muslimah-at-sunset2The Definition of Patience

'Sabr' is an Arabic word which comes from a root meaning to detain, refrain and stop. There is an expression in Arabic, "so-and-so was killed sabran," which means that he was captured and detained until he died.

In the spiritual sense, patience means to stop ourselves from despairing and panicking, to stop our tongues from complaining, and to stop our hands from striking our faces and tearing our clothes at times of grief and stress.

What Scholars have Said about Patience

Some scholars have defined patience as a good human characteristic or a positive psychological attitude, by virtue of which we refrain from doing that which is not good. Human beings cannot live a proper, healthy life without patience.

Abu 'Uthman said:

"The one who has patience is the one who has trained himself to handle difficulties."

'Amr ibn 'Uthman al-Makki said:

"Patience means to keep close to Allah and to accept calmly the trials He sends, without complaining or feeling sad."

Al-Khawwas said:

"Patience means to adhere to the rules of the Qur'an and Sunnah."

Another scholar said:

"Patience means to refrain from complaining."

Ali ibn Abi Talib said:

"Patience means to seek Allah's help."

Is it better to have patience at a time of difficulty, or to be in a situation which does not require patience?

Abu Muhammad al-Hariri said:

"Patience means not seeing any difference between times of ease and times of hardship, and being content at all times."

I (Ibn Al-Qayyim) say:

This is too difficult, and we are not instructed to be like this. Allah has created us in such a way that we feel the difference between times of ease and times of hardship, and all that we can do is refrain from panicking at times of stress. Patience does not mean feeling the same at both easy and difficult times. That is beyond us, and is not part of our nature. Having an easy time is better for us than having a difficult time.

As the Prophet (peace be upon him) said in his well-known supplication: "If You are not angry with me, then I do not care what happens to me, but still I would rather have Your blessings and favour." This does not contradict the hadith which says, "No-one has ever been given a better gift than patience," because that refers to after a test or trial has befallen a person. But ease is still better.

Patience and Shakwah (complaint)

Shakwah (complaint) falls into two categories:

The first type means to complain to Allah, and this does not contradict patience. It is demonstrated by several of the Prophets, for example, when Ya'qub ('alayhis-salaam) said:

"I only complain of my distraction and anguish to Allah." (Yusuf, 12: 86).

Earlier, Ya'qub ('alayhis-salaam) had said "sabrun jameel"which means "patience is most fitting for me."The Qur'an also tells us about Ayyub ('alayhis-salaam):

"And (remember) Ayyub (Job), when he cried to his Lord, 'Truly distress has seized me." (Al-Anbiya 21:83).

The epitome of patience, the Prophet (peace be upon him) prayed to his Lord: "O Allah, I complain to You of my weakness and helplessness."

Musa ('alayhis-salaam) prayed to Allah, saying:

"O Allah, all praise is due to You, and complaint is made only to You, and You are the only One from Whom we seek help and in Whom we put our trust, and there is no power except by Your help."

The second type of complaint involves complaining to people, either directly, through our words, or indirectly, through the way we look and behave. This is contradictory to patience.

Opposing forces

Psychologically speaking, every person has two forces at work within him or her. One is the "driving force", which pushes him towards some actions, and the other is the "restraining force", which holds him back from others. Patience essentially harnesses the driving force to push us towards good things, and the restraining force to hold us back from actions that may be harmful to ourselves or others. Some people have strong patience when it comes to doing what is good for them, but their patience is weak with regard to restraint from harmful actions, so we may find that a person has enough patience to perform acts of worship (e.g. Salaah, Sawm (Fasting), Hajj), but has no patience in controlling himself and refraining from following his whims and desires, and in this way he may commit Haraam (Impermissible) deeds.

Conversely, some people may have strong patience in abstaining from forbidden deeds, but their patience in obeying commandments and performing 'Ibaadah is too weak. Some people have no patience in either case! And, needless to say, the best people are those who possess both types of patience. So, a man may have plenty of patience when it comes to standing all night in prayer, and enduring whatever conditions of heat or cold may be prevalent, but have no patience at all when it comes to lowering his gaze and refraining from looking at women. Another may have no problem in controlling his gaze, but he lacks the patience which would make him enjoin the good and forbid the evil, and he is so weak and helpless that he cannot strive against the Disbelievers and Polytheists.

Most people will be lacking in patience in any one case, and a few lack it in all cases.

Further Definition of Patience

A scholar said:

"To have patience means that one's common sense and religious motives are stronger than one's whims and desires."

It is natural for people to have an inclination towards their own desires, but common sense and religious motive should limit that inclination. The two forces are at war: sometimes reason and religion win, and sometimes whims and desires prevail. The battlefield is the heart of man.

Patience has many other names, according to the situation.

If patience consists of restraining sexual desire, it is called honour, the opposite of which is adultery and promiscuity.

If it consists of controlling one's stomach, it is called self-control, the opposite of which is greed.

If it consists of keeping quiet about that which it is not fit to disclose, it is called discretion, the opposite of which is disclosing secrets, lying, slander or libel.

If it consists of being content with what is sufficient for one's needs, it is called abstemiousness, the opposite of which is covetousness.

If it consists of controlling one's anger, then it is called forbearance, the opposite of which is impulsiveness and hasty reaction.

If it consists of refraining from haste, then it is called gracefulness and steadiness, the opposite of which is to be hot-headed.

If it consists of refraining from running away, then it is called courage, the opposite of which is cowardice.

If it consists of refraining from taking revenge, then it is called forgiveness, the opposite of which is revenge.

If it consists of refraining from being stingy, then it is called generosity, the opposite of which is miserliness.

If it consists of refraining from being lazy and helpless, then it is called dynamism and initiative.

If it consists of refraining from blaming and accusing other people, then it is called chivalry {muroo'ah literally "manliness").

Different names may be applied to patience in different situations, but all are covered by the idea of patience.

This shows that Islam in its totality is based on patience.


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