Translation & Commentary of Verses from Surah al-`Ankabut [1 – 9]

(The Spider)


 [1] Alif Lam Mim.

[2] Do the people reckon that they will be left alone that they say, ‘We believed,’ and will not be tried?3


Introductory Note

“The title has been derived from the parable of ‘the spider’s house’ in verse 41, a symbol of false beliefs and false values, which in the long run are bound to be blown away by the winds of truth.” (Asad)

Yusuf Ali writes in his introduction to the Surah: “This Surah is the last of the series begun with S. xvii, in which the growth of the man as an individual is considered, especially illustrated by the way in which the great Prophets were prepared for their work and received their mission, and the nature of the Revelation in relation to the environments in which it was promulgated… It also closes the sub-series beginning with S. xxvi, which is concerned with the spiritual Light, and the reactions to it at certain periods of religious history…

“The last Surah closed with a reference to the doctrine of the Ma`ad, or final Return of man to Allah (swt). This theme is further developed here, and as it is continued in the subsequent Surahs, it forms a connecting link between the present series and those three Surahs.

“In particular, emphasis is laid here on the necessity of linking actual conduct with the reception of Allah’s revelation, and reference is again made to the stories of Noah, Abraham, and Lot among the Prophets, and the stories of Midian, `Ad, Thamud, and Pharaoh among the rejecters of Allah’s Message. This world’s life is contrasted with the real Life of the Hereafter.

“Chronologically, the main Surah belongs to the late Middle Makkan period, but the chronology has no significance except as showing how clearly the vision of the Future was revealed long before the Hijrah, to the struggling Brotherhood of Islam.”

1. This Surah can be related to the previous one in many ways such as, to mention one of them: When Allah (swt) said He will take the Prophet back to the Place of Return, meaning Makkah, He meant to say that this returning will require struggle leading to armed conflicts. Consequently, He said at the beginning of this Surah, “Do the people reckon that they will be left alone that they said, ‘We believed, and they will not be tried?’” That is, they will have to struggle in Allah’s cause and be ready for Jihad.

Another point of note is that there is wisdom in trials. The lowest rank that a believer enjoys is that he is a plain Muslim. Anything below this level is unbelief. Further, of those who register themselves as Muslims, there are some who are active, offering various services to Islam, others who lag behind, while a few are there who get their names deleted from service. Accordingly, some Muslims are advancing, some stagnating, while others retreating. So Allah said, “Do the people reckon they will be left alone?” That is, they will not be left alone, but rather tried, in order that they remain active, advancing to higher ranks. Or they may refuse, enter into sins and transgressions, go down in ranks to finally descend into unbelief, if they so wish (Razi, shortened).

2. According to Hasan, `Ikrimah, `Ataa and Jabir, the whole of this Surah is Makkan. But, according to one of the two opinions of Ibn `Abbas – and Qatadah – the whole of it is Madinan. Yahya b. Sallam said that the first ten verses are Madinan, the rest Makkan. `Ali b. Abi Talib said that it was revealed between Makkah and Madinah. (Qurtubi, Alusi)

3. Yusuf Ali comments: “Mere lip-profession of Faith is not enough. It must be tried and tested in the real turmoil of life. The test will be applied in all kinds of circumstances, in individual life, and in relation to the environment around us, to see whether we can strive constantly and put Allah above Self. Much pain, sorrow, and self-sacrifice may be necessary, not because they are good in themselves, but because they will purify us, like fire applied to a goldsmith’s crucible to burn out the dross.”

Although the ayah is in the general sense, most early commentators have said that the allusion is to those who had suffered persecution in Makkah; and a few have mentioned specific instances. One of them refers to the martyrdom of Mahja` the freed slave of `Umar who was the first to fall at Badr. His martyrdom evoked the Prophet’s words: “Mahja` is the Prince of Martyrs and will be the first to be invited to the gates of Paradise.”

Sha`bi has said that this ayah refers to some people who embraced Islam at Makkah but did not migrate to Madinah. The Companions of the Prophet wrote to them that their Islam was invalid if they did not migrate. So they attempted to migrate but the Makkans chased them and brought them back. It was at this point that this verse was revealed: “Do the people reckon that they will be left alone that they say, ‘We believed,’ and will not be tested?” So the Companions wrote to them again informing them that such and such a verse had been revealed concerning them. So they said to themselves, “Let us go. If the pagans fight, we shall give them a fight.” So they made another attempt at Hijrah. As expected, the pagans gave them a chase. So they fought them. Some got killed, others escaped to Madinah; and Allah (swt) revealed another verse (of Surah Al-Nahl, no. 110) which said, “But, verily your Lord, unto those who migrated, after they were persecuted, yet struggled thereafter, and persisted in patience .. after all that, Your Lord is (unto them) All-forgiving, All-kind” (Ibn Jarir at verse 3 and Qurtubi). Zamakhshari has a similar report but does not name Sha`bi.

The report is also in `Abd b. Humayd and IbnAbi al-Mundhir. (Shawkani)

Ibn Jarir presents this same narrative a second time at ayah 10, but as an opinion of Ibn `Abbas, and then remarks that according to Qatadah, the first ten verses of this chapter are Madinan while the rest of the Surah is Makkan.

Qurtubi quotes a hadith of Ibn Majah which reports about Abu Sa`id al-Khudri:

That he entered upon the Prophet while he was ill, covered in a blanket. He placed his hand over the blanket and found it hot. He remarked, ‘How severe your fever is, Messenger of Allah.’ He replied, ‘This is how it is with us Prophets. Our trials are doubled, and so are our rewards.’ I asked, ‘Which of the people is tried most?’ He answered, ‘Prophets.’ I asked, ‘Who after them?’ He replied, ‘Scholars.’ He asked, “Who after them?’ He answered, ‘The righteous ones. One of them was tried with poverty to such extent that he had nothing on him but torn clothes, and another tried with lice that would almost kill him. Yet, one of them would be more pleased with tribulations than you are with ease.’”

The above version is from Adab al-Mufrad declared trustworthy by Albani.

Another report narrated by Sa`d b. abi Waqqas says,

“I asked the Prophet, ‘Which of the people is tried most?’ He answered, ‘The Prophets; then the next best, and then the next best. A man is tested in accordance with his religion. If there happens to be strength in his religion, his trials are increased in severity. Tribulations keep visiting a slave until they leave him walking on the earth without any sin on him.” (Qurtubi)

So trials are in the nature of things. Allah (swt) said elsewhere (3: 142),

Or, do you reckon that you will enter Paradise (without being tested) while Allah has not yet known those of you who fight (in His cause), and (in order that) He may know the persevering (ones).”

He said at another place (2: 214),

Or do you reckon that you will enter Paradise, while (trials) similar to those (that visited others) before you, have not yet come to you? Suffering and adversity touched them, and they were shaken until the Messengers and those who had believed in them cried out: ‘When (will come) Allah’s help?’ Verily, Allah’s help is nigh.” (Ibn Kathir)

We could quote a few lines from Ibn al-Qayyim: “When a Messenger is raised among a people, they face two alternatives. Either one of them says, ‘yes I believe,’ or he decides to continue on the path of sin. Now, whoever says, ‘I believe,’ is subjected to tests and trials to determine the truth of his claim. Allah (swt) said (3: 179),

Allah was not such as to let the believers remain in the state in which you are, until He distinguished the corrupt from the good.’

“To be sure, he who says ‘no’ to the message, should not imagine that he will escape the trials. Indeed, he faces greater tribulations, which are an immediate chastisement for the choice he made. In the next life, he will meet with everlasting condemnation. In short, in this world, none can escape tribulations: whether he is a believer or an unbeliever.

“Therefore, whoever imagines that he can somehow escape sufferings and trials, is sadly mistaken. They are part of this life: in two ways. Man is made up of conflicting elements and, in trying to meet with the demands of these elements, he commits excesses in one or the other direction, and exposes himself to a variety of sufferings. Another factor is that he is a social being who must cooperate with others to meet with his needs. This cooperation leads to competition between individuals, so that, at one end he is loved, but at the other, hated. If he fails in giving what the others expect of him – as price for their co-operation with him – he faces their ire. If he gives in, it is to his peril. For, such giving in has to be in terms of efforts whose consequence is pain. To escape, therefore, from belief in Allah (swt), in fear of trials and tribulations, or pain and suffering, is not an intelligent strategy. We might, therefore, keep before us `A’isha’s admonition to Mu`awiyyah, ‘He who pleased Allah (swt) at the cost of the people’s displeasure will find Allah (swt) sufficient against their harm. But he who pleased the people at the cost of Allah’s anger, will find that they cannot benefit him aught against Him’ (Bada’i`).”

Sayyid Qutb adds, “A word on trials: Iman is Allah’s trust in the land that none will bear and carry except those worthy of it, and have the ability to carry it – whose hearts bear sincerity for it, in the absolute sense; and not those who give preference to ease and comfort over it.. to peace and security, to materials and temptations. It is the trust of the vicegerency in the earth; and people’s guidance to the way of Allah (swt), and establishment of his Word in the world of the living. Thus, it is a noble trust ..and it is a burdensome trust. It is Allah’s strategy whereby He exposes the people. It needs a special class of people to bear the trust: people who can be patiently persevering during the course of trials.”

[3] We did try those that were before them, so, Allah will surely know those who are truthful and He shall surely know the liars.4



4. Allah (swt) knew all about them before the test, during the test and after the test. What He meant here is that ‘He shall make known the truth of the truthful and the lie of the liars.’ (Tabari)

In fact, `Ali (ibn Abi Talib) and Zuhri read the word “la-ya`limanna” as “la-yu`limanna” meaning, He shall make it known. (Zamakhshari)

[4] Or do they reckon – those who indulge in evil – that they will outstrip Us? Evil is what they judge.5


5. The immediate reference was to Walid b. al-Mughirah, Abu Jahl, Al-Aswad b. Hashim, al-`Aas b. Hisham, Shaybah, `Utbah, Walid b. `Utbah, `Uqbah b. AbiMu`ayt, Hanzala b. Abu Sufyan, `Aas b. Wa’il and others. (Qurtubi, Alusi)

Yusuf Ali has in mind another implication of the words, “If the enemies of Truth imagine that they will ‘be first’ by destroying Truth before it takes root, they are sadly at fault, for their own persecution may help to plant Allah’s Truth more firmly in men’s hearts.”

[5] Whoever hopes to encounter Allah, (should know) that Allah’s (appointed) term is surely coming; He is the All-hearing, the All-knowing.6


6. Yusuf Ali explains: “The term (ajal) may signify: (1) the time appointed for death, which ends the probation of this life; (2) the time appointed for this life, so that we can prepare for the Hereafter; the limit will soon expire. In either case, the ultimate meaning is the same. We must strive now and not postpone anything for the future. And we must realize and remember that every prayer we make to Allah (swt) is heard by Him, and that every unspoken wish or motive of our heart, good or bad, is known to Him, and goes to swell our spiritual account.”

[6] And, whoever strives, strives only for himself.7 Indeed, Allah is Independent of (all the beings of) the worlds.



7. Perhaps because whenever the term Jihad is used in the Qur’an, the default meaning is to wage war in Allah’s cause, unless the context lends the meaning of struggle or strive that Hasan al-Busri cautions us about those who had no chance to participate in a battle. He writes, (in words as quoted by Ibn Kathir): “A man might conduct Jihad although he might not have struck with the sword once in (his) lifetime.”

[7] As to those who believed and acted righteously, We shall surely blot out their misdeeds from them and shall surely recompense them with better than what they were doing.8



8. The translation as done here has the backing of Zamakhshari and as adopted by Alusi and Thanwi. Hence, Alusi points out, every one of their deeds will earn rewards ten times their value, or more.

[8] And We enjoined on man goodness to his parents. But if they strive against you, that you associate with Me what you have no knowledge of, then obey them not.9 To Me is your return, and I shall inform you of what you were doing.

[9] As for those who believed and acted righteously, We shall surely admit them among the righteous.



9. The connection between this and the previous verses seems to be that earlier Allah (swt) said, “And whoever strives, strives only for himself,” He points out now that this striving could start with the parents who could be the first, as experienced quite often, to oppose their son embracing Islam (Au.).

Imam Razi extends the meaning to people’s reliance on others for thoughts, ideas and concepts. In Asad’s words, “According to Razi, this phrase may also allude to concepts not evolved through personal knowledge but, rather, acquired through a blind, uncritical acceptance of other people’s views (taqlid).”

Qatadah has said that this verse was revealed in reference to Sa`d b. abi Waqqas’s emigration to Madinah (Ibn Jarir, and Zamakhshari without naming Qatadah), and Qurtubi (as well as Ibn Kathir) quote the following from Tirmidhi who recorded it as the context of revelation of this verse, declaring the report trustworthy. Sa`d’s son narrated from his father that four verses were revealed in reference to him.

Sa`d’s mother asked, “Has not Allah (swt) commanded you to be good? By God, I shall not eat anything nor drink until I die or you denounce (this new religion).”

“So,” said Sa`d, “When they wanted to feed her, they used to forcibly open her mouth.”

It is then that Allah (swt) revealed this verse. It is also recorded that Sa`d initially tried to persuade her to give up while she taunted him that after her death he will be remembered as the killer of his mother.

Finally, Sa`d told her, “Mother, if you had a hundred souls, and gave them all up, one after another, I will not abandon my religion. So, if you wish to eat, you may, but if you do not, then don’t.” She gave up.

Shawkani adds: According to a hadith in Tirmidhi (who declared it Sahih), IbnMajah, Ibn Hibban, Bayhaqi and a few others, the Prophet (saws) said,

“I have been persecuted like no one else was persecuted; I feared in the way of Allah (swt) like no one feared; a third day would dawn upon me in a condition that I and Bilal had nothing to eat except for what could be concealed in Bilal’s armpit.”

(To be continued)

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