bauernfeind-gustav-08aShakespeare put these words in the mouth of one of his most complicated characters, Iago, in the tragedy of Othello: ‘How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees? ‘ Indeed!

In Islam’s teachings, patience, or sabr, is one of the great demands required of each and every believer. The Qur’an mentions sabr in ninety places, like when it says: And be patient, for God is with those who are patient. [8:46]

Sabr is defined as: al-imsak fi diq – “restraint in [times of] adversity,” as well as habs al-nafs – “keeping one’s soul in check.” In this sense, sabr does not just translate itself as patience, but also as: restraint, tolerance, resoluteness, endurance, perseverance, and steadfastness.

One needs sabr, in the sense of being steadfast, to carry out the duties demanded by faith. We need sabrrestraining the soul, to resist falling into temptations and those things that are prohibited. We are informed in a hadith that ‘Hell is veiled by enticing desires, while heaven is veiled by hardships.’1 Most traditional faiths view many of the West’s liberal freedoms – in terms of morals, music, art and popular culture – not as freedoms, but as temptations that degrade the Spirit of Man. Sabr, then, is a much needed virtue; necessary in order to resist the assault on the spirit and on the senses, and to live in liberal societies with some modicum of integrity.

Along with sabr in regards to fulfilling obligations and avoiding prohibitions, sabr – in this case, patience and restraint – is required when faced with tragedy or adversity. In this context, God states in the Qur’an: We shall surely test you with fear and hunger, and loss of property and lives and trade; but give glad-tidings to the patient who, when struck by misfortune, say: ‘We belong to God, and to Him shall we return.’ On such are blessings from their Lord and mercy; and such are the rightly-guided. [2:155-7]

In all of this, we must not confuse patience with complacency. Patience isn’t passive resignation. Neither is it a refusal to act responsibly because of our fears, our grief, or because of the seemingly unsurmountable hurdles. Rather, patience is active waiting. It is enduring something, along with doing all that we can – acting, hoping, exercising faith, bearing hardships with endurance, stoicism and fortitude; even when the hopes of our heart are delayed. But patience is not just enduring; it is enduring well: For me, beautiful patience is most fitting. [12:18]

In his characteristic manner, the accomplished linguist and jurist of Muslim Spain, Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi, sums up Islam’s teachings on this delicate yet essential virtue of patience (previous Ibn Juzayy posts can be read here and here):

‘Those showing patience are of four types: (1) Patience in trials and adversities (bala’); by restraining the soul from being agitated, impatient or resentful. (2) Patience in the midst of blessings (ni‘am); by securing them through gratitude, and not transgressing the limits or being boastful with them. (3) Patience in undertaking acts of obedience (ta‘ah); by constantly persevering in their performance. (4) Patience from sins (ma‘asi); by preventing the soul from falling into them.

Above [the virtue of] patience is that of stoicism (taslim): outwardly to not complain or act resentfully, while inwardly not being agitated.

Above the virtue of stoicism is that of contentment with God’s decree (rida’ bi’l-qada’). This is where there is cheerful optimism (surur al-nafs) with all that God does; arising, as it does, from a profound love of Him – for all that the Beloved does is loved [by the lover].’2

1. Al-Bukhari, no.6487; Muslim, no.2822.

2. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:162-3.

13 thoughts on “Don’t Confuse Being Patient With Being Complacent!

  1. A quality modern man lacks the most! A quality that could deliver us all and sort all our problems out!

  2. Shakeel: Couldn’t agree more. May He make us among the sabirun. Amin!

    Muhammad Saleem: Lacking patience. Perhaps it is because we, as moderns, shy away from the battlefield of spiritual struggle; the struggle of the religious impulse against the appetitive impulse. Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

    1. In its simplest form:
      “What does patience (sabr) mean? It means to be far-sighted enough to trust the end result of a process. It means to look at the thorn and see the rose, to look at the night and see the dawn.” -Rumi

  3. In the face of a trial are we meant to be hopeful of a good outcome that the suffering will end or do we accept that this is how it is and it may remain till one dies…

    1. In any affair, we first tie our camel, then trust in Allah and hope in His mercy. As for the outcome, if it is good, we thank Him. If it is troubling or taxing to the soul, then we enter a state of sabr; and if possible, of taslim; and if possible still, a state of rida bi’l-qada’ – just as Ibn Juzayy explains.

  4. Part of gaining closeness to the divine is through trials…But we are human….we fear trials….we don’t want to be tried… I read somewhere that with the trial Allah(swt) gives us the ability to cope and this shows the nature of the trial…ie that is to remove sin rather than a punishment.

    Sidi can you elaborate?

    1. Salams Sr Aisha. Please forgive me for only just replying. I must have overlooked this comment. I just stumbled upon it now (and only because I reposted the article on my Facebook page today).

      I wrote an article that deals with the question of when trials are punishment and when they are a source of honour, elevation and removal of sins. It can be read here:

      I hope it helps answer your three year old query!

      Once again, my sincerest apologies.

  5. It seems the axis of human felicity and human misery lies in achieving the perfect balance between personal responsibility and resignation to the divine.

    Realising that is not always so straightforward though…

    Allah al-Musta’ān!

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