Do good deeds within the time available — purpose of life and religion

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 12 January 2024

“Blessed is He in Whose hand is the Kingdom, and He is Powerful over all things, Who created death and life that He might try you (as to) which of you is best in deeds. And He is the Mighty, the Forgiving.” — ch. 67, Al-Mulk, v. 1–2

تَبٰرَکَ الَّذِیۡ بِیَدِہِ الۡمُلۡکُ ۫ وَ ہُوَ عَلٰی کُلِّ شَیۡءٍ قَدِیۡرُۨ ۙ﴿۱ الَّذِیۡ خَلَقَ الۡمَوۡتَ وَ الۡحَیٰوۃَ لِیَبۡلُوَکُمۡ اَیُّکُمۡ اَحۡسَنُ عَمَلًا ؕ وَ ہُوَ الۡعَزِیۡزُ الۡغَفُوۡرُ ۙ﴿۲

“Say: I am only a mortal like you — it is revealed to me that your God is one God. So whoever hopes to meet his Lord, he should do good deeds, and make no one a partner (with God) in the service of his Lord.” — ch. 18, Al-Kahf, v. 110

قُلۡ اِنَّمَاۤ اَنَا بَشَرٌ مِّثۡلُکُمۡ یُوۡحٰۤی اِلَیَّ اَنَّمَاۤ اِلٰـہُکُمۡ اِلٰہٌ وَّاحِدٌ ۚ فَمَنۡ کَانَ یَرۡجُوۡا لِقَآءَ رَبِّہٖ فَلۡیَعۡمَلۡ عَمَلًا صَالِحًا وَّ لَا یُشۡرِکۡ بِعِبَادَۃِ رَبِّہٖۤ اَحَدًا ﴿۱۱۰﴾٪

We all know that the Holy Quran frequently and repeatedly emphasises the need to do good deeds. Most often this is mentioned in connection with having belief, as in the recurring expression “those who believe and do good deeds”. However, the doing good deeds is so essential that it is sometimes mentioned by itself, without referring to belief. The verses I recited above are of this kind.

The first passage occurs right at the beginning of a Sūrah, which shows that it is declaring a fundamental principle. And that principle is that the very purpose of human life is that humans may be tried and test to see who is best in doing good deeds. The same idea is repeated at the beginning of the Sūrah known as al-Kahf, or ‘The Cave’ in these words:

“Surely We have made whatever is on the earth an embellish­ment (zīnat) for it, so that We may try which of them is best in deeds” (18:7).

Humans are given resources on this earth with which they make the planet beautiful and comfortable. We see this in the shiny buildings, roads, parks, etc. that are around us. Even the deserts, for example in the UAE countries, have been beautified. Yet the purpose of all this material beauty is to test humans to see if they do good deeds while enjoying this beauty. But the next verse says:

“And We shall surely make what is on it (i.e. on the earth) dust, without vegetation” (18:8).

If people fail the trial and test of doing good deeds, then the beauty with which they embell­i­shed the earth is reduced to dust, without vegetation. This may happen directly by their own hands or through the operation of some law of nature. Examples are numerous, from the past history and the present, where you can see photos of how a city flourished before and what it looked like after its destruction.

Just as the very purpose of creating human life, and giving it wonderful resources, is that humans do good deeds, similarly the reason for God to send religious teachings is to enable humans to do good deeds. This is stated in the second verse which I recited above, which is at the end of the same Sūrah al-Kahf. That verse sums up the whole of Islam in a short and simple sentence. God tells the Holy Prophet Muhammad to declare to people: I am nothing but a mortal like you. This means that the Holy Prophet has the same duties and responsibilities of doing good deeds and worshipping Allah as what he teaches other people to do.

The difference between him and other mortals is just that he has received a message from God to say that He is the one and only God, and he has received the teachings by following which a person can, so to speak, experience God in this life and the Hereafter. The verse then says that the first and foremost thing which a person must do to “meet God” is to do good deeds. Merely holding certain beliefs cannot take anyone to God. Nor can belonging to a certain so-called chosen people or calling yourself by some name or label, take anyone to God.

Next to good deeds it is mentioned that, in his worship and service of God, he must not take anyone else to be a partner of God. Now prophets and sacred figures of religions came to show the way to reach God. So there is a natural human tendency to consider and revere them as partners of God. After all, it is said that you cannot reach God except through them, so in that sense they might be looked upon by their follow­ers as part and parcel of God Himself. It is to remove this wrong idea that this verse begins with the statement by the Holy Prophet that “I am only a mortal like you”. This brings about a separation and distinction between a prophet as a human and the teachings of that prophet. Muslims, of course, prayed behind the Holy Prophet, but they did not pray to the Holy Prophet, rather they joined him in praying to God. Another meaning of not making someone else as a partner of God in this verse, which talks about good deeds, is that a good deed should not be done for any lower motive or gain, or for show or pleasing someone else, but only for attaining nearness to God.

Here I point out that it is believed by Muslims, on the basis of Hadith, that on Fridays they should read this Sūrah al-Kahf, ch. 18 of the Quran, or some part of it. And as I have said above, this chapter tells us at its opening that the purpose of creating life on earth is that humans should do good deeds, and it tells us in its last verse that the purpose of sending religion and revelation is the same: that humans should do good deeds.

There are other places in the Quran where the primary stress is on the doing of good deeds. For example, we read:

“And the judging on that day will be just; so as for those whose good deeds are heavy, they are the successful. And as for those whose good deeds are light, those are they who ruined their souls because they were unjust to Our messages” (ch. 7, Al-A‘rāf, v. 8–9).

This tells us that on the Day of Judgment everyone will be judged by the extent and amount of good deeds they performed in this life. That is described here as a just or true judgment. The judgment will not be on the basis of what someone said or claimed about himself in this life, but the practical good he or she did. Those who have a lot to their credit will be successful in develop­ing their souls in this life and in reaching God in the next life. Those who have only a little to their credit cause a loss to their own souls because, it says here, they failed to do justice to the teachings and message sent by God. In other words, the purpose of those messages from God was that people learn to do good deeds in abundance, and therefore those whose good deeds were only a tiny fraction of all that they did in their lives, they did not treat those messages with the justice that those messages deserved.

This representation of heavy good deeds and light good deeds is found also in two other places in the Quran:

“Then those whose good deeds are heavy, those are the successful. And those whose good deeds are light, those are they who have lost their souls, abiding in hell” (23:102–103),

“Then as for him whose good deeds are heavy, he will live a pleasant life. And as for him whose good deeds are light, the abyss (or the great depth) is a mother to him” (101:6–9).

In both these places, only good deeds are mentioned, whether they are many or few. There is no mention here that having the right beliefs will take someone to heaven and paradise, and having the wrong beliefs will result in going to hell. This does not mean that having the right beliefs is unimportant and it doesn’t matter if you entertain wrong beliefs. It is because the very purpose and idea of rights beliefs is to only enable a person to do good deeds.

It is obvious, of course, that good deeds can only be done by someone while they are alive, and we all have a limited period in this life. The Quran, at least three times, depicts the scene of a person close to death, or having just died, who realises that he did not do the good deeds he ought to have done. He desperately calls on God to send him back and give him another chance. The Quran says:

“Until when death catches up with one of them, he says: My Lord, send me back, that I may do good in that which I have left. By no means! It is only a word that he speaks. And before them is a barrier, until the day they are raised (on the Day of Judgment)” (23:99–100).

And again add­ress­ing Muslims it says:

“And spend (on good works) out of what We have given you before death comes to one of you, and he says: My Lord, why did You not grant me res­pite for a little while (longer), so that I should have given in charity and been among the doers of good deeds? But Allah does not respite a soul, when its term comes” (63:10–11).

In a third place, it says that those in hell will say: “Our Lord, take us out! we will do good deeds, not those which we used to do!” and God will reply: “Did We not give you a life long enough, for him to be mindful who would mind? And the warner came to you” (35:37). In fact, hell is only the state of realisation and regret by a person that he missed doing the good deeds which he ought to have done.

A few days ago, a highly valued member of our Lahore Ahmadiyya community, Mr Arshad Alvi, died suddenly in Lahore. He had done much work for many years in publishing mostly the Urdu, but some English, books of our Movement. He had compiled in book form a massive number of valuable articles which had appeared in our Movement’s journal over a period of decades on various topics, stretching back more than a hundred years. Only three weeks ago he outlined his plans for the coming year to produce more such compilations on various subjects.

He did all this great work humbly and quietly, in a self-effacing manner, without seeking praise or publicity for himself. Besides this, he was helpful, kind, courteous and hospitable to everyone whom he met. In fact, he was waiting at home to receive a friend whom he had offered to help with a personal need when he passed away before his friend arrived. To him the words of the Quran that I quoted apply fittingly: فَمَنۡ ثَقُلَتۡ مَوَازِیۡنُہٗ فَاُولٰٓئِکَ ہُمُ الۡمُفۡلِحُوۡنَ  — “Then those whose good deeds are heavy, those are the successful” (23:102), and he did indeed obey the advice of the Quran mentioned above: “spend (on good works) out of what We have given you before death comes to one of you”. He should have no regrets on this score.

May Allah grant him forgiveness, admit him into His mercy, accept all his services, join him with the righteous who passed away before, and give help and comfort to his bereaved relatives, Ameen. And may Allah enable all of us to fill the limited time we have in this life with good deeds of all kinds, Ameen.