Charles Caleb Colton remarked: “Time is the most undefinable yet paradoxical of things; the past is gone, the future is not come, and the present becomes the past even while we attempt to define it, and, like the flash of lightning, at once exists and expires.”
However, when it comes to a person’s future, irrespective of how brief it might be, Satan makes it always appear too long, too promising and assuring, and too accommodative.
Hence, a person will always feel that the past fifty, sixty or seventy years of his life were very short and have passed as quickly as a dream, whereas he will never feel the same about several remaining years –maybe even less — causing him to panic and try to do something about it.
As a result, a person will view that illusory “longevity” as an opportunity to make up for the “unutilized”, “unproductive” and “unsatisfying” past, engaging in whatever physical, intellectual and psychological pursuits he will deem suitable to do the mending and compensatory job.
To embark on doing some remarkable spiritually and morally gratifying things, though regarded as extremely important and desirable, will have to wait till the former is accomplished. In a person’s mind, such an arrangement is fairly possible, as he fallaciously believes that he has much, or enough, time left.
It is therefore a paradox that we always feel we do not have enough time to do our, most of the time mundane, things and achieve our equally mundane dreams, but almost never sense that perhaps little time is left and that death is forthcoming.
This is a manifestation of a vicious circle from which there is hardly a way out. It is a chain of reckless decisions and thoughts in which the responses to the futility of the past and the uncertainty as well as transience of the present create new problems that aggravate the original predicament.
The only easing and promising course of action naturally becomes delving into the stock, or reservoir, of the “inexhaustible” future and borrowing more time and opportunities from it, hoping that soon things will be set right. The vicious circle goes on until we run out of time, and opportunities, and thus come to the realization what life actually is (was). Then, however, it will be too little, too late.
In a nutshell, we feel that way because we spend our lives trying in vain to attain the unattainable, satisfy the unsatisfiable, enjoy the unenjoyable and detest the undetestable.
Accentuating the deceptive nature of time, especially when it slips away, Almighty Allah says that on the Day of Judgment, the transgressors will swear that they did not stay in this world more than an hour:
“thus were they used to being deluded” (al-Rum, 55).
On that day, the transgressors will also realize where it all went wrong. The actual meaning and value of time will likewise be brought home to them. As soon as death should approach them, they will plead for a delay, or respite, only for a little while, so that they could make necessary amends (al-Munafiqun, 10).
All of a sudden, getting any amount of extra time – regardless of how small — will be the most valuable proposition and will be able to solve most of the wrongdoers’ problems.
A sage once said that he is bemused by a scenario where a man pursues this world and the angel of death pursues him. While the man will never grab hold of the world, it is only a matter of time before the angel of death grabs him by the neck and thus brings the whole chase to an abrupt end.
The Prophet also said that the wisest and most prudent among believers are those who remember death most often and are well-prepared for what is after it. He called death the destroyer of worldly pleasures (Sunan Ibn Majah).
Death could also be labeled as the debunker, or de-mystifier, of all life illusions and untruths.
Quantity versus Quality
It goes without saying, therefore, that life is more than just an amount of time, in the latter’s capacity as a component quantity of various measurements used in relation to events, material reality and conscious experience.
Life cannot be reduced to sheer numbers, or statistical data whereby a person is fortunate and blessed if he lives a long life, and unfortunate and cursed if he is given a short lifespan.
Rather, life is all about quality and productivity, which are infinite and everlasting. Time’s is the support act. The quality and productivity factors ensure genuine longevity and an undeletable legacy for a person, even if he lived a short life.
That means that a person may be around for a hundred years, but without a life. He may only exist, like many other things and beings, which, when gone, leave nothing — or very little and for a very brief period of time – behind.
His many years proved hollow, worthless and devoid of any true meaning, purpose and value. They thus never had a life, and with them, neither did the person, who wasted them, truly live.
Conversely, a person may be around for a short period of time, but leave a legacy as though he lived a hundred, or more, years. This is because his allocated time had an authentic vision and purpose, which was optimized by his total dedication, diligence and, of course, divine blessings and providence. His time had a value as well as substance, and was really lived to the fullest.
For example, when one reads about and contemplates the lives of Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (d. 720 CE), Imam al-Shafi’i (d. 820 CE), Imam Muslim (d. 875 CE), Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE), Salahuddin al-Ayyubi (d. 1193 CE), or Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d. 1350 CE) – who were some of the most prominent personalities in the history of Islamic civilization — one gets a feeling that, based on their contributions and legacies, they might have lived extremely long lives. However, they only lived 38, 53, 54, 53, 55 and 58 years respectively, far below today’s retirement age.
That is why Allah declares that life is about performing best, not most, deeds:
The One Who created death and life, so that He may put you to test, to find out which of you is best in deeds: He is the All-Mighty, the All-Forgiving (al-Mulk, 2).
Quantity, it follows, should always come second to quality. Hence, on the Day of Judgment, everyone will be asked about his life and how he spent it, his youth and how he used it, his wealth and how he earned it and how he disposed of it, and how he acted upon what he acquired of knowledge (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi). It is all about “how” (quality), rather than “how much” (quantity).
Finally, to sum up the whole discussion, once a man said to the Prophet (peace be upon him):
“O Messenger of Allah, which of the people is best?”
“The one who lives long and does good.”
“Which of the people is worst?”
“The one who lives long and does evil” (Musnad Ahmad, Jami’ al-Tirmidhi).