Quranic Concept of Time

When the Quran talks of past events it often speaks of them as if these events exist within our own memories or in a collective human memory as an integral part of our own selves and of our human heritage and nature. It has a unique methodology in that it asks us to recall some past historical occurrences in the same manner with which we remember events from our own lives, as if they exist in our own individual, personal storehouse of experiences. "And remember We gave Moses the Scripture and the Criterion (between right and wrong) Quran 2:53 .... And remember Abraham and Isma'il raised the foundations of the House Quran 2:127 ....And remember We divided the sea for you Quran 2:50 ....And remember We took your covenant Quran 2:63 .... Remember Your Lord inspired the angels Quran 8:12 ....This is a word of remembrance to those who remember Quran 11:114 ....And remember Jesus, the Son of Mary, said.... Quran 61:6 ." It uses a language and a direct mode of expression that encourages us to erase the distance between ourselves and these past events, these historical events, by pulling them to the forefront with a compelling immediacy of attention. It seems to be telling us, through its technique of expression, that this historical distance does not exist in any real, metaphysical, essential sense. 

The Quran asks us to be present, in our own era, wherever truth requires us to be present and it requires that presence to be a deeply rooted presence, not a superficial, ineffective, fleeting presence. It asks us not to regard humanity's past as merely "tales of the ancients" Quran 83:13, or as quaint historical footnotes that are irrelevant to our times and our own modern notions about the nature of things, about the nature of society, of humanity, of morality. It presents the world as more than just matter, as more than a chronological string of occurrences. Rather, it posits an essence and reality to certain events that lifts those events out of time, giving them a presence in a higher reality, in a deeper, more substantial layer of existence, and thereby makes their essential truths accessible to all times and places. So when the Quran speaks of Moses and Aaron, of Zachariaha and Maryam, of the various prophets and men of knowledge that have walked the earth it raises their stories out of historical time and into a universal time. It presents them almost as universal memories and then it asks us to remember, to recall.

Then it tells us that these memories are family memories - the family is that of Adam , and Abraham , Moses and Aaron , Jesus and Muhammad and all the other messengers and their supporters recalled in the pages of the Qur'an. Between us and them there is to be no distance in love, respect, or honour. All distances are erased - the chronological time that separates us and them vanishes, like an ephemeral veil that dissolves at our touch. With the Qur'an's methodology we are with Moses when he confronts Pharoah, we are with Abraham when he destroys the idols, we are with the Prophet as he struggles to deliver the message. We are with him as he tells the story of mankind and awakens the memories and lessons and truths of our own past within us.

So the Quran teaches us a new way to look upon history. It is not "ancient stories" but living truths. It teaches us to erase the distance between ourselves and the past and to call forth the past like memories, till a total picture of the history of truth is formed - a history which spans all times and all places, a history whose essence is imprinted in the substance of reality and which is not restricted by any earthbound chronology. 

Memories are not distinct from us, they are an integral part of us, of our knowledge, of who and what we are. They define and shape us, they are not intellectual abstractions but are a living part of us, shaping our consciousness and our personalities. The Quran asks us to extend our memory beyond our individual selves and so unites our separate histories with the total history of humanity with the aim of giving substance to our ephemeral, fleeting lives and uniting us with the common thread of truth that weaves its way across the centuries.

Meta-historical religion

In the Qur'an, the key "events" which determine man's metaphysical makeup all take place outside the flow of time as we know it. They take place in a different plane of existence than this material plane - in a "trans-historical" or "meta-historical" plane, where time has a different flow and flux so that the relation of that world to this must be viewed as a hierarchical rather than a linear relationship.

One of these events is the creation of Adam and the teaching of the names to him. The Quran says, "...Thy Lord said unto the angels: lo! I am about to create a mortal out of mire, And when I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My Spirit, then fall down before him prostrate....And We taught Adam the names (realities) of all things...." Quran 38:72... These events take place outside of the flow of history as we understand it. They are metaphysical, rather than exclusively physical in nature. They are metaphysical answers to the question "What is man? What is contained in his essential nature and what is his potential?"

Islam is not a religion rooted in a single historical event through which God enters history - instead all the key events take place outside history, in pre-eternity in a different hierarchy of existence. Then a "descent" to this world takes place through which these timeless events enter into the realm of cause, effect, and chronological, linear time.

Another event spoken of in the Quran is the pre-eternal covenant made between God and the human spirits (all of the descendants of Adam). This is expressed in the form of a question which God asks all of the human spirits before allowing them to enter into the physical plane of existence. He asks, "Am I not your Lord?" Quran 7:172. They all answer in the affirmative, the implication being that everyone who is born into this world has agreed in substance (in the essence of their soul) to this covenant, and that although we may have no conscious knowledge or memory of this pact, its reality is woven into our very nature. This world is a place of distraction and forgetfulness but at our core lies the metaphysical truth of this covenant and one of the purposes of religion is to awaken to consciousness an awareness of this bond between God and man as well as all the concealed potentials that flow from this bond. All of the Prophet's have come throughout the entirety of history to remind men of their promise of fidelity to this pact. The Quran also often refers to itself as "a reminder", as a call towards taqwa, towards an awakened, aware consciousness.

A third event spoken of in the Quran is mankind's acceptance of the "trust" offered to them by God. "We did indeed offer the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof. But man undertook it (the trust)...." Quran 33:72,73

These key events all deal with the metaphysical nature and capacity with which man is created. A concurrent event, the teaching of the names (or realities) of all things to Adam, is an indicator that within man (within his metaphysical makeup) exist vast storehouses of knowledge, or a capacity for knowledge, through which he can comprehend mysteries that perhaps even the angels are unaware of (signified by their bowing down before Adam).

The Quran constantly urges mankind to "remember" - to become aware of their inner nature through this remembrance and to awaken that nature. These "pre-eternal" events are events that are perfectly real without taking place in historical time. If time is considered as a horizontal progression, these events take place along a vertical axis, one which stands hierarchically above all times and all places. Man's essence, because of his origin and nature, participates in this hierarchy. His actions, his movements (mental and physical) in this world, and the state of his nafs (essential self) that results from those actions has an impact on the full substance of his being - throughout its vertical axis. The Quran attempts to awaken us to this hidden aspect of ourselves - it is a reminder to a humanity that is "sleeping" and a call for us to awaken from our amnesia, our "forgetfulness" regarding the essential nature of our being. It is a reminder that beyond the horizontal aspect of our existence is a truly vast vertical dimension, an unseen ocean of possibilities and nascent potentials.

Irshaad Hussain is a contemporary Islamic thinker and author of Islam from Inside.

Related Suggestions

The opinions expressed herein, through this post or comments, contain positions and viewpoints that are not necessarily those of IslamiCity. These are offered as a means for IslamiCity to stimulate dialogue and discussion in our continuing mission of being an educational organization. The IslamiCity site may occasionally contain copyrighted material the use of which may not always have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. IslamiCity is making such material available in its effort to advance understanding of humanitarian, education, democracy, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and such (and all) material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Older Comments:
Assalam alai kum,
Mr.Irshad Hussain has written a very good article.After reading it i felt,this is what i feel after reading Quran with its interpretation.Mr.Hussain has well expressed his thoughts.The only thing People should do is read Quran with its meaning.All their questions and problems will be solved relating to worldly life and the life here after.Quran is such book,the more u read,the more u enjoy it.I thanks Mr.Hussain and request him for more articles like this.Allahhafiz.

I think your article is very valuable lesson and reminder for intellectually awakened educated Muslims. Thanks to the author who tries to show a connection of history and metaphysics. One problem is that it gets into subject of mystries and speculations. In the sense we are interpreting "metaphysical events" with mystical thoughts of our own interpretations to link TIME which is a scientific entity of real meaning. Time in horizontal & vertical planes that you describe are human abstractions of some sort that is inherrently mystrious and beyond real world comprehension. As a result it will always be a glimpse of hopes and aspirations of human beings to relate to God. And, it stops there. The danger is that the "Interpretations of Quranic verses/reminders" somtimes have led some of the Muslims to butchery in the mosques as in Islamabad/Rawalpindi. We need extreme care and somekind of authority to speak on subjects about QURAN. The real danger is whom should Muslims vest that authority. Some Fatwas presently are clearly harming the cause and Muslim Ummah.

Yes when Allah spoke to Musa(as) "Ana rabbuk" I felt He was telling me as well that He is my Lord... introducing Himself personally..... I had tears in my eyes........

This article reminds us of the purpose of our lives which is so short. So one has to prepare to fulfill that purpose which is worship of Allah the Creator of the Universe not any creation.We regard life as long but is very short as with Allah a day is equal to one thousand years and in another place in Surah Maarij He described the Day as equal to fifty thousand years. With this in mind you should exercice Sabar not only the inpatient patience but nice and beautiful Sabar called Sabaran Jamilah.They see it as far i.e the time but is near.So imagine standing 50,000 years before Rabbil Alameen when the Sun would be above head and there is no shade except His own shade.Where would you turn to? Of course Laa malja wala manja illa ilaika.So this is a reminder of the concept of time as beautifully narrated in the Quran and explained by the Holy Prophet (S.A.W) in various Ahadith to draw our attention to the shortness of this life which is a passing pleasure.We should all sit down for a moment and reflect where did we spend our time.We will all be questioned. He says you will all be questioned and no one will questioned Him.That is Allah who is the Infinite Permanent Ever Living Being that would never taste death as everyone including the Angel of death will all die. Limanil Mulki Yaum Lillahi Wahiddil Qahhar. He has such beautiful names that cannot be explained by anybody.Even the Prophet himself tried to praise Him but He said he could not praise Him as He praised Himself.May Allah give all of us hidayah to understand the purpose of our lives which has been described as Ghurur (illusion).So dont be deceived by the worldly life which is only a kind of test to see who is of the best conduct.Whether you are rich or poor do not be deceived by your apparent condition we should all remember Allah standing sitting and reclining and reflect in the Creation of Heavens and earth and conclude by saying Oh our Lord You have not created all these in vain so save us from Fire Amen.

Soubhanallah dear Brother, that is soooo true ! The first time the Quran's language "hit me" is was for good, and exactly because the words: "Ya Mousa, na Rabbuk" entered my being straight down to the core, because I felt as if I was there, watching it happen before my eyes and feeling the impact of those words as if spoken to me. That was the moment of re-connection with truth beyond the level of time for me. Alhamdoulillah !

Dear Brother Irshaad Hussain.Salaam.
I hope you are enjoying the blessings of Ramadan. I wanted to thank you for this wonderful writing. May Allah SWT reward you for this effort. The Meta-historical religion section was wonderfully written.It reminds me of Dr Muhammad Iqbal's "The reconstruction of religious thoughts in Islam". He touches the same topic and in his fifth chapter (I think) he even daringly declares that Adam(SAW)whom Allah SWT made prostrate the cummunity of angels was not alone physically. Infact Adam was mentioned/refeleced on behalf of man kind in general..meaning we all were present at that time of prostration..again theses meta physicak things are beyond general understanding.

I would encourage you to write more on Time, space and existance comparing current scientific evidence and enlighten it with Quranc guidance.
Jazak Allah.
Muhammad Amer

This was such a fantastic eye-opening article. It forces you to really think about what is said in the Quran and to acknowledge the profound connection our present lives have with the events mentioned in the glorious Quran. I feel so much closer to these events in my heart and soul. Extremely well written and postulated. Thank you Brother Irshaad. I would like to read more from this Brother.

Fazia BAksh

This is an amazing article.It is inspiring & presented in a beatiful way.

A very comprehensive and thought provking essay.

The concept is in total agreement with that presented at http://www.timephysics.com where present is real past is memory.

Assala Mualaikum,

While trying to translate this article into Burmese language I have found misquoted verses of Holy Quran.
"And remember We gave Moses the Scripture and the Criterion (between right and wrong)" Quran 2:54 should be 2:53 and not 2:54."And remember We divided the sea "for you Quran 2:51 , should be 2:50 instead of 2:51.
The credibility of the article will be severely affected by wrong quotation of Quranic verses.
However, I would like to appreciate the work of original author and Islamic City Com for reproducing this wonderful article from the different perspective.
Kyaw Kyaw Oo

This article is a fine effort to remind humans their real and actual place in the scheme of universe. Understanding this place and then making efforts to come up to the expectations of this place is the path described by the Holy Qur'an as "SIRAT-E-MUSTAQEEM". I have a full article dealing with "SIRAT-E-MUSTAQEEM". How can this article be shared on your network? Please guide me in this regard.

Excellent and insightful article.I enjoyed its between the line awakening message.
Thank you

An interesting concept. Just when I think I understand Islam someone comes along to throw my believes out of wack. Not to say this is wrong its actually good. This is most definately food for thought, and why I love Islam so much. It makes me think and rethink and look at the words of God and our beloved leaders over and over again. I learn something new each day. Thanks for that.

This article, from the website I learned most of what I did that helped me to decide to take shahada, also reminded me of one of the descriptions of prophecy Prophet Issa made of Prophet Mohammad in the Bible, that he would remind you of things of the past and things to come.

Very discerning , relevant and significant article !!! Indeed, "It (QUR'AN) uses a language and a direct mode of expression that encourages us to erase the distance between ourselves and these (narrated)past events ... " .
I fully agree with analysis !!!
ALLAH bless us and increase our faith permanently forever as well as for all muslims over world !!!

I read/heard a pious mother requested Allah SWT in the morning, for her beloved son. But the son is to undergo a 50,000 years punishment in a burning hell. Since the request of a pious mother is to be fullfilled/allowed, she later received her son in the afternoon. Allah SWT is able to do anything beyond our understanding. Now we understand the idea that Allah SWT is capable to deliver the son to a mother in the afternoon but at the same time punish the son for 50,000 years in just that one afternoon! One afternoon is equivalent to 50,000 years! Just like one second for a sinful dying man, the last breath pain is like forever. I died seventy years ago, but the pain was like yesterday a resurrected man told Moses alaihisallam/pbuh. Please Allah SWT, forgive all Muslim before and after us. Let us do good to others, Insyallah.