by Radia Razack
“Life will always be hard. Conditions will never be perfect. In fact it may only get more difficult, but the only relevant questions you need to ask yourself are what is your purpose and what value are you providing? Practising Sabr, like the aloe vera plant, will always result in growth, even if it doesn’t feel like it. If you’re not growing, you’re dying…”
In the Islamic month of Ramadaan1443, the Gregorian year 2021, I was asked to give a talk at one of our Ladies Ramadaan Thikr programmes. I was surprised when my dear friend and mentor said she had chosen this topic for me because, it is evident that I have been through many extraordinary things in my life which must have taught me sabr. I was surprised because patience and constancy has always been difficult for me, so I relished the thought that perhaps it will give me additional perspective and impetus in my personal strife towards the virtuous practice of patience. I am writing this up some months after my original talk, mainly because I was chatting to someone and I wanted to reference some aspects of the talk and realised that it may be better if I wrote it down. The process of the write-up has been profound and enlightening. Thoughts and clarifications filter through my mind as I plod through the process of checking my notes, references and writing, writing, writing… Also though the process, I am experiencing many tests of sabr almost daily, so it must be understood that everything I write in this article is addressed more to myself than to you, the reader, for whom I naturally wish the highest benefit and inspiration from this.
Sabr is mentioned 102 times in the Quran and there are numerous hadith on its virtues. It is a word mentioned frequently by Muslims and the volumes that can be written about it cannot be captured in a thousand pages. This is merely a cursory examination of its basis and expositions, using personal experiences to illustrate my own application of them.
Sabr and the Aloe Plant
We generally understand ‘sabr’ to mean endurance and perseverance in the face of difficulties such as illness and disease, death of loved ones and the ever present impact of COVID on our lives. The one thing that all of these ‘calamities’ have in common is that they are beyond our control.
I came across two interesting articles on the internet that explored the root word of sabr to the cactus plant. According to Faisal Amjad in his article on the “The Real Meaning of Sabr, historically, word Sabr is derived from the Aloe Vera plant shoot, (known as sabbar or sibr) which grows natively in the desert. What the aloe plant is known for, other than its healing qualities, is its ability to sustain drought and heat in the harsh climate of the desert. In particular, the way it withstands these harsh conditions to force its way to grow tall and strong against the odds, whether in heat or cold, in sand or through hard ground, it will always find a way to grow and needs very little maintenance and watering. And when it does grow and is used for its purpose, it has an absolute abundance of beneficial functions. For example, it can cool burns, help with allergies, condition hair, it can protect skin and detoxify the body, it has anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties and can heal wounds, stimulate cell regeneration and be used as toothpaste or mouthwash. What’s more, it can even promote blood circulation and lower cholesterol when you drink it as a juice.
Like the cactus, sabr is not passive, Amira Ayad writes. ‘Sabr does not helplessly wait for conditions to change or for water to pour down from the sky. Rather it digs its roots firmly into the ground and stubbornly reaches for those underground invisible streams; it toughens its skin and faces the desert harshness with determination and fortitude; it saves water for the rough days and perseveres when the sustenance is scarce. Sabr is an active engagement in life, it honours the struggle, the grit, the pursuit, it is motivating and empowering.
Subhan’ALLAH. The profundity of this allegory is an acknowledgement of the impeccable completeness of the Divine message and the perfection of the meaning of multiple concepts in just one word.
Life will always be hard. Conditions will never be perfect. In fact it may only get more difficult, but the only relevant questions you need to ask yourself are what is your purpose and what value are you providing? Practising Sabr, like the aloe vera plant, will always result in growth, even if it doesn’t feel like it. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. Inspired by the aloe vera plant, as human beings we strive to always persevere, fight and stand tall, in an active and positive way, in order to achieve our purpose of serving and always always, always providing value to others in the service of ALLAH ﷻ.
The following the hadith was narrated by Abu S’id Khudri in Bukhari and Muslim:
“Whoever practices Sabr, Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala gives him Sabr . And no one can be given anything better or more far-reaching (comprehensive) than Sabr.”
The deconstruction of this could result in a thesis. For the less trained like myself, the first most obvious yet hidden facet lies in the second word, the verb “practices”. Although there are many other aspects that are relevant to word ‘practice’, as a verb it means the exercise of repeating or rehearsing something with the objective of becoming more proficient at it. It reminds me of my early days as a young lawyer when my beloved father, my mentor and Imaam, (May ALLAH be pleased with him and grant him afford him the highest honour amongst the Saliheen), said to me in his usual jovial and sometimes provocative way, “So you’re practicing as a lawyer now, when are you going to get it right?”.
We are being told to practice sabr actively, get better at it and hopefully get it right one day. The noun ‘practice’ also finds obvious meaning here – habit, custom, routine). Hence the hadith enjoins both the act of rehearsing and repeating this action of sabr until it becomes habitual or routine.
Constancy inevitably goes with patience.
By the Token of time (through the ages), Verily Man is in loss,
Except such who have faith, and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in mutual teaching of Truth and of Patience and Constancy. Surah Al Asr 103:
The more we practice sabr the more we develop it into a continuous habit. The surah also refers to the collective efforts to support and remind each other to be patient and constant. ALLAH ﷻ in HIS infinite wisdom and mercy is telling us that HE knows how difficult it is to practice this sabr – so HE enjoins us to help each other, teach each other this patience and constancy.
Complimentary quality of TRUST
The stepping stones to honing the practice of sabr are to be found in other complimentary qualities which HE جل جلاله enjoins upon us.
Trust in ALLAH ﷻ and gratitude to Him Most affectionate, Most merciful are seminal qualities that should permeate the consciousness of every believer. Trust includes the total acceptance that ALLAH ﷻ knows what is in the highest interest of every creation in existence. HIS love is complete and irresistible. HIS mercy is in every situation.
It includes a firm belief that the good and the bad are both to our benefit yet we perceive it not. The hardship we experience may seem insurmountable at the time but ALLAH ﷻ in HIS infinite mercy gives us the best of the bad scenarios we could potentially face in any give situation. Some scholars explain that the good is from ALLAH ﷻ and the bad are the inevitable consequences of our own actions. Even if we are the architects of our hardships, ALLAH ﷻ makes those hardships the least difficult for us.
One of the areas where we are expected to exercise sabr is when we make a dua and ALLAH ﷻ does not answer it. There are reasons given by the scholars but the relevant ones for the purpose of understanding sabr are as follows:
- ALLAH ﷻ knows what you’re asking for is not good for you. It may cause you pain and suffering in your life or take you away from your belief and weaken your Imaan. For e.g. not answering a dua to marry a certain person. HE saves you by not giving you what you want as that marriage could bring you pain and suffering or even weaken your belief.
- ALLAH ﷻ has something better in store for you in the Aaghirah and withholds from you because HE ﷻ chooses to reward you with something which is way better.
- Your Dua is delayed because HE wants you to be consistently making the dua which brings you closer to HIM and wants you to continue getting closer and continuing to ask HIM and HE also delays it for the time that it is better for you. The Noble Prophet (SWA) said:
“The (dua’a) of anyone of you maybe answered( by Allah) as long as he does show impatience by saying, “ I prayed to Allah but my prayers have not been answered.” (Al-Bukhari).
- He is testing you. Rasollullah (SWA) said if ALLAH ﷻ loves someone He will test them – by not getting relief from your condition it may be that you are being tested and being drawn closer to ALLAH ﷻ
It can be summarized in 3 lines:
- Yes but not right now
- I have a better plan for you
The Messenger of Allah said:
“Any Muslim who makes a supplication containing nothing which is sinful, or which involves breaking ties of relationship, will be given for it by Allah one of three things:
- He will give him swift answer,
- or store it up for him in the next world,
- or turn away from him an equivalent amount of evil.”
Often, we perceive something as bad at the time, but in fact it’s in our best interest and we only discover it later. For instance, our family was thinking about renting out a shop in a nearby shopping centre to start a fast food establishment and were turned down by the managers. Our disappointment turned to utter relief when 2 months later the world was hit by COVID and the country went into level 5 lockdown, resulting in the tragic closure of many small and even big businesses. The refusal, which could have been seen as a torment at the time turned out to be an enormous gift and blessing. Trusting ALLAH’s grace at the point of the hardship is the true test of the level of one’s belief. If one is satisfied and trusts that ALLAH truly knows best, instead of bemoaning one’s fate, blaming others or worse blaming ALLAH, the journey to Ihsaan is accelerated. Ihsaan is to worship ALLAH as if we see HIM.
Muslims try to worship God as if they see Him, and although they cannot see him, they undoubtedly believe that He is constantly watching over them. (Al-Bukhari and Al-Muslim).
Pain and illness
Pain and illness requires much practice of sabr. The healthiest amongst us fall prey to unexpected illness, disease, and injury. The trust in HIS Mercy as the disposer of all our affairs can be borne more easily if we accept it as a gift instead of a curse. The gift of cleansing, purification and expiation.
“A Muslim does not suffer any mental or physical anguish, or any distress, grief, pain or sorrow – even from the prick of a thorn – except that Allah expiates his mistakes and sins.” Bukhari and Muslim
Every pain and anguish we suffer has a reward. It cleanses us of our sins, and like bad-tasting medicine or painful procedures, it eventually leads to healing. Our pain is the gift from ALLAH of spiritual cleansing and purification. You only reap its benefits after enduring the hardship. With pain comes expiation, and submission to it increases acceptance in one’s heart of ALLAH’S hand in it. Muslims are forbidden from killing in mercy, to kill someone to spare them from pain would be robbing them of ALLAH’s gift of mercy, purification and expiation. My 24 year old nephew had congenital kidney failure and has been spending the better part of his life on dialysis. He has had two kidney transplants, one of which was successful for 11 years of his life and the other which his body rejected almost immediately after the transplant. He lives in and out of hospital and it is indeed painful for all of us to witness, despite his incredible acceptance of his condition. The only tool with which we navigate such anguish is the absolute knowledge that his reward must be as tremendous as his pain. A treasured gift that he himself seems to have accepted.
Complimentary Quality of GRATITUDE
Another complimentary quality of Sabr is Shukr /Gratitude.
Although as human beings we often forget that we should be thankful for everything – for the air that we breathe, our sight, hearing, the love of our family, the roofs over our heads, the excellent food we eat etc. Although we’re not nearly as grateful as we should be for the good, we are even less thankful for the bad. In fact we often struggle to endure bad things that happen to us. At the very first level of taqwa we should remain steadfast and patient in the face of difficulties and hardships. This is almost a passive sabr. To move into the realm of active sabr we aspire to the level of Ihsaan. At the higher level of the practice of sabr, we may even become thankful if not content with whatever Allah sends down to us because we trust in the knowledge and wisdom of ALLAH ﷻ, that HE knows what is best for us. If HE gives us unpleasant medicine, it is only to heal us or to shield us from worse or to deposit into our aagirah account rewards which will benefit us when we need it the most.
Another wonderful consequence of experiencing trouble and hardship is that when it’s over, and things are back to ‘normal’, it makes ‘normal’ feel wonderful and serves as a reminder to be ever so thankful for what we normally take for granted.
“Whatever happens in your life, no matter how troubling things might seem, do not enter the neighbourhood of despair. Even when all doors remain closed, Allah will open up a new path only for you. Be thankful! It is easy to be thankful when all is well. A Sufi is thankful not only for what he has been given but also for all that he has been denied.” Shams Tabrizi (The mentor of Jalaluddin Rumi)
Another kind of sabr is FORBEARANCE. To endure verbal abuse, accusations, disrespect, slander, backbiting, false assumptions, name-calling, ridicule, maligning comments, etc. from people around us because of their jealousy, misgivings, maliciousness, difference of opinion or dislike for whatever reason.
A person will be within one’s right to defend himself from any misbehavior. That is justice and everyone is entitled to it without being blamed for it. However, in a state of Ihsan the believer takes all that in stride graciously and magnanimously without responding, fighting back, paying much attention or complaining. Ihsan is the standard good Muslims are expected to strive for. The Holy Quran states:
“The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah: for Allah loveth not those who do wrong.” Surah Ash- Sura – 42: 40:
Interestingly I heard a talk by Noman Ali Khan while writing this article. He explained in a Tafseer about Surah Qahf that an eye for an eye, (my précise) cannot be accomplished by human beings with any degree of accuracy or perfection. If someone slaps you and you slap them back, how would you know whether your slap was the exactly the same as the slap you received. How can you be sure that your slap was not harder? The scales of justice becomes a slippery slope. It is impossible to mete out justice or equal retribution. ALLAH ﷻ enjoins forgiveness instead and forbids wrong doing. Surely if we try to exact equal recompense for an injury we will be privy to wrong doing as we could never measure the exact justice required. Is this not ALLAH’S ﷻ way of saying justice is best left to HIM and forgiveness and reconciliation is best for us.
A beautiful Hadith reported by Abu Hurairah in Mishkah and Musnad Ahmad. Describes the implementation of the call to forgive and not fall into wrongdoing.
“Once, a person was verbally abusing Abu Bakr while the Prophet (Allah’s blessing and peace be upon him) was curiously watching with a smile. After taking much abuse quietly, Abu Bakr responded to a few of his comments. At this, the Prophet (Allah’s blessing and peace be upon him) exhibited his disapproval, got up and left. Abu Bakr caught up with the Prophet (Allah’s blessing and peace be upon him) and wondered, “O Messenger of Allah, he was abusing me and you remained sitting. When I responded to him, you disapproved and got up.” The Messenger of Allah (Allah’s blessing and peace be upon him) responded, “There was an angel with you responding to him. When you responded to him, Shaytan took his place.”
He then said,
“O Abu Bakr, there are three solid truths: If a person is wronged and he forbears (without seeking revenge) just for the sake of Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala , Allah will honor him and give him upper hand with His help; if a person opens a door of giving gifts for cementing relationships with relatives, Allah will give him abundance; and, if a person opens a door of seeking charity for himself to increase his wealth, Allah will further reduce his wealth.” Reported Our Prophet (Allah’s blessing and peace be upon him) demonstrated best of Sabr in all of the situations described above giving us a vivid picture of what a perfect and ideal Sabr looks like. The most outstanding example of Sabr in the way of Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala demonstrated in the face of persecutions from non-Muslims was that of our Prophet (Allah’s blessing and peace be upon him)’s 13 years in Makkah and his experience in Taif. That was humanity at its best, Sabr par excellence and Ihsan without a parallel. To prepare for this, he was admonished at the very outset of the mission.
Strength is not in how you overcome another person but in how you overcome yourself and control yourself in the time of anger and rage. Response out of a sense of pride puts shaytaan in the driver’s seat making you say what otherwise you would never say. On the other hand, self-control and forbearance in the face of abuse is a noble exercise of sabr within the realm of Ihsaan.
“Those who practice Sabr will be rewarded their recompense without measure.” (Quran 39:10)
The critical elements in the practice of sabr are trust in ALLAH ﷻ, forgiveness and gratitude for HIS favours seen and unseen.
It is an active engagement in the struggles and trials of life. It also implies constant striving and improvement. The honour in that struggle lies in its constant pursuit. The culmination of constant practice results in the gradual establishment of sabr as a routine in one’s life. Actively practicing sabr, arms us, like the aloe tree, to respond to any extreme conditions with resilience, determination and strength. We are constantly under trial and test in this world, and it is so much a part of our human existence that its always there. Yet we always try to resist or avoid its effects as if one day the tests will stop. Indeed they will, but only upon death. Until then the way to manage them is through this sacred practice of sabr.
The Messengers of ALLAH ﷻ (Allah’s blessing and peace be upon them) have set excellent examples of this sabr. Moosa (Moses) peace be upon him demonstrated a good example of sabr on the problems caused by Bani Israil, with their nagging questions, superficial objections, foolish arguments, short-sighted suggestions, undue demands, improper expectations, lack of firm commitment, half-hearted support and weakness in obedience. To discourage repetition of that kind of behaviour, ALLAH ﷻ commanded, “O Believers, do not be like those who abused Moosa; then Allah cleared him from what they said. And he was, in the sight of Allah, honourable.” (Quran 33:70)
“And when Moosa said to his people, ‘O my people, why do you abuse me when you surely know that I am the messenger of Allah to you?’ When they deviated, Allah caused their hearts to deviate.” (Quran 61:5)
Isa peace be upon him was the best example of those who practised sabr on the reaction of the Bani Israil (who were supposed to be and claimed to be the believers), to his call for the Islamic movement and revival. He was sent to revive Islam without bringing any new Shari’ah. So, he tried to bring them from petrified, ritualistic Islam to the true spirit of the dynamic Islam that results in the establishment of the kingdom of God and that converts every believer into a missionary for the establishment for the supremacy of the Islamic way of life, but he was rejected and persecuted. So much so that they plotted to kill him, siding with the pagan Romans.
Our Prophet (ALLAH’s blessing and peace be upon him) demonstrated best of sabr in all of the situations described above giving us a vivid picture of what a perfect and ideal sabr looks like. The most outstanding example of sabr in the way of ALLAH ﷻ demonstrated in the face of persecutions was that of our Prophet (ALLAH’s blessing and peace be upon him)’s 13 years in Makkah and his experience in Taif, which remains etched in my heart as the seminal example of excellent character. That was humanity at its best, sabr par excellence and Ihsan without a parallel. To prepare for this, he was admonished at the very outset of the mission,
“And practice Sabr for the sake of your Lord.” (Quran 74:7)
And then he was reminded, “Rejected were the messengers before you, and they continued to practise Sabrwhile they were being rejected and persecuted, until Our help reached them.” (Quran 6:34)
“And practice Sabr, certainly Allah does not let the reward of the Muhsinin be lost.” (Quran 11:115)
He indeed excelled in what he was commanded . The same is expected from us. Although we may not be able to reach that level of excellence, our goal is to strive towards that level.
The practice of this standard of Sabr is not possible without collective efforts of the Ummah and mutual support and reminder towards each other. Hence, it is incumbent upon believers to enjoin each other this Sabr. Without it, (according to Surah Al-‘Asr) loss is not insured, salvation is not promised and success is not assured.