An Understanding of Swabr

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is an excerpt from “The Purification of the Soul”, compiled from the works of Imam ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (r.a.), Imam ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (r.a.) and Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (r.a.).

The word ‘swabr’ in Arabic, meaning ‘perseverance’ or ‘patience’, indicates holding back and self-restraint.  In the context of the shari’ah, it means keeping the self from being agitated, the tongue from complaining, and the hands from beating cheeks and tearing clothes, as an expression of grief.

It has been said that it is one of the excellent possessions of the self, without which it is not possible to do anything well.  It is a strength of the self that makes it possible to put it right and benefit it.  When Imam Junayd (q.s.) was asked what it is, he said, “Swallowing something bitter without displaying any distaste on your face.”

Shaykh Dzu an-Nun al-Miswri (q.s.) said of it, “Perseverance is distancing yourself from all wrongs and transgressions, and remaining calm when you are engulfed by impossible afflictions, and appearing to have enough when poverty is in permanent residence in your home.”

It has also been said that perseverance is “Standing firm and remaining courteous when affliction strikes, and remaining content when afflicted with misfortune, without showing any signs of complaint.”

One day, a righteous man saw someone complaining to his brother, so he said to him, “By Allah - what you are really doing is complaining about the One Who is Merciful to you, as you complain to one who has no mercy of his own to give to you.  It has also been said, ‘When you complain to the son of Adam, you are in fact complaining about the Merciful to one who has no mercy of his own.’”

There are two types of complaint.  The first type of complaint is a complaining to Allah, Mighty and Glorious is He, which is not inconsistent with perseverance, as in the saying of the Prophet Ya’qub (a.s.):

…  So patience is most fitting (for me) … (Surah Yusuf:83)

And also:

He said, “I only complain of my distraction and anguish to Allah, and I know from Allah that which ye know not …” (Surah Yusuf:86)

The Prophet (s.a.w.) said at Ta’if, “O Allah!  I complain to You about the weakness of my strength and the lack of my ability.”

The second type of complaint is a complaining about affliction, by objecting to its nature and character.  This kind is incompatible with perseverance and it contradicts it and cancels it out.  The arena of power is more significant for the servant than the arena of perseverance; as the Prophet (s.a.w.) said to Allah (s.w.t.), “If You are not angry with me, I will not be concerned, but Your Might is more significant for me.”  This does not contradict his saying, “No one has been given a better or greater gift than perseverance.”  This applies to someone who has been afflicted by a misfortune.  The arena of perseverance in his case is the greatest one, but, before affliction strikes, the arena of strength and health is more significant.


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