"By the time. Verily Man is in a state of loss. Except such as have Faith and do righteous deeds and exhort one another to Truth and exhort one another to endurance." [al-Asr, 103].
Time is money. So goes the most used metaphor for time in the English language. There is some truth in it as time can be used to produce wealth and wasting time may also mean losing opportunities to produce wealth. Yet this metaphor also implies something about the purpose of life itself that we should examine carefully. If a child says that money is candy, he'll be right in the sense that money can be used to buy candy. But adults will laugh at him because the statement implies that candy is the most important object that money can buy. Similarly "Time is money" implies that money is the most important object in life: One must value time as he or she values money.
Historically this has been one of the key metaphors driving the engine of industrial revolution and technological development in the past few centuries. A lot of inventions and new technique have aimed at saving time and therefore money. And certainly the list of such inventions and their achievements in speed are mind-boggling. Today men, materials, and ideas can be moved from one place to another at an astonishing speed. The tasks that used to take months and years can be finished in minutes. And yet there is something ironic about all this development. Despite the tremendous explosion in timesaving gadgets, life has become busier than ever before. Overall we can't show much for all the time that has been saved.
We are very busy, but at the end of the day we can't tell what we have been busy doing. Where all the saved time has gone? In what way our lives have become more productive? Just imagine how Internet has made it possible for information to move all over the world in seconds. And then see how the same medium is being used to waste countless hours in frivolous discussions in chat rooms or meaningless net surfing! The juxtaposition of the time saving and time wasting nature of the same tool brings in full focus the basic problem with the prevalent ideas of time itself.
One may think that the metaphor is not to be blamed for this waste. After all "Time is money" would seem to suggest that no time should be wasted. Actually belittling time by equating it with money allows whiling it away when one has made the money he needs! So people talk about "killing time" and the need for the gadgets that let them kill time. One has to consider time to be much more important than money not to waste it like this!
To put things in perspective a quick historic comparison is in order. Consider the period of early Muslims when none of these technological marvels were available. There is a common notion that people then leisurely lived in sleepy little towns and had little to do. Actually that was a period of unprecedented activity in all aspects of life! Theirs was a period of intense military and political activity during which nearly half the known world came under the banner of Islam. Coming from a most backward part of the world, they introduced a new civilization to the world that was proud of its civilization and its military might. In personal life they used to spend a lot more time in worship than we do, most of them spending big parts of their nights in individual prayers. This would seem to leave a lot less time for other pursuits in life. We also know that means of communications were so poor then, that sometimes they had to travel on horseback for weeks or months to go to another area, say, to collect a report of a hadith from someone who had heard it directly from the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. Yet during this period and despite all the logistics problems, together they collected the hundreds of thousands of ahadith that have been compiled into various collections and are available today! And this is just one aspect of their work! How in the world did they find time for that?
The answer is simple. They were driven by a different metaphor for time. They valued it as the gift whose proper or improper use would determine the outcome for the eternity. They had listened to the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, when he said: "There are two blessings that most people are deluded by. Health and available time." [Bukhari]. They took his advice very seriously when he said: "Value five things before five other things: Youth before old age; health before sickness; affluence before poverty; leisure before becoming too busy; and life before death." [Tirmidhi]. Abdullah bin Hasn (Radi-Allahu unhu) reports that whenever two companions met they would not depart till they had recited sura al-Asr to each other reminding themselves of the eternal loss that everyone faces if we waste away our time in foolish pursuits. They did not waste any moment of their life in gossips, useless talks, or meaningless pursuits.
The difference is clear. We may have a fast car, but if we are riding it for the joy of speed driving, not because we want to get there, we'll never get there. The success of our elders or salaf lies in their overriding sense of purpose and accountability and their concern with using their time very carefully.
Coming closer to our own period we find other examples of a similar nature. Consider the case of Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, who died about sixty years ago. On the surface he just ran a small monastery and a religious school and was given to spending long periods of time in individual worship. But he also authored about 1200 publications ranging from small booklets to encyclopedic works like "Bahishti Zevar", which has seen millions of copies in print. He also used to answer all his mail everyday, which consisted of dozens and sometimes hundreds of pieces. And he taught many generations of scholars! His secret? A strict discipline born of a deep concern about accountability for time.
We are becoming older every day. One day our time will be up and we'll leave this world forever. What happens afterwards will depend solely on how we used all the moments available to us before that certain but unknown moment comes. Time is life. What is at stake is the entire eternity.