A few thoughts on Surat al-`Ankabut

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwī

The surah begins with the question: “a hasiba n-nasu ‘an…” It is not right to translate hasiba as ‘think’/‘imagine’ or ‘suppose’/‘conjecture’. The meaning here is ‘reckon’, ‘calculate’, to use reason to weigh up options in order to come to a judgment about the value of this or that option. The opening verses makes it clear that people tend towards what is a miscalculation, namely that by declaring their faith, by saying that they have believed in God and His Messenger, they have assured their salvation. They have not.

The miscalculation is to say ‘we have believed’ and to expect nothing to follow from that by way of rights and duties, by way of material and immaterial alterations in all our thoughts and intentions, and in all our actions from the smallest to the largest, from very private, individual preferences to collective powers and policies, social and economic structures of public consequence. The miscalculation is to think of faith as a proclamation, a gesture in words or in rituals or both, when it is in reality a commitment to a way of life that differs radically from the way of life of those who do not have faith in God and His Messenger.

Our thoughts, intentions and actions are judged in some respects, necessarily (because we all live on the same earth under more or less similar conditions), by the same criteria that apply to the thoughts, intentions and actions of non-believers – criteria like accuracy, efficiency, profitability, pleasure, and suchlike. But, because we claim that we have faith in God and His Messenger, we are also and always subject to another criterion, namely whether we have measured up to the standards in thought and deed that are commanded and commended by God and His Messenger. Most strikingly, believers can never be sure – in the way that it is possible to be sure in respect of the ‘secular’ criteria just mentioned – that they have pleased God. Believers can only know that they have made effort, they can never know that they have succeeded. This uncertainty, when combined with a firm faith in God’s word, in His promise to judge us by the best of what we tried to do and to forgive our failings and sins, is the foundation of humility and cautious reserve when we make judgments about others or about ourselves, when we make plans and take decisions for ourselves or for others. The certainty that God will judge us, combined with uncertainty as to what that judgment will be, is the foundation of the desire to remember God and be remembered by Him, to never abandon Him and never be abandoned by Him. It is also the foundation of tolerance and respect in all human relationships and in all transactions with the non-human world.

Those who say ‘we have believed in God and His Messenger’ are affirming that God created them and created the world, that God is good and loves the good, that He cares for His creatures and accordingly provides for them not only their sustenance, their means of survival, but also the means of their salvation, the guidance communicated by His Prophets and Messengers and the Books that they brought to mankind. But those who do not want this affirmation to be tested, who do not want the rights and duties that are concomitant with this affirmation, are in effect saying that, after the creation of themselves and of the world, they have no further need of God. It is as if they said: ‘You made the world, and each of us. Thank you very much. We will take it from here. We appreciate your gifts, now leave us be to make our own way as we see fit to do.’ The assumption behind this familiar posture is that we are, though mortal and limited in our powers, self-sufficient.

This assumption — of which we are rarely conscious and which we almost never articulate – has serious consequences for our d‚n, our way of life. It reduces ‚m~n, our faith, to something that we might write on our identity papers, as we write our family name, place of birth, gender, and the like. But God has made it clear throughout His Book, and quite explicitly in this surah, that He does not judge our faith as it is written on our identity papers, but as it is impressed and imprinted on our bodies and minds through the manifold processes of our human effort in the whole of our lifetimes, be they short or long. He has promised that He will judge us by the best of what we tried to be and do, and that He will forgive us the rest. We depend on that promise, but we cannot make that promise come true simply by declaring that we are Muslims, and showing some level of attachment to certain of the symbols of being Muslim, such as diet and costume.

The surah takes its name from the mention, in the middle of the surah, of the frailty of the spider’s web. I have explained elsewhere that the names of the surahs of the Qur’an are a convention that developed as a useful shorthand to refer to one surah rather than another. These names are not part of the Revelation and do not carry its authority – by contrast, the forms and order of words and passages within surahs and the arrangement of the surahs, do carry the authority of God because they were settled at the end of the lifetime of the Messenger of God, salla l-lahu alayhi wa sallam under the supervision of Jibril alayhi s-salam. So we should not suppose that the titles indicate the theme(s), or indicate a special focus or perspective on the theme(s), of the surahs to which they are attached. However, because the reference to the spider’s web occurs in the middle of the surah, separating/connecting the two main sections (vv. 1-40, vv. 42-69), this title perhaps does have a significance that is worth dwelling upon.

A spider’s web (v. 41) is indeed a frail thing, and we can easily brush it aside. But a bird’s nest, or the nests that ants build, are also easily destroyed, and these could have served the purpose if the purpose was only to indicate frailty. The spider’s construction (bayt) is not made out of bits and pieces of material it gathers from the world around it (like a bird’s nest, for example). Rather, the spider builds its ‘house’ from material spun out from within itself. There are general patterns in the webs of different species of spiders, but no two individual webs are identical, albeit similar. Each web carries the impress of the individual effort of the spider that built it and is conditioned by the specificity of its circumstances (its ‘history and geography’, we could say). Thus, the bayt of the spider offers us a likeness of the delusion of self-sufficiency which afflicts many of mankind (v. 39 mentions Korah, Pharaoh and Haman as famous examples of this delusion).

The effort for taqwa is grounded in a religious (or in some other way deeply serious) under-standing of human responsibility, especially in respect of internal and external limits on human agency. The human world that we are currently living in is operating on the basis that there are no boundaries to what humans can make, think, do, and how far they can go in whatever direction they care to. However, the human world is thoroughly dependent on the natural world. When a man says, tomorrow morning I am going to my orchard to pick the fruits of my labour, and fails to make exception for the will of the Creator, what he has failed to do is properly to appreciate (i.e., feel gratitude for) all the activities of light, water and air, and the billions of invisible creatures that have matured the soil of his orchard day and night, going back eons. So, it may be, as the Qur’an warns (68:17-18: ..balawna ashab al-jannati idh aqsamu la-yasrimunnaha musbiheen, a la yastathnun”), that one tomorrow the man will wake to find that his labour (a trivial input by comparison with the input of the creation altogether) has come to nothing. Human societies and the planet as a whole are on the cliff-edge of just such a tomorrow.