Secularism and The Spiderweb Simile of Surah Al-’Ankabut

“Those who take protectors other than God can be compared to the spider which builds itself a cobweb. But the frailest of all structures is the house of the spider, if but they knew it” – Surah Al-’Ankabut, 29:41 (Trans. Wahiduddin Khan)

The spiderweb simile found in Surah Al-‘Ankabut of The Qur’an occurs in reference to the recipients of God’s message before the time of Prophet Muhammad . The Surah recounts the stories of previous prophets who, despite having their faith tested by God, did not succumb to disbelief and were consequently rewarded. However, it also recounts instances of those who did succumb to disbelief; the ancient Arabian tribes of ‘Ad and Thamud, along with Korah, Pharaoh and Haman of the Old Testament, are mentioned in Ayahs 38 and 39 respectively as having rejected the messages of their prophets, instead constructing their own laws and principles to guide their lives. It is these types of figures to whom “those who take protectors other than God” refers; it is they who are represented by the spider in the subsequent analogy.

In modernity, the imagery and implications of the spider building itself a house are highly pertinent to secular society; itself a cobweb spun from the feeble threads of materialism and the anthropocentric episteme of the European Enlightenment. With the rise of empiricism came the view that human beings themselves are the locus of all existence and, by extension, are in a position to construct that existence (hence Peter L. Berger’s conception of modernity as being defined by choice and not, as was the case in the pre-modern world, fate). [1] Weaved into the narrative of scientific progress espoused by that same milieu, this deemed the very notion of principles beyond the reach of human perception to be, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, non-existent altogether. Thus with secularism came the reign of the human will or, rather, the contriving of that flimsy cobweb in which we now dwell.

Following the Protestant Reformation, the climate of opinion that prevailed over the seventeenth and eighteen centuries was one which sought ardently to ‘progress’ beyond religious laws and institutions. The Reformation had asserted for every individual “the privilege of exercising a free and unfettered conscience in things spiritual,” [2] denouncing traditional Christianity and instead advocating the reign of the autonomous will. It was the project of the European Enlightenment to systematize such a worldview as an accompaniment to its scientific pursuits; as it became increasingly possible to understand the world on empirical terms, the world itself became reduced to a purely material entity, eventually obviating the need for ‘things spiritual’ altogether. Thus emerged ‘disenchantment’, the modern condition diagnosed by Weber, whereby “there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.” [3]

By way of simultaneously shedding the spiritual dimension of reality and overthrowing Divine laws with human ones, the legacy of the Enlightenment—which Rajani Kannepalli Kanth has summarised succinctly as “an amalgamation of rational-reductionalist calculation and anthropocentric vanity” [4]—can be understood precisely as that which normalized “taking protectors other than God.” It effectively “built itself a cobweb”—or rather, encouraged every individual to build his or her own cobweb—in which the human being, conceived in purely material terms, became the centre of its own universe.

Such is epitomized by the relativistic moral theories of Enlightenment thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, who posited that all behaviour should accord with that which he called the two “sovereign masters” of pleasure and pain. [5]  These “sovereign masters,” it could be said, are tantamount to “the protectors” (‘awliya’) spoken of in Surah Al-‘Ankabut; they replace Divine laws with individualistic and bodily dispositions which are, by their very contingent nature, subject to the particularities of each individual. Before delving into this and other aspects of the spiderweb symbolism, it is also notable that the very nature of Bentham’s hedonic calculus—his apparatus for calculating the sum of pleasure or pain produced by any given action—is itself characteristic of secular disenchantment, reducing human fulfilment to a mechanistic criteria and, quite literally mastering morality “by calculation.”

The cobweb spun in accordance with pleasure and pain is “the frailest of all structures” precisely because its strands are extruded from something so fallible as a materialistic conception of humanity. Operating on the premise that pleasure and pain are what ‘govern’ human life, it reduces our existence to that of its solely corporeal dimension, amounting only to “the sensitive soul” which Aristotle associated with creaturely nature (making the arachnid imagery all the more relevant).  As a result, the human experience is considered no more than the summation of bodily desires and aversions which, by nature of being ‘bodily’, are material. Of course, that which is material is contingent and thus is subject to alteration and deterioration; thus, a materialistic view of being constitutes the frailest (awhan) gossamer with which to construct social and political maxims.

Moreover, through reliance on bodily dispositions these maxims are also entirely relative to each individual body; they are thus the direct antithesis to the eternal absolutism of Divine Law. In the secular spiderweb, each person’s conception of morality is determined by their own particular physical constitution; just as the eight-legged spider generates an octagonal web, the parameters of human law are determined by the dimensions of that humanness. Hence, the secular habitat is one in which each individual becomes enwrapped in his or her own metaphorical gossamer; he or she is bound only to their own bodily states, capacities and apprehensions, constituting the frail structure that has replaced all notions of supramundane metaphysics and suprahuman laws.

Thus, this predicament also has an epistemological dimension. Being a projection of its own being, so characteristic of the ‘anthropocentric vanity’ of Enlightenment thought, the subject—or rather, the spider—is caught in a web that hinders the perception of higher principles and, ultimately, the Divine. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr has written, “we cannot gain essential knowledge of man through any method that is based on externalization of [this being].” [6] If the spiderweb represents this very “externalization” of creaturely nature, then it follows that it prohibits man from truly attaining knowledge in the sense of what Nasr calls the Scientia Sacra or “the ultimate science of the Real.” [7] The spiderweb simile is thus also representative of the modern subject’s epistemological limitations.

This, in turn, creates practical limitations on the kinds of progress that modern man is able to accomplish. Almost every achievement of modern science and technology is limited to the materialistic mores of the secular spiderweb. The vast majority of developments in artificial intelligence, for example, are oriented around human conceptions of convenience and efficiency, once again pertaining to the “sovereign masters” of pain and pleasure. Indebted to Bentham’s legacy, these are by default the “protectors” (‘awlia’) that determine the forms of technological ‘innovation’; itself no more than an externalized projection of the human condition. Nasr’s approach to epistemology can hereby be extended, with the accomplishments of modern technology being relative only to creaturely being and thus incapable of attaining any real ‘progress’ in the sense of transcending the human condition and glimpsing the Real.

The consequences of this predicament are glaringly apparent; despite their scientific and technological ‘progress’, secular Western countries report some of the highest rates of  mental health issues [8], and it is increasingly common for individuals in these societies to suffer from an underlying sense of dissatisfaction with their lives. Nihilism only appears to be increasing among young people, with teenagers in the UK—now one of the world’s most secular countries—reporting feeling that their lives are meaningless and lacking in purpose. [9] In light of Surah al-‘Ankabut, this can be perceived as a direct result of the individualistic and materialistic threads holding together secular societies: “the frailest of all structures.” This would perhaps be corroborated by statistics demonstrating how the acknowledgement of a higher being and spirituality (broadly conceived) have been repeatedly shown to alleviate mental health difficulties [9] and more generally to correlate with psychological stability.

Moving forward, it is imperative for our wellbeing—both physical and spiritual—to unwrap ourselves from the spiderweb of secular modernity. Contrary to the thought of Bentham along with other Enlightenment thinkers, true liberation arises with the discernment of higher principles that lie beyond the epistemic webs of our externalised creaturely selves. Only this kind of liberation can free us from the “sovereign masters” and other trappings of the sensitive soul, to borrow Aristotle’s terms once again; and only once we have ceased to “take protectors other than God” can such a liberation be achieved. 

Works Cited

[1] Page 5, Peter L. Berger, The Many Altars of Modernity (2014)
[2] Page 491, John Morison, The Protestant Reformation in All Countries, (1843)
[3] Page 8, Max Weber, Science As Vocation (1919)
[4] Page 14, Rajani Kannepalli Kanth, Against Eurocentrism: A Transcendent Critique of Modernist Science, Society, and Morals, (2005)
[5] Page 1, Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1879
[6] Page 13, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam and The Plight of Modern Man (1975)
[7] Page 120, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and The Sacred (1981)
[8] See, for example, https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-with-anxiety-disorders; https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-with-mental-and-substance-disorders; https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-with-an-eating-disorder 
[9]  https://unherd.com/2019/12/why-do-british-teens-think-life-is-meaningless/ 
[10] Page 2, Dr Deborah Cornah, The Impact of Spirituality on Mental Health: A Review of The Literature (2006)

Photo by Roman Markov


About the Author: Esmé L. K. Partridge is an undergraduate student of Religion with Arabic at SOAS and a writer on theology, mysticism and the place of religious thought in modernity. She is also the presenter of Everyday Muslim’s podcast series ‘Stories From The Archives’. You can find her on Twitter here.

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