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Tafseer of Soorah al`Asr (103:1-3)

By Ayub A. Hamid

Name and Background

This small Soorah is identified by the word "Al-Asr" used in its first verse.

It was revealed in the very early Makkan period of the Islamic Movement when Qur-aanic revelations consisted of short verses that were very appealing and memorable. As the prophethood of Muhammad Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam was the hot issue of that time, people were intrigued by every revelation they heard
about. They would hear the verses and repeat them exactly as heard to other people, quickly making them the talk of the town.

This Soorah is an excellent example of the Qur-aanic feature in that it delivers a message of enormous impact in the fewest words. The people who understand it well, feel that volumes can be written about the message and philosophy presented in this Soorah. It provides a complete action program for salvation, points out the terrible loss suffered by those who neglect this action program, and presents the logical evidence supporting its claim - all in three brief verses. The action program consists of four cornerstones on which a solid
structure of a lifelong program of salvation and success can be built that will help people avoid loss and failure. Thus, it identifies the essentials of an Islamic lifestyle in the proverbial nutshell. Scholars like Imaam Shafi'ee have suggested that if people reflect upon and assimilate the message of just this Soorah, it will be enough for their guidance.

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It was reported by Abdullaah Bin Hisn Ad-Darimi that when the companions of the
Prophet, Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam met, they would not depart without
reciting Al`Asr to each other. This indicates how important it is to keep the
message of this Soorah always in our conscious mind.


As evidenced[1] by rapidly passing time, human beings[2] are utter losers[3]
unless they believe in Islam, perform good deeds, and mutually promote Haqq[4]
and steadfastness among themselves.


Oaths in the Qur-aan

This Soorah starts with an oath. The question is, "what is the role of oaths in
the Qur-aan?"

Human being take oaths to add credibility to the statements they make. Oaths
fill the gaps left by a deficiency or lack of evidence. Usually the entities
used for taking oaths are those that are considered sacred and exalted.

Holy Qur-aan also uses oaths in its text. Many Soorahs start with some kind of
oaths and some of them come within the text itself. We cannot, however,
interpret the oaths of the Qur-aan from the same perspective as we are used to
do in the case of human oaths. Firstly, nothing is exalted or sacred to Allaah
Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala. He is the Most Exalted and the Most Holy. Secondly, His
word is ultimate. It does not require any support. However, people may not be
able to grasp the meaning or the reality of Allaah's words. They may need props
to help them understand the message from the Words of Allaah Subhaanahu wa
Ta`aala. That is the sole purpose of the oaths in the Qur-aan.

The entities used in the Qur-aanic oaths are not special in their own nature.
They are selected because they present the best evidence possible for human
beings to grasp the message. So, the use of any items for an oath in the Qur-aan
signifies that there is some logical relationship between the item in the oath
and the statement that follows the oath. If we reflect and contemplate on the
item used for the oath, it will provide us with the rational evidence for the
statement that follows it. Other than that, there is no significance of the
items used in an oath.

This role of oaths in the Qur-aan is quite evident to the people who reflect on
the Qur-aan, but it has also been explicitly mentioned in the Qur-aan itself. In
Soorah Al-Fajr, after a series of oaths (the dawn, ten nights, odd and even, and
the night when it is about to depart), Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala says: "Is
there not a strong evidence in them for the wise?"

Witness of Time

Time is the most precious asset or resource human beings have. We hear
expressions such as 'time is money' and 'time is wealth' from the people who can
fathom its value. It is, in fact, even more precious than wealth: Time is life!

Its supply is defined and limited. The maximum time available to us is our
lifespan, the duration of which is not precisely known for any individual. Its
end can come any time, whether we are ready or not.

It is a non-renewable resource. Every moment gone is gone forever. It can never
be brought back or repeated. We cannot stop it. Whether we utilize it for our
advantage or not, it passes away.

And it is passing swiftly! Just look at the second hand on your watch, where
every tick is indicating the passage of time that is gone forever. And the
length of this tick is a long time. Light travels 186000 miles in that time,
while your computer executes millions of instructions. Think of a fast moving
electronic ticker tape - the kind that displays stock market activity. Now
imagine the passing of a continuous stream of milliseconds of your time (life)
moving fast on that electronic ticker tape. It is with that speed you are moving
towards the end of your time - your death.

Clearly, our success depends on how judiciously, effectively and efficiently we
utilize our time. The better a person is at it, the more successful an achiever
he is. The weaker one is in its utilization, the bigger the loser he is.

The time that has passed becomes history. History of nations is remembered and
recorded. The Qur-aan also reminds us about the end results previous nations
faced. Thinking people can learn many lessons from history.

This Soorah presents time as an element which, if contemplated upon, shows that
people who do not use their limited but precious time properly are utter losers.

Al-Asr refers both to the fleeting nature of time (how quickly it is passing)
and to the passed time that has become history.

Its historical aspect reminds us that Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala always deals
with communities of people precisely according to their collective behaviour.
Those nations who did good deeds flourished and prospered. Those who were bad,
corrupt or unjust, i.e. who did not live according to the guidance of Allaah
Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala, were losers. Those societies lost their peace and order
as a consequence of their bad behaviour. In addition, they became weak, fell
apart or were overrun by others. Or, after being given due respite, they were
punished and destroyed.

Its fleeting nature reminds us that we have been put on this earth to be tested
for a limited time that is passing very fast. To pass the test, we must live our
life the way our Lord wants us to live. Any moments not spent in the obedience
of Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala are opportunities wasted forever. Those who
continue losing the opportunity are going to be the "utter losers". From this
point of view, we are like students who are writing an exam. The time a student
does not spend doing the exam questions is time wasted that will result in the
loss of marks. Our situation is even more precarious because we do not even know
how soon our death may terminate our exam. We may never have an opportunity to
make up for the lost time.

Another way of looking at it is that we have a limited amount of capital in the
form of our time. Either we invest it and earn future profits from it, or we let
it go to waste and become bankrupt. The time we spend in the activities endorsed
by Allaah is being invested, every other moment is wasted, never to be available

The swift speed of time also underscores another point. In this quickly passing
brief life we have on earth, a wise person uses this opportunity to live
according to the commandments of Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala thereby
accumulating huge rewards for the eternal never-ending life by withstanding the
temporary difficulties living for Allaah may entail. A loser, on the other hand,
falls for this transitory gratification and deprives himself of the eternal

The Loss

As explained in the footnote, the word Khusr used in this Soorah is the kind of
loss that eats your capital. In Qur-aanic terminology it refers to the bad
consequences of the un-Islamic actions people face in this world and the
Hereafter. It equally applies to individuals, communities, nations and human
society as a whole. Just as a potent poison will kill everyone who consumes it,
whether it is one person or a whole society, whoever does not live according to
the guidance of Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala will suffer the loss, whether an
individual or the whole society.

The consequences in this world are the loss of peace, tranquility and balance in
the life of individuals and the society as well as incidence of exploitation,
injustice, crime, violence and other social problems. The consequences in the
Hereafter are the loss of Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala's rewards and the
bounties, and the severe punishment in Hell. Thus, the loss in the Hereafter is
ever greater and everlasting, and there is no way to avoid it. That is why the
Qur-aan emphasizes that:

"The real losers will be those who lose themselves and their families on the Day
of Judgement. Ah, that is the manifest loss!" (Az-Zumar 39:15)

And the real success is described as,

"Whoever is saved from the Fire and admitted to the Jannah, he indeed is
triumphant." (Aali`Imraan 3:185)

The Profitable Investment - The Path of Salvation

After underscoring the need for judicious investment of time to avoid loss of
capital or bankruptcy, the Soorah provides guidelines to make the best use of
time. An individual or a society that invests time according to these guidelines
will be able to earn good returns in this world and reap the best rewards in the

It presents the following four elements as the cornerstones of the lifestyle of
success and salvation:

1. Faith
The first and foremost element is that the person must believe in all articles
of the Islamic faith. The time of one's life that is passed without believing in
Islam is the time totally wasted. The articles of faith are mentioned in detail
in the Qur-aan and Hadeeth. The key point to remember is that this Soorah is not
referring to the 'legal' faith which is taken at face value on the basis of the
word or claim of a person, and which is used to define a Muslim for the matters
in this world. It is talking about the real faith according to which Allaah
Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala deals with people. It is the faith that emanates from the
depth of one's heart and is fully accepted and endorsed by one's intellect. It
is this faith that ensures salvation and brings success. Such faith shows in the
thoughts, desires, aspirations, attitude, outlook, preferences and priorities of
the believer. It is also visible in ethics, morals, behaviour and lifestyle of
the faithful.

It goes beyond verbal acknowledgement or recital of Kalimah Tayyabah. A person
must have a profound conviction that: Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala is the one
and only God Who is infinite in every respect -- in shape or form, in
attributes, in power and knowledge, in His way of doing things, etc. He has
created this universe and everything in it simply by commanding them to happen.
After its creation, He has not just left it on its own but is actively taking
care of its affairs and governing the whole kingdom. We are born as His slaves
and we must serve and worship Him as such. We must submit to him in every aspect
of our life throughout our life. Our personal lives as well as all the systems
that govern our collective lives in the society such as our political, social,
economic and legal systems must be established and run according to His
commandments. We must enthusiastically stand up to establish His rules even if
the whole world insists us to do otherwise. We must readily reject all ideas,
philosophies and ideologies if they differ from the paradigm given to us by
Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala. Our life should be Allaah centred and seeking His
Pleasure should be our first priority.

Similarly, true belief in the Prophet, Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam requires us

� Accept him as the last prophet and the last messenger of Allaah who
was sent as a mercy of Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala to the whole world until the
Day of Judgement; and to adopt the Holy Qur-aan revealed to him as our ultimate
code of life;

� Learn to live by Qur-aan as demonstrated by him in his life;

� Value his Sunnah as the practical demonstration of living by the
Qur-aan, source of wisdom in this regard and source of law complementing the
Qur-aan; and,

� Love and obey him more than any other person in the world.

True faith in the Hereafter shifts our focus from worldly needs and desires to
the requirements of the eternal life in the Hereafter and from a carefree life
to a lifestyle of continuous care in preparing for the accountability on the Day
of Judgement. While living here, our heart is in the Hereafter. We treat the
world as a temporary stop enroute to a permanent destination of our choice.[i]

This kind of faith in Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala, His Messenger, Sall
Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam and Aakhirah, is the prerequisite for the other three
elements of salvation that follow. It is like a seed from which other elements
emerge. It is like the root system of a tree on which the health, growth and
strength of the tree depends. If faith is strong and healthy, good things grow
from the energy it provides. It is the foundation on which edifice of a
wonderful lifestyle and a beautiful society is built. It provides a strong
anchor to withstand the temptations, pressures and problems of this world. It
protects the believer from drifting aimlessly to wherever the winds or waves of
contemporary fads, trends and philosophies take us.

2. Good Actions
The second element which ensures that time is being invested effectively is the
performance of good deeds - actions that promote growth, excellence, progress
and peace within an individual and within a community. These actions help people
to become the best they can be physically, spiritually, ethically,
intellectually and socially (establishing and maintaining healthy
relationships). They are also the kind of behaviours that correspond well with
the grand scheme of nature according to which the universe is being managed by
Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala.

Good deeds are all actions and behaviours that, according to the Qur-aan and His
Messenger, Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam are approved and encouraged by Allaah
Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala. If the Qur-aan and the Sunnah indicate an action to be
virtuous and desirable, it is a good deed even if the whole world disapproves of
it. On the other hand, if the whole world likes and endorses a certain behaviour
but the Qur-aan and the Sunnah consider it undesirable, it is a bad deed that
must be avoided. The scope of good action is very wide. Neither is it limited to
acts of worship and remembrance of Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala nor is it
confined to individual actions. It encompasses all actions of people: individual
and collective, private and public, at home or outside, at work or at leisure,
while grieving or celebrating, in good times or in difficulties, during weekdays
or weekends, alone or among friends, and so on and so forth. Whenever and
wherever a person is, actions must conform to the Qur-aan and the Sunnah.

Good behaviour is actually the natural corollary of faith and closely linked to
it. If faith is true and healthy, the actions of a person will naturally conform
to it. Conversely, if the actions are not in conformity of the Islamic
definition of "good", it indicates that there is something wrong with the faith.
A student who is convinced that his success depends on his preparation for and
performance in the exam, works hard accordingly. However, if he gives priority
to other activities than his studies, there is a contradiction between his
objective and actions. By the same token, if a person claims to be a believer
but does not act like a believer, or even worse, acts like a disbeliever, he
himself contradicts his claim of being faithful by behaving against the guidance
of Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala and His Messenger, Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa

That the practice of the people conforms to their beliefs can also be explained
by another phenomenon we come across frequently. People speed only when they
believe they will not be caught. When a speeding driver is told of police
standing ahead handing out tickets to speeders, he will slow down if he believes
the news. He will continue speeding if he does not believe the news. A believer
knows that he will be held accountable on the Day of Judgement, hence he behaves
accordingly. A true believer actually goes a step further. To him, the faith is
an absolute reality and his behaviour shows that conviction. Their example will
be like those people who know of the presence of the police, say when a police
car is going along. All the traffic around their car slows down to the speed
limit because they are afraid that they will be caught. A true believer knows
that Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala is fully aware of our actions and His angels
are continuously recording every move we make.

Just as faith without corresponding actions is not credible, even the best
actions without faith are also not acceptable. This is for two reasons: Firstly,
a good action is acceptable to Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala only when it is in
accordance with the Qur-aan and the Sunnah, an accordance only a believer will
ensure. Building a hospital by promoting gambling in the society is not a good
action despite the selfless devotion of the volunteers. Secondly, the action
must be undertaken only for the sake and pleasure of Allaah Subhaanahu wa
Ta`aala or to earn reward from Him in the Hereafter, which also requires belief.
For example, a very charitable person who does not believe in the life Hereafter
will have no reward for his charity in the Hereafter. It is like building a sand
castle on a beach, which is not built for living in. It is like cultivating and
fertilizing land without sowing seeds.

The close relationship between faith and actions is similar to that between a
seed and a plant. If a seed does not sprout into a plant, then the seed is
defective. While without the seed there cannot be a plant[ii]. Because of this
critical interdependence between the two, the Qur-aan always mentions both faith
and good deeds together whenever promising success, salvation and paradise.
Never has Allaah SUbhaanahu wa Ta`aala promised Jannah anywhere in the Qur-aan,
only for faith or merely for actions - but always for both faith and good
actions as a package. Similarly, faith has always preceded good actions
indicating that good action must be based on faith to be beneficial in the
Hereafter as a good investment.

Thus, the second element required for a valid investment of time is a lifestyle
of good actions that are defined as such by Allaah and demonstrated by His
messenger and that are performed only for the sake of Allaah Subhaanahu wa
Ta`aala or the reward on the Day of Judgement.

The two characteristics of a winning personality, faith and good actions,
mentioned above are such that a person can possess and practice them alone.
However, the next two elements require mutual interaction among believers. They
can be practiced only if the believers form and live in a society and
participate actively in creating an appropriate environment in that society.
This underscores the importance Islam puts on forming an organized pious society
of believers and clearly indicates that Islam does not want people to live like
scattered or lonely individuals.

3. Promoting Haqq
The third element that qualifies passing time as an appropriate investment is
using it for mutual exhortation, encouragement and promotion of Haqq in the
society. Haqq has two established meanings: the Truth, consisting of every
statement or matter that is factual, accurate, fair, just and appropriate; and
the Rights and moral obligations, including the rights of God, rights of other
human beings, or rights of your own self. Both faith and good actions are part
of Haqq. Faith is belief in the true realities. It also acknowledges the right
of Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala to be worshipped. Good actions are those which
either fulfill rights of Allaah and/or rights of other people, and which strike
a healthy balance between the rights of Allaah, people and one's own self. Thus,
Haqq is a comprehensive term that encompasses truth, justice, fairness, truthful
behaviour, faith and good actions.

This requirement dictates that Muslims must go beyond their personal belief in
Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala and practice of good things. They must also exhort,
frequently remind, strongly advise and persistently encourage each other about
the fulfillment of others' rights, about performing their obligations, and about
saying and supporting only what is true, fair and proper. The motivation behind
this promotion of Haqq is the ardent love of Haqq a Muslim harbours. People love
to talk about and promote what they love. Muslims love Haqq, so they enjoy
practicing it, encouraging others to adopt it, and developing an environment
where Haqq is given full consideration and is cherished.

Some people may tend to think that if we have faith and we are behaving well
according to the faith by trying to be the best human beings possible in the
light of the Qur-aan and the Sunnah, we have done our duty to Allaah. But Allaah
Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala says that is not enough. People may think that what others
do is not our business. But Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala says that what happens
in the society is very much your business. Haqq must be actively and
aggressively promoted in the Islamic society. It is not an option. It is a duty
on which salvation of the individuals as well as the society depends. It is
necessary for multiple reasons:

� No person is an island in itself. Every person either affects or is
affected by the demonstrative effects of the actions and behaviours of others.
If a person is not strong enough to affect others, he is himself slowly
influenced. This influence gradually adds up. In due course, his own performance
is significantly affected by what happens in the society. Passive people let the
society determine the course of their life, while activists determine the course
of the society. Islam wants the good people to be activists to positively impact
the society, not be influenced by it.

� Islam wants people to care for other people. It is our Islamic
responsibility to help other people improve in their performance and behaviour.
When done with that spirit, it creates an environment of well-wishing for
everyone. In the end, everyone improves and benefits in this process, either
through self-assessment while encouraging others or though others' reminders to

� This mutual reminder and encouragement creates a healthy environment
in the society where goodness flourishes. Even weak performers are encouraged to
perform better in such a supportive atmosphere.

� If the process of moral rejuvenation of the society as a whole through
mutual exhortation is not actively undertaken, the society will slowly
degenerate especially under the influence from Shaytaan. This mutual exhortation
defends against the onslaught of Shaytaan and saves the society from
degeneration and degradation.

In other places in the Qur-aan, this obligation has been called, 'enjoining good
and forbidding evil'. This is taken so seriously in Islam that those who are
negligent in this obligation, lose the support and help from Allaah Subhaanahu
wa Ta`aala and are punished and cursed right in this world. Banee Israeel were
cursed through Daawood and Eesa`alayhimussalaam for not doing this work.
(Al-Maaidah 5:78-79). People today have been warned through an example of Banee
Israaeel where the wrongdoers and quiet watchers were all punished and the only
people who were saved were those who actively tried to stop violation of Allaah
Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala's Commands. (Al-A'raaf 7:163-166) Muslims have been told,
"Save yourselves from being in a situation where punishment will not be limited
only to wrong-doers." (Al-Anfaal 9:25)

So, those who want to save themselves from eternal loss must actively and
aggressively promote goodness in the society.

4. Promoting Steadfastness
The fourth cornerstone of this program of success and salvation is exhorting and
encouraging each other for constancy, consistency, steadfastness and
perseverance in the performance of the first three elements of success. This
includes an aggressive passion for the defence, establishment, maintenance and
spread of the Islamic way of life -- faith, good behaviour and Haqq in the
society. This is the kind of passion a mother bear has for her cubs, which is
shown in the courage, vigour and devotion with which she defends them, protects
them and take care of them. In the same manner, a Muslim loves the Islamic way
of life, lives for it, promotes it, is passionate for its dominance over the
world and willingly braves the difficulties and challenges thrown his way by
opponents and Shayaateen.

Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala likes those who persevere in performing well. The
good actions of the individuals and the maintenance of a healthy environment
through mutual promotion of virtues must continue constantly and consistently.
But none of this is easy. It demands dedication, fortitude, perseverance,
courage and resolve. It requires personal sacrifices of desires, resisting
temptations and depriving oneself of quick gratifications - all for future
rewards in the Hereafter. It entails bearing hardships for one's faith,
tolerating taunts and derisions of the people, and taking persecutions and
abuses in stride. To withstand these pressures, the community of believers must
support each other and promote steadfastness among themselves.

People individually cannot always remain steadfast. Even the toughest of them
wear down. They need frequent encouragement and reminders for that purpose. That
can happen only when there is such an environment of mutual help and support.
People have their "ups and downs". Mutual encouragement helps the society as a
whole to remain steadfast.

Human beings cannot remain focussed for very long. Other demands on their time
and pressures of the society distract them from the most important of their
priorities, no matter what. The best of intentions and resolutions are forgotten
with time. Sometimes people are highly motivated after listening to a good
lecture or reading a good article and intend to be the best from then on. After
some time, they end up back in their old ruts. All these situations require
encouragement from others to keep them consistently on a high level of
dedication and performance.

Also, the circumstances of people change. But the level of personal excellence
and aggressiveness in Islamic work must be maintained whether times are good or
bad, whether the economic situation is prosperous or adverse, whether a person
is exhilarated or devastated and whether the community is free or under

Hence, promoting constancy, consistency, steadfastness and perseverance is
extremely important to keep the Islamic society on the optimal level of
excellence despite the circumstances.

This promotion of Haqq (which includes enjoining good and forbidding evil) and
of steadfastness is also collectively called Jihaad - a continuous endeavour to
establish and maintain an Islamic society and its members on faith, the path of
Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala's obedience, and excellence in ethics, morals and
behaviours both individually as persons and collectively as a state.

All these four factors of success are very much interrelated and interdependent.
Belief shows itself in actions; and the love for the faith and good actions
makes the person promote them in the society, seeing them appreciated and loved
all over the world; and it creates a passion to see the people standing up for
the aforementioned and aggressively working for them with perseverance. It all
comes as one package and must be adopted as such for success and salvation. It
starts with faith but the remaining three must happen simultaneously. You cannot
wait until you master one before embarking on the other. We must progress on all
fronts at the same time. The time of our life must be spent on this whole
package in a balanced way, concurrently and constantly. Only in that case will
it be considered the profitable investment. Otherwise, we are going bankrupt.

Time is passing quickly. We must immediately embark on changing our lifestyle to
conform to this model with all the four elements of success and salvation as the
cornerstones of our personality.

Imaam Raazi mentioned a pious person who said that an ice vendor helped him get
the point of Al`Asr. The vendor was selling ice on a burning hot summer day.
While his ice was melting fast, he was calling upon people to buy from him
before his capital melts away. That is exactly our situation. Our life is
melting away very fast like a block of ice on an extremely hot day.

Now, are you going to let it melt away like that or are you going to spend it on
Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala by using your time in the four aforementioned
activities? Do you want to be an eternal winner or an ultimate loser? The choice
is yours!

Copyright: 2004-2006 Ayub A. Hamid


[1] This translation is to give the real meaning of the literal translation: "By
fleeting time."
[2] The literal word used is 'Man' to represent human species. Its use implies
that the statement equally applies to an individual, a community, a nation or
the whole human species.
[3] The word Khusr represents a situation where a business or venture suffers
such a great loss that it loses all or much of its invested capital or it goes
[4] It is a comprehensive word that stands for Truth as well as the Rights of
others. There is no English equivalent that can convey both meanings.

[i] The intent here is not to give a complete explanation of all articles of
faith. The details of all articles will come at other appropriate places in the
commentary on verses of the Qur-aan. Moreover, once these major components of
faith are firmly and properly entrenched in the heart and mind of a person, the
remaining articles of Islamic faith easily fall in place.
[ii] Even those plants that are duplicated through stems or leaves, their stems
or leaves do the job of seed.

Note: The aayaat quoted above are not a literal translation. Instead of literal
translation, it gives interpretive meanings of the verses, along with their
contextual details. Please remember that any translation of the Holy Qur`aan is
in fact only an expression of the translator's understanding of the Word of
Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala, and hence cannot be equated with the Qur`aan
itself. Only the original Arabic text can be called the Holy Qur`aan.