Originally Published in October 2011
It is one of those unavoidable facts of life: sometimes we find ourselves in situations we don’t want to be in. Often, we have to do things or resist doing other things. The Qur’ān and Ḥadīth mention such occurrences, and also elaborate on our response to them. Thus the following verse:
“And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient” (Qur’an, 2:155)
Although is confirming the fact that we will face times of difficulty, it is phrased in a way which alludes to how we should respond.
The Arabic word used for ‘something’ in the phrase “with something of fear…” uses the singular شيء instead of the plural for two reasons. Firstly, it places us in a state of apprehension in that, as the singular indicates, any one of the tribulations mentioned may afflict us. So the prudent amongst us will take precautions and live in a manner which prepares them to face such trials. In a sense, we are responding to trials before they occur. Yet at the same time, and this is the second reason why the singular was used, it gives us a sense of comfort that Allah (swt) will not throw all of these tribulations at us at once.
This verse is discussing two concepts and our response to them.
It’s interesting that the verse begins by mentioning two situations relating to our inward states – that of fear and hunger. Both are feelings and mental states. This emphasizes how we react to situations, rather than focusing on the situations themselves. Here we will briefly look at what is meant by ‘fear,’ before discussing how we ought to respond to it.
The word used in the verse is خَوْف, which literally is translated as ‘fear’. In reality, خَوْف more specifically refers to those thoughts we have about all the negative things that may happen to us in the future. This is in contrast to الارتياح, which refers to the good things we think may happen to us. The latter is a source of hope, whilst the former can be inhibiting if left unchecked. What is the Qur’ānic advice on how we should respond to these thoughts?
Our Response: Patience
The verse ends by explicitly mentioning what our response should be: patience. We’ve probably heard this before. Here lies the danger: the difficulty isn’t in the mental cognition of patience, i.e. just knowing what patience means – the difficulty lies in it’s practice. This is similar to how Buddhist monks in meditation spend hours simply trying to track their thoughts. The idea is simple; its implementation is not. So it’s not surprising to find someone like Imām al-Ghazālī (May God shower him with His mercy) expounding on patience. Indeed many Greek philosophers before him had done the same.
The Imām mentions how patience, more specifically when we resist doing certain things, is unique to humans – in exclusion to the angels and beasts. Beasts, he argues, are predisposed to following the dictates of their nature, they don’t have an intellect to obstruct them from fulfilling their inclinations, and so they have no need to be patient. Angels do not have any inclinations except to offer their services to Allah (swt). Hence they too do not have the need to be patient. Humans, on the other hand, have passions and desires similar to beasts, yet at the same time have an intellect which discerns actions that are good and moral and those that are evil and immoral.
Of more interest, perhaps, to parents and educators, is that he says how children behave like animals in that they seek to fulfill whatever they desire. This is mentioned in a scientific manner rather than a derogatory manner. A child will disregard the fact that too much sweets are bad for the teeth, and will insist on having them if they so desire. Here, it is the parent or guardian that acts as the intellect for the child, by protecting the child from their own desires and lower self (hawā). A spoiled child, unfortunately, is deprived of such a guardian, and in a sense grows up with a malfunctioning ‘intellect.’ This relates to appearances and realities. It may appear to be kinder if someone does as their child wants, or it may seem as if disciplining children requires a lack of love since someone truly loving their children won’t be able to properly discipline. The reality, however, is that true love and kindness is shown by securing for the child what’s truly in their long-term benefit. And hence the Prophet (saws) said:
“No father had given his child anything better than good manners.”
Fathers are mentioned here not because they are somehow better than mothers, but to stress the fact that the onus of the education of children primarily falls on fathers, possibly due to the cost factor involved, and in Islam, all financial obligations are placed on fathers. So this is something worthy to be kept in mind when we think about the education of our children; do we simply want them to store academic information and become skilled employees, or do we at the same time want to make them better humans and ultimately better servants of God?
Coming back to al-Ghazālī, adults, even those who have had a good upbringing, face two opposing forces from within. They have their bodily inclinations, including the need for food and drink etc…all of which if a person engages in without restraint will not only lead to negative consequences in this life, but will lead to the destruction of their hereafter (ākhira). The intellect then, fights back, and recognizes the danger in continuously and unrestrictedly fulfilling such desires, aware of the risk this poses to one’s hereafter (ākhira). This prevention of the self from acting out its desires results in the need for patience.
Physical and Spiritual/Psychological
Patience is then divided into two broad non-exclusive categories: physical and spiritual/psychological.
Sometimes we have to be patient physically; for example, when we find ourselves in situations having to perform physically demanding tasks. Other times, it is not so much as us doing something, but more of tolerating something done to us; this is characterized by what the Muslims went through for thirteen years in Mecca.
More frequently however, the need to show patience at a more spiritual or psychological level is demanded of us. This is the battle of the two forces of the intellect and bodily inclinations as mentioned above.
What this means is that patience is not the absence of ill-feelings or internal unrest. Rather, it is resisting the temptation to give in to such feelings and to avoid translating them into action. Other times, it is persevering through difficult times when we may not be able to change a situation we’re in. A good example of this is when the Prophet ﷺ lost his son Ibrāhīm. He said:
“The eyes send their tears and the heart is saddened, but we do not say anything except what pleases our Lord. Indeed, O Ibrahim, we are bereaved by your departure from us.”
The Elevated Status of the Patient
In several verses Allah praises patience. Indeed such an elevated status is divine acceptance of the difficulty faced by people who are patient. One hadith will suffice here. The Prophet ﷺ said:
“Patience is half of faith (īmān).”
This is because one cannot be a believer except by abstaining from certain actions, statements and beliefs, while at the same time affirming others. Abstention from such actions requires patience, as does the performance of other actions. In that sense, all of īmān would be comprised of patience, so why did the Prophet ﷺ mention patience as forming half of faith? The answer lies in the fact that some of the statements, actions or beliefs may already seem distasteful to someone. Similarly, those things that one must engage in as part of his faith may already seem enjoyable to him. Hence, abstaining from them or engaging in them, will not require patience as the intellect and the bodily inclination are in agreement here.
Difficult times is not always a sign of sin
While it is no doubt a good thing to use a time of difficulty for introspection and take account of oneself, it is also worth remembering that the mere fact that we may be going through difficult or troubling times in our lives is not necessarily a result of sin. This verse states that everyone, be they sinners or righteous, will all face testing times, and when it happens, it’s up to them to use it to their advantage.
Yet another personally timely message for me. Shokran! All Praise is Due To Allah(S.W.T.)
Shukran! Not so long time ago..I was very upset when people told me to be patient because in my opinion people never put themselves in my shoes, how could they simply ask me to be patient. What I always did and hope they did to me was to show their empathy first, then only they can ask a person to be patient. However, one day in my solat, I recited surah Al-Asr…and realized the importance of being patient regardless of anything. And now alhamdulillah I never feel offended when people ask me to be patient no matter how they do it. 🙂
Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh
Sisters, Jazzakullah Khairan is better than shukran because it is from the Sunnah of the Prophet salalalahualayhiwasalam. Lets not replace something excellent with something inferior. On yawn ul qiyaamah we won’t regret it inshaa Allah.
May Allah (swt) help us to have sabr jameel, beautiful patience during the tough times! I know that this is something that I really need to work on. Jaxakallah khair for this beautiful post!
SubhanaAllah reminders are essential. Sabr is something we all could do more with! Jazakallah khair <3
Thanks for the wonderful article. If I could make a comment, I would like to add that Sabr does not translate merely into patience – that is the most convenient translation, referring to restraint and waiting. A more accurate translation also takes into account the less passive aspects of Sabr: constancy and perseverance. Sabr is actually closer to ‘delayed gratification’. Sabr is the constant striving to do what one knows is the right thing to do, without any regard for immediate reward, and sometimes in the face of difficulty; for example, the employer who keeps his business going, paying his workers and suppliers , maintaining his business obligations, serving his customers, sacrificing his time and investing his wealth, paying Zakat, avoiding haram practices, without regard to cashing in selfishly. It is this commitment to living right, according to Allah’s guidance, on a daily basis that best exemplifies Sabr, by applying it to our business practices, our relationships, our behavior, our education, and to our community involvement.
Sabr means to wait for Allah to show us the way, but it also encompasses the concept of working with constancy and faith. Those who practice this actively, as opposed to mere passive patience and restraint, and truly blessed by Allah.
Allah knows best.
JAK Seef for your input, as you know it’s difficult translating Arabic terms, but your spot on about what sabr means.
Brilliant article, thank you very much. It’s really helped me lot.
قال تعالى (انما يوفى الصابرون اجرهم بغير حساب) صدق الله العظيم
Assalamaulaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh
“it is also worth remembering that the mere fact that we may be going through difficult or troubling times in our lives is not necessarily a result of sin”
As a matte of fact, every affliction that strikes us is because of what our hands have earned.
It is narrated in Saheeh Ibn Hibban from Abu Hurayrah radiallahuanhu that Rasullullah salalahualayhiwasalam said
If Allaah were to seize me – and the Son of Maryam – because of what these two have earned [i.e., the thumb and the one next to it] He would punish us and He would not have oppressed us at all.”
Authentic ∣ Saheeh Ibn Hibbaan, no. 656. Authenticated by Al-Albani
And whatever strikes you of disaster – it is for what your hands have earned; but He pardons much.
However it is also true that through patience, Allah gives reward.
jazakallahu khair´, very good article. I have been suffering for almost all my childhood and in my 20s. I have waited and waited. It so hard, sometimes i wish Allah swt show sign or send me some kind of revelation that would ease my heart. how is it possible to remember these verses when calamity strikes you from every direction nonstop 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
I know brother it’s much easier said than done. Sometimes, when we find ourselves with troubles all around us, Ibn ‘Abbas (ra) said the fact that it’s not worse should give us some relief.
May Allah make it easy for you…
indeed, impatience and haste leads to unwise decisions. we are constantly encouraged to impatience and haste – competing with each other to finish university quicker, get a job quicker than others, get promoted quicker than others, get married and with children at the appropriate time, etc. for someone naturally impatient, this was bad for me.
two bad outcomes for the impatient: either Allah lets you remain that way, and it leads to your ruin, or He has mercy on you and teaches you to be different – but this will be a very, very difficult lesson to bear. alhamdullilah He chose for me the second, but it would be better had I been patient from the beginning.