Shakespeare 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 sabr, restraining 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.