Sura 76 of the Qur’an, alternately known as “Time” and “Man,” describes clearly a number of aspects of the Muslim worldview, including the place of humanity in the world. In doing so, it describes the concept of obedience to God that is the root of the word Islam, but also presents descriptions of paradise for those who obey and doom for those who do not. The sura also depicts two examples of obedience, caring for the poor and worshipping God, and implies that the former is in fact a form of the latter.
“Man” begins, though, on a different note, describing the humble beginnings of each human as “a drop of thickened fluid.” The first two verses aim to remind the reader that because he began so insignificantly and was turned into a “hearing, knowing” being by God, he must show gratitude to God in return. “We have shown him the way,” states the next verse, referring to the revelations that Allah has sent to humanity, and the next portion of the sura is a part of this divine guide to life.
The ethical center of the sura thus begins with the sixth verse and states that “the slaves of Allah”—Muslims—“feed with food the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner.” This is done “for love of Him,” a rare Quranic use of a third person pronoun to describe God. Verse nine clarifies that “Him” refers to God, as the Muslims say to the needy, “We feed you, for the sake of Allah only.” Feeding the needy is thus depicted not as an act of compassion but as an act of servitude to God.
The Muslims’ submission to God, though, is not an irrational one; they do not feed the needy without reason. Instead, they say, they care for others because “we fear from our Lord a day of frowning and of fate,” an eventual punishment for failing to submit. In just a few verses the sura has explained that, in following the example of these righteous people, one should feed the poor. This need not be an act of compassion or uncompelled religiosity, though, and perhaps shouldn’t be; it should instead be an act of servitude to God, who will punish those who shun such acts.
This concept of punishment for disobedience is complimented by the concept of paradise for the obedient, and the sura continues by crediting God with the salvation of those who obey him. There follows a description of the paradise that awaits the righteous, ending in verse 22 with the explicit statement that this paradise “is a reward” for the “endeavor (upon earth)” of the good. An encapsulation of the message of the sura soon follows: “Submit patiently to thy Lord’s command, and obey not of them any guilty one or disbeliever.”
“Thy Lord’s command” has many parts, though, and feeding the poor is only one way to submit to God. One should also, the sura says, think of God constantly and worship Him at night. This worship seems less an act of ethics than one of religion, but the Qur’an does not to make this categorical distinction. Earlier, charity was described as a form of obedience to God, and here worship is among the things one should do. Like charity, worship is depicted as an act done for God in gratitude for creation, and since all such acts, including charity, have the purpose of acknowledging Allah’s supremacy, they all seem to actually be forms of worship.
This theme of worship and submission that pervades the sura is also used in its ending, which echoes the beginning, but is more ominous. “We, even We, created them,” says Allah, “and when We will, We can replace them, bringing others like them in their stead.” God created us but He can also destroy us, so worship, both ethical and religious, is truly essential to our survival. And, “Time” concludes, the cost of failure to submit is great. “He maketh whom He will enter His mercy, and for evildoers hath prepared a painful doom.”