Surat al-‘Asr (Part 1)
This transcript is based on the audio recordings of Late Dr. Israr Ahmad (Rahimahullah) and paraphrased for clarity.
Two Levels of Understanding the Qur’an
Prior to discussing the significance, meaning, and implications of Surat al-‘Asr, it is important to understand the fundamental principle that there are distinct levels at which the Qur’an can be understood or comprehended. The Qur’an urges us to exercise our reasoning faculty in following its arguments and comprehending its meanings. For this purpose, it uses words such as ‘aql, fahm, fiqh, and fikr, all of which have to do with the faculty of intellect or with the process of thinking, reflecting, and understanding.
كَذَٰلِكَ نُفَصِّلُ الْآيَاتِ لِقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ
“This is the way We explain the revelations for those who reflect” (Yunus, 10:24).
كَذَٰلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللَّهُ لَكُمْ آيَاتِهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ
“Thus God makes His commandments clear to you, so that you may understand”(al-Baqarah, 2:242).
إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ
“We have sent it down, as an Arabic Qur‘an, so that you may understand” (Yusuf, 12:2).
Tazakkur bil Qur’an
The initial stage in the comprehension of the Qur’an is denoted by the term tazakkur, made up of the Arabic root letters (zaal-kaaf-raa ذ ك ر ). The Qur’an frequently calls itself zikr, zikra and tazkirah.
وَأَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكَ الذِّكْرَ لِتُبَيِّنَ لِلنَّاسِ مَا نُزِّلَ إِلَيْهِمْ وَلَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ
“And We have sent down the Reminder to you so that you can make clear to mankind what has been sent down to them so that hopefully they will reflect” (al-Nahl, 16:44).
إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَذِكْرَىٰ لِأُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ
“There is a reminder in that for people of intelligence” (al-Zumar, 39:21).
إِنَّ هَٰذِهِ تَذْكِرَةٌ فَمَن شَاءَ اتَّخَذَ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهِ سَبِيلًا
“This is a reminder. Let whoever wishes take the way to his Lord” (al-Muzzammil, 73:19).
Tazakkur bil Qur’an alludes to the fact that the Qur’anic teachings are not extraneous to human nature, but reflect the experiences of man’s inner self and are meant to awaken the reminiscence of his intrinsic nature, rather than import anything altogether new.
وَذَكِّرْ فَإِنَّ الذِّكْرَىٰ تَنفَعُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ
“And keep reminding, because reminding benefits the believers” (al-Dhariyat, 51:55).
Every person, whether mediocre or an intellectual, is in constant need of tazakkur, which is necessary for recalling to the mind the truths that have been forgotten or for keeping in mind the truths that are likely to be forgotten. It is for this reason that Allah (SWT) has made the Qur’an so easy for the purposes of tazakkur, a fact which has been stated four times in Surat al-Qamar:
وَلَقَدْ يَسَّرْنَا الْقُرْآَنَ لِلذِّكْرِ فَهَلْ مِنْ مُدَّكِرٍ
“We have made it easy to learn lessons from the Quran. Is there anyone who would receive admonition?” (al-Qamar, 54:17,22,32,40).
The Qur’an has been rendered easy in different ways for those who try to understand it and derive tazakkur from its ayat. In the first place, the Quran’s central theme and basic subjects are nothing new or unfamiliar to the human nature. Secondly, the mode of inference adopted is simple and natural. The difficult and abstruse subjects are brought home to the reader by easy and simple parables. Thirdly, although the Qur’an is a masterpiece of literature of the highest eloquence, yet its language is generally simple and a man with a basic knowledge of Arabic can easily understand the text except for a few difficult portions.
The Qur’an has declared in unequivocal terms that every person can get the benefit of tazakkur from it. It does not matter if a person’s intelligence is limited, and his knowledge of logic and philosophy is poor, and if he has no fine sense of language and literature. In spite of these drawbacks, he can have tazakkur from the Qur’an if he has a noble heart, a sound mind, and an untainted nature not perverted by any kind of crookedness. He should read the Qur’an and should go on understanding its simple meanings. This will be enough for the purpose of tazakkur.
The real lesson which is implied in any surah or ayah of the Qur’an should be made explicit in order that the basic guidance regarding human conduct may be attained. This involves focusing on the clear meaning of the text and deriving lessons from it just as morals are drawn from a story. This is the case with the lesson or essence of a surah. This can be further understood from the example of oil spilled in the sea. If oil is spilled in the sea, there is a layer of oil on the surface. The water below may be miles deep. Similarly, the composition of the Qur’an is such that its lesson or essence is on the top, which can be approached and understood easily.
Tadabbur bil Qur’an
The Qur’an is like an ocean from which a scholar can bring out pearls of knowledge and wisdom according to his natural ability, intellectual capacity, and mental makeup. His efforts to comprehend the Qur’an will be rewarded in proportion to the enthusiasm, time, and labor that he puts into its study and research. At the same time, it will be found that so far as its comprehension is concerned, no person, however intelligent and learned, shall ever feel that he has done justice to the Qur’an even though he may have spent his whole life pouring over its pages and meditating over its meanings.
The highest stage of contemplation of the Qur’anic text 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 Book. In this sense the Qur’an is the most difficult of books as it is not easy to attain the depth of its meaning. The fact that the Qur’an is something to be reflected and pondered over is a point which has been emphasized by the Qur’an itself:
كِتَابٌ أَنزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِّيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ وَلِيَتَذَكَّرَ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ
“It is a Book We have sent down to you, full of blessing, so let people of intelligence ponder its Signs and take heed” (Saad, 38:29).
To stress this point further, the Qur’an says in a mildly admonishing vein:
أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ
“Do they not ponder over the Qur'an?” (al-Nisa’, 4:82).
أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ أَمْ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبٍ أَقْفَالُهَا
“Do they not then deeply think over the Qur’an, or are their hearts locked up?” (Muhammad, 47:24)
The Qur’an while being easy for tazakkur is in the same degree, difficult for tadabbur. Those who dive into this boundless ocean know that it is not possible to fathom its depth. We learn from authentic traditions that the sahaba (companions) (RAA) of the Prophet (SAW) used to ponder over the different surahs of the Qur’an for years on end. It is reported about Abdullah Ibn Umar (RA) that he spent eight years pondering over Surat al-Baqarah. Interestingly, this was the case with people who spoke the same language in which the Qur’an was revealed and who, being the contemporaries of the Prophet (SAW), had seen it being revealed before their own eyes. There was no necessity for them to learn the Arabic language and its grammar or to undertake research for ascertaining the historical background of different ayat or surahs and the occasions on which they were revealed. In spite of all these advantages, they pondered over each surah for years at times. Tadabbur calls for strenuous effort and constant application. In the later ages, great scholars like al-Tabari, al-Zamakhshari, al-Razi and many others of their caliber dedicated their entire lives to the study of the Qur’an, but each of them at best could interpret a single aspect of this great Book and, in all honestly, failed to do justice even to that aspect. Throughout the fourteen centuries, there has been no scholar who, having written the most voluminous commentary on the Qur’an might have claimed that he had said the last word on it and had left no room for further deliberation.
The unprecedented advancement of the physical sciences and technology has stunned humanity and has rendered it incapable of making critical appraisal of the misguiding views that have found currency in the modern world. Under such circumstances, the imperative duty of comprehending and interpreting the Qur’an cannot be fulfilled unless some patient and persevering individuals address themselves to this momentous task with single-minded devotion, equipping themselves with both classical and modern knowledge adequate for the task. These dedicated and fully equipped scholars of the Qur’an would carry out a searching analysis of the modern knowledge and sift the sound from the fallacious in the light of the Qur’an. They would approach the intellect of the modern man, making a judicious use of modern terminology and sophisticated methods of logical reasoning. Thus they would be able to illumine the minds of their contemporaries with the light of Qur’anic guidance. In this way the duty of "explaining the Qur’an to the people" which was performed by the Prophet (SAW) himself in his life time would be performed by his Ummah in the present age.
Explanation of Surat al-‘Asr at the level of Tazakkur
Anyone who has intentions to understand the Qur’an will find it to be a plain, simple, and self-explanatory book. Just as it is easy to pluck a flower from the plant, so it is to pick up the essence of the lesson from the meaning of a surah.
Basic Preliminary Points about Surat al-‘Asr
There are four preliminary points about this surah that have to be registered in our minds. Firstly, it is one of the earliest surahs of the Qur’an revealed at Mecca. The Qur’an itself defines the style of such surahs indicating that such surahs are expounded in greater detail at a later period of time.
الر كِتَابٌ أُحْكِمَتْ آيَاتُهُ ثُمَّ فُصِّلَتْ مِن لَّدُنْ حَكِيمٍ خَبِيرٍ
“Alif Lam Ra. This is a Book whose verses are perfectly constructed, and then expounded, from One who is All-Wise, All-Aware” (Hud, 11:1).
Secondly, it is one of the smallest surahs of the Qur’an. It comprises of only three ayat. The other two surahs with three ayat are Surat al-Kauthar and Surat al-Nasr. The figure three seems to have some significance because we know that it is necessary to recite at least three ayat in one unit (rak’ah) of the prayer (salah), or if the ayah is very big, then one also would suffice. There is no surah that has two ayat, and there can be no surah of one ayah; otherwise there will be no difference between a surah and an ayah. A surah is the composition of a few ayat.
Thirdly, this is the most profound and comprehensive surah of the Qur’an. This assertion is not without any basis. We learn from a very well known tradition narrated by Imam Tabarani in his Aswat al-Tabarani, and by Imam al-Bayhaqi in his Shu’ab al-Iman that says, “When the companions of the Prophet (SAW) used to meet one another, they would not depart until one of them recited Surat al-‘Asr to the other and they bid peace upon one another.” The practice of the sahaba could not be without any reason. What was the need or necessity to recite the surah in this way? Although Surat al-Ikhlas and Surat al-Fatiha enjoy a very exalted status, the latter also being called as Umm al-Qur’an (mother of the Qur’an), and Asaas al-Qur’an (foundation of the Qur’an), yet it was Surat al-‘Asr that the sahaba used to recite in the manner described.
While the most insightful and all-inclusive surah of the Qur’an regarding tauhid is Surat al-Ikhlas, and the same status is enjoyed by Surat al-Fatiha regarding the philosophy and wisdom of the Qur’an, it is Surat al-‘Asr that is most profound and comprehensive surah of the Qur’an regarding the conditions, prerequisites, and the practical path toward eternal success (falah) and salvation (najah).
A saying of Imam Shafi’i referred to by Hafiz Ibn Kathir in his exegesis (tafsir) says: “If people just ponder over this surah, it is sufficient for them to get guidance for righteousness.” Another version of this saying has been reported by Imam Muhammad Abduh in his tafsir of Juz ‘Amma, which says, “If nothing were revealed in the Qur’an except Surat al-‘Asr, it would be sufficient for the guidance of humanity.” These are not the sayings of any ordinary person, but of Imam Shafi’i. Although followers of the Hanafi school of thought think, and rightly so, that as regards legal and constitutional understanding of the deen is concerned, Imam Abu Hanifa stands at a much higher level than Imam Shafi’i. However, as regards the principles of Jurisprudence of the Qur’an, Imam al-Shafi’i is the originator of this great science in Islam.
Fourthly, Surat al-’Asr is unique because it is the highest example of an ‘ultimately easy style.’ The most intricate and superb text has been expressed in very simple words. No cumbersome word or complex terminology has been revealed in this surah. Still, in the garb of its flow and simplicity, there are streams of encyclopedic knowledge hidden in it. One of the miraculous features of the Qur’an is that amazingly complex and intricate realities and philosophies of life are succinctly expressed in the simplest of terms. And this surah is a brilliant example of that miracle. Although the subject matter of the surah deals with philosophy, yet no philosophical or logical terminologies have been used. There is no verbosity. The simple language of the surah can be understood by the least of educated persons.
Translation of the Meaning of Surat al-‘Asr
وَالْعَصْرِ () إِنَّ الإِنْسَانَ لَفِي خُسْرٍ () إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْحَقِّ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ ()
“By the fleeting time; indeed man is in loss, except for those who believe, do good deeds, urge one another to the truth, and urge one another to steadfastness” (al-‘Asr, 103:1-3).
Basically, Surat al-’Asr mentions the four distinct prerequisites for man’s salvation. There can be no hope for salvation or success in the hereafter without fulfilling these four conditions. The surah starts with Allah (SWT) swearing by the fleeting time. Time is a ceaseless flux. It does not stop. It keeps moving incessantly. Once gone, it cannot be brought back. It is the most vital and precious thing that one can have. One cannot afford to squander it. The maxim, “time is money,” is well known. To a believer, it is more than that. The true believers (mu’minun) understand the value of time and are mindful not to indulge in time-wasting, useless, and frivolous activities. In fact, one of their attributes as described in the Qur’an is:
هُمْ عَنِ اللَّغْوِ مُعْرِضُونَ
“They keep themselves away from vain things” (al-Mu’minun 23:3).
Hence they value time as it should be valued. Thus, it is the flight of time by which Allah (SWT) swears in the first ayah of this surah. “By the fleeting time” is a testimony or an oath, in which ‘time’ is made witness to a general, universal rule or truth. This rule appears in the second ayah: “indeed man is in loss.” The third ayah gives an exception to that general rule: except for those who believe, do good deeds, urge one another to the truth, and urge one another to steadfastness.”
Criterion for Success
This surah tells us that success depends on having real faith (iman), doing righteous deeds (al-‘Amal al-Salih), exhorting one another to truth (Twasi bil-Haq), and exhorting one another to patience (Twasi bil-Sabr).
Swearing by the fleeting time, Allah (SWT) says that all humans are doomed except those who have real faith that results in their doing righteous deeds, followed by their exhorting others to whatever is true and right, and in case of need, exhorting one another to patience and endurance. This surah lays down the criteria for success. Every human being wants to be successful. No one wants to fail. The decisive factors for success laid out by this surah are poles apart from the general criteria of success held by most people. For humankind in general, success is measured with wealth, status, name, fame, lineage, reputation, power etc. This is generally the yardstick or criterion for success with people, and our attitudes are decided accordingly. Hence people often try to achieve these things in life whatever it may take to do so—cheating, deceiving, defrauding, lying, and employing all sorts of unfair means. There is an organic relationship between the concept we have of success and our own attitudes.
A change in the concept of success brings about a world of difference in one’s outlook toward real success. For those who believe in the words of Allah (SWT), personalities like Pharaoh, Nimrud, Haman, and Qarun despite their worldly status in terms of kingdom, power, authority, and wealth were not successful individuals. Each one of them was doomed and met with utter failure. On the other hand those people, however deprived they might be of worldly possessions and social status but who fulfill these four conditions of eternal success that this surah demands will be said to be successful in absolute terms. What was the worldly status of the Prophet’s companions like Abu Dharr and Bilal (RAA)? About Abu Dharr, the Prophet (SAW) said, “Whosoever likes to see with his own eyes the piety of Jesus, let him see my friend Abu Dharr.” This is how the Prophet (SAW) saw Abu Dharr who had no home, no wealth, and no worldly possessions. Similarly, Bilal al-Habashi (RA), a freed black Ethiopian slave, despite his ethnic background, his low status, and his lack of resources was a very successful person in the eyes of the Prophet (SAW).
The Prophet (SAW) himself led a very humble life and had nothing in terms of worldly resources; yet he was the most successful person for all times to come. The companions of the Prophet (SAW) were successful because they fulfilled the prerequisites and criteria of success outlined in Surat al-`Asr. They had intense faith, the inevitable result of which was doing good deeds. They stood up for the right, and opposed all forms of evils and injustices, and in doing so, they were persecuted. They endured all persecution with utmost resignation while enjoining one another with patience and perseverance. This is the foremost thing which we must ponder upon.
Those who are deprived of the four elements of success mentioned in Surat al-‘Asr are doomed despite their being the richest and most powerful people on the surface of the earth. To acknowledge and cherish this truth is easy, but to live by it practically is not so easy; rather it is very difficult. Living amidst a culture of greediness and consumerism, the philosophies and practices of gross materialism have found place in the very psyche of human beings. Possessing wealth per se is not evil. However, making it an end rather than a means is what may make wealth a source of failure rather than success. It is enormously difficult not to get influenced by our surroundings. It is like expecting a man left on a piece of wood in the sea not to be drenched with the sea water. It can now be appreciated why the companions used to recite this surah to each other. It was basically to remind one another about the divine criteria of success as opposed to the human criteria of success, and to shed off the evil influences of the society that corrupts people. Shedding off evil influences from our lives is necessary for survival. Seeing symbols and signs of prosperity and well-being all around affects one’s thinking. One has to keep cleaning oneself from evil influences. It is only when the truth is seen and remains at the level of consciousness are things set right and harm avoided.
Minimum Prerequisites of Success
An important lesson about the essence of this surah is that the criteria laid out for success and salvation in this blessed surah, if fulfilled, only ensures one to be saved from the loss that is destined for mankind. This should be enough to push every Muslim to do his or her best to emerge successful, and be saved from the fire of hell. In worldly affairs, man wants to go up higher and higher, and for the affairs of the hereafter, he is content with the bare minimum or with nothing at all. The one who abides by the teachings of this surah is not promised the highest of stations in the hereafter. Just as we have to strive hard to acquire success in this world, so also we have to struggle hard to qualify for the highest stations in paradise. That is why the Prophet (SAW) used to tell his companions that whenever they asked Allah (SWT) for paradise, they should ask Him for the loftiest gardens in paradise (Jannat al-Firdaus). It follows, therefore, that our success is proportionate to the effort and exertion we make; especially, when it comes to reaping the benefits of our investments in the hereafter.
All Four Prerequisites are Inevitable
Another important lesson is that when Allah (SWT) has laid down four conditions for success, then all the four are inevitable; not even one of them can be ignored or left out. There is not a single word in the Qur’an that has been added merely for the sake of rhyme or rhythm or for exaggeration just as we often do in poetries. It is the absolute truth (al-Haqq). Therefore, each and every word has to be taken seriously and due attention paid to it. Along with faith and righteous deeds, there also has to be exhortation to truth, and exhorting one another to patience and forbearance; otherwise we are no better than dumb devils. Truth cannot be hidden. It has to be declared.
وَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّن كَتَمَ شَهَادَةً عِندَهُ مِنَ اللَّهِ وَمَا اللَّهُ بِغَافِلٍ عَمَّا تَعْمَلُونَ
“Who is more unjust than he who conceals the testimony he received from God? God is not unaware of all you do” (al-Baqarah, 2:140).
Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, one of the greatest exegetes of the Qur’an, while expounding this surah said that there was a great threatening from Allah (SWT) in this surah because He had already decreed loss to all humanity except for those who fulfill all the four requirements mentioned in the surah. Most important aspect of his exegesis is that he analyzes the text. What are the possibilities? What are the problems and questions that arise? There is a great threatening and menacing statement in this surah because Allah has declared doom for whole of humanity except for those who fulfill all the four conditions. The salvation on the Day of Judgment is attached to and conditional with all these four things taken together.
The Arabic words ‘iman’ and ‘amn’ are derived from the same root letters hamza-meem-noon (ء م ن). According to a hadith, “Iman is knowledge in the heart, an articulation with the tongue, and an activity with the limbs.” In its generalized form, the ulama (scholars of Islam) say that iman implies believing in Allah (SWT) as He is in His names and His attributes, and in accepting all His commands and teachings mentioned in the Qur’an and the ahadith of the Prophet (SAW). Amn is a condition where there is no fear, no grief, and no anxiety of any sort. It is a condition of safety and security. One who possesses deep iman attains this condition of amn at the highest level and becomes a friend of Allah (Wali-Allah), and this is precisely what we are told in Surat Yunus,
أَلَا إِنَّ أَوْلِيَاءَ اللَّهِ لَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ
“Yes, the friends of Allah will feel no fear and will know no sorrow” (Yunus, 10:62).
The link of the state of safety and security with good deeds is again reflected in Surat al An’am, where Allah (SWT) says,
وَمَا نُرْسِلُ الْمُرْسَلِينَ إِلَّا مُبَشِّرِينَ وَمُنذِرِينَ فَمَنْ آمَنَ وَأَصْلَحَ فَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ
“We send messengers only to give good news and to warn, so for those who believe and do good deeds there will be no fear, nor will they grieve” (al-An’am, 6:48).
Iman in itself is not sufficient for salvation. The inevitable result of a true believer (mu’min) is that he would manifest his iman through good deeds, both at the personal level and also at the social level. This proposition is evident from numerous ayat of the Qur’an that goes to show that there is a close relationship between real faith and good deeds.
إِنَّ هَٰذَا الْقُرْآنَ يَهْدِي لِلَّتِي هِيَ أَقْوَمُ وَيُبَشِّرُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ الَّذِينَ يَعْمَلُونَالصَّالِحَاتِ أَنَّ لَهُمْ أَجْرًا كَبِيرًا
“This Qur´an guides to the most upright Way and gives good news to the believers who do right actions that they will have a large reward” (al-Isra’, 17:9).
وَبَشِّرِ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ أَنَّ لَهُمْ جَنَّاتٍ تَجْرِي مِن تَحْتِهَاالْأَنْهَارُ
“Give good news to those who believe and do right actions that they will have gardens with rivers flowing under them” (al-Baqarah, 2:25).
If all the four conditions are not met, then even the prayers, fasting, and other modes of worship may go in vain, carrying no weight in the scale of Allah (SWT). The four conditions have to be an organic whole. All the four criteria have to be met for achieving success and salvation. This phenomenon may be explained and illustrated through the analogy of a doctor and his patient. If a doctor prescribes four medicines to a patient with his professional and expert advice that all four medicines have to be consumed for complete recovery, then the patient will certainly not recover completely or may even endanger his health or life if he ignores the doctor’s advice and uses his own discretion regarding the medication, taking some medicines and leaving others. Allah (SWT) is our Creator. He alone knows us inside out. He alone knows our weaknesses. He alone knows the best way to our success in both worlds, and hence His prescription is the only prescription that guarantees our success and salvation in real terms.
There is a difference between verbal attestation of faith and real conviction. We profess and declare the testimony of faith, and consider that to be enough. So long as faith does not go down to the innermost recesses of our hearts, there can always be a contradiction between what we say and what we do. And that is the general condition of most of the Muslims today. We should not be among those about whom the Qur’an says,
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لِمَ تَقُولُونَ مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ
“O you who believe, why do you say what you do not do” (al-Saff, 61:2).
قَالَتِ الْأَعْرَابُ آمَنَّا قُل لَّمْ تُؤْمِنُوا وَلَٰكِن قُولُوا أَسْلَمْنَا وَلَمَّا يَدْخُلِ الْإِيمَانُ فِي قُلُوبِكُمْ
“The desert Arabs say, ´We have iman.´ Say: ´You do not have iman. Say rather, "We have become Muslim," for iman has not yet entered into your hearts” (al-Hujurat, 49:14).
Here the Prophet (SAW) is told to inform the desert Arabs that they have no iman, because it is not found in their hearts. This means that they do not have the required recognition of the truth and commitment to it. Whosoever utters the testimony of faith becomes a Muslim, but iman is something else. Iman has to do with yaqeen (conviction), and conviction has an impact on actions. That is why the Prophet (SAW) said, “He who is not trustworthy has no faith, and he who does not keep his Covenant has no religion (deen).” Real iman is based on the personal conviction in the heart and for salvation in the hereafter; one needs real iman, which inevitably results in good deeds. It follows; therefore, that iman (faith) by itself is not sufficient for salvation. It is not enough to verbally declare the two testimonies of faith (“I bear witness that there is no deity worthy of worship other than Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His slave and Messenger.”) and be complacent without doing righteous deeds.
The third and final ayah of the surah exempts all those from this divine decree who believe, do righteous deeds, support one another in propagating the truth, and exhort patience and perseverance to one another in the face of adversities that may befall them. A spade has got to be called a spade; one has to say the truth and be ready for the consequences. The wise sage Luqman had said to his son,
يَا بُنَيَّ أَقِمِ الصَّلَاةَ وَأْمُرْ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَانْهَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَاصْبِرْ عَلَىٰ مَا أَصَابَكَ إِنَّ ذَٰلِكَ مِنْ عَزْمِ الْأُمُورِ
“O my dear son! Say your prayers regularly, and enjoin good, and forbid evil, and endure patiently whatever may befall you. Surely, this is something which requires firm resolve” (Luqman, 31:17).
One needs to have real strength of character to be a real mu’min (true believer). The analogy of real iman may be likened to a seed that grows to become a tree. That tree represents the al-a’maal al-Salih (the good deeds). The fruits that this tree bears are Twasi bil-Haq (enjoining each other with truth), and Tawasi bil--Sabr (enjoining each other with patience). A healthy seed and healthy soil makes leaves sprout forth, sometimes growing into a tree that bears fruits. The seed can be likened to iman, the tree to good deeds, and the fruits to Tawasi bil-Haq and Twasi bil Sabr. According to Surat al-’Asr, even iman and al-‘Amal al-Salih (righteous deeds) in themselves do not guarantee salvation. The third thing that has to be done by the believers is to join together in the mutual teaching of truth, which means, exhorting people to do good and forbidding them from doing evil.
كُنتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنَّاسِ تَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَتُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ
“You are the best of peoples, evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah…” (Aal ‘Imran 3:110).
وَلْتَكُن مِّنكُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى الْخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِالْمُنكَرِ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ
“And there may spring from you a nation who invite to goodness, and enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency. Such are the ones to attain felicity.” (Aal ‘Imran, 3:104).
In Surat al-Taubah, we have,
وَالْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتُ بَعْضُهُمْ أَوْلِيَاءُ بَعْضٍ يَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَيُقِيمُونَ الصَّلَاةَ وَيُؤْتُونَ الزَّكَاةَ وَيُطِيعُونَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ أُولَٰئِكَ سَيَرْحَمُهُمُ اللَّهُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
“The Believers, men and women, are protectors and supporters, one of another: they enjoin what is good and just, and forbid what is wrong and evil: they observe regular prayers, pay zakat, and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His Mercy: for Allah is exalted in power, Wise.” (al-Taubah, 9: 71)
The Prophet (SAW) has commanded Muslim men and women to try to change evil (munkar) with all possible means. According to a hadith, “He who amongst you sees something evil should modify it with the help of his hand; and if he has not strength enough to do it, then he should do it with his tongue, and if he has not strength enough to do it, (even) then he should abhor it from his heart, and that is the least of faith.” The hand here is a symbol of power and authority. Whenever and wherever one is in power, one has to try to prevent munkar among people who are under one’s authority. The tongue is a symbol of words. People may be admonished and reminded of the consequences of their bad conduct through words. The admonishment may be done through verbal preaching, or through print, digital, and other electronic media. Ibn Abd al-Barr and others reported that Allah (SWT) commanded one of the angels to destroy a town. The angel asked: “My Lord, it has such and such a person who is a an ascetic (zahid); who worships You constantly!” Allah said: “Begin with him, and let me hear his voice. His face never once became red for My sake.” In other words, Allah’s bounds being violated never once angered him.
Treading the path of truth and spreading the message of truth to others is bound to be accompanied with trials and tribulations from all quarters, especially from the agents of Satan (Shaytan), whether they are from the jinns or the humans. It is in encountering the opposition, the resistance, and the impediments, which come in the way of saying the truth by enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong that the believers have to remain together, supporting one another with patience and perseverance. A real Muslim is not one who lives in isolation and cares about himself only, but is one who endures the difficulties of living in an immoral society and tries his best to do something to change what he can change.
Metaphorically, Surat al-‘Asr is like a bud. This bud sprouts forth and blooms into flowers representing other surahs of the Qur’an, which will the subject matter of subsequent discussions in sha’ Allah.