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Reflecting on the Childhood of Old Age

After declaring that had He wished He could blind and deform them, Abū Hayyan explains how Allāh turns their attention to a sign that points to the truth of this declaration. Growing into old age. For, every one of them, if not deformed or rendered incapable, will inevitably, regress after the course of time. In that feeble, fragile state, dependent on others, will the insolent man then ponder, and realise his destitution to the Creator?

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Part 33 – Reflecting on the Childhood of Old Age


وَمَنْ نُعَمِّرْهُ نُنَكِّسْهُ فِي الْخَلْقِ ۖ أَفَلَا يَعْقِلُونَ


68) When We grant long life to people, We return them to their primal state. So will you not use your intellect?

After warning the disbelievers of His power to punish and ruin them, He now speaks about His power over His creatures in a more general sense through signs that any human being can appreciate. One’s life is stretched out for his entire lifespan and then towards the end of it returned by Allāh to a state of infancy in which he suffers from senility and feebleness. According to Imām al Tabari, this is the ‘Naks’ in one’s creation that Allāh is referring to.[1] Man reaches a point in his life where he ends up no longer knowing the things he once knew. Another Āyah clarifies this meaning:

“We make whatever We want stay in the womb until a specified time and then We bring you out as children so that you can reach your full maturity. Some of you die and some of you revert to the lowest form of life so that, after having knowledge, they then know nothing at all.”[2]

Most of the Reciters of al-Madīnah and Baṣra, as well as some of those from al Kūfa, recited it as Nankus-hu rather than Nunankis-hu. All these ways of recitation are authentically established and can be considered as one of the sources of Tafsīr since they uncover a fuller understanding of the meaning when combined, not necessarily available through one mode of recitation (Qirā’ah). A demonstrative example of this exists in the following verse where, depending on whether the work underlined is read Arjulikum or Arjulakum, it refers back to the instruction of ‘wipe over’ or ‘wash’ respectively, when it is known that both actions are performed, depending on the circumstance.  

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِذَا قُمْتُمْ إِلَى الصَّلَاةِ فَاغْسِلُوا وُجُوهَكُمْ وَأَيْدِيَكُمْ إِلَى الْمَرَافِقِ وَامْسَحُوا بِرُءُوسِكُمْ وَأَرْجُلَكُمْ إِلَى الْكَعْبَيْنِ ۚ

“You who have īmān! when you get up to do salāt, wash your faces and your hands and your arms to the elbows, and wipe over your heads, and wash your feet to the ankles.”[3]

The end of the verse, ‘Afalā Yaʿqilūn’, according to al Tabari means, do these Polytheists not use their intellect to see that Allāh has power to do all that He wills by virtue of the fact that He does this Tankīs to His creation before their very eyes.[4] Al Qurtubi adds that this means the One who did this to you is capable of resurrecting you.[5] Al Shawkāni also held that this was the implied meaning. The One Who returns a person to a state similar to his former life is surely capable of giving that person an entirely new life in the Hereafter.

The overall meaning of the verse is that whoever reaches old age will inevitably experience Tankīs and this regression affects both body and mind. The fact that Allāh cites the mind shows that this reasoning given to man, be he even a Kāfir, can clearly be understood, through which the power of God and His astounding ability can be related to.

Linguistic Gems

Notice that the word ‘Nuʿammir’ (those we are granting extended life) occurs in the present-tense, as does ‘Nunakis’ (those we are being returned to their primal state) and Yaʿqilūn. Had Allāh said ‘Ammarnāhu in the past-tense, it will not hold the meaning of continuity (Istimrār) and hence will imply that this phenomenon may stop or come to end.

Pearls of Wisdom

Syed Qutb notes that old age is a second childhood, but without a child’s sweet innocence. An aged person moves backward, forgetting what he has learnt, losing physical and mental abilities, unable to endure much, until he is no more than a child. However, children are always met with a smile when they do silly things whereas an aged person receives no support, unless it stems from a sense of pity and duty. He is also ridiculed whenever he demonstrates an element of childishness or naivety.

Al Qurtubi mentions that the usual case is man’s strength beginning to dwindle when he reaches the age of 80 years old.[6] The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) would seek refuge from reaching this dwindled stage. In a famous supplication,

The Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) used to seek (Allāh’s) protection after prayers in these words: “O Allāh, I seek refuge with You from cowardice, miserliness and from being sent back to a feeble age (‘wa aʿudhu bika min an uradda ila ardhalil-‘umur’); and, seek refuge with You from the trials of this life and those of the grave.”[7]

And ʿAbdullāh b. Masʿūd narrates that when it was evening, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) used to supplicate: “His is the sovereignty and to Him is all praise due, and He is Omnipotent. My Rabb, I beg of You good that lies in this night and good that follows it, and I seek refuge in You from the evil that lies in this night and from the evil of that which follows it. My Rabb! I seek refuge in You from lethargy and the misery of old age (‘Rabbi aʿudhu bika minal- kasali, wa su’il-kibari’). O Allāh! I seek Your Protection from the torment of Hell-fire and the punishment of the grave.”[8]

Despite the slow progression of age, it almost always catches people by surprise when it actually onsets; when the back bends and grey hairs emerge. One will inevitably regret not fully utilising his or her youth; if expended in sin, a believer will regret this era, and if expended in good and obedience to Allāh, one will regret that he or she did not do more. An intelligent believer never allows the fruit of his or her age to pass without harnessing it to its fullest extent, as we are instructed by the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam): “Make the most of five things before five others…youth before old age.”[9] So that perhaps we may minimise our regret, or ensure we do not carry it with us into our graves. In touching words, the poet, Abū Al ‘Atāhiyah, says:

I cried over my youth with the tears of my eyes. By neither crying nor wailing was of any avail…I wish youth would return to me for only a day. So that I may tell it what the grey, old man did.  

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] Tafsīr Tabari, Vol 19 pg 478

[2] Al-Qur’ān. 22:5

[3] Al-Qur’ān, 5:6

[4] Tafsīr Tabari, Vol 19 pg 479-480

[5] Tafsīr Qurtubi, Vol 17 pg 480

[6] Tafsīr Qurtubi, Vol 17 pg 479

[7] Bukhāri on the authority of Sa’d b. Abī Waqqas

[8] Muslim on the authority of ʿAbdullāh b. Masʿūd

[9] Sahīh al-Jāmi’, no. 1077

About Ustadh Asim Khan

Ustadh Asim Khan is a published author of 3 books, including the Simple Seerah & the best-selling “The Heart of the Qur’an”, a commentary on Surah Yasin. He is a Hafiz of Qur’an, has gained a Masters in Pharmacy from the University College London UK, and studied Arabic and Quranic Sciences in Cairo, Egypt. His true passion lies in Tafsir studies where you can find numerous online lectures of his on Qur'ān related topics.

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