The welcome accorded to the short talk I gave recently at the Tottenham Mosque, Clyde Road N15, has prompted me to explain in detail aspects of my understanding of Surah Al-‘Asr (“Long periods” or “Time through the ages”). The aim of the following exposition is to generate a positive consciousness, such that a person constantly thinks about the significance and impact of “Time” on their lives. To achieve this objective, I will try to explain what “Time” is, how it affects the acquisition of material and spiritual wealth and its importance in the Islamic industry of moulding and purifying the human character.
Surah Al-‘Asr states “By (the token of) Time through the ages, verily man is in loss, except such as have faith, and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in the mutual teaching of truth, and of patience and constancy.” (S.103) A careful study of this Surah should reveal the following:
that the life transaction is essentially an industry
the life – blood of the “Life Industry” is “Time” without which there can be no succession of states — existence (“Material Time”);
every human being is the entrepreneur (businessperson) of their own “Life Industry”, but is free to conduct their business individually or in concert with other people;
the primary aim of each person’s industry is the moulding of their soul/spirit
the factors of production in every “Soul-Moulding” industry are
“Material Time”, land, labour and capital;
there are always only two possible outcomes to every person’s life transaction, profit (purification of the soul – by Allah’s grace and mercy) or loss (corruption of the soul – the net effect of all the three exercises of choice);
Profit is not possible “except’ for the businesspersons who:
have belief (trust) in Allah as the All-Knowing All-Powerful Lord Cherisher and Sustainer;
have a full grasp and understanding of time and so use “material time” effectively and efficiently;
produce only goodness (do righteous deeds) in the course of industry’s existence;
propagate trust and
are clear in their understanding of (a) and are firm in their resolve as regards (b)-(d) above and so are patient (never losing control over themselves) and constant (they endure with patience whatever befalls them in life) and continue on the “straight path”, running the “industry of goodness” on the same basis of doing righteous deeds.
2. What is “Time”
“Time” according to the Collins English Dictionary is “Existence as a succession of states; hour; duration; period; point in duration; opportunity; occasion” and “Space” is defined as, “extent, room, period, area, expense, expanse of the universe; and empty place”. Not too dissimilar is the Virtues English Dictionary Encyclopaedia Edition which defines “Time” according to one usage as, “The measure of duration; a particular portion or part of duration, whether past, present or future and either a space or a point, a period or a moment: occasion; season;” (p.897 Col. 3). It defines “Duration” as “continuance in time; length or extension of existence, indefinitely; power of continuance” (p. 281 Col. 3). Although these definitions are not in themselves inconsistent with the Islamic concept of “Time”, they nevertheless, do not graphically portray the true Islamic picture. When one takes into account Surah Al Dahr (The Time) (S. 76:1) which states, “Has there not been over Man a long period of time, when he was nothing – (not even mentioned)?”, it is clear that “Time” continues to run despite the non-existence of material objects. In addition, it appears from the Qur’anic text that “Time” is an attribute of the Creator and an extremely important element in the Divine scheme of creation. A proper concept of Allah includes an awareness that, “There is no god but He, The Ever-Living, The Self-Subsisting. The Eternal” (S. 2:255), “…The First and The Last” (S. 57:3), “… The Beginning and The End” (S. 92:13) and that “everything that exist on Earth shall perish but the countenance of thy Lord will abide forever, full of Majesty, Bounty and Honour” (S. 55:26-7). Having the power of continuance is inextricably bound to Allah’s attribute as “The Ever-Living, The Self Subsisting, The Eternal … The First and The Last …The Beginning and The End”. These attributes clearly mask “Time”, therefore, from an Islamic perspective “Time” should be viewed as infinite duration or a self-subsisting and eternal power of continuance measured by the absence or continued absence of and/or the presence or continued presence of material forms in space or at a point. In other words, in Allah, the “Ever-Living, Self-Subsisting and Eternal” is the universal and extra-universal force of power which is measured only by itself and by which all things are measured. Without Allah there can be no existence, nor could there be the material forms whose presence and continued presence evidence the successions of state(s) and by which the duration of our universe (“Material Time”) is measured. Thus, in humankind’s case, “Time” is the duration before the grant of life (non-existence) and the period after death, and his “Material Time” is the succession of states or occasions between life and death. Whatever the duration, the power of continuance of that period is ultimately in the hands of Allah who, by reason of that power, also has total control over the contents of ‘Time’ and “Material Time”. Dealing solely within the context of “Material Time”, Allah is able to determine and fix the circumstance of every person’s future, what is heard, seen or otherwise experienced. Whenever a person decides upon a particular mode of conduct, it is not that choice of action that determines the total content and every facet of the future circumstances. Consequently, no human being can guarantee that they will live beyond the next moment, that the next moment will ever come or that they will see, be able to do, achieve their expectations. Not surprisingly therefore, the believers are instructed in the Holy Qur’an not to “say of anything ‘I shall be sure to do so and so tomorrow’ without adding so please Allah’” (S.18:23-4). This Divine instruction makes practical sense not least because of the relativity in time. There is a marked difference in the speed of movement in time as it relates to “Time” and “Material Time” and this is explained by the following Quranic passages:
“Verily a day in the sight of thy Lord is like a thousand years of your reckoning” (S. 22:47)
“The angels and the Spirit ascend unto Him (Allah) in a Day the measure whereof is as fifty thousand years.” (S. 70:4)
If my calculations are correct each “Time” second is expanded to 4.4 “Material Time” days in the first case and 220 “Material Time” days in the latter. Consequently, what humans regard as a long period is but a few moments tor the Creator: there is thus a clear need for patience on the part of humankind.
2. “Time” Exposes the True Nature of Human Personality.
The essence of Surah A-‘Asr is that the Long periods of “Material Time” spent by humankind on the earth, will have the inevitable effect of exposing the real character of each person. That personality will either be righteous or one that has been led into confusion about man’s origin, purpose and goal. This exposure is necessary because it is the Divine scheme to create human beings, bless them with honour and material wealth and then test them as regards their gratitude (S. 76: 1-3). In their trial, humanity is required to declare trust in Allah, His knowledge and power and prove the truth of what they say. The Creator will not and is not prepared to accept meaningless words and this is quite clear in the passage, “Do men think that they will be left alone on saying ‘We believe’, and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and Allah certainly knows those who are true from those who are false” (S.29:2-3). It is a fundamental problem with humans that they often say one thing and, for the sole purpose of satisfying their vain desires find every excuse to do something else. This was clearly the situation with our common ancestors Adam and Hawa in their pre-earth test. The situation is no different for the modern man, they too will readily say, for example, “we believe in Allah and the Last Day” (S.2:8), but when exposed to the experiences of life and tried as to their honesty and justice they prove to themselves they do not really believe.
It is of vital importance that people understand the operation of the character- exposing process in the passage of “Material Time”. People should be conscious of the prerequisites and basic mechanisms of this baring process and how, in practical terms, exposure of the human character is achieved. In light of what I have already stated about “Time” and its relationship with the Creator. I understand the pre-requisites and basic mechanisms to be as follows:
the existence of an Al-Powerful All-Knowing, Most Wise Unseen Creator in whom and with whose character “Time” is inextricably bound. There is no existence without the presence and the continuing intense and overflowing mercy and kindness of the Creator. For this reason, the constituents, Bismillah (Allah the omnipresent) Ar-Rahmaan (Most Gracious) Ar-Raheem (Most Merciful) form the preamble to the Holy Our an and every exercise of power by man. Given the Self-Subsisting presence of the Creator and because He is Ar-Rahmaan and Ar-Raheem, His attributes of power, Knowledge and wisdom have all been used to create the earth and its plants, fruits and vegetation; the planets; stars; sun; moon: and the laws which govern them.
the creation of a human body, that has, as part of its biological make up “the gifts of hearing and sight” (S.76:2) and the other senses all of which are under the control of the cortex of the brain. When the cortex shuts down the senses cease to function and although ‘Time’ continues to run for those individuals they are practically speaking, dead to material world and their surroundings. They are not exposed to the world around them and are thus free of the stimuli required to generate choice and the voluntary moulding of the human character. In the norm, however, mankind through the aid of their divinely endowed gift (the senses of hearing, smelling, seeing, feeling and tasting) and in the course of their duration on earth, are able to perceive the beauty of the material wealth of the earth and as a consequence the soul which is tied to the human body becomes exposed to the contents of time and space (part of the Divine’s Capital). That beauty impacts upon the soul by stirring up desires and ultimately, with the aid of extra-sensory satanic persuasion (ESP), if one permits its influence, an inordinate and sometimes violent love for the object(s) perceived.
the gift to humankind of a soul/spirit – the human sees and the object purification through human exertion, that knows, having so testified, that Allah is its Creator and Sustainer (S. 7:172) and is tied to an earthly inclined body.
the Divine education of humankind (S. 2:31), the grant them of the faculty of speech, reason and intelligence (S. 55:4; S. 32 7-9) and a free but limited power of choice in morality.
just like the human personality, which is housed in the body, human morals are masked or encased in people’s behaviour. Both the moral quality in choice and the character that is formed by it, are the results of habitual conduct in the passage of “Material Time”.
a biological and spiritual disposition which requires the exercise of “will” (power of choice) at every point in “Material Time” in the course of life on earth. The will must be exercised in a manner that is submissive to the Creator if it is to remain free of confusion and corruption. This requirement of submission remains the core purpose in life despite the lack in human power to see the unseen, be all comprehensive in observation and to make judgements that are based upon facts and calculations that are infinite.
How then does this baring process work in practice? The above operates as a complete system that is governed by a single unified Lord, Governor and Master. The duration and the contents of the “Long Periods” (which includes the differing properties in the earth, its plants, trees, fruits and chemicals) are generally termed nature. As with “Time” and “Material Time” a common feature of all natural wonders of creation is that they are “created in (due) proportion and measure” (S. 54:49-50): finely balanced in term: of their position, distance from other objects, shape, colour, weight, height, width, depth, density, and composition and it by “Word” of the Almighty Creator that all creation came into existence (S. 2:117), hence the Qur’anic passage, “the word of thy Lord doth find its fulfilment in truth and in justice” (S. 6:115). The reality of the position, shape, colour and other such quality of creation is termed “truth” and their measured natures, justice. It is the will of the Creator that His creation, including humans, should be maintained in the manner in which He created them in the first place (S. 30:30) and, to give effect to His will (S. 38:66), He has ordained laws (the Laws of nature), under His direct control to keep them that way. Mankind is then instructed and warned that it is Allah who has “set up the balance (of justice [in nature] in order that ye [mankind] may not transgress (due balance). So establish weight and justice and fall not short in the balance” (S. 55:7-9). In short “none can change His [Allah’s] words [nature and its laws of reproduction] for He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing” (S. 6:115). This is expressed in the simple equation, Nature (humans included) is tied to the Laws of nature; Nature and its Laws are tied to “Material Time”; “Material Time” is inextricably bound to “Time”; and “Time” is intrinsic to the attributes of Allah. Humans cannot change the attributes of the Creator so will never be able to change what He has created.
It is against this background that humans were given life (the body and the soul), knowledge and limited free will to choose their own moral quality of character. Before breathing the souls/spirits into the human body and placing man upon the platform of “Material Time” which is the arena of their existence for “Long Periods (‘Asr)” of time, the souls/ spirits were asked by Allah to testify, “Am I not your Lord (Who cherishes and sustains you [Rabb])?” – They said: ‘Yea! We do testify’ (S. 7:172). The body, when formed and infused with the spirit/soul, takes up its position as a material – spiritual object with the power of continuance. In that state and in the course of their “Long Periods (‘Asr)” humans are required, by behaving truthfully and justly, to show gratitude in physically testifying and manifesting the truth of what was spiritually declared (faith [Iman] in Allah’s and His position as humankind’s Lord, Cherisher and Sustainer [Rabb]). The spirit/soul energises the body making the bodily organs functional, and talents and abilities capable of being exercised and realised. Human beings do not exist in a vacuum, they are an integral part of the earth’s natural surroundings and thus its wealth: the Creators capital. Duration on earth as active human beings in good bodily health has the effect of enabling people’s perception of the wealth of forming its content. The earth’s wealth and beauty impacts upon the human body and the soul, stirring up people’s desires and passion with the aid of extrasensory satanic persuasion (ESP) for the object(s) perceived. Because the human character is moulded through habitual conduct, respite or “Long Periods” of “Material Time” is required to expose humans on earth to its complex, fluctuating and varied factual circumstances. The soul is subjected to the body. The body, having regard to its nature, is in need (for bodily health and survival) of the earth’s produce (food, clothes, shelter and minerals), prone to haste and weak in the flesh, prone to forget and fretful when pain or adversity touches it, is expected to be used to acquire (through the senses – the gateway to the knowledge of the laws, systems and use of the earth’ contents) knowledge and, using their power to will and limited freedom of choice, demonstrate “self-restraint” (S. 2:183) through people’s level of skill in reasoning and applying knowledge in making, relatively speaking, sound (truthful, just and wise) judgements. During humanity’s “Material Time” they are allowed the pleasures of the natural world and what they have created out of it, thus cultivating a habit or taste for beauty and the transitory pleasures of life (S. 57:20; S. 29:2-3). They are then exposed to moments in that period when they are deprived of the pleasures of life to test whether they are grateful. Without belief in Allah; that is to say, the knowledge of His perpetual presence and control over “Time” (the Islamic economic Capital), mankind is in grave danger of becoming so caught up in the vain pleasures of life (the food, the drink, possession of beautiful women and gems and so on) that they forget Allah totally or become extremely weak in their resolve to remember Him with gratitude. In that weakened state, people will through greed, envy, and selfish contumacy, exercise their free will in each “Material Time” moment’s experience (relative to its perceived factual contents regardless of whether their decision is unjust and gives power to a lie. People would very much like to think that they are sincere and strong in their trust in the power, knowledge and wisdom of the Creator, but without a firm resolve to regularly practice (not just for one moment, day, week, month years, but for all the “Time” throughout their lives) the virtues prescribed by the All Knowing they will never be able to accept and endure without losing self-control, the constant (the passing of “Material Time”) fluctuations of profits and loss (experiences) in life. They will always want what they want, expect to get what they want how they want it and when they want it, despite the injustice others will suffer because of them wanting to satisfy their vain desires. Those who sincerely believe in Allah will, in employing their time, land, labour and capital, strive to work in a good manner, produce what is good and honour their contracts regardless of loss. They are not driven by the desire to make profits, but by the overriding consideration and desire to love and express, through their behaviour, gratitude to Allah (SWT). The “Long Periods” of “Material Time” therefore expose people to nature’s content and to their true selves, and only with the acquisition and use of the Islamic economic Capital – knowledge of Allah – can people:
mould and maintain a character that is reasonably similar to the real character originally moulded by the Creator; and
achieve material and spiritual success in this world and the next
The Factors of Production
My final consideration is the economic implications of Surah Al-‘Asr. Clearly without the Divine permission to occupy the earth for “Long Periods” humanity would not have access to its wealth. Also, it is people’s behaviour towards the natural resources of the earth that will determine their level of gratitude to the Creator. It is therefore useful to consider the Islamic perspective of the Factors of Production. Economic theorists include well Known personalities such as J. M. Keynes, Professor Marshall and Professor Richard G. Lipsey who all believe the factors of production are only land, labour and capital. That belief and their interpretation of those factors are based upon the false notion that by bringing together only these material factors one has the recipe for success in manufacturing industries. The fact of the matter is that is not a time reflection of the realities. The factors of production are not three but four: time, land, labour and capital.
The Holy Qur’an stated that both man and jinns have been granted respite – time: “They Adam and Hawa’ (Eve)] said: Our Lord! We have wronged our own souls: If Thou forgive us not and bestow upon us Thy Mercy, we shall certainly be lost.
(Allah) said: “Get ye down with enmity between yourselves and earth will be your dwelling place and your means of livelihood for a Time” (S.7 (V) 23/4)
(Allah) said [to Iblis]: “Get Thee down from this: it is not for thy to be arrogant here: get out, for thou art of the meanest (or creatures) He [Iblis] said: “Give me respite till the day [Humankind] are raised up”
(Allah) said: “Be thou amongst those who respite” (S.7 (V) 13-15)
I have already outlined this topic above so suffice to say that “Material Time” is a divine gift and a manifestation of Allah’s mercy to humankind and jinns. Clearly without time or too little time the other three factors of production do not exist or ineffective. “Material Time” is an essential pre-requisite to allow human beings the use of land, labour and capital, but it is the manner in which these factors are used and the efficient use of “Material Time” that determine humankind’s (spiritual and material) success or failure. Material success is not measured by the amount of material wealth possessed, rather it is the efficient use of that form of wealth. And there can be no real success unless both material and spiritual success are present at the same time.
3.2 Land and Labour Redefined
Popular economics separate these two factors and view land as meaning the earth and labour as the work supplied by people. While this is true it does not give the total picture and so it is misleading. The authoritative and divine position as stated in the Holy Our’an is that there are, broadly speaking, two stages in the creative process of man First, the fashioning into shape of humankind “from sounding clay, from [black] mud moulded into shape… [like into pottery]” (S:15:26; S. 55.14). Second, the infusion of the breath of life [other Spirit or Soul] (S. 38: 72) so that man became a living entity capable of exertion and reproducing itself. Thus, man is in reality a factor of production.
On the occasion that humankind was moulded into shape from [black/dark] fetish Mud, man ceased to be nothing and became a thing mentionable that existed in Time. At this stage Allah’s vicegerent became a human and because of his earthly nature, is part of the dry land definition: possessing in his biological make-up (S.25:54) the two primary elements [water and earth] (S.6:2) used to create all things. In terms of the number of people forming the total population of earth at any given point in time the supply is fixed. The supply can only be increased by slowing down the death rate and increasing the birth rate, however, human beings are instructed:
“nor can a soul die except by Allah’s leave, the term being fixed as by writing”. (S.3.145)
“To Him (Allah) belongs dominion of the heavens and the earth: It is He who gives life and death: and He has Power over all things”. (S.57:2)
The working population and certainly particular skilled people of the working population is subjected to fluctuation and great care is required to sustain the availability of people with the required knowledge, experience and skill. The definition of land usually includes the natural resources found in or on land. The quantity and quality are certainly limited. This definition also applies to mankind in terms of their physical abilities and the wealth of talents and ideas that comes out of man. From an economic perspective industry have certainly strived to exploit and develop these limited resources whose supply varies considerably with its impact on the price of that human resource.
Having a form, an earthly-based body that continues in “Material Time”, does not of itself render man capable of labour or producing the wealth of talents and ideas that has given birth to all that humans have innovated and built. It is only when the human body is infused with a well-proportioned and ordered Spirit (S.38:72) that is enlightened and has a natural propensity (S.30:30) to love, the talent or appreciating the beauty in truth and justice (right) and abhorrence and hate for falsehood, ingratitude and injustice (wrong) (S. 91 (v) 78). That earthly body becomes fully functional and capable of productivity, able to exert to do things. So, one does not have to look very far to come to an understanding why the natural and Divine way of life, submission to the Will of Allah (Islam in Arabic), requires of humans to toil and struggle (S.90:4) throughout people’s time on the earth, to do (be active) what is right. Every person’s body that has been given a spirit/soul is capable of exertion (Labour) and every person must “have a taste of death” (S. 21: 35), at which point the soul is taken out and the body ceases to function and eventually rots.
The spirit, because of its make-up, (to appreciate the beauty and love of truth and justice and to hate injustice, falsehood and oppression) is man’s metaphorical sea, it is always in motion by reason of the presence of a desire, and so, it is affected (purified or corrupted) by the exercise of the human will (choice) relative to what is picked up through senses of the body (S.76: 2-3). It is evident then that labour is intricately bound to the spirit which, in turn, is tied to the human body that has been fashioned with the faculties of hearing, sight, feelings, smell, taste and other bodily organs.
A human (bodily-earthly) beings “Material Time” or duration on earth is thus measured by the period starting with the breathing of the ‘Spirit’ into the body and the moment that ‘Spirit is taken out. Since it is the ‘Spirit’ that is used to measure mankind’s existence on earth, and to make humans active, it is clearly also intricately bound to time, hence, from an economic perspective people are paid for their time (the total number of hours during which they exerted for their industries’ cause). People’s cause cannot be that they manufacture or sell, as Marshall and other modern economist would have it, what simply satisfies man’s wants. This is because, as already stated, the spirit/soul is enlightened with the knowledge of wrong and right and people are capable of desiring and choosing, qualitatively speaking, to either purify or corrupt their souls (S.91:9-10). The Islamic way of life is concerned with now and what is manufactured. It is the duty of every honest and sincere person (covers the truth and justice) to enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil (S. 31: 17). In this way they assist in helping humankind to tie down (Taqwa S.2:2) and restrain (S.2: 183) their vain desires (the desire for what is false and unjust). The Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) has said, “struggle is my Manner” and this is in line with the Holy Our’an which states, “We havecreated man to toil andstruggle” (S. 90.4) and thus labour is to be encouraged not discouraged. It is generally believed that high taxes discourage labour, with some people preferring to live on welfare benefits rather than work. The tax system in Islam encourages labour as it is only the excess wealth accumulated in the previous twelve months that is subject to tax and only at two and a half percent. Such fairness and balance affect not only the supply of effort in the economy but also the quality of that effort. One who labours for the love of good and for that purpose (S.31:17) will produce good quality work while those who labour for the love of money and other material wealth are not concerned with the quality of their work but only what they can do to increase their recompense. This might involve doing or manufacturing poor quality goods so that the work is done again or more of the same goods are purchased on a frequent basis.
It’s in this area that Islamic economics differ substantially from popular economic. Modern economic theory sees capital as a man-made factor of production and consists of the of existing machines, plant, equipment, money, and so on. Capital in Islamic economics is explained by the Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) as being, ‘Knowledge of Allah’.
The Islamic definition is much wider and embraces not only the material but also its moral and spiritual quality. What then is the Knowledge of God?’ An understanding of this concept can be acquired from this following passage:
“And be ye not like those who forgot Allah; and He made them forget their own souls! Such are the rebellious transgressors!” (S. 59 (v)19)
It would appear that ‘Knowledge of Allah’ involves having a proper concept of God (Allah), upon which is based the knowledge and understanding of man’s origin; purpose in life; the social, moral and other principles by which humankind should govern themselves. Knowledge of Allah is also the purpose for which people exercise their abilities to realise their fullest potential and attain their ultimate goal, success and redemption. That concept of Allah is not based upon conjecture rather it rests upon regarding what the Creator has revealed in His Scriptures regarding the creation and nature of mankind and about what Allah, has explained in the revelations about Himself:
“Allah is He, Whom there is no other God; Who knows (all things) both secret and open; He is Most Gracious, Most Merciful… The Sovereign, The Holy One, the Source of Peace (and Perfection) the Guardian of faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Irresistible, the Supreme… He is Allah. The Creator, the Bestower of Forms (or Colours) to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names…” (S.59. 22-24)
“To Allah belongs the heritage of the heavens and the earth; And Allah is well acquainted with all that ye do.” (S.31: 180)
It includes being aware of and maintaining firmness of sincerity and trust in Allah. Thus, Capital is in Islam the consciousness; the state of mind which, when translated into a physical realty, produces the kind of character and social economic and political condition that would be described as righteousness. It is a consciousness that feeds on maintaining a firmness in sincerity and trust in Allah: the real and only casual power source of the primal origin of the spiritual and material content the heavens and the earth (S. 6: 101) and the Possessor of the Knowledge of things hidden and revealed. The Capital then that is at the disposal of the believer is the total infinite knowledge of whatever the Maker – Inheritor of the heavens and the earth has the power to originate. Capital, in the ordinary economic sense is limited to (i) what is on, in or made out of the earth and (ii) what is within the evidently limited knowledge of man to make out of the earth’s natural resources. Another major difference is that with Allah as man’s capital, what capital in contrast to the other is not limited to time: “All that is on the earth shall perish save the countenance of thy Lord which abideth forever, full of Majesty Bounty and Honour (S.55:26-7)
Surah Al- ‘Asr is a Surah that we cannot and should not ignore. It adds clarity and brings alive a practical meaning to the Divine command to submit to the will of Allah. The focus of “Time” is to remember Allah (SWT), and this involves calling to mind His precepts and guidance that is contained in the revealed Holy Scriptures and in the nature of the contents of the heavens and the earth. These divine guidance, which include Surah Al- ‘Asr, are designed to qualify the use and the manner which humankind should use the spiritual and material wealth of the earth. Surah Al-‘Asr, therefore, equip humankind with the tools to run our industry effectively and efficiently, so that people can achieve success in this life and the next.