I looked up patience. The Latin/English meaning is proportioned as a small donkey beside a great camel caravan of Arabic usage. Sabr means patience and much more. The Oxford Dictionary, a somewhat thoughtful book, defines it as: “… the capacity to accept or tolerate suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious.” … from patiens, patientis (latin), patient (patience) and “able to endure.”
Ya-Sabūr is the last Divine Name of the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah. There is a sense of accumulated development; one who continually manifests sabr is called Sābirūn. This manifests “perfect equilibrium and moderation in all that he (she) does.”1
I’ve been reading about Fatima az-Zahra, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Reading and reading. Writing about her life. Friends send me articles. Here’s a sentence from the Mafatih of prayers to Fatima. (The “He” is Allah.) When He tested you, He found you to be patient under affliction…2
Sabr means giving up complaining. Something I work on constantly. When I am at ease with someone, it seems to open a door that holds a closet of complaint and the furniture of annoyance spills out before I can press it shut. Here is the rectangular glass dish that seems to be coated with baked-on dark crust
that needs heavy scrubbing every time it lands in the sink. I complain. The stopped traffic. Mmm. Sabr means go easy. Make a joke about it. Be in the present. Gratitude seems to feed all the camels in the caravan of patience.
Cultivated sabr prepares you to withstand hardship. There is also a sub-meaning in the root (SaBaRa) to bind, tie, or fetter — a no escape clause. Canned, preserved, food is called musabbarāt.
The great Sufi, Junaid, says, “Patience is swallowing a bitter draught with out displaying a frown or scowl.”3
And what of sabr as a jewel of mysticism? One of my favorite books, Physicians of the Heart notes: “As-Sabūr embodies development of complete inner capacity. It is a great container that enables a spiritual student to endure the long journey of the path…” and “….According to the story in the Qur‘an of Khidr and Moses, sabr is the one essential element for following the path of mystical union.”4 Why? Moses is unable to trust Al-Khidr, the one annihilated in truth; the one unveiling higher understanding while seeming to do cruel and harmful acts. Al-Khidr tells him,” You will not be able to have patience with me.” Moses insists he will be patient. The master proves him wrong. The story hints and plays with the power of sabr. It takes up sixteen verses of the Qur‘an. 5
It occurs to me that deep patience is an antidote against anger and reactivity. The patient person contains his (her) reactions at the onset. That is, being so very onto yourself, you could shoot an arrow across the spaciousness of your mind… and it would not reach the other side. I was amazed to see, after I’d written this that there is an expression for being “at the end of one’s patience” in Arabic that translates: “There is no arrow left for the bow of my patience!”
I am thinking as we age this is an essential quality — to be patient with all we can no longer do so well. Aging, limitation. My mother-in-law, Ilse, was quite graceful at turning her book-keeping over to my husband. Giving up driving was harder. She, a precise, well-organized woman could no longer do those things.
When the Prophet whispered to Fatima he would die soon, the advice he gave her was to keep sabr and taqwā, superficially translated as patient and fearful of God, 6 but the mystical meaning is “to remain steadfast on the path to Allah like holding a burning coal in one’s hands…”7
The inner meaning of taqwā is awareness of Unification, no separation. All is infused with God-consciousness. That was her father’s message to her. The timing of this message is good, as I have not been able to distill the story of Muhammad’s whispered message. Now maybe, I will.
<> <> <>1 The Most Beautiful Names, compiled by Sheikh Tosum, 1985. p. 133. 2 Chittick, A Shiate Anthology, 1981. p. 18. 3 Shaikh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, Sufficient Provision for Seekers of the Path of Truth, vol. 5, 1997. p. 141. 4 Wali Ali Meyer, etc… Physicians of the Heart, p. 76. 5 Qu‘ran, 18:66-82. Also Talat Halman’s new book, Where the Two Seas Meet, 2013. 6 Hadith: (Bukhari, #8.301) 7 Hadith: Anas ibn Malik/ Al-Tirmidhi.