Translation & Commentary of Verses from Surah al-`Ankabut (The Spider) [41 – 47]


[41] The example of those who took protectors other than Allah is like the spider which takes (to itself) a house; but truly, the weakest of houses is the spider’s house;46 only if they knew.47

[42] Surely, Allah knows whatever aught they call upon other than Him. He is the All-mighty, the All-wise.

[43] And We strike these similitudes for the people, but ponder not except the knowledgeable.


46. Yusuf Ali has a goodly note on the spider’s nest:

“The Spider’s house is one of the wonderful Signs of Allah’s creation. It is made up of fine silk threads spun out of silk glands in the spider’s body. There are many kinds of spiders and many kinds of spider’s houses. Two main types of houses may be mentioned. There is the tubular nest or web, a silk-lined house or burrow with one or two trap-doors. This may be called his residential or family mansion. Then there is what is ordinarily called a spider’s web, consisting of a central point with radiating threads running in all directions and acting as tie-beams to the quasi-circular concentric threads that form the body of the web. This is his hunting box. The whole structure exemplifies economy in time, material, and strength. If an insect is caught in the net, the vibration set up in the radiating threads is at once communicated to the spider, who can come and kill his prey. In case the prey is powerful, the spider is furnished with poison glands with which to kill his prey. The spider sits either in the centre of the web or hides on the under-side of a leaf or in some crevice, but he always has a single thread connecting him with his web, to keep him in telephonic communication. The female spider is much bigger than the male, and in Arabic the generic gender of ‘Ankabut is feminine.”


Except Antarctica, spiders are found everywhere. A few of them are aquatic, that is, live under water. There are about 30,000 known species of them. Their average sizes vary from a few millimeters to 9 cm. body length. Feet included, they can be as large as 30 cm. (a foot). The bird-eating spider weighs 120 gm. and is capable of hunting down little birds.

Spiders have eight legs and eight simple eyes. In some species the eyes are so arranged as to allow all around view. They can see ahead, behind, above, and to the sides, all at the same time. The lower part of the abdomen produces the silk gland. They live for about a year and are predators; they bite their prey releasing a powerful poison which causes paralysis. The poison also produces digestive juices in the body of the prey which the spider sucks along with other juicy parts of the body. To humans, their bite is not fatal although can cause severe pain. Occasionally, they may cause death.

Usually they use their nets to trap insects. Some species however lasso them as they come within range. The famous Tarantula variety lives in burrows and is large enough to pound on the prey rather than use a net.

The main wonder of the spiders is the silk they produce. Initially, it is a fluid which contains a protein called fibroin. It solidifies into an insoluble thread when the proteins rearrange themselves under tension as the silk is drawn out of the spider’s body. Spiders have several glands to produce several types of silk. Spider silk is up to 200 times finer than the finest human hair and is highly elastic. It can be stretched to over 20% of its length and retains its elasticity at temperatures as low as – 40 º C. It is one of the strongest natural substances known. A single thread of it can be stretched by nearly a third without snapping, and would have to be about 80 km long to break purely under its own weight. It is said that an inch thick of pure spider silk net can stop a flying jetliner in the air.

Mating occurs by the force of nature, otherwise, it is the end of the male which is either eaten off by the female, or dies off, immediately after the mating is over. Once mature, the male spider stops feeding and spends all the time and energy trying to find a female to mate with. In some cases the female starts eating off the male even as mating is going on. Strangely, in such cases mating actions continue despite the male having lost its head to the female.

Spiders are oviparous, i.e., they lay eggs. The mother sometimes carries the eggs on her back, or conceals them somewhere, preserving them in silk cocoons. When they hatch, the young ones ride on their mother’s back until they are big enough to fend for themselves. Among the Wolf Spiders, when two female spiders carrying young meet, they fight to the death of one of them. When that happens, the spiderlings from both will climb onto the back of the victorious mother who carries them around as if they are her own.

47. Yusuf Ali tells us why people fail to learn in life:

“Parables seem simple things, but their profound meaning and application can only be understood by those who seek knowledge and by Allah’s grace attain it.‏” And, “Most of the facts in the last note can be read into the Parable. For their thickness the spider’s threads are very strong from the point of view of relativity, but in our actual world they are flimsy, especially the threads of the gossamer spider floating in the air. So is the house and strength of the man who relies on material resources however fine or beautiful relatively; before the eternal Reality they are as nothing. The spider’s most cunningarchitecture cannot stand against a wave of a man’s hand. His poison glands are like the hidden poison in our beautiful worldly plans which may take various shapes but have seeds of death in them.‏”

[44] Allah created the heavens and the earth in truth.48Surely in that is a sign for the believers.


48. “I.e., endowed with meaning and purpose… In other words, belief in the existence of a meaning and purpose underlying the creation of the universe is a logical corollary of one’s belief in God.” (Asad)

[45] Recite what has been revealed to you of the Book, and perform the Prayer (assiduously and spiritedly);49 verily, Prayer forbids the indecent50 and the reprehensible.51 Surely, Allah’s remembrance is greater.52 Allah knows the (deeds) that you commit.


49. Iqamatu al-Salah is, to repeat, to do the Prayers on time, in good spirit, doing all its parts in an efficient, acceptable manner. (Qurtubi)

50. Majid comments:

“That brings to mind, by way of contrast, the strong connotation that has very frequently existed between obscenity and the acts of worship as ordained by the so-called religions of the world. In many of them even prostitution appears to have been not merely tolerated but encouraged. ‘In Egypt, Phoenicia, Assyria, Chaldea, Canaan and Persia, the worship of Isis, Moloch, Baal, Astarte, Mylitta and other deities consisted of the most extravagant sexual orgies, and the temples were merely centres of vice. In Babylon some degree of prostitution appears to have been even compulsory and imposed upon all women in honor of the goddess Mylitta. In India the ancient connection between religion and prostitution still survives.’ (EBr. XVIII, p. 596).

‘The Kedeshoth mentioned in the Bible were prostitutes attached to the Canaanite temples, and were held in the highest reverence by the worshippers. Temple prostitutes, in all countries, and at all times, have been highly thought of.’ (Scott, History of Prostitution, p. 10). In its earliest of phases prostitution was always associated with religion; and there seem strong grounds for the assumption that the first brothels were run by priests.’ (p. 59)”

51. Although a lone opinion of Ibn `Umar is that by “salah” the allusion is to the Qur’an which is recited in Prayers, most others, such as Ibn Mas`ud, Ibn `Abbas and others have said that by the term “salah” the allusion is to Prayers. In fact, Ibn `Abbas is reported to have said, “A Prayer which does not prohibit a man from the indecent and the reprehensive, actually distances him from Allah (swt).” This is reported as a Prophetic statement also, coming down through Ibn Mas`ud. (Ibn Jarir, Qurtubi)

Ibn Jarir however, does not seem to be very comfortable with the above report either as a Prophetic statement, or as that of Ibn `Abbas. For, he quotes Ibn `Awn as saying, (in reference to this verse), “When you are in the Prayers, you are in a good act: Prayer has come in between you and the indecent and reprehensive. ‘Fahshaa’ is fornication, and ‘the reprehensive’ is disobedience. Whoever then, committed an obscenity or disobeyed Allah, such as one which nullifies his Prayers, and, obviously, such a man did not Pray at all.”

In any case, the above as a statement of Ibn `Abbas is, according to Haythamiyy, a weak report, while, as a Prophetic statement, it is, according to Albani, a “Batil” narrative (“Mawdu`ah” no. 2), while to Haythamiyy it is untrustworthy (Majma`) – Au.

Qurtubi and IbnKathir also caution that none of the statements about a “salah” distancing away from Allah reaches the Prophet. Another hadith of the Prophet apparently contradicts the hadith that says that Prayer can cause distancing from Allah. It is said that the Prophet was told, “So and so Prays the whole night but steals in the morning.” He replied, “His Prayers will prevent him.” And, Qurtubi adds, that is how it happened.

Haythamiyy said about this last report: “Ahmad and Bazzar recorded it and its narrators are those of Sahih collections” (Au.).

In short, writes Qurtubi, if salah is performed properly, in the manner it is required of a Muslim, in complete mental presence, and physical humbleness, the heart filled with fear, then it does move one away from the indecent and the evil. It is reported of one of the Salaf that when he stood for Prayers, he became pale and shook with fear. When asked why that happened to him, he would say, “This is how one feels when before a king; what about when one is about to appear before the King of all kings?” It is this kind of Prayer about which the Prophet (saws) said, as in Tirmidhi, who judged it HasanSahih,

“Do you think if one of you had a river passing by his door, in which he bathed himself five times a day, will he have any dirt left on him?” They replied, “No, no dirt will be left on him.” He said, “This is how it is with the five daily Prayers. Allah wipes out the sins thereby.”

The above hadith is in Bukhari also. (Au.)

But when salah is done badly, year after year, without any remorse, then it does not prevent a man from sins, but rather, he begins to commit them oftener. When he does that, then the sins that are blatantly committed cause him to stray away from Allah (swt).

Hatim described his own Salah, “As if my feet are on the Bridge, Paradise on my right side and Hellfire on left with the angel of death right above me. And I Pray in a state of hope and fear.” It is this kind of Prayer, writes Zamakhshari, which comes in between a man and indecent acts.

Alusi clarifies the issue to a greater degree. He writes that some confusion is allowed for, when we fail to assign an exact meaning to the textual “tanhaa.” Many people seem to understand it not in the sense of “prohibit,” in which sense it has been used. They rather understand it in the sense of “prevent,” in which sense it has not been used. We must understand that Prayers can only “prohibit” a man from the indecent and reprehensive, but do not “prevent.” (That is, a strong inner voice protests against sins and says, in effect, “Do not do it”). This prohibition does not mean a complete prevention, for that is something for a man to decide for himself. Indeed, Allah Himself does no more than this with His slave. He prohibits. He said (16: 90):

Verily, Allah enjoins justice, good-doing, and giving to kin. And He forbids the indecent, the reprehensible and rebellion.” Now, it is up to a man to decide how he will treat the admonition. (Hence Allah ended the verse by saying, “He admonishes you that perhaps you will be mindful”: Au.).

It is following this understanding that we find Ibn `Abbas as saying, as in Ibn Hayyan, Kalbi, Ibn Jurayj and Hammad b. Sulayman, that ‘the Prayers forbid these things, so long as a man is in the Prayers.’ What they meant perhaps, continues Alusi, is that the Prayer is the prohibiting element, telling him from within, “Do not do this, do not do that,” etc., in short, offering checks and brakes.

Nonetheless, the possibility remains, adds Alusi, that, in addition to prohibiting, Prayers also “prevent” a slave from the indecent and reprehensible. But that of course is conditional to how well they are done, (the better done, the better the effects on the devotee). They weaken in their effect with increase in inattentiveness during the Prayers (ghaflah): the kind of Prayer that, as the Prophet said, is bundled as old clothes are bundled and flung back on the face of the devotee with the Prayers saying, “May Allah squander you, as you squandered me.”

The effect of Salah on the devotees is a commonly noted fact. Even non-Muslims confess that they see a glow on the faces of Muslims as they emerge from the mosques. A Hindu once complaining of a Muslim’s lies remarked, “And, the strange thing about him is that he Prays regularly. (Au.)

Majid quotes, “….In the words of a distinguished American psychologist: ‘All historians declare that the amazing success of Islam in dominating the world lay in the astounding coherence or sense of unity in the group, but they do not explain how this miracle was worked. There can be little doubt that one of the most effective means was prayer. The five daily prayers, when all the faithful, wherever they were, alone in the given solitude of the desert or in the vast assemblies in the crowded cities, knelt and prostrated themselves towards Mecca uttering the same words of adoration for the one true God and of loyalty to His Prophet, produce an overwhelming effect upon the spectator, and the psychological effects of thus fusing the minds of the worshippers in a common adoration and expression of loyalty is certainly stupendous.’ (Dennison, op. cit., 274-275).”

52. “Allah’s remembrance is greater.” But greater than what? Imam Razi answers that since there is nothing that can be compared to Allah’s remembrance, to any degree, nothing could be brought forth for comparison. After all, one does not say, “The mountain is bigger than a grain of sand.” There is no comparison between a grain of sand and a mountain. Yet, we know that the two are of the kind and class that are in some ways comparable. In contrast, is there anything that can be brought forth as comparable to Allah’s remembrance?

The translation of the text follows the heavier of the two opinions about how this verse is to be understood. One opinion (as in Ibn Jarir and others) is that: “A slave’s remembrance of Allah within the Prayers, is greater than the Prayer itself. (Allah said in 20: 14, “Establish the Prayers for My remembrance”: Au.).

`Abdullah b. Rabi`ah says Ibn `Abbas asked him about how he understood these words. Ibn Rabi`ah replied that the allusion is perhaps to the mention of Allah’s Names and Attributes within the Prayers, recitation of the Qur’an within them, etc. Ibn `Abbas told him that it sounded good, but was not correct. But rather, he said, the allusion is to Allah’s remembrance of His slaves, which is a greater thing that their remembrance of Him.

Another report coming down from him makes it clearer. He said, “Surely, Allah’s remembrance of His slaves, when they remember Him, is greater than your remembrance of Him.” This was also the opinion of `Atiyyah, Mujahid, Salman (al-Farsi: IbnKathir), Sho`bah and several others as in Ibn Jarir. A second opinion of Qatadah and Salman, also in IbnJarir, was that the meaning is, “Remembrance of Allah is the greatest (thing in this world).” A third opinion, that of Ibn `Abbas, is that both the meanings are possible, meaning perhaps that one does not rule out the other. Ibn Jarir’s own inclination is toward the first opinion while Qurtubi accepts all possibilities.

[46] And dispute not with the People of the Book save with that which is better,53 except for those among them who do wrong;54 and say, ‘We believe in what has been sent down to us, and sent down to you.55 Our God and your God is One; and to Him we have surrendered.’56


53. That is, with arguments and evidences better than that they, the People of the Book put forth. (Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir)

It means, to respond to crudeness with gentleness, to anger with calmness, to argumentativeness with admonition (Alusi), and, to emotionalism with rationalism. (Au.)

Mawdudi further expounds: “That is, the discussions should be conducted rationally, in a civilized and decent manner, with the reformation of the opponent as the objective. The chief aim should be to appeal to the heart and mind and not make it a wrestling match with the objective to defeat rather than convince. One should act like a physician, who tries to heal, and not to make the patient’s situation worse through ill-treatment.”

54. That is, you can act tough with those who are obstinate in the face of truth (Alusi and others). In the words of Mawdudi: “Islam ordains politeness. But that does not mean meekness and undue humbleness. The Muslims should not be such as to be taken for granted by every wicked tyrant.”

The prevalent opinion is that of Mujahid who said that the meaning of the second part of the verse is that those among them who do wrong, i.e., obstinately remain on their corrupt beliefs, should be fought against until they believe, or pay the tribute. (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir)

55. Sufyan b. Husain is said to have remarked that to say, “We believe in what has been sent down to us, and sent down to you,” is the “better” spoken of in verse 46. (Alusi)

Mawdudi points out that the verse implies that discussions should start with the points of agreement and not points of disagreement.

However, when that fails to convince, then the discussant or the debater may switch over to disagreements to demonstrate how Islamic position is the more rational and nearer to truth, but which, of course, should be done without hurting the sentiments of the contestants. (Au.)

56. Explaining this verse, Abu Hurayrah said: “People of the Book used to recite the Tawrah in Hebrew and then explain to the Muslims in Arabic. The Prophet said, ‘Neither refute the holders of previous Scriptures, nor confirm. But rather say, ‘We believe in what has been sent down to us, and sent down to you. Our God and your God is One; and to Him we have surrendered.’” (Ibn Jarir, Qurtubi)

The above report is in Bukhari. Another report of Musnad Ahmad has Abu Namlah al-Ansari saying that he was in the company of the Prophet when a Jew came in and asked,

“Muhammad, do these corpses speak?” He replied, “Allah knows best.” He said, “But I bear witness that they speak.” The Prophet (saws) told the people around him, “When the People of the Book narrate to you something, neither give them credence nor refute them. But rather, say, ‘We have believed in Allah, His Books and Messengers.’ If it happens to be true, you would not have denied it, and if it happens to be false, you would not have given it credence.” (Ibn Kathir)

The report is also in Sahih of Hibban. (Au.)

Nevertheless, Imam Bukhari has a report that once Mu`awiyyah (b. Sufyan) was speaking to a group of people when Ka`b al-Ahbar was mentioned. Mu`awiyyah said, “Although he is the most trustworthy of those who narrate from the People of the Book, we still reckon that some of the things he narrates are not true. (Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir)

[47] And thus it is that We have sent down the Book to you;57 wherefore those We have given the Book believe in it; as some of these (also) believe in it;58 and none gainsay59 Our revelations but the unbelievers.60



57. That is: ‘Just as We sent Books to earlier Prophets, in the like manner We have sent down the Book upon you, O Muhammad.’ (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir)

58. That is, those who have been given the Qur’an believe in it, while some of these – the People of the Book – also believe in it. (Ibn Jarir)

Ibn Kathir, however, understands the verse the other way around. That is, he assumes that by “of these” the reference is to the pagans of the Prophet’s time.

59. Jahad of the text is defined as denial of what one’s own heart is convinced (as true), and to confess and insist on what the heart denies (as false). – Alusi from Raghib

60. That is, it is only those deny who have decided to remain on untruth. (Au.)

(To be continued)

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