Time plays an important and often times a complicated role in various different fields, and history is definitely not an exception to this rule. One specific discussion pertaining to time and its role in history is with regards to a division of time from two different perspectives. The first division is that of Relative and Absolute – a division that also exists in archaeology and geology, and the second is into Comparative and Structural.
Absolute time is a numerical measurement that is calculated based on an origin, and by which we can date various events and instances. For example, making the Hijrah of the Prophet (s) or the birth of ‘Isa (s) the initial point of our time, we can subsequently give time-stamps to events in history mentioning their date, month or year of occurrence.
On the other hand, Relative time does not provide any specific date or timestamp, as it is a comparison of two events with one another, and only tells us about their relative order. Saying that the revolt of Mukhtar took place after the event of Karbala is an example of Relative time.
Based on the second type of division, Comparative time is when we look into a historical event or an event that is considered historical, in relation to other historical events from the perspective of time. For example, when we say that a certain event took place 60 years after such and such event, this is a case of Comparative time. Here we are not looking at our incident on its own, rather in relation to other events.
Structural time on the other hand, is when we look into a historical instance in it and of itself as a singular structure, without comparing it with any other events. For example, saying that so and so person lived for 70 years is a case of Structural time. We are referring to a time (i.e. the person’s age) whose origin and end is the person himself.
These divisions can subsequently be combined with one another to produce four separate concepts of time. Each of these concepts will be explained with an example:
1) Absolute-Comparative: For example, if we say that the event of ‘Ashura took place in 61st Hijri, we are applying the concept of time to the day of ‘Ashura by comparing it with a specific origin (i.e. the migration of the Prophet) while at also mentioning the date of its exact occurrence within a historical timeline.
2) Relative-Comparative: For example, if we say that the event of ‘Ashura took place after the death of Imam Hasan (s), we are looking into one event while comparing it with another, and then giving it its own relative order. There is a comparison here, and also an indication of what happened first, but there is no numerical measurement which gives us a timestamp for either of the events.
3) Absolute-Structural: For example, if we say that the duration of Imam Husayn’s (s) Imamate was eleven years, we are applying a structural understanding of time as far as we are only concerned about Imam Husayn (s) on his own, yet also giving an exact numerical value to the duration of his Imamate.
4) Relative-Structural: For example, if we say that Hurr bin Yazid al-Riyahi was the commander of Ibn Ziyad’s army before coming to the Imam’s side. In this case, we are looking at the life of Hurr as an individual, and giving a relative order to some of his actions based on what he did before and after the event of Karbala. We are not occupying ourselves with the details of any other historical events, rather our concern is the life of Hurr himself.
Relative-Comparative time is perhaps the most often used concept of time in the Qur’an. It is primarily this specific combination that is used to cite examples of historic recurrence in philosophy of history. Absolute-Comparative cases do not seem to exist in the Qur’an, and coincidently, it is this concept of time that implies that an event has taken place and will not recur. This does not seem to be because the culture and society of the time wasn’t aware of such a mode of conveying history – especially given that you can find examples of this in previous books – rather there is Divine Wisdom behind its absence.
Within the Qur’an, Relative-Comparative cases are often those which make use of words that signify concepts of before and after, such as ba’d (بعد), qabl (قبل), ula (اولي), ukhra (اخرى). In some verses this meaning is also signified through the verb khalafa (خلف), meaning to succeed, and waritha (ورث), meaning to inherit. See for example when the Qur’an in 53:51-52 speaks about the destruction of Thamud, and before them the people of Noah (wa qawma Nuhin min qabl), or when it refers to the appointment of a king for the Israelites after Moses (2:246-247). In both these cases, we have no information about when these events took place on a measurable timeline, but we do know which event occurred first and which occurred second.
Some Relative-Comparative cases of time in the Qur’an follow a specific style and pattern, where it mentions two events, but does not give us any information about the event between those two. See for example, in 40:5 The people of Noah denied before them and the [heathen] factions [who came] after them. In this verse, we know about the situation of those who denied Prophet Muhammad (s), and the verse tells us that previously the same had occurred with Noah (s). However, based on this verse alone, we are not told any real information about those groups that came between these two events and those historic events are kept vague. This style, along with signifying recurrence and emphasis, seems to also allude to and emphasize the concept of lengthiness and span of time.
We also find examples of Relative-Comparative usage of time in the Qur’an. These cases are mostly recorded in a narratological manner. Surah al-Kahf is a great example of this, or the story of Dhu al-Qarnayn, or the story of Moses (s) and Khidhr and of course the story of Yusuf (s). In Surah al-Saaffat, we have short stories or rather verses that recall incidents from the lives of various Prophets (s) such that we understand that each Prophet is essentially a continuation of the story of the previous Prophet.
Absolute-Structural cases also exist in the Qur’an. For example, in 29:20 the Qur’an mentions that Noah’s life was a thousand-less-fifty years until the flood overtook his people. Over here Noah (s) and his life alone is the subject of discussion, but the verse also gives us a numeric value which makes it absolute since his age is being measured from the time of his birth. This verse however, is not Absolute-Comparative because we do not know when Noah lived precisely and neither do we know when the flood took place in absolute terms.