As-Sabr (Fortitude)

By Dr. Muhammad Fazl-ur Rahman Ansari


ISLAM is an attitude of the mind, the observance of a code of law and an inner spiritual experience. Consequently, the discipline of the mind forms the corner-stone of the structure of Islamic life. To be a Muslim in the real sense of the term a person should make Islam the guiding principle to such an extent that all the aspects of his life are merged in the ideal of implicit obedience to God.


Islam has given us a philosophy of life which tells us that we and the world at large have been created by God, Who is the embodiment of all Goodness. And not only is God Himself Good, all His actions also are always good; because only goodness can proceed from Him Who is Absolute Good. Moreover, Islam teaches us that nothing can happen without the permission of God. The logical implication of these teachings is that whatever happens to us in our lives is intrinsically good and consequently our attitude should always be that of continuous and constant resignation to the Will of God.


While this is so, it is a fact that affliction comes to all human beings at sometime or the other. They may, however, come as punishment for our misdeeds or as trials for our spiritual development. In both cases they must be regarded as ultimately good, for they do not come and cannot come without the permission of God.


The attitude of a Muslim towards God is built-up basically on the principles: As-Sabr (Fortitude) and Ash-Shukr (Thankfulness). As regards the former, the Holy Qur’aan says:


“O Believers! Seek help and reinforce yourself through fortitude and prayer. And as to those who are killed in the Way of Allaah, say not that they are dead. Rather, they are alive though you comprehend not this fact through your physical senses. And most surely We will test you by sending upon you something of fear or starvation or loss in wealth or lives or the consequences of your endeavours. And give glad tidings to those who when any affliction befalls them observe Sabr and say: We are from God, unto Him is our return. It is these on whom descend the Blessing and Mercy of their Lord, and it is these who are rightly-guided.”


At another place in the Holy Qur’aan the truly pious persons have been described as those who observe Sabr in hardships and losses on the battle-field.


Thus Sabr is a very important virtue in Islam. Indeed, it is the virtue which forms the bedrock on which the moral and spiritual personality of a Muslim is built up.


In terms of Psychology we can define Sabr as a state in which the mind remains calm in the face of hardships and on all occasions of grief. Looking at it from the practical point of view we find that those who are unable to control their nerves and their emotions when they are confronted with anything that might excite fear or grief, they are losers in life – immediately as well as ultimately. To undergo a hardship or to suffer a loss is one thing. But to cultivate a state of grief or anxiety is another thing. What actually happens is that no amount of grief or worry can undo any loss that we might have suffered. Moreover, grief and worry are in themselves most damaging for the human personality.


It is evident from this that however severe may be our loss or however agonising may be our hardship, it is always to our benefit to avoid grief and worry. This, in its turn, is possible only if a person has genuine belief in God and a deep conviction that God is good, the world is good and everything of this world is good even though it may appear to be evil when viewed superficially or in the light of its mundane implications.




The problem of evil in human relations has existed from times immemorial. All humans are not good. All human beings are not bad. And every human being may not be able to maintain his moral balance at every moment in his life. It becomes specially difficult to meet the challenge of evil with calmness and composure when any deep insult or injury is involved and the loss to oneself is great.


The human personality has two definite urges on which the human life is built, namely:


(a)   the urge to expand and progress and grow, and


(b)  the urge to defend oneself against dangers.


This second urge works through what the psychologists call a defence-mechanism, and this defence-mechanism is always geared to act. If anyone strikes us whether with a word or with a weapon, our defence-mechanism in the form of verbal counterblast or mechanical counter-action is always ready as a matter of habit or as an urgent decision of our nature. But it is exactly here that the test of the greatness of one’s moral personalities. We might do good to someone who has done good to us, although there are devils in this world who do evil even to those who do good to them. But it has been the most highly-praised teaching of many philosophers and founders of religion to meet the challenge of evil with good.


There have been two schools of thought in this connection:


(i) the school of Passive Resistance or Ahimsa;


(ii) the school of Active Forgiveness.



The doctrine of Passive Resistance has been vehemently preached by Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Christianity. Taking Christianity as the latest exponent of this doctrine we might state in the words of the New Testament where Jesus is said to have taught in His famous Sermon on the Mount:


“If anyone smiteth thee on thy right cheek present to him the left cheek also and if anyone takes away thy coat give to him thy cloak also!”


This doctrine of passive resistance is found to be actually unnatural and impracticable when considered in the light of human psychology, except in the case of missionaries labouring under ideological persecution. So long as a human being is what he is, it is possible for him to forgive, namely, to bear calmly the insult of receiving a slap on his right cheek for the sake of moral idealism. But it would be going too much beyond human nature to ask an insulted human being to submit himself willingly to the infinite torture of indefinite slapping. Actually this doctrine has failed always in the human history. The Christians are proud of advocating the Sermon on the Mount as the normal rule of moral life. But it is these Christians themselves who among the followers of different religions, have demonstrated the greatest callousness in fighting against one another. It is they who brought the curse of World War 1 and World War II to humanity. And it is they who are preparing now to plunge humanity into the Third World War of indescribable dimensions.


As regards Islam, its approach to the problem of evil is most natural in its form as well as its implications, it being based on references to three distinct levels of human moral behaviour. The first basic teaching which Islam gives is that of the observance of Absolute Justice. For all types of conflict the Holy Qur’aan says:


“O Believers! Let not the enmity of any people against you incite you to do

injustice to them. Be just in all cases and under all circumstances; for justice is

nearer to piety.”


At another place the Holy Book says:


“The recompense of an evil is an evil like unto it.”


Here the word evil stands for injury. Consequently, this verse means that it is a natural right of all human beings to avenge the wrong done to them, but this retribution should be in an exactly equal measure.


This does not, however, mean that Islam does not believe in forgiveness. The fact is rather to the contrary. Islam believes in the law of retribution as a natural fact of human life but it also makes a full-blooded appeal to all Muslims to rise above the spirit of vengeance and to practise forgiveness. The only exceptions where a Muslim may not practise forgiveness are those cases of individual and collective mischief where forgiveness would lead to abetment and encouragement of crime. There are many people whom forgiveness spoils and for whom it has been said: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” In all such cases, it is always more virtuous not to forgive the criminals. But in all those cases where it is felt that forgiveness would be more in the interest of the moral health of the society and the individuals concerned, Islam has made a passionate appeal for the practice of forgiveness. For instance, the Holy Qur’aan says:


“Whoever forgives with a view to the betterment of the human society, his reward is with Allaah.”


At another place the Holy Book says:


“Paradise … has been established for those who are God-fearing, namely, those who spend for helping humanity in affluence as well as in poverty and those who always forgive human beings.”


The first teaching of Islam, namely, that which relates to the permissibility of retribution, is meant for the common folk and for the moral health of society. The second teaching of Islam, namely, that of discriminate forgiveness, relates to those who in their moral stature are a degree higher than the common people. But in its graduated teaching Islam goes beyond this limit and prescribes the rule of total forgiveness. And here Islam addresses those who aspire to be the Saints of the Kingdom of God. The Holy Qur’aan says:


“Good and evil are not things of the same category. Therefore, meet the challenge of evil always with good. Its conscience would be that even your worst enemy would ultimately become your best friend. But this ideal of total forgiveness cannot be practiced except by those who practise patience and pursue high ideals.”


This is the teaching of Islam concerning Afw or Forgiveness, and we find that it is most comprehensive, rational and natural.






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