Sabr literally means “enduring,” “bearing,” and “resisting pain, suffering, and difficulty,” and “dealing calmly with problems.” In more general terms it means “patience,” which is one of the most important actions of the heart mentioned in the Qur’an. Because of its importance, patience is regarded as half of one’s religious life. (The other half is thankfulness.)
The Qur’an orders patience in many verses: [Seek help in patience and prayer] (Al-Baqarah 2:45) and [Endure, vie with each other in endurance] (Aal Imran 3:199), and prohibits haste in verses like [Show not haste concerning them (the unbelievers)] (Al-Ahqaf 46:35) and [When you meet in battle those who do not believe, turn not your backs to them] (Al-Anfal 8:15). In many Qur’anic verses, God praises the patient, declares that He loves them, or mentions the ranks He has bestowed on them: [The patient and steadfast, and the truthful and loyal] (Aal Imran 3:16); [God loves the patient] (Aal `Imran 3:145); and [Surely God is with the patient] (Al-Baqarah 2:153).
The Qur’an mentions many other aspects of patience. For example: [If you endure patiently, this is indeed better for those who are patient] (An-Nahl 16:126) advises patience as a preferable way in dealing with unbelievers while communicating God’s Message to them. [We will certainly bestow on those who are patient their reward according to the best of what they used to do] (An-Nahl 16:96) consoles the patient with the best of rewards to be given in the hereafter. [If you have patience and guard yourselves against evil and disobedience, God will send to your aid five thousand angels having distinguishing marks, if they [your enemies] suddenly attack you] (Aal `Imran 3:124) promises the believers divine aid in return for patience.
How meaningful is the following saying of the master of humanity concerning patience and thankfulness:
How remarkable a believer’s affair is, for it is always to his advantage, and such a condition is only for a believer. If something good happens to him he thanks God, which is to his advantage; if something bad happens to him he endures it, which is also to his advantage. (Muslim)
The characteristics of patience can be grouped into five categories: enduring difficulties associated with being a true servant of God or steadfastness in performing regular acts of worship; resisting temptations of the carnal self and Satan to commit sins; enduring heavenly or earthly calamities, which includes resignation to divine decrees; being steadfast in following the right path and not allowing worldly attractions to cause deviation; and showing no haste in realizing hopes or plans that require a certain length of time to achieve.
With respect to its degrees, patience can be divided into six categories: showing patience for the sake of God; showing patience and attributing it to God (being convinced that God enables one to show patience); enduring patiently whatever comes from God, knowing that He acts from His wisdom; being resigned to whatever happens in the way of God; showing patience by not disclosing the mysteries of one’s achieved spiritual station and preserving one’s nearness to God; and resolving to fulfill one’s mission of communicating God’s message to people despite one’s deepest desire to die and meet with God.
There are other definitions of patience as well. For example, preserving one’s manners in the face of misfortune; being steadfast when confronted with events, and showing no sign of being deterred; never giving in to one’s carnal desires and the impulses of one’s temperament; accepting the commandments of the Qur’an and the Sunnah as a sort of invitation to Paradise; and sacrificing all possessions, including one’s soul and beloved ones, for the sake of the True, Beloved One.
Those Qur’anic interpreters who were interested in the text’s secret or esoteric meanings have made the following commentaries on this verse:
[Endure, vie with each other in endurance, and continue your relation with God.] (Aal `Imran 3:199)
Be steadfast in performing your religious duties, endure whatever displeasing thing happens to you, and maintain your love of God and desire to meet with Him. Or, be steadfast in fulfilling all your responsibilities for the sake of God and to please Him, and endure the difficulty of always being aware of His constant supervision of you and feeling His omnipresence. Or, be steadfast in following the straight path without any deviation, even when divine bounties pour out onto you. Resolve to endure all difficulties and hardships, and maintain your connection or adherence to God whatever happens to you.
Another approach to patience is to attribute to God Almighty whatever is in the universe and happens therein and, while giving thanks for what appears pleasing, being resigned to what appears displeasing. When a believer unburdens himself or herself to God while trying to overcome a misfortune or hardship, a responsibility that is very hard to fulfill, or sins that might be committed, this must not be considered a complaint against God. Rather, it is a believer’s way of asking Him for help and seeking refuge in Him. In no way can such an action be considered a complaint or a protest against God or divine destiny. In reality, and according to one’s intention, such an act may even be regarded as a supplication and an entreaty, as putting one’s trust in Him or as submitting to Him.
The cry of Prophet Job (peace and blessings be upon him) to God, [Truly distress (disease, tribulation) has seized me. But You are the Most Compassionate of the Compassionate] (Al-Anbiya’ 21:83), and the groaning of Prophet Jacob (peace and blessings be upon), [I only complain of my anguish and my sorrow unto God] (Yusuf 12:86), are supplications or entreaties for God’s pity and compassion. God Almighty praised Job (peace and blessings be upon him) for being an excellent servant distinguished with patience and supplications: [We found him patient; how excellent a servant! Truly he was ever turning (to God) with supplications] (Saad 38:44).
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Prophets and saints is that they embody patience in all of its manifold forms and degrees, and that without deviating from their utmost devotion to God, they do their best to communicate God’s message to people and bear all misfortune and difficulty arising therefrom. The glory of humanity (peace and blessings be upon him), who is a mercy for the whole of creation, declared, “Among mankind, those who are stricken with the most terrible of misfortunes are the Prophets, and then follow others according to their degree of faith” (Al-Bukhari).
Patience is an essential characteristic of those believers who are the most advanced in belief, spirituality, nearness to God, and who guide others to the truth. It is, moreover, the source of power for those advancing toward this final point. Since the most advanced people experience the most misfortune, they are perfect embodiments of patience, which is the price they pay for the rank bestowed on them. Others who have been destined to advance to that final point cross the distances traveled by others through different and frequent acts of worship, by enduring whatever happens to them. Of these, God’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) said
If God Almighty has destined a servant of His to a rank or position which he cannot reach through his religious actions, He causes him to suffer from his own self, property, or family, and equips him with patience to endure all his sufferings. He elevates him (through patience) to the rank to which He has destined him. (Abu Dawud)
Thus the suffering to be endured, the difficulty in fulfilling one’s responsibilities, and the pressure of sin contain potential mercy, mercy that is attracted by one’s patience. One subjected to such affliction should not unburden oneself to anybody else.