Introduction to Time

Introduction to Time
Photo by hamada eltabey / Unsplash

In a well-known hadith qudsi, Allāh Most High, declared, “Let the son of Adam not curse Time, for I am Time (ad-Dahr).”

Time can be understood as man’s journey or movement in existence. Time, though it can be suspended, generally speaking, does not stand still. It is best understood as man’s movement through the journey of existence. Everything is in movement. Kulla yaumin huwa fee sha’nin. Everything is in change and perpetually reverberating, all coming from the world of amr.

الا له الخلقُ و الأمر تبارك الله رب العالمين

Throughout Life – not only in this world, but also before we entered our mothers’ wombs, and after we exit this world to enter the barzakh and beyond – there are four kinds of Time in motion, the comprehension of which is essential to know what Islamic Eschatology is. These four kinds of Time are constantly in motion and relevant to every thinking human being. This means we are part of the creational process from the world of amr.

There is the first and most important movement of time that commenced its motion when Allah Most High commanded all the Arwāh to enter into the process of Life on earth. He, subhanahu wa ta’ala, commanded (at the outcome of the events of Awwal az-Zaman described at the beginning of Surah al-Baqarah in the Quran):

...اهبطوا منها جميعا...

“…Get ye down altogether…”

This Divine command was issued after Allah, Most High, accepted Nabi Adam’s (‘alayhissalām) repentance and after He had gathered the entire human race while all of mankind was still in their original manifestation as arwāh, or souls, not of monkeys and apes, but which is that very stuff of life that will manifest in a form confined within space and time on Earth. When Allah Most High called on all of mankind to testify to the question “الست بربكم” – Am I not your Lord? – they replied, “Yes, we bear witness.” It was after this testimony that Allah Most High commanded, “Get ye down altogether.” From that moment onwards, every rūh that would manifest on Earth as a human being at its determined time, set off on a journey. Life on Earth is one phase of that journey. As every journey has a destination, this journey too has a destination. All the Arwāh on this journey are in fact on a journey of return to Allah, Most High. The Qur’ān has reminded man to say whenever an affliction touches him:

إنا لله و إنا إليه راجعون

“…We belong to Allah and to Him is Our Return.”

It is clear from this and other verses of the Qur’ān that it is the Presence of the Divine itself that is the destination. That is why Allah, Most High, said concerning the event of the ascension of Nabi Isa alayhissalam:

بل رفغه الله إليه

Rather, Allah raised him unto Himself

A clearer verse of the Qur’ān says:

و لله ملك السموت والأرض و الى الله المصير

“To Allah belongs the dominion of all the samāwāt and the Earth, and to Allah is the place of the return journey .”

This is the first kind of time in motion, which is necessary for every thinking human being to be conscious of. Not forgetting this time, living in embrace of this journey, and acting in accordance with the demands and necessities of this journey is called, al-Ihsān, or Tasawwuf.

Al-Ihsān or Tasawwuf is not a concept or idea, and has no connection with the common mistranslation into English: Mysticism. It is deed and action in harmony with that journey of return to the Divine. We must return – arrive at the destination – in the same pure state we were in when we set off on the journey. Al-Ihsān and Tasawwuf are one and the same thing. We will return to the subject of al-ihsān later on in the course.

This journey is a circle. We started at a point and we are on a journey of return to the same point. That same point where each rūh commenced its journey after its testimony, is also the destination of the journey.

Then when the rūh manifests as a drop of sperm and enters into the mother’s womb, there begins a second kind of time in motion. To use the metaphor of a clock, we could say, while the first clock is ticking, there now begins as a fertilised egg the ticking of a second. It is now a double consciousness. There are two motions of time, one overlapping another.

This rūh that has begun its manifestation as a human being on Earth, now joins life on Earth as a human being; it joins the collective human existence on Earth. It is not just an individual but now part of a whole.

The beginning of this second kind of time was when Nabi Ādam ‘alayhissalām first set foot on Earth in the human body; the end will be when the Trumpet is blown and the Hour comes upon, in the words of the Prophet Muhammad sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam, على شرار الناس, the worst of mankind. In other words, this is the passage of time that we define as human history. The existence of other types of humans, if such did exist, is not our concern here. We are only concerned with the Adamic, or children of Nabi Ādam ‘alayhissalām. The last phase of this entire period is called Ākhir az-Zamān, literally – the last of all ages, and the Nabi sent to Ākhir az-Zamān with a revelation was the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad, sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam. One of his attributes is Nabiyyu Ākhirizzamān, therefore the Qur’ān that he brought for mankind should be understood as wahyu ākhirizzamān. This is the history that concerns us: the past, the present and the future of Adamic presence on Earth.

One could imagine this movement of history to be a straight line. When each human being transits from the father’s loins into the mother’s womb, the first time overlaps with the second time. The same can also be said in a different way: the journey of al-Ihsān merges with the journey of ākhir az-zamān. As we are all on a journey of return to where we came from, we have now also entered into the last phase of the journey of human history on Earth.

However, no human being stays on Earth from the beginning of this passage of time till its end. Each human being enters and exits history to only stay for a very brief period of time. In such a manner, each human being plays his part in the collective existence of mankind on Earth. As long as each human being remains on Earth he joins this passage of time, therefore ought to be conscious of two movements of time within his consciousness.

As we act in accordance with the demands of the grand journey of return to the Divine, and as we locate ourselves at a particular point within the history of Adamic presence on Earth – and for us this obviously refers to a particular point within the end of history since the last Nabi had already come to the Earth and left – we are also under the obligation of acting in accordance with what the challenges of ākhir az-zamān demand of us. At that point, when we act with the consciousness of the two motions of time, we would have merged the two branches of knowledge: al-ihsān and ‘ilmu ākhir az-zamān.

While we are able to locate ourselves in the timeline of Adamic history on Earth, we cannot forget that we are already on a journey that began before the Earth became a reality for us, and after the Earth becomes quite irrelevant for us except perhaps on certain rare circumstances. Al-Ihsān and ‘ilmu ākhir az-zamān are therefore inseparable. For an individual human being who had been born on Earth before the advent of the Messiah two thousand years ago, this could have been seen as two separate motions of time that are not directly dependent on each other. But after the advent of the long-awaited promised Messiah, and especially after the last Messenger of Allāh, Nabi Muhammad ‘alayhimassalātu was salām, it became impossible to separate the two. If one is conscious of the first, one must also be conscious of the second.

However, the human being is not free from the demands of the mundane. With or without the consciousness of the two preceding motions of time, there already exists a third that we may call serial time. Today, it is also known as mechanical time and some consider it an achievement to have quantified it. (The demands of Technique has caused man to mechanize serial time.) As for those who prefer to measure this consciousness of time in a way that is more natural so to speak, they may choose to call it solar or lunar time. However one may call it, they are both the same. This is our day and night, week, month and year, all being different names for the same course of time; it is the routine of mundane life; this is our Personal Present, it is the ritual of Nature. The seasons are also part of this course of time just as the months and years are.

لا تبديل لخلق الله

“There is no change in Allah’s creation,” says the Qur’ān.

As soon as a human being is conceived in the womb, the movement of day and night, or serial time, commences. Food and drink become a necessity as part of daily life. This is perhaps the only movement of time most of humankind consider time. We may now say, inside the second motion of time, that we identified earlier as history, there is now born a third motion of time when day and night becomes a reality for the human being, directly impacting upon him. This is when the human being is not anymore free from day and night.

The lifestyle that this movement of time imposes upon us cannot be other than what the knowledge of al-Islāmdemands of us. If a lifestyle that we harmonise with this third consciousness of time is other than what we know of as al-Islam, then the implication is that we do not take guidance from the Rasūl sallallahu alayhi wa sallam and the Qur’ān he brought. This can either mean we belong to another religion or we do not consider any other reality beyond the reality of this material and mundane world, and properly speaking, that is itself another kind of religion, for one example, the religion of Capitalism. Such people believe in

شجرة الخلد و ملك لا يبلى

“a tree of eternity and a power and rule that never ever ends.” For such people, there is no necessity to consider any possible reality before our earthly presence, as well as in a life after death. This obviously means they are trapped in the “here and now”, and when death finally confronts them, it will be too late to face that reality that is the absolutely surest moment of all that will happen in the future as far as any individual thinking human being is concerned.

However, when we seek guidance from Religion, in our case, al-Islām, our perception of reality changes and consequently our way of living in harmony with what we now perceive as mundane reality also changes.

There comes into effect the halāl and the harām connected to actions in our daily life. There was no halāl and harām before we were born and there will be no such thing after we die. Our knowledge of what al-Islām is therefore would define our daily life as the sun rises and sets each day. A certain cyclic lifestyle bears itself upon us. According to the routine movements of the sun, we also engage upon a daily worship of the Divine in routine. We call it salāh. When it is time for salat al-jumu’ah in the week, we go out to the masjid to perform the salāh. When the financial year ends, if we meet the conditions, we pay zakāt. When the crescent of Ramadan appears, we fast the whole lunar month, year in and year out. When the time for Hajj comes upon us, and if we meet the conditions to perform the Hajj, we do so. When certain sacred months of the year come, we refrain from certain deeds and perform certain other favourable deeds to sanctify the months. All of this occurs day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, and year in and year out, in a repetitive cycle, again and again. This is our Islām, directly connected to our serial time, our way of living and our daily life. It continues in cycles until we die. This also makes it quite clear that al-Islām is action more than anything else, only that it is action of a lesser degree compared to al-ihsān. If one does not act upon the teachings of al-Islām, or if one is oblivious of its commands and prohibitions, then in reality, one is not a Muslim, though technically, he still qualifies to be.

The Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam said,

عَنِ ابْنِ أَبِي أَوْفَى ، قَالَ : قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ : إِنَّ خِيَارَ عِبَادِ اللَّهِ الَّذِينَ يُرَاعُونَ الشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ وَالنُّجُومَ وَالْأَظِلَّةَ لِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ .

Abū Awfā said that the Messenger of Allah sallallahu alayhi wa sallam said, “Certainly the best of Allah’s servants are those who are amazed by the beauty of the sun, the moon, the stars and the shadows and realise that they have all been created for the purpose of remembering Allah and then act by it.” Recorded in the Mustadrak of al-Hākim

This is our transition of being simply Muslim to someone who is Muhsin. We act by al-Islām and then carry on to act by al-Ihsān.

At such a point in our life and deed on Earth, three different branches of knowledge become one, or al-Ihsān, ‘ilmu ākhir az-zamān and al-Islām merge into one, guiding us in our journey on the track of three different motions of time.

However, life on Earth is not permanent and therefore must come to an end in order to carry on the grand journey of return to the Divine. Being conscious of the end of life on Earth, or death, forces upon us the imperative to identify that there is in fact a fourth movement of time subtly hidden beneath the mundane routines of life on Earth. This fourth motion of time is inside the third, and is as disturbing a concern for every human being as much as the third is the most immediate and demanding concern for him. We may call this fourth, biological time.

The attempt to understand biological time is one of the first proper functioning of the intellect, which causes man to eventually ask the ultimate questions of life. The moment man witnesses death or at least hears of it in his surrounding, he begins to ask questions related to the purpose of his life on Earth. This is the moment when man begins to think. “When will be my turn to die?” The remembrance of death forces along with it a series of questions man has nowhere to turn to for answers except to Religion.

Read Maulana Fazlur Rahman al-Ansari’s essay “Through Science and Philosophy to Religion”.

Deep down in himself, man finds nothing but faith. Science and Philosophy refuse to help him answer these questions. This is where he turns to al-īmān. Al-Īmān therefore properly begins with the remembrance of death. It is directly dependant on biological time. Man is weak in nature. He grows weary and tired and requires sleep. He requires food and water. He cannot go hungry and thirsty for more than a very short period of time. He realises his body cannot live forever. Due to the constant signs of human deterioration that he witnesses and experiences every day, he realises at a certain moment in his life that he too must eventually die and leave the world. This is the second surest truth there is in the world for every individual human being, the first being his mother.

It is not true that only those who grow old and become weak and fragile are closer to death. Death is as close to a young man as it is to an old man. While no man can deny that the surest event in life is death, no one can similarly deny that death can come to anyone at any time. The duration of biological time therefore is unknown; Allah, Most High has kept it unknown, except to those He wants to reveal what He wills. The unknown duration of biological time therefore demands the thinking human being to be prepared for death. With all the average life span calculations there are in population studies, none can be certain at daytime of the continuance of life when night falls, and vice versa.

If death is the surest event in this mundane reality of life on Earth, then certainly there must be answers to all questions surrounding the event of death. How can it be that there are answers to all the unsure events of life and yet there are no answers to the questions surrounding the surest event of life? It is not logically sound that the surest event of life remains a mystery to man. It is only al-īmān that can solve what seems to be a mystery at the very beginning of man’s quest for Truth. When the questioning man begins to arrive at certain convincing answers about death and the continuance of life after death, he begins to develop a purpose in life. If there is no continuance of life after death, there is no purpose to life on Earth and all morality collapses, and yet man is a moral being. It is in the consciousness of biological time that man truly begins to have faith. This is the branch of knowledge called al-īmān.

Al-īmān is belief in the unseen. By unseen we mean what is veiled. There may come a time, according to the growth and progress of the individual human being, when these veils are removed and the unseen becomes the seen. At such a time, there is no more belief but only witnessing. But there has to be a steppingstone before such an event of the unveiling occurs, and that very steppingstone is this belief in the unseen. This is associated with one’s biological time – the last consciousness of time that is relevant to our subject. This foundational steppingstone is the very fuel of all the other three movements of time.

Now, it may seem at first that the third and fourth – serial time and biological time – may actually be the same. In order to differentiate between the two, we say that man’s occupation with the daily necessities of life more often than not distracts him from the remembrance of death. In other words, while he is aware the third clock is ticking, he forgets that there is a fourth clock that is ticking as well.

For some like the As-hāb al-Kahf, or the Companions of the Cave mentioned in the Qur’ān, while the third clock was ticking for them, the fourth was suspended until they woke up from their sleep three hundred years later. In other words, while three hundred years passed, they did not age biologically. This proves that there is a difference between the third and the fourth journeys of time. In our daily observations, sometimes we find an older person of age looking younger and having more strength and youthfulness than a younger person of age, or even the other way round, a younger person of age looking older and having lesser strength than an older person of age.

We now have four kinds of time we ought to be conscious of. The first is the grand journey of return to the Divine. The second is man’s entry into the world to join Adamic history on Earth. The third is the consciousness that his daily life runs no matter what happens, and that he has to eat, drink, sleep and provide for his family. The last is a deep and subtle consciousness always present around him reminding him of the death and the end of sunrise and sunset for him that comes suddenly without any warning, or in other words, his movement towards his own death from life on Earth.

At this point when man takes guidance from the four branches of knowledge that correspond to his consciousness of four movements of time – al-Ihsān, ‘ilm ākhir az-zamān, al-Islām and al-Īmān – all of them merge into one and the same thing for him. The Muslim’s logic becomes disjointed if he separates ‘ilmu ākhir az-zamān from the other three.

This is how important the study of Islamic Eschatology is.

Having understood this, only now can we attempt to understand Islamic Eschatology or what we may call ‘Ilmu ākhir az-zamān. This branch of knowledge is both the logos – which is external knowledge empirically acquired – as well as the internal struggle that leads to knowledge internally received, together with the realisation of all the four times in constant motion reverberating in the human being that demands him to act in every moment.

Such a man is called ibnul waqt, the man of the moment, and he stands out clearly from the man who is trapped in the “here and now”. This is what we mean when we say ‘ilmu ākhir az-zamān is actually ‘ilmu hādhaz zaman. He is not the same as the one who says, “the here and now is the most important of all, therefore, let us eat and drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” No, the man that we call ibnul waqt is not the same.

When Islamic Eschatology is scientised and consequently does not cause him to act in this manner, that is, deed guided by the Divine, then that is not what we mean by Islamic Eschatology. We will attend to the problem of scientising this branch of knowledge later on. For now, it is enough to understand that a scientific and even philosophic handling of this knowledge would lead one to focus on a certain sequence of events in the future disconnected from action in the present. It is very important not to approach this branch of knowledge in an academic manner.

Unfortunately, most studies today in Islamic Eschatology are only logical perspectives of what we have defined so far as history, or the second form of time in motion. This is not what Islamic Eschatology truly means. ‘Ilmu ākhir az-zamān as the name itself suggests, requires an accurate understanding of zamān, or age, that is dependent on an accurate understanding of Time itself. In this case, the word zamān refers to the entire passage of time in which mankind has existed and would continue to exist on Earth.

The knowledge surrounding the last of this entire passage of time that began with the coming of Nabi Muhammad sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam and the descent of the Qur’ān together with him, is called ‘ilmu ākhir az-zamān. This may sound like it would be the same as al-Islām, al-Īmān and al-Ihsān, but it is definitely not and is distinctly different from the three, yet all four are one and the same thing. That is Tawheed, the unification of different things, more than one, into one.