Within man do live all the forces of goodness and evil and there is always a conflict between these forces. What this chapter of the Quran suggests is that man is at utter loss if he allows the forces of evil within him to prevail.
Surah al Asr is one of the smallest chapters of the Book revealed upon Prophet Mohammad. It reads, “Time is witness that indeed man is in loss except those people who believe, do righteous deeds, advise each other of truth and advise each other of patience.” There are other translations of the first verse of this chapter: “I swear by Time that man is indeed in loss”; “I swear by the time of Asr prayers”; “I swear by the Abstract of the Quran”, etc. Whatever the translations, the ayats of this chapter are quite clear and direct in their meanings.
When Allah says, “Time is witness”, it has scope for invoking the whole of human history. The rise and fall of civilisations, the tremendous material, spiritual, literary and other developments of mankind, the history of wars and the story of evolution are all witnesses that God is invoking here through the metaphor of time, to suggest that the real success of mankind is in something which human beings most of the times do not pay any attention to. This chapter of the Quran actually discusses four important criteria of success: belief in God, righteous deeds, advising people of truth (after being truthful oneself), and advising people of patience (after being patient oneself) in all matters of life.
Having invoked Time as witness, God seeks our attention to what man should actually consider the top priority in life, though it is not suggested that man should live a non-material life altogether; one, therefore, is supposed to read this chapter in association with the other ayats and chapters of the Quran.
The reference to the past and to history may be a suggestion that despite material, scientific and technological advancements, if man is not able to walk on earth as the servant of God, then all the material progress is of no value and of no benefit in the hereafter. There is also the possibility that God is talking to man with reference to history because great nations, people and civilisations are only talked about in literature and books of history as time passed over all of them and there remains only a passing mention of such people and nations. Another possibility is that God invokes time as witness because human beings are at the end of the day subject to death and decay, and so they know the value and power of time and are also conscious of the way man is consumed by Time. Similarly, many more possible meanings could be explored as far as “Time as witness”, or “God swearing by Time” and other translations are concerned.
However, the concept of loss and gain which this ayat of Surah al Asr brings to the fore is easily understood when a reader moves on to the next ayat. The exception made therein says everything aptly and precisely. A criterion for success has been established in this ayat after God makes an exclusion. The criterion is based on four things: strong belief in God (and His messengers), good deeds in this world, advising people of truth and advising people of patience. This is the ultimate criterion of success.
What is belief in God and His messengers, this chapter of the Quran does not explain with details. Therefore, it is mandatory for the readers of the Quran to understand the structure of belief in God with the help of hundreds of other ayats that the Quran offers on this subject.
What are the good deeds that God talks about as the criterion of success? God does not provide any details in this chapter; however, details are found in other chapters and ayats of the Quran; therefore, a reader should move beyond this chapter and attempt a circular reading for attempting a classification and analysis of the ayats that give details of righteous deeds.
What does it mean to be patient and advising others of truth is also not explained in the chapter; however, the Quran is full of such details at other places.
This means a serious student of the Quran has to find his/her way around. In order to know the meaning of one single ayat, a good student of the Quran shall necessarily develop correlations and associations of that ayat with similar ayats of the Quran. In this context, what one can always keep in mind is the principle that parts of the Quran are explained and interpreted by other parts of the Quran; in other words, one can go by the principle that some ayats of the Quran are just abstract statements until a reader attempts to find detailed explanation and concretisation of the same with the help of other ayats.
The criterion of failure and success:
Man, of course, is in utter loss if he does not fulfill the criterion mentioned in this chapter of the Quran. The first and the foremost prerequisite for success mentioned in these ayat is belief in Allah. How does the Quran see it? Let’s take an example. Allah says, “The example of the pure word (Kalima e Tayyiba, which is to say la ilaha illalha Mohammad ur Rasulallah) is that of a pure tree which has its roots firmly established and deep in the ground and its branches are high in the air. It gives its fruits at every time.” In other words, it means that the development of a good and pure belief in the heart of man necessarily results in good actions/deeds and subsequently allows a man to have such a condition of heart which makes it possible for him to dye himself in the colours of God. As good intentions give birth to righteous and good deeds, having a belief/worldview that is rooted in khair (goodness) necessarily leads a man towards goodness, which itself becomes a means for dispelling all the sha’r (evil) from the life of man.
It may be in place to state that within man do live all the forces of goodness and evil and there is always a conflict between these forces within man. What this chapter of the Quran suggests is that man is in utter loss if he allows the forces of evil within him to prevail. After a believer affirms the oneness of God and directs all his/her actions towards God only, it becomes a logical necessity that his/her life is reflection of all the divinely praised qualities like patience, mercy, magnanimity, forgiveness, truthfulness, caring for others and being a source of khair for the whole mankind.
In this context, apart from getting the detailed exemplification from rest of the Quran, two very important traditions of Prophet Mohammad come to mind: one, “khair un na’as mann yanfa’un na’as” which means “the best among the people is the one who is beneficial for other people”; second, “innamal aamaal bin niyyat” which means “The result of all the actions and deeds of man depends on his/her intentions”.
If these two traditions of the Prophet are read in context to Surah al Asr, one may get an idea about the criterion of success mentioned in this chapter. Good intentions spring from the fountainhead of good beliefs and lead ultimately to good deeds which are beneficial for the whole mankind. One may, in this context, imagine, for example, a desert. Can we have a good orchard at a desert where even a shrub does not grow? In order to have an orchard at such a place, we are supposed to first fix some special soil on the sand and have a proper system of irrigation in place. Good intentions/ beliefs create such a condition in the heart of man.
One may further read this chapter in the light of the prayer that we are supposed to make in Surah al Fateh: “Ihdinas sira tal mustaqeem” which means “O God! Show us the straight path”. We can say that this chapter is actually a brief and precise response to that prayer as it talks about the criterion of success and failure. Since praying for the straight path means to pray for such life and worldview which may help man in the identification of haq (truth) and truthful actions and deeds in life, in this chapter of the Quran God has very clearly made a statement regarding the success of those who are on the straight path and the failure of those who are on the wrong path. One may, however, add a point here about the straight path which a believer prays for in Surah al Fateh. Being on the straight path means being in a state of journey wherein one must always be asking oneself if one’s belief does not suffer from any weakness or whether good and righteous deeds are not missing from one’s life and the criterion of truth and patience in this path is not being followed and practised.
In the end, the failure and success of man mentioned in Surah al Asr are not related to material failures and successes of man; rather, they are about something very exalted. This success and failure pertains to the way man undertakes life’s journey on the path of self-discovery and truth. It is about the hereafter when man would be held responsible and accountable for all of his small and big deeds. It is about the way man allows his growth and evolution in this world wherein forces of goodness want to draw him towards them but the forces of evil also tempt him. It is about man considering himself subservient to the commands of God who is all khair and mercy, thereby directing all of his actions and deeds towards God only. It is about being drawn towards light in the midst of darkness. In the absence of such a condition of heart, man is, indeed, in utter loss.
An Urdu couplet can explain such a condition in the heart of the seeker of truth: “Go main raha raheena e sitam haye rozgar/ lekin tere khayal say gafil na raha” which means “Though I was busy with the mundane affairs of the world/ I was not oblivious to the thought of you.”