As long as you are living in the (social) world, your faith alone is not enough

In his book The Constitution of Society, Anthony Giddens (1984) remarked that every rule is an interpretation. I think what he meant was, “an arbitrary interpretation by human being.” To expose this arbitrariness, Giddens also mentioned about the paradox of rule: that our conducts can be translated (interpreted) as a rule at the same time as our conducts can be made to follow the rule.

Quran is a rule. But arguably, it is not the one interpreted by humans. It came directly to Muhammad (peace be upon him) from Allah through His angel Gabriel, in Arabic. It bypasses humans cognition with no intervening process of interpretation. This must be unique.

So, I thought, there must be something to learn from every single word of the Quran. Which I, with all my limitations, try on this surah (“surah” more or less is similar to “chapter” in reference to other Holy Books):

By time,
Indeed, mankind is in loss,
Except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience.

This is the English translation of Quran Surah Al-Asr. This is perhaps the shortest surah among all in the Quran, making it the easiest to remember—yet its very length poses an intriguing critique as if it tries to convey the message as quickly as possible (as “we don’t have much time”).

Social scientists must be quite familiar with the notions of “structure” and “agency.” These represent how “deterministic” or “free” are we (human beings) in our actions in the social life. Those who believe more on structure argue that anything that we do is determined by a higher order structure and we just merely an object controlled by it. On the other hand, those who believe more on agency argue that we are in a total control of our lives. We are the “agent” of change, and “structure” is just something of human creation that exists because we think about it. Structure is not real, they would say. Well, when we deal with dichotomies, the truth usually lies something in between. It is what Giddens’ argument about: that structure and agency co-exist and necessary in our social life. For those who are interested to understand more about that, reading Giddens’ book of “The Constitution of Society” is a must.

Coming back to the surah quoted above, it is after reading Giddens’ book that I revisited these three ayah (in Arabic, “ayah” literally means “sign”, in reference to other Holy Books, it is more or less similar to “verse”). A theory is a rule, defined by humans to understand the world. If that is true, then the same notion should apply to Quran as well, except that it is not an interpretation, but a direct provision by The Creator of the world. With a conviction that these three ayah must be there to explain something, I came to the following interpretations for every ayah:

By time,

Prompted to begin the surah, it denotes the urgency of it in life. Giddens’ structuration theory puts a lengthy discussion on emphasizing the importance of time. Time structures our life. It is a definite constraining feature of life the most cryptic entity that many philosophers have tried to make sense: from Albert Einstein to Henri Bergson. Yet, the more we decipher its properties the more puzzling it becomes.

Indeed, mankind is in loss,

In absolute certainty, human beings are in a state of loss in every ticking second. What kind of loss? The most inevitable loss is in the finitude of life itself, as we are “being towards death.” We are in loss because time itself is finite. We are bounded with only (for the better or worse) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Everything we do is restricted within that limit. If a day keeps recurring and a week keeps repeating in that manner, everything we do becomes a routine and constant. In that constancy, in this ayah, it is hinted that we are always in loss.

Except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience.

I would understand “those who have believed” as those who have faith. So everyone is in loss except those who have faith. Faith is an essential feature of human life since it gives purpose for us to live. It gives us something to adhere to, an energy that no one else can curtail. But faith in what? A faith that there is only one God. A faith that every deeds that we do is directed as our devotion to Him. But, of course, you can interpret faith in any other way. Faith is a personal domain. Your faith is yours alone to decide, so is mine.

But it doesn’t stop there. Having faith as an individual is not enough (here we have to pay a special attention to the word “and”). We are still in loss until we are not only “have believed” but also “done righteous deeds.” It is the social that matters! No matter what is our faith, but in our everyday life we are living with other human beings. No one can do righteous deeds without involving other person, even when the “doing” itself is individual. Throwing trashes to the garbage makes the environment clean—and that certainly helps people! Go meet them and do good. Help others, love them, be caring.

But doing righteous deeds alone is not enough! We also need to have “advised each other to truth.” Throwing a can to the garbage by yourself is good. But if everyone else is littering around you, your action is superseded by those irresponsible persons surround you—you don’t make much difference. The environment doesn’t get any better (that is a loss). So you need to get the words out, talk to another person so that they too have to do good. If that person talks to another person to do good, imagine how many people will be advised to do good.

But advising people doing good alone is not enough! And here we return again to the conception of time. As humans, we are prone to be impatient. When we want things, we want them here and now. Yet, we live within the dimension of time. Meaning that we have to wait before we get what we want. It means that we need to wait, sometimes for a long time, perhaps for a very long time, before we even know if we will get the result. How can we, the weaklings, get through every single day to achieve our goals? And when the going gets tough, a day can feel like a year! How can we survive the time constrain of our lives?

That is, as this ayah advises us, by advising “each other to patience”. What is patience? And why are we advised to advise each other? Patience is, and here I will quote from the dictionary, “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious.” That is spot on. We cannot escape time. And sometimes we just want to skip it and refuse to cope. Well, I think it is okay to be annoyed or anxious when coping with problems. The point is to deal with it effectively. Wait, that’s actually what the word “cope” means!: (of a person) deal effectively with something difficult.

RESTRUCTURING OUR LIVES

Returning back again to Giddens’ theory about “structure” and “agency”, time is a structure that we cannot change. It exists independent of our belief of its existence. Just like gravity, believe it or not, the earth will drag you down. At the same time, we, the “agents”, may leverage that property so that time works for us—not against us (thus being in loss). How? By being socially caring and patient.

So, and this also concludes my interpretation, patience incorporates the highest state of life for human beings. To be patient means to be fully aware of the time constraint that we are faced with. But how to be patient? Is a man who is patient is a man who does nothing? That’s an obsolete imagination (and a misleading one if you still have it). A patient human beings are those who, in their acceptance and tolerance to problem, continuously strive to do good to others and make their doing good contagious. Our life is our life with others. And that’s important. Because we know that time can be very torturing, it gets worse if we just let it pass and do nothing. Quite the opposite, we have to do something. Doing something good for others, and advise them to do good too, and advise them to cope with every hardship.

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