In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.
THE DECLINING TIME
All praise is due to Allah, the Lord and the Cherisher of the Universe. May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon our beloved prophet, Muhammad (PBUH), his household, companions and the followers of the right guidance till the Day of Judgment. Allah, the Exalted, says in the Holy Qur'an, Chapter 103:
By (the declining) 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 (Steadfastness).
This short Chapter (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 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?
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. Man 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.
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. 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.
A third quality of faith and dignified humanity is the clarity of the relationship between the Creator and the created. 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. 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. Any ideology or concept which abases this valuation and ascribes a dishonorable 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.
Purity of motivation is yet another quality of the dignified humanity established by faith. Man is aware of Allah’s supervision over his conscience and His knowledge of his innermost undertakings. From this follows the responsibility of the believer that results from his freewill 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.
The final quality is man's elevation above greed for worldly gains and the choice of Allah's richer, everlasting reward for which all man should strive, as the Qur'an directs them to do and which results in elevation, purification and cleansing of their souls. He does good only because it is good and because Allah requires it.
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. All deeds not stemming from faith is completely disregarded by the Qur'an. Allah says: “The parable of those who reject their Lord is that their works are as ashes on which the wind blows furiously on a stormy day; they shall not be able to get aught of what they have earned. That is the straying far (from the goal).” Q14:18. "Say(Muhammad): "Shall we tell you of those who lose most in respect of their deeds? Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life while they thought that they were acquiring good by their works? They are those who deny the Ayat (signs, proofs, verses, lessons, laws, etc.) of their Lord and the fact of their having to meet Him (in the Hereafter): vain will be their works nor shall We on the Day of Judgment give them any Weight. Their reward is Hell; because they rejected Faith and took My Ayat and My Messengers by way of jest. As to those who believe and work righteous deeds they have for their entertainment the Gardens of Paradise " Q18:103-106. From all this we recognize 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.
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 interrelationship between its individual members and a single destination and which fully understands its entity as well as its duties. It realizes 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.
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 predilections, the false concepts in the environment and the tyranny, iniquity 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.
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 indispensable. 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 roadposts and the lengthy road leading to the destination.
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 Allah prescribed for their deliverance from loss and ruin.
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, the "loss" humanity is suffering everywhere is obvious in its failure to fight against evils. The banners of mankind have been for Satan, falsehood, error, oppression, double standard, 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 that will advance towards righteousness, guidance and success under this banner.
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 Hereafter. 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. In the Hereafter, 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.” Q78:40
Consequently, whenever two companions of the Messenger of Allah were about to depart from each other, or before leaving a gathering, 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.
"(Pray) Our Lord! Let not our hearts deviate (from the truth) now after Thou has guided us but grant us mercy from Your own Presence; for You are the Bestower of bounties without measure." Q3:8.
"Our Lord! Pour out constancy on us and make our steps firm; help us against those that reject faith." Q2:250
May Allah increase us in faith and knowledge. May Allah help all the oppressed people in the world.
Peace be on you.
Excerpt from “In the Shade of the Qur'an:, Vol. 30 by Sayyid Qutub.