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AL'ASR: A SHORT SURAH WITH A GREAT MESSAGE

[By Imam Dr. Zijad Delic - Special to the CIC Friday Magazine] - May 30, 2008

Introduction and Background of the Surah

In the Qur'an God Almighty informs humanity about the importance of time in
one's life and the formula for success in the following words: "By the
Time! Insan (a human being) is indeed in loss, except those who believed
and did good deeds, exhorted one another to Truth, and exhorted one another
to patience and constancy." (Al 'Asr 1-3) Surah Al 'Asr was one of the
earliest chapters revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (S). In another Surah --
Al Fatihah -- Almighty Allah teaches the faithful how to seek guidance
towards the straight path of life (or, As Siratul Mustaqim). But it is in
Surah Al 'Asr that the very essence of that guidance is revealed to
humanity.

Importance of the Surah

All who successfully follow this divine guidance will arrive on the
straight path, and as a result their lives will be filled with the glory of
Allah; those who fail to follow this guidance, however, will suffer
enormous loss.

The seemingly simple words of divine guidance in Surah Al 'Asr, verses, 1-3
tell us how to live our entire lives. Numerous books with tens of thousands
of words cannot say as much as is contained in these three short verses, or
ayat. There are many laws, rules and regulations that appear throughout the
Qur'an as items of specific direction and teaching, but this early Surah is
much grander in scale and broadly embraces the fundamental character and
moral values that are essential for the truly righteous life. In other
words, this small Surah shows us "the big picture," and undoubtedly anyone
who truly understands and lives by its ideals will be moved toward the
straight path leading to a life of fulfillment and happiness both in this
world and in the Hereafter.

In fact, within this short Surah are summed up all the elements of
individual and communal success in life. As the Qur'an teaches us, human
beings have been created by Almighty Allah in the best mold and equipped
with all the abilities and faculties necessary for achieving success. It is
up to them, however, to utilize these precious tools and resources properly
and wisely.

Just how importantly this Surah was viewed by the Companions of the Rasul
Muhammad (S) can be affirmed by a tradition that says whenever any two of
them met, they would not part company until they had recited this Surah to
one another. Imam Shafi'i (r.a) said that if people would only consider
this Surah well, it alone would be enough for their lifelong guidance.

Time -- An Important Asset in Life

Surah Al 'Asr opens with a reference to Time. It is meant to show that a
human being suffers great loss if he/she fails to realize the real
significance of the time given to each of us by Allah before we depart from
this world. The message is very clear: Insan's (humanity's) single greatest
asset in life is the time at his/her disposal. "Actually, one's time is
one's life," as Hasan Al Basri pointed out.

Various commentators have offered different viewpoints for the meaning of
the first verse (ayah) of Al 'Asr. Some of these interpretations include:
a) it indicates metaphorically that we do not have time to waste; b) it
indicates bygone days when humanity was already shown these truths; or c)
it specifically indicates the days of the Prophet as demonstrating these
truths. While all of these interpretations have merit, Al 'Asr can be most
effectively described as saying "there is no time to waste!"

So whatever 'Insan achieves during his/her short sojourn upon the Earth is
crucial for their future in the life to come. In this comparatively short
earthly life (called Duniya) one can nevertheless achieve eternal bliss and
peace, if they wisely use and develop the resources given by the Creator,
and in accordance with divine teachings and laws. Misusing or neglecting
our inherent opportunities to live rightly, do good, and follow the
straight path can only lead human beings into disaster and unhappiness.

The word Time is used not only to indicate the past, but also to show the
passing time in our present context. Every moment, when it has passed,
becomes past; every future moment when it is passing, becomes present, and
so on.

But here in Surah Al 'Asr, both kinds of time are included in its meaning.
The oath "By the Time!" means that human history is witness to the fact
that people lacking generosity, faith, truth, patience, and constancy (as
described in verses 1-3) eventually incurred loss. In order to understand
the significance of an oath which swears by the passing of time, we must
understand that the moment now passing is, in fact, the same time which has
been given to every single individual and nation.

Human beings have no control whatsoever over time itself. It goes, and
there is no way we can stop its flight. But we can of course learn much
from the past for lessons of cause and effect, and the result of our own
personal decisions. That is why we should all ask ourselves about the day
that has just passed. "What did I do with this day?" "What have I still
left to accomplish in this day?" "Why did I do the things I did?" The
Qur'an refers to peoples who "passed away before you (such as the ancient
people of 'Ad, Thamud, the people of the Prophet Nuh), so travel through
the earth, and see what was the end of those who rejected the Truth." (Ali
'Imran 137)

We can only use the present time fully for the betterment of our Duniya and
Akhirah; today's present is our real hope and opportunity. And our success
or failure depends on how well or how foolishly we spend it.

A Road Map for Success

How one can utilize the asset of time properly and wisely? In just a few
words, this Surah outlines the formula for success. It gives Insan the road
map he/she must have in order to move forward and make progress on the
straight path to the ultimate goal of union with Allah.

Individual Success

Everyone is in a situation of loss, except those who believe (in the
principles of Islam) or do good deeds (salihat). Each person's actions are
the outward expression of his/her inner belief. The light of faith shows in
a believer's deeds -- in his or her moral character. Thus, belief and deeds
go together; one cannot stand without the other. Moreover, a belief that
fails to induce one to act is defective, like a worthless seed that does
not germinate. Like a dead seed, it cannot grow into a plant or tree. For
this reason some commentators say that the good deeds mentioned here are a
logical outgrowth that flows from belief. Good deeds are faith in action.
This part of the Surah deals with one's individual life, but in the second
part we are given the rest of the formula for ultimate success and
salvation.

Success in Community Life

The words "Exhort one another to Truth and Patience" mention two main
elements of success in social and communal life - a collective struggle for
the establishment of Truth, and patience and constancy against negative
forces. A believing and righteous people should not, therefore, live as
individuals but establish a society built on the combined faith and energy
of every individual, all of whom accept a shared responsibility not to let
their society degenerate. In this way, all members are duty bound to exhort
one another to Truth and patience (or constancy).

No matter how good we may believe ourselves to be as individuals, we fail
(or live in a state of loss) if we do not serve our community as ourselves.
From this derives the formula to save ourselves and our larger society:
Believe in Allah with sincerity (Ikhlas); do good deeds (A'malus Salihah)
in the name of Almighty Allah; join together in the mutual teaching of
truth; encourage one another in this great mission of all the prophets
(pbut), and encourage one another to be patient (Sabir).

Conclusion

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that although humans can find
themselves at a loss through the passing of time, it is also by the same
force of time that they can renew themselves. This is achieved by returning
to the formula Allah gives to us in Surah Al 'Asr - to appreciate and
practise the four principles: i) strong faith (or Iman): ii) A'malus
Salihah - righteousness and good deeds done with sincerity; iii) enjoin one
another to always uphold Truth (haqq), and iv) enjoin one another to be in
Sabr - patient as a basis of one's Faith in Action.

(This article was slightly edited for the Canadian Islamic Congress Friday
Magazine.)
  

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