The term “أصحاب السبت” (As-hab al-Sabt) translates to “Companions of the Sabbath” or “People of the Sabbath” in English. This term refers to a group of people mentioned in the Qur’an, specifically in the Surah Al-A’raf (7:163-168). They were a community of the Children of Israel who lived in a town by the sea and were tested by God with the command to observe the Sabbath strictly by refraining from fishing on that day.
According to Islamic tradition and the Qur’an, God tested the People of the Sabbath by having fish appear in abundance and visibly on the sea surface every Saturday, tempting them to break the Sabbath by fishing. Some members of the community sought to circumvent the divine command by setting traps on Friday, which would catch the fish for them on Saturday, thinking this technicality would absolve them of direct disobedience. However, this was seen as a deceitful way to bypass the spirit of God’s command.
The Sabbath Break and the Disobedience of the Children of Israel:
A group of the Children of Israel lived on the coast of a sea (it appears to be the Red Sea coast adjacent to Palestine) in a port called (Eilah) (now known as the port of Eilat). God Almighty commanded them as a test and trial to cease fishing on the Sabbath. However, they disobeyed this command and were struck with a painful and grievous punishment, the details of which we read in the Holy Quran.
Initially, it says:
“And ask them about the town that was present at the sea…”
meaning ask the Jews of your time about the matter of the town that lived on the seashore.
Then it reminds them of how they transgressed on the Sabbath, the divine law:
“when they transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath”
because Saturday was their day of rest, and they were supposed to refrain from earning, fishing, and engaging in worship, but they ignored the command.
The Quran then describes the aforementioned transgression with the following phrase:
“When their fish came to them openly on their Sabbath” (1)
the fish would appear on the water’s surface on Saturdays, while they would disappear on other days. It’s obvious that fishing was a source of livelihood and nutrition for the coastal dwellers, and as the fishing operation was suspended on Saturdays, it seemed as if the fish, feeling a sort of security from the fishermen, would appear on the water’s surface in large numbers, while on other days, when fishermen went out to sea, they would retreat deep into the sea.
Whether this issue had a natural aspect or an exceptional, divine one, it was a means to test and examine this group. Hence, the Holy Quran says:
“Thus did We test them because they were defiantly disobedient” (1).
When this group of the Children of Israel faced this significant test, which was fully intertwined with their lives, they divided into three groups:
The first group: They were the majority and those who disobeyed this divine command.
The second group: Generally the minority, they took on the role of enjoining good and forbidding evil against the first group.
The third group: They were the silent and neutral ones who neither agreed with the disobedient nor took on the role of enjoining good and forbidding evil.
In the end, the Quran explains the dialogue between the transgressors and those who forbade them from committing this violation, saying:
“When a community among them asked, ‘Why do you preach to a people whom Allah is about to destroy or to punish with a severe punishment?'” (1)
The ones enjoining good and forbidding evil replied that they were admonishing the wrongdoers because they were fulfilling their duty towards God Almighty and so they would not be accountable towards Him, this in addition to hoping that their words would influence their hearts and they would refrain from their tyranny and stubbornness
“They said, ‘To be absolved before your Lord, and perhaps they may fear Him'” (1).
Eventually, worldly desires overcame them, and they forgot the divine command. At this time, We saved those who forbade evil and punished the wrongdoers with a wretched punishment because of their disobedience and transgression
“So when they forgot what they had been reminded of, We saved those who forbade evil and seized those who did wrong with a wretched punishment because they were defiantly disobedient” (1).
Then it describes the punishments thus:
“So when they exceeded the limits of what they were prohibited, We said to them, ‘Be apes, despised'” (1).
How did they commit this sin?
As for how this group began to transgress this divine law, there has been some discussion, and it is understood from some narrations that they initially resorted to what is called ‘legal trickery’. They created pools next to the sea and opened gates to the sea, so they would open these gates on Saturday, and many fish would fall into them as the water entered, and at sunset when the fish wanted to return to the sea, they would close these openings, trapping the fish in the pools. Then on Sunday, they would go fishing and take them from the pools, claiming that they did not catch the fish but only trapped it.
Some say that they would cast their hooks, lines, and nets into the sea on Saturday, then pull them out on Sunday with the fish caught, thus catching fish even on Saturday but in a cunning way.
It appears from other narrations that they would fish on Saturday without regard for the divine prohibition, not through any trickery.
And it is possible that all these narrations are correct, that initially, they used what is called ‘legal trickery’ by digging pools next to the sea or casting hooks and lines. Then, as they became desensitized to this sin, they became bold enough to break the sanctity of the Sabbath and openly fish on Saturdays, gradually acquiring a very large fortune from this method.
Stories of the Quran / by Ayatollah Sheikh Nasser Makarem Shirazi.