“… but verily, the frailest (weakest) of houses is the spider’s house – if they knew” (I)
This Qura’nic verse appears at the beginning of the second part of Surah al-‘Ankabût (The Spider). It is a Makkan surah and has a total number of 69 ayahs following the Basmalah. This surah was named as such because it compares disbelievers and polytheists, who seek protection and support in things or people rather than in Allah (SWT), to the spider that seeks refuge in its house, the flimsiest of houses. This is the only verse in which the spider is mentioned in the whole of the noble Qur’an.
The main theme of this surah is belief in Allah (SWT). It tackles the ordeals inflicted upon believers because of their faith and what they might go through as a result of holding on to Allah’s religion and calling others to embrace it. This is all due to the inevitable conflict between right and wrong, and between the followers of both paths.
To emphasize this worldly custom, the surah describes what happened to some of Allah’s Prophets and Messengers who were hindered on their paths of calling to Allah (SWT). It also presents examples of tyrannical characters and nations, severely punished for their sins. It demeans those disbelievers and polytheists and sets them as an example before everyone. Moreover, Surah Al-‘Ankabût links the righteousness in Allah’s religion to that in the heavens and on earth. It asserts the Oneness of Allah (SWT) and unifies the divine messages. The surah also calls upon believers to hold on to their religion, or to emigrate at times of affliction, while still holding on to their faith. Surah Al-‘Ankabût glorifies jihad (the struggle for the sake of religion) and the mujahidin (strugglers) striving to serve Allah (SWT). The surah confirms that ordeals are essential in life and lays stress on the responsibility of individuals, and the individuality of consequences. It clarifies the destinies of the believers, hypocrites, and disbelievers. Finally, the surah concludes with how Allah (SWT) brings forth to the mujahidin good tidings and instils firmness in their faith.
Signs of Creation in Surah Al-Ankabût:
- It asserts that only Allah (SWT) can easily create and recreate. This can be seen at a smaller scale in the endless cycle of life and death that takes place through the constant process of reproduction, for as long as Allah (SWT) wills. Moreover, there is the cycle of creation of celestial bodies, their destruction, disappearance into the cosmic cloud of dust, and recreation from this same dust. The water cycle around the earth is a case in point, and so are the cycles of rocks and the cycles of the earth’s surface formulation. Furthermore, there is the creation of matter and energy, their interchange, their extermination and recreation, in addition to other cycles as well.
- It indicates that wandering around in the land, meditating on rocks and studying the evidences of life on such rocks, are the means by which man can get to know the history of the earth and the truth about the origins of life. Such facts were verified by studies conducted in the field of Geology.
- It confirms that recreation in the hereafter, following the destruction of the universe, shall follow the same path by which creation originated.
- It asserts that the spider’s web is the flimsiest of all houses, on both the physical and spiritual levels. This was ascertained by recent studies in the field of Zoology.
- There are also several historical and psychological signs directly related to scientific research. However, they are not of relevance to the topic we are currently looking; the signs of creation in the noble Qur’an.
Since each of the above statements requires a separate explanation on its own, I shall focus here on the issue of the weak nature of the spider’s web, which Allah (SWT) used as an example in the 41st ayah of Surah Al-‘Ankabût. Accordingly, it is important to quickly review the interpretations made by a number of scholars in this context.
The Scholars’ Interpretations:
“The likeness of those who take (false deities as) Auliyâ’ (protectors, helpers) other than Allâh is the likeness of a spider who builds (for itself) a house; but verily, the frailest (weakest) of houses is the spider’s house – if they but knew.” (II)
What Ibn-Kathir (RA), a renowned Islamic scholar, has reported in this context, in a nutshell, is that Allah (SWT) has set this as a parable for the disbelievers who seek gods other than Allah (SWT) for support, food and assistance in hardships.
The spider’s web here, with its fragility and frailty, shows that holding on to such gods who possess no kind of power whatsoever is just like holding on to a spider’s web that is of no use. Had they known this, they would not have taken protectors other than Allah (SWT). On the other hand, Muslims, who strongly believe in Allah (SWT), and abide by his rules, have succeeded in grasping the most trustworthy handhold that shall never break due to its strength and firmness.
In Safwat Al-Bayan Lema’ani Al-Qur’an (Selected Explanations for the Meanings of the Qur’an), the author (RA) likened disbelievers who worship and rely on false deities, seeking their help and forgiveness, to a spider that weaves a shelter that does not provide protection from heat or cold, rain or harm. The spider was defined as a well-known creature that weaves loose thin threads in the air. Al-‘Ankabût can be used to refer to the singular, plural, male and female forms of the word.
However, it is more commonly used as the feminine form. The last two letters of the word Al-‘Ankabût, waw and taa’, are additional, just like in the word taghût (tyrant). The plural forms of Al-‘Ankabût are anakeb and anakeeb.
The Spider from the Scientific Perspective:
The spider is of kingdom Animalia. It belongs to class Arachnida, and phylum Arthoropoda. Arachnida comprises order Araneae along with other orders that include scorpions, ticks, and mites.
The spider’s body is divided into two segments. The head and thorax are combined into one body segment, and the abdomen constitutes the second body segment. The front segment holds four pairs of legs, one pair of short, leg-like appendages called pedipalps, and one pair of pliers-shaped fangs called chelicerae (biting mouth parts), where the glands are. A slim waist separates the front segment of the body from its rear part.
The spider has as many as eight simple eyes, and sometimes less. It is a predator that feeds on insects and other arthropods. It has a thick cuticle or hard shell, covered with hair. The spider grows by shedding its cuticle from seven to eight times before its full maturation. Nowadays, zoologists can identify up to forty thousand species of spiders varying in length (going from less than one mm to 10 cm), shape, and colour. Most of them can be classified as terrestrial animals, and they are usually alone except during mating and egg hatching. Spiders are widespread in habitats that range from those at sea level to those 5000m above sea level.
Normally a spider has three pairs of spinnerets (may range from 1-4 pairs), which are outgrowing mobile appendages below the abdomen. They have minute spigots through which the spider secretes the fluid that is used in producing the threads that make up the web. This fluid substance, secreted by a number of special glands through ducts opening to the outside through the spigots at the back of the abdomen, becomes solid when drawn out of the spider and subjected to the air. This drying process results in forming threads of different kinds, lengths, and strengths, each according to the type of gland that secreted it.
The spider might stay in its home, doing all its mundane activities, or seek a nest or burrow other than its home and link it to its web by a thread known as the catching or signal thread. The spider takes refuge in this hiding place when in danger.
Scientific Implications of the Qura’nic Ayah
First: Using the singular form of the word “Spider”:
In Lisan El-Arab lexicon (The Arab’s Tongue), and under the entry of ‘ankab (the root form of the Arabic word for spider), the derivative form ‘ankabût (spider) refers to a small living creature that weaves delicate loose threads in the air and on top of wells. It mentions as well that ‘ankabût has probably been mentioned in poetry. The spider’s house is referred to as al-‘akdaba.
Al-Feraa said that al-‘ankabût is feminine, whereas some Arabs use the word to denote the masculine form as well. The plural forms of the word are: al-‘ankabûtat, al-‘anakeb, and al-‘anakeeb. The diminutive form of the word is ‘onaykeb. In the Yemeni dialect, the spider is referred to as ‘ankabah. It can also be referred to as ‘ankaba’a and ‘ankabûh. Moreover, Sibaway has referred to the spider as ‘ankaba’a, thus implying that the last letter ta’a in the Arabic word ‘ankabût is additional. Therefore, it cannot be determined whether the word is used as singular or plural.
Ibn-al-I’rabi says that al-‘ankab is used for the male spider and al-‘ankaba for the female spider. It is also said that al-‘ankab is the genus of al-‘ankabût, and that al-‘ankabût could be used as either masculine or feminine. Al-Mabrad says that al-‘ankabût is a feminine term that could be used as a masculine one. Accordingly, it is predominant that the word al-‘ankabût refers to the singular feminine form of the word spider, and the plural is ‘anakeb.
According to the above, naming the surah by the singular form of the word, al-‘Ankabût, highlights the individualistic life the spider leads, except during mating and the hatching of eggs. This stands in contrast with each of Surah Al-Nahl (The Bees) and Surah Al-Naml (The Ants), where both refer to the plural form of the name of the creature; highlighting the communal life such insects lead.
Second: Implications of the Qura’nic Ayah”… that takes to itself a home”:
This Qura’nic ayah clearly shows that the female spider is primarily the one that weaves the web. Accordingly, weaving the web is a mission undertaken by female spiders. Although the male spider might occasionally take part in the construction, the restoration or expansion of the web, the mission itself is carried out mainly by the female spider. This uncovers the scientific miracle in the words of Allah (SWT), “…takes a house”, where the word “takes” that is used in the Arabic text refers mainly to the female and not the male.
Third: Implications of the Qura’nic Ayah “… and surely the feeblest of homes is indeed the spider’s house “:
This miraculous verse points out several important facts including the following:
- From the physical point of view, a spider’s web is the weakest of all houses. It is composed of a group of intricate fine silk threads, mostly with large gaps in-between. Therefore, the threads cannot protect spiders from heat or extreme cold, nor can they provide a reliable shelter, or offer protection from heavy rain, strong winds or even the perils of attackers. In spite of all this, the way in which the spider web is built is miraculous. The web’s silk threads are very minute, with an average thickness of about one millionth of an inch, or one over 4000 of the thickness of a normal human hair. Despite their extreme delicacy, the silk threads are five times stronger than their steel equivalent, and are characterized by stronger tension resistance, whether such resistance is attributed to the unit of size or to the weight of the examined silks. Moreover, recent studies proved that the silk woven by the Nephila spider, of the Orb weaver group, is three times stronger than its equivalent produced from the substance known as Kevlar, a petroleum-based substance used in making bullet-proof vests. Therefore, the spider’s silk is one of the strongest substances available on earth, as it can withstand a tension force up to 42000 kg/cm2 which gives it strong stretching abilities. Spider silk has a tensile strength of roughly 1.3 GPA. This feature enables it to trap prey insects without being ruptured, especially that spiders construct their webs of braids, and each of those is itself composed of a number of strongly braided threads. Hence, this explains why Allah (SWT) said in his noble book “… the frailest (weakest) of houses” instead of “the flimsiest threads”. The spider’s home remains to be the weakest and frailest of all homes despite its strong threads.
- From the spiritual point of view, a spider’s house is the most fragile of all houses. It is deprived of notions of love and mercy; the basis for any happy family. In some species, the female spider kills the male immediately after the fertilization process. The female devours the male’s body, since the former is larger and fiercer than the latter. In some cases, the female mercilessly eats its offspring. In other cases, the female dies after the complete fertilization of the eggs that it usually carries in a silk sac. When the eggs hatch, the spiderlings come out to find themselves in an extremely crowded place. The siblings then start fighting over food and/or space, until the battle ends with the survival of only a few spiderlings. Those then shed their skin, break the wall of the egg sac and leave one after another, carrying along unpleasant memories. When the mother dies, the spiderlings feed on her body. Afterwards, the spiderlings spread out in the surrounding environment. Every surviving female starts building its web. Those who survive go through the same tragic experience all over again, which makes the spider’s house the most brutal. Allah (SWT) has set the spider’s house as an example of fragility and frailty because of the lack of strong family ties and lack of notions of mercy among members of the family.
Fourth: Implications of the Qura’nic Ayah “…if they knew”:
Such facts were unknown to any human being during the time of the revelation, nor were they known for long centuries to follow. They were discovered after intensive studies in the field of spider behavior had been carried out by hundreds of scientists over many decades. The whole thing crystallized only in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Therefore, Allah (SWT) has concluded the subject ayah by, “…if they knew”.
Hence, the ayah revealed to Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) over 1400 years ago, describing the spider’s house as the flimsiest of houses, at a time when the majority were illiterate, is regarded as an unprecedented scientific exploration. No one but Allah (SWT) can provide such information. Allah (SWT) safeguarded the Qur’an in the language in which it was revealed, i.e. the Arabic language, for over 14 centuries. He will continue to do so until he re-inherits the earth and all those on it, so that Qur’an would remain as proof to all people until the Day of Judgement. Hence, all that is entailed in Qur’an proves that it is but Allah’s words (SWT), and remains as testimony of Muhammad’s prophethood (SAWS). Muhammad (SAWS), the seal of all prophets, received Qur’an, delivered the message, fulfilled the task he was entrusted with, guided the nation and struggled in the cause of Allah (SWT) until his final days.
Let us ask Allah (SWT) to reward Muhammad (SAWS) the best of what he rewarded His Prophets and Messengers for fulfilling their messages. O Allah! Grant Muhammad (SAWS) excellence and raise him to the lauded status You promised him. All praise be to Allah Alone, and may His Peace and Blessings be upon His Messenger and slave, our Prophet Muhammad (SAWS), his family and his companions.
(I): Surah Al-‘Ankabût (The Spider): V 41
(II): Surah Al-‘Ankabût (The Spider): V 41
Source: Dr. Zaghloul El-Naggar [External/non-QP]