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Surah al-'Asr (No. 103: 'Time')

Verses 1-3

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful.

وَالْعَصْرِ

By Time! (103:1).

إِنَّ الْإِنْسَانَ لَفِي خُسْرٍ

Indeed, man is in loss, (103:2).

إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْحَقِّ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ

except those who have faith and do righteous deeds, and enjoin one another to what is right, and enjoin one another to patience. (103:3).

1. Loss

Despite its brevity, this surah contains many powerful affirmations; it begins with an oath, which is the clearest form of affirmation, not to mention using the particle of affirmation, 'indeed' (inna), followed by the lam of emphasis and a nominal sentence. Perhaps the reason for this is that the object of the oath is completely unknown to the majority of people, namely the true nature of loss (khusr) that applies to all mankind, save those who exclude themselves from it through a particular reason.

Therefore, anyone who does not find in his heart any faith or any truly righteous deeds with certainty and conviction, then he falls into the general category of loss. In other words, you do not need a reason to be in a state of loss, unlike the opposite state of affairs. So, anyone who doubts whether he is excluded from this category must necessarily be subject to continuous loss. And what a frightening thing this is to anyone who has a heart!

2. Al-‘Asr

There are divergent opinions about the meaning of the word 'Time' (al-'asr) in this surah:

a. There are those who say this refers to the time of ‘asr, which is the late afternoon, making this oath part of a series of oaths that includes all the hours of a full day: Daybreak (fajr), dawn (subh), day (nahar), night (layl) and mid-morning (duha).

b. It refers to a particular era in human history, as represented by the time of the Prophet (S) and the time of Imam al-Mahdi (‘a); the prophetic mission began in the former, and in the latter the religion will be revived after having disappeared.

c. It alludes to the 'Asr prayer because this is the middle prayer, which is singled out for mention amongst all others in Allah's saying:

“Be watchful of your prayers, and the middle prayer ...” (al-Baqarah, 2:238).

d. It refers to Time as a whole, which is the receptacle in which all deeds transpire, which in turn makes it the source of all good and evil. This is just as

“By your life...” (aI-Hijr, 15:72).

refers particularly to the time of the Prophet’s (S) life.

3· Loss

We cannot rightly apply the category of 'loss' (khusr) to anything besides the human being; all other creatures, beasts or otherwise, are disposed to whatever command their Creator wills for them, and follow their guidance, as per His words:

“Our Lord is He who gave everything its creation and then guided it.” (Ta Ha, 20:50).

even an adder's bite or a lion's strike.

But the category of loss applies only to the human being who can turn aside from the path of servanthood ('ubudiyyah) sketched out before him, and thus fall into a state of loss, as this verse indicates. And when this happens, he sinks even lower than the beasts, whose efforts never lead to losses on any occasion.

4. Man In The State Of Loss

The way in which particles of meaning (huruf) are used in the Qur'an is in accordance with the goals of the Qur'an - in the same way as nouns and verbs - as represented by the divine education of the Human Being. And this can only be achieved through warnings, intimidation, promises and threats; of course, all in the appropriate contexts.

What we notice in this surah - based on this general rule of how the Qur’an uses particles - is that Allah refers to man as being 'in loss' as if man is a thing completely encapsulated within a vessel called 'loss' such that loss surrounds him from all sides, as a vessel surrounds the water it contains. And this is a way most eloquent to express the severity of man's loss!

5. The Meaning Of Loss

Loss - literally speaking - means a decline in capital, and it is obvious that a person's true capital is represented by their life, which is continuously draining away from the moment they are born. This is a self-evident truth! So, whatever of this capital is invested in provisions for his Hereafter, this becomes a kind of capital that can be shifted from this world to another, in which case there is no loss whatsoever!

On the other hand, if the days and hours of a person's life are spent in that which displeases Allah, which includes not only the hours in which he disobeyed Allah and forsook his duties but even the hours of heedlessness and diversion, then he has squandered them for they give him nothing he can take with him ... what an obvious form of loss it is to which this verse refers!

6. Faith And Righteous Deeds

There are visible indicators of faith and righteous deeds, all of which can be summed up under the heading of 'avoiding loss.' These include a person being given a pleasant life in both worlds, as Allah says:

“Whoever acts righteously, male or female, should he be faithful, - We shall revive him with a good life” (an-Nahl, 16:97).

and affection with the Creator and the Creation:

“Indeed, those who have faith and do righteous deeds - the All-beneficent will endear them” (Maryam, 19:96).

and entering Allah's mercy:

“As for those who have faith and do righteous deeds, their Lord will admit them into His mercy.” (al-Jathiyah, 45:30).

7. Elements For Success

The effects in the physical realm do not occur except once all their prerequisites are met; for example, for something to burn there must be heat, fuel and an absence of impediments to burning. The same is true in the spiritual realm, for success (fawz) also, cannot be attained without first attaining all of its constituent elements, namely to

“... have faith and do righteous deeds, and enjoin one another...” (Al-‘Asr, 103:3).

so, if any of these elements are missing, this causes loss.

Therefore, someone who believes and acts righteously in the true sense of the word, but fails to enjoin others to what is right and patience, he is missing a fundamental element of avoiding loss... hence those who worship in private and do not enjoin others to reform themselves should not feel pleased with their deeds; if any element is missing from that combination - it does not matter which one - the effect will not be achieved, just as is the case with burning.

8. Attaining Full Success

Just as there is profit and loss in the worldly business - whereby one person is said to have gained relative to another's loss, or lost relative to another's greater gain - the same applies to otherworldly business: Anyone who does some righteous deeds while neglecting others - like believers who sinned - will not achieve full success. Rather he will suffer a relative loss compared to one who has forgone all sinful deeds. Perhaps believing this will motivate some to perform the rest of the righteous deeds, so, that they may escape this relative loss and attain full success!

Clearly this relativeness does not exist in matters of faith; anyone who suffers from deficiencies in his fundamental beliefs - such as someone who denies prophethood, for example - even if they accept Divine Unity (tawhid), they will never be considered truly successful, and this is supported by Allah's words:

“Those who disbelieve in Allah and His Messengers and seek to separate Allah from His Messengers, and say, 'We believe in some and disbelieve in some’ and seek to take a way in between” (an-Nisa’, 4:150).

“it is they who are truly disbelieve, and We have prepared for the disbelievers a humiliating punishment.” (an-Nisa’, 4:151).

9. Enjoining Each Other

There is a difference between the act of enjoining good and forbidding evil (al-amr bi al-ma'ruf wa al-nahi 'an al-munkar) and between that of enjoining others to what is right (tawasi bi al-haqq) as this verse instructs. The former could occur between a believer and a sinner, and it could be from a single direction as well; for example, one person enjoins and forbids while the other is enjoined and forbidden ... but enjoining one another (al-tawasi) could exist between the believers themselves, or in fact between the very best of them, because each one of them enjoins and is enjoined at the same time, and that is because however excellent any person may be, he will always need someone to remind him. It is, after all, Allah who says:

“And admonish, for admonition Indeed, benefits the faithful.” (adh-Dhariyat, 51:55).

And in this regard, we can say that enjoining one another (al­ tawasi) has two dimensions:

a. One relates to those things concerned with one's connection to the Creator, which is appropriate to enjoining one another to patience (al-tawasi bi al-sabr) both in obeying Allah's commands, avoiding His prohibitions, and enduring tribulations.

b. The other relates to one's connection with the creations, which is appropriate to enjoining one another to what is right (al-tawasi bi al-haqq), so, that no one's right is ever lost!

10. Avoiding Loss

Avoiding losses requires special assistance from Allah; every moment of our lives is a unit that can be described as either a success or a loss, and however accomplished a person becomes in self­reflection (muraqaba) and self-accounting (muhasaba), he cannot escape heedlessness in all of these moments, especially considering the devils that lie in ambush for a person' s heart, lay siege to it, pounce upon it at the slightest moment of heedlessness and only withdraw when he remembers his Lord, as we can understand from some narrations. Hence, in order to efface the traces of these moments of heedlessness, Allah must grant special favour to His servants, for the existence of even a few moments of heedlessness places m n in a state of loss, even if only for those fleeting instances.

Which is why Allah says in some verses, affirming this fact:

“And were it not for Allah’s grace upon you and His mercy, you would have all surely followed Satan, except a few.” (an-Nisa, 4:83).

“Were it not for Allah's grace and His mercy upon you, not one of you would ever be pure.” (an-Nur, 24:21).

And:

“...and were it not for Allah's grace on you and His mercy, you would surely have been among the losers.” (al-Baqarah, 2:64).

Of course, parallel to this divine favour in repelling loss, there are servants of Allah who enjoin one another to repel that also, and this what we read in this surah.

11. Enjoining One Another

There is no doubt that enjoining one another to what is right and enjoining one another to patience falls within the category of righteous deeds ('amal salih), but it is singled out for mention in this surah because it causes a reduction of loss in people's lives, which is more arduous than people's loss of wealth! Just as enjoining one another to patience also, falls within enjoining one another to what is right, but it is singled out for mention because patience guarantees that people will accept being enjoined to what is right. Why? Because admonitions and preaching can be difficult for people to bear, and that is because they often run contrary to the selfishness of the ego, and because sometimes it is hard to give credence to the views of others.

12. Moving Humanity Towards Perfection

This short surah provides with a complete philosophy of existence. And this is done by highlighting the following:

a. Man's movement in life, and that he is in a continuous state of loss despite the fact that outwardly he appears to be developing and growing.

b. Escape from this default mode of loss can only be achieved by joining faith to righteous deeds in a person's relationship with his own self.

c. And that enjoining one another to what is right must be accompanied by enjoining one another to patience; so, that man - in addition to the call by the prophets to their nations - also, calls to himself, and members of society call to one another. This is how humanity can move towards perfection.