The sign of time: a reflection on Surat al-‘Asr
In one of the shortest chapters or surahs of the Qur’an, we read: By Time! Verily man is in [a state of] loss; except those who believe and perform righteous deeds, and enjoin one another to [follow] the truth, and enjoin one another to patience. [103:1-3] This chapter, orsurah, is known as Surat al-‘Asr.
I hope to keep my reflections fairly brief, and also hope to look at the surah from three perspectives. The first of these perspectives will be exegetical – that is, to look at what our classical commentators (mufassirun) have said concerning it, so as to get a general sweep of its meaning and message from those qualified in textual interpretation. The second will be theological; so as to flesh out any important points of belief or doctrine embedded in the surah. Lastly there’s the homiletical perspective, the one that focuses on the spiritual and moral counsels of the surah and the lessons it wishes to impart to us about how best to live the religious life.
Exegetical Perspective: Classical interpreters of the Qur’an (tracing their views back to the early religious authorities; the salaf) differ over the meaning of the opening oath: wa’l-‘asr. Some say ‘asr refers to the period from the declining of the sun until sunset; others, that it refers to the actual ‘Asr prayer; yet others say that there is no reason to limit it to a specific period of time, or act in time. Instead, ‘asr should be taken to refer to time (dahr) in general – this being the opinion of Ibn ‘Abbas.1 In this reading, Allah swears an oath by Time, this enigmatic creation of His which we all know something about, but about which no one knows its true nature or exact significance. An appeal is made to time, for it is in its never-resting grasp that our destinies unfold, the events of our lives are played out, and where we encounter Allah’s signs in the world and are asked to contemplate their meanings.
The next verse hits us like a thunderbolt: Verily man is in [a state of] loss. This no holds barred declaration, although it uses the word man (al-insan) in it singular form, refers to mankind generically (a case of wahid bi ma‘na al-jami‘ – “employing the singular to mean the collective.”).2 A few commentators, however, suggest that the man referred to here as being in loss is one of the chief disbelievers of Makkah: Abu Jahl, Walid b. al-Mughirah, or Ubayy b. Khalf.3 Most deemed it best to keep the term generic, given that there is nothing textually explicit to particularise it. So Allah swears By Time that all mankind are in loss.
The Qur’an, in voicing this loss, could have simply said: al-insanu fi khusr – ‘Mankind is in [a state of] loss.’ But instead it added the particle of emphasis, inna, as well as the world la: two separate words of emphasis and forcibleness. Its literal translation could then read: Verily man is truly in [a state of] loss - the double emphasis being there so as to drive home, in no uncertain terms, the gravity of the matter.
As to what such loss is, al-Suyuti glosses it as: fi tijaratihi – “in his [life] transactions.”4That is, time is man’s capital which he can invest wisely and piously, or else squander. But Man misuses his capital, and fritters it away, by turning his back on Allah and the Afterlife and plunging himself head on into worldly distractions. The Qur’an depicts life as a being like a commerce or business transaction (tijarah) in the following verse:O believers! Shall I show you a commerce that will save you from a painful torment? That you believe in Allah and His Messenger, and strive for the cause of Allah with your wealth and your lives. That is better for you, if you but knew. [61:11] If life’s metaphor is a series of business transactions, man, by attending solely to his material gains, shall lose. For when he comes to tally up his account at day’s end, it will not show a profit; but only a spiritual loss – not so those possessed of the following four qualities:
Except those who believe with true and sincere conviction in Allah’s Divinity (ilahiyyah) and Oneness (wahdaniyyah), and in what was revealed to His Final Prophet, peace be upon him; and perform righteous deeds, those conforming to the Sacred Law (shari‘ah) and sincerely done seeking His good pleasure and acceptance; be they obligatory acts (fara’id) or recommended ones (mustahabbat); or be they rights related to Allah (huquq Allah) or those connected with others (huquq al-‘ibad). Some exegetists point out that these two qualities relate to an individual’s piety and perfection.5
The other two of the four qualities that exempt one from loss: and enjoin one another to [follow] the truth in terms of Allah’s tawhid and all other revealed realities, as well as any other firmly established matter, the truth of which cannot be denied; and enjoin one another to patience, in terms of Allah’s worship and obedience and, given that the majority of the commentators hold that this surah was revealed in Makkah, patience in terms of the insults, abuse and harms Muslim minorities will have to endure from hostile, offensive or unsympathetic non-Muslims.6 If the first two qualities speak of bettering the individual, these last two bespeak of the duty to help better others.7 So this surah insists we partake in the necessary salvation of our own soul, as well as the much needed healing of society’s soul.
Given this surah’s comprehensive message and mandate, it is no wonder that Imam al-Shafi‘i said about it: law tadabbur al-nas hadhihi’l-surah la was‘athum – ‘If people were to ponder over just this surah, it would suffice them.’8
Moreover, the surah’s invitation to faith; action; spreading and standing up for truth; and being patient and steadfast in this, became a motto of sorts among the Prophet’s Companions. One report states: ‘Whenever two of the Prophet’s Companions would meet, they’d not part company until one had recited to the other: By Time! Verily man is in [a state of] loss. Then they would give salams to each other [and part].’9
Theological Perspective: ‘Time and tide wait for no man,’ said Chaucer. Shakespeare wrote in one of his Sonnets about how ‘Time’s fell hand’ eventually brings to ruin even the hugest of buildings and boastful of monuments. We speak about taking time out, wasting time, loosing track of time, time whizzing past, time being of the essence, or of experiencing time; and so on. We all have an idea about time. But ask someone to explain what time actually is … well that’s another matter.
We experience time as a long string of moments that flows from the past, through the present and into the future. Or wanting to be on a more secure footing, time is simply the measure of the duration for processes or events to occur, and the interval between them (measured in seconds, or any other suitable units). By the time Newton gave us the laws of gravity and motion, time was understood to be something absolute, true, universal and flowed at a constant rate, independent of all else. For a while, his laws and notion of time formed the basis for our whole understanding of the universe. But by the beginning of the 20th century, and because Newton’s laws couldn’t account for the peculiar nature and motion of light, a new and deeper understanding of light and time was needed. Enter Albert Einstein.
Essentially, what Einstein showed in his Theory of Relativity was that objects travelling at high speeds experience time slower than objects at rest. This is called time dilation; and it has been conclusively proven experimentally. In particle accelerators, certain subatomic particles have a longer lifespan when travelling at speeds close to the speed of light than they do when they’re travelling much slower or are at rest; atomic clocks in planes run slower than their counterparts down on the ground; and GPS satellites have to be constantly recalibrated for time dilation. Time, according to the insights of Einstein, isn’t constant or uniform; instead it depends on where you are and how you move relative to others.
Now when Allah swears By Time, He doesn’t require us to have a scientist’s take on time, or that of a philosopher’s. Rather, the oath is taken to impress on us to see time unfold through the eyes of faith. In other words, to infer from the events of our lives; and from life’s lessons; and from the world in which this all takes place, Allah’s power, knowledge, beauty and wisdom. Our lives, and our world, point to something beyond themselves; to the divine glory and greatness: that you may know He has power over all things and that He encompasses everything in knowledge. [65:12]
In a rather intriguing hadith, the Prophet, peace be upon him, was once occasioned to say: la tasubbu’l-dahr fa inna’Llaha huwa’l-dahr – ‘Do not curse time, for indeed Allah is time.’10 According to al-Munawi, some Arabs had a habit of cursing time whenever something disagreeable occurred or would unexpectedly go wrong. To put and end to such reviling is what occasioned the above warning.11 For to revile time; to implore blessings or barakah be removed from it, would be tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot … repeatedly!
Imam al-Nawawi filled in further detail for us in his commentary to the hadith which says that Allah is time. He wrote: ‘The scholars say that this is a metaphor. The reason being is that it was the custom of the Arabs to revile time whenever some misfortune occurred; such as death, senility, or loss of wealth, etc. They would say: ‘woe to time!’ or other phrases that cursed or inveighed against time. So the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘Do not curse time, for indeed Allah is time.’ Meaning, do not revile He who makes these things happen. For your inveighing against time is actually cursing Allah, since He it is that brings about these misfortunes and sends them down. As for time, it is only a period of duration (zaman) that cannot do anything in or of itself. Rather, it is just one of so many things created by Allah, exalted is He.’12
Muslim theologians are at pains to remind us that whatever else time may or may not be, it is something created by Allah and has no intrinsic power of existence: time only exists and endures (thubut, baqa) by Allah’s will and power. Likewise, time can neither heal nor harm (in the literal sense of the term); that quality is solely Allah’s. Time, this unembodied reality, ‘flows’ only because of Allah’s act of perpetual creativity. Time, in other words, is the unfolding of moment after moment after moment. (Interestingly, such a theology of time has resonance with certain ideas and models of time currently being discussed in quantum physics.)
Homiletical Perspective: This surah is a summons to the worshippers to not fall into heedlessness (ghaflah), squander their time and thus jeopardise their salvation (najat). For the seekers, it is an invitation to sanctity (wilayah) by being continuous in Allah’s remembrance (dhikr), internalising works of faith, practising beautiful patience (sabr) and cultivating comportment (adab) with time. As for the people of Allah (ahlu’Llah), what it means for them is between them and Allah. For theirs are hearts that behold the contemplative vision of Allah (mushahadah) in this earthly life, whilst anticipating the Beatific Vision of Him (ru’yatu’Llah) in the eternal life to come.
Our all too fragile relationship with time comes to the fore in these following lines of poetry: ‘Your life is but a few countable breaths; whenever you exhale, part of your life diminishes (hayatuka anfasun tu‘addu fa kullama / mada nafasun minha intaqasta bihi juz’an).’
One of the early sages said that he truly understood the message of Surat al-‘Asr when he saw a person selling ice in the market, saying to passers-by in a raised voice: ‘Have mercy on those whose wealth is melting away. Have mercy on those whose capital is vanishing.’ It dawned on the sage that this ice-seller must be incredibly careful about his capital (ice), or else it will literally melt away; and he’ll be at loss. Similarly, man’s time on earth is rapidly melting away with each priceless breath; with every passing second. If he spends his time doing futile, forbidden or faithless things, then this is man’s true loss. Man’s life, therefore, must never be bereft of faith, acts of obedience to Allah, sincerely helping others and tending to peoples’ welfare, and persevering in these things throughout his life. Only then will he have spent his time in a productive manner pleasing to his Lord.13
In terms of making us vigilant with whatever time we have allocated to us in our lives, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, said: ‘Everyone starts his day and is a vendor of his own soul, either freeing it or bringing about its ruin.’14
Indeed, what we do with our time here on earth is, when all is said and done, what it’s about; as per the next hadith: ‘The feet of the son of Adam will not move on the Day of Resurrection till he is questioned about five things: about his life and what he did in it; about his youth and how he passed it; about his wealth, from where he acquired it and on what he spent it; and about his knowledge, did he act on it.’15
Another hadith states that a person once asked the Prophet, peace be upon him, who the best people were, to which he replied: ‘Those who live long and whose deeds are good.’ He was then asked who the worst people were, so he said: ‘Those who live long but whose deeds are bad.’16 The longevity of life that science and modern medicine accords us seems, unquestionably, a goodly thing. But as with so many of modernity’s offerings, the believer examines such things with the eye of faith. What would be the use of an increase in life expectancy if the additional years don’t lead to an increasing awareness of Allah’s presence? Of what worth would longevity of years be if it deflects us from our purpose of creation and our ultimate return? There is nothing inherently wrong about wanting to live a long life, provided it promotes piety and not diminish it; provided the extra time leads us to the gates of Paradise and not encourage us to stray from it. Such must be the considerations with the days of our time.
Now before lowering the curtain on my reflections, let me say a few words about our adab (comportment, propriety) with time. Our life at the present moment in time lies between two other time periods: past and future. Whatever wrongs we committed in the past can be rectified by remorse and sincere tawbah. This doesn’t require physical exertion; rather it’s simply an action of the heart. This is the adab with time that has passed in other than Allah’s obedience. In respect to the future, it can be made sound by resolving not to commit sins. This too isn’t a physical action, it is a firm intention in the heart. Thus the past can be rectified by repentance: the future, by a determined resolve to abstain from disobedience.
As for the present, the time between two times, Ibn al-Qayyim explains that the adabhere is to realise that we are always going to be in one of three states: we will either be in a state of receiving divine blessings, or be afflicted with trials and misfortunes, or be in a state of sinfulness. Ibn al-Qayyim writes that the adab with these states is to be ‘among those who, when blessed, give thanks; when tried, display patience; and when sinful, seek forgiveness. For these three conditions are a token of a person’s happiness and the sign of his success in this world and the next. No person is without them, but is always shifting from one state to the other.’17
Let’s leave the last word about time, and the adab we should be cultivating with time, to Imam al-Ghazali:
‘You should not waste your time, doing at any moment whatever chances to present itself when it presents itself. Instead, you should take stock of yourself and structure your acts of devotion during each day or night, assigning to each period of time some specific function that is kept to and is not left for something else in that time. In this way the barakah of your time will become evident. But if you leave yourself to drift, aimlessly wandering as cattle do, not knowing what to occupy yourself with at each moment, you will squander most of your time. Your time is your life; your life is your capital through which you transact [with God] and through which you reach endless bliss in the proximity of God. Every breath you take is a priceless jewel that cannot be replaced. Once it passes, it can never be retrieved.’18
With this, these reflections on Surat al-‘Asr come to a conclusion. Wa akhiru’l-da‘wana ‘ani’l-hamduli’Llahi’l-rabbi’l-‘alamin.