Ibn al-Qayyim on Surah al-‘Asr

In his book detailing the oaths made in the Qur’an, ibn al-Qayyim wrote the following regarding surah al-‘Asr:

ومن ذلك اقسامه ( بالعصر ) على حال الإنسان في الآخرة هذه السورة على غاية اختصارها لها شأن عظيم حتى قال الشافعي رحمه الله : لو فكر الناس كلهم فيها لكفتهم

Another example of Allah’s oaths is that He swears by al-‘Asr about the condition of mankind in the hereafter. Despite its brevity, the contents of this surah hold something of tremendous value, so much so that al-Shafi’ee said, “If all of mankind were to reflect on this it would be sufficient for them.”

والعصر المقسم به قيل : هو الوقت الذي يلي المغرب من النهار وقيل : هو آخر ساعة من ساعاته وقيل : المراد صلاة العصر وأكثر المفسرين على أنه الدهر وهذا هو الراجح وتسمية الدهر عصرا أمر معروف في لغتهم قال : ( ولن يلبث العصران يوم وليلة إذا طلبا أن يدركا ما تيمما ) ويوم وليلة بدل من العصران

The ‘Asr that Allah is swearing by here has been said to mean several things:

  • that it is the time of day right before dusk
  • that it is the last part of the day
  • that it is referring to the ‘Asr prayer

But most of the mufassiroon hold that it is referring to time itself, and this is the strongest position. Using the word “‘Asr” to refer to time is something well-known in the Arabic language, as in this line of poetry:

ولن يلبث العصران يوم وليلة ***** إذا طلبا أن يدركا ما تيمما

The two ‘Asrs – day and night – will not persist
if they both seek to attain their goals

and here the words “day and night” are used in place of the two ‘Asrs.

 فأقسم سبحانه بالعصر لمكان العبرة والآية فيه فإن مرور الليل والنهار على تقدير قدرة العزيز العليم منتظم لمصالح العالم على اكمل ترتيب ونظام وتعاقبهما واعتدالهما تارة وأخذ أحدهما من صاحبه تارة واختلافهما في الضوء والظلام والحر والبرد وانتشار الحيوان وسكونه وانقسام العصر إلى القرون والسنين والأشهر والأيام والساعات وما دونها – آية من آيات الرب تعالى وبرهان من براهين قدرته وحكمته

Allah is swearing by al-‘Asr because of its admonishing effect and the amazing features it contains. The days and nights go by in the determined measurements that Allah – the All-Powerful, the All-Wise – has appointed for them, moving in the most perfectly regulated and organized way, for the benefit and well-being of the universe, with each perfectly following the other. Sometimes the day and the night are even in length, while sometime one of them takes from the other. The days and the nights differ in their light and darkness, in their heat and cold, and in the way that the living beings go about their activities or rest. And time can be divided into eras, years, months, days, hours, and so on – which is itself one of the miracles of our Lord and a proof of His might and wisdom.

فأقسم بالعصر الذي هو زمان أفعال الانسان ومحلها على عاقبة تلك الأفعال وجزائها ونبه بالمبدأ وهو خلق الزمان والفاعلين وأفعالهم على المعاد وأن قدرته كما لم تقصر على المبدأ لم تقصر عن المعاد وأن حكمته التي اقتضت خلق الزمان وخلق الفاعلين وأفعالهم وجعلها قسمين خيرا وشرا تأبى أن يسوى بينهم وأن لايجازى المحسن بإحسانه والمسيء بإساءته وأن يجعل النوعين رابحين أو خاسرين بل الانسان من حيث هو إنسان خاسر إلا من رحم الله فهداه ووفقه للإيمان والعمل الصالح في نفسه وأمر غيره به وهذا نظير رده الانسان إلى أسفل سافلين واستثناء الذين آمنوا وعملوا الصالحات من هؤلاء المردودين

Allah swears by al-‘Asr – which is the period and place in which people’s deeds occur – about the ultimate end result and repayment of those deeds. And by mentioning the beginning – that is, the creation of time itself, the doers and their deeds – Allah also alerts us of the ultimate return to Him and of His tremendous power. For just as He did not fall short in any respect regarding the beginning, He certainly will not fall short in any respect regarding the ultimate return.

Allah also alerts us to His wisdom which called for the creation of mankind and the creation of the doers and their deeds, as well as for dividing those actions into the two categories of good and bad – two categories which defy any attempt to be compared. And Allah’s wisdom also entailed that the good doer should be recompensed for his good deeds and that the evil-doer should recompensed for his evil deeds, and that the people would be made into two categories: the successful ones and the losers. But in fact since the very beginning of man’s existance he has been in loss – except for those whom Allah showed mercy towards: i.e. those whom He guided and gave the accord to have eemaan and righteous deeds as it relates to their own selves and to enjoin others to do so as well. And this is similar to

ثُمَّ رَدَدْنَاهُ أَسْفَلَ سَافِلِينَ

… then We return them to the lowest of the low … [95:5]

with the exception of

الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ

… those who have eemaan and do righteous good deeds … [95:6]

being excluded from those who are sent down to that lowly state.

وتأمل حكمة القرآن لما قال { إن الإنسان لفي خسر } فإنه ضيق الاستثناء وخصصه فقاله { إلا الذين آمنوا وعملوا الصالحات وتواصوا بالحق وتواصوا بالصبر } ولما قال { ثم رددناه أسفل سافلين } وسع الاستثناء وعممه فقال { إلا الذين آمنوا وعملوا الصالحات } ولم يقل { وتواصوا } فإن التواصي هو امر الغير بالإيمان والعمل الصالح وهو قدر زائد على مجرد فعله فمن لم يكن كذلك قد خسر هذا الربح فصار في خسر ولا يلزم أن يكون في أسفل سافين فإن الإنسان قد يقوم بما يجب عليه ولا يأمر غيره فإن الأمر بالمعروف والنهي عن المنكر مرتبة زائدة وقد تكون فرضا على الأعيان وقد تكون فرضا على الكفاية وقد تكون مستحبة

Reflect for a moment on the perfection of the Qur’an where Allah says:

إِنَّ الْإِنسَانَ لَفِي خُسْرٍ

Indeed, mankind is certainly in loss [103:2]

Allah then provides a narrow and specific exception in His statement:

إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْحَقِّ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ

Except for those who have eemaan, do righteous good deeds, encourage one another in the truth, and encourage one another to have sabr. [103:3]

However when Allah said:

ثُمَّ رَدَدْنَاهُ أَسْفَلَ سَافِلِينَ

then We return them to the lowest of the low [95:5]

He made the exception broader and more general by saying:

إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ

except for those who have eemaan and do righteous good deeds [95:6]

without saying:

وَتَوَاصَوْا

and those who encourage one another … [103:3]

for mutual encouragement is something besides just eemaan and righteous good deeds; it is an additional merit beyond that. Whoever does not have those additional qualities has lost out on this success and thus fallen into a state of loss, however that does not mean that they are in “the lowest of the low” because such a person may have done what was binding on them but not enjoined others to do so, and commanding the good and forbidding evil is a level above just having eemaan and doing good deeds. In some cases it could be an individual obligation; in other cases it could be a collective obligation of the society; and still in other cases it could be meritorious but not mandatory.

والتواصي بالحق يدخل فيه الحق الذي يجب والحق الذي يستحب والصبر يدخل فيه الصبر الذي يجب والصبر الذي يستحب

وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْحَقِّ

… and encourage one another in the truth … [103:3]

includes both the truth that is mandatory and the truth that is meritorious, and

وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ

… and encourage one another to have sabr. [103:3]

includes both the sabr that is mandatory and the sabr that is meritorious.

فهؤلاء إذا تواصوا بالحق وتواصوا بالصبر حصل لهم من الربح ما خسره أولئك الذين قاموا بما يجب عليهم في أنفسهم ولم يأمروا غيرهم به وإن كان أولئك لم يكونوا من الذين خسروا أنفسهم وأهليهم

So when the people encourage one another in the truth and encourage one another to have sabr, they will achieve that success lost out on by the people who only establish what was obligatory on their own selves but did not enjoin others to do the same, even if those people were not among those who ultimately lost their own selves and their families.

فمطلق الخسار شيء والخسار المطلق شيء وهو سبحانه إنما قال { إن الإنسان لفي خسر } ومن ربح في سلعة وخسر في غيرها قد يطلق عليه أنه في خسر وأنه ذو خسر كما قال عبدالله بن عمرو رضي الله عنهما : لقد فرطنا في قراريط كثيرة فهذا نوع تفريط وهو نوع خسر بالنسبة إلى من حصل ربح ذلك

That is because using the term “loss” in a general way is one thing and using it in an absolute sense is another. In this ayah Allah only said:

إِنَّ الْإِنسَانَ لَفِي خُسْرٍ

Indeed, mankind is certainly in loss [103:2]

and someone who succeeds in one area but loses out in another can still be referred to as being “in loss” or that he “lost out”. This is like when ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr said, “We certainly missed out on a great amount of good!” This type of missing out on something is a type of loss relative to the success which one could potentially have achieved.

ولما قال في سورة والتين { ثم رددناه أسفل سافلين } قال { إلا الذين آمنوا وعملوا الصالحات } فقسم الناس إلى هذين القسمين فقط

But when Allah said in surah al-Teen:

ثُمَّ رَدَدْنَاهُ أَسْفَلَ سَافِلِينَ

then We return them to the lowest of the low [95:5]

He then said:

إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ

except for those who have eemaan and do righteous good deeds [95:6]

thus dividing mankind as falling into one of these two categories [i.e. the lowest of the low or otherwise].

 ولما كان الإنسان له قوتان قوة العلم وقوة العمل وله حالتان حالة يأتمر فيها بأمر غيره وحالة يأمر فيها غيره استثنى سبحانه من كمل قوته العلمية بالإيمان وقوته العملية بالعمل الصالح وإنقاد لأمر غيره له بذلك وأمر غيره به من الانسان الذي هو في خسر

And mankind has two areas of ability:

  1. ability in terms of knowledge
  2. ability in terms of actions

and he has two situations that he could be in:

  1. a situation in which he is being instructed by others
  2. a situation in which he is instructing others

So Allah has excluded the following type of people from being in a state of loss: those who fully embody their knowledge potential with eemaan and their action potential with righteous good deeds, and who comply with the instructions of others to do so, and who instruct others to do so as well.

  فإن العبد له حالتان حالة كمال في نفسه وحالة تكميل لغيره وكماله وتكميله موقوف على أمرين : علم بالحق وصبر عليه فتضمنت الآية جميع مراتب الكمال الانساني من العلم النافع والعمل الصالح والاحسان إلى نفسه بذلك وإلى أخيه به وانقياده وقبوله لمن يأمره بذلك

For the slave has two conditions that he could inhabit:

  1. the state of fully embodying goodness in himself
  2. the state of helping others to embodying that goodness in themselves

And both his own goodness and activating that goodness in others hinge on two qualities:

  1. knowing the truth
  2. being firm and consistent in it

So this ayah encompasses all of the levels of human perfection: beneficial knowledge, righteous good deeds, being good to oneself and others by embodying those qualities, and accepting and complying with the one who instructs him to have those qualities.

وقوله تعالى {وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْحَقِّ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ} إرشاد إلى منصب الإمامة في قوة الدين كقوله تعالى {وَجَعَلْنَا مِنْهُمْ أَئِمَّةً يَهْدُونَ بِأَمْرِنَا لَمَّا صَبَرُوا وَكَانُوا بِآياتِنَا يُوقِنُونَ} فبالصبر واليقين تنال الإمامة في الدين

Allah’s statement:

وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْحَقِّ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ

… and who encourage one another in truth and who encourage one another to have sabr [103:3]

is a form of guidance to the rank of leadership in terms of the strength of one’s religion, similar to Allah’s statement:

وَجَعَلْنَا مِنْهُمْ أَئِمَّةً يَهْدُونَ بِأَمْرِنَا لَمَّا صَبَرُوا ۖ وَكَانُوا بِآيَاتِنَا يُوقِنُونَ

And We made from among them leaders guiding by Our command when they were patient and when they were certain of Our signs. [32:24]

for sabr and certainty of faith will enable one to attain the level of leadership in the religion.

والصبر نوعان نوع على المقدور كالمصائب ونوع على المشروع وهذا النوع أيضا نوعان صبر على الأوامر وصبر عن النواهي فذاك صبر على الإرادة والفعل وهذا صبر عن الإرادة والفعل

And there are two types of sabr:

1. Sabr towards those things which are divinely ordained such as calamitous events
2. Sabr towards those things which are divinely legislated

And this second category can be further divided into two subcategories:

2a. Consistency in doing what Allah has commanded
2b. Steadfastness in avoiding what Allah has prohibited

And both of these subcategories entail having sabr as it relates both to one’s intentions and one’s actions.

فأما النوع الأول من الصبر فمشترك بين المؤمن والكافر والبر والفاجر لا يثاب عليه لمجرده إن لم يقترن به إيمان واحتساب قال النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم في حق ابنته “مرها فلتصبر ولتحتسب” وقال تعالى {إِلا الَّذِينَ صَبَرُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ أُولَئِكَ لَهُمْ مَغْفِرَةٌ وَأَجْرٌ كَبِيرٌ} وقال تعالى {بَلَى إِنْ تَصْبِرُوا وَتَتَّقُوا} وقال {وَإِنْ تَصْبِرُوا وَتَتَّقُوا} ـ

As for this first category of sabr, it is something found both in the believer and the disbeliever, both the righteous and the impious. It alone does not result in rewards unless it is coupled with eemaan and the anticipation of rewards. Regarding the imminent death of his daughter, the Prophet said, “Instruct her to exercise sabr and to anticipate a reward.” And Allah said:

إِلَّا الَّذِينَ صَبَرُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ أُولَـٰئِكَ لَهُم مَّغْفِرَةٌ وَأَجْرٌ كَبِيرٌ

Except for those who exercise sabr and do righteous good deeds. Those ones will have forgiveness and a generous reward. [11:11]

and His statement:

بَلَى إِنْ تَصْبِرُوا وَتَتَّقُوا

Rather, if you exercise sabr and have taqwa … [3:125]

and also His statement:

وَإِن تَصْبِرُوا وَتَتَّقُوا

If you exercise sabr and have taqwa … [3:120]

فالصبر بدون الإيمان والتقوى بمنزلة قوة البدن الخالي عن الإيمان والتقوى وعلى حسب اليقين بالمشروع يكون الصبر على المقدور

Sabr without eemaan and taqwa is like physical strength without any eemaan or taqwa. And one’s sabr in the face of pre-ordained matters will only be as strong as his certain faith in the legislated matters.

وقال تعالى {فاصبر إن وعد الله حق ولا يستخفنك الذين لا يوقنون} فأمره أن يصبر ولا يتشبه بالذين لا يقين عندهم في عدم الصبر فإنهم لعدم يقينهم عدم صبرهم وخفوا واستخفوا قومهم ولو حصل لهم اليقين والحق لصبروا وما خفوا ولا استخفوا فمن قل يقينه قل صبره ومن قل صبره خف واستخف

And Allah said:

فَاصْبِرْ إِنَّ وَعْدَ اللَّـهِ حَقٌّ ۖ وَلَا يَسْتَخِفَّنَّكَ الَّذِينَ لَا يُوقِنُونَ

Exercise sabr! The promise of Allah is certainly true. And do not let those without any certainty disturb you. [30:60]

So Allah commanded the Prophet to exercise sabr and to not be like those who do not have any certainty of faith in their lack of sabr. It is because of their lack of certainty that they lack any sabr. They themselves wither away and they disdain the people of certainty, but if they were to have certainty of faith and the truth then they would not wither away nor would they disdain them. For whoever has little certainty will have little sabr, and whoever has little sabr will wither away and disdain others.

 فالموقن الصابر رزين ملان لأنه ذو لب وعقل ومن لا يقين له ولا صبر عنده خفيف طائش تلعب به الأهواء والشهوات كما تلعب الرياح بالشيء الخفيف والله المستعان

Meanwhile the person with certainty who exercises sabr is self-possessed and full of life for he is the possessor of reason and intellect. But the person without any certainty or sabr is without firm grounding or direction; his own desires and whims blow him about just as the wind blows about some insignificant thing, and Allah’s aid is sought!

[al-Tibyan fee Aqsam al-Qur’an pg. 83-88]

See also: Tafsir of Surah al-‘Asr: Imam al-Sa’di

See also: Two Causes for Our Deficiencies: Imam al-Sa’di

See also: A Reward Without Interruption: Tafsir al-Tabari

One thought on “Ibn al-Qayyim on Surah al-‘Asr

  1. Pingback: Tafsir of Surah al-‘Asr: Imam al-Sa’di | Tulayhah

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