Last month we explored the Concept of Time in the Qur’an – Part1, specifically Surah al-Asr. Now we turn to further guidance from the inspired Messenger . There are two hadiths I’d like to discuss: the first sums up the whole attitude of Islam towards time; the second is a famous hadith which many have had trouble understanding.
The Prophet said: ”Take advantage of five matters before five other matters: your youth before you become old; your health, before you fall sick; your wealth, before you become poor; your free time before you become preoccupied, and your life, before your death.” (Narrated by Ibn Abbas in the Mustadrak of Hakim & Musnad Imam Ahmad. Sahih)
The scholars regard this as one of the core hadiths of the religion as it spurs one to right action in so many different life circumstances. It contains two key principles with respect to Islam’s approach to time management: a sense of urgency to our life and expressing thanks for our blessings.
The whole language of this hadith points to the limited nature of our life and how time is running out. In Surah al-Rahman, verse 26, Allah (Subhanahu Wa’Tala) beautifully states ”Kullu man alaiyha faan” (All that is on earth will perish); describing the essential reality that every moment that passes is a moment that brings our death closer; our lifespan is like an upturned sand-timer and the last grain could drop soon. So the Prophet reminds us to act quickly before old age, before sickness, before our money decreases, before we get too busy and before our death. In other words, we must act now before it’s too late.
This links to the second principle of shukr, or gratefulness. Each one of the five matters are five blessings of the highest magnitude: youth(which Arabs have traditionally defined as less than 40!), health, wealth, free time and life itself. Allah, Most Glorious, has informed us of the secret of keeping and indeed increasing our blessings: “If you are grateful, I shall certainly give you increase” (Qur’an 14:7). How then do we give thanks for these blessings? Beyond thanking Allah regularly with our tongues, scholars explain that true gratefulness is to “use the blessing for what they were intended for” or as Junayd al-Baghdadi (May Allah have mercy on him) explained at a mere seven years of age: “That one not disobey Allah using the blessings He has given.” So, for instance, we should spend our youth in seeking beneficial knowledge; our wealth in sadaqa; our energy to worship Allah more.
The last two matters mentioned in the hadith relate directly to time management. Our free time is what we have left to work with. In Surah al-Inshirah (94:7), an oft-recited verse, ”fa iza faraghta fa-nsab”, Allah commands us: ‘So when you are free, toil on [in worship]!’ After a hard day’s work in the office, kitchen or school our first inclination is to rest. Yet the Prophet(, who had more responsibilities and hard work than many of us put together, was commanded to ‘toil on’. This is why we read of his long hours of Salah in the night to the extent that his feet swelled.
I remember a scholar once criticizing the Western work culture of counting the hours to 5 P.M., the days to the weekend and the weeks to the holidays. As a teacher, I can attest that in my profession we are accustomed to constantly counting down till the holidays! However, for the Muslim, whether it is the evening/morning, work-day/holiday, weekday/weekend, our goal and purpose for every moment should be to worship Allah in the best way possible. When we’re at work, we’re happy to work for the sake of Allah; when we’re home we’re happy to worship Allah. No doubt this is how the early Muslims, the scholars and the pious from every generation lived. I live next door to a local Imam and I can tell you that when he’s not at work with his wife teaching at the madrasa, he’s at home teaching Hifz to his children. Though you and I may be far from such incredible striving, we can at least ensure that a portion of each night is reserved for toiling in worship. Many Islamic leaders recommend even a few rakahs of Tahajjud before Fajr comes in. By devoting at least a small portion of each night, after our day’s work, to worship we can hope that our life, the fifth and final blessing mentioned in the hadith, is not wasted.
“Allah said, ‘The son of Adam wrongs me for he curses Ad-Dahr (Time); though I am Ad-Dahr (Time). In My Hands are all things, and I cause the revolution of day and night’” (Al-Bukhari).
This hadith used to confuse me for many years until I asked one of my teachers for the meaning of the phrase ‘I am Time’ for I knew that Allah, Most High, is beyond time and does not resemble His creation. It was explained to me that the Arabs of the time of the Prophet (saw) were very proud people, especially proud of their strength, vitality, power, wealth and status. Since old age,and death would eventually erode all of these qualities they would grow despondent and curse time as they felt it ‘made them old’. Allah responded to this ignorant custom with this hadith qudsi, saying in effect, “I alone effect the changes in you (due to time).” Thus by cursing time, one is indirectly cursing Allah (just as one would be if you cursed destiny which is also only effected by Allah).
There is an immediate relevance to us here. Many a time, we find ourselves having a difficult situation or experiencing ‘one of those days’ where everything seemingly goes wrong. Sometimes, Shaytan overcomes us at such moments and we find ourselves thinking thoughts such as ‘Why does Allah create days like this?’. Na’uzu billah, such thoughts are like modern curses of time and we should guard against such words or thoughts. Indeed, if we contemplate the blessings of time in our times, there is much to be thankful for. Most readers of this article are living away from the many troubled Muslim lands where they are suffering carnage, warfare, famine, oppression or poverty.
How can we complain about lack of free time, when there are thousands of Muslims who have to spend their ‘free time’ searching for food, dodging bombs or just trying to survive? My wife attended a recent lecture by the famous modern muhaddith, Shaykh Mohammed Akram Nadwi, about women scholars in Islamic history (he’s researched thousands of them). When asked how they found time to do all their incredible studies of Hadith or Fiqh on top of their household duties, the shaykh explained that they were as busy as we were (indeed had to walk great distances without modern transport)and yet found time.
Women(and men) today are simply lazy compared to our great predecessors!
In the next article, I’ll be discussing how the great scholars of the past, such as the muhaddithat just mentioned, used their time.