Allah says: “By time! Surely the human being is at loss. Except for those who have faith and do righteous deeds and exhort one another to truth and exhort one another to patience.” [Sûrah al-`Asr]

Life without a noble purpose is meaningless. In order to invest our lives with meaning, we have to renew the purposes that we have.

First of all, we need to have purposes in our lives that are personal. There is nothing objectionable about this. Islamic Law has actually come to help us realize our individual aspirations, like academic achievement, professional success, financial prosperity, marital bliss, and other permissible worldly benefits. These personal achievements ultimately translate into prosperity for society, since society is the sum total of its individuals. A rational person will not resort to unlawful means of achieving his goals as long as he finds legitimate means to do so. Society’s success is the sum total of the legitimate successes of its people.

Many people, in times of crisis, wonder about the role that they should play. The truth is that our role in life is not supposed to be limited to hastily reacting to whatever ill befalls us. Admittedly, it is good to respond well in times of crisis. However, we need to play a more consistent and proactive role, even if that role is minor or our steps gradual. ‘Slow yet effective’ can be our motto.

The second sort of goal we should have is a general goal to serve society and to fend for it. We should feel the pain of our fellow Muslims when pain befalls them and act with integrity and nobility. We must contribute with our finances, our knowledge, and our good advice. This is the right that all Muslims have on their fellows, even when the Muslim in need has been neglectful or is unknown to his benefactor. We cannot as individuals solve all the major problems in the world or put an end to human suffering. No one has the power to do this except Allah. Nevertheless, we must be convinced that there is something we can do and at least start some positive endeavor that we can leave as a legacy for our children and grandchildren.

3. Deeds

Allah mentions to us what we need to attain completeness for ourselves and for the others around us. They are four things: faith, righteous deeds, mutual exhortation to truth, and mutual exhortation to patience.

First, we must have faith in everything that we as Muslims are required to believe in. Allah says: “The Messenger believes in what was revealed to him by his Lord, and so do the believers. They all believe in Allah, His angels, His scriptures, and His Messengers. They say: ‘We do not distinguish between any of his Messengers.’ They say: ‘We hear and we obey. Your forgiveness, our Lord! To you is our final destination.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 285]

The faith that resides in a person’s heart is the condition for salvation. None but a believer will enter Paradise. When Allah speaks about the believers, He generally addresses them as group, as He does in Sûrah al-`Asr. This is indicative of the spirit of community and solidarity that the believers should have and the lack of selfishness that should exist in their hearts. Many of the unbelievers have a very strong sense of their own identity. We can consider a country like China that for more than five thousand years has remained a single, unified country. When we turn our attention to the Muslims, we see so much division and so much bickering that you might fancy antagonism and strife to be part of their nature. When there are no divisions existing between us, we seem determined to create them. This state of affairs has weakened our faith and depleted our strength. It has brought down our lives, hardened our hearts, and sharpened our tongues. We are like this in spite of the fact that our religion has come with mercy even for the lowliest beasts and birds and with respect even for the non-living elements of our environment. It comes as a mercy for all humanity, not just for the Muslims.

Allah then mentions righteous deeds. In the Qur’ân, deeds are often mentioned along with faith. In actuality, deeds are part of faith. Our pious predecessors defined faith to encompass our belief, our statements, and our deeds. Al-Hasan al-Basrî said: “Faith is not by wishful thinking or outward trappings, but a conviction in the heart that is verified by our conduct.”

There are deeds of the heart, of the tongue, and of the limbs. Righteous deeds can be formal acts of worship, simple good conduct, or assisting others in attaining their worldly needs. The Prophet (peace be upon him) even said: ““When one of you approaches his wife, it is an act of charity.” [Sahîh Muslim (1006)] and: “The morsel of food you place in your wife’s mouth is charity.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (1295) and Sahîh Muslim (1628)]

Then Allah mentions mutual exhortation to truth. The mutuality of this endeavor further emphasizes the importance of the mercy and sympathy that we must have for one another. Your fellow Muslim cares for you, is concerned for you, and exhorts you with good advice and you do so in turn. This relationship should exists between all people; the governor and the governed, the teacher and the student the parent and the child, the youth and the elder, the man and the woman. When Allah commands us to exhort each other, this is what he means. It is everyone’s duty. It is not an activity for a select group of people were the rest of the population merely has to hear and obey. We as Muslims reject the notion of a priesthood who have a special divine sanction to understand and disseminate the teachings of the sacred texts. All we have are scholars who by virtue of their learning and specialized study are more knowledgeable about the texts and more able to make an informed opinion. Infallibility, however, is not within their grasp.

Every field of knowledge, from medicine to economics to administration, has its specialists. This applies equally to Islamic knowledge. The opinions of qualified specialists in the Islamic disciplines should carry considerable weight. However, understanding of the Qur’ân and Sunnah is not their monopoly. They, like everyone else, can both give and receive admonition.

The Qur’ân comes with many exhortations. “Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him and that you do good for your parents” [Sûrah al-Isrâ’: 23] “Worship your Lord and associate nothing in worship with Him. Be good to parents, kinfolk, orphans, those in need, close neighbors, neighbors who are strangers, the companions by your side, the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Truly, Allah does not love the arrogant and vainglorious.” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 36]

The Prophet (peace be upon him) came with many exhortations, including those relating to the treatment of women, the upkeep of prayer, and the maintenance of personal fortitude.

All Muslims must carry out the responsibility of enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong. We must all encourage those who do right and speak honestly to those who do wrong about their actions. The second Caliph `Umar aptly said, addressing the people: “There is no good in you if you do not speak out and no good in us if we do not hear.”

The Muslims did not arrive at the sorry state they are in today except on account of our arrogance when others advise us to fear Allah. Allah says: “When it is said to him to fear Allah, he is led by arrogance to sin. Enough for him is Hell – and an evil resting place it is indeed.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 206]

The exhortation to fear Allah does not warrant such an arrogant response. It is in fact a sincere word rooted in mercy, truth, and genuine concern. It is not pompous nor does it lend itself to criticism and objection.

When Allah says: “and exhort one another to truth and exhort one another to patience” He is showing us the importance of dialogue to Muslim society. Sincere dialogue promotes intellectual development and helps prevent rifts from developing in society.

This mutual exhortation is only to be to the truth. Our personal opinions may not necessarily be true. The sure truth, however, is what we find in the Qur’ân and Sunnah and the consensus of the Muslims. Our own opinions may be true, but we must always bear in mind that there is a chance they may be false. None of us can ever be absolutely certain that his personal opinion is the absolute truth.

Finally, Allah mentions mutual exhortation to patience. Whoever relies on this cannot fail. Patience is to faith what the head is to the body. Whoever is devoid of patience is bereft of faith. Faith requires patience. Good works require patience. Calling to the truth requires patience.

We need patience for our religion and for our worldly lives. Patience is the basis of nobility and the best of good manners. It makes life pure and more pleasant. `Umar said: “We found the best times of our lives by being patient.”

Patience keeps a person balanced and moderates his ideas and his actions. Patience is the balm for the woman whose husband is cruel, for the sick person whom doctors cannot cure, for the debtor under the pressure of his financers, and for the worried person consumed by grief and concern. Patience is the cure for all of those who are waiting for Allah to release them from their burdens. Allah’s is the praise, no matter how protracted a person’s trials may become.

A brother once wrote to me, telling me the story of when he was in poverty and debt and feeling hungry. He said that he had resolved to write an elegant poem of praise to solicit with it the assistance of some wealthy merchant, minister, or prince. When he set down to do so, it was as if something within his soul had called out to him and said: “Those people are created beings like yourself and like you are needy before Allah.” I then resolved to write a poem about Him who created me and them. Within months, my unemployment, poverty, and debts all went away.