By the Time: Pondering the immense meanings of Surat al-‘Asr
The 103rd surah in the Qur’an is short and concise, yet abundant in meaning. Being the speech of Allah (SWT), it is also miraculous in its language. Allah (SWT) challenged mankind to produce a chapter like one of the chapters of the Qur’an if they harboured any doubt about it being from the Creator of the universe.
By (the Token of) Time (through the ages), Verily Man is in loss. Except such as have Faith, and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in the mutual teaching of Truth, and of Patience and Constancy.
Despite surat al-‘Asr only being made up of three short verses, the Arabs at the time could immediately identify the superiority in its language despite attempts by an imposter claiming prophethood to imitate it.
Imam Ibn Kathir in his Tafsir relates how `Amr bin Al-`As, despite being an idolater at the time, was aware of the Quran’s miracle through this very chapter.
He went to visit Musaylamah al-Kadhdhab (the liar and claimant to Prophethood) after Muhammad (ﷺ) received his first revelation. Musaylamah asked him; “What has been revealed to your friend (Muhammad (ﷺ)) during this time?” `Amr replied; “A short and concise surah has been revealed to him.” Musaylamah then inquired as to what it was, after which `Amr recited this surah.
Musaylamah then thought for a while and said; “Indeed something similar has been revealed to me.” ‘Amr asked what that was, and he replied; “O Wabr O Wabr! (a small furry mammal; hyrax) You are only two ears and a chest, and the rest of you is digging and burrowing.” He then asked; “What do you think O `Amr?” At which time `Amr replied: “By Allah! Verily, you know that I know you are lying.”
Musaylamah failed miserably in trying to oppose the Qur’an with his nonsensical verses and this was apparent to `Amr. Indeed the Quran’s miraculous language and the challenge that it puts forth to mankind is enough to make any person ponder about one’s existence and the reality of his/her weakness.
Imam Ash-Shafi’i, the great 2nd century AH scholar said about this surah:
If the people were to ponder on this surah, it would be sufficient for them.
The word al-`Asr mentioned in this surah is more popularly understood as ‘time’. Other opinions refer to it as the period of time between when the sun is declining and sunset, or the `Asr prayer itself, as noted in Tafsir al-Jalalayn.
Allah (SWT) swears by time that man is in loss and destruction. Sayyid Qutb in his Fi Dhilal al-Quran (In the Shade of the Quran) states that this surah affirms that throughout the ages there has only ever been one true path and all other paths lead only to loss and ruin. The true path is that which Allah (SWT) mentions in the proceeding verse – the path of adopting belief (Iman) followed up with virtuous deeds and the constant recommending of one another to follow truth and to be patient on it. The requirement of constant reminding and patience indicates that adopting this correct path will not be a stroll in the park. Rather it will be a struggle, which will require perseverance and steadfastness.
Only Allah (SWT) is capable in conveying such a profound message with such eloquence in one short surah only.
When one has adopted Iman (faith) he has attained closeness to the Absolute and Everlasting Creator of the universe. As a result he understands his position in this vast universe which emanates from that origin. The reality of his weakness becomes manifest but at the same time the infinite power beyond this universe endows the human being with a strength that propels him beyond the restrictiveness of life to attain the vastness of the hereafter. Sayyid Qutb explains that this:
Iman endows him with great enjoyment of life, its beauty and its constituents with whose ‘souls’ he lives in mutual friendship. Thus life becomes a pleasant journey for mankind everywhere and at all times. From this everlasting happiness, delightful joy and true intimate understanding of life and all creation are derived. This is the invaluable gain, to lack which is an immeasurable loss.
Righteous deeds are the fruits of Iman. Iman, if it has settled in one’s heart correctly, will manifest itself in actions that accord with the rules that emanate from the Islamic ‘aqidah. Thus, one’s decisive belief in the Islamic creed (`aqeedah) will form the basis by which all concepts, values, criteria, and laws are derived. Self-interest and personal desires will thus be replaced with principled justice and measured thought, giving the believer an unshakable confidence in the Islamic way of life over any other, even if one finds himself alone on such a path. Any action that is devoid of this inextricable connection and is not linked to Allah (SWT) and His Messenger (ﷺ) is worthless and disregarded. Allah (SWT) says in the Qur’an:
The likeness of those who disbelieve in their lord: their works are like ashes which the wind blows furiously on a tempestuous day. They have no power over anything they have earned: that is the far straying [TMQ 14:18].
As for those who disbelieve their deeds are like a mirage in a desert. The thirsty traveler thinks it is water but when he comes near he finds that it is nothing [TMQ 24:39].
Unlike those whose actions will go to waste in the hereafter as described in the above verses, the Muslim proceeds in life with a clear objective and with actions that are consistent with the origin of his existence. This creates within him enlightened peace, no matter what one is asked to do that accords with the Sharia, of which any perceived immediate loss is overcome with the knowledge of an eternal gain. The opposite, of course, will be a path devoid of iman which aims at gaining an immediate perceived gain, however, in reality only ending in eternal loss.
In the surah Allah then continues to describe the path of those who are not at loss. They believe and work righteous deeds, and at the same time they sincerely counsel and advice one another towards the truth and patience. Sayyid Qutb describes the counseling of one another upon the truth in the following manner:
Mutual counsel aimed at that which is right is a necessity because it is difficult to consistently maintain what is right, bearing in mind that the obstacles in its way are innumerable: egotistic passions and biases, false concepts in the environment, tyranny, and the inequity and despotism of some. Hence the mutual exhortation urged here means reminding, encouraging and expressing the unity in aim and destination and equality in responsibility and charge. It also collects the individual efforts into a unified whole and thus increases the feeling of brotherhood in every guardian of truth, that there are others with him to exhort, encourage, support and love him. This is precisely the case with Islam, the righteous way of life whose establishment requires the care of a coordinated, interdependent, self-sufficient and self-supporting community.
The mufasireen have summarised the counseling of one another upon the truth as calling to Islam or the Quran itself. The recommending one another to patience means, according to Imam at-Tabari and others, to remain steadfast in performing the acts of obedience and abstaining from the forbidden.
It is important here to expound upon the concept of enjoining the right and forbidding the reprehensible as it is interwoven with the idea of counseling one another and obedience to Allah (SWT).
Imam al-Haramayn Al-Juwayni, mentioned in his al-Irshad:
…. enjoining the good is not specifically a duty of those appointed to govern but is rather incumbent on every Muslim individually. This rule was also established by the unanimous agreement of the community. In the earliest days and in the era that followed, persons other than those appointed to govern used to command those who governed to do good and to enjoin them from doing what is evil and, moreover, the Muslims supported them and refrained from blaming them for being occupied with commanding the good without explicit commission to do so.
Enjoining the good and forbidding the evil is a task that is incumbent upon the ummah of Muhammad (ﷺ). Patience in doing so must accompany this task, as there is no doubt that such an undertaking is full of arduous obstacles. Patience during these times is to travel the path of continued obedience towards Allah (SWT). It is not to remain silent upon the occurrence of a munkar (evil) thinking that this is patience. Rather, patience is in the obedience to Allah (SWT) who has commanded the evil to be forbidden and corrected.
Indeed this surah conveys an invaluable message to mankind. It outlines the path of success in a concise yet profound manner. It should be recited and pondered over daily, particularly in today’s day and age.
Al-Tabarani recorded from Abdullah ibn Hisn ad-Darimi that he said:
Whenever two men from the companions of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) used to meet, they would not part until one of them had recited surat Al-`Asr in its entirety to the other, and one of them had given the greetings of peace to the other.
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