Surat al-‘Asr (Part 2)
This transcript is based on the audio recordings of Late Dr. Israr Ahmad (Rahimahullah) and paraphrased for clarity.
Explanation of Surat al-‘Asr at the level of Tadabbur
A study and understanding of every word of this surah in depth will make it clear that in spite of its simple wording, great realities are concealed in it, and numerous gems of wisdom and prudence are hidden in it.
The Meaning of "Wal-'Asr"
The word "Wal-'Asr" has simply been translated as 'taking an oath by time'. However, the real meaning of 'Asr is not only time, but a period which passes swiftly.
We should have a clear concept that time is not separate from space but joined together into one whole. We have a concept of a three-dimensional space—length, breadth, and height, or depth. After the revolution that occurred in the world of Mathematics and Physics, from the days of Einstein, the concepts have changed. Time is the fourth dimension of space; even though we cannot imagine it, but the mathematical equation proves it.
The two words for time that appear in the Qur’an are al-‘Asr and al-Dahr, and there are two surahs by these names—Surat al-‘Asr and Surat al-Dahr, both meaning ‘time,’ and from both of these terms, the concept that comes before us is the concept of time and space. The word Dahr connotes 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 Surat al-‘Asr, it is the time element which is more emphasized while in Surat al-Dahr, it is the space element which is more emphasized. But, both are similar to each other regarding the point that the complex time and space concept is found in both these terms.
The concept of time is a very difficult question of philosophy. The question ‘what is time’ is unsettled up to now. Before creation of the universe, there was no time. Time was created with the creation of the universe, with the occurrence of the big bang, after which serial time was created. One dimension of space separated from the other three. And then there is the time of the Hereafter. All this is one structured rope of time from eternity to eternity, and this is the biggest witness to what Allah is saying.
The serial time is passing. In this serial time, there was past, there is present, and there will be future. It is the passing or fleeting time. The other is the pure duration of the absolute time, where there is no past, present, or future. Al-‘Asr refers to the serial time which is fleeting. Each heart beat taken draws one nearer to one’s grave. This is the reality of one’s life. At death, the body is consigned to the earth, but the soul returns to the Most High from where it came.
وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الرُّوحِ قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّي وَمَا أُوتِيتُم مِّنَ الْعِلْمِ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا
“And they ask you about the soul. Say, .The soul is something from the command of my Lord, and you are not given from the knowledge but a little” (al-Isra’, 17:85).
In the word "Wal-'Asr" the letter waw (و) 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. In the Qur’an, we find histories of old civilizations—how nations rose to the pinnacle of power and glory and how they went down to decadence and even oblivion. Who is the continuous witness of all that is happening—either Allah (SWT) or the time. Actually, the oath and swearing in the Qur’an are for the purpose of witnessing. The fleeting time is a witness to the fact that all nations have been doomed except those who took to this path ordained by Allah (SWT).
Imam Razi mentioned a pious person who said that an ice vendor helped him understand the point and message of al-‘Asr. The vendor was selling ice on a very hot summer day. While his ice was quickly melting, he was calling upon people to buy from him before his capital melted away. That is exactly our situation. Our life is melting away very fast like a block of ice on an extremely hot day.
The Meaning of 'Khusran' or Loss
The second verse has been translated as 'Verily all human beings are in a state of 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 Qur’an many words have been used for achievement and success such as accomplishment, triumph, fulfillment, and blessing. An apt antonym for all these words is the comprehensive term 'Khusran'. The second verse really indicates 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 fully in its true perspective in two stages.
Firstly, everyone 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 cannot 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 it 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.
It is well 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 Qur’an, in Surat al-Balad, wherein Allah says,
لَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنسَانَ فِي كَبَدٍ
“Truly We have created man into a life of toil and trial” (al-Balad, 90:4).
Added to this tragedy of the terrestrial existence is the doom of the worst type that is manifest in the life of the 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 Surat al-Inshiqaq, wherein Allah says,
يَا أَيُّهَا الْإِنسَانُ إِنَّكَ كَادِحٌ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكَ كَدْحًا فَمُلَاقِيهِ
“O man, having striven hard towards your Lord, you shall meet Him” (al-Inshiqaq, 84:6).
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 for ever. And this is the real loss as Allah says in the Holy Qur’an in Surat al-Hajj.
ذَٰلِكَ هُوَ الْخُسْرَانُ الْمُبِينُ
“That is indeed loss for all to see” (al-Hajj, 22:11).
The Inter-relation 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', which is 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 Meaning of 'lman' or Faith:
The first condition of salvation, or deliverance from this sheer destruction, is 'lman' (faith). The word 'lman' has been derived from 'amn' meaning peace. Its literal meaning is to provide peace and tranquility. But in its technical sense the word 'lman' is used with the prepositions (ل) or (ب) such as ( آمَنَ لَه) or (بِه آمَنَ ). In this form its literal meaning is to have trust or belief in and to testify. In order to understand the real meaning of 'lman' (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 it 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 realities 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 bil Risalah’ 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 truths 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; then, 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 'amn' which means peace.
The second is a reform of one's actions and life-style. As the Socratic doctrine states: '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 (al-‘Amal al-Salih) 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, and it is running according to His decrees. Is it possible that the attitude toward life, and the 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.
It is to be clearly understood 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 one’s heart, but is no more than a profession or declaration.
This truth has been clarified by the Prophet Muhammad (peace 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." This beautiful expression of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is as clear as a basic mathematical proposition.
Similarly, once the Prophet of Islam (peace 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 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 Qur’an consistently mentions righteous deeds as the accompaniment of 'faith'.
So long as faith is confined to the stage of verbal confession and is limited to 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 i t 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 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 i s essential for the other. Righteous deeds, good morals and a lofty character constitute an essential element or condition of true faith. This is why in Surat al-‘Asr, after faith, righteous deeds have been mentioned as a necessary condition of salvation.
The 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 expressions '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 has 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 goal for which he was potentially created, and he has to ascend certain heights to attain that goal. All this is conveyed by the comprehensive expression 'righteous deed'.
Surat al-Teen in many respects resembles Surat al-‘Asr. Verses 4, 5 and 6 of the surah state:
لَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنْسَانَ فِي أَحْسَنِ تَقْوِيمٍ () ثُمَّ رَدَدْنَاهُ أَسْفَلَ سَافِلِينَ () إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ فَلَهُمْ أَجْرٌ غَيْرُ مَمْنُونٍ()
“We certainly created man in the best of forms; then We reduced him to the lowest of the low, except those who have faith and do righteous deeds. There will be an everlasting reward for them” (al-Teen, 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 jinns (Genies) 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 Surat al-‘Asr, the word 'tawasau' has been used twice. Its verbal noun is 'tawasi', and it is derived from 'wasiyyat', which means admonition, or 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 'Haq' or Truth:
Similarly, the connotation of the word 'Haq' is very extensive. Its meaning includes everything which is based on truth, meaning that is, it is not imaginary or based on presumption. It also connotes what is acknowledged by reason or is ethically necessary, or is purposeful, and not useless or purposeless. Hence exhortation to truth means confirming, acknowledging, inviting to and preaching everything 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 Lord 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 implementation and actualization.
Similarly, the comprehensive expression 'exhortation to truth' embraces within itself concepts which underlie many technical terms of the 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 falling 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. The Qur’an tells us that the people who face tests, trials, and adversities with patience say,
إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ
“We belong to God and to Him we shall return” (al-Baqarah, 2:156).
Our souls are in a state of slumber, unmindful of the real goal of life, and we avoid and evade remembering death, even though the most inevitable and certain thing in life is death.
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. Perhaps 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 someone, 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. It can well be imagined 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 remaining firm in this struggle. In Qur’anic terminology, this is called 'istiqamah' or 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 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 inter- dependent and so are 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 defense is a good offence, and repel it defensively. Thus the Prophet (peace 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 it for himself necessarily demands that he should present it to others, so that the greatest number of people may benefit from it, and should partake of its blessing. Thus the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “No one among you can be regarded a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”
The self-respect of a man who has accepted the ‘truth’ demands that he should preach it to others. He should uphold 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 Surat 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 Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) wherein all these four components are present in their utmost perfection. At first the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) tried t o discover the reality of his own identity and that of the cosmos. A Qur’anic verse depicts this.
وَوَجَدَكَ ضَالًّا فَهَدَىٰ
“Did He not find you wandering, and give you guidance?” (al-Dhuha, 93:7).
The angel Gabriel revealed to him the truths he required. The Prophet (peace be upon him) confirmed them and affirmed his faith in them, as stated in the Glorious Qur’an.
آمَنَ الرَّسُولُ بِمَا أُنزِلَ إِلَيْهِ مِن رَّبِّهِ وَالْمُؤْمِنُونَ
“The Messenger believes in what has been sent down to him from his Lord, as do the faithful” (al-Baqarah, 2:285).
The life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the perfect model of moral excellence and unparalleled example of sublime character. The Qur’an states,
وَإِنَّكَ لَعَلَىٰ خُلُقٍ عَظِيمٍ
“And you are truly of a sublime character” (al-Qalam, 68:4).
After fulfilling these fundamental requirements of faith and righteous deeds to perfection, the Prophet Muhammad (peace 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 persecution and oppression 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 Lord and in order to uphold divine truth. After untiring 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 Lord, 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 be upon him) embodies the contents of Surat al-‘Asr in action.
The above discourse is a concise explanation of the significance of Surat al-‘Asr. It would have been realized why it is regarded as the most comprehensive surah of the Qur’an, and why Imam Shafi’i had said that if people were to contemplate it seriously, this brief surah would be sufficient for their direction and guidance.
The Relation of Surat al-‘Asr to the Surahs before and after it
Finally, let us cast a glance on the surahs of the Qur’an which precede and follow Surat al-‘Asr. It was 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 over-power 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 Surat al-Takathur; that blessed surah of the Qur’an which precedes Surat al-‘Asr. As a result of this negligence a man becomes unable to differentiate between right and wrong, lawful and unlawful, or 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 Surat al-Humazah, which comes just after Surat al-‘Asr. May Allah keep all of us protected from such a grievous, dreadful and disastrous end of our lives.