103:1 CONSIDER the Declining day.
103:2 Surely man is indeed in loss,
103:1-2 In part 30 of the Qur’ān four other sūrahs have a title bearing names of various parts of the day: Fajr (s. 89), Al-Lail (s. 92), ad-Duhā (s. 93) and Falaq (s. 113). In each of this sūrah the timing of the day is used to create a solemn prelude to the resultant theme. Except for sūrah Falaq, the rest of sūrahs begin with oath particle waw (waw al-qasam) that assumes a rhetorical role intended to stimulate intense attention of the listener as much as to the reader to make them believe what follows after the oath. Such oath particle in the introductory verse of a sūrah provides a powerful treatment of the opening word that could not have been produced in its traditional treatment.
This sūrah was revealed in the first part of early Makkan part, probably in the 3rd year of prophethood, when the atmosphere in Makkah was still predominantly authoritarian, oligarchic and/or plutocratic, where wealthy few became inheritors of power, and their economic supremacy was gaining ascendancy over others, opening avenues for the select elements of the society to benefit from wealth and might. In addition to this, the society in general was highly irreligious, and any religiosity was primarily dictated and determined by the privileged few. The Qur’ān frequently targeted this society and it’s leaning for certain ideologies that had no lasting value. This was done through many sūrahs and codifications, and in turn provided moral and spiritual teachings for generations to come.
In this sūrah timing of the day is used to remind people about enormous loss in life if ‘time’ is wasted and prime duties in the life are not done. Time is that quality of nature that cannot be reversed. The term al-‘Asr (lit. the declining day, afternoon, time, epoch) rightly attempts to arouse a thoughtful reminiscence of the life of a person standing at the fag end of his or her life. After a person lived his or her prime ages, most of them do not promptly realize, and many never realize, time sneaked upon him or her far too quickly while key objectives of life remained unattended. These objectives in life certainly do not amount to fulfilling earthly desires, gratifying needs, or even leading a calm, quiet and peaceful life. The loss (khasir, lit. to wander away from the right path, to be deceived, to suffer loss) evidently brings to forefront those key factors that would eventually determine the ultimate course of human being in the Hereafter. Mention of insān rather than believer (mu’min) indicates the caution mentioned in the following verses embraces entire mankind, not just a select group or nation.
103:3 except those who believe and do good, and exhort one another to Truth, and enjoin one another to perseverance.
103:3 The verse affirms four key activities that determine who would incur loss. The sūrah, therefore, does not waste its time in detailing what would cause the loss, but pragmatically points out everything other than four activities would tantamount to loss. The first activity is to believe (imān). The word imān is not a mere lip profession, but it entails intellectual progression towards realization of God’s existence, His propositions and His creations, and involves certain practice (‘amal), some of which are prescribed as rites and others call for innate responses. The requirement to do good (‘amal swālihāt) is integral to imān, therefore it is stated immediately after the first activity. The best way of beginning amal swālihāt is to do good to one’s own soul (2:110; 41:46; 45:15; 64:16), by striving to improve the self, followed by doing good to humanity.
The last two items are drawn on two virtues: seeking truth (haqq) and practicing perseverance (sabr). These two virtues are not only to be practiced by the self, but also to be exercised through mutual counseling. Man is not just an isolated individual in a society; he has a collective identity too. Thus, the requirements expected of an individual member of society also become the requirements expected of other members of the society. However, other members may not possess same faith, and while keeping in mind Islamic ethos strictly forbids coercing faith upon another, all it can ask is mutual agreement towards honoring certain social activities. The dual mention of wasaya (lit. to enjoin, to command) points to bringing other members of the society to mutually remind and honor each other’s obligations towards truth and patience. For more reading on significance of patience and perseverance see 3:200.