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Chapter 103: Al-`Asr (The Time)
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Chapter 103:

The Time

The companions of the Holy Prophet (sas) were so fond of this chapter that whenever two companions met they never separated without reciting it and reminding each other of it. The reason for this is that this chapter encapsulates the real object of man’s life in just a few words so much so that Imam Shafi’i opines that if only this chapter of the Quran has been revealed it would have been sufficient for mankind. In this chapter, we are told that abundance of wealth, which makes us heedless of the consequences of our actions, is indeed a loss from which we should try to save ourselves, and we should never make it the purpose of our life. Instead, the goals of our existence should be faith, good actions and the exhortation to truth and to patience, for these constitute true honour and wealth, which will prove for us a lasting profit.

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

  1. By the time!
  2. Surely man is in loss,
  3. Except those who believe and do good, and exhort one another to Truth, and exhort one another to patience.

Al-‘Asr means an era, time, or the passing of time.

Look how subtly the evidence of time has been put forward. The Holy Quran states that time is such a passing phenomenon that even a fleeting moment results in a reduction of man’s life-span. That is because man has been granted a limited period of time on this earth and he should try to earn whatever he can, either by doing good deeds so as to reap the fruits of Paradise or even by doing evil deeds or wasting his time in negligence, thus ruining this divine gift of time and causing destruction to his future life. In fact, time is the most precious of all commodities. Each moment of it constitutes the foundation of our future happiness and peace and its nature is such that it has to pass on. A passing moment can never be recalled. If we spend our time in a beneficial occupation, it becomes a treasure for us and if we do not derive benefit from time, it goes to waste and results in manifest loss.

Look at the affairs of the world and you will observe that whoever does not value time inevitably suffers loss. The happiness and peace of man’s future life, and his difficulties too, depend on whether he employs his time in useful work or not.

When preparing for an examination, there is a date set for it. The student who works hard before this specified time and does not waste it comes out successful, but the one who dawdles and wastes his time remains in futility and loss.

Today, Europe has recognized how precious time is and values it so that it derives benefit from it. As a result, as regards worldly pursuits, they are a very successful people. Therefore the secret of success and of avoiding loss is to engage oneself in profitable occupations and not squander time. Allah, Most High, has set a limit to man’s existence on earth, so whoever even for a moment does not spend his time on something useful, ends up a loser. The foolish person happily celebrates his birthday every year and thinks that he has added another year to his life when in fact his life has been reduced by a year.

How beautifully the poet expresses this idea when he says:

O heedless one, the clock proclaims this announcement
The Creator has reduced your life by another tick.

Thus whoever spends his time in useful work is successful and whoever wastes it, ends up in loss. Thus, since man’s present life is a preparation for a future existence, then if he does not spend every moment of this life in trying to make the next life better and nobler, he will definitely suffer loss.

Therefore, the Holy Quran says that time is passing on and as it goes on it leaves man in loss, except of course those who have deep faith and do good deeds and exhort others to truth and to patience and steadfastness. This does not mean that one should renounce the world, for in that case there will be no good  deeds. Remaining in the world, making strenuous effort, working for wealth and fulfilling one’s obligations to others are all evidence of work, whether good or bad. So if he were to leave the world or take to monkery, then man will be deprived of all those endeavours which contribute to the perfection of his attributes.

So here, it is not a matter of renouncing the world, but instead, religion is meant. In other words, faith and the doing of good deeds refer to belief in those principles and acting upon them by means of which we can fulfil our obligations, according to the pleasure of Allah, to the world. That is, we can observe our duties to Allah and perform our obligations to our fellow human beings. And these are indeed what Allah, Most High, has taught us through His prophets, especially Prophet Muhammad (sas).

Faith is inextricably bound up with good deeds. Mere profession of belief in a particular truth cannot bring us any benefit unless we act in accordance with it. For example, it is a truism that water quenches thirst, and that food assuages hunger is also true. But unless we actually drink water, the belief that water will do away with our thirst will be of no use to us. Similarly, unless we eat food our hunger will not leave us. Mere belief in their properties will bring no comfort to us.

Accordingly, the purpose of belief in Allah, angels, books, messengers and the day of Resurrection cannot be attained by mere lip profession. To derive full benefit from them, we must pattern our actions strictly in accordance with the principles in which we believe.

So, although principles of faith are given to man by Allah for his guidance and are such that are considered essential for the enhancement of his future life, and solely through His free Mercy (Rahmaniyyat) He has taught them to man through the agency of His prophets, nevertheless, if these principles are important as beliefs, they are equally important as an impetus to action.

Thus it is a fact that through faith and good actions a man can cultivate and perfect himself. But Allah has firmly stated here that the purpose of man’s life is not limited to his own self – that is, that he should look only after the reformation of himself alone, but he also has a social obligation to fulfill – in other words, he must also concern himself with the reformation of others, too, otherwise he will still suffer some loss. And that obligation is to exhort others to truth and to patience and perseverance. The meaning of wasiyyat (exhortation) is giving advice on which great emphasis is placed. Therefore, whatever advice or guidance a dying person gives is also a wasiyyat (will). Therefore it is incumbent on a Muslim who believes in the principles of truth and sincerity and acts according to them to impart them to those who are related to him and also to encourage them to develop patience.

By sabr (patience) is meant sticking steadfastly to the legal commands of Allah and also accepting His decrees, that is, steadfastness in obeying whatever we are told to do in the Shari‘ah (Law) and avoiding everything that we are commanded to shun, and accepting whatever Allah has decreed for us, whether happiness or sadness.  Whatever fate may befall us, we should remain firm in obedience to the Law and accept cheerfully what Allah has ordained for us. Thus, just as it is the duty of a believer to impart the principle of truth to others, so it is for him to encourage them to develop patience – that is, to advise them that in accepting the truth, they should endure all difficulties and opposition with patience and never swerve even an inch from the path of truth. Furthermore, whatever truths they accept, they should keep on acting upon them and they should display such determination that in difficulty or in tranquillity, in happiness or sadness, in short, whatever the condition in which they find themselves, they should never deviate from the path of obedience to Allah, Most High.

We all know that elsewhere in the Holy Quran Allah, Most High, says: Why do you say that which you do not do?  (61:2). So, whatever a believer enjoins on another person must first be done by him, himself. Here we must keep in mind that the command to exhort one another to truth corresponds with the command amanu (those who believe). Similarly, to exhort one another to patience refers to ‘amilus-salihati (those who do good deeds). In the first instance, if a believer encourages another person to accept the truth then how can he accept or do anything that is contrary to the truth?

Thus amanu means those who accept the truth. Therefore in the terminology of the Holy Quran, erroneous or false doctrines cannot be called truth. So to consider filthy, polytheistic and false teachings as faith is manifestly against the Holy Quran. Thus it is the duty of a believer to believe in truth and persuade others to do the same. In the same way, a believer cannot justly encourage others to have patience if he himself does not practise it, and this points to the fact that patience and good deeds go together.

It is also a fact that a good deed cannot bear fruit unless we are constant at it. For instance, if a believer performs salah for thirty years then abandons it or if he speaks the truth throughout his life but for one year before he dies he begins to engage in falsehood, then because of his lack of constancy he has vitiated all the good things he did before. A dishonest person and bribe-taker cannot be excused on the grounds that for two years before his crime he was an honest person. Similarly, a present drinker cannot escape scot-free because he never used to drink before. Reference to this has been made by our Holy Prophet Muhammad (sas) when he says that a person may be doing good deeds for a long time until he is just a span away from the doors of Paradise when he suddenly falls into Hell. The reason for this is that he did not display lasting perseverance and so he was deprived of the fruit that was his. Another example is that of a person who begins to dig a well and goes down thirty feet and then leaves off in discouragement. If he only knew that by digging two feet deeper he would have struck water! So his lack of tenacity resulted in all his efforts going to waste. That is why the Sufis say: Al istiqamat fauqal karamat (Perseverance is the greatest of all miracles).

Hazrat Bayazid Bistami was a saint of a very high order. Once a person went to him and stayed with him for a few years. At the end of this time he addressed the Saint thus: “Sir, I came to you because your renown as a holy man had spread far and wide, but during all this time I have not seen you perform anything extraordinary or miraculous.”

Whereupon, the Saint asked him: “For the whole year, did you hear me say anything or do anything that was contrary to the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of our Holy Prophet Muhammad?”

When the person replied in the negative, the Saint asked him: “What greater miracle then can you ask of me?”

And it is the truth that constancy in doing good deeds is the vehicle which transports a man to his final destination in life.

Thus in this chapter, patience is connected with good deeds, for a good deed cannot be considered as such if we do it for a time and then abandon it, or if in the face of a trial we give it up or turn away from it. So it is the duty of a believer to act upon the truths in which he professes belief and further he should do so with such zeal and enthusiasm that sadness or even happiness must not make him deviate from it.

It is then that his efforts will reach that stage where they can be termed good deeds in the real sense and they become the source of producing higher and perfect results. In other words, good deeds and constancy are inseparable. That is why a believer exhorts another person to both good deeds and patience.

To conclude, in this chapter, a believer is given two responsibilities by performing which he can save himself from loss and make himself a worthy inheritor of true honour and genuine riches. They are:

  • Personal or the reformation of self
  • Social or the reformation of others

Unless the believer acquits himself of these two tasks he cannot consider himself free from responsibility.

Further, for each task, there are two compulsory stipulations. Firstly, as regards his personal development, he must display great tenacity in living according to these principles.

Secondly, there are two important matters pertaining to his duty of reforming others: he must encourage others to have faith and also advise them to display steadfastness in living according to their professed principles of truth. In other words, the believer must inculcate in himself the truth and must establish it through his actions. It is only when he has persuaded others to accept faith and to establish it by means of their conduct that he can be said to have fulfilled his obligations. Then will he have attained the purpose of his existence thereby saving himself from loss and becoming the recipient of blessings and benefits. It is incumbent, therefore, on each believer to seek strenuously this honour and wealth in which there is lasting benefit and an absence of loss.

In the words Al ‘asr there is a reference to the time of our Holy Prophet Muhammad (sas) for that was a special age — a compendium of all ages in an abbreviated form and a universal example and model. Look at the example of those who valued time and benefitted from it, that is, the companions of the Holy Prophet, and see how they attained the goal of their lives and saved themselves from loss. Conversely, consider those who spurned the value of time and wasted it and see how they made themselves the recipients of loss in this life and the next.

Look again at that glorious age of the people who accepted the truth that the Holy Prophet brought to the world and patterned and established their lives on it and see how neither calamity nor persecution could shake them. But more than that, they considered it their sacred duty to encourage others to faith in Allah and to convince them to act according to it to such an extent that they were willing to undergo all kinds of sacrifice. Let us ask ourselves this question: In the history of the world, is there any other nation that achieved the goal of their lives and made themselves the inheritors of the blessings of this world and the next as these people did?

On the other hand, in opposition to them, there was another group who rejected the truth and abused time. In fact, they actively stood in the way of the preaching and propagation of this truth. See, too, how as losers in this life and the Hereafter, there is no parallel to them in history.

But should we only confine ourselves to that age? Even today there are Muslims who claim to have true faith but they neither act according to their professed belief nor do they encourage others to have faith. So, if they suffer humiliation after humiliation in this life, is this not exactly what the Holy Quran warned us about? And is this not a just punishment for those who are merely nominal Muslims and who squander their lives in frivolities? Or for those who believe and act righteously themselves but neglect their duty to invite others to the faith? Can they be saved from the degrading loss that this chapter warns us about?

Next: Chapter 104: Al-Humazah (The Slanderer)
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