to elsewhere, such as al-Qalam. In brief, he was sent to a people whose unresponsiveness to him and his message led to him leaving them in frustration. In Saffat (37:139-140), the most high describes his departure by saying:
و إن يونس لمن المرسلين. إذ أبق إلى الفلك المشحون
“And Yunus was one of the Messengers; when he ran to the laden ship.”
In explaining the word ( أبق ), some exegetes gloss it as ( تباعد ) ‘to move away’; ( فزع ) ‘to flee’; or most commonly, ( هرب ) ‘to run away’. In my translation above, I rendered it simply as “ran”.
But the words given as estimates for ( أبق ) are simply that: an estimation of the approximate meaning. They do not allow us an understanding of the intricacy of this instance of word choice and usage in the Qur’an. ( أبق ) is not merely to flee; it is used for the ( آبق ), a slave who escapes and runs away from his master.
But as we know, Yunus (as) is not technically a slave, not through birth nor through any other means. So why the usage of the specific term ( أبق )? It is, incidentally, used only this once in the entire book!
The application of the term with respect to him is justified, some exegetes say, because of his fleeing away from his people without the permission of his Lord. In this manner, his fleeing from his responsibility and the people he had been entrusted with is being compared to the slave who, instead of fulfilling his duties, runs away from his master.
Some say that the term ( أبق ) refers not only to a slave who runs away, but one who does so without the type of reason that might justify his departure, such as persecution or extremely difficult conditions. If this is correct, it adds a further nuance to the choice of the word ( أبق ), in describing the condition of the Prophet Yunus (as) as one not warranting his flight.
The metaphoric usage of ( أبق ) thus demonstrates the relationship Yunus (as) had with his master, and serves as a strict reminder to us as well. We, like Yunus (as), are servants of Allah and cannot flee from him nor his command.
This added insight into the hapax legomenon ( أبق ) demonstrates yet again the absolute brilliance of the language of the Qur’an; it manages to convey deep meaning and lessons to us even with the placing of a single word.