By Tauseef A Parray
March 06, 2015
The Spirit of Islam
THIS write-up presents an overview of the concepts of Time, History, and Dynamics of Change in Islamic perspective, with references to the relevant Qur’anic verses. Islamic Concept of History: History is, according to classical Arabic historiographers, the “knowledge pertaining to a country, customs and manners of a people, remains of the people of yore, as well as account of the actions of those alive”. The early dogmatic view of the purpose of writing history was to ‘obtain pleasure of Allah’. But the Quran stresses the need of historical knowledge as a moral exhortation of the faithful when it says: “Have they not travelled in the land to see the Nature of the Consequences for those who disbelieved before them?
They were mightier than these in power and (in the) traces (which they) left behind them in the earth; yet Allah seized them for their sins and they had no protector for Allah” (Surah Ghafir/Al Mu’min, 40: 21). Abdullah Yusuf Ali, in its explanation, writes: “We can learn from the history of previous nations. Many of them were more powerful, or have left finer and more imposing monuments and made a deeper impression on the world around them than any particular generation addressed. … They were called to account and punished. None of the power or pomp or skill of which they boasted could for a moment ward off the punishment when it came in Allah’s good time”.
History is, in the Quranic perspective, a peripheral tussle between forces of good and evil—a theme to which the Holy Qur’an frequently refers and quotes instances from history, both the past and contemporary. The Holy Qur’an asks the human being again and again to go through the world with open eyes and diligent hearts. About ‘Islamic concept of History’, Nisar Ahmad Faruqi writes: “The Holy Qur’an, while referring to the bygone nations and extinct civilizations” has “presented the idea that ‘Nature’, or in Islamic terminology ‘the Will of Allah’, does not work blindly and arbitrarily”, and that the “Quranic way of referring to ancient peoples, and their civilizations and of exhorting the faithful to learn a lesson from their history, clearly show that Islam is a religion essentially history conscious”.
Noble Quran, the first and most authentic available source of the history of Islam, covers various events of the lives of Allah’s Prophets like Hadrat Adam, Nuh, Ibrahim, Yusuf, Musa, ‘Isa (AS) and the Holy Prophet (PBUH). The truth is that with the thoughtful study of the Holy Qur’an, a particular world-view takes place giving birth to a particular behaviour. Thus, the “Study of the Holy Qur’an brings us to the conclusion”, as Muhammad Munawar (in his book “Iqbal and Quranic Wisdom”) writes, that “the fountain head of several sciences and disciplines is the Book [of Allah] itself and history is one of them”.
The Holy Qur’an repeatedly refers to the rise and ruin of nations as a phenomenon to be studied for guidance. It urges mankind to sojourn through the world and see themselves the fate of those who were once powerful and proud, but rebelled against Allah and were eventually destroyed for their wickedness. Various verses, like 20:128, 22:45-46, obviously contain a “great lesson” for humanity. If a nation goes astray, it can only learn from history of the earlier nations which were destroyed in punishment, for their evils. Thus, it is clear that the Quran is replete with the verses which refer to the remains of ancient civilizations and the purpose of these verses is to remind human beings of the deeds and misdeeds of their predecessors so that “their hearts and minds may thus learn wisdom”.
Qur’anic Approach to ‘Time’ and Dynamics of Change:
Surah al-‘Asr (Q.103), Surah al-Jathiyah (45:24), and other related Quranic verses describe time, and the dynamics of change. “The themes of time, the dynamics of change, and processes and patterns of history, are interwoven throughout the Qur’an”, writes Ziauddin Sardar in his ‘Reading the Qur’an’ (p.229). Surah al-Asr directly invites us to ‘consider time’, and has a number of connotations, all relating to time. The term, embodying the “notion of movement”, has been rendered variedly by translators—such as “The Declining Day”, “Time”, “The Flight of Time”, or “Time through the Ages”. All in all, the emphasis is on “movement of time, a time that cannot be recaptured”. The Surah suggests that time is valuable, it should be seen as an opportunity to pursue truth and do good, otherwise it would be lost and we would be lost along with it. In this Surah, for Abdullah Yusuf Ali, an appeal is made to Time as “one of the Creations of God, of which everyone knows something but of which no one can fully explain the exact significance”. Moreover, in Surah al-Jathiyah (45:24), Allah proclaims that “And they say there is nothing but our life of this world, we die and we live and nothing destroys us except ad-dahr (time). And they have no knowledge of it: they only conjecture”.
Furthermore, Yusuf Ali in the explanation of verse 103:2, “Verily Man is in loss” writes: “If life be considered under the metaphor of a business bargain, man, by merely attending to his material gains, will lose. When he makes up his day’s account in the afternoon, it will show a loss. It will only show profit if he has Faith, leads a good life, and contributes to social welfare by directing and encouraging other people on the Path of Truth and Constancy.” Thus, if we merely “run a race against Time, we shall lose. It is the spiritual part of us that conquers Time.” While Surah al-Asr is short, but it lays out concisely the way of salvation and the mission of a Muslim.
Tauseef A Parray holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from Aligarh Muslim University (India) and is a regular Columnist.