The early Muslims called it al-`Asr. The great scholar of Qur’an, al-Tabari, God have mercy on him, narrates with a sound chain from ‘Ubayd Allah the son of Husayn, “Whenever two of the Prophet’s companions would meet, they would not disperse until they read Surah al-‘Asr.” Also, in most of the books dedicated to explaining the Qur’an (al-tafsir), this name is given to the surah (chapter). This is also the case with the existent copies of the Qur’an, new and old- this name is used. However, in some books of tafsir, and in Sahih al-Bukhari, it is named “I swear by `Asr,” emphasizing the letter of oath, و, found at the beginning of the chapter.
Time of Revelation, Number of Verses, and Order
The majority of scholars (jumhur) hold that it was sent in the Meccan Period. The famous scholars, Qatada, Mujahid and Muqatil contend that it was revealed in Medina. This opinion is also attributed to the great companion of the Prophet ﷺ (peach be upon him), Ibn `Abbas. Imam al-Suytti, in his book Itqan fi `Ulum al-Qur’an, did not mention it as a chapter that has more than one name.
Scholars agree that it consists of three verses, making it, Surah al-Kawthar and Surah al-Nasr the shortest chapters in the Qur’an.
It was the thirteenth chapter revealed to the Prophet ﷺ, after Surah al-Inshirah and before Surah al-‘Adiyat.
Reason for Revelation
Imam al-Razi states that the pagan Meccans used to say, “Muhammad is a loser.” Thus, this chapter was sent.
Usage in History
- This chapter was recited by ‘Amru, the son of al-As (see Surah al-Kawthar), when he was asked by Musalma the Liar to read something that was sent to the Prophet ﷺ.
- It was written on a letter from Zaid the son of Ali, the son of al-Hussain, the son of Ali the son of Abi Talib to the people of Mosul.
- Affirms great loss for those who reject God’s message after it reached them correctly, and for those who accepted it but failed to live according to it.
- Promise of success and felicity for those who believe in God, coupling that with acts of righteousness.
- The blessings of working together.
- The blessings of truth.
- The importance of patience.
Scholars note that this chapter contains the universals of Islam. For that reason, the companions radi Allahu `anhum ( may Allah be pleased with them) would not leave each other until they read it.
Imam al-Shafi’i has some wonderful things to say about it,
“لو تدبر الناس هذه السورة لوسعتهم”
“If people were to ponder on this chapter, it would amaze them.”
“لو لم ينزل إلى الناس إلا هي لكفتهم”
“If this was the only chapter sent to humanity, it would suffice them.”
“الناس في غفلة من هذه السورة”
“People are negligent of this chapter.”
“By al-‘Asr!” (Qur’an, 103:1)
Allah, the Most High, is swearing by time. The letter و found at the beginning of this verse represents an oath (wa al-qasam) and its purpose is to emphasis the importance its object. In this case, al-`Asr.
There are a number possibilities for what al-`Asr means:
1. The Time from the End of Noon until Sunset
The word `Asr signifies the time period between shortly after noon, when a person’s shadow is equal in height to his body, until the sun begins to turn red as it sets. It is the time in which many people return from work, their day comes to an end and they are reminded of life’s fluctuations. Thus, if we accept this interpretation, it is very similar to other chapters that swear by certain times of the day, reminding of God’s blessings and mercies. Also, one is reminded that the end of the day’s events are simply a preparation for the end of one’s life. Or, it is a reminder of old age – the morning being one’s youth and the sunset, a metaphor for the end of one’s life.
2. The Afternoon (`Asr) Prayer
It could also be an oath by the `Asr prayer. This prayer is one of the five daily prayers enjoined upon Muslims by God. It is held in high esteem due to a number of texts that mention its virtues. Most scholars say that the verse, “And guard the middle prayer” (Qur’an 2:238), is in reference to it. There are also a number of Prophetic traditions that illustrate its importance: “Whoever missed the ‘Asr prayer, it is though he lost his family and his wealth,” and “A person who observes the two cool prayers will enter Paradise, the morning prayer and the afternoon prayer (al-`Asr).”
If we accept this contention, then the word al-`Asr here is a pronoun known to most as the prayer itself, not a specific time period.
3. Time in Its Entirety
It is possible that al-`Asr here means every era from the time of Adam to the last Day.
4. A Specific Era
When used in the possessive form, its universal meaning is restricted to a certain time or person, `Asr of Prophet Abraham or the `Asr of the Ottomans. In light of that, many scholars said that ‘al-`Asr here means the era (`asr) of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Then, its understanding would be like me saying, this day, if I said to you, “This day I did…” (al’Ahad al-Huduri).
This is supported by the theory of Imam al-Razi, who said, “Allah swore by the era of the Prophet in this verse, He swore by the place he resided when He said, “And you are free of obligations in this city” (Qur’an 90:1) and He swore by his life when He said, “By your life.” (Qur’an 15:72)
It is also possible the meaning here is the time of God’s final revelation to humanity, al-Islam since it, like the afternoon, is the last in a succession of other things, in this case light. This is supported by the statement of the Prophet ﷺ who said,
“The likeness of the Muslims to the Jews and Christians is like a man who hired a laborer to work for him the entire day. The Jews worked half a day [until noon], then said, ‘We have no need for your payment and the work we have done is nullified.’ Thus, he looked to hire another group saying, ‘Finish the rest of the day’s labor and I will recompense you as I promised the others.’ They worked until the afternoon [`Asr], then said, “We have no need for your reward, and the work we have done is nullified.’ Then, he hired another group who will work from the afternoon until sunset, completing the task he prescribed, attaining the rewards of the other two groups. And you are this group.”
When looking at the rest of the chapter and its contents, this meaning seem more probable because the chapter address two types of people: the people of Islam and the people who rejected it. The first are excused from the threat of loss in the Hereafter, while the second are eligible for it.
“Certainly, humanity is [stepped] in loss.” (Qur’an, 103:2)
It could mean the pagan Meccan mentioned above or those who received the message during the time of the Prophet ﷺ, and those who will receive it after him.
Khusar is the opposite of profit but carries with it the meaning of bankruptcy. It’s meaning here is in the Hereafter and not in this life. It could also mean that they wasted their main capital, their time. In other words, instead of using this life to gain, by faith and works, the bargained it away with disbelief and sin. This life, as noted by Ibn al-Jawzi, is a crop to be cultivated in the next. al-Busti wrote in his poem ‘Unwan al-Hikam,
زيادة المرء في دنياه نقصان ربحه غير محض الخير خسران
“A person’s increase is his worldly life is deficiency
His profit, which is not purely for good, is loss.”
Allah says, “Their business earned no profit and they were not guided.” (Qur’an 2:16)
Loss also is used in the indefinite (Ar. Nakira) form. al-Razi says this signifies something frightening or an attack on those who attacked the Prophet ﷺ. Based on the first interpretation, the meaning is, “All of humanity is in a state of loss known solely to Allah!”
The prepositional phrase في [Eng. In] is used with “loss” here to show complete loss, and its meaning is stronger than saying “la khasir” (Certainly lost). The word fi carries the meaning of containment. For example, we say, “The water was في [in] the pot.” So, just as the water was contained by the pot, these people are contained by loss! It also, implies that their loss is deep, just as water sits deep in a pot. This will be addressed further in the chapter called “The Elephant” insha’allah (God willingly).
“Except those who believe and do good deeds. And cooperate on truth. And cooperate on patience.” (Qur’an, 103:3)
The verse starts with an exception, إلا, reminding the listener that the first ruling still applies, but not to those about to be mentioned. The word إلا’s function is a connected restricter (khas mutasil), dividing humanity into two groups, those who will lose in the Hereafter, and those who will succeed. One can only imagine the delight of the early Muslims when this chapter was sent. Surrounded by hardships and with the storms of tests a trials awaiting them, this chapter was certainly a breath of fresh air that gave life to their hearts.
This is a demonstrative pronoun whose function is to restrict the ruling, success, to those who attain the qualities mentioned after it.
This is the pattern of the Qur’an, especially in the early chapters, the details of belief are left alone and the general ideals of faith are addressed. It is possible that “faith” was left unexplained here because the Prophet’s ﷺ community was still in its infancy. Thus, the concept was presented before its particulars. Our community must insure that when teaching faith we are responsible, pragmatic and positive. Ibn Jawzi censured those who went to the masses, teaching them about God’s attributes and the particulars of creed, before the fundamental beliefs had settled in their hearts. Sh. ‘Abdu al-Rahman al-Hijazi used to say to us, “There is a difference between studying creed and cultivating it.”
This word is also used in a general way, signifying the absence of details to the budding Muslim community. For those who understand its meanings, it implies three things: observing the orders of Allah, leaving the prohibited and repenting for any lapses in the first two. For that reason, the promise of loss and success are understood to be in the Hereafter- one should not be impressed by the delights of those who reject God in this life.
What is clear from this verse is that faith and good deeds are causes for one to be successful in the Hereafter. It is also understood that their opposites are causes for one to be a loser. This includes those who reject God and those who, although they accept faith, fail to observe its mandates without repenting.
“And cooperate on truth. And cooperate on patience.”
Both of these qualities are parts of the universal, “Good deeds.” In addition, “patience” is part of “truth.” In Arabic, this style is employed if a person wants to show something’s importance in its relationship to a whole. This happens in English a lot, especially in sports: “Presenting the L.A Lakers and Kobe Bryant.” While Kobe is part of the Lakers, he is singled out because of his importance to the whole. Here, calling to the “truth” is singled out from “good deeds” and “patience” from the “truth” to show their importance to the whole!
The form of this verb is taf’ul, signifying cooperation. Thus, the meaning is to cooperate together towards both truth and patience. Cooperation covers all acts of life, even learning. Scholars of fiqh said, “It is recommended for a person to study in group.” Ponder!