Guidance From Surah Al ASR
“In the name of God, Lord of Mercy, Giver of Mercy. By time, man is at a LOSS, except for those who believe, take righteous action, urge one another to truth, and urge one another to steadfastness”
Most of us have heard this surah hundreds of times. It is one of the last 14 surahs of the Quran, known as the ‘oft-repeated’ surahs. This morning as fajr entered, I had an epiphany as I reflected on this verse. As I share it with you, take what is of benefit, and leave what is not. I pray this will bring you closer to the ‘truth’.
This short surah teaches humanity four of the most important values we need to inculcate to improve ourselves: belief, action, truth, and steadfastness.
I want to draw your attention to the last of these values and connect it to the theme of the surah – time. I believe if you take the approach I’m about to share with you seriously, you will experience far more ‘sabr’ (steadfastness) in your life immediately, and with practise the quality of your life will dramatically improve.
PRESENT MOMENT AWARENESS IMPROVES ‘STEADFASTNESS’
Most people spend their whole lives either living in the past, or fantasising about the future. People who re-live positive past memories, and imagine positive future outcomes feel good about themselves and perform better day to day. People who re-live negative memories and imagine a future they’re fearful of tend to feel worse about themselves and perform poorly on a day to day basis.
However, there are a few people who transcend these patterns altogether, and they are the closest to Allah. Rather than imagining the past or fantasising about the future, they are fully aware in the present moment. In the present moment, there is no pain. Pain only exists when we imagine painful past experiences or fear negative future experiences.
I believe this is what Surah al-Asr encourages us to do: believe, take good action, be truthful & be steadfast. All of this becomes possible when we are aware of the fleeting nature of time. Instead of fantasising about the future or the past, be completely attuned to right now. That is the secret to sabr (steadfastness/patience).
There are many types of sabr, and all types are improved and easier to follow when we stop the stream of consciousness that distracts our awareness and has us ‘daydreaming’. ‘Sabr’ exists in many forms, and pervades all areas of life. When you are in the gym trying to do the last repetition of lifting that heavy weight – sabr is what keeps you going until you reach momentary muscle failure. Lack of sabr would result in no real physical muscle growth. When you are studying for your finals – sabr keeps you persevering in your studies, instead of giving up.
Sabr can be both ‘patience’, or ‘perseverance’. It’s not just the kind of patience you need when you’re sitting in the waiting lounge of a hospital. It’s also the kind of perseverance you need to keep going when all around you have given up. It’s like pushing a car with a broken engine up a hill to get it to the garage where it can be fixed. It requires that you exert consistent effort without quitting.
So, what does ‘sabr’ have to do with ‘time’?
Our stream of conscious thought is almost always about the past or the future. Both past and future are merely projections of our imagination. Neither really exist, except in our minds. The only time that really exists is right now – and most of us are wasting this moment by thinking about other moments in the past or the future. The ironic thing is that when those imagined moments come to pass, we will miss them because our minds will be focused on the imagined future and past of that moment!
The problem with constantly thinking about the past and future is that it makes practising ‘sabr’ somewhere between difficult and impossible. Let’s use the example of sabr when reciting Quran. This is one very common type of sabr we need to inculcate if we want to be deserving of Paradise.
Let’s imagine it’s Ramadan and you aim to recite one juz/para of the Quran. If your mind is thinking about how long is left until you can finish it and get back to life, or counting how many pages you’ve already read, then you are not focused on the present moment. When this happens, Quran recitation becomes hard. It’s like waiting for paint to dry. The truth is, most of the thoughts that pass through your mind during this type of worship are probably not even connected to the Quran at all.
Your stream of thought is probably more like “oh yeah, I should have made that money transfer – oh well, I’ll do it tomorrow…. And I need to pick up some vegetables on the way home because we have guests coming over tonight… I have a mild disliking for that guest ever since the time that…” and so on. Sometimes we get fixated on one particular memory, thinking about how we could have acted differently, or wishing we could change it.
However, if you switch off your stream of thought, and just ‘be’ in salah, or when reading the Quran, suddenly it’s easy. When you’re focused on being aware and present in this moment, it doesn’t really matter how long the prayer goes on for or how many pages you have left to read. It could go on forever, and you’d be fine as long as in every moment of ‘forever’, you were only aware of that moment.
How do you improve your present moment awareness, and therefore your ‘sabr’? Enter a state of no-mind. Be aware, and be free from thought altogether. Notice that there can be a gap between you being aware, and you ‘thinking’. If you catch yourself ‘thinking’ during Quran recitation or prayer, notice yourself thinking and return to the present moment. Then, when the Quran is recited, listen intently and it will affect you deeply.
As Muslims, our spirituality is not separate from our daily lives. The practise of sabr pervades all areas of life, not just worship. And so should your practise of being aware of the present moment. The more you do it, the better you get at it. It’s virtually impossible to be aware of this moment, without being overwhelmed by awe of the Majesty of Allah in all that is around you. You won’t even need to ‘think’ about it – you’ll just experience it.