It is often said that Latin makes one learn English better. In my case, learning Arabic is helping my Hebrew – so many cognates, so many grammatical similarities. I could write a post on every surah we study! Instead, I’m trying to get into the routine of one post per week.
Saturday we read Surah 103, “Time”:
Innal insaana lafee khusr
Illal ladhenna aamannu
Wa ‘amilus saalihaati wa tawaasau bilhaqq
Wa tawaasau bis sabr
As the day runs out
Man is certainly in a state of loss
Except those who keep the faith and do good deeds
Who exhort in the truth, who encourage endurance (translation of my class and me)
As I wrote last week, the Qur’an’s poetry can be enigmatically brief. With a little explication, we can see that this isn’t just a poem of apocalyptic moral judgment. It isn’t just God sounding angry. It is a surah of hope.
First, the opening phrase, “Wal ‘Asr.” This is rendered “By (the Token of) time (through the Ages)” by Yusuf Ali. Arberry renders it “by the afternoon!” Sells renders it “by the age, the epoch.” As explained to me in class, this phrase literally refers to the afternoon or dusk, but figuratively applies to a period of time that is running out. The afternoon is a taxing time. It is hot. We feel sluggish. The concrete image of daylight running out brings with it the danger of eschatology. This image would be even more powerful in an ancient time when there were no lightblubs to run at night.
Second, the word “khusr.” This term is also used in finance to refer to being broke or bankrupt. Here is refers to humanity’s moral bankruptness. We are in loss. I see a parallel here to the Christian concept of original sin.
But there is hope. The final verse names an exception to the impending doom on humankind: those who keep the faith, do good deeds, and exhort others in truth and enduring patience. But given that the day is running out, there is no time to sit on the fence in such a matter. There is no agnosticism possible here. You either believe or you don’t.
I have never been one for apocalyptic language. But I can get into this surah. It’s very Easter. The first two lines bring you to (in Christian terms) the foot of the cross: all hope has been lost. But the last two lines bring you to the empty tomb, to hope. Time is running out and the world is going to pot. But Allah has given humanity a way to get out of this mess: the message of faith in Allah that has been preached by every prophet from Abraham to Noah to Jesus to Muhammad.
Although Muslims believe in Jesus as an exalted human prophet, the Qur’an denies the crucifixion and resurrection. Instead, Jesus was “taken up” (ascended) to God at the end of his earthly ministry. So Easter doesn’t hold much sway for my Muslim friends. But on Easter, this surah evokes for me both the despair of the cross and the hope of the empty tomb. It reminds me that God can make good come out of despair. Despite their very different versions of what happened at the end of Jesus’ time on this earth, the Qur’an and the Gospels both hold out hope as a gift from God.