One of the most important and yet illusory elements of human life is time. It begins for us when we are born and when time as we know it ends, this is signified by our death. So our concept of time is completely tied up, for us, with birth and death. But for Allah, who is neither born nor dies, time cannot be as we know it. For Allah, time has no boundaries. Many thinkers have thought of this as a circle.
We can see this circle in the calendar, which shows us the repeating circle/cycle of each increment of time: day, month, and year. These “increments” are in turn directly related to “celestial bodies:” the sun (associated with the day/night cycle), the moon (associated with the monthly cycle), and the stars (whose appearance was historically associated with the yearly cycle). These cycles are all repeated significantly in the Quran, where they are referred to as “ayat,” or “signs.”
إِنَّ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ وَالْفُلْكِ الَّتِي تَجْرِي فِي الْبَحْرِ بِمَا يَنفَعُ النَّاسَ وَمَا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مِن مَّاءٍ فَأَحْيَا بِهِ الْأَرْضَ بَعْدَ مَوْتِهَا وَبَثَّ فِيهَا مِن كُلِّ دَابَّةٍ وَتَصْرِيفِ الرِّيَاحِ وَالسَّحَابِ الْمُسَخَّرِ بَيْنَ السَّمَاءِ وَالْأَرْضِ لَآيَاتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يَعْقِلُونَ
Lo! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of night and day, and the ships which run upon the sea with that which is of use to men, and the water which Allah sends down from the sky, thereby reviving the earth after its death, and dispersing all kinds of beasts therein, and (in) the ordinance of the winds, and the clouds obedient between heaven and earth: are signs (of Allah’s Sovereignty) for people who have sense.
This Quranic aya (the word for “signs” is used in the Quran to mean “verse,” but in translation “verse” loses this sense) references the cycle of day and night, the water cycle, as well as the intersection of cycles in a greater whole, as in the example of rain absorbed by the earth, the subsequent vegetation being then consumed by animals. Also mentioned is the buoyancy of water, another “sign” frequently referenced in the Quran, although not in this case specifically time/cycle related.
But thinking further, water is referred to in the Quran as that from which Allah created life itself.
Surat Alanbia’ (the prophets) :30
أَوَلَمْ يَرَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا أَنَّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ كَانَتَا رَتْقًا فَفَتَقْنَاهُمَا وَجَعَلْنَا مِنَ الْمَاءِ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ حَيٍّ أَفَلَا يُؤْمِنُونَ
ARE, THEN, they who are bent on denying the truth not aware that the heavens and the earth were [once] one single entity, which We then parted asunder? – and [that] We made out of water every living thing? Will they not, then, believe?
That the aquatic origin of life is a scientifically modern idea, as is, even more strikingly so, the idea that the heavens and the earth were a single entity which He “opened up” (a more literal translation), in keeping with scientific observation (akin to the Big Bang theory), shows how the Quran, having been “sent down” to Arabia, no hotbed of scientific development at the time, brings truths and ideas that did not exist at the time in any human community, let alone the community of Prophet Mohammad. In this context, water being referred to in the Quran as that substance from which we were originated, combined with the fact of its buoyancy, tells us something about another “element” that accompanies life—one of whose properties for us is having a beginning and an end—time.
Living things are also dying things. Hence, having a beginning and an end gives living things a sense of time as something that passes, as a measure of lifespan, the brief period in which the living actually live. We face this huge divide, this sudden dramatic change from active, dynamic organism to inactive, static creature being only acted upon and having no consciousness, energy, power. This sudden divide creates our sense of time as something that begins and ends. Time, then, in our perspective, is a measure of life itself.
And indeed of the whole of creation, which was once a single whole and then “opened up” into myriad separate parts. This dramatic change could be seen as, for creation, the origin of time, the larger timescale of the universe. The word “universe” itself reflects a longing for that unity, a return to the origin. A longing to be part of a unity, a One.
But Allah, glory to Him in the highest, is One. The One. Al-Ahad. This is the defining principle of Allah. So, according to the Quran, the “built-in” longing for return is our intuitive sense that we were, before being created as individual humans, part of a greater whole, a unity. And at the same time, a powerful need and desire to return, which increases as we get older.
The difference between time for those who are young and time for those who are older is expressed in the very architecture of the Quran, in the way the Suras (chapters) are ordered from large to smaller, descending in size as one progresses, and at the same time, increasing in intensity and in the “size” or “weight” of the subject matter. The longer Suras in the beginning (with the exception of Al-Fatiha which is in a class by itself, being, symbolically, in a “place” of our singular identity/self, the vulnerable “creature,” such as the cephalopod nautilus) deal with such matters as points of law and social order as well as history and points of guidance or examples in greater detail. As the Suras become shorter, the details must necessarily decrease and the overall content of the shorter Suras, being in a sense “compressed,” must focus on the most important things: Al-Alhira or the “Hereafter,” Allah’s power and mercy, the consequences of Kufr or “covering up”/ hiding the truth, and how to prepare, especially in terms of attitude and commitment, for the final Judgment. The effect of this focus is one of intensity and power, but also emphasis of earlier themes. There is a correlation between this “progression” and our sense of time in the aging process of life itself.
As children, our perception of time was more “compressed” into the present, hardly moving yet long, in a sense like an eternity. Children seem to want everything now, and “tomorrow” is a meaningless concept. The immediacy and looming presence of the present is similar to the shorter Suras, more compressed, focused on the larger issues of eternity rather than temporal issues of law, social order, planning, commerce, marriage, contracts, and the like. Children have no patience for that sort of thing.
But adults on the other hand have a strong sense of the passage of time and with it a sense of urgency to survive in it, in particular to make plans for the future and to deal with and learn from the past. So the longer Suras deal with time in its sense of progression, the “linear” sense of having a clear beginning, birth, and a clear end, death, and the idea of planning and ordering within that framework. But these Suras, like the shorter ones, also remind us constantly of the eternal realm of Allah, of the Hereafter, of the “larger” timeframe than that of our individual or even collective lives.
So one would think that the Suras that come first, the longer ones, would reflect childhood whereas the later ones reflect an adult’s time perspective. In fact, overall, the shorter Suras were revealed first in the “order of descent” to Prophet Mohammad, albeit not in exactly reverse order but generally the shorter ones were revealed earlier than the larger ones. So in this order, that comparison applies.
On the other hand, one could say longer Suras reflect the child’s sense of time simply in being very long and full of events and details. The child’s early life feels full and very long, the progression of time slow—and in that sense like the longer Suras. The adult’s perspective becomes increasingly focused, toward the end of his/her life, on the imminence of death and also on “larger” issues beyond mere survival. To an older adult time feels very brief, a mere glimpse, similar to the actual length of the shorter Suras, as well as their content. So in this sense, the final arrangement of Suras accurately reflects the changing perception of time.
Note one could say that the “order of revelation” reflects one’s experience of time whereas the final order reflects one’s perception of time as it changes throughout the human lifespan. And in both cases, the lasting truth is that before birth we were with God and after death we must return to Him, so eternity reigns. This truth threads through the entire Quran. Thus, time is a circle, but as long as we are alive, the “linear” progression affects our perception of it, giving an “angle” to the closed circle, making it a spiral. Like the spiral of the chambered nautilus.
Before finishing this discussion, recall for a moment the buoyancy of water, how the heaviest objects can float on it if they are designed to utilize the properties of water and its surface tension. Water, being the source of and essential for life, in the Quran can be thought of as, symbolically, life itself. Not only in the oft-repeated water cycle, but in its very buoyancy, revealing that life itself also has a certain “buoyancy” and resilience to it, a mercy from Allah. It can be thought of as being like Allah’s mercy itself, like the name Al-Raheem being mentioned twice as frequently as the name Al-Rahman, the Almighty. We are truly buoyed by His mercy in this life in more ways than we can count or be cognizant of.
Because of the difficulty associated with knowledge of one’s demise, an essential part of life being death, we have been given the uplift of life itself, its very beauty, energy, light, fulfillment and fullness, sense of richness and joy, respect and appreciation for which is an essential part of surrender to Allah. This should be a reminder for those dour and scowling folk who think of religion as suffering and waging war, as a state of righteous anger.
For ships to sail on or plough through the ocean, there is the gift of water’s surface tension and buoyancy. And for us to journey through the essentially downward spiral of life without despair, there is life’s essential uplifting qualities, another gift of Allah. Thankfulness and appreciation itself feeds into this. Quite literally. And helps us live in time with a perception of the extratemporal, the immortal, the eternal.
And in the Quran’s very structure is revealed the circle of time, both from a divine perspective of eternity/ timelessness and from our perspective as temporal mortals, which situation, being alive in this earthly life, is brief, but which is completed when we return to Allah in eternity and fullness.