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