Surah 29: The Spider

Surah al-ʕankabuut, “The Spider,” is traditionally labeled as a Meccan surah, that phase of Muhammad’s ministry where he was trying to reform his hometown and being suppressed by its mainstream community. Yet as I read, there were things in the surah that struck me as more relevant to Muhammad’s Medinian ministry: concern about hypocrites, passing references to conflicts with People of the Book, emigration, and striving. So I looked up the traditional chronology and found this surah is placed as the penultimate surah Muhammad revealed in Mecca. This is interesting, because it reinforces my impression that this surah captures a state of transition in Muhammad’s ministry.

Muhammad’s ministry is changing, so how did that start to happen?

The Continuation of Meccan Themes

Okay, my palette for Meccan themes has only been set by a small sample size. Here’s a list of the Meccan suwar I have currently read with their chronological numbers.

SurahChron. Order
The Introduction5
The Traditions 39
The Criterion 42
Mary 44
Ṭa Ha 45
The Poets47
The Ants 48
The Stories 49
The Night Journey 50
Jonah 51
Hud 52
Joseph 53
The Stone 54
The Cattle 55
The Cave 69
The Bees 70
Abraham 71
The Believers 72
The Prophets73
The Spider86

This table doesn’t really communicate any hard facts about timeline, but what I wanted to show was that we really lack experience with the earliest part of Muhammad’s ministry. The content I’ve covered thus far is quite far along in Muhammad’s progression of revelation and moreover they are pretty close to each other in sequence. So keep that in mind.

Meccan suwar have been preoccupied with the conflict between reform with the established authorities. Most of the lore has been examples alluding to or providing allegory for this conflict. The role and responsibility of prophethood is taught, along with the pedigree of the Quran as divine revelation. Creation is upheld as evidence of God’s existence and power. Family and relationship gets defined within religious community. Much of the teaching is criticism of or outright exasperation with the disbelievers. Believers are taught virtue in the general terms of prayer, charity, monotheism, and character. Resurrection is not only taught, but wielded freely to motivate its listeners with a carrot and stick. Some of the strongest imagery of both Paradise and Hell have come in Meccan suwar.

Insomuch as it continues these themes, this surah is very Meccan. It touches upon all of those topics, adding some new details but otherwise not developing the ideas. We get the information that Lot was a relative of Abraham’s, and also that the Quran is being transmitted through the memorization of the believers and was neither practiced nor written by Muhammad before revelation. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the eponymous spider ayah regarding the frailty of polytheism being like the frailty of a spider’s web…it’s weak, folks, the weakest. The only developed idea is that being good to one’s parents does not extend so far as letting them pressure you into idolatry, which explicitly answers the “but what if…” reactions all Jewish and Christian kids have when their parents quote “honor your father and your mother” at them.

There is no point when these themes became irrelevant to Muhammad’s ministry, just a point where new priorities arose and started to take over the Quran’s rhetoric. While Muhammad was in Mecca, his only role was to preach, argue, and be patient. He had no authority to get things done. It was only upon his success in Medina that he started needing answers for legal and political situations.

Foxhole Fallacy

Though not directly relevant to the discussion of whether this surah is Meccan or Medinian, it is time to address a recurring idea promoted by the Quran throughout its text that deserves some rejection. Central to justifying the Hell that all humanity is by default headed towards is this idea that all men really know better and go on towards damnation nonetheless. This is usually supported with hypothesized examples of some individual being in a frightening place where they are questioning their own survival. It could be a young couple desperate for a safe birth for their new child, it could be general hardship, but most frequently the scenario is of a ship caught in a storm so that all on board are terrified of sinking. That sinking-ship scenario was reiterated today in ayat 65-66. In these circumstances, the Quran explains, the individual achieves fundamental clarity and honesty, remembering and reaching out to the one God.

This is analogous to the West’s “Foxhole Fallacy,” which gets its name from the phrase coined during World War I, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” There is lots of anecdotal evidence both for and against the idea that humans in desperate straights reach for a higher power. That kind of evidence is useless for deciding the truthfulness of the idea. Why? Well, because there’s no way to substantiate these anecdotes. When someone escapes a life-or-death experience and says they never felt an impulse to call upon God, it is all too easy for the opposition to read motivation into that person’s denial and call it a lie. And that is what the Quran is doing when it closes out its sinking-ship scenarios by contemptuously observing how the pagan continues their life unaffected by their moment of clarity once the desperation passes. The pagans know but don’t want to know, this tells the Quran’s readers, and thus they deny and suppress the truth within themselves. At the end of the day all conclusions on the matter are motivated and not based on evidence because such experiences don’t leave measurable evidence.

Now, that being said, there is evidence that experience with trauma does increase religious participation by broader trends. However, this evidence is not mapped to individual experiences, makes no decisive claims on how or why a person becomes more religious after trauma, and cannot measure religiosity in more than participation. Religions offer to the traumatized a lot of secondary benefits like the stability of ritual and community support, and it’s not clear how much the faith of a person factors into their religious participation. After all, how to you turn faith into objective data?

So going back to the logic of the foxhole/sinking-ship scenario, let me explain my objections to it.

Firstly, I object to the failure of this argument to deconstruct the worldview it is challenging. As the surah demonstrates in ayat 62-63, Muhammad’s audience already believes in The God as their ultimate deity, but they worship other lower deities as well. This sort of hierarchically arranged pantheon probably operated by a form of logic that is very much like way we structure governments. Even if you have an absolute monarch with the power to affect all aspects of life, you don’t take your complaints about a local pothole to him; such complaints would likely get ignored or at the worst annoy and incur the wrath of that monarch. That monarch appointed a structure of lesser officials and specialists to handle lesser matters and wants you to use it –that is the natural law you are expected to comply with. To make an appeal to the top of the hierarchy, you would need to either a) have an important appeal, b) be an important/beloved person whose even small matters carry serious weight in the eyes of the monarch, c) have the support and advocacy of the local authorities on your side, or d) have a desperate case, the consequences of which are equal to or worse than the consequences of offending the monarch. A pagan taking their direst appeal to the highest authority would in no way contradict the logic of their beliefs. When you deconstruct this set of beliefs, the relevant counter-argument is that The God a) did not create any such hierarchy or b) that He loves you, the individual, so much that none of your matters are too small to bring to His attention. The Quran offers such responses elsewhere by asserting God’s competence, His all-sufficiency, and His lack of partners. The Quran doesn’t need to use this sinking ship scenario, which neither deconstructs nor counters the concept of a hierarchical pantheon. What this scenario does do, however, is willfully misconstrue the theological relevance of the pagan’s behavior in order to support its own worldview and deny the integrity of its opposition. It is the performance of an argument made for the benefit of those who already agree with the Quran, not for those who disagree.

The other layer of deconstruction missing from both the Quran’s sinking-ship and the West’s Foxhole Fallacy is to question where the inclination to reach for a higher power would come from. They both assume this inclination would come from an ingrained knowledge of God. Another possible source of such an inclination could be the sheer saturation of the concept of a higher power within these cultures. You cannot grow up in the West without being taught at some point to believe in a higher power, whether you accepted that teaching or not. Arabia was on the whole a very religious place, and Mecca seems to have been saturated with a belief in Allah. Thus someone’s desperate appeal to a higher power does not reveal that they believed in it all along, but rather that they are reaching for an idea they were taught and are willing to try it when …well… desperate.

Which leads to my second objection: desperation is by its very nature irrational. Being desperate is not associated with achieving clarity, but rather with becoming willing to take actions that are unlikely, futile, or even self-defeating. It is not a state of humility but rather a heightened state of fearful imagination. If anything, I’d be concerned that promoting the Foxhole Fallacy risks discrediting the existence of God by positioning Him as a figment of imagination generated in desperation. “People only become religious as an emotional or ideological crutch to cope with mortality or the realization of one’s actual insignificance in the uncaring world,” so the rebuttal goes. The Foxhole Fallacy is ripe fodder for that dismissal of religion.

And lastly, telling someone that they just aren’t admitting their deeply known truths is a very condescending, unproductive line of thought that destroys communication. It’s like the pickup artist telling an uninterested woman, “you’re playing the good girl, but you’re not plastic, you’re flesh and blood, so let’s be honest: you know you want it.” This kind of winking refusal to take people seriously when they honestly represent themselves is very damaging to the communication you should be trying to foster in your ideological exchanges. It is adopting a mentality that says you don’t have to listen to what your opposition is saying, because they aren’t admitting the truth they don’t want to know.

The Appearance of Medinian Themes

As I said in my intro, I spotted four different topics that looked more akin to Medinian material: hypocrites, striving, People of the Book, emigration.

This surah declares God’s application of trials to test believers. With this comes the denunciation of hypocrites in ayat 10-11 as fair weather believers. Naturally these ayat flashed me back to past Medinian suwar, such as An-Nisaa and At-Tawba, and when I checked incidences of the words “hypocrites” with the chronological order of suwar I found that all instances except today’s are formally categorized as Medinian. Accordingly, some traditions categorize the first eleven ayat of “The Spider” to be Medinian additions to an otherwise Meccan surah. The form of hypocrisy in today’s surah is denounced in those who would imagine believers are being punished when they experience hardship, i.e. interpreting that believers have done something wrong. At the least, these hypocrites aren’t presented as malicious backstabbers who secretly root for the failure of Islam. Instead, their sedition is rooted in a fear of fallibility which ultimately undermines the resolve that is desired of believers when they face hardship. This surah seeks to deny the idea that the Muslims have fallen contrary to God and must re-evaluate themselves. The hardship that when applied to other people gets called punishment thus is re-interpreted as testing when it happens to Muslims, and Muslims who doubt such are called hypocrites.

The surah contains mentions of “striving” in both its early and closing ayat. It’s been a while since I wrote about the semantics of jahad “strive/struggle” verses qatal “fight/kill,” so for a quick reiteration here I’ll recap that words with the roots j-h-d contain ideas of effort and expenditure, not violence (except in its capacity as a form of effort). A mention of striving here does not necessarily mean that Muhammad’s ministry has already developed into the field of warfare. It also is true that a call to “striving” is much more present in Medinian suwar. The only Meccan instances where believers are directly called to striving is in Surah an-Nahl in connection to those who emigrate away from their prophet and still endeavor to maintain their religion. The other Meccan instance is in The Criterion in which Muhammad is told to strive through the words of the Quran. So the concept of striving, and certainly the call to believers to strive, is something that seems more related to Muslim life in Medina, but is not exclusively Medinian.

An accidental message that comes across from the struggle between prophets and authorities in the Meccan suwar is that there is no role given to the believers. They are called to general righteousness, good character, charity, and obedience to their prophet. They endure in their religion and wait patiently for God and their prophet to overthrow society and hand them success. It was only in the challenge to Qarun, where no leader was around, that the people had a voice and championed good religion. Even still, God was the one who took care of the situation and defeated Qarun. Twelve years into Muhammad’s ministry the people were still waiting for God. Only later does it start appearing that the people are going to have to put effort into their own ascendancy and not just wait for God to intervene with a seismic event. With this revelation, it is already taught that the people are not to assume that God needs their help, but only that striving is an opportunity for greater rewards.

It is harder for me to look up where and how frequently in the series of revelations “People of the Scripture” get a mention, and I’m afraid my memory is a little fuzzy. I don’t remember there being conflict with People of the Book explicitly in any suwar that are Meccan. One ayah of An-Nahl rejects Jewish dietary laws, and some passages rebuking the pagans include rebuking the confession “God has a son,” which could be a reference to Christians. Oh yes! How could I forget the Surah Maryam, in which baby Jesus’ prophetic mission statement serves to rebuke Christians. Otherwise, the strongest Meccan reference to People of the Book was to claim their support in Al-Qaṣaṣ. In ayah 46 of today’s surah, we find that debates have started up between believers and People of the Book. Interactions still seem amicable, with Believers being taught to conduct themselves well (except to those who are unjust) and reach out in solidarity. At the least, today’s surah is still confident enough to claim that it has the support of these people in ayah 47.

It doesn’t mean too much that a Meccan surah drops mention of migration because such was happening before Muhammad emigrated himself. There had already been some early attempts at fleeing from the persecution in Mecca, most notably the emigrations to Ethiopia which included one of Muhammad’s own daughters and her husband, the future caliph Uthman. When Surah an-Nahl mentions a migration, I concluded that it was this migration to Ethiopia since that surah showed some ambivalent feelings about whether emigration was a good choice or not. Muslims fled to Ethiopia as refugees and had to submit to the authorities there. If Muhammad had gone to Ethiopia himself it’s very likely that he would have cycled into the same conflicts that he had in Mecca. By contrast, traditional history has it that Muhammad was invited to Yathrib/Medina by remote converts who thought he would be a good arbiter between the Jews and pagans there. He was welcomed as a person who straddled both those demographics and who had the charisma and idealism to persuade both communities to get along. That situation was much more ideal. Not only was Muhammad to be given some authority, but it wasn’t as far or dangerous a journey to emigrate to as other locations. Plus, it was close enough for Muhammad to continue his fight with the Meccans –the central material in so much of his body of revelations– and not have to start his message from scratch or look like he gave up on seeing them by judged in the same way that other Quranic prophets saw their opposition judged.

This surah is at the point of recommending emigration. Lot is presented as a disciple of Abraham’s from among Abraham’s home community. Ayah 24 shows that Abraham’s family has responded to his ministry with murderous persecution, so it makes sense two ayat later that Lot sets out to “emigrate for my Lord.” Of course, Lot’s emigration comes with mixed messages. On the one hand, he’s essentially working as a missionary. On the other hand, his mission fails and even steps backwards as his wife joins the people doomed for destruction. A stand-alone section in ayat 56-60 provides much more supportive, but subtle, comments on emigration. “Oh My servants who have believed, indeed My Earth is spacious, so worship only me…” […some ayat about heavenly rewards for good deeds…] “…And how many a creature carries not its [own] provision. Allah provides for it and for you. And He is the Hearing, the Knowing.” (Sahih International translation, but the emphasis is mine.) These ayat don’t directly order people to emigrate, but they do serve to loosen people’s attachments to their homes. The first ayah reminds believers that the earth is really quite big, with the implications that if their current community doesn’t let them worship God, they can always move. The last ayah is like Jesus’ “consider the lilies/sparrows” sermons teaching people to put aside worry. In combination with the suggestion to take advantage of the earth’s space and the historical setting, it also implies an attempt to ply people from the material goods they rely on. In order to emigrate, the Muslims were having to abandon their homes, property, and family. It was a risky business to do all that, travel the open road to Yathrib, and then try to replace those losses from scratch. When the Muslims arrived in Yathrib they were utter charity cases and had to depend on a community of hosts, al-anṣaar, “the helpers,” to survive. They were refugees.

Placing it in History

So given this material and what we understand of Muhammad’s historical setting, we can see a transition in Muhammad’s ministry. The people can no longer buckle down on holy living and wait for delivery through God’s intervention. Mecca is not budging from its polytheism and the situation is escalating from troubled tolerance to more active hostility. Even more of a factor was that Muhammad had just lost his immunity. Despite the hostility of the Meccan authorities, Muhammad could always escape the worst consequences of his fiery monotheism thanks to the protection of his Uncle Abu Talib, the patriarch of the Hashemite clan, who was not only a surrogate father to Muhammad but also the literal father to Muhammad’s surrogate son. And also, Muhammad’s dear original wife, Khadijah, had died. It was time for Muhammad to move on, and it was time to get himself and his followers away from the hostility of the Meccans.

I believe this surah is in fact straddling the transition events from Mecca to Yathrib/Medina. My evidence comes from two ayat:

To make a case that is was revealed in Mecca, I’d cite ayah 67 and its reference to a “sanctuary” using that word ḥaram. Arguably this could be talking about Yathrib being a sanctuary that protects the Muslims, but already in the Quran we’ve seen Muhammad tell the Quraysh to be grateful for how God settled them in a geographically protected location. Moreover, that word ḥaram is too suggestive of the masjid al-ḥaraam around the Kaaba for me to think of anywhere else but Mecca. So much of this content is just a repeat or continuation of past arguments with the Meccans, it is makes sense that this ayah would be the same. Of course, Muhammad having left Mecca did not take that city out of focus from his tirades. He would spend the next eight years creating his own judgement for the city of Mecca.

The one passage that suggests a Medinian setting, though, is nestled right in amongst the symptoms of hypocrisy. Hypocrites get all seditious when bad things befall the believers, but when victory happens… But what kind of victory occurred in Mecca that would make doubters want to hitch their wagons to the persecuted faithful? Forms of help and victory in Mecca seemed to be, at best, things being just a lighter shade of bad. There is a more concrete and profitable form of victory available to our interpretation in a Medinian context. As I said, the Muslims were refugees in Yathrib, they had nothing, so under Muhammad’s leadership they took to raiding the caravans that came out of Mecca. We would see it as violent thievery, but Muslims justify it as claiming reparations by right of law for the property left behind in the persecution. Material wealth from those raids supported the believers, repaid their hosts, and started the upward cycle of wealth that turned Islam from a cult of the poor and rejected into a profitable venture. A lot of people got rich off the Muslim conquests, and you’re more likely to have fair-weather friends when loot is being distributed. So it seems more likely that this ayah and the ones related to it were from Medina.

If this surah was first revealed in one city and then amended and added to in the other, no structure or continuous trains of thought would have to be broken up to do so. Its ayat all follow the long-vowel-consonant method of rhyming, which is the method employed by most of the other suwar. There are many clumps of ayat you could mix and match through the Quran and not notice. This is what makes identifying the chronological order of suwar so difficult. Many suwar are traditionally ascribed to a historical setting, but are full of excepted ayat that were believed to have been revealed elsewhere. In the end, there’s nothing to keep this surah from being Meccan or Medinian, or little bits of both. The transition spanned more than one city, and the Quran isn’t structured so that its pieces only fit together in one way.

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