Patience and the Qur’anic life

Not everything worth having comes easily

The ṣ-b-r root occurs over 100 times in the Qur’an. From it come the verb ṣabara and the noun ṣabr. This root has the generic sense of patience. Yet the word has much more to it as applied in the life of the believer.

In this short article, I do not aim at an unassailable and final definition of ṣabr; rather, I wish to share some of my own thoughts and experiences as concern this concept.

First, a few representative verses from the Qur’an:

O you who heed warning: seek help in patience and duty
(God is with the patient) (2:153)

Incidentally, God is with the patient occurs four times (2:153, 2:249, 8:46, 8:66).

And we will try you with something of fear and hunger and loss of wealth and lives and fruits.
And bear thou glad tidings to the patient
Those who when misfortune befalls them say: We belong to God and to him are we returning.
Upon these are duties and mercy from their lord.
And these are the rightly guided. (2:155-157)

By the span of time!
Man is in loss
Save those who heed warning
And do deeds of righteousness
And counsel one another to truth
And counsel one another to patience. (103:1-3)

The singular imperative be thou patient occurs 20 times (10:109, 11:49, 11:115, 16:127, 19:65, 20:130, 30:60, 31:17, 38:17, 40:55, 40:77, 46:35, 50:39, 52:48, 54:27, 68:48, 70:5, 73:10, 74:7, 76:24).

While I translate throughout as patience, the concept of patience has some components which may benefit from a little exposition.

Types of patience

There exists a stoical patience; the ability to meet the vicissitudes of life with equanimity. And – to be sure – remaining calm in the face of adversity is an aspect of what I have learned patience to be; but it is an incomplete definition.

Basically, it is too passive.

A fuller definition – for me at least – contains other aspects: fortitude (a resilience or hardiness); persistence (just doggedly carrying on); old fashioned hard work; good habits; and unflagging initiative.

I don’t believe anyone is born patient. I certainly wasn’t. And although a good example of patience in one’s father or other primary influencers in childhood is a strong advantage, no-one can learn patience for us or give it to us. It is earned as well as learned.

The problem is that there is no pleasant and easy way to learn it. It is by nature unpleasant. It is the itch you can’t scratch – borne long enough – which turns the grain of sand into a pearl.

But the work aspect of patience is lost by many. Whole swathes of my work since I began this project have required a stubborn, prosaic persistence. For example, I needed to replace all the footnote numbers with small superscript circles and enter the reference number as end notes. I repeated this painstaking, boring process – requiring exactitude and zero creativity – over 9,000 times. This took three full weeks of 14-hour days. That’s approximately 300 hours of adding circles.

And there have been many such tasks of comparable mind-numbing banality.

Of course, there are breakthroughs and insights as well – my work on the muqaṭṭaʾāt being an obvious case in point – but ṣabr has been for me 90% perspiration and only 10% inspiration.


Inspiration is overrated. Beethoven and Mozart were incomparable composers not because they were moved to do great work, but because they were at their desks every morning at the same time.

Isaac Asimov – the famously prodigious writer – kept to the same writing process all his career.

According to a 1969 New York Times profile, Asimov started his work day between 9:30 and 10 am. He typed over 90 words a minute on his electric typewriter, with a backup in case it broke. Asimov took only small breaks and worked well into the night. He went to bed at 10 or 11 pm, probably drafting an outline for the next part of the book in his dreams. Through this process he sometimes churned out an entire book in a few days. His daily writing habit was not for the weak!

Asimov’s lunch pail approach to writing made him put words on paper even if the muse did not visit him that day. He scoffed at the idea of “writer’s block.” His father was a candy store owner in Brooklyn who opened his doors at 6 am every day, whether or not he felt like it. The elder Asimov did so without ever complaining about “shop keeper’s block.” 

Asimov also attributed his success to the fact that he simply did not care what the critics said about him.

Asimov had ṣabr.

It is this creative, dogged type of habit – something which generates real output – that gets to the heart of what ṣabr means to me.

These three men – Beethoven, Mozart and Asimov – were all creative; they were productive. Yet if they had possessed ṣabr in the way most Muslims conceive of the term, they would have endured their hardships well enough – but they would have produced nothing.

The Qur’anic conception of ṣabr hints strongly – to my mind at least – at the generative form of patience, not the passive form.

Let us consider 10:109 as an example:

And follow thou what thou art instructed.
And be thou patient until God judges.
And he is the best of judges. (10:109)

Here, the prophet is exhorted to keep busy doing what he is commissioned to do; not simply to put up with hardship. He is called to be active, innovative, dynamic – for that is what following what God has instructed us entails.

And be thou patient
For God suffers not to be lost the reward of the doers of good. (11:115)

Here, again, the emphasis is on action: the reward of the doers of good. This is patience.

And be thou patient.
The promise of God is true.
And let not those who are not certain sway thee. (30:60)

Here we anticipate something of Asimov’s indifference towards his critics; when you have Qur’anic patience, you grasp the nettle of your own convictions and let people think what they want. Being a critic is easy; it’s not hard to pick at others’ efforts when you produce nothing yourself. Having critics is a sign of creating noteworthy action in the world. It’s a feature of any mission.

And ignoring them while you get on with your mission is a feature of ṣabr.

Patience is not fun

A pernicious trend – one of many – has Western society in its thrall, and this is the notion that everything should be easy or fun; that anything worth doing should simply fall into one’s lap. Any requirement to exert effort is seen as failure.

My work on the muqaṭṭaʾāt bears mention again here. People say they want the answer to this age-old mystery, but when you present them with one – and it requires they apply themselves to follow what you have done – some complain. The truth is: even if you dumbed it down such people would still not be happy.

Not everything is – or should be – fun and easy. Some things require work and persistence, they just do. And pretending otherwise is the path of the weak and foolish.

Reap the rewards

As the weeks and months pass and you keep sticking to the field you have decided to dig, you will start to become patient. And the more you dig your field – the more you invest your blood, sweat and tears in it – the more that ground becomes yours, and the less willing you will be to give it up.

And by the time the first shoots of the fruits of your labours begin to stick their heads above the soil, surrendering your patch of ground will be unthinkable.

I am grateful to God that I found my field and had the wit to start digging it. God’s earth is wide, and we are not all here to dig the same bit of it.

Find the bit you are meant to work; start working it and don’t stop until you see your fruits – and ṣabr will come of itself.

About the Author Sam Gerrans

Sam Gerrans is an English writer and speaker with professional backgrounds in media, strategic communications, and technologies. He is driven by commitment to ultimate meaning, and focused on authentic approaches to revelation and Realpolitik. He is founder of and author of The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation where his consistent, Qur'an-centric hermeneutical methodology is applied to the text of the Qur’an in its entirety. Read more...

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