Qur’an 18: Not the Moses Basket – & Spiders

I’m a British humanist reading The Qur’an (Tarif Khalidi’s translation) and blogging about it as I go. I’m doing my best not to make assumptions, apart from assuming it was written – not necessarily in the order given – by a man (or men) in Arabia in the 7th century. I realise that some Muslims will consider the whole exercise blasphemous, and some anti-theists will say it’s not critical enough. The aim is not to be offensive, but simply to share a personal, non-scholarly, view of one of the most influential texts of our time. [More…]

Chapter 28 (“The Narrative”) does indeed contain a chunk of narrative – the first part of Moses‘ story.

As with Bible stories elsewhere in the Qur’an, it’s given in an abbreviated and altered form which, in places, makes less sense than the original. This seems strange as the author could presumably have asked any local rabbi to translate the original for him.

Here’s an example: Moses’ mother hides her baby. Instead of taking a basket, making it waterproof and concealing the baby-in-the-basket among the reeds (original version), here God tells her to “cast him into the river”. The family of the Pharoah duly pick him up. In the orginal version, the baby’s sister watches to see the basket being discovered and then offers Pharoah’s daughter to find a woman to nurse him – the woman being his mother. In the Qur’anic version, nothing happens till the next day, when the mother is distraught and sends her sister (not his) to “Follow his tracks”, though it’s not made clear what tracks a baby cast into a river the day before would leave. When she spots him with Pharoah’s family, we are told “We [God] had already forbidden him suckling by wet-nurses” so the sister offers the mother and they are reunited. But in what way were the Pharoah’s family “forbidden” to use wet-nurses for the foundling? As narrative, it doesn’t work.

The burning bush that was not consumed – a nice image in Exodus – doesn’t feature. Instead there’s simply a fire on a mountainside which Moses goes to investigate. And instead of God giving him instructions about getting the Israelites out of Egypt, God gets him to perform the trick of throwing down his staff which turns into a serpent – which belongs later in the story. The whole story from then to the parting of the Red Sea is covered in a few pargraphs, which major omissions. There’s no explicit reference to “Israelites” or “Hebews” anywhere.

The reason for the lack of attention to the narrative seems to be to get to the point where God explains that He brought the Book to Moses and then makes the direct link with the author, explaining “..it was a mercy from your Lord , so that you may warn a people to whom no warner before you had been sent”.

The rest of the chapter includes the customary strictures against unbelievers and those who talk about “associates” of God, a reminder that God created the alternation of night and day, and how the worldly who are unbelievers and who do not do good deeds will be brought down.

[I wonder what Muslims who have been brought up with the Qur’anic stories think when they encounter the Biblical versions?]


“The Spider” (Chapter 29) is largely repetiton of earlier chapters, but there are a few interesting points:

It starts with a reminder that believing is not enough. God will “put to the test” those who say they believe “that God may know who were sincere and who were lying” – which is strange as elsewhere the author says that God knows what lies in everyone’s hearts. More usefully, he emphasises that, if a believer also performs good deeds “We [God] shall grant remission for thier sinful deeds and reward them for the best of their acts.”

So neither believing alone, nor doing good deeds alone is enough, you have to do both, but then you’re allowed some bad deeds too.

Again there are references to Noah, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob and Shu’ayb, the prophet to Midian (though in Chapter 26, “The Poets”, they were called “The People of the Thicket”) and the fate of the people who ignored them. We hear that Noah lived “a thousand years, less fify”, the same number as in the Bible. The varied forms of destruction God uses on sinning peoples is listed: a fire storm; the Scream [which from earlier chapters seemed to refer to an earthquake]; the earth caving in beneath them; drowning.

The chapter is called “The Spider” because of this section: “The likeness of those who took to themselves patrons instead of God is like the spider that builds a house for itself. But surely the most fragile of houses is the spider’s house, if only they knew!” The author didn’t know that spider silk is the strongest naturally-occurring material there is, weight for weight five times stronger than steel. Spiders’ webs are not particularly fragile. And in any case they are not “houses” to provide shelter, but traps for insects. It’s quite reasonable for someone in 7th century Arabia not to know that – spiders’ webs look fragile and spiders are often seen in them- and it’s not too bad as an analogy. But it’s another illustration of the fact that the Qur’an is not a book of science.

Believers are told “Do not argue with the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] except in the best manner, save the wicked among them, and say: ‘We believe in what has been sent down upon us, and sent down upon you. Our God and yours is One God, and to Him we submit.’…” This welcome statement appears to contradict a number of others, including those strongly attacking believers in the Trinity – who the author deems to associate others with God – and the grouping in the violent Chapter 9 (“Repentence”) of Jews and Christians among the polytheists who are to be killed.

In a strikingly direct passage, God say “O worshippers or Mine who believe, My earth is wide. It is Me who you must worship. Every soul shal taste death and then to Us you shall revert.” He follows with a promise of heavenly paradise for those who believe and do good deeds.

We are then reminded that “This present life is nothing but frivolity and amusement. But the Abode of the Hereafter is the real life, if only they knew!” – surely the idea of an afterlife that is more important than this life is one of the more dangerous ideas humans have come up with. But it’s not wise to say that as: “Who is more wicked than he who…calls the Truth a lie once it has come to him? Is not hell the final berth of blasphemers?” Oh well….









Author: HumanistJ

I'm a humanist - someone who thinks you can live a good life without believing in anything supernatural. I'm active in Humanism in the UK, both through Humanists UK and as chair of South West London Humanists. This blog is purely my personal view.

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