Surah Asr is one of the comprehensive and most instructive chapters of the Quran, in which the rise and fall of individuals and communities can be seen in the light of Quran. The traits which save individuals and by implication the communities they belong to are described in terms of Iman, Aml Salah, and advising to have steadfastness on truthfulness and to have endurance in face of challenges.
Allah says: [103:1] “By the declining day.”[103:2] “truly mankind is in loss.” A Makkan surah, al-Asr takes its title from the first word, al-?a?r, which can be understood to mean the late afternoon (hence the translation declining day), the last hour of the afternoon, the entire afternoon, the later afternoon prayer, or a period of time in the sense of an epoch. It is said that whenever two Companions of the Prophet (SAW) would meet they would not part company until one of them had recited al-?A?r in its entirety and one of them had given greetings of peace to the other (Ibn Kathir).
When viewed in relation to the previous surah, that is al takathur, ?a?r can be understood as a reference to time in general, meaning that vying for increase (102:1) prevents people from spending their time in the most beneficial manner and that the blessing of time is that for which people will be questioned (102:8). From one perspective, these three short verses contain the entire message of the Quran, namely, that human beings are in loss unless they turn to Allah. In this vein, the famous legal scholar al-Shafi (RA) is reported to have said, “Were the people to ponder this surah, it would suffice them” (Ibn Kathir).
The verse goes lies [103:1] “By the declining day.” Linguistically, ?a?r derives from the verb ?a?ara, meaning “to squeeze,” and thus relates to time that is declining or fading quickly. Among those possible meanings, many judge like Baidawi, Qurtubi, and Zamakshari, the most likely to be the ?a?r prayer which is considered to be the prayer referred to as the middlemost prayer in the Quranic vers(2:238), though that verse is also interpreted in many different ways. Some also say the term in this verse refers to the “era (?a?r) of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) because of its bounty (fall) through the renewal of Prophethood (SAW) in it” (Qurtubi). In this vein, this surah can be seen as pertaining to both the life of the individual and that of the human species; according to traditional Islamic belief, the fall of humanity continues as the historical cycle unfolds, and each generation is a degree below the generation before it, views Hosein Nasr.
[103:2] “truly mankind is in loss.” Vv. 2–3 are the response to the oath in v. 1 and are similar in meaning to 95:5–6: Then We cast him to the lowest of the low, save those who believe and perform righteous deeds; for theirs shall be a reward unceasing. The term according to Baghawi and Qurtubi says that here mankind can be seen as a reference to disbelievers or to humanity in general.
However, seen in light of the reference to the declining day, it can also be taken as a reference to humanity during the latter days of the historical cycle. According to the Quranic passage (35:39), the disbelief of the disbelievers increases them in naught but loss. The Quranic understanding of loss pertains to losing this world and the Hereafter (22:11). The losers are thus those who lose what they value most in this life, although not necessarily purely material things, and in the next life, as in (39:15): Truly the losers are those who lose their souls and their families on the Day of Resurrection. Yea! That is the manifest loss. From a spiritual perspective, loss can also be seen as a reference to losing faith and attachment to God.
When A?r is understood as a reference to time, verse 2 indicates that people who do not use their time properly are in a constant state of loss.” [103:3] “save those who believe, perform righteous deeds, exhort one another to truth, and exhort one another to patience.” In this context, truth can mean God according to Qurtubi, according to Baghawi, and Qurtubi, it is the Quran or faith and professing Divine Unity; it can also mean that at the moment of death one says to those one leaves behind, and die not except in submission (3:102). Elsewhere believers are commanded, Be patient, vie in patience (3:200). Exhorting to patience (cf. 90:17) can be interpreted as encouraging one another in maintaining religious practice in the face of difficulties and opposition (Razi).
The exhortation to truth and patience can thus be seen as an exhortation paralleling that between belief in God and performing righteous deeds (Shawkani) and, by extension, between all that one must know (discerning truth from falsehood) and all that one must do (maintaining the practices and principles of religion, no matter the obstacles). In this sense, this verse reflects the manner in which righteous deeds are believed to arise from and are always conjoined with faith and belief in God. In a broader sense, the surah emphasizes the two virtues of clinging to the truth and being patient in a world that has been spiritually darkened in general and at times full of spiritual crisis for a human being in particular.
(The Author is Director International Center for Spiritual Studies, Islamic University of Science and Technology Awantipora Pulwama. Former Director, Shah-i-Hamadan Institute of Islamic Studies, University of Kashmir Srinagar. He can be reached on email@example.com)