Relaxing or time wasting?

Its a topic I constantly find myself reflecting over; how do we distinguish balance between relaxing and time wasting? In the conclusion to his article “Chess in the Light of  the Jurist“, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf beautifully sums up the balance between these two states of being.


Islam is a religion based on revelation that deems the human being nothing less than the vicegerent of God. The work of the world never ends, and one’s obligations are greater than the time allotted to fulfil them. For this reason, Muslim jurists hesitated to condone anything that wasted one’s time without benefit, other than acts that the Prophet (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) had clearly said are useful: playing with one’s spouse, spending time with one’s children and family, and engaging in sports that displayed martial valour and character, such as horsemanship, archery, swimming, and swordplay.

Nevertheless, the Prophet (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) enjoyed life and encouraged others to do so. During festive times, such as holidays and wedding ceremonies, he (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) encouraged entertainment, including singing. According to Imam al-Bukhari (ra) in his al-Tareekh, the Prophet’s (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) companions (ra) once had a food-fight with the leftover rinds of watermelon. The Prophet (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) also witnessed a food-fight among the womenfolk of his household and laughed heartily. He (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) listened to his companions talk about their silliness before Islam and to their stories about the foolish things they did without reason and would laugh until his molars showed. He (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) joked but always told the truth. He (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) was not a prude, nor was he a puritan who did not appreciate human weakness and folly. Far from fanaticism, he (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) despised extremism and zealotry, and loved gentleness and compassion, even with his enemies.

He (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) was a lion the battlefield, but once the battle was over and the day won, he showed immense magnanimity that overwhelmed even his worst enemies. He (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) took life seriously and warned us not to spend our lives in vain pursuits. He reminded us that while laughter has its place, it should not become such a central part of our lives that we fail to recognize the gravity of life and the misery in which many less fortunate people live. He (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) smiled much of the time and hence was called “the smiling one”. He (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) said, “To smile in the face of your brother is charity.”

The Prophet’s (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) statements about such things as playing backgammon reflect his seriousness and concern for his community. He (Sallallahu alayhi wasalam) reminded us that, “Most of humanity cheat themselves of two precious things: good health and leisure.” Leisure in Arabic is faragh, which means “emptiness.” It is the time one is free of preoccupation. Most of us fill that time with trivial pursuits, such as watching television, listening to music, playing games, and engaging in empty chatter. Before we know it, our lives are gone. Our seconds become minutes, our minute’s hours, our hour’s days, and our day’s years, until suddenly we find that our lives are over, and what have we accomplished?

“By time, surely humanity is in loss except those who believe and do good works, and enjoin each other to the truth and to patience.”

This Surah reminds us that time is our treasure – each minute is irreplaceable, and either we invest it in the next life or squander it here in an inevitable progression toward spiritual bankruptcy. The scholars of the past, more than others, understood the precious value of time.

Islam is not a harsh religion, nor a religion that deprives people of enjoyment, but it is a religion that demands a level of seriousness, commitment, and concern with the human condition. We should use our time to better ourselves and improve conditions for others, and this does not exclude utilizing our time for recreation and renewal. We all need “downtime time” to relax and restore ourselves for the challenges of life and the preparation for the next life. Games, recreation, fun, folly, silliness, and vacations all have their place in our lives, but the tragedy occurs when those activities become the purpose of our lives, and the true purpose of life is entirely missed. Our efforts are directed towards recreation: we work to play, believing that the week is only an excuse for the weekend.

The world is filled with people who are “killing time,” completely unaware that time is actually killing us. One day, we will wake up and have to face our lives in their entirety. According to Imam al-Awzai (d. 157/774), everyone will watch their lives from start to finish on the Day of Judgment. No one will be allowed to interrupt to edit or to explain. What we watch will simply be a rerun of our entire lives, yet this time around, we will be painfully aware of the meaning that eluded us the first time because we were not paying attention.

If playing chess once concerned the scholars of Islam, what would they say to us today about our habits of watching television, channel hopping and films and cinema and playing videogames, about our endless conversations on mobile phones and on-line chatting, or about the hours that we spend surfing the net and reading empty blogs written by people with little to say and less to do? Our scholars’ concern was our salvation and well-being, and while Muslims today may see them as zealous or fanatics, on the Day the Debts fall due and we are taken to account for every moment of our lives, those scholars will be seen for the giants they were, and their counsel to us will be a bitter taste of remorse in our mouths.

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