Grappling with the Mystery of Time

Time is one of life’s great mysteries. It is one of the most difficult properties of our universe to understand. Life is time, and time, simply, is life. Time is so ubiquitous and all-pervading that we cannot think of anything, any being or experience except in terms of time’s apparently infinite and unbreakable rules.

Since time immemorial, humans tried to somewhat comprehend and come to terms with the mystery of time, and with it the mystery of existence taken as a whole. However, it always proved to be beyond both human capacities and disposition. Humans are too impaired by their intellectual and physical inadequacies, on the one hand, and are too bogged down with attempts to cope with the tenacious consequences of the functioning of time -- as well as with the vicissitudes of everyday life -- on the other, to be able to grasp the essence of time and articulate its true conception and application.

By and large, people are divided into two camps as regards time. One holds that time is absolute. It is “independent of any perceiver, progresses at a consistent pace for everyone everywhere throughout the universe, and is essentially imperceptible and mathematical in nature”. This understanding is called Newtonian time, after Isaac Newton, its most famous proponent.

The other interpretation perceives time as relative and flexible, depending on the motion of the observer who measures it, as advocated by Einstein. This is so because the laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion relative to one another, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Thus, “the dividing line between past, present, and future is an illusion”.

Time as an illusion

Obviously, time, like everything else, is created. It by no means is something absolute or transcendent. Nor does it exist on its own, without relation to anything external. Rather, it is something intimate and subjective. Its meaning and tempos are in the minds of those who live and experience it. If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then time is in the mind of both the beholder and the experiencer.

Time is not a thing. It is merely an idea humans generate, or abstract, from their constant interactions and experiences with surrounding phenomena and their interrelated rhythmic motions.

The existence of time, furthermore, is conditional. It is unreal. It is a grand illusion. What is unquestionably real is the world with its countless physical and metaphysical realities, as well as man who perceives time and uses it to make sense out of his own existence and the existence of his surroundings.

A change in man and his physical and psychological conditions will inevitably lead to a change in time, that is to say, a change in his perception and estimation of time. Similarly, a change in man’s surroundings, as simple and near as the ticking of a clock, and as complex and far-flung as planetary rotations, will inevitably lead to a change in time, that is to say – again – a change in man’s perception and estimation, or measurement, of time.

That said, there is no time as absolute, supreme, true and mathematical; as a kind of “cosmic grandfather clock” (as called by Jim Holt in Lapham’s Quarterly) that advances at a smooth and constant rate from past to future, and that hovers “over the rest of nature in blithe autonomy”.

Almighty Allah, the Creator of everything, informs us that He created death and life (al-Mulk, 2), and that as creations, everyone and everything upon the earth will perish (al-Rahman, 26) “and there will remain the Face of your Lord, Owner of Majesty and Honour” (al-Rahman, 27).

Allah also explicitly says that one of the reasons for which the sun and the moon have been created is that “you may learn to count the years and to calculate or count (time). Allah did not create all this, except for a specific purpose. He explains the revelations for people who know” (Yunus, 5).

Time is simply a measurement. It is not tangible. As a unit of measure, it compares between two or more rates of change.  However, to some it is the only true unit of measure, because without time, no change can occur and thus, no measurement could ever be possible. To others, on the other hand, only energy is absolute and so, it is the only true unit of measure. Time is not qualified to be so as its speed is not universally constant; it is relative and conditioned by many other factors. Time is synonymous with change.

Due to its illusory power over our consciousness and generally life experiences, time is highly over-mystified. It is made appear as ruling absolutely everything, as larger-than-life, so to speak.  Everything seems to be perennially subjected to it. Some even attach an indefinable worship-like attitude to it.

Allah says: “And they say: ‘What is there but our life in this world? We shall die and we live, and nothing but Time can destroy us.’ But of that they have no knowledge; they merely conjecture” (al-Jathiyah, 24).

This verse hints at a materialistic philosophy according to which time is regarded as absolute and eternal, presiding over human destinies. However, such is not knowledge, but mere conjecture. It is a form of ignorance, in that it fails to affirm the role of Allah as the Supreme Creator and Sustainer of life, and as the only truly Transcendent Being, the Exalted, Sublime, Ever-Living and Self-Sustaining.

Moreover, that connotes a sign of arrogance, too, for people are neither ready, nor willing, to acknowledge that they do not know – and intrinsically know very little -- and that there is little prospect of them ever independently knowing what exactly is going on and how they fit into the grand ontological scheme of things. Why do not they then listen and accept light and guidance from Him Who knows all?

The mentioned standpoint is somewhat akin to the standpoint of a type of the pantheism doctrine, which supposes that all reality is identical with divinity and that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent god. Accordingly, God signifies the combined substance, forces, and laws that are manifested in the existing universe, but at the center of which stands, and whose quintessence is, the impalpable notion of time.

Time and the Qur’anic message

It is in view of this that the Qur’an, as the last divine revelation to mankind, devotes serious efforts to demystifying the notion of time, shattering forever its enduring myth.

For example, it speaks about the Companions of the Cave (ashab al-kahf) who slept in a cave three hundred and nine years without realizing it. Displaying the relativity of time, reinforced by inconsistent human impressions and viewpoints, the cave sleepers thought that their sleep duration was just “a day or part of a day” (al-Kahf, 19). Despite their best goodwill and the most honest enquiry, they arrived at different conclusions as to the duration of their sleep.

However, Almighty Allah used the incident as a sign of His Authority and Divine Providence in the universe as the physical theater of His Will, Power and Control, so that people would “know that the promise of Allah is true and that there can be no doubt about the Hour of Judgment” (al-Kahf, 21). The whole incident -- with the compelling idea of time -- was used as a means for achieving a higher and nobler set of objectives that transcended the stifling confines of time and space.

The second fascinating example is the incident of a man “who passed by a township which had fallen into ruin. He said: ‘How will Allah bring this to life after its death?’ So Allah caused him to die for a hundred years; then He revived him. He said: ‘How long have you remained?’ The man said: ‘I have remained a day or part of a day.’ He said: ‘Rather, you have remained one hundred years. Look at your food and your drink; it has not changed with time. And look at your donkey; and We will make you a sign for the people. And look at the bones (of this donkey) -- how We raise them and then We cover them with flesh.’ And when it became clear to him, he said: ‘I know that Allah is over all things competent’” (al-Baqarah, 259).

In this episode, too, Allah shows that man failed to realize that a period of a hundred years had elapsed since he had been caused to die. To him, it was just “a day or part of a day”. Making things yet more interesting, Allah allowed his food and drink to be exempted from the flow and influence of time, unlike himself and his donkey. Hence, their condition after one hundred years remained perfect.

And again, the whole thing was a small matter for Allah and His Infinite Power. He only wanted to make the man and his episode a sign for subsequent generations, helping the people thereby to get liberated from the blinding and debilitating yoke of time and space dynamics. Thus freed, the people will be able to rise and view life and its multitiered physical and metaphysical dimensions from different and more rewarding vantage points.

The third example is Isra and Mi’raj. They denote two parts of a miraculous journey which the Prophet (pbuh) took during several hours of a single night. Isra was a trip from Makkah to Jerusalem (al-Isra’, 1) -- then a distance of about one month of conventional travel -- whence Mi’raj, an ascension to the heavens, took place, a feat that defied reason and a whole of human imagination.

It goes without saying, based on the above Qur’anic expositions, that discovering the time-related existential realities is one thing, but applying such discoveries in pursuit of humankind’s ultimate genuine civilizational triumphs -- encompassing and ensuring primarily the intellectual, spiritual and moral wellbeing of the people -- is completely something else. If the latter is not achieved -- or at least authentically aimed for – the former easily becomes inadequate and even faulty.

In the worse scenario, it can contribute to rendering man and his civilization more severely trapped inside the fetters of time and space (matter). Instead of propelling man forward, it could push him backward. Instead of making man a more cultured and more civilized being, it could make him a more savage and more primitive animal. Simply said, it could make man, more than ever, a stanch worshipper and servant of contemptable matter and of his raging lusts as well as ego. Verily, uncontrolled physical development of human civilization is dangerous and could become a cause of mankind’s ultimate downfall.

Furthermore, an additional message inherent in the above and other similar discourses of the Qur’an is that on the Day of Judgment when everything will be different, when “the earth will be changed to a different earth, and so will be the heavens” (Ibrahim, 48), when man will be raised “in a new creation” (al-Ra’d, 5), and when the veil will be removed from man, making his vision sharp and strong, as opposed to him being in heedlessness of the truth while in this world (Qaf, 22) – the idea of time will be completely different as well.

While for Allah time does not exist, and He in His Majesty and Sublimity is not bounded by it, man’s perception as well as experience of it will be consistent with the new life (Hereafter) and its new physical and psychological realities in which man will find himself. Understandably, this world’s notion and interpretations of time will disappear with the total disappearance of this world and its conditions.

Some verses of the Qur’an, as well as the sayings (hadiths or sunnah) of the Prophet (pbuh) reveal that the span of a day in the Hereafter will be fifty thousand years (al-Ma’arij, 4) of people’s reckoning of time in this world.

Even in this world, there are several distinct versions of time which exist for Allah’s creation and His creatures. The shortest version is the one counted by humans.

Another one that involves angels who carry out the commands of Allah is mentioned as follows: “He (Allah) regulates the affair from the heaven to the earth; then shall it ascend to Him in a day the measure of which is a thousand years of what you count” (al-Sajdah, 5).

The version of time mentioned earlier in the context of the Day of Judgment, according to which a day will be equivalent to fifty thousand years (al-Ma’arij, 4), applies to this world as well and is the world’s fastest and longest version of time.

Many other physical and spiritual occasions and experiences at different planes of existence, whereby time could be tacitly understood to flow at different rates, have been presented by both the Qur’an and sunnah.

Time as a test

Time is one of the most important and, at the same time, most difficult to understand properties of the universe. It is omnipresent.

It is a double-edged wonder, though. While it enfolds and carries endless hope, enthusiasm, excitement and opportunities, it, all at once, affects and destroys everything.

It is a paradox that man always wants to live longer and have more. But living longer and having more, in reality, means having less. It is a case of more quantity, but less quality.

Life is about having an amount of time. It is about being given a number of years, days, hours and seconds. The longer we live and the more things and assets we accumulate, the less time we have, and the weaker we become, to enjoy them. The longer we live, the more “addicted” to the deceptive character of time we become, and the more painful the prospect of expiring and dying becomes.

This, indeed, is a perfect recipe for all-pervading misery and depression as man’s greatest nightmarish conditions, once man realizes that he has wasted his life, and once perennial guilt and regret sink inside his being and start haunting him. Hence, the Prophet (pbuh) once said that greed and (false) hope never grow old, or dwindle, in a person (Sahih al-Bukhari).

Man realizes that he gradually perishes in front of his own eyes, while time incessantly keeps flowing uninterrupted and his things and assets appear more and more bent on leaving him and going into someone else’s possession. Indeed, man came as, and from, nothing, often lives as nothing and for nothing worthwhile, and then dies as nothing, returning to his original state of nothingness. Once thus departed, nothing and nobody will ever shed a tear for him.

Allah reminds man of this excruciating truth: “If We grant long life to any, We cause him to be reversed in nature (causing him to decline in his powers and desires): will they not then understand?” (Ya Sin, 68).

Owing to all this, Almighty Allah named one of the Qur’anic chapters as al-‘Asr, which means Time, and in it He swears by time, emphasizing thereby its significance for man and his noble mission on earth. After swearing by time, Allah declares that man is at loss, except His true servants who “have faith and do righteous deeds and (join together) in the mutual teaching of truth and of patience and constancy” (al-‘Asr, 3). Combining the notions of time, loss (failure), faith (truth) and existential victory, is not coincidental. They are all interrelated and locked in a causal relationship.

That means – and Allah knows best – that he who controls time, yet rises above it – in the spiritual sense of the word -- will succeed in life. But he who fails to do so, will ultimately fail. Success means controlling time, not being controlled by it. It means transcending it, not being forever entombed in it.

It also means that Allah’s true servants has the capacity not to be unsettled or overawed by time. They eventually can demystify and comprehend some of its deepest secrets, the most important one of which is that time – like everything else -- is Allah’s creation, created but to constitute a mighty test to people, and in order for man to release himself from its shackles and live free in an eternal bliss, he must ally himself with Allah and His Will and Word.

Time, after all, is a dynamic physical property. Man is bidden to rise above that plane of existence and aim for a higher intellectual and spiritual order of things, meanings and experiences. Man alone and on his own cannot conquer time.

Satan and the trap of time

Satan knows all too well what time means to man and how vulnerable he is to its apparently formidable and, at the same time, devious character. It’s no wonder that he made recourse to leveraging its potentials as soon as he had been granted permission by Allah to try to mislead man. Satan knows that time -- both as a concept and intellectually perceptible reality -- will always be a safe bet for him to make substantial gains against many people in his perennial battle for supremacy against mankind.

Thus, the first and certainly most important thing Satan asked from God was people’s time, and that his time, or respite, be their time, and that he be let act freely till the end.

Allah says about this: “He (Satan or Iblis) said: ‘Give me respite till the day they are raised up.’ Allah said: ‘The respite you requested is hereby granted’” (al-A’raf, 14-15).

It was only when Satan secured the category of time that he showed concern for space as another vital dimension in his warfare with man, but which appeared as though secondary and as playing second fiddle to the former.

Satan said: “Since You let me deviate, now I will lie in ambush for mankind on Your Right Way. I will come upon them from the front, from the rear, from the right, and from the left, and You will not find most of them to be grateful” (al-A’raf, 16-17).

In view of that did Satan employ successfully the time card as early as against Adam and his wife in Jannah (Paradise), causing them to fall from it. He enticed Adam and his wife by projecting the forbidden tree as a tree of eternity and immortality, and thus as an avenue to an everlasting kingdom that will never wither (Ta Ha, 120). He told them: “Your Lord only forbade you this tree lest you should become angels or such beings as live forever” (al-A’raf, 20).

Satan’s manipulation of time, so as to seduce and misguide mankind, takes up numerous forms and procedures. One of them is to make man feel that the past time has elapsed extraordinarily quickly, with memories fading away at even faster rate, aggravating thereby in a person the sentiments of worthlessness, remorse, pang of conscience, uncertainty and anxiety. When looking back, every amount of time: a year, ten, twenty or fifty years, in essence seems and feels the same. Once gone, it is as if time has never existed. What is left is no more than a bunch of fast-waning reminiscences and nostalgias on which – certainly not with which -- only fools live.

As Charles Caleb Colton remarked: “Time is the most undefinable yet paradoxical of things; the past is gone, the future is not come, and the present becomes the past even while we attempt to define it, and, like the flash of lightning, at once exists and expires.”

However, when it comes to a person’s future, irrespective of how brief it might be, Satan makes it always appear too long, too promising and assuring, and too accommodative. Hence, a person will always feel that the past fifty, sixty or seventy years of his life were very short and have passed as quickly as a dream, whereas he will never feel the same about several remaining years –maybe even less -- causing him to panic and try to do something about it.

As a result, a person will view that illusory “longevity” as an opportunity to make up for the “unutilized”, “unproductive” and “unsatisfying” past, engaging in whatever physical, intellectual and psychological pursuits he will deem suitable to do the mending and compensatory job. To embark on doing some remarkable spiritually and morally gratifying things, though regarded as extremely important and desirable, will have to wait till the former is accomplished. In a person’s mind, such an arrangement is fairly possible, as he fallaciously believes that he has much, or enough, time left.

It is therefore a paradox that we always feel we do not have enough time to do our, most of the time mundane, things and achieve our equally mundane dreams, but almost never sense that perhaps little time is left and that death is forthcoming. This is a manifestation of a vicious circle from which there is hardly a way out. It is a chain of reckless decisions and thoughts in which the responses to the futility of the past and the uncertainty as well as transience of the present create new problems that aggravate the original predicament.

The only easing and promising course of action naturally becomes delving into the stock, or reservoir, of the “inexhaustible” future and borrowing more time and opportunities from it, hoping that soon things will be set right. The vicious circle goes on until we run out of time, and opportunities, and thus come to the realization what life actually is (was). Then, however, it will be too little, too late.

In a nutshell, we feel that way because we spend our lives trying in vain to attain the unattainable, satisfy the unsatisfiable, enjoy the unenjoyable and detest the undetestable.

Accentuating the deceptive nature of time, especially when it slips away, Almighty Allah says that on the Day of Judgment, the transgressors will swear that they did not stay in this world more than an hour; “thus were they used to being deluded” (al-Rum, 55).

On that day, the transgressors will also realize where it all went wrong. The actual meaning and value of time will likewise be brought home to them. As soon as death should approach them, they will plead for a delay, or respite, only for a little while, so that they could make necessary amends (al-Munafiqun, 10). All of a sudden, getting any amount of extra time – regardless of how small -- will be the most valuable proposition and will be able to solve most of the wrongdoers’ problems.

A sage once said that he is bemused by a scenario where a man pursues this world and the angel of death pursues him. While the man will never grab hold of the world, it is only a matter of time before the angel of death grabs him by the neck and thus brings the whole chase to an abrupt end.

The Prophet (pbuh) also said that the wisest and most prudent among believers are those who remember death most often and are well-prepared for what is after it. He called death the destroyer of worldly pleasures (Sunan Ibn Majah).

Death could also be labeled as the debunker, or de-mystifier, of all life illusions and untruths.

Quantity versus quality

It goes without saying, therefore, that life is more than just an amount of time, in the latter’s capacity as a component quantity of various measurements used in relation to events, material reality and conscious experience. Life cannot be reduced to sheer numbers, or statistical data whereby a person is fortunate and blessed if he lives a long life, and unfortunate and cursed if he is given a short lifespan.

Rather, life is all about quality and productivity, which are infinite and everlasting. Time’s is the support act. The quality and productivity factors ensure genuine longevity and an undeletable legacy for a person, even if he lived a short life.

That means that a person may be around for a hundred years, but without a life. He may only exist, like many other things and beings, which, when gone, leave nothing -- or very little and for a very brief period of time – behind. His many years proved hollow, worthless and devoid of any true meaning, purpose and value. They thus never had a life, and with them, neither did the person, who wasted them, truly live.

Conversely, a person may be around for a short period of time, but leave a legacy as though he lived a hundred, or more, years. This is because his allocated time had an authentic vision and purpose, which was optimized by his total dedication, diligence and, of course, divine blessings and providence. His time had a value as well as substance, and was really lived to the fullest.

For example, when one reads about and contemplates the lives of Caliph ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (d. 720 CE), Imam al-Shafi’i (d. 820 CE), Imam Muslim (d. 875 CE), Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE), Salahuddin al-Ayyubi (d. 1193 CE), or Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d. 1350 CE) – who were some of the most prominent personalities in the history of Islamic civilization -- one gets a feeling that, based on their contributions and legacies, they might have lived extremely long lives. However, they only lived 38, 53, 54, 53, 55 and 58 years respectively, far below today’s retirement age.

That is why Allah declares that life is about performing best, not most, deeds: “The One Who created death and life, so that He may put you to test, to find out which of you is best in deeds: He is the All-Mighty, the All-Forgiving” (al-Mulk, 2).

Quantity, it follows, should always come second to quality. Hence, on the Day of Judgment, everyone will be asked about his life and how he spent it, his youth and how he used it, his wealth and how he earned it and how he disposed of it, and how he acted upon what he acquired of knowledge (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi). It is all about “how” (quality), rather than “how much” (quantity).

Finally, to sum up the whole discussion, once a man said to the Prophet (pbuh): “O Messenger of Allah, which of the people is best?” He said: “The one who lives long and does good.” He said: “Which of the people is worst?” He said: “The one who lives long and does evil” (Musnad Ahmad, Jami’ al-Tirmidhi).

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