By Rabi’a Elizabeth Brown
And We gave understanding of this to Solomon. And to each We gave sound judgment and knowledge. We made the mountains and the birds celebrate Our praises with David – We did all these things. (The Noble Quran, Surah Anbiya’, 21:79)
Animals of all kinds make frequent appearances in the Quran, since they are part of most of our daily lives in one way or another, and were created for our benefit. While Quranic verses about animals can be some of the most glorious you will encounter, Allah SWT occasionally draws our attention to the less typically lovely aspects of His creation… like insects and spiders, for example.
A fly on the prayer rug: part 1 of 3
Imagine that you’ve just made ablution carefully, donned your favorite prayer clothing, and laid out your prayer rug for salat-al dhuhr. You begin the salat, but just as you’re in the middle of Surah al-Fatihah, a noisy fly enters your room. It lands on your nose, which, since you just washed it, can’t possibly be that interesting in scent to a fly. And since you’re praying fard, you can’t brush it away.
As you progress through the salat, you see the fly crawling on your prayer rug, and you think of all the nasty places it’s probably visited. You think: “Allah SWT, PLEASE remove your creature!” But the fly does not leave. Worst of all, as you say the shahada, the fly lands on your hand. Unbelievable. You don’t mind bugs in general, but this is ridiculous.
You remind yourself reluctantly that Allah SWT created flies in general and this fly in particular, just as He created you as part of the human race. But you’re still annoyed.
Insects in Quranic examples
Allah SWT often uses beings and objects from everyday life as examples, because most of us humans will be able to grasp the meaning easily.
Insects (and arachnids) are no exception. A fly is the subject of the metaphor in Surah al-Hajj verse 73:
O men! Here is a parable set forth! listen to it! Those on whom, besides Allah, ye call, cannot create (even) a fly, if they all met together for the purpose! and if the fly should snatch away anything from them, they would have no power to release it from the fly. Feeble are those who petition and those whom they petition! (Quran 22:73)
Here, the idol-worshippers are shown to be even more weak and powerless than their false gods: people in need of the simplest examples as explanation, although they still would not listen. Surah al-Hajj, revealed in Medina shortly after the Quraysh in Mecca had forbidden the Muslims to make the Hajj, contains fearsome admonitions to polytheists and to those Muslims who were wavering in belief.
In verse 2 of Surah al-Baqarah (named after another animal, the cow), Allah SWT again says that He will provide an example, and another type of insect serves His purpose:
Surely Allah does not shy away from using the parable of a mosquito or what is even smaller. As for the believers, they know that it is the truth from their Lord. And as for the disbelievers, they argue, “What does Allah mean by such a parable?” Through this ˹test˺, He leaves many to stray, and guides many. And He leaves none to stray except the rebellious— (Quran 2:26)
Again, Allah SWT underscores the simplicity of His examples in the Revelation and the continuing unwillingness of the disbelievers to accept the truth.
Allah SWT provides yet another example in verse 41 of Surah al-Ankaboot (named after the spider):
The parable of those who take protectors other than Allah is that of a spider spinning a shelter. And the flimsiest of all shelters is certainly that of a spider, if only they knew. (Quran 29:41)
In one of many wonderful turnabouts in the first years of Islam, one of those flimsy spider webs fooled the Quraysh and saved the lives of the Prophet (pbuh) and ‘Abu Bakr (ra) as they fled Mecca for Medina. That account is coming up shortly!
A fly on the prayer rug: part 2 of 3
Several days have gone by since the fly’s first visit. To encourage it to flee, you’ve left doors and windows open a few times, even though there’s a chilly autumn snap in the air. Nothing doing. The fly still frequently comes to visit you during prayer time, instead of paying attention to the undone dishes in the sink like normal flies would do. You are starting to wonder if Allah SWT is trying to tell you something about the quality of your ablution, your prayer, or your practice in general. You suspect this to be waswaasil (whisperings of Shaitan), however, and you dismiss the thought.
One evening, you come to your knees for sujood, trying to avoid the place on the prayer rug where the fly has just been crawling. And then you suddenly remember how your cats used to behave when you did yoga, years ago, long before you reverted to Islam. They would visit the room, wind around you as you did cat/cow poses, roll onto their backs, all in harmony with your mood and the atmosphere around you. Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, the fly seems to be acting the same way with regard to the sacred nature of salat.
Allah SWT created animals to be able to sense our moods and do what He wills them to do. Even when we are not yet practicing Islam, Allah SWT can support what we do by any means He deems fit, including having our pets keep us company as we do something that benefits mind and body. (And those companion animals need not be the ones we consider to be “intelligent.”)
Insects as curse or blessing
The Quran is clear that what is on the earth has been made for the benefit of humans.
Do you not see that Allah has subjected to you whatever is in the earth as well as the ships that sail through the sea by His command? He keeps the sky from falling down on the earth except by His permission. Surely Allah is Ever Gracious and Most Merciful to humanity. (Quran 22:65)
The tafsir (commentary) of Maarif-ul-Quran on this verse clarifies that the phrase “subjected to you” means that “everything on this earth has been placed under the control of man.” Humans, as khalifa of Allah during their lifetimes, are to be the stewards of what has been given to them on earth.
However, there are forces of nature that are beyond human control, either temporarily or always, sometimes in beautiful ways, sometimes not. And so some insects appear in the Quran, in great masses, as agents of destruction sent by Allah SWT.
Surah al-A’raf describes how, during the time of Musa (as), Egypt under the Pharaoh was battered by one plague after the next, but the people took no heed:
So We sent upon them the flood and locusts and lice and frogs and blood as distinct signs, but they were arrogant and were a criminal people. (Quran 7:133)
And in Surah al-Qamar, Allah compares the nonbelievers on Judgment Day to a swarm of locusts like the plagues sent on the Egyptians:
With eyes downcast, they will come forth from the graves as if they were swarming locusts. (Quran 54:7)
The Prophet (pbuh) and the spider
Sometimes, though, even aspects of creation that are normally beyond human control can be of immense benefit. When Allah SWT gave permission to the Prophet (pbuh) to migrate from Mecca to Medina, he and his companion on the journey Abu Bakr (ra) took refuge in the Cave of Thawr. The life of the Prophet (pbuh) was in grave danger from the Quraysh at this time, and had they caught him on his way, they would have murdered him.
As soon as the Prophet (pbuh) and Abu Bakr (ra) had entered the cave, Allah SWT sent a spider to the cave, and the creature promptly wove its web between the entrance to the cave and a nearby tree. Then Allah SWT sent two doves to flap their wings and settle near the web. When Quraysh approached the cave, the web over the entrance confused them, and they did not investigate further. The ruse and its success are celebrated in Surah at-Tawbah, verse 40:
It does not matter if you believers do not support him [the Prophet pbuh], for Allah did in fact support him when the disbelievers drove him out of Mecca and he was only one of two. While they both were in the cave, he reassured his companion, “Do not worry; Allah is certainly with us.” So Allah sent down His serenity upon the Prophet pbuh, supported him with forces you believers did not see, and made the word of the disbelievers lowest, while the Word of Allah is supreme. And Allah is Almighty, All-Wise. (Quran 9:40)
So even the lowliest creature can bring death… or save a life, as Allah SWT desires.
The social insects: special mention in the Quran
Perhaps the most memorable verses of the Quran in which insects appear are those devoted to bees and ants, which are very much like humans in that many of their species form large, cooperative communities. Perhaps Allah SWT sets them apart in the Revelation because their societies resemble ours.
The beauty of bees
An entire surah is named after the bee (Surah An-Nahl). Allah SWT describes the namesake of the surah in this way:
And your Lord inspired the bees: “Make your homes in the mountains, the trees, and in what people construct, and feed from the flower of any fruit you please and follow the ways your Lord has made easy for you.” From their bellies comes forth liquid of varying colors, in which there is healing for people. Surely in this is a sign for those who reflect. (Quran 16:68-69)
The Maarif-ul-Quran tafsir on these verses sheds some lovely light on these verses. If you’re reading this blog post, you’ll probably very much enjoy that tafsir in its entirety, and here’s a brief excerpt to give you an idea:
As for the next word: اَلنَّحل (an-nahl), it is well-established that the honey bee is a distinct entity among non-human life forms particularly in terms of its intelligence and management. Therefore, the way it has been addressed by Allah Ta` ala shows a distinct elegance of its own. For the rest of the creation, particularly for life forms in the animal and insect kingdom, it was said: أَعْطَىٰ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ خَلْقَهُ ثُمَّ هَدَىٰ (He gave everything its form, then provided it with guidance – Taha, 20:50), something stated as a universal law for all of them. But, for this tiny creature, it was specially said: أَوْحَىٰ رَبُّكَ (And your Lord revealed) which has been designed to indicate that it has a prominent status among other life forms by virtue of its intelligence, sense and functional insight.
The prudent ant and Suleiman (as)
Like bees, many species of ants live in large, minutely organized communities. And even in folklore outside the historical lands of the ‘ummah, what we humans perceive as the ant’s prudence and seemingly tireless industry is often noted. It is not by accident that the only bug in the Quran whose speech is revealed is the ant.
The ant of Surah Sa’ba wisely notes that Suleiman (as) and the humans and jinn in his armies are much larger than any of its ant fellows, and bids them all to take cover as Suleiman (as) approaches:
And when they came across a valley of ants, an ant warned, “O ants! Go quickly into your homes so Solomon and his armies do not crush you, unknowingly.” (Quran 27:18)
Suleiman (as), who was gifted by Allah SWT with the understanding of the speech of animals, overhears the ant’s warning. He responds:
So Suleiman smiled in amusement at her words, and prayed, “My Lord! Inspire me to always be thankful for Your favors which You have blessed me and my parents with, and to do good deeds that please you. Admit me, by Your mercy, into the company of Your righteous servants.” (Quran 27:19)
Suleiman (as), who unlike us did not have a Quran to provide him with examples, saw and heard the living example of the ant before him. And he was able to heed the teachings of gratitude, vigilance, and reverential fear in his relationship with Allah SWT.
To find out more about Suleiman, how Allah teaches him through the ant’s example, and Suleiman’s royal counterpart Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba, read Women in the Quran: Bilqis, Queen of Sheba.
A fly on the prayer rug: the finale
The insight that Allah SWT gave you about why the fly might like prayer time has helped you tolerate its presence in your prayer area. In fact, you’re having a hard time not laughing out loud when it comes to visit. You now have compassion for the creature when you had none before.
You realize that the fly may in fact be trapped inside your apartment and that it will die if it doesn’t get back outside. Allah SWT will of course end its life when He sees fit, but you don’t know when that will be, and if you enable its escape, it’s as Allah willed. You open a citronella gel (which somehow you’d forgotten you had, up till that point) and open a patio door. And then you leave the apartment for a few hours. Later that day and the next, you notice that the fly is no longer there.
As you sit at a coffee shop and begin your Quran explorations for your new blog post a week or so later… a fly lands on your table. You smile, and keep reading.
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