This sura’s name comes from v. 41, which compares those who trust in anyone or anything besides Allah to spiders, who labor to build webs that are “the flimsiest of houses.” Maududi says that sura 29 was revealed during “the period of extreme persecution of the Muslims” at Mecca, although he considers and then dismisses the possibility that the first section, since it rails against the Hypocrites who so plagued Muhammad in Medina, were revealed later, during the Medinan period. Evidently the Hypocrites were always about.
Verses 1-13 focus on them, saying that it is not enough to profess belief in Islam, but that believers must be tested (vv. 2-3). The Hypocrites in this case are actually weaklings, who mistake human oppression for the wrath of Allah (v. 10). Allah asks, “Do those who practice evil think that they will get the better of Us? Evil is their judgment!” (v. 4). Even if a believer’s own parents urge one to worship anything or anyone besides Allah, he shouldn’t obey them (v. 8). Ibn Kathir elucidates this: “If they are idolaters, and they try to make you follow them in their religion, then beware of them, and do not obey them in that.” The unbelievers tell the believers that if they forsake Islam and follow them, the unbelievers will bear the penalty for the believers’ sins, but they are, of course, lying (v. 12).
Then in verses 14-39 Allah then once again invokes various prophets: Noah (vv. 14-15); Abraham (vv. 16-27); Lot (vv. 28-35); Shu’aib (vv. 36-38); and Moses (v. 39). Says Maududi: “The stories mentioned in this Surah also impress the same point mostly, as if to say, ‘Look at the Prophets of the past: they were made to suffer great hardships and were treated cruelly for long periods. Then, at last they were helped by Allah. Therefore, take heart: Allah’s succour will certainly come. But a period of trial and tribulation has to be undergone.’ Besides teaching this lesson to the Muslims, the disbelievers also have been warned, as if to say, ‘If you are not being immediately seized by Allah, you should not form the wrong impression that you will never be seized. The signs of the doomed nations of the past are before you. Just see how they met their doom and how Allah succoured the Prophets.’” The warning to those who have heard and rejected Muhammad is clear.
Along the way, many familiar notes are sounded: the truth of Allah is evident from creation (v. 20); Allah grants mercy to whom he pleases and punishes those whom he wishes to punish (v. 21): says Ibn Kathir, “He is the Ruler Who is in control, Who does as He wishes and judges as He wants, and there is none who can put back His judgement. None can question Him about what He does; rather it is they who will be questioned, for His is the power to create and to command, and whatever He decides is fair and just, for He is the sovereign who cannot be unjust in the slightest.” Those who reject his signs (ayat, or verses of the Qur’an) will be severely punished (v. 23).
In verses 40-57 Allah tells Muhammad to keep preaching, but only those with knowledge will understand his message (v. 43). Consequently one early Muslim, Amr bin Murrah, remarked: “I never came across an Ayah [verse] of the Book of Allah that I did not know, but it grieved me” – because his lack of understanding indicated that he didn’t have the requisite knowledge. This verse may be why it is so common today for Muslims to charge that non-Muslims who speak about the Islamic jihad ideology and Islamic supremacism do not understand Islamic texts and teachings; if they did understand them, they would become Muslims. The Qur’an’s meaning is clear in the hearts of the believers (v. 49): the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains that it is clear “in the breasts of those who have been given knowledge, namely, the believers, who preserve it [in their hearts], and none denies Our signs except wrongdoers, namely, the Jews — they denied them after they were manifested to them.”
Allah tells Muhammad not to get into arguments with the Jews and Christians, “except by better means,” unless it is with one of them who is a wrongdoer – and to tell them that Muslims, Jews and Christians all worship the same deity (v. 46). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this means Muslims should not argue with Jews and Christians except by “calling [them] to God by [reference to] His signs and pointing out His arguments; except those of them who have done wrong, by waging war and refusing to accept [to pay] the jizya-tax.” Muslims should “dispute with these using the sword, until such time as they submit or pay the jizya-tax,” and remind them that we all worship the same God.
Another early Muslim, Ibn Abbas, told the Muslims it was unnecessary to ask the Jews and Christians religious questions when the Muslims had the Qur’an: “Why do you ask the people of the scripture about anything while your Book (Quran) which has been revealed to Allah’s Apostle is newer and the latest? You read it pure, undistorted and unchanged, and Allah has told you that the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians) changed their scripture and distorted it, and wrote the scripture with their own hands and said, ‘It is from Allah,’ to sell it for a little gain. Does not the knowledge which has come to you prevent you from asking them about anything?”
Allah reminds Muhammad that he never read or recited any Scripture before the Qur’an (v. 48) – meaning, says Ibn Kathir, that “you lived among your people for a long time before you brought this Qur’an. During this time you never read any book or wrote anything. Your people, as well as others all know that you are an unlettered man who does not read or write.” This, of course, is the substance of the miracle claimed of the Qur’an itself – that this sublime poetry came to an illiterate man. The unbelievers ask for miracles, but Muhammad’s job is only to warn them about Allah’s judgment (v. 50), and the Qur’an is enough for that (v. 51). The unbelievers will be punished as Allah taunts them: “Taste ye (the fruits) of your deeds!” (v. 55).
Verses 58-69 promise Paradise (v. 58) to those who persevere in patient faith (v. 59). This world is just “a pastime and a game” (v. 64) – the real life is in the next world. But most people do not understand, even though they know Allah created and sustains all things (vv. 63, 65). Allah will guide to the truth those who strive (jahadoo, a form of “jihad”) in his cause (v. 69) – suggesting that one who difficulty believing should fight for Islam, and will thereby come to understand it better. As Ibn Abbas explains: “whoever acts upon what he knows,” Allah “shall give him success to know that which he do not know.”
Next week: Sura 30, “The Byzantines”: The Byzantines have been defeated, but will soon emerge victorious.
(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic Qur’an, with English translations available; here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)