“O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?”
– William Shakespeare
As another year slips by, dragging us inexorably in its wake, I thought it would be prudent to reflect upon the stuff that makes up the substance of our lives: Time itself. Perhaps no other commodity is so precious yet so flagrantly wasted by so many. Our beings are bound up with the passage of time and she never fails to leave her mark:
“It is God who created you from weakness then gave you after weakness strength; then, after your strength, causes you to become weak and grey haired. He creates what He pleases, and He is the Knowing, the Powerful.” (Q.30:54)
Anyone who seriously reflects on the enigma of time and its ceaseless, unremitting power is forced to contend with its basic imprisonment of us as finite creatures in a mortal world. Who can escape? None, says the Quran:
“Wherever you may be, death will overtake you even if you are in fortresses constructed lofty and high!” (Q.4:78)
“Every soul will taste death; and you will receive your recompense on the Day of Resurrection. Then whoever is drawn away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise shall attain triumph. And what is the life of this world except the stuff of delusion?” (Q.3:180)
Our moments accumulate to become months, decades and eventually lifetimes and soon we find ourselves falling back into the earth from which we were created[i]. Yet caught up in the mad monotony of ‘living life’, we often forget why we were given life in the first place. The Quran, in one of its most pithy and potent chapters, reminds us with forceful clarity about why we are here and what we must do to succeed:
“By Time! Indeed Man is in Loss. Except those who have faith and do good works, and exhort one another to truth and exhort one another to patience.” (Q.103:1-3)
While oceans of meaning have been extrapolated from these three terse verses, I wish to focus on a single theme. Time is the capital wealth of man and by virtue of being alive in the world we are perpetually in a state of loss. As an Arab poet has so beautifully expressed:
“Your life comprises a few breaths which can all be counted
With each exhalation, a portion of your life has diminished.”
One of the righteous aslaaf said he understood the meaning of this chapter when watching an ice-seller at work; constant diligence was required and a moment’s ghaflat or heedlessness saw his capital melt away. Our lives are tantamount to mounds of snow melting relentlessly in the sun of Time’s unblinking glare.
Soon nothing shall remain and every trace be evaporated. Meanwhile, we have an opportunity to invest our time wisely in the four abiding principles of success outlined in the foregoing chapter. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of God be upon him, said, “Each person starts his day a vendor of his soul, either setting it free or sealing its destruction.”[ii]
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Perhaps one of the tragedies of the modern age is the extent to which so many people waste so much time. “Men talk of killing time,” says the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, “while time quietly kills them.” Our religion calls us to value our moments in this world and invest them wisely in benefitting our fellow creatures and our own eternal souls. I conclude with the words of one of medieval Islam’s greatest thinkers, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali:
“Your time should not be without any structure, such that you occupy yourself arbitrarily with whatever comes along. Rather, you must take account of yourself and order your worship during the day and the night, assigning to each period of time an activity that must not be neglected nor replaced by another activity. By this ordering of time, the blessing in time will show itself. A person who leaves himself without a plan as animals do, not knowing what he is to do at any given moment, will spend most of his time fruitlessly.
Your time is your life, and your life is your capital: by it you make your trade, and by it you will reach the eternal bounties in the proximity of Allah. Every single breath of yours is a priceless jewel, because it is irreplaceable; once it is gone, there is no return for it. So do not be like fools who rejoice each day as their wealth increases while their lives decrease. What good is there in wealth that increases while one’s lifespan decreases?
Do not rejoice except in an increase of knowledge or an increase of good works. Truly they are your two friends who will accompany you in your grave, when your spouse, your wealth, your children, and your friends will remain behind.”[iii]
[i] “From it (the earth) did We create you, and into it shall We return you, and from it shall We bring you forth another time.” (Q.20:55)
[ii] Hadith 23 in Imam Nawawi’s collection of Arba’een; related by Muslim.
[iii] Al-Allaf, Mashhad & Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf (trans.), 2010. Al-Ghazali’s ‘The Beginning of Guidance – Bidayat al-Hidayah’, London: White Thread Press, pg.60.
Riyaz Timol writes on behalf of 1st Ethical Charitable Trust who empower Muslims to enrich communities through faith-based campaigns. For more information, please visit www.1stethical.com