Sabr or patience is a central Islamic value and teaching. It is repeatedly stressed in the Quran. There are some other words with a similar meaning in the Quran—for instance, eraaz, which means avoidance of conflict. These two words, sabr and eraaz, appear in the Quran more than100 times. This indicates the great importance that the Quran gives to patience and avoidance.
There is a hadith according to which the Prophet Muhammad that stresses the great importance of patience: “A believer relies on patience.” This means that sabr is a Divine shield for a momin, a person of deep faith in God. Now, this is not something mysterious. It is actually a law of Nature. By studying this law of Nature you can understand how sabr is a Divine shield for a person of deep faith in God.
There is a verse in the Quran that says: “Truly, those who persevere patiently will be requited without measure.” (39:10). People of patience will be awarded unlimited reward. This is something very special to sabr. According to the Quran, only sabr has this special quality. Again, this is not something mysterious. It means that sabr gives you great success.
There are two aspects of sabr and eraaz, of patience and avoidance. One is related to this worldly life—that is, the pre-death period of our life. The second is related to the world hereafter, that is, the post-death period of our life.
Now, let’s take the first. Why is sabr so important to achieve success in this world? There is a hadith according to which the Prophet said: “God’s help is for those who keep patience.” (Musnad Ahmad, hadith no. 2803). This means that success is only for those persons who keep patience.
Sabr is the only condition for achieving success.
Why is this so?
It is because the world we are living in presently is a world where everyone is free. This freedom creates competition and challenges. It creates problems. All the time we face some problem or the other from others. Given this, what is one to do? We can’t do away with this situation. We can’t abolish the freedom given to man by God Himself. No human being has the power to abolish this freedom. So, no human being has the power to abolish that situation which leads to competition and challenges. Hence, we are compelled to live in a situation where there are problems every time.
In this situation, what is one to do? The concept and teaching of sabr tells us that we simply have to learn the art of problem management, rather than the art of seeking to eliminate all problems, which is impossible.
So, you have to learn the art of problem management, the art of difference management. This is the only option for you. And this requires sabr. Without sabr, you cannot manage problems. Sabr is thus the basic condition for success in this world. Sabr is only another name for the art of difference management.
The world around us is a demonstration of this law of Nature. In Nature you can discern a demonstration of this law. How? Consider a mountainous stream. When it flows, it encounters many boulders in its way. What does the stream do? What is its way? It does not try to remove the boulders. It isn’t the method of the stream to seek to remove the obstacles that lie in its path. Instead, it adopts the method of avoidance of confrontation. It flows on, swirling around the boulders, instead of clashing against them.
This is a lesson given to us by Nature. It tells us, “Try to manage your problems, don’t try to eliminate them.” This is a natural phenomenon. It is a divine phenomenon. The stream adopts the culture of avoidance of confrontation, and by avoiding the boulders that stand in its way, it flows on till it reaches its final destination. This means that confrontation is not the solution. Confrontation will only create even more problems. It will only aggravate your problems.
This is a lesson from Nature, an illustration by Nature, a demonstration by Nature about how to deal with one’s problems. Like the stream, we need to adopt this culture of patience, this culture of avoidance, this culture of adjustment. One who wants to achieve success in this world must adopt this culture. This is a law of nature. In this sense, the Prophet of Islam has said that patience is what a believer relies on. Patience is a Divine shield for the believer.
So, this is the only solution for dealing with your problems. There is no other solution. One who tries to eliminate his problems will certainly destroy himself.
There is another illustration given to us in Nature: the rose plant. On every branch of it there are both flowers as well as thorns. Although they live side by side, the flowers never try to eliminate the thorns or vice versa. They live compatibly together. So, the rose plant haws adopted what may be called the principle of peaceful coexistence. We need to adopt this same principle or formula in our lives, too. Otherwise, there is no gain, no success, no achievement. The only other option is destruction. A verse in the Quran says: as-sulh khayr, meaning, “reconciliation is best” (4:128). It means that if there is some controversy between you and another party, you must adopt aconciliatory course of action, rather than a confrontational course of action. This is as-sulh khayr.
Now, all this is about one aspect of sabr, which pertains to our worldly life, to our material success.
The same formula is applicable to the other aspect of our life—our spiritual life. The Quran says: “That [Paradise] is the recompense for those who purify themselves.”(20:76) It means that Paradise is for those people who prove to be purified souls. Only purified souls will be given entry into Paradise.
Now, what is this purification or tazkiyah?
There are a number of verses in the Quran that tell us that without sabr, without patience, no one will find entry into Paradise. Now, how is sabr so important in this regard? What is tazkiyah? What is the purification of the soul? What is the relation between sabr and tazkiyah, between patience and purification?
Who are purified souls?
Purified souls are positive thinkers, people with positive personality.
Now, how to become a positive thinker or a positive personality?
In this world, we always experience negative situations. Every now and then we face provocations. How can one live amidst these with positive thinking? How is it possible?
There is a verse in the Quran says that those who believe “forgive when they are angry.” (42:37) This positive response of forgiveness in the face of provocation is a main source of cultivating a positive personality.
A cow eats grass and this is converted into milk. Human beings, too, need to convert negativity into positivity. You need to convert negative thought into positive thought, otherwise you won’t be a deserving candidate for Paradise.
Once, a man came to the Prophet and asked him for a master-advice by which he could manage all the affairs of his life. The Prophet replied: La taghzab, which means, “Don’t be angry”. (Sahih al-Bukhari, hadith no. 6116)
What does this mean?
It means that when you are provoked—and that is a negative experience—you need to convert it into positive thought.
The Quran says: “That [Paradise] is the recompense for those who purify themselves.” (20:76) Only those people will find entry into Paradise who are purified souls. And who are purified souls? Those who are able to convert negativity into positivity, to convert a negative experience into positive thought.
This is the process of making a positive person. Without this kind of process, it is not possible to build a person who is deserving of Paradise.
So, here you can see that in both the periods of life—in the pre-death period and in the post-death period—we have to keep patience.
Suppose somebody creates a problem for you. If you become angry and want to take revenge, if you want to fight, if you want to teach him a lesson, it is a distraction for you. Patience and avoidance save you from this distraction.
It requires a non-stop process to build a positive personality, a person deserving of entry into Paradise. It requires a continuous process of seeking to inculcate positivity in your mind, in your heart. If you face a negative situation and become angry, it means you are distracted. This negative reaction stops the process of building a positive personality.
You really can’t afford to stop this process.
At every moment we face things from others that can distract us by leading us to react negatively. You need to avoid them. Otherwise, you will be a loser. You must not allow them to distract your process of developing a positive personality, a soul that converts negativity into positivity of becoming a purified soul that is deserving of entry into Paradise.
It is very important to know that you cannot find entry into Paradise simply by reciting some words like the Islamic creed declaring belief in God and the prophecy of the Prophet Muhammad or by performing some rituals. All these things are not enough for you to find entry into Paradise. Becoming a person who will find entry into Paradise is a long, long process. It begins from the discovery of Truth. When you discover Truth, you become cautious and try to avoid all distractions. You try to save yourself from all negative thoughts. You try to make yourself a positive thinker. All these things happen when you discover Truth. This discovery is a storm in your soul. Discovery means awakening. This discovery awakens your mind. It gives you the art of positive thinking and the art of positively managing challenges. With this discovery, all these things become easily available to you.Without this discovery, there is no revolution in your personality. This discovery makes you a truly living person, a positive person. Without this discovery, your faith is like stagnation, but with this discovery, your faith becomes a living faith.
So, you have to know that the journey towards Paradise begins with the discovery of Truth, the discovery of God, and all the other things necessary in this regard.
This discovery opens your mind. It makes you understand the value of patience and avoidance. As we learn from a hadith cited earlier, a believer relies on patience. Sabr is not a passive attitude. It is not cowardice. The Quran says: “Have patience, then, as had the steadfast Messengers before you.” (46:35)
Keep patience, just like prophets. So, patience is a culture of prophets, a method of prophets, a way of prophets. It is not cowardice or passivity. Rather, it is a very lofty quality. It is a culture of a man of mission. Such a person has no option but to adopt the sabr culture. Sabr culture is a culture of those people who want to live with mission, of people of mission. All the prophets adopted this culture, this culture of patience, this culture of avoidance of confrontation.
Without patience, without avoidance, you cannot gain any valuable achievement. This is a law of Nature, and “there is no altering the creation of God.” (30:30) The laws of Nature cannot be changed. So, when achievement depends on patience, you cannot achieve anything without keeping patience. Patience is important in every aspect of life—personal, social, national and international. Without patience, there is no success, no achievement. Without patience, there is no Paradise for you. This is very clear in the Quran.
(Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a widely-respected Islamic scholar, heads the New Delhi-based Centre for Peace and Spirituality. This is a modified transcript of a lecture delivered by the Maulana on 23 March 2007. It can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6zKGNLTkkU&t=10s)