One of the simplest du’as that Muslims make for each other during times of stress or difficulty is, “May Allah give you patience.” Yet, many Muslims mistakenly think that sabr just means patience, but it entails so much more. Like most Arabic words, it has layers of meaning which are interconnected and provide a rich source of understanding for us. The meaning of sabr includes being steadfast, persevering, having forbearance, having restraint, as well as having patience. The Qur’an has dozens of verses that enjoin believers to practice sabr. And so, when Muslims face hardship, most often they say, “alhamdulillah,” (all praise is due to Allah), voicing their acceptance of the test of their eman and acknowledging Allah’s sovereignty. And they also try to feel gratitude no matter the situation, whether positive or negative. In fact, sabr and shukr are two halves of eman. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah has pointed out that Allah places sabr and shukr together in many verses. One such verse is, “Do you not see that the ships sail through the sea by the grace of Allah so that He may show you some of His signs? Surely in this are signs for whoever is steadfast [has sabr], grateful [has shukr]” (Qur’an 31:31). Other verses include 14:5, 34:19, and 42:33.
In an article, Dr. Mufti Menk, a contemporary Muslim scholar, listed three categories of sabr: endurance, restraint, and acceptance. He explained that endurance is needed when one is carrying out the acts of worship like prayer or making Hajj. We experience physical hardship that can wear us down. One might add that emotional endurance is required in everyday living, in dealing with frustrations at work or at school, in relationships, in raising children, in doing simple chores or activities. Here, emotional endurance is necessary. Dr. Menk then says that restraint, on the other hand, is required when we are avoiding sinful behavior – whether the simple act of lowering the gaze, staying away from zina or alcohol, or any other harmful or immoral act. Acceptance, he continues, is to understand and internalize the decree of Allah — the good we are blessed with along with the bad things which challenge us.
In actuality, both blessings and hardships are tests from Allah. As to hardships, Allah SWT says, “And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and crops; but give good tidings to those with sabr” (2:155). We are taught to meet hardship with sabr and acceptance, and to be thankful for our blessings. Sabr is also a requisite of leadership. Our greatest examples of leadership in Islam were the prophets. No people were tested more by Allah than the many prophets he sent to guide us. “And We made from among them leaders guiding by Our command when they were patient [had sabr] and were certain of Our signs” (Qur’an 32:24).
Demonstrating Sabr and Shukr
Prophet Ayyub, for example, was blessed with a loving and believing wife as well as wealth, land, and many children. He was tested with the loss of his wealth, land, children as well as by contracting a skin disease. He accepted all his trials and with patience and perseverance. He had shukr despite all these losses. He did not ask for relief from his disease until he realized the toll it took on his wife. He then made du’a, praying “… ‘Indeed, adversity has touched me, and You are the most merciful of the merciful’” (21:83). Prophet Ayyub was returned to health and wealth, having proved his faith in Allah SWT, and his sabr and shukr in the face of adversity.
The women mentioned in the Qur’an had their share of hardship and those who practiced sabr were rewarded. Asiya remained a believer despite being the wife of Pharoun and witnessing all his atrocities. She ultimately was tortured to death by his command due to her belief in Allah. Maryam and Sarah each experienced miraculous births, raising prophets in conditions that were less than ideal. Hajar was left alone in the desert with her baby Ismail. Her belief in Allah and in Ibrahim’s prophethood remained intact and was eventually rewarded. Despite their individual challenges, each remained faithful, steadfast, and thankful to Allah SWT.
The best example from the Qur’an and sunnah regarding sabr is found in the life of Prophet Muhammad (s). He was relentlessly persecuted during his prophethood and endured physical abuse and many attempts to bribe him or threaten him to stop pursuing his prophetic mission. Yet he remained steadfast, never faltering in his devotion to Allah and never compromising his integrity or moral virtue. He exemplified kindness, fairness, trustworthiness, and generosity toward all. His followers learned, “When you ask for anything, ask it from God, and if you seek help, seek the help of God. Know that if the people were to unite to do you some benefit, they could benefit you only with what God had recorded for you, and that if they were to unite to do you some injury, they could injure you only with what God had recorded for you. The pens are withdrawn, and the pages are dry” (at-Tirmidhi).”
Prophet Muhammad (s) taught us that the foundational principle of sabr, what lies at the heart of it, is a pure conviction that Allah is with the believer in all moments and all circumstances. If we accept Allah as the source of all – whether we perceive or experience it as a blessing or calamity – then we understand that He knows best our capacity to endure, and it is our challenge to remain steadfast and patient. At the same time, we should be thankful and say “alhamdulillah” in every circumstance. We can pray for intervention, relief, or strength. We can thank Allah. We can accept what we are given. All those responses have been demonstrated by the prophets and righteous people mentioned in the Qur’an. As Muhammad, the Seal of the prophets, told us, “How wonderful is the affair of the believer. Indeed, all of his affairs are good for him. This is for no one but the believer. If something good happens to him, he is grateful to Allah, which is good for him. And if something bad happens to him, he has sabr, which is good for him” (Sahih Muslim).
The next time you or your loved one experiences difficulty, or even calamity, remember that Allah’s tests have barakah, if only we have the sabr to endure, accepting the test as an opportunity to demonstrate our faith, and praying that it is recorded as a merit on the scale of our belief and deeds. And, of course, we should say “alhamdulillah” for all things – good and bad.