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The Way To Salvation In the Light of Surah Al-Asr
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The Way to Salvation in the Light of Surah Al-Asr

(a speech delivered at Aitchison College, Lahore)

Dr. Asrar Ahmed

 

Fundamental Points Regarding Surah Al-‘Asr:

1. The first point is that this is one of the earliest surahs of the Glorious Qur’an to be revealed. It was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) in the earliest period of his prophethood in Makkah.

2. The second point is that it is one of the shortest surahs of the Glorious Qur’an as it has only three verses, the first of which is comprised of only one word “Wal-Asr”.

 3. The third point is that it is one of the most comprehensive surahs of the Glorious Qur’an. The Holy Qur’an is a book of guidance for all mankind, which has been revealed to guide mankind on the road to success and salvation. This path of salvation towards which the Holy Qur’an guides us has been described with utmost brevity and comprehensiveness in this short surah. 

The whole Glorious Qur’an is like a tree, and this short surah is its seed. And as a seed contains the total potentiality of a whole tree, Surah Al-Asr contains the essence of the Holy Qur’an. This is why some reports of the Companions of the Holy Prophet (may Allah be pleased with them) indicate that whenever two of them met and sat together they never parted without reciting Surah Al-Asr to each other.

And this can be the reason why Imam Al-Shafeii (may Allah bless him) has said about this surah that if the people were to ponder over this surah alone, it would suffice for their guidance. He has also been reported as saying that if nothing else would have been revealed in this Glorious Qur’an except this surah then this surah would have been sufficient for man’s guidance.

4. The fourth point is that the wording of this surah is very simple and easy to understand. The masterpieces of literature of every language are sublime in subject matter and meaning but so simple in style and wording that they can be understood by all. This is why such pieces of liter­ature are easily accessible to everyone. The Glorious Qur’an is the most eminent masterpiece of Arabic literature and in its totality can be understood easily. But this short surah is the best example of the most lucid surahs of the Holy Qur’an. Though it is very complete and all-embracing, not a single high-sounding or elusive word has been used in it. Its words are familiar even to those who are only acquainted with Urdu or Persian, and do not know Arabic.  

The Two Levels of Understanding Qur’an:

Before describing the significance of this surah, it is important to state the fundamental principle that the Qur’an can be comprehended on many levels. The real lesson which is implicit in any surah or verse of the Holy Qur’an should be made explicit in order that the basic guidance regarding hu­man conduct may be attained. The Glorious Qur’an calls this Tazakkur bil Qur’an, i.e., realizing through the Qur’an the fundamental truths implicit in human nature. From this point of view, the Glorious Qur’an is the easiest of books to understand. The highest stage of contemplation of Qur’anic verses has been termed Tadabbur bil Qur’an, which means reflecting and pondering over every word deeply, in order to deduce the philosophy and the wisdom of the Holy Book In this sense the Holy Qur’an is the most difficult of books as it is not easy to attain the depth of its meaning.

In this paper, I will describe clearly and in detail the basic guidance obtained through the application of Tazakkur bil Qur’an to Surah Al-Asr. I will also include some hints concerning Tadabbur bil Qur’an so that those who are interested in the deeper contemplation of the Qur’an may also benefit.  

The English Translation of Surah Al-‘Asr:

A simple translation of the surah is as follows:

1.   By Time,

2.   Verily all human beings are in loss,

3.   Except those who have achieved ‘Faith’, have per­formed Righteous deeds, and have emphasized to each other the teaching of ‘Truth’ and (the value of) ‘Patience’ (perseverance and constancy).

Analysis of the Translation:

The three verses in this surah form one complete sen­tence. The first verse “Wal-Asr” is an oath. The second verse describes a general rule. The third verse describes an exception from that general rule. Combined together, all the three verses constitute a single statement.

Please implant this simple statement firmly and clearly in your mind. And by pondering over it, you should deduce four conclusions which are the basic lessons of this surah.

The Criterion of Success and Failure:

The most important truth flowing forth from this surah is Allah’s presentation of the real criterion of man’s success and failure.  Every person keeps in his mind a criterion of success and failure, of gain and loss. All his endeavors and the whole struggle of his life in this world is directed according to this criterion. An intellectually mature person is rarely found who does not have an appointed goal or an ideal before him.

Even small children, specially the more intelligent ones, keep before them a standard of achievement. They concentrate their energies on the attainment of their goals.

If we were to look around in our society as well as to search our hearts and minds, we would find that in this age, the real criterion of success or failure is wealth and property, or status, honor, fame and ostentation, or worldly power. All but a few are running after these things. They expend their energies for these purposes. The minds of most of our students are directed towards obtaining degrees in science or technology, so that they may earn a lot of money or achieve status, position or power. The achievement of these things is their criterion of success or failure.

The paramount truth which comes to our minds by studying Surah Al-Asr is very different from this. In other words, the criterion of man’s success is neither money or wealth, nor status, position, power, or ostentation. Rather its first condition is ‘Faith’, the second is ‘righteous deeds’, the third is ‘exhortation to truth’, and the fourth is ‘exhor­tation to patience’.

By this criterion, a person who does not possess the above four qualities is unsuccessful and will never achieve his real goal, and in the end he will be a loser, though he might be a millionaire, even a billionaire like Qarun and-might have highest status, position, and power, even kingship like Pharaoh or Herod. Conversely any one who has these four prerequisites is successful and triumphant, even if he has no worldly wealth or property, and may be penniless, homeless, friendless, unknown, un-honored and starving.

If you reflect deeply over it, you will find that acknowledging this truth is very easy, but its realization in your heart and soul is very difficult. We are living in a world of cause and effect, and we are bound to be influenced by its external features. When we see that comfort, prosperity, honor and reputation is due to wealth and worldly resources, we involuntarily rush to get these things, so much so that we forget to distinguish between right and wrong, legal and illegal, approved and forbidden. In other words, the reformation of our attitudes and the righteousness of our actions depends upon changing our criteria of our success and failure, gain and loss. This is the real lesson of this unique surah.

With a little contemplation it will become clear that if the simple truth stated in this great surah is engraved on our heart and penetrates our soul, it will revolutionize our point of view, change our values, and transform radically our day to day life. What was thought most important before will appear to be most trivial, and what was insignificant before will become significant.

The great transformation which was brought about in the lives of the Companions of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was the result of this deep-rooted change in their point of view. In their sight this world and whatever is in it seemed insignificant as compared to the achievement of Allah’s pleasure and that of the Prophet. This is the real lesson of this magnificent surah, and everyone should keep it in mind so that it may be infused in his heart and soul.

The Minimum Conditions and Essential Prerequisites of Salvation:

This surah describes only the minimum conditions and the essential prerequisites for salvation, not the highest stages of achievement, nor the lofty ranks of success and accomplishment. It explains the minimum demanded of us for our salvation. Anything less would be failure. It does not mention first or second division, grades ‘A’ or ‘B’ of success but only states the mere passing grade, the minimum requirement for our success.

This second conclusion has very important implications for our actions. The extreme decadence of the moral and practical life of Muslims is a result of their forgetting this injunction of the Glorious Qur’an. The realization that this is the minimum standard of success will necessarily produce the proportionate effort, struggle, and sacrifice for achieving it. People who strive for the lofty ranks and sublime stages of religious excellence are rare. Most men only try to fulfill the minimum requirements for salvation in one way or another. This is why in this glorious surah the minimum de­mands of salvation have been described in simplest terms so that people may dedicate themselves to its achievement according to their capability. All the four Conditions are indispensable. The third conclusion is a corollary of the second one.

For salvation, ‘faith’, ‘righteous deeds’, ‘exhortation of truth’, and ‘exhortation of patience’ are all necessary. None of them can be dropped. These are the words of Allah. Not a single additional word is added in it for the sake of rhyme or exaggeration. Four conditions have been stated for saving us from utter loss or failure, and certainly all four of them ire necessary. If any one of them is left out, then the guaran­tee of man’s salvation will not rest on the Holy Qur’an. For example, if a medical expert writes four medicines in a prescription for a patient, and the patient leaves out any of them according to his own judgment, then the medical expert will not be responsible for the incomplete medication. The patient himself will be responsible for this error.

It is necessary. to emphasize this fact, because a false notion has taken hold of the great majority of Muslims that salvation depends on the mere utterance of the declara­tion of faith, that the mere verbal confession of ‘faith’ is sufficient for salvation, and any practical application of it to his life is an additional goodness which will elevate him to high stages. You will find very few people who think that after professing faith actively living by its dictates is necessary for salvation. Even these few people rarely regard it as necessary for everyone to take up the task of ‘exhortation to truth’. It is usually assumed that the propagation of the message of Islam is the task of a particular group only, and for others preaching is neither necessary nor suitable. Even that special group, instead of propagating the complete truth facing all the tribulations this effort brings with it, have left the path of determination and sacrifice, and made their path easier by attenuating Allah’s require­ments. In this manner the whole Muslim Nation has become dominated by inactivity, stagnation, escapism, and sloth. This situation cannot change until Muslims realize that the performance of righteous deeds is essential for salvation. Even more is required. The affirmation and declaration of truth and inviting others to accept it, as well as remaining steadfast in the face of hardships and calamities for truth’s sake is also necessary. This is the truth which has been stated in this shortest but most comprehensive surah.

It is necessary to understand the rational relation bet­ween these four components. To be called a man of charac­ter implies, judging what is wrong or right in every matter, then adopting in practice whatever his heart and mind has sanctioned as right. A man must not only adopt it himself, but must declare it openly, inviting others to acknowledge and accept it. If in this connection, he faces difficulties and hardships, or has to offer sacrifices, then he must show courage and fortitude, patience and perseverance, and should never retreat or withdraw from his stand. For a man of noble character, it is not possible to adopt any other course. Otherwise he will be a coward and man of weak character, not a man of principle. This is the rati6nal and logical se­quence in these four components: (1) ‘faith’ (2) ‘righteous deeds’ (3) ‘exhortation to truth’ (4) ‘exhortation to patience and endurance’. And it is not possible for a man of strong character to try to avoid any one of these.

Eloquence with categorical Emphasis:

The fourth conclusion obtained by analyzing and paraphrasing this surah is that the above three conclusions are categorical and most emphatic in their nature and that there is no doubt concerning any of them. Our whole faith rests upon accepting the Glorious Qur’an as the word of Allah and accepting this word as infallible. And who can be more truthful in his statements than Allah? Moreover, Allah has not merely stated these truths, but has taken an oath for confirming their validity. This oath makes this state­ment more emphatic, and whatever realities are hidden in it, and whatever moral lessons are conveyed by it, are all of them delivered with complete certainty, free from all doubts and compromise. This means that mankind is unknowingly moving towards utter loss and is on the verge of destruction, with the exception of those who have fulfilled these four conditions of ‘faith’, ‘righteous deeds’, ’exhortation to truth’, and ‘exhortation to patience’, and have passed all tests and ordeals which come in the way of fulfilling these conditions.

These are the four basic conclusions which can be drawn by contemplating on this glorious surah. In fact this is the gist of Surah Al-Asr, according to the practice of Tazakkur­bil-Qur’an in order to obtain its basic meaning.

Now I want you to study and understand every word of this surah rather in depth, in order to make clear that despite of its simple wording great realities are concealed in it, and gems of wisdom and prudence are hidden in it.

The Real Meaning of ‘Wal Asr”:

Let us take the word “Wal Asr” which we have simply translated as ‘taking an oath by time’. The real meaning of ‘Asr’ is not only time, but a period which passes swiftly. In Arabic language the two words ‘Asr’ and ‘Dahr’ are very comprehensive. In both of them, not only time, but time-space complex is implied. Curiously enough in the Glorious Qur’an, there are surahs with the title of both ‘Asr’ and ‘Dahr’. The word ‘Dahr’ connotes the vastness of the space-time continuum, or in the terminology of modern philosophy, absolute time or pure duration. The word ‘Asr’ connotes the sweep of time or its swift flow. In other words, ‘Asr’ means serial time.

In the word “Wal -Asr” the letter (Waw) is a preposition, and is used as an oath and testimonial. In short, the real meaning of the word “Wal-‘Asr” is that the swift passage of time through the ages bears witness and provides evidence for the statements that follow.

The Vast Meaning of ‘Khusran’ or Loss:

We have translated the second verse as ‘Verily all human beings are in loss’. But even this translation does not convey the real meaning, because the Qur’anic term ‘Khusran’ is not a monetary loss of a few thousands or millions, but indicates complete destruction. In the Holy Qur’an many words have been used for achievement and success such as accomplishment, triumph, fulfilment, and blessing. But as an an­tonym of all these, only one comprehensive word is used and that is ‘Khusran’. It means that the second verse really shows that the whole mankind is standing on the verge of destruction or doom.

The significant reality which has been described in this verse, and the human tragedy towards which this verse points out, can be conceived or realized full in its true perspective in two stages.

Firstly, every one in this worldly life faces a hard struggle for existence. Many people have to undertake rigorous labor from morning till evening, but are unable to provide the bare necessities of life for their dependents. The majority of human beings can not afford even the basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care. Even prosperous people have to work hard to maintain their status. From this point of view, a human being is like a beast of burden. But he is even more tragic because he is a creature of feelings and emotions. In addition to all that labor, he has to bear numerous mental hardships. Sometimes, he is deeply moved by the love of his children, sometimes by the troubles faced by his kith and kin. Sometimes he has to put up with the sorrow of a relative’s illness, or the shock of the death of someone loved by him. Not only hard work and labor is his lot but grief and sorrow as well.

You must have known that by observing these very troubles and tribulations of life Buddha was so much dis­heartened and dismayed that in the prime of his life he left his young wife and innocent son and ran out to the jungles in search of ‘truth’.

The masses generally harbor the misunderstanding that wealthy and prosperous people have no anxieties. As a matter of fact, the kind of psychic agony which they face is rarely experienced by a common man. They face numerous conflicts and frustrations, and very often the people of this class fall prey to mental diseases and psychic disorders. This is the first stage of human tragedy and this has been mentioned very eloquently in the last part of the Glorious Qur’an, is surah No. 90  Al-Balad’ in verse No. 4 wherein Allah says:

Verily We have created man in toil and struggle”.

But added to this tragedy of the terrestrial existence is the doom of the worst type that is manifest in the life Hereafter. The climax of human tragedy is that after tolerating all troubles and hardships of this world, suddenly he will have to present himself before his Creator and give account for all the activities of his life. This is the picture, which has been presented in surah No. 84, entitled ‘Insheqaq’ Verse No. 6 wherein Allah says:

Verily  man, you are ever toiling on towards your Rabb (Cherisher and Sustainer) - painfully toiling  - but you shall meet Him’.

And, if in that trial, his thoughts, convictions, actions and activities are found deviating from the straight path, he would undergo a heart-rending and most severe punishment and torture in the hell forever. And this is the real loss as Allah says in the Holy Qur’an:

 ‘That is the sheer loss’

 

The Interrelation of the First Two Verses:

It is clear that the first verse is an oath and the second is the statement for which the oath has been taken. That is, in the second verse a truth has been stated, and in the first evidence has been presented for it. The question is: what is the logical sequence between the two?

By contemplating over it, we realize that ‘time’, constantly passing, is like a sheet, which is spread up to eternity. It means that ‘time’ is an entity, which is an eye witness to the entire passage of man’s life, from his birth to death and to the life of the Hereafter. Hence, the toiling, painful life of man is present before it, and it stands witness also to the momentous events of the rise and fall of nations. The life of the Hereafter, the climax of human tragedy, is also before its gaze. Thus ‘time’ is the greatest witness to the fact that ‘verily man is in a state of loss’.

This ascertained truth has an added element of warning implied by “Wal -‘Asr”. This warning is, that the real cause of mankind’s ruination, destruction, and utter loss is his negligence, and that by entangling himself in his immediate problems and the trivial affairs of his life, he faces a state of perplexity and self-negation.

The word “Wal-‘Asr” is a clarion call to wake him up from his indifference and slumber. It points out: O careless man! Your real asset is time, which is passing swiftly, and your real capital is this probationary period of worldly life which is ending quickly, and if you are unable to build up your personality, or according to the words of Iqbal, the poet of the East, if you have not achieved any sublimity in your SELF or EGO, then you will have, to face eternal loss, and your life will be doomed.

The Real Meaning of ‘Iman’or Faith:

The first condition of salvation, or deliverance from this sheer destruction, is ‘Iman’ (faith). The word ‘Iman’ has been derived from ‘aman’ meaning peace. Its literal meaning is to provide peace and tranquility. But in its technical sense the word ‘Iman’ is used with the prepositions. In this form its literal mean­ing is to have trust or belief in and to testify. In order to understand the real meaning of ‘Iman’ (faith) it is necessary to realize that any man who has attained maturity of intelligence obviously starts thinking on perennial questions like “Who am I?”, “From where did I come?”, “What is the nature of the Universe ?” and “What is the last destination of the journey of my life?” Those who have studied philosophy, know that throughout the history of human thought many thinkers continued to ponder over these questions, and tried to find satisfactory answers. Without an answer to these questions, a human being is in the dark, knowing little about his real self, or about the universe, or his own beginning, or the beginning or end of the Universe.

It is evident that these questions cannot be answered merely by our physical senses. As yet we have not been able to fathom the vastness even of the physical world. How can we have any knowledge of its beginning or end? Similarly, the question whether or not we had any existence before our creation in this world, and whether after death there will be any continuity of our existence or not, cannot be answered by our senses, because we cannot possibly peep into the world of existence either prior to our birth or beyond physical death. In short, man is utterly helpless to attain true and ultimate knowledge.

Despite these natural limitations, there have been in the history of mankind a number of persons who claimed that they had a special source of knowledge which they called (revelation’. On the authority of ‘revelation’ they knew for certain that this universe did not exist from eternity nor would to remain in existence for ever. It has been brought into existence by a Creator Who possesses all the attributes of perfection in their utmost degree of excellence, and He is Unique in His essence and attributes. He had always existed and will continue to exist for ever. It is He Who has created you, and your life is not the life of this world only, but He would again bring you back to life after death, and that life will be real and eternal. In that life of the Hereafter, you will face your rewards or punishments for your convictions, actions and pursuits during this life. This Creator and Master has assigned messengers from among men and given them the task of proclaiming these verities and the right way of living in this world so that men may be saved from sheer loss in the life Hereafter and may achieve success and eternal bliss.

These Messengers are known as Prophets of Allah and the affirmation of our belief in them is called Iman’ or belief in prophethood. This faith has two aspects: verbal confession and certainty in our hearts. We testify verbally that we believe in all prophets, and, according to their teachings, we believe in Allah with all His revealed attributes, and we believe in life after death, and in the day of judgment, in reward and punishment, and in hell and heaven. We also accept these verities with utmost certitude in our hearts. These two conditions constitute our faith or ‘Iman’. Faith is certitude about the Creator, man and the universe. It leads to two results:

The first is that a man’s internal anxiety must disappear and he must achieve inner peace and satisfaction, when, as a result of this faith, the natural inquisitiveness regarding his own identity and the nature of universe is gratified. This internal serenity is the gift of faith. That is why, etymologically, the Arabic word for faith is a derivative of the root word ‘aman’ which means peace.

The second is a reform of one’s actions and life-style. As the Socratic doctrine says ‘Knowledge is virtue, and ignorance is vice’. A believer should be adorned with high morals and virtuous deeds, and should be free from inferior and degrading actions.

This second point is very important because it shows that ‘faith’ and ‘action’ are linked, that faith (Iman) and righteous deeds (Amal-i-Saleh) are interrelated. Compare for a moment two men. One thinks that this universe has come into existence accidentally and that its entire system and organization is running automatically. The second acknowledges that there is an Almighty, All-knowing, All-Wise, All-powerful, Supreme Being, Who has ordained and created this cosmos and that He is the Ordainer Who has ordained this Universe and everything in it, land it is running according to His decrees. Is it possible that the life attitude and actions of these two persons would be similar? Would not there be a tremendous difference between their attitudes and behavior ? Similarly, one man thinks that this life which he is leading in this world is the only life and there is no life after death, there is no accountability, no responsibility, no reward or punishment. Another man is sure that the real and everlasting life will begin after death, that the life of this material world is nothing but a preamble of that real life which will start in the Hereafter, and that after death every person will be answerable not only for every action, but for every word and thought. The attitudes and actions of these two would necessarily be different.

It is quite easy to conclude that the goal of life of the former would be to enjoy every minute of this life, as there is no life after it. And in this gratification of the instinct of enjoyment, he might not distinguish between right and wrong, lawful and unlawful. But the second man would take every step in his life with caution and he would be conscious of his responsibility at all times. A man’s faith necessitates tremendous transformation in his life.

Please do understand clearly that the idea commonly held in our society that ‘faith’ and ‘action’ are separate is only true about the legal aspect of ‘faith’. In this society a man is considered and pronounced a Muslim on the basis of verbal confession only. We cannot possibly include his action and conduct in this. But that genuine ‘faith’ which includes certainty of one’s heart and soul must bring a transformation in one’s actions. If one’s daily life is not changed, this is an absolute proof that genuine ‘faith’ does not exist in his heart. His faith is no more than a profession.

This truth has been clarified by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) in many of his traditions and sayings. He said:

“A man who betrays his trust has no ‘faith’, and the person who does not fulfill his promise has no religion.”

Now think over it and see how beautiful is our Prophet’s way of expression, and how the thought expressed is as clear as a basic mathematical proposition.

Similarly, once the Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) swore three times, saying:

“By God, he is not a believer, by God, he is not a believer, by God, he is not a believer”. The Companions of the Prophet enquired: “Who is that person about whom you are saying this?’ He said in reply : It is the person from whose misconduct his neighbor is not safe.”

Just see how emphatically the Holy Prophet has referred to the complete negation of faith and that too not on account of committing a major sin, such as, polytheism, unjustified murder adultery, theft or robbery, but only on account of something normally regarded as merely poor behavior. Is there any justification after this for thinking that ‘faith’ and ‘action’ are separate things and are not co-essential and interrelated? This is why in order to remove this misunderstanding completely the Holy Qur’an consistently mentions righteous deeds as the accompaniment of ‘faith’.

So long as faith is confined to the stage of verbal con­fession and it is limited up to an utterance of words only, actions can be exactly the opposite of it, because the contradiction of word and actions is very commonly found in this world. But when faith reaches a state of certainty in our heart, when it penetrates our heart and soul and becomes an unshakable conviction, then our actions will necessarily be changed because the actions of a man are based on his belief and conviction. For example, we know that fire can burn us, so we would never put even a finger in it. Even suspicion can influence our actions. We know that all snakes are not poisonous, but still even if we suspect that a particular snake might be poisonous, we keep away from it. Now if a person believes with utmost surety that Allah exists and that He is All-seeing, All-hearing, All-knowing; that every movement of his, every word which he utters and, more than this, even every intention of his heart is known to Him; that after death, he shall have no alternative but to present himself before Him, and shall have to give full account of his entire life, with no chance of escaping from the grip of His punishment, nor any hope of deliverance through ransom or intercession; then that man, believing all these things firmly, would not dare to lead a sinful life. This is the condi­tion which has been described in the following saying of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him):

“No adulterer commits adultery while he has faith. No thief commits a theft while he has faith. And no drunkard drinks intoxicants while he has faith.”

In fact these sins are committed only at a time when due to one reason or another the real faith of a man has dissipated or vanished from his heart. Faith and righteous deeds are interdependent and each of them is essential for the other. Righteous deeds, good morals and a lofty character are sine qua non of true faith. This is why in Surah Al-Asr, after faith, righteous deeds have been mentioned as a necessary condition of salvation.

 

The Real Meaning of Righteous Deeds:

The phrase righteous deeds is commonly translated as good actions. But, if we look deep into it, we would discover more significance hidden behind it. The two locutions ‘action’ and ‘activity’ are generally taken to convey the same sense. But there is a subtle difference in their meaning. Any kind of movement or work can be called activity, but the word action usually implies some strenuous or arduous work. On the other side, the word ‘virtuous’ or ‘righteous’ denotes something which had developmental characteristics and potential for enhancement. By combining these two, we would realize that the actual significance of this term is that it is necessary for man to put up a hard struggle to achieve that real goat for which he was potentially created, and he had to ascend certain heights to attain that goal. All this is conveyed by the comprehensive word ‘righteous deed’.

Surah ‘At-Teen’ in many respects resembles Surah Al-‘Asr. Verses 4, 5 and 6 of the surah state:

 “Surely we created man of the best stature. Then we reduced him to the lowest of the low, save those who believe and do good works, and theirs is a reward unfailing.” (95: 4-6)

This means that, in reality, man was created for the most sublime rank, and Allah conferred on him superiority not only over jinn (Genie) but also over angels. He was even endowed with the vicegerency of God. But in his terrestrial existence the spiritual self is imprisoned in his gross body of clay, wherein he falls a prey to the clutches of his carnal nature and is reduced to the lowest of low. Now to regain his lost status and sublime rank, it is necessary for him to obtain real knowledge. He must illumine his inner self with the light of faith and must perform good deeds, adorning his outer self with righteous actions, observing the canonical law of Islam and following the Prophet’s way of life. These are the prime prerequisites of his salvation.

 

The Meaning of Mutual Exhortation:

In the last part of Surah Al-'Asr, the word ‘tawasau’ has been used twice. Its verbal noun is ‘tawasi, and it is derived from ‘wasiyyat’, which means admonition, exhortation with persistent emphasis. Again, this infinitive is formed from the stem of the verbal noun ‘tafaul’, whose first attribute is mutual cooperation and the second is emphasis to the point of exaggeration. It means that this action of exhortation is required with the greatest fervor and intensity. This stage necessitates the establishment of a collective community or Ummah based on the principles of mutual preaching of truth and patience.

 

The Meaning of ‘Haqq’ or Truth:

Similarly, the connotation of the word Haqq is very ex­tensive. Its meaning includes everything which is actually real (that is, it is not imaginary or based on presumption). It also connotes what is acknowledged by reason or is necessary ethically, or is purposive and not useless or vacuous. Hence exhortation to truth means confirming, acknowledg­ing, inviting to and preaching every thing which is factually true and real, is ethically necessary and is proved by reason. Thus the spectrum of ‘truth’ encompasses on the one hand the testimony of the evident facts of our existence and, on the other hand, the testimony of the ultimate metaphysical truths of existence. Exhortation to truth includes a whole range of activities, from giving personal moral advice to the clarion call of the greatest truth, the truth that the real Rabb (Cherisher and Sustainer) and master of this universe is Allah, and that it is He who deserves that His Commands should be promulgated and that His laws should be enforced in this world. And this truth should not merely be pronounced verbally, but a vigorous struggle should be launched for its practical imple­mentation and actualization.

Similarly, the comprehensive term ‘exhortation to truth ’embraces within itself concepts which underlie many technical terms of the Holy Qur’an, such as preaching virtues and holding back people from vices. It implies asking and inviting people to do good deeds and stop them from failing in the snare of every kind of evil, exhorting them to be merciful, to have compassion for each other and to be kind to each other; and calling people towards Allah ‘ persuading them to seek real knowledge and devotion before their Real Sovereign and Master, Allah. Also it includes efforts in the path of Allah, that is, struggling hard for the establishment of the supremacy of the true religion of Allah and spending one’s wealth for this purpose and sacri­ficing one’s life for this noble cause.

The Meaning of Patience:

The meaning of patience is very comprehensive. Its real essence is that a person should continue to maintain himself upon the chosen path, without allowing any trouble, or temptation to deviate him from it. No amount of persecu­tion or trial should cause him to desist. He must remain steadfast in every situation, and should display firmness, perseverance, bravery and fortitude. He must not only persevere in following the truth but must also continue to persuade others to accept it and comply with it.

Exhortation to Truth and Exhortation to Patience are Co-essential:

As faith and righteous deeds are inter-related; so are exhortation to truth and exhortation to patience. This is because the invitation to truth is usually not welcomed and it has often to face resistance. It is necessary for those who are dedicated to truth to put up with oppression and persecution.

So pherhaps all of us have experienced that even a little piece of moral advice can be disliked by people. For example, if a person owes five dollars to some one, and is putting off its payment and you ask him to pay that amount to his creditor, he will frown at you. If he is in an angry mood, he may warn you not to interfere in his affairs. Now you can well imagine how much resistance would be offered and to what extent people will oppose the preaching which demands from them the fulfilling of their major obligations and religious duties.

And this is the point where a person faces the real test of his character and conviction. It is a fact that mere appre­hension and recognition of truth is not so difficult, as is adopting it for oneself and inviting others to act upon it and to remaining firm in this struggle. In Qur’anic terminology, this is called ‘istiqamat’ i.e., steadfastness. This is the acid test which proves to what extent a person is committed to his objectives and whether he possesses anything which can be termed stability of character and commitment.

This is why the Holy Qur’an lays so much emphasis on the fact that true believers necessarily have to face tests and ordeals, and the truthfulness of their claims to have faith is to be examined and tested in many ways. Only those are regarded as sincere in their faith who remain firm in the face of ordeals and provide concrete proof of patience and perseverance.

The Interrelation of Faith, Righteous Deeds and Mutual Exhortation:

We have seen that faith and righteous deeds are interdependent and also exhortation to truth and exhortation to patience. Now, if we understand the relationship between these two pairs, we will have a complete view of this surah.

Nothing and no one can avoid influencing his environment and being influenced by it. The coldness of ice will necessarily chill its surroundings and the heat of fire will surely make them warmer. The same is true in the field of morality. If the spirit of righteous deeds is really engendered in a person, it must have an impact upon his environment and he will necessarily be a source of diffusing goodness and virtue. The natural outcome of righteous deeds is the propagation of truth in society.

This principle operates in ethics very forcefully. If the social environment favors evil, it will necessarily bring about deterioration in the lives of its citizens. The only possible way to escape from this is to change that environ­ment or at least to struggle vehemently to change it. Even if a person cannot change it, he can at least in this way, act on the principle that the best defence is a good offence, and repel it defensively. Thus the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said:

If any one among you observes a vice, it is his duty to change it by force. If he is not able to do so, he should protest against it verbally. If he does not possess even this much of courage, he should detest it by his heart and soul, which means that his heart should regard it as bad, and that he should regret that he could not stop it, and this is the weakest degree of faith’.

The nobility of a man’s character demands exhortation to truth because the goodness in any person who has dis­covered truth and adopted for himself necessarily demands that he should present it to others, that the greatest number of people may benefit from it, and should partake of its blessing. Thus the Holy Prophet said :

 “No one among you can be regarded a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”

The self-respect and ardent zeal of a man who has accepted truth demand that he should preach it to others. He should uphold it, propagate it, and should sacrifice his life and wealth in the struggle to make it supremely established in society.

If a man adopts a particular way of life and his environ­ment adopts another, then there are only two possibilities. He must either adopt himself to his environment, in that way, removing the discrepancies and resolving clash and discords or, if he finds the environment totally against his wishes, he should put up a tough resistance, should wage war against it, and should try to change it, according to his point of view. Now it is obvious that for a man of dignity, honor, and zeal, a man of earnest concern, the only course open to him is the second one. He would be glad to sacrifice his life for the sake of truth, but would never tolerate that by leading a life of ease and comfort, he should treacherously distort and misrepresent the truth.

Faith, righteous deeds, exhortation to truth and exhortation to patience are indispensable requirements for salvation, and also dependent upon each other. All four are indivisible aspects of a unit, and are inseparable factors of one single totality. In fact, what are all these four except an exposition or commentary of the word faith? If faith has in reality penetrated a person’s heart, it will necessarily result in the performance of righteous deeds and if the habit of doing righteous deeds has become one’s second nature, its natural outcome would be exhortation to truth., and if the preaching of truth is done with real sincerity and dedication, it will  necessarily lead to the stage of exhortation to patience and endurance. The reverse order also holds good. If the stage of preaching patience and endurance is not encountered, then this is a certain proof that the preaching is not of the whole truth, but only of a harmless part of it. If the stage of taking up missionary work is missing, then this implies that a man’s actions are not righteous and that he lacks religious zeal. And if his actions are not being perfor­med on the right lines, then this is a categorical proof that genuine faith has not entered his heart.

The path of salvation which is pointed out by Surah Al-'Asr, the path of success and triumph towards which it guides and directs us has four milestones: faith, righteous deeds, exhortation to truth and exhortation to patience.

The most perfect example of the pattern delineated above is the life-story of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) wherein all these four components are present in their utmost perfection. At first the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) tried to discover the reality of his own identity and that of the cosmos. A Qur’anic verse asks:

 “And did He not find thee perplexed (and unable to find the right course by yourself) and so He guided (you)”?

The angel Gabriel revealed to him the truths he required. The Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) confirmed them and affirmed his faith in them, as stated in the Glorious Qur’an:

“The Messenger believeth in that which hath been revealed unto him from his Rabb (Cherisher and Sustainer), and so do the believers.”

The life of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was the perfect model of moral excellence and unparalleled example of sublime character. The Holy Qur’an states: “And  you (O Muhammad) stands on an exalted standard of character”. After fulfilling these fundamental requirements of faith and right­eous deeds to perfection, the Holy Prophet Muhammad  (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) spent twenty three years in the untiring struggle of preaching the truth and declaring and promu­lgating the grandeur and glory of Allah. He bravely tolerated all troubles for this purpose, courageously suffered all afflictions and faced all the persecutions and oppressions of his opponents. In the canyon of Bani Hashim, he endured severe hardships during three long years of imprisonment. In the streets of Taif, he was stoned and ridiculed by rascals and urchins. The lives of his dear relatives and his beloved companions were sacrificed for the pleasure of his Rabb (Cherisher and Sustainer) and in order to uphold divine truth. After indefatigable efforts, struggling night and day for twenty-three years, finally he made the truth reign supreme. And only after making the divine religion ‘Islam’ the dominant force in the Arabian peninsula, did he return to his Divine Rabb (Cherisher and Sustainer), Allah. May the peace and blessings of Allah be showered on him and on his companions. In short, the biography of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) embodies the contents of Surah Al-‘Asr in action.

So, this is a concise explanation of the significance of Surah Al-Asr. Now you must have realized why I regarded it as the most comprehensive surah of the Holy Qur’an, and why Imam Al-Shafeii had said, that if people were to con­template it seriously, this brief surah would be sufficient for their direction and guidance.

Its relation to the surahs before and after:

Finally, let us cast a glance on the surahs of the Holy Qur’an which precede and follow Surah Al-Asr. I had stated that the righteousness of a man’s character is based upon the establishment of the real criterion of success and failure in his heart and soul and his willingness to act according to it always. If this criterion is not established, then the aim of his life may be reduced to amassing wealth, material comforts and luxuries. The desire for greater material well-being may overwhelm and overpower his mind to such an extent that it makes him oblivious of the greater realities of his life and, the universe. The curtain of this negligence and indifference is only lifted at the time of death. This state of affairs has been described in Surah At-Takathur’, that blessed surah of the Glorious Qur’an which precedes Surah Al-Asr. As a result of this negligence a man becomes unable to differentiate between right and wrong, lawful and unlaw­ful, approved, and forbidden. He sees success as a matter of hoarding and piling up wealth, and he becomes bereft of all good qualities of character and morals, and his personality becomes replete with sins and vices. This picture has been revealed in Surah ‘Al-Humaza’ which comes after Surah Al-Asr.   I seek refuge in Allah, and pray to Him to protect us from such a grievous, dreadful and disastrous end to our lives. Ameen.

 

 

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