The Art of Sabr: A Practice That Goes Beyond Patience
There’s a word we use in Urdu and Punjabi; a word that I heard over and over again while growing up.
“Sabr,” my mother would impatiently say standing over the stove, as I tugged at her sleeve because my tummy was rumbling.
“Sabr”, my grandmother would smile knowingly as I wondered out loud again and again why the flowers we had planted last week had still not yet sprouted.
“Sabr,” I heard a stranger whisper over my shoulder, as silent tears rolled down my face while I looked down upon my father’s cold face while he lay there still, silent and unmoving in his coffin. Sabr. Sabr.
But what actually is Sabr, why has my Muslim family always placed so much emphasis on it and how exactly can it help us to live a more peaceful life?
The roots of Sabr
Sabr is an Arabic word that has its foundations in the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an. It is mentioned throughout the Qur’an time and time again, and is a word that translates most easily in the English language to patience, perseverance or endurance.
They say that Sabr is a half of a person’s faith, and I guess, when you take it even in its most basic translation as above, it is easy to understand why. Without patience, life would just be so damn hard. But with patience, life may still be hard, but there would be more purpose in the struggle; an understanding of the bigger meaning behind it all.
Allah, God, or whatever other name you wish to give this Higher Power emphasises the importance of Sabr in many verses in the holy Qur’an, and I’m sure in many other spiritual traditions, too.
“…be patient over what befalls you.”
“…seek help through patience and prayer.”
“…excellent is the reward of the workers who have been patient…”
However, in recent years, what I’ve come to learn through reflecting on such words and through the experience of life itself, is that Sabr is so much more than just patience; it’s not just a word, but more rather a state of being.
I would even go on to say that it’s not just a state of being, it is even more so an act of ultimate submission. Submission to the point where you are willingly able to place your everything into the hands of the powers that govern this Universe and know that everything is unfolding exactly how it needs to, with your very best interests at its core.
There is a verse in the Qur’an where the term ‘Sabr-e-Jameel’ is used. This translates roughly in English to ‘beautiful patience’, but what does this even mean?
Different scholars have ascribed different meanings to this, but they all pretty much convey the same message: that beautiful patience, or Sabr-e-Jameel, is to be content and at peace no matter what is happening around you; to be content and at peace even in adversity and in the most difficult of times.
Eckhart Tolle, in the beautiful book Stillness Speaks, says:
“Whenever you deeply accept this moment as it is — no matter what form it takes — you are still, you are at peace.”
And for me, this conveys the meaning of Sabr-e-Jameel perfectly. To have Sabr-e-Jameel means to live fully and deeply connected to the present moment accepting it in its entirety, as this moment is all we truly ever have.
The dark side of Sabr
Unfortunately in my culture, the term Sabr is often misconstrued and sometimes used to overlook toxic behaviour and manipulative relationships – in a sense, it is even used to justify it.
I’ve heard many stories and even seen firsthand how people will advise others to have Sabr when it comes to situations of domestic abuse and violence, or other situations where they are being treated unfairly or even inhumanely. My own mother even endured years and years of hardship and abuse within my fathers family, believing that all that was happening was the will of God and that she just had to have Sabr and endure it all. What I’ve come to understand is that this is so far removed from what Sabr actually teaches us.
I was confused about the concept of Sabr when it came to injustice myself up until around 5 years ago, when my Spiritual Master, Sheikh Aly N’Daw of Senegal, gave an impromptu talk all about Sabr and answered all the questions that were floating around in my head, by speaking straight to my heart.
About Sabr, Sheikh Aly explained that it is not simply about just having patience; instead he said Sabr is all about having ‘creative patience’ – meaning to say that we don’t simply sit back and use the concept of having patience as an excuse to do nothing to change our situation.
If we are experiencing injustice, being treated unfairly, being abused or even just going through a difficult time, Sheikh Aly explained that we can have Sabr while still taking action to change our situation – or to ‘create’ a new situation.
Taking action, making changes, trying to improve ourselves and our circumstances while equally placing our every faith in God, is what having Sabr really means.
There is a story of the Prophet Muhammad narrated by Al-Tirmidhi that says there was once a Bedouin man who was leaving his camel without tying it.
The Prophet asked him, “Why don’t you tie down your camel?” to which the Bedouin answered, “I put my trust in God.” The Prophet replied, saying, “Tie your camel first, and then put your trust in God.”
This perfectly illustrates the concept of ‘creative patience’ and shows that we play a big part in creating our own lives – we can’t just simply sit back, allow life to happen to us and tell ourselves that this is our Sabr. We can practice Sabr while taking action to make our lives better.
“Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” ~ Qur’an 13:11.
5 tips for practising the art of Sabr
For those of us who have still not come out of our social conditioning or who are still battling with it, the art of Sabr can be an extremely difficult thing to master. When we look at society and how it works, it is quite clear to see that most of us aren’t really living our lives in the present moment. We are constantly rushing from one thing to another, and when something that we perceive as negative does befall us, we find ourselves in a state of reaction rather than acceptance.
I personally believe for the many of us who have not yet achieved enlightenment, mastering the art of Sabr is a life-long process – and that is not necessarily a bad thing. As we move through life, it will test us continually to see how far we have travelled along its path. What’s important here is to keep moving forwards, rather than standing still or even falling backwards.
Here are five tips for practising the art of Sabr that I have learned through my own life experience. I hope they are able to help you, too.
1. Giving gratitude for absolutely everything
‘Alhamdulillah’ is another Islamic phrase that means all praise and thanks is to God. Your Muslim friends might use this term in a celebratory context when something wonderful happens. However, how many of us can actually say we give thanks for the good, the bad and everything in between?
Learning to give gratitude for absolutely everything could transform your life. Instead of seeing yourself as a victim when something not-so-pleasant befalls you, learning to give gratitude for it instead can help to elevate your being.
I believe that everything that happens to us is what is best for us, even if we can’t understand that in the moment that we’re in. Give gratitude for it all and life will naturally become so much easier.
2. Remembering that ‘this too shall pass’
Everything passes. Ev-er-y-thing!
The beautiful moments, the challenging moments, the quiet moments, the loud moments, the good times, the bad times… absolutely nothing in this life stays the same forever.
If you take the time to really understand this and meditate on it deeply, it could set you free in so many ways.
3. Asking yourself ‘what can I learn here?’
When something comes along and disturbs my peace, I am grateful to have finally come to a place where I really try my best to understand what it is trying to teach me.
Your peace can be disturbed through a situation, by the actions of other people, by your own actions and more often than not, by your own thoughts. When I am so deeply disturbed by something that it takes control over my mind, I try my best to take a few moments to breathe and become still. And then I ask my heart, “what can I learn here?”
What you will find is that there is always something to be learned. Anything that continues to trigger you, shows you that there is still work to be done. Only you have the choice to do the work and set yourself free.
4. Understanding that you are the stillness within
You are not the you that you believe you are. You are the stillness within; you are the peaceful Being behind all the noise.
When you are able to understand that the real you is the observer of your own life, it is easier to become unattached to whatever is happening in your life. And therefore, it is much easier to have Sabr.
“To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment.” ~ Eckhart Tolle.
5. Believing that God is with you and within you, always
What’s more to say than,
“He is with you wherever you are.” ~ Qur’an 57:4
I believe truly that we are all a part of the eternal Higher Power, incarnated on this earth to have this human experience. For me, that means that nothing can harm us. Nothing at all can harm us – for God is with us and within us always.
Everything that unfolds in this life is just part of this human experience – it doesn’t define us and nor will it last forever. And so, Sabr just becomes a natural and easy part of the experience.
Writing this article took me to places that I hadn’t even imagined when I initially had the idea to write it. But, what a beautiful thing, as it reminded me just how powerful and important Sabr is in our lives.
May we all learn to master the art of Sabr and learn to live a life that is connected to the all, yet unattached to everything.
May we all learn to master Sabr… and truly find peace.