When Our Worlds Are Shaken: Finding Strength in ‘Beautiful Patience’
Published: March 23, 2020 • Edited: October 17, 2020
Authors: Justin Parrott
For more on this topic, see Faith in the Time of COVID-19
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Hardship is an inevitable experience in life. Each one of us will encounter pain, loss, fear, anxiety, sadness, and grief at some point in our journey to the Hereafter. Islam equips us with the spiritual resources to be able to overcome any trial in this world, as long as we maintain trust in Allah’s plan and decree. It is important to draw on these resources whenever we face adversity, such that we respond with the type of ‘beautiful patience’ practiced by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and the other prophets before him.
The theology of Islam and the contents of its sacred scriptures, the Qur’an and authentic Hadith, contain what psychologists call beneficial cognitions, or thought patterns, that are conducive to a believer’s sound mental health and well-being. These cognitions have even been integrated into psychotherapy and counseling specifically for Muslims.1 Islam provides us with a worldview that considers the creation to be a temporal abode of testing, in which Allah puts His servants to trial in order to turn them back to faith when they forget, to expiate their sins, and to bring out the best in them. Everything that happens to a believer in this life is good, even if it appears outwardly bad. If it is a time of prosperity, believers are rewarded for their gratitude, and if it is a time of adversity, believers are rewarded for their patience. The highest level of faith is to respond to these trials with ‘beautiful patience,’ an unshakeable trust in Allah without hesitation, apprehension, or complaint. This article will discuss the wisdom of Allah in sending trials, the optimism of the believers, and the nature of beautiful patience, with some practical guidance for acquiring this noble trait.
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Wisdom of trials
The life of this world is not the end of the story, as many among humanity wrongly assume. There is another life, an eternal and infinitely more important life after this one, in which we will be judged for the deeds we are doing now. Allah’s purpose in making the creation is to give us the opportunity to grow closer to Him through our good deeds and acts of worship.
It is He who created death and life to test which of you is best in deed.2
Part of the test in this life is to endure trials in many forms, most obviously as pain and suffering that we might be patient, but even pleasure and happiness that we might be grateful. There are two words for ‘trial’ in the Qur’an. First, al-balā’ means “to test… that the reality of what has been done is known.”3 Second, al-fitnah has a similar but broader meaning, adding dimensions of seduction, temptation, misguidance, or trial by fire. According to classical lexicographer of the Qur’an, Al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī, the word originally means “to place gold in the fire to sift out its valuables from its impurities.” He adds that “al-fitnah is like al-balā’ in that they are both used to mean what is driven towards the human being, whether prosperity or adversity, but both of them usually mean adversity.”4 So each word carries the sense that Allah tests us with hardship or ease to make known who we really are. Like a blacksmith who melts gold and silver in a furnace to remove its dross, Allah likewise puts us to trial in order to remove our spiritual defects such that only our best qualities remain.
All human beings can notice this dynamic in their lives. Crises can bring out the best in people, just as they can bring out the worst in people. Firefighters, for instance, show great courage by putting themselves at risk as they rush into burning buildings to save total strangers. If we reflect deeply upon our own experiences, we can find many times we may have been in a difficult situation but eventually grew stronger from it, or in the end it worked out better than we thought it would. This is the nature of trials; they are opportunities for advancement.
Allah promises us that we will indeed be put to trial with many forms of hardship. We might lose our job, witness the death of a loved one, or suffer in our health, all of which will provoke a natural response of anxiety or grief in us. These tests are definitely going to happen whether we like it or not, whether we respond in a positive way or not.
We will surely test you with something of fear, hunger, loss of wealth, lives, and fruits, but give glad tidings to the patient, those who, when afflicted by calamity, say, ‘Indeed, to Allah we belong and to Him we will return.’5
And Allah said:
Do people think they will be left alone to say, ‘We have faith,’ and they will not be put to trial? We have surely tested those before them. Allah will make evident those who are truthful and He will make evident those who are liars.6
The classical scholar ‘Izz al-Dīn ibn ‘Abd al-Salām wrote a short treatise on the wisdom of trials entitled Al-Fitan wa’l-Balāyā wa’l-Miḥan wa’l-Razāyā (Tribulations, Trials, Tests, and Calamities). He details seventeen blessings derived from trials, including:
- Realizing the power of Allah over us.
- Realizing our complete servitude to Him.
- Being sincere to Him.
- Repenting to Him.
- Being humble before Him.
- Being forbearing.
- Being forgiving.
- Being patient.
- Being pleased with the decree of Allah.
- Being grateful to Allah.
- Being purified of sins.
- Being compassionate to those who suffer.
- Appreciating our blessings and well-being.
- Hoping in the reward of the Hereafter.
- Recognizing the hidden blessings in trials.
- Preventing us from arrogance, tyranny, and oppression.
- Being in a state of contentment.7
Despite the many subtle benefits of trials, we should not rush into adversity because we never know if we will be able to properly handle it. When the test inevitably comes, we should respond with an optimistic spirit, having good thoughts and good assumptions about Allah, and striving to obey Allah inwardly and outwardly as we navigate these challenges in life. If one of us loses his or her job, we should assume Allah closed this door to us because He has opened a better door for us down the road. If one of us experiences a decline in health, we should assume Allah is giving us the opportunity to atone for our sins in this life instead of the Hereafter. One of the best thought patterns to adopt in this regard is to remember everything that happens to a believer is good as long as he or she keeps the faith.
Everything is good for the believer
No matter what occurs to us in this life, our sincere belief in Allah is the key to converting any bad situation into a good one. Being thankful to Allah in times of prosperity is highly desirable, though it is truly easier said than done. Being patient for the sake of Allah in times of adversity, on the other hand, is the way to change any outward calamity into a blessing in disguise.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
Wondrous is the affair of the believer, as there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone but the believer. If he is happy, he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him. If he is harmed, he shows patience and thus there is good for him.8
Patience and gratitude are actually two sides of the same coin, so to speak. For this reason, Al-Ghazālī dedicated a section of his magnum opus Iḥyāʼ ʻUlūm al-Dīn to patience and gratitude.9 Ibn al-Qayyim likewise devoted an entire treatise entitled ʻUddat al-Ṣābirīn wa Dhakhīrat al-Shākirīn to explain the interconnection between these two virtues.10 According to him, patience means “to stop ourselves from despairing and panicking, to stop our tongues from complaining, and to stop our hands from striking our faces and tearing our clothes at times of grief and stress.”11 In other words, patience is to not let stress and sharp emotions cause us to react in a harmful manner, whether by disobeying Allah or losing our self-control.
It is essential to remember that, for the believer, a hurdle in life is actually a sign that Allah has good plans for us and, in fact, He loves us. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Whomever Allah intends good, He afflicts him with trials.”12 And the Prophet ﷺ said, “If Allah loves a people, He afflicts them with trials. Whoever is patient has the reward of patience, and whoever is apprehensive has the fault of apprehension.”13 As long as we do our best to remain patient and to persevere, Allah is removing our sins and rewarding us for every moment of discomfort we experience, no matter how seemingly trivial.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
Nothing afflicts a Muslim of hardship, nor illness, nor anxiety, nor sorrow, nor harm, nor distress, nor even the pricking of a thorn, but that Allah will expiate his sins by it.14
Hardship in this life also serves as a substitute for punishment in the next. Each one of us has sins in our records and it is far better for us to be punished for them mildly in this life rather than severely in the next. The Prophet ﷺ said, “If Allah intends good for His servant, He hastens the punishment for him in this world.”15 And the Prophet ﷺ said, “The believing men and women continue to experience trials in their lives, their children, and their wealth until they meet Allah without any sin.”16 As such, there is no rational justification for one to think a trial from Allah was decreed with the intention to destroy us. Rather, it is a sign that Allah loves us, He is looking out for us, and He wants to give us this opportunity to prove ourselves, set things right, and grow closer to Him.
This being the case, the Prophet ﷺ used to praise Allah for everything that happened to him, even if it outwardly appeared ‘bad’ to everyone else. Aisha, the wife of the Prophet ﷺ, said:
If the Messenger of Allah ﷺ saw something he liked, he would say, ‘All praise is due to Allah, by whose favor good deeds are accomplished.’ If he saw something he disliked, he would say, ‘All praise is due to Allah in every circumstance.’17
There is always a good reason to praise Allah and be grateful to Him whenever we encounter a trial. The righteous judge Shurayh, who embraced Islam in the time of the Prophet ﷺ but never had a chance to meet him, used to say:
Indeed, if I am afflicted by a calamity, I praise Allah four times. I praise Him that it was not worse than it was. I praise Him as He provides me with patience to bear it. I praise Him as He guides me to recall my hope for reward, and I praise Him as He did not make it a calamity in my religion.18
Shurayh was always looking on the bright side or finding the silver lining in a dark cloud, as they say, whenever something bad happened to him. Things can always be worse than they are, so praising Allah in the spirit of optimism is always called for. No matter what physical or emotional anguish we experience now, the only true calamity is to allow these hardships to turn us away from our religion.
Beautiful patience with trials
We certainly need to be patient with trials and the highest level of faith is to respond with ‘beautiful patience’ in the face of adversity. This is the level of the Prophet ﷺ himself and the foremost of the righteous believers. Allah said to him, “So be patient with beautiful patience.”19 Similarly, the Prophet Jacob ﷺ said after his sons brought him the false blood-stained shirt of Joseph ﷺ, “Rather, your souls have enticed you to something, so for me is beautiful patience.”20 Allah even says Jacob’s eyes turned white with grief but again he still said, “For me is beautiful patience.”21
But what exactly does ‘beautiful patience’ mean? The early interpreter of the Qur’an in the era of the righteous predecessors, Mujāhid, said beautiful patience “does not have any agitation.”22 The classical exegete Al-Qurṭubī likewise defined beautiful patience as “that in which there is no agitation and no complaint.”23 Put differently, it is to perfectly accept the decree of Allah as it happens, to not have any hesitation to continue obeying Allah to the best of one’s ability and to not have any angst regarding Allah’s decree. Such a person who shows beautiful patience experiences fear and grief, of course, but their responses to these feelings are graceful, measured, and put into the larger perspective of the Islamic worldview.
Part of beautiful patience is to prepare for such trials while life is easy so that our involuntary knee-jerk reactions at the time of calamity are within the limits of Islam. The Prophet ﷺ once passed by a woman who was weeping next to a grave and he said to her, “Be mindful of Allah and be patient.” She said to him, “Go away from me! You have not been afflicted by a calamity like mine,” because she did not recognize who he was. Later she was told that it was the Prophet, so she went to his house and she said, “I did not recognize you.” The Prophet ﷺ said to her, “Verily, patience is at the first strike.”24
Some beneficial points can be derived from this story. First, the Prophet ﷺ had the emotional intelligence not to rebuke the lady when she was at her lowest point, even though she was less than respectful to him at the time. We should likewise show compassion and empathy to people who are suffering and overlook their faults because in such a situation it is difficult to behave with the best manners. Second, he informed her that true patience is to be patient in the instant that a calamity occurs. This can only be achieved by preparing for calamities beforehand, through spiritual exercises like prayer, silent meditation and reflection, and the remembrance of Allah. Such preparation softens the tough blow when it occurs, whereas being caught off guard by a sudden tragedy increases our likelihood of transgressing the limits. Allah promises a tremendous reward for those who can show beautiful patience at the first strike.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
Allah Almighty says: O son of Adam, if you are patient and restrained at the first moment of calamity, I would not be pleased with any reward for you less than Paradise.25
Another important component of beautiful patience is to complain only to Allah, not to people. Complaining to Allah means to be in conversation with Him in prayer and supplication, pouring our hearts out to Him in a healthy emotional catharsis. In contrast, complaining to people can never fill the spiritual void in the same way as complaining to Allah.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
Whoever is afflicted by a pressing need and complains to people, his need will never be satisfied. Whoever is afflicted by a pressing need and complains to Allah, eventually Allah will provide for him, sooner or later.26
It is certainly no problem to share our concerns and feelings with trusted family members or friends, or to engage in talk-therapy, as long as doing so does not encourage negative thoughts and feelings about Allah in our hearts. Talking through our problems in a private setting should be a positive release of tension, rather than a means of nurturing resentment. What we should not do is take our problems to social media and share our grievances with the entire world, which neither fills the void nor results in productive change. Rather, we ought to direct ourselves inwardly to use this trial as a means of growing closer to Allah through prayer, meditation, reflection, remembrance, and acts of charity.
Beautiful patience does not mean we cannot experience grief or be moved emotionally. Indeed, the Prophet ﷺ himself lost several loved ones throughout his life, including his first wife Khadījah and his infant son Ibrāhīm. When Ibrāhīm was breathing his last breaths, the Prophet ﷺ took hold of him, kissed him, and smelled him, and he began to cry. One of his companions said, “Even you, O Messenger of Allah?” The Prophet ﷺ said, “This is mercy.” Then, he wept some more and he said:
Verily, the eyes shed tears and the heart is grieved, but we will not say anything except what is pleasing to our Lord. We are saddened by your departure, O Ibrāhīm.27
The best of creation was deeply saddened by the death of his infant son so we should not be deluded into thinking there is such a spiritual state that makes people immune from ordinary human emotions. Nevertheless, he grieved for his son gracefully and he only said what he was allowed to say in Islam, on his tongue and in his heart. He did not wail, slap his face, tear his clothes, or outwardly display intense emotional disturbance.
What, then, can we do practically to cultivate beautiful patience before and during trials? The most important practice is to turn to Allah in prayer and engage in recitation of the Qur’an.
O you who have faith, seek help in patience and prayer. Verily, Allah is with the patient.28
Allah links patience with prayer in this verse because prayer gives us the strong relationship with Allah we need that will enable us to show beautiful patience. Reflection upon the Qur’an in prayer reminds us of the hardships endured by the Prophets and believers before us, the temporary nature of this world and of suffering, and the final outcomes in the Hereafter, putting all things into the proper perspective.
Reflecting upon the transience of the world also reminds us that any difficulty we experience in this life is only for a limited time. Allah promises us that our tough times will not last forever, “Verily, with hardship comes ease, with hardship comes ease.”29 And the Prophet ﷺ said:
Know that there is much good in being patient with what you hate, victory will come with patience, affliction will come with relief, and hardship will come with ease.30
It was the habit of the Prophet ﷺ to always hope for the best in this way and to avoid negative cognitions or thought patterns. Ibn ‘Abbas said, “The Messenger of Allah ﷺ was optimistic and he did not see evil omens.”31 Critical to this practice is encouraging ourselves to think positively about Allah and our situation from a holistic point of view.
Sometimes it is very difficult for us to be optimistic in the face of adversity, especially if we are stuck in the habit of pessimistic thinking. Clinical depression and anxiety are serious disorders that are characterized by automatic, involuntary, compulsive, and harmful thoughts, and breaking the cycle of negativity is a tremendous challenge. It is not enough to simply tell people they have weak faith or to stop being sad or fearful, but rather they need a comprehensive treatment plan addressing each of the constituent parts of the human being (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual). A fundamental element of successful treatment is to embark on a process of cognitive restructuring, that is, a process of changing our malignant patterns of thinking. This is usually aided by a licensed therapist, but those of us without access to a therapist need to do so on our own. Personal mindfulness practices are very important to this endeavor. Even those without a clinical diagnosis or significant distress can benefit from more mindfulness in their lives. Through silent meditation, we can calm our racing minds, induce a natural relaxation response to counteract our stress hormones, become more aware of our thoughts, learn to ignore unhealthy thoughts (rather than try to suppress them), and to replace these thoughts with positive habitual cognitions based in Islamic theology.32
Caution with trials
While we have discussed the hidden blessings of trials in this life, it is important to issue a word of warning. Trials and tribulations should not be sought after. It is dangerous to throw ourselves into hardship and adversity with naive confidence in our spiritual ability to overcome them.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
Verily, the blessed one is kept away from trials, the blessed one is kept away from trials, the blessed one is kept away from trials. How good is one who is afflicted but bears it patiently!33
And the Prophet ﷺ said:
There will be trials during which one sitting will be better than the one standing, and one standing will be better than one walking, and one walking will be better than one running. Whoever exposes himself to these trials will be destroyed, so whoever finds a place of protection or refuge should take shelter in it.34
After every prayer, the Prophet ﷺ would seek refuge in Allah from “the trials of life and death and the evil trial of the False Messiah.”35 This is a comprehensive supplication for protection from every trial we can face in this world, especially the great tribulations that will appear at the end of time. Allah also told the believers to supplicate, saying, “O Lord, do not lay a burden upon us as you did to those before us. O Lord, do not burden us with what we cannot endure.”36 The Prophet ﷺ recommended that we recite these supplications every night,37 and he said that Satan is repelled from the house in which they are recited for three nights.38
Therefore, we should not be so arrogant to believe we are strong enough to face trials unnecessarily. If we want the reward of beautiful patience but are experiencing a time of good fortune and prosperity, we should practice the inverse virtue of beautiful gratitude. Muṭarrif ibn ‘Abd Allāh used to say, “That I am safe and thankful is more beloved to me than that I am tested and patient.”39
Allah guarantees that He will send us numerous challenges in the form of loss, pain, suffering, fear, and grief. These trials are decreed in accordance with His divine wisdom, as they contain many hidden blessings. When we respond to trials with faith and reliance upon Allah, they push us closer to Him, bring out the best in us, and expiate our sins in this world instead of being punished for them in the Hereafter. Everything is good for the believers, either through patience in adversity or gratitude in prosperity. The highest level of faith in these moments of hardship is to have ‘beautiful patience,’ an unshakeable and unwavering trust in the Divine Decree at the first strike of calamity. We can achieve such patience by preparing ourselves through prayer, silent meditation, reflection, and mindfulness exercises in the context of Islamic theology. These practices endow us with beneficial cognitions, or thought patterns, that help us weather the storms of life.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.
1 Aisha Hamdan, “Cognitive Restructuring: An Islamic Perspective,” Journal of Muslim Mental Health 3, no. 1 (2008): 99–116.
2 Qur’an 67:2.
3 Al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī, Al-Mufradāt fī gharīb al-Qurʼān (Damascus: Dār al-Qalam, 1992), 1:145.
4 al-Iṣfahānī, 1:623.
5 Qur’an 2:155–56.
6 Qur’an 29:2–3.
7 ‘Izz al-Dīn ibn ‘Abd al-Salām, Al-Fitan wa’l-balāyā wa’l-miḥan wa’l-razāyā (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr al-Muʻāṣir, 1992). This treatise was explained in an audio lecture by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: http://shaykhhamza.com/transcript/17-benefits-of-tribulation.
8 Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj al-Qushayrī, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim ([Beirut]: Dār Iḥyāʼ al-Kutub al-ʻArabīyah, 1955), 4:2295, #2999.
9 Translated into English by Henry T. Littlejohn as Al-Ghazālī on Patience and Thankfulness (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2013).
10 Translated into English by Nasiruddin al-Khattab as Patience and Gratitude (London: Ta-Ha, 1997).
11 al-Khattab, 12.
12 Muḥammad ibn Ismāʻīl al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (Beirut: Dār Ṭawq al-Najjāh, 2002), 7:115, #5645.
13 Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad al-Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-Risālah, 2001), 39:35, #23623; declared very good (jayyid) by Al-Arnā’ūṭ in the comments.
14 Al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 7:114, #5641.
15 Muḥammad ibn ʻĪsá al-Tirmidhī, Sunan al-Tirmidhī (Beirut: Dār al-Ġarb al-Islāmī, 1998), 4:179, #2396; declared fair (ḥasan) by Al-Tirmidhī in the comments.
16 Al-Tirmidhī, Sunan al-Tirmidhī, 4:180, #2399; declared authentic (ṣaḥīḥ) by Al-Tirmidhī in the comments.
17 Muḥammad ibn Yazīd ibn Mājah, Sunan Ibn Mājah (Beirut: Dār Iḥyā’ al-Turāth al-’Arabī, 1975), 1:509, #1597; declared fair (ḥasan) by Al-Albānī in the comments.
18 Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī, Siyar a’lām al-nubalā’ (Cairo: Dār al-Ḥadīth, 2006), 5:52.
19 Qur’an 70:5.
20 Qur’an 12:18.
21 Qur’an 12:83.
22 Abū Ja’far al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʻ al-bayān ‘an ta’wīl al-Qur’ān (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-Risālah, 2000), 15:584, verse 12:18.
23 Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Qurṭubī, Jāmiʻ li-aḥkām al-Qurʼān (Cairo: Dār al-Kutūb al-Miṣrīyah, 1964), 9:156, verse 12:18.
24 Al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 2:79, #1283.
25 Ibn Mājah, Sunan Ibn Mājah, 1:509, #1597; declared fair (ḥasan) by Al-Albānī in the comments.
26 Al-Tirmidhī, Sunan al-Tirmidhī, 4:141, #2326; declared authentic (ṣaḥīḥ) by Al-Tirmidhī in the comments.
27 Al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 2:83, #1303.
28 Qur’an 2:153.
29 Qur’an 94:5–6.
30 Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad al-Imām Aḥmad, 5:19, #2803; declared authentic (ṣaḥīḥ) by Al-Arnā’ūṭ in the comments.
31 Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad al-Imām Aḥmad, 4:169, #2328; declared fair due to external evidence (ḥasan li ghayrihi) by Al-Arnā’ūṭ in the comments.
32 For more information on this topic, see Justin Parrott, “How to be a Mindful Muslim: An Exercise in Islamic Meditation,” Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, November 21, 2017, yaqeeninstitute.org/justin-parrott/how-to-be-a-mindful-muslim-an-exercise-in-islamic-meditation/.
33 Sulaymān ibn al-Ashʻath al-Sijistānī Abū Dāwūd, Sunan Abī Dāwūd (Saida, Lebanon: al-Maktabah al-Aṣrīyah, 1980), 4:102, #4263; declared authentic (ṣaḥīḥ) by Al-Albānī in the comments.
34 Al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 4:198.
35 Al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 2:99, #1377.
36 Qur’an 2:286.
37 Al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 6:188, #5009.
38 Muḥammad Ibn Ḥibbān, Ṣaḥīḥ Ibn Ḥibbān (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-Risālah, 1993), 3:61, #782; declared authentic (ṣaḥīḥ) by Ibn Ḥibbān, Al-Arna’ūṭ, and Al-Albānī in the comments.
39 Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyah, ʻUddat al-Ṣābirīn wa Dhakhīrat al-Shākirīn (Damascus: Dār Ibn Kathīr, 1989), 1:120.