In this Surah, an oath has been sworn by the Time to impress the point that man is in sheer loss and only those people are an exception from the loss that have faith, do righteous deeds, exhort one another to Truth and exhort one another to patience.
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala doesn’t sworn an oath by any of the created objects on account of its glory or its excellence and wonderful qualities, but for the reason that it testifies to the truth which is meant to be established. Therefore, the oath by Time signifies that Time is witness to the truth that man is in sheer loss except for the people who possess the four qualities.
The word time is used for the past as well as for the passing time in which the present, in fact, does not signify any long stretch of time. Every moment, when it has passed, becomes past and every moment of the future, when it is passing becomes present and when it has passed, becomes past. Here since the oath has been sworn by time absolute, both kinds of time are included in its meaning.
The oath by the past time means that human history testifies that the people who were without these qualities, eventually incurred loss, and in order to understand the significance of the oath by the passing time, one should understand that the time which is now passing is, in fact, the time which has been given to every single individual and every single nation to work in the world.
Its example is of the time which is allotted to a candidate for answering his question paper in the examination hall. The speed with which this time is passing can be estimated from the movement of the second hand in the watch. Even a second is considerable amount of time, for during this very second light travels 186,000 miles. However, if the speed of the passing time be regarded the same as of the movement of the second-hand, and we consider that whatever act, good or bad, we perform and whatever occupation we pursue, takes place in the limited span of age that we have been given for work in the world, we feel that our real wealth is this very time, which is passing so quickly.
Imam Razi cites Hasan Al-Basree as saying, “I understood the meaning of Surah Al-Asr from an ice-seller who was calling aloud for the attention of the people repeatedly in the bazaar: ‘Have mercy on the one whose wealth is melting away !’ Hearing what he was crying I said to myself: this then is the meaning of Wal- asr-i innal-insana la-fi khusr-in.”
The age-limit that man has been allotted is passing quickly like the melting away of ice. If it is wasted, or expended in wrong pursuits, it will be sheer loss to man. Thus, swearing an oath by the Time what has been said in this Surah, means that the fast passing Time is witness that devoid of these four qualities in whatever occupation and work man is expending his limited span of life, he is engaged in bad bargains; only such people are engaged in good bargains, who work in the world, characterized by the four qualities.
It would be just like calling attention of the candidate, who was expending the time allotted for solving the question paper in some other pursuit, to the wall clock in the examination hall, to tell him that the passing time bore witness that he was causing loss to himself; the candidate benefiting by the Time was he who was using every moment of the allotted time in solving the paper.