Surah 103 The Declining Day al 'Asr
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful!
I swear by the declining day, that man is a certain loser, save those who have faith and do righteous deeds and counsel one another to follow the truth and counsel one another to be steadfast.
This short surah of three verses outlines a complete system for human life based on the Islamic viewpoint. It defines, in the clearest and most concise form, the basic concept of faith in the context of its comprehensive reality. In a few words the whole Islamic constitution is covered and in fact, the nation of Islam is described in its essential qualities and its message in one verse only: the third. This is the eloquence of which Allah alone is capable.
The great fact which this surah affirms is simply that throughout the history of man there has been one worthwhile and trustworthy path - that which the surah indicates and describes. All other paths lead only to loss and ruin. As it says in outline, that path is first the adoption of faith, followed up with good deeds and exhortation to follow the truth and to steadfastness.
What does the adoption of faith then signify? We shall not give here its juristic definition. Instead, we shall describe its nature and its importance in human life. Faith is the characteristic by which the minute, transient human being attains closeness to the Absolute and Everlasting Originator of the universe and all that exists in it. He thus establishes a link with the whole world, which springs from that One Origin, with the laws governing it and with the powers and potentialities created in It. As a result, he breaks away from the narrow boundaries of his trivial self to the broadness of the universe, from his inadequate power to the immensity of the unknown universal energies, and from the limits of his short life to the "Eternity" that Allah alone comprehends. This proximity grants the human being a certain power, limitless scope and freedom. It endows him with great enjoyment of life, its beauty and its constituents with whose "souls" he lives in mutual friendship. Thus life becomes a pleasant journey for mankind everywhere and at all times. From this everlasting happiness, delightful joy and true intimate understanding of life and all creation are derived. This is the invaluable gain, to lack which is an immeasurable.
The qualities of faith are also precisely those of sublime and dignified humanity, such as the worship of one God which elevates man above servitude to others and establishes within him the truth of the equality of all men so that he neither yields nor bows down his head to any but the One, the Absolute. The result is that man will enjoy true liberty, which radiates from within his conscience following his realisation of the fact that there is only one power and one Lord in this world. This liberation is spontaneously developed from such an awareness, for it is the only logical sequence.
Godliness is the second quality of dignified humanity. This quality determines for man the source from which he derives his concepts, values, criteria, considerations. doctrines, laws and whatever brings him into relation with Allah, the world at large and with human beings. Thus, equity and justice replace personal desires and self-interest. This strengthens the believer's realisation of the value of his way of life and keeps him above ignorant concepts, values and interests and above all strictly mundane values. This is so even when the believer is the only one of his kind. For he counters these features with those which he derives directly from Allah and which therefore rank highest in value and are the most sound and the most deserving of devotion and esteem.
A third quality of faith and dignified humanity is the clarity of the relationship between the Creator and the created, the restricted creature is connected with the Everlasting Truth without any mediator. It supplies man's heart with light, his soul with contentment and gives him confidence and purpose. It eliminates from his mind perplexity fear, anxiety and agitation as well as unlawful haughtiness on earth and unjustifiable tyranny over people. Steadfastness along the path ordained by Allah is the next quality of such humanity. This must be maintained so that good does not occur casually, incidentally or without deliberation but springs from definite motives and heads towards certain aims. People united for Allah's cause collaborate. Thus, with a single definite purpose and a single distinguished banner, the Muslim community is raised. This is true for all generations that are similarly welded together. Another quality is belief in the dignity of man in the sight of Allah. This heightens man's regard for himself and restrains him from aspiring for a position higher than that which the Creator has defined for him. For man to feel that he is dignified in Allah's sight is the loftiest conception he may attain of himself. Any ideology or concept which abases this valuation and ascribes a dishonourable origin to man, separating him from the Highest Society of Allah is, in effect inviting him to abjection and derogation, though it may not say so openly. Hence, the effects of Darwinism, Freudianism and Marxism are among the most horrid disasters human nature has encountered.
For they teach mankind that all abasement and downright animalism are natural phenomena with which we should be familiar and of which we need not be ashamed. Purity of motivation is yet another quality of the dignified humanity established by faith. This directly follows the realisation of man's dignity in Allah's sight, His supervision over men's conscience and His knowledge of their innermost undertakings. The normal human being whom the theories of Freud, Karl Marx and their type have not deformed is bashful that another human being may come to know what incidental unhealthy feelings he may have. The believer feels the awesome presence of Allah in his innermost consciousness and his awareness makes him tremble. He therefore attends to self purification and spiritual cleansing. A refined moral sense is the natural fruit of faith in a just, kind, compassionate, generous and forbearing God who abhors evil and loves goodness and who knows the furtive look and the secret thought. From this follows the responsibility of the believer which results from his free will and the comprehensiveness of Allah's supervision over him. It stimulates within him healthy awareness, sensitivity, serenity and foresight. It is a communal responsibility rather than an individual one and it is a responsibility towards all humanity in relation to goodness, pure and simple. The believer feels all these in every action. He achieves a higher degree of self-respect and calculates the results before taking any steps. He is of value in the world and the whole realm of existence and has a role in its smooth running.
The final quality is man's elevation above greed for worldly gains and the choice of Allah's richer, everlasting reward for which all men should strive, as the Qur'an directs them to do and which results in elevation, purification and cleansing of their souls. Of Immense help in this regard is the fact that the believer has a broad scope to move in: between this life and the next and between the heavens and the earth. The elevation of man lessens his anxiety about the results and fruits of his deed. He does good only because it is good and because Allah requires it. It is never his concern whether it leads to further goodness in his own short life time. Allah, for whom he performs the good, never dies nor does He forget nor ignore any of men's deeds.
The reward is not to be received here, for this life is not the last. Thus, the believer acquires the power to continue to perform good deeds sustained by this overwhelming belief. This it is that guarantees that doing good becomes a deliberate way of life and not a casual incident or motiveless event. It is this belief that supplies the believer with the power and the fortitude to face evil, whether manifested in the despotism of a tyrant or in the pressures of Ignorance or in the frailty of his will-power to control his passions which arise primarily from his feeling of the shortness of his life to achieve aims and enjoyments and from his inability to comprehend the deeper results of the good and witness the victory of right over evil. Faith tackles these feelings radically and perfectly.
Faith is the great root of life from which goodness springs in its various forms and to which all its fruits are bound. What does not spring from faith is a branch cut from a tree: it is bound to fade and perish, it is indeed a devilish production, limited and impermanent! Faith is the axis to which all the fine fabric of life's network is connected. Without it life is a loose event, wasted through the pursuit of yearnings and fantasies. It is the ideology which collects diversified deeds under a consonant system, following the same route and geared to the same mechanism, possessing a definite motive and a predetermined goal.
Hence, all deeds not stemming from this origin and not related to that path are completely disregarded by the Qur'an. Islam is invariably candid over this. In surah 14, "Abraham", we read what may be translated as:
The likeness of those who disbelieve in their Lord: their works are like ashes which the wind blows furiously on a tempestuous day. They have no power over anything they have earned.
In surah 24, Light's, we have:
As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage in a desert. The thirsty traveller thinks it is water but when he comes near he finds that it is nothing.
Now these are clear statements discrediting every deed not related to faith, which, in turn, gives it a motive that is connected with the origin of its existence and an aim that is compatible with the purpose of the world in all creation. This is a logical view of an ideology that attributes all events to Allah. Whoever dissociates himself from Him, vanishes and loses the reality of his existence.
Faith is a sign of health in a person's nature and soundness in his disposition. It also indicates man's harmony with the nature of the whole universe, and a sign of mutual effect between man and the world around him. His life, as long as his behaviour is straightforward, must bring about an orientation which ends up in his adoption of faith because of what this universe itself possesses of signs and testimonies about the absolute power that so created it. Were the contrary the case, something must then be wrong or lacking in the state of the recipient - i.e. the human being - which would be a sign of corruption that only leads to loss and nullifies any deed which might somehow give an appearance of righteousness.
So extensive and comprehensive, so sublime and beautiful, so happy is the believer's world that the world of the disbelievers around appears to him minute, trivial, low, feeble, ugly and miserable - that is, in a state of ruin and complete loss.
Doing what is righteous is the natural fruit of faith and a spontaneous activity generated at the same time as the reality of faith settles inside the human heart and mind. For faith is a positive and active concept which, once it has pervaded the human conscience, hastens to activate it to the outside world in good deeds. This is the Islamic view of faith. It must be dynamic. If it is not, then it is either phoney or non-existent, just as a flower cannot withhold its fragrance which, if present, naturally spreads, or else it is not in the flower at all.
From all this we recognise the values of faith: dynamism, activity, creativeness and productiveness devoted to Allah's pleasure and not narrowness, negativity or isolation into self. It is not just sincere and innocent intentions, that never develop into actions. This is the distinguishing characteristic of Islam that makes it a creative power in practical life.
All this is logical only as long as faith remains the link with the Divinely ordained path. This path is characterised by perpetual dynamism in the world among people. It is founded according to a specific plan and orientated towards a definite goal. Moreover, faith propels humanity towards implementing that which is good, pure, constructive and utilitarian.
Counseling one another to follow the truth and to steadfastness reveals a picture of Islamic society which has its own very special entity, a unique inter-relationship between its individual members and a single destination and which fully understands its entity as well as its duties. It realises the essence of its faith and what it has to do of good deeds which include, among other tasks, the leadership of humanity along its own path. To execute this tremendous duty, counseling and exhortation becomes a necessity.
From the meaning and nature of the very word "counsel" appears the loftiest and most magnificent picture of that integrated, coordinated, righteous and enlightened nation or society which caters for right, justice and goodness on this earth. This exactly is how Islam wants the Islamic nation to be. Mutual counsel aimed at that which is right is a necessity because it is hard always to maintain what is right, bearing in mind that the obstacles in its way are innumerable: egoistic passions and predilictions, the false concepts in the environment, and the tyranny, inequity and despotism of some. Hence the mutual exhortation urged here means reminding, encouraging and expressing the unity in aim and destination and equality in responsibility and charge. It also collects the individual efforts into a unified whole and thus increases the feelings of brotherhood in every guardian of truth, that there are others with him to exhort, encourage, support and love him. This is precisely the case with Islam, the righteous way of life whose establishment requires the care of a co-ordinated, interdependent, self sufficient and self-supporting community.
Counsel and exhortation to be steadfast are also a necessity because the sustenance of faith and good deeds and catering for right and equity are the hardest tasks ever to carry out. This makes endurance utterly indispensible. Endurance is also necessary when adapting oneself to the Islamic way of life, when confronting others, when afflicted with maltreatment and hardship. Steadfastness is necessary when evil and falsehood triumph. It is necessary for traversing the length of the route, putting up with the slowness of the process of reform, the obscurity of road-posts and the lengthy road leading to the destination.
Exhortation to endurance and steadfastness widens the capacities by inspiring unity of aim and direction and the feeling of togetherness in everyone, equipping them with love, fortitude and determination. It generates vitality in the community where the truth of Islam can survive and through which it is implemented.
Judging by the doctrine which the Qur'an outlines for the life of the successful group which attains salvation, we are gravely shocked to see the loss and the ruin in which humanity finds itself everywhere on this earth today. We are shocked by the frustrations humanity suffers in this present world and by witnessing how humanity turns away, in vain, from the goodness Allah has bestowed upon it. We are the more distressed by the absence of a righteous and faithful authority to stand up for the Truth. Moreover, the Muslims, or rather people claiming to be Muslims, are the farthest of all from what is good and the most averse to the ideology Allah ordained for their nation and the one route He prescribed for their deliverance from loss and ruin. People, in the very realm where this righteousness took its roots, have deserted the banner Allah raised for them, that of faith, to raise instead banners of race which have never done them any good all through their history or given them any reputation either on earth or in the heavens. Islam it was that raised for them the banner totally conforming to Allah's will, flying in His name only and identified with Him alone. Under this banner the Arabs triumphed, were predominant and gave humanity a righteous, strong, enlightened and successful leadership for the first time in their history and the long history of humanity. Professor Abul Hassan Ali Nadwi outlines the characteristics of this unique leadership in Chapter 3 of his valuable book, Islam and the World:
Once the Muslims were aroused, they quickly burst the bounds of Arabia and threw themselves zealously into the task of the fuller working out of human destiny. Their leadership held the guarantee of light and happiness for the world; it gave the promise of turning humanity into a single divinely-guided society. Some of the characteristics of Muslim leadership were: The Muslims had the unique advantage of being in possession of the Divine Book (the Qur'an) and the Sacred Law (the Shari'at). They did not have to fall back on their own judgement on the vital questions of life, and were thus saved from the manifold difficulties and perils that are attendant upon such a course. The Divine Word had illumined all the avenues of life for them and had enabled them to progress towards a destination which they clearly envisaged. With them it was not to be a case of trial and error. Says the Holy Qur'an:
Can he who is dead, to whom We give life and a Light whereby he can walk amongst men, be like him who is in the depths of dark ness from which he can never come out?(Al-Qur'an 6:122).
They were to judge among men on the basis of the Revealed Word; they were not to diverge from the dictates of justice and equity; their view was not to be blurred by enmity, hatred or desire for revenge.
O you who believe, stand out firmly for God as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just; that is nearer to piety; and fear God, for God is well acquainted with all that ye do. (Al-Qur'an 5:8).
They had not by themselves leapt into power all of a sudden from the abysmal depth of degradation. The Qur'an had already beaten them into shape. They had been brought to a high level of nobility and purity by the Prophet through long years of unremitting care. The Prophet had conditioned them to a life of austerity and righteousness; he had instilled into their hearts the virtues of humility and courageous self-denial; he had purged them clean of greed and of striving after power, renown or wealth. It was laid down by him as a fundamental principle of Islamic polity that "We shall not assign an office under the government to anyone who makes a request for it, or shows his longing for it in any other way." [al Bukhari and Muslim]
The Muslims were as far removed from falsehood, haughtiness and mischief as white is from black. The following words of the Qur'an had not in vain been grounded into them night and day:
That Home of the Hereafter We shall give to those who intend not high-handedness or mischief on earth; and the End is (best) for the righteous. (Al-Qur'an 28:33).
Instead of aspiring for positions of authority and trust, they accepted them with great reluctance and when they did accept an official position they accepted it as a trust from God, to Whom they would have to render full account of their sins of omission and commission on the Day of Judgement. Says the Holy Qur'an:
God commands you to render back your trusts to those to whom they are due; and when you judge between man and man, that you judge with justice. (Al-Qur'an 4:58).
It is He Who has made you (His) vicegerents on the earth. He has raised you in ranks, some above others, that He might try you in the gifts you receive; for your Lord is quick in punishment, yet Heis indeed Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Al-Qur'an 6:165).
Further, the Muslims were not the agents of any particular race or country; nor were they out to establish Arab imperialism. Their mission was a universal mission of faith and freedom. They were happily free from all the sickly obsessions of colour and territorial nationality. All men were equal before them. The Qur'an had pointedly said: O mankind, We created you from (a single pair of) a male and a female; and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is Well Acquainted (with all things). (Al-Qur'an 49:13).
Once the son of 'Amr ibn al-'As, the Governor of Egypt, struck an Egyptian commoner with a whip. The matter was brought to the notice of Caliph 'Umar. The Caliph did not show the least regard for the high status of the offender's father, and ordered the Egyptian straightaway to avenge himself for harm done to him. To the offender's father he administered this telling rebuke, "Why have you made them slaves when they were born free?"' [Ibn Jawzi, Tarikh, Umar bin Khattab]
The Arabs were not stingy in making the benefits of Faith, culture and learning available to the non-Arabs. They did not care for the nationality or the family connections of the recipients when it came to the conferment of high honours and positions in the State. They were, as it were, a cloud of bliss that rained ungrudgingly over the entire world, and from which all peoples, everywhere freely profited according to their own capacity.' The Arabs allowed a free and equal partnership to all nations in the establishment of a new socio-political structure and in the advancement of mankind towards a fuller and richer moral ideal. There were no national divisions, no colour bars, no vested interests, no priesthood and no hereditary nobility in the Islamic Commonwealth. No special benefits were reserved for anyone. There was nothing to prevent the non-Arabs from surpassing the Arabs in the various fields of life. Even as Doctors of Fiqh and Hadith a number of non-Arabs attained to distinction for which the Muslims in general and the Arabs in particular feel proud. Ibn Khaldun writes:
It is an amazing fact of history that though their religion is of Arabian origin and the Law that the Prophet had brought had an Arab complexion, with a few exceptions, all eminent men of learning in the Muslim Millat, in the field of theological as well as secular sciences, are non-Arabs. Even those who are Arabs by birth are non-Arabs by education, language and scholarship. [Ibn Lhaldun, Maquddima,p. 499]
During the later centuries, too, the non-Arab Muslims continued to produce leaders, statesmen, saints and savants of exceptional merit. This would obviously not have been possible, had the Arabs been mean or prejudiced in sharing their opportunities with the people of other nationalities in the Islamic world. Humanity has many sides - physical, emotional, social, moral, mental and spiritual. We cannot neglect any one of them for the benefit of another. Humanity cannot progress to its highest level unless every human instinct is brought into proper play. It would be futile to hope for the establishment of a healthy human society till an intellectual, material, moral and spiritual environment is created in which a man is enabled to develop his latent potentialities in harmony with God's plan of creation. We learn from experience that this goal must remain a dream so long as the reins of civilization are not held by those who attach due importance to both the material and the spiritual yearnings of life, and can, together with having a high moral and spiritual sense, fitly appreciate the claims of flesh and blood upon man and the inter relationship between the individual and the society.
He then speaks of the reign of the first four Caliphs who ruled after the Prophet:
We, consequently, find that no period in the recorded history of the human race has been more auspicious for it in the true sense of the term than what is known among the Muslims as Khilafat-i-Rashida. During this epoch, all the material, moral and spiritual resources of man were brought into use to make him an ideal citizen of an ideal State. The Government!! was judged by the yard-stick of morality, and the morals were judged by their utility to lift humanity in permanent values and establishing justice in human society. Though the Islamic Commonwealth was the richest and the most powerful State of its time, the popular heroes and ideal personalities in it used to be drawn from among those who possessed, not earthly glory, but purity and nobleness of character. There was no disparity between power and morality. Material advancement was not allowed to out-run moral progress. That is why in the Islamic world the incidence of crime was very low in spite of the abundance of wealth and the great heterogeneity of its population. To put it in a nutshell, this epoch was the most beautiful springtime mankind has to this day experienced. [A.H.A Nadwi, Islam and the World, English editions, Lucknow, India, 1967, pp 75-80]
We know some features of that glorious period of human history whose generation lived under the Islamic Constitution, the pillars of which this particular surah erects and under the banner carried by the group of believers who performed righteous deeds and encouraged each other to follow the truth and to be steadfast. Now what, in the light of all this, is the "loss" humanity is suffering everywhere and how great is its failure in the battle between good and evil because of a blind eye it turns to that great message the Arabs conveyed to it when they raised the banner of Islam and thus assumed the leadership of mankind? Having abandoned Islam, the Arab nation is in the forefront of the caravan which is heading towards loss and ruin. Since then, the banners of mankind have been for Satan, falsehood, error, darkness and loss. No banner has been raised for Allah, truth, guidance, light or success. The banner of Allah, however, is still there awaiting the arms that will raise it and the nation which under this banner will advance towards righteousness, guidance and success.
All that has been said so far concerned gain and loss in this life which, though of great importance, is very trivial in comparison with the here after. There is an everlasting life and a world of reality - the real gain and the real loss, the attainment or deprivation of Paradise and the pleasure of Allah. There man either accomplishes the highest of perfection allowed for him or completely collapses so that his humanity is crushed and ends up as worthless as pebbles or even worse in condition On a day when a man will look on what his hands have forwarded and the disbeliever will cry: 'Would that I were dust'
This surah is unequivocal in indicating the path leading humanity away from loss, "save those who have faith and do righteous deeds, and counsel one another to follow the truth and counsel one another to be steadfast". There is one right path and one only - that of faith, good deeds and the existence of a Muslim community whose members counsel each other to follow the truth and to show endurance and steadfastness.
Consequently, whenever two companions of the Messenger of Allah were about to depart from each other, they would read this surah, after which they would shake hands. This was indicative of a pledge to accept this doctrine fully, to preserve this faith, piety and a willingness to counsel each other to follow the truth and remain steadfast. It was a mutual compact to remain good elements in an Islamic society established according to that doctrine and to preserve the foundation of this society.