This Five Minute Meditation is a short reflection on, possibly, the most comprehensive, all-inclusive verse in the Qur’an. It touches upon the meaning of justice and what Islam sees as the greatest and most obligatory act of justice, as well as its opposite: injustice and oppression. It also deliberates on the Islamic obligation to show kindness to family, kith and kin; as well on the dangers of how sins can be normalised or trivialised. Watch here.
I RECENTLY MET A brother who I’d not seen since the late ’90s. He was eager to remind me of an incident I’d more or less forgotten about. I was working in an Islamic bookshop at the time. He came in to buy the ten volume translation of Tafsir Ibn Kathir Abridged. At the time it was selling for just under £100. To his surprise (and I’m guessing also to his disappointment), I dissuaded him from doing so; I put him off. Truth of the matter is he wasn’t the first one I discouraged from buying this multi-volume tafsir; I had done this to a few others before. But why?
But let me be clear. It wasn’t because I’m against people growing in sacred knowledge or understanding of Islam. Indeed, and all praise is for Allah, Allah has allowed me to be involved in learning, teaching and disseminating sacred knowledge of Islam since the mid 1980s. Over three decades on, and it’s still my core passion and vocation.
Nor was it because of what I saw to be the somewhat inelegant way in which the Qur’an, the Word of God, had been rendered into English throughout the translation. And neither was my concern that it wasn’t the actual real deal; it was a tahdhib – an abridgement and a slight reworking of the original.
Instead, my motive was more straightforward. Tafsir works aren’t usually written with the general public in mind. Their whole style, length, format, content, technical vocabulary or discourse is mitigated against a general readership. In fact, the target audience of tafsir works is specifically the scholar or budding scholar.
Knowing the brother fairly well, and knowing he was neither an academic nor a keen lay reader, I explained why I thought he shouldn’t buy the Tafsir and suggested he buy some other books and CDs that would be more relevant and immediate to his needs and thirst for sacred knowledge. He took my advice, and I happily took his money.
Of course, I wasn’t suggesting that only a scholar could or should benefit from the Qur’an. But the reality is that non-specialists will almost certainly find tafsir books overbearing and difficult. Even the modern tafsirs (leaving aside how correct it is to describe some of them as tafsir) are a challenge for the layman: less due to language or style; and more due to just how lengthy any complete tafsir is likely to be! The non-academic or layman simply doesn’t usually have the sheer will to plough through volumes and volumes of pedantic commentary on the Qur’an – or anything else for that matter. Although most will find the sheer will to binge watch episode after episode of Ertugrul or Games of Thrones, or other multi-seasoned box set that takes their fancy. So it’s less a complete lack of will: it’s more a lack of will for some things, but not for others. Just saying.
To be fair, there have been a few diligent lay readers who’ve managed to plough through the entire ten volume tafsir! But this should be seen for what it is: rare exceptions to the rule. What should be asked here is that those who have churned their way through the entire tafsir, did they do so having learnt the personally obligatory (fard al-‘ayn) matters Islam obligates each Muslim to know – with regards to core knowledge of creed, acts of worship, social transactions, ethics, and spiritual purification of the heart – or was it at the expense of holistically learning this? Because as counter-intuitive as this may sound, digesting an entire tafsir is unlikely to teach a Muslim the fard al-‘ayn knowledge that he or she is required to know and practice.
I suspect, however, that most people who purchase this ten volume tafsir do so more as a reference work, or as something they can dip into now and again, rather than something to read from cover to cover. And that, no doubt, is a commendable and well-intended aim.
Going back to the brother. I also suggested to him that he find a good English translation of the Qur’an, perhaps one with some helpful footnotes (I suggested Yusuf Ali’s to him at the time), to help nurture a personal, practical, reflective relationship with Allah’s Book. A couple of years later, the heftier (in terms of sheer price, size and weight) and highly elegant The Majestic Qur’an came out, which I duly started recommending to people. Fast forward to 2019, and there are quite a few good translations of the Qur’an, some with useful footnotes to help the non-specialist deepen their understanding of the Holy Book. As for tafsirs, there’s now a wonderful translation, in one manageable slim volume, of the famous, yet simple Tafsir al-Jalalayn – which I certainly encourage the keen lay reader to perhaps consider trying to benefit from.
It has been said that throughout Islamic history, the lay person’s link with the Qur’an was less about trying to glean its gems of meaning and majesty, but was more about it being devotional recital: a sacrament; a ritual. I’m not sure how true that is. Though in a pre-modern age, where mass literacy or formal schooling weren’t widespread, it’s easy to see why that could have been the case.
That said, the modern world has changed the layman in respect to literacy and numeracy. Most people, certainly here in the West, have had at least a half decent education. Mass education and mass media have exposed us all to a whole raft of facts and figures, and ideas and abstractions, like never before. Thus it could reasonably be argued that today’s layman has less of an excuse not to engage a decent translation of the Qur’an (or a one volume tafsir) compared to a layman of earlier times. In other words, what stops today’s layman for reading a good translation of the Qur’an – not in order to dish out fatwas or make up their own rulings and interpretations, but to gain an overall understanding and appreciation of what the Good Lord wants; via the stories, lessons, parables and religious instruction related in the Qur’an?
As for the scholar, budding scholar, or student of sacred learning, their way is to regularly meditate over the Qur’an, and deepen their connection with it. Of course, aid should be taken from the books of tafsir: classical and contemporary; both the textual (ma’thur) and rational (ma‘qul) genres. Let them nurture and imbibe in themselves the adab, character and worldview of the Qur’an, and then help steer others towards this.
Whether in Friday sermons, or in general circles for the laity, let the scholar or student of knowledge – not as mufassir; exegist, but as khatib; preacher, and wa‘iz; exhorter – draw wisely from that rich, profound tafsir heritage and share some of what will awaken and inspire the hearts of the lay people to Allah and the Afterlife. This has been the tried and tested method to help attach people to the Qur’an, and to its invitation and summons to God and godliness.
This read starts with the question: Does it matter how one sins? To answer it, it explores the deeper layers of the story of Adam, Satan and the divine command to not eat from the Tree of Immortality, in order to understand why it is that at the end of the story Adam is bathed in grace, while Satan is utterly disgraced. For at the heart of the saga, we discover the theme of divine love.
Are all sins equal? No, they are not. Are some sins worse than others? Yes, indeed! Does how you sin make any difference to Allah? This may come as a surprise to some, but yes, how one sins does make a difference to Allah. This last point is taught to us in a gem of a saying from the exemplary scholar and saint, Sufyan ibn Uyaynah, who said:
‘Whoever sins due to a desire, have hope for him; while whoever sins out of pride, fear for him. For Adam disobeyed out of a desire, but was forgiven, whereas Iblis disobeyed from pride and so was cursed.’1
The reference to the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, and to Iblis or Satan, lies at the heart of the human drama. The story is recounted at the start of the Qur’an at 2:30-9, and also at 7:11-25; 17:61-5; 20:115-23 and 38:71-85. In the Adamic story, both Adam and Iblis are subject to a single divine command. For Adam it was: ‘O Adam! Dwell you and your wife in the Garden, and eat as you wish, but do not come near this tree.’ [2:19] For Iblis: ‘Prostrate yourselves before Adam!’ and they all fell prostrate, except Iblis, who was not of those who prostrated. [2:11] In both instances, Allah’s order was not followed through: Adam [and Eve] ate from the tree; Iblis refused to prostrate. One could be forgiven for assuming that both these actors would be recipient to similar consequences for having failed to uphold a divine command? But they were not.
On being asked why he disobeyed the command to prostrate, Iblis replied in this defiant and arrogant tone: ‘I am better than him. You created me from fire, while You created him of clay.’ [7:12] Being made of subtle fire, Iblis presumed himself to be better than Adam, who was heavy and clay-like in nature. So driven by pride, and exercising his own reasoning in defiance of the Divine Command, Iblis set himself up as a god against Allah and thus was cursed. Yet what Satan, in his hubris, failed to acknowledge was the heavenly, luminous substance called ruh or “spirit” that was insufflated into Adam: ‘So when I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My spirit, then fall down prostrate before him.’ [38:72] Inspite of Adam’s opaque, earth-like nature, it is this God-knowing spirit which grants mankind the potential to rise above all other sentient creatures.
As for our father Adam, peace be upon him, his is a story of love; in terms of what drove him, deprived him and distressed him. We read in the Qur’an: But Satan whispered evil to him, suggesting: ‘O Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and a kingdom that never decays?’ [20:120] His eating from the Tree of Immortality was not out of defiance of Allah’s will, rather: We made a pact with Adam before, but he forgot. [20:115] However, some of the scholars hold that his forgetting doesn’t refer to eating from the tree, but to not recalling that Satan is his avowed enemy: ‘O Adam, this [Satan] is an enemy to you and your wife; let him not drive you both from the Garden.’ [20:117] In this reading, it is Adam’s love for Allah and his aching desire to remain in His presence that drives him to eat from the tree. Let us hear from Ibn ‘Ajibah on this point:
‘Realise that Adam’s eating from the tree was not out of obstinacy or wilful disobedience. It was either due to not recalling the command, so he ate whilst being forgetful; which is what some have said, and is what may be meant in Allah’s saying: but he forgot. [20:115] If, however, he ate whilst remembering the command, he did so because: ‘Your Lord forbade you this tree lest you become angels or become of the immortals.’ [7:20] So his love for Allah and his deep attachment to Him made him to want what would lead him to dwell forever in Allah’s company and abide with Him eternally. Or [he wilfully ate because] he desired to become angelic. For Adam, peace be upon him, held the angels to be closer to Allah, so he wished to eat from the tree to be an angel who – as far as he was concerned – were the best [of creation].’2
Satan whispered to Adam and Eve, in order to lead them by deceit: And he swore to them: ‘Truly, I am a sincere advisor to you.’ [7:21] Adam, in his innocence, believed him, thinking that no one would ever swear by Allah’s holy Name falsely!3 So he used Adam’s love for Allah and his yearning to be in His presence as a means to make him eat of the tree. Adam was thus deceived into thinking that if he were to become an angel or an immortal, he too would be able to abide in Allah’s holy presence forever – perpetually adoring, glorifying and worshiping God as the angels do. Hence the lover ate.4
Ironically, love deprived him – for a while, at least – of dwelling in Allah’s presence: He said: ‘Go down, both of you, from the Garden.’ [20:123] And: ‘There will be for you on earth a habitation, and a provision for a while.’ [7:24] It was this very same love that caused him to then weep a thousand tears and be utterly heart-broken and remorseful. For unlike Satan who refused to own his sin, but sought instead to justify it, Adam and Eve acknowledged their slip and were remorseful, repentant and longed for God’s acceptance: ‘Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you forgive us not, and have not mercy on us, we shall be among the losers!’ [7:23] Ibn al-Qayyim wrote:
‘By Allah! Having committed the error, Adam neither profited from his rank: ‘Bow down before Adam!’ [2:34]; nor from his nobility: He taught Adam the names of all things [2:31]; nor his distinction: ‘that which I created with both My hands’ [38:75]; and nor his glory: and breathed into him of My spirit. [15:29] Instead, he profited only from his humility: “Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you forgive us not, and have not mercy on us, we will be among the losers!” [7:23]’5
One last point, and it’s an important one. When we say that Adam “sinned” – Thus Adam disobeyed his Lord [20:121] – it’s not the usual type of sin that is driven by the ego’s wilful opposition to Allah. Rather, as the Qur’an says elsewhere, it was an unintentional sin; an inadvertent “slip”: But the Devil caused them to slip. [2:36] Both courtesy and creed; adab and ‘aqidah, demand that we acknowledge this. Courtesy because when one speaks about God’s chosen prophets – the crown of all His creation – one does so in the most respectful and reverent way possible; salawatu‘Llahi ‘alayhim ajma‘in. Not to do so could, in certain cases, amount to disbelief (kufr). As for creed, then this is because the texts of the Qur’an and Hadiths, when taken collectively, teach us that the prophets are ma‘sum – “infallible” in the sense of being protected from sin and wilful disobedience. Al-Qurtubi stated: ‘The prophets are protected from major sins and the reprehensible minor sins, by consensus.’6
Although Adam and Eve are the first humans to violate a command from God, Satan is the first of all Allah’s creation to wilfully disobey Him. His decision to rebel came purely from himself and his pride; no one else lured or persuaded him. Furthermore, his decision to continue to disobey God after his initial defiance ensures that God will not forgive him. In contrast, both Adam and Eve immediately felt remorse and sincerely repented. We could say that while Iblis was driven by pride; Adam’s slip, in stark contrast, was driven by love and his longing to be with his Lord. Love is what drove Adam to eat – and there is always some special consideration for Allah’s true lovers.
The example of the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, remains as valid today as it was then. For having turned to God, Adam did not transmit the curse of an “original sin” to his descendants. Instead, he was received into divine grace and a state of harmony was once again restored between him and his Maker: Then Adam received words from his Lord, and his Lord relented towards him. [2:37] A similar grace awaits all those who sin, but turn to Allah in remorseful repentance, following the Adamic example. The key is in pondering God and His grace, which allows one to become closer to Allah and more devoted to Him. In the Adamic saga, Iblis contemplates only himself: Adam constantly contemplates God and being close to Him.
2. Ibn ‘Ajibah, Bahr al-Madid fi Tafsir Qur’an al-Majid (Cairo: al-Maktabah al-Tawqifiyyah, n.d.), 4:320, citing Ibn Ata‘illah, Kitab al-Tanwir.
3. See: Qadi ‘Iyad, al-Shifa’ bi Ta‘rif Huquq al-Mustafa (Damascus: Maktabah al-Ghazali, 2000), 692.
4. Cf. Muhammad Idris Kandhalawi, Ma‘arif al-Qur’an (Sindh: Maktabah ‘Uthmaniyyah, 1422H), 3:85-90. I am indebted to Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoun, hafizahullah, for bringing this point, and this superb Urdu tafsir, to my attention.
5. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 51-2.
6. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur‘an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 3:194.
The Qur’an says of itself: [This is] a Book that We have sent down to you, full of blessings, that they may meditate upon its signs, and that those possessed of understanding may take heed. [38:29] The Quranic insistence on tadabbur (to ‘meditate’, ‘reflect’, ‘ponder’ upon the Qur’an) is one of the three essential states our hearts should be in for them to be enriched, illuminated and guided by Allah’s words. The venerable scholar and pietist, Imam al-Nawawi wrote: ‘It is essential for the reciter [of the Qur’an] to be in [a state of] humility, contemplation and submissiveness. Such is the sought-after goal. For by it will breasts expand and hearts be illumined. The proofs of this are too numerous or well-known to recount. A group of the salaf would spend the entire night, or the best part of it, listening to one of them recite just one single verse while the rest meditated upon it.’1
What follows is hopefully the first of a series of brief meditations upon various verses and passages of the Holy Qur’an. Given that close to three million pilgrims are now beginning to converge upon Makkah, to enact the rites of the hajj in a sea of loving submission, the first verse to merit meditation shall be the one that offers instruction on the ethical and spiritual state of the pilgrim:
The Pilgrimage is [in] the appointed months. Whosoever undertakes the duty of Pilgrimage during them, then there is no lewdness, wickedness or disputation while on the Pilgrimage. And whatever good you do, Allah knows it. And make provisions; but the best provision is piety. Therefore be mindful of Me, O people of understanding. [2:197]
Asking Allah for aid and tawfiq, these meditations are:
1 – This is the second of eight consecutive verses concerning the Pilgrimage or hajj: its rules (ahkam), rites (manasik) and decorum (adab). It tells us that the Pilgrimage takes place in the appointed months – which could just as equally be translated as: ‘the well-known months’. Yet the Qur’an nowhere identifies the names of these months. Why? Because they were so widely known and established among the Arabs; and had been ever since the Prophet Abraham’s time. These appointed months are: Shawwal, Dhu’l-Qa‘dah, and the first ten days of Dhu’l-Hijjah (or the whole of it, according to another valid scholarly opinion).2
2 – That we only know the names of the appointed months through an unbroken chain of practice reaching all the way back to the Abrahamic age, as well as unbroken chains of hadiths via the Prophet ﷺ confirming that he continued giving these months legal sanction, must give us pause for thought. It should caution against the “Qur’an only” interpretation of Islam, or any approach which rejects unbroken chains of practice, or sound hadiths and scholarly insights that clarify the meanings or intent of individual Quranic verses. Without a chain of practice or prophetic report, we can’t know when hajj season actually is.
3 – What follows is that those unhinged from the chain (sanad) tradition – in terms of initiation, authorization and transmission – yet insist on joining the scholarly debate on renewal or revival, are wittingly or unwittingly enemies to the Islamic story. ‘This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation: they will expel from it the distortions of the extremists, the fabrications of the liars, and the [flawed] interpretations of the ignorant,’ is what the Prophet ﷺ said.3 Only the sanad can sort out the wheat from the chaff, the qualified from the cowboy.
4 – Once the intention is made and the ihram, the pilgrim’s garb, donned, one enters into a state of inviolability and the duty of Pilgrimage begins in earnest. For putting on the pilgrim’s dress is like ridding oneself, for a while, of whatever links the pilgrims to their usual material life: with its attendant desires, pretensions and distractions. This allows the heart to be in a state where it may be occupied solely with Allah.
5 – Being in a state of ihram, it then says: there is no lewdness, wickedness or disputation while on the Pilgrimage. This is a call to refrain from any behaviour, whether in word or deed, that conflicts with the spirit of wholehearted devotion or obedience to Allah. Scholars explain that lewdness refers to the act of sexual intercourse, and even talk of sexual intimacy, while in the state of ihram. What is meant by wickedness is any sin or act of disobedience. Disputation is any quarrel, row or wrangling which gets the blood boiling, stirs enmity and schism, or breeds hostility and ill will.4 Now that the pilgrim is a “guest of God”, as it were, it behoves him or her to behave with the utmost adab, decency and mindfulness towards God. For it would be the height of impertinence to behave indecently when invited to the House of a generous Host.
6 – Notice the eloquence of the Qur’an in the matter. For it doesn’t just forbid these three acts: lewdness, wickedness or disputation. Instead it wholeheartedly negates them. The Qur’an could have spoken in prohibitive terms; it could have said: ‘there is to be no lewdness …’ Instead, it utilises a complete negation: there is no lewdness … It is as if the Qur’an is saying that to commit any of these indecencies is unimaginable for the one who has donned the pilgrim’s garb and is in the state of Pilgrimage – which is a more forceful way of stating the point; one that appeals to our innate sense of honour and godliness. Such things blind or busy the heart from God, and offend His majesty and holiness; which run contrary to the aim and intent of hajj.
7 – After its prohibitive mood, the verse goes on to encourage the doing of good – any good – linking it to being mindful and vigilant of Allah’s all-encompassing knowledge of things: And whatever good you do, Allah knows it.With Allah’s reassurance that He is always aware of the good we do, the pilgrim increases in doing and spreading good. Along with fulfilling the obligatory rites of hajj, with as much outward conformity to the shari‘ah and inward sincerity, humility and loving submission as can be mustered; the pilgrim seeks to draw closer to Allah by performing optional acts of worship. One cannot and should not neglect goodness and service to fellow pilgrims too.
8 – Pilgrimage requires a certain amount of detachment from the created order so as to nurture attachment to the Creator. It involves detachment from home, homeland and familiar comforts, as well as from everyday preoccupations and distractions. This, however, doesn’t imply tark al-asbab – forsaking lawful means. It is for this reason the verse says: And make provisions. Ibn ‘Abbas narrates: ‘The People of Yemen were in the habit of going to the Pilgrimage without taking any provisions with them. They used to claim: “We are the ones who trust in Allah.” But once in Makkah, they used to beg from people. So Allah, glorious and majestic is He, revealed: And make provisions; but the best provision is piety.‘5 Thus there are two kinds of provisions that a pilgrim must prepare: physical provisions for the journey to Allah’s House in Makkah, and spiritual provisions for the journey to Allah’s Presence in the Hereafter.
9 – The verse concludes with proclaiming the essence of things: Therefore be mindful of Me, O people of understanding.The Arabic word for being ‘mindful’ is taqwa; which can also mean: being ‘aware’, ‘obedient’, ‘pious’, ‘guarding against sin’. Taqwa, in other words, is to be mindful of Allah’s demands, and to be aware of Allah’s presence; trying to mould one’s life around such mindfulness and awareness. On returning home from the Pilgrimage, after days of physical rigour and spiritual uplift, pilgrims are radically transformed. The overwhelming sense of contrition and repentance they bring back, and their deepened sense of taqwa, become visible in their lives.
10 – The conclusion of this verse is addressed to: people of understanding. The word used for understanding is albab, which is the plural of lubb. In Arabic, lubb refers to the ‘core’, ‘essence’ or ‘best part’ of a thing. The human intellect is described as lubb as it is the best part of a person – especially if it is led by the light of divine guidance, and not by the ego, desires, or baser self-interests. The ulu’l-albab, in terms of Pilgrimage, refers to those who understand that hajj is more than fulfilment of rituals. At its heart is the cultivating of taqwa and loving submission to Allah. They may even see that the entire Pilgrimage is a series of rites that are infused with profound metaphysical and symbolic meaning. The ihram, for instance, symbolises the burial shroud, detachment from the world, and remembrance of death. The tawaf, or circuits around the Ka‘bah, is symbolic of one’s heart and life revolving around the holiness of Allah. The sa‘y, the running between the two hills of Safa and Marwa, suggests that life moves between the two aspects of Divine Compassion and Divine Rigour. The wuquf, the standing at the plain of ‘Arafah, brings to mind the day on which Allah will resurrect us all and the time to repent shall be irrevocably past. Stoning the jamarat, the pillars symbolising Satan, signifies repelling the devil and his whisperings and taking him as an avowed enemy. As for the udhiyah, slaughtering a sacrificial lamb, this recalls how our entire life should be given over to Allah in service and sacrifice for Him.
1. Al-Adhkar (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 197.
2. See: Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:183; Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 2002), 116-17.
3. Al-Bayhaqi, Sunan, 10:209. The hadith is a candidate for being hasan because of its collective chains of transmission. Cf. al-Albani, Takhrij Mishkat al-Masabih (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1979), no.248; ‘Ali al-Halabi (ed.), Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Miftah Dar al-Sa‘adah (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 1996), 1:500.
4. As per Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Alexandria: Dar al-‘Aqidah, 2008), 1:374-7. As for the detailed rulings related to the ihram and other rites of Pilgrimage, one can find them codified in basic fiqh texts and hajj booklets. Whenever unclear or in doubt about any issue, one refers to qualified scholars on the matter.
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, or surah, 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.”4 That 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 expect for 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 adab here 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.
1. Cf. al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 20:122; al-Suyuti, Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Salam, 2002), 612.
2. As stated in al-Sam‘ani, Tafsir al-Qur’an (Riyadh: Dar al-Watn, 1997), 6:278.
3. ibid., 6:278.
4. Tafsir al-Jalalayn, 612.
5. Cf. al-Sa‘di, Taysir al-Karim al-Rahman fi Tafsir Kalam al-Mannan (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2011), 1102.
6. Consult: Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 4:417; al-Nasafi, Madarik al-Tanzil wa Haqa’iq al-Ta’wil (Beirut: Dar al-Kalim al-Tayyib, 1998), 3:277; Muhammad Na‘im, Tafsir Kamalayn Sharh Urdu Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Pakistan: Dar al-Isha‘at, 2008), 6:778.
7. Al-Sa‘di, Taysir al-Karim al-Rahman, 1102.
8. Cited in Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 4:585.
9. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Awsat, no.5256. Its chain was judged to be sahih by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), no.6348.
12. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 15:3-4. Also see: Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim, 4:163, in explanation of the verse: And they say: ‘It is only this worldly life of ours. We die and live and nothing but time destroys us.’ [45:24]
13. See: Tafsir Kamalayn, 6:776-77.
14. Muslim, no.223.
15. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2416. The hadith was declared sahih due to corroborating chains in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.946.
16. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2330, where he declared: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’