Going Ahead and Remaining Behind in Righteous Deeds: The Difference in Degrees
Some exegetic interpretations of the words: (al-mustaqdimin) : 'those who go ahead' and: (al-musta'khirin) : 'those who remain behind' appearing in verse 24: الْمُسْتَقْدِمِينَ ~.A11 have been variously reported from Tafsir authorities among the Sahabah ؓ and Tabi` in. These are:
1. 'Al-Mustaqdimin' are those born to date, and 'Al-Musta'khirin' are those not born yet [ Qatadah and ` Ikrimah ].
2. 'Al-Mustaqdimin' means the dead, and 'Al-Musta'khirin' means those alive till now [ Ibn ` Abbas and Dahhak ]
3. 'Al-Mustaqdimin' signifies good people who came before the appearance of the Ummah of the Holy Prophet ﷺ ، and 'Al-Mustakhirin' refers to his Ummah itself [ Mujahid ].
4. 'Al-Mustaqdimin' denotes people who obey Allah and do good deeds while 'Al-Musta'khirin' refers to people who disobey Him and neglect what is good [ Hasan and Qatadah ]
5. 'Al-Mustaqdimin' are people who remain ahead in the rows of Sal, or in the front lines of Jihad, and in other righteous deeds - and 'Al-Musta'khirin' are those who remain behind in these deeds of merit, stay in the rear rows and are used to being late [ which is the Tafsir given by leading authorities Hasan al-Basri, Said ibn al-Musaiyyab, al-Qurtubi, al-Sha` bi and others ]
It is obvious that there is no distinct conflict or contradiction in these sayings, in the real sense. They can be accommodated all in one because the all-encompassing knowledge of Allah Ta` ala covers all kinds of people 'who go ahead' or 'remain behind.'
In his Tafsir, Al-Qurtubi has said that this verse indicates the merit of performing Salah in the first row, and soon after the time it becomes due. This is in accordance with the Hadith where the Holy Prophet ﷺ has been reported to have said: If people were to find out the enormous merit of calling the Adhan and standing in the first row of Salah, everyone would have started making the effort to necessarily stand in the first row, and when there would remain no space for everybody to stand there, lots would have to be drawn.
With this, Al-Qurtubi has also reported the saying of Sayyidn Ka'b ؓ : 'There are some people in this Ummah who, when they put their forehead on the ground for their Sajdah, forgiveness is granted to all those who are praying behind them.' Therefore, Sayyidna Ka'b liked to be in the last row in the hope that 'perhaps, there may be in the front rows, some servant of Allah of the class, because of whose barakah (blissful presence), I may be forgiven.'
What is apparent here is that real merit does lie in praying in the first row - as stands proved from the clear statements of the Qur'an and Sunnah. But, a person who does not, for some reason, find a place in the first row, then, he too will have a sort of merit in that there may perhaps be some righteous servant of Allah praying in the front rows for whose sake, he too may be forgiven. And the way praying in the first row of Salah stands proved from this verse, also proved is the superiority of being in the front lines of Jihad.