HUMAN EXISTENCE IS a struggle with time—for time—in time. Time should end—will end—must end—in surrender to Allah, Lord of the Worlds, Creator, Sustainer and Cherisher of all that is, including the end of time and the space that occupies and infuses it.
Two Cosmic Choices in Time
The human struggle for time can take many forms. It can be as crude as a metronome of cudgel-blows, or as subtle as the flutter of a bright green banner in the shifting breeze of springtime.
But whatever style we choose, our struggle ultimately hinges on a cosmic choice: Either we struggle to gracefully accept the gift of existence (including time) given by Allah, in full surrender to its giver, or we struggle to refuse the gift and deny the giver. The former choice gives balance and harmony to our lives and a fruitful purpose to our struggle, leading us toward the eternal garden; while the latter sends us lurching frantically toward eternal flame.
Scheduling Time Control
In Time Wars Jeremy Ritkin recognizes time-struggle as ‘The Primary Conflict in Human History.” Western culture, Ritkin writes, is engaged in a Promethean battle to wrest full control of time from the God who created it. The key weapons: the clock, the schedule, and finally the computer.
These inventions, or the uses to which they have been put, destroy the cosmic, natural, ever-open rhythms by which human life has always been lived, and substitute a mechanical order in which each moment, whether measured by clock-tick or nanosecond, inexorably brings a predictable succession of similar, predictable moments in its wake. The purpose: absolute control of the future.
Securing a Community’s Future Through Building Bureaucracy
The effort to control the future, of course, has always been a factor in human existence. We have always wanted to have some sense of where our next meal was coming from. For more than 95% of our history we lived as hunter-gatherers, following seasonal migration routes to assure a high probability of finding that next meal.
Then the invention of agriculture allowed a small group of powerful individuals to achieve an unprecedented degree of control over the futures of increasingly large communities. By storing surplus grain, kings and pharaohs could dole it out when and to whom they chose. They could build armies to tax and plunder and store more and more grain to support ever-larger armies and bureaucracies.
Such power could be used more or less wisely. The story of prophet Yûsuf shows how a King’s power to control the future with grain should not rely on rational calculation alone. It was prophetic revelation, in the form of Yûsuf’s interpretation of the King’s dream that revealed that seven good years would be followed by seven bad years. By accepting the word of a prophet, Yûsuf’s, the King ruled wisely and saved his people from famine.
Less wise was the Pharaoh who battled prophet Mûsa (Moses) in vain. That Pharaoh, in his haughtiness, sought to control the future purely by imposing his own will upon it. He thought he could will whatever world he wanted into existence, to the point that he called himself, “Your Lord Most High,” or rabbukum al-aʿla:
Has there come unto you the history of Mûsa?
How his Lord called him in the holy vale of Țuwa,
(Saying): Go you to Pharaoh – Lo! he has rebelled,
And say (to him): Have you (will) to grow in grace)?
Then I will guide thee to your Lord and you shall fear (Him).
And he showed him the tremendous token.
But he denied and disobeyed,
Then turned he away in haste,
Then gathered he and summoned
And proclaimed: “I (Pharaoh) am your Lord the Highest.”
So Allah seized him (and made him) an example for the afterlife and for the former. [Sûrat Al-Nâziʿât, 79:15-25]
Lessons from Two Pharaohs
Unfortunately, Pharaoh’s blasphemous control-mania is not an isolated example. The storage of grain ushered in an era in which rulers control the destinies of ever-expanding populations. Having the fate of millions of people in one’s hands presents a terrible temptation to the human ego. The power to bestow the resources that give life, then to take away that life en masse with ever-larger armies and ever-more-terrible weapons, has turned many normal human beings into monsters.
The lesson of the two Pharaohs would seem to be this: Rulers, like the rest of us only more so, must struggle to curb their egos and listen to the voice of prophetic revelation. If they succeed, like Yûsuf’s Pharaoh, they may rule wisely. If they fail, like Mûsa’s Pharaoh, they risk destruction—both in the dunya (this life) and in the Âkhira (the life to come).
Today’s Pharaohs Buoyed Up by Time Control
Available evidence suggests that most of today’s leaders are not doing a very good job of curbing their egos and listening to the voice of the prophets. Though this is partly the product of individual failings, it is also related to large-scale historical and societal trends. And the baseline trend, so well-analyzed by Ritkin, is the Western quest for complete domination of the future through the ever-more-precise measurement of artificial mechanical time, and the subordination of the human being to that inhuman and unnatural time-scheme.
With each new time-reckoning and time-ordering system, humanity has distanced itself farther and farther from the rhythms of nature. From participatory union to astronomical oversight to mechanical intervention to electrical simulation, the temporal trail leads away from the intimacy of shared temporality that binds life to life, human to beast, animal to plant. We used to perceive time as being imbedded in natural events. Now we perceive it as an external symbol, a quantified abstraction. (p.222)
A “Time Out” from Mechanical Time Governance
Ritkin is right, but he leaves the most important thing out: “The intimacy of shared temporality” does not just bind created things to each other. It also binds them to their Creator. This is why the Islamic time scheme, with its rhythms both diurnal (the five daily Salahs) and annual (the lunar calendar with its Month of Fasting and Feast of the Sacrifice) offers humanity a way out of the temporal dead-end which Ritkin describes.
By performing Salah five times a day at the prescribed time we wed our life to the rhythm of the day and night. We awaken and make the Fajr Salah just as the first blush of dawn appears on the eastern horizon.
Qul aʿûthu bi rabbi al-falaq…,
Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of daybreak…
Our day begins with complete submission to the all-powerful all-merciful Creator, Lord of the Worlds. That timeless moment of submission to Allah sacralizes the first moment of day.
Further Lessons of Submission from the Daily Time Markers
Then comes Thuhr time, when the sun is at its highest point, the moment of glorious pride which, if untamed by the ritual submission to Salah, threatens to spill over into the photonic boastfulness and egotism that precedes destruction. The blazing sun of the human ego and its energies must be transmitted by submission to Allah, or it will quickly decline into hellfire.
At ʿAṣr time, the midpoint between noon and dusk, the moment when the once-youthful day’s glory begins to wane, our Salah of submission strikes a necessary balance.
Wal Asr, innal –insâna la fi khusr, ilal-lathina âmanu wa ʿamilu al-ṣâliḥât, wa tawâṣṣu bi al-haqq, wa tâwaṣṣu bi asl-ṣabr.
By the ʿAṣr, truly humanity is in loss, except those who have faith and do good deeds, and persist in the truth, and persist in patience.
The word ʿAṣr means “the ages” as well as “the midpoint between noon and dusk.” Making a connection between the day that is passing and the ages of cosmic time that have unfolded. Perhaps we could even say that a human being reaches the ʿAṣr of his or her existence in late middle age, by which time one’s spirituality, rooted in persistence in truth and patience, is the only thing that can save one from loss.
Al-ḥamdulillâh that I came to Islam before the ʿAṣr of my own life, for at the moment when dusk becomes closer than noon, and the things of the dunya begin to cast a longer shadow, those whose only knowledge is the dunya are in an unenviable situation. Everything in the dunya will be lost: truly humanity is in loss—and that loss becomes all-devouring unless we act righteously, patiently persisting in the truth as revealed by the prophets.
The truth is that our soul endures into the next life, and we will reap the fruits of our righteous and unrighteous choices. By performing the Salah of ʿAṣr we bring ourselves into the proper orientation with time of the day, the time of our lives, the time of the ages, and the timelessness from which Allah created us and to which we must return.
According to tradition, congregational Salah is especially meritorious at the ʿAṣr time. Perhaps praying with others helps remind us that all of these time-cycles are communal, not just individual, experiences.
Reminders of Putting Our Affairs in Order
We make the Maghrib Salah just after the sun has set, the moment of transition between day and night. The moment when the last light of the day is in decline can have a special kind of peace, and marking it by ritually submitting to Allah enshrines that peaceful moment in our lives.
The ʿIshâ’ Salah, the onset of night in its fullness, marks the movement into a deeper, longer-lasting state. If the Maghrib is like the soul whose sun has set, a soul that finds itself in the Âkhira with only the last fading glimmers of the light of physical existence around it, the ʿIshâ’ is like the soul in its permanent abode: either the nightmare of hellfire, or the peace and pleasure of Paradise. We are urged to pray every Salah as if it were our last, and the Salah of ʿIshâ’, the last one before falling into slumber from which we have no guarantees that we will awake, carries a special hint of finality.
On-Time Cycle of Time Markers
Taken together, the five prayers link us to the cycles of creation and destruction, life and death, light and darkness. They give us our proper orientation, both in the dunya and in the Âkhira.
That is why we must try to do them on time. If we postpone our prayers until the end of the proper time, we lose clarity of orientation. If we skip them and try to make them up, we lose even more.
Rediscovering Islamic Time Cycles
Allah has given us these Salah times, and the seasonal cycles marked by the moon and the two feasts, as a blessing and a mercy, to ease our path and lead us toward inner peace and Paradise.
But how can we keep these times in a world ruled by the clock, a world in which electric light has blotted out the night and stars and changed the very rhythm of our bodies? How can we make Islamic time the measure of our lives, when we are ruled by school and work schedules developed completely outside of the Islamic system?
Feeling the Times of Day
We must do our best, persisting in truth and patience. We must try to orient ourselves to the times of Salah, focusing on the time of the day rather than clock time when a new prayer time arrives—if only by looking out the window at the play of light and shadow, or better yet stepping outdoors and taking the air of that particular moment into our freshly-cleansed nostrils. We must watch the waxing and waning of the moon and keep our lunar calendar.
(I am ashamed to say that I am so habituated to the Christian calendar I grew up with that I tend to lose track of what Islamic day, month and even year it is; and my sense of history is tied to the Christian calendar as well. I must try to remedy that failing, Inshâ’Allah, and move my being into Islamic time.)
Bringing Natural/Organic Time to Our Non-Muslim Societies
We must, of course, keep Ramadan and celebrate the Eid. We must celebrate the Muslim feasts, and de-emphasize or avoid non-Muslim holidays. Perhaps we can be creative in finding ways to merge Muslim time with the time frames of whatever society we inhabit, helping shift those societies from mechanical time toward organic and Islamic time.
I am not saying we need to get rid of clocks, computers, electric lights, the Christian calendar, and the other signposts of artificial and non-Muslim time. But we should do our best to adhere to the balanced and spiritually efficacious time system of Islam, using other systems wisely and in moderation. By tampering with Allah’s revealed wisdom the ongoing changes in the way humans measure and experience time, Muslims can help save humanity from its ever-accelerating path toward senselessness and destruction.