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The Chapter of Time.

The Qur’an, the ultimate source of guidance for Muslims, holds the key to leading a successful life both in this world and the hereafter. The passages of the Qur’an contain advice and guidance in the form of laws, parables, stories, and arguments for those who choose to believe in God and the Day of Judgment. Its teachings and principles form the foundation of the Islamic way of life. Despite its clear expression in seven different dialects, the comprehension of the Qur’an may vary among individuals due to differences in intelligence. However, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was chosen by Allah as the recipient of its complete explanation, and it was his responsibility to clarify the Qur’an to his followers through his actions and statements.

One of the most concise and poignant expressions of the Qur’an’s inimitability is the chapter of Surah al-Asr. This brief but expressive section of the Holy Qur’an entails the following outline; “(I swear) by the time. Indeed, mankind is at loss, except for those who believe, do righteous deeds and advise each other to truth and advise each other to patience.”

Time of revelation:

Journeying back to the time of revelation, there was an individual named Musaylimah, who was one of a series of people who claimed prophethood in 6th century Arabia, which included the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He is considered by Muslims to be a false prophet, and is always referred to as Al-Kazzab, “the Liar”. (Ibn Kathīr, 2000) His followers were also very devout. Musaylimah shared verses purporting them to have been revelations from God and told the crowd that Muhammad had shared power with him. (Ibn Kathir, 1998) An incident recorded by Ibn Kathir that ‘Amr bin Al-’As went to visit Musaylimah Al-Kazzab after the Messenger of Allah was commissioned (as a Prophet) and before ‘Amr had accepted Islam. Upon his arrival, Musaylimah said to him, “What has been revealed to your friend (Muhammad) during this time”
‘Amr said, “A short and concise Surah has been revealed to him.”
Musaylimah then said, “What is it”
‘Amr replied; “(By Al-’Asr. Verily, man is in loss. Except those who believe and do righteous deeds, and recommend one another to the truth, and recommend one another to patience.)”
So Musaylimah thought for a while. Then he said, “Indeed something similar has also been revealed to me.”
‘Amr asked him, “What is it?”
He replied, “O Wabr (a small, furry mammal; hyrax), O Wabr! You are only two ears and a chest, and the rest of you is digging and burrowing.” Then he said, “What do you think, O ‘Amr?”
So ‘Amr said to him, “By Allah! Verily, you know that I know you are lying.”
Ibn Kathir further states Musaylimah intended by the composition of these nonsensical verses to produce something which would oppose the Qur’an. Yet, it was not even convincing to the idol worshipper of that time. At-Tabarani recorded from ‘Abdullah bin Hisn Abi Madinah that he said, “Whenever two men from the Companions of the Messenger of Allah 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.” Ash-Shafi’i said, “If the people were to ponder on this Surah, it would be sufficient for them.” (Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azeem (Tafsir Ibn Kathir), 2003)
Captivating these reports into consideration unquestionably illustrates the excellence of this chapter.

​Interpretation of the chapter:

This surah is a Makki [1] surah, made up of 3 verses. It is one of the shortest chapters in the Holy Qur’an, but comprises countless lessons. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir – Abridged, 2000)
Out the many chapters of the Qur’an, this is one the chapters that begins with an oath; ‘(I swear) by the oath of time’. When Allah takes an oath in the Qur’an it signifies a speciality to it. It exhibits its sacredness and expresses the quality of being powerful or magnificent. In fact ‘al-Asr’ is comparable to the word ‘ad-Dahr’, regarding which the Prophet mentions ‘do not abuse Time, for it is Allah Who is the Time.’[2] (Al-Naisabouri, 2006) Famous scholars like al-Khattabi and Imam an-Nawawi unanimously agree that this means that Allah is the controller of time. (al-Munajjid, 2015) Hence, it is evidential high nobility has been granted to the time. Thus, it would be important to refrain from criticizing time according to this interpretation. In addition to this many more teachings can be derived such as the implication to reflect on the passage of time, which is impossible for humans to get back as it is lost (implied via the second verse). (Khan, 2012)

The second verse; ‘Indeed, man [kind] is surely in loss.’ From a Muslims perspective this verse may seem it is referring to the disbelievers only, but it is referring to each and every single human, as it is denoted by the specific usage of the word ‘insaan’ as indicated by ash-Shanqeeti. Although there is a slight disagreement on this matter, Ash-Shawkani has stated that the preferred meaning is referring to disbelievers. If the addressee was to be general, people would assume someone else is to blame. However, when specifically one person is being addressed, they become more fearful as all the blame and responsibility is upon them. So the understanding of this verse is such that Allah is telling us to care about ourselves specifically in this life by doing well (good deeds), because on that Day – a person will only care about himself. And your good deeds in this life can only be a source of benefit for you by Allah’s Mercy on that Day. So the reason the companions of Allah’s Messenger would never leave each other, except that they would recite these verses of Surah ‘Asr to each other, is to remind each other not to waste time.
Shah Waliullah has taken ‘Wal-Asr’ from the perspective of special days associated with Allah. The Days when; Allah created the human being (Adam), the Day He revealed the Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad, the Day Allah drowned the disbelievers of Prophet Nuh, the Day Allah destroyed Pharoah and saved Moses, the Battle of Badr, the Day when Allah spoke to Musa/Moses. Finally, the Day of Judgment, the Day the believers will see Allah.[3] (ash-Shawkani, 1994) By saying ‘al ‘Asr’ – believers will remember these days so they will not want to be at loss. (Ahmed)
In explanation of this verse az-Zamakhshari mentions, people are at tremendous loss because of that which they buy and sell in life (of good and bad), except for the Saaliheen (the righteous). (az-Zamakhshari) Ibn Taymiyyah has mentioned regarding people are being led astray (falling in loss); Humanity is kept from accepting the truth of Islam by two obstacles. Firstly, Shubuhaat (Doubts), is an intellectual problem (people feel answers by callers to Islam are not satisfactory). Secondly, Shahawaat (Temptations), is a psychological problem (people want to follow forbidden desires). (Taymiyyah, 2008)

In response to the two obstacles, the verse continues to mention; ‘Except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience.’ Advising each other on the truth eliminates the doubts of a person, which solves the intellectual problem. Az-Zamakhshari mentions the word ‘Haqq’ in this verse includes Tawheed (oneness of Allah), obedience to Allah and His Messenger, being distant from worldly ambitions, and inclination to the hereafter. Enjoining each other patience encourages people to remain upon the truth even through tempting times, thus, removing the psychological problem.
Muhammad Shafee’ skilfully expands on the relationship between ‘Time’ and ‘Human Loss’. The first point he analyses is the relationship between the ‘oath of time’ and ‘its subject’. Commentators generally state that all conditions of man, his growth and development, his movements, his actions and morality – all take place within the cosmos of ‘Time’. Further on, humans will lose the capital of their existence; hours, days, months, and years of life pass quickly, spiritual and material potentialities decline, and abilities fade. This person is like one who possesses great capital and, without his permission and will, every day, a portion of that capital is taken away. Thus, this is ultimately the nature of life in this world; the nature of continual loss. This has been exquisitely illustrated in poetry:
“Your life comprises a few breaths that can be counted; when one of them is sent out, a part of your life has diminished.”
Moreover, we can identify that Allah has granted man the invaluable capital of his life, so that he may invest it in a profitable business venture. If he invests his capital of life sensibly in good works, there will be no limit to the profitable returns; but if he invests it unwisely in evil works, then, let alone attracting profitable returns, he will even lose his capital. In addition, he will incur the dreadful scourge of committing numerous sins. If however, a person did not invest his life capital in good deeds or in evil deeds, then he, at least, loses both the profit as well as the capital. This is not merely poetic imagery, but is supported by a Prophetic Hadith, according to which the Messenger of Allah is reported to have said:
“When a person wakes up in the morning, he invests his soul or life in a business enterprise: some of the investors free or save the capital from loss and others destroy it.” [4]
The Qur’an itself has used the word ‘tijarah’ (business) in relation to ‘faith’ and ‘righteous deed’, thus:
“…shall I tell you about a trade that saves you from a painful punishment?” [Surah as-Saff 61: 10]
Since ‘Time’ is a person’s capital of life, the man himself is the trader. Under normal circumstances, his capital is not a frozen thing that may be kept for a while and used up later when the need arises. The capital is fluid or flowing all the time and the individual who invests it needs to be very wise, intelligent and agile so that he is able to swiftly and readily reap the profit from a flowing capital. One scholar stated that he had learnt the meaning of this verse from an ice seller whose trade required utmost diligence, and if he were neglectful for a moment, his entire capital would melt away. That is why this verse has sworn an oath by the ‘time’ to indicate that it is a melting capital, and the only way to escape loss is to take every moment of his life as valuable and use it for the four acts mentioned in the chapter. (Uthmani, 2005)

Ahmed, D. I. (n.d.). WAY TO SALVATION (In the Light of Surah Al-asr). Adam Publishers and Distributors.
al-Munajjid, S. (2015, August). Islam: Question and Answer. Retrieved from IslamQA:
Al-Naisabouri, I. M.-H. (2006). Sahih Muslim. Riyadh: Darussalam.
ash-Shawkani, A. (1994). Fath al-Qadeer. Dar Ibn Kathir: Beirut.
az-Zamakhshari, M. b. (n.d.). al-Khasshaf. Cairo: Darus Salam.
Ibn Kathīr, I. i.-R. (2000). al-Miṣbāḥ al-munīr fī tahdhīb tafsīr Ibn Kathīr. Riyadh: Darus Salam.
Ibn Kathir, T. L. (1998). The Life of the Prophet Muhammad: Al-Sira Al-Nabawiyya. Garnet Publishing Ltd.
Kathir, I. (2000). Tafsir Ibn Kathir (Abridged). Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers.
Kathir, I. (2003). Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azeem (Tafsir Ibn Kathir). Cairo: Dar al-Hadith.
Khan, N. A. (2012). Tafseer of Surah al-Asr. Tafseer of Qur’an.
PHILIPS, D. A. (2005). Usool At-tafseer (The Methodology of Quranic Interpretation) . IIPH.
Taymiyyah, I. (2008). Majmu’ al-Fatawa. Dar Ibn Jawzi.
Uthmani, S. (2005). Ma’ariful Qur’an. Karachi: Maktabat-Darul-Uloom.

[1] Revelations before Hijrah (Migration of the Prophet from Makkah to Madinah)
[2] Sahih Muslim 2246 e | Book 40, Hadith 5 | Narrator: Abu Hurairah
[3] These are all events mentioned earlier in the Qur’an.
[4] Sahih Muslim 223 | Book 2, Hadith 1 | Narrator: Abu Malik al-Ash’ari


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