I’ve been making my way through a few books that are part of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, a 40-part series regarded as one of the greatest works on Islamic spirituality, written by Islamic theologian-mystic Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali in the 11th and 12th centuries.
A few days ago, I started reading The Book of Patience and Thankfulness, hoping to benefit from Al-Ghazali’s gems of wisdom on how to bear burdens and grief with greater steadfastness and contentment. One can hardly pass 10 pages of Al-Ghazali’s words without being blown away by a precious jewel of insight that I am compelled to read and re-read several times in order to absorb its beauty and understand its applicability to my life.
Patience is considered to be half of faith according to Hadith
, the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, may God bless him and grant him peace. I’ve found this to be true in my own spiritual journey of embracing Islam, which describes a state of mind where a believer strives to live in complete devotion to God by recognising and guiding daily activities around core principles. Aligning oneself with the divine enlivens a powerful spiritual balance that transcends circumstances, and makes natural activities of prayer, fasting, charity, remembrance of God and good deeds. Having faith in practice is not simply a belief, but an embodiment of a way of life.
Attaining Islam for me has gone hand in hand with sharpening my patience, broadly describing the ability to maintain clarity and presence of mind in times of trial and consistently being thankful to God for the blessings He grants. This is no easy feat; I find the effort to attain patience to be a most difficult daily struggle. As humans, we’re often driven by our desire for success, love, wealth, praise, power, offspring, etc. When we desire a thing and it is not granted to us quickly, or is denied to us entirely, it can become a source of disappointment and despair.
It is at these times that honing our patience is most important. Al-Ghazali reminds us, by drawing on Quranic verses, Hadith and Biblical references, to place our trust in the Almighty and be content in times of trial, knowing “that the reward of those who endure patiently what befalls them is greater than the blessings of being spared a misfortune.”
I read the following excerpt last night and it has been whirling in my mind ever since because it reminded me that there is no time limit on patience. There are certain blessings I pray each day for God to grant me, members of my family and friends. Some of these prayers have continued for months, if not years, in hopes that Allah, as God is referred to in Arabic, will bless a loved one relief from a disease, or a friend a new job after a long period of unemployment, or grant me a virtuous marriage.
“We do not know when God will make the means of sustenance easy,” writes Al-Ghazali. “We must empty the place (the heart) and wait for the descent of mercy at the appointed time. This is similar to preparing the earth, clearing it of weeds and sowing the seeds. And yet, all this will be to no avail without rain.
“The servant does not know when God will decree the means of rain, but he has confidence in the bounty of God and His mercy, as there has been no year without rain. So, in like manner, rarely will you pass a year, a month or a day without an attraction from God or one of His ‘breezes’. The servant must have a heart purified of the weeds of passion and he must sow the seeds of will (irada) and sincerity (ikhlas) and expose it to the blowing winds of mercy.”
I was moved by this excerpt and found it to be relevant because it reminded me, at a time I truly needed reminding, that I must trust God’s plan and have genuine faith in His benevolence. Only God knows what is good and right for us, and this includes knowing the right time for mercy to be granted.
What is important is that we prepare ourselves for God’s mercy by strengthening our bond with Him and being sincerely content with the blessings He has ordained for us, as difficult as this may be with the multitude of distractions surrounding us. We should not, as it is so easy to do, become preoccupied with “worldly attachments and desires” and think ourselves self-sufficient. When we are driven by our desires for instant gratification, a veil shields us from true enlightenment and knowledge of God—the highest form of knowledge a human being can attain.
“All that you need is for desire to abate and the veils will lift, so that the lights of knowledge will shine forth from inside of the heart,” Al-Ghazali writes. “It is easier to draw water to the surface of the earth by digging canals than it is to bring it from a distant, lower place. As it is present in the heart yet forgotten through worldly preoccupations."