The Humble I

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How Best to Keep Strife out of Our Life?

ip822278quality-2nd-gener-e1361470756715Shakespeare tells us in Othello: ”Tis the soldiers’ life. To have their balmy slumbers waked with strife.’ In other words, it is part of the job description of men at war that they will often be woken from whatever pleasant sleep they could be having by the unexpected call to arms; or a surprise enemy attack; or by some other reason that pits them against some imminent danger. A soldier’s life is a life lived on the edge; ever ready to engage struggle and strife. (In Othello’s case, he and his wife, Desdemona are woken on their wedding night by the drunken brawling and clamour of some of Othello’s soldiers.)

When we talk about strife in war, we are talking about violent conflicts and discords. Though when we speak of strife in terms of our daily life, we tend to mean things like arguing, bickering, heated disagreements and undercurrents of anger or discontent. We can experience strife with family, friends, work colleagues, or just the day-to-day tasks of life.

To keep quarrels, conflicts and friction out of our lives, we must be ready and willing to avoid conversations which will lead to such dissension. In conversations that are getting hot, we need to learn to back off or just drop it because, what is being debated is, often, something trivial or not worth arguing about. It may even be something we do not have sufficient knowledge about to be discussing anyway. This last situation is so often the case when it comes to religious discussions. The Qur’an strictures: Do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge. [17:36]

But here’s the rub. The ego’s desire to be right frequently leads us into strife. We could keep conflict at bay simply by entertaining the possibility that we could be wrong. But pride, conceit or just being pigheaded will not allow us to do so. The Prophet, peace be upon him, warned: ‘Three things destroy: greed that is obeyed, desire that is followed and a person enamoured with his own opinion.’ [Al-Bazzar, Musnad, no.80]

All kinds of problems come about by trying to insist that we are right. And what good does it usually do in the end? It satisfies the self. It assuages the ego. But it also stains the soul and hardens the heart.

Strife blocks God’s blessings, incites enmity and opens the door to all types of ills. At a more communal level, strife weakens us – as per the saying: ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ The Qur’an states: Dispute not with one another lest you falter and your strength departs. [8:46]

Truth be told, being right is often overrated. Next time your discussion with someone begins to get too hot under the collar and an argument begins to erupt, ask yourself if what you are discussing is worth breaking the peace for and sliding into strife. Rein in the ego and let peace reign; you’ll feel much better for it. One hadith presents us with a further motive for backing off from arguments: ‘I am a guarantor for a house on the outskirts of Paradise for whoever leaves of arguing even though he is in the right.’ [Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.4800].

Don’t Confuse Being Patient With Being Complacent!

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.

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