A word, attached to the female embryo from birth; a word, which ricochets and echoes off every wall and window; a word, uttered in every Muslim household from the moment a little girl is born.
A daughter is told by her mother to have sabr; sabr with her father, sabr with her brothers, sabr with her aunties; sabr in her workplace, sabr against prejudice and racism; sabr when she is abused, be it sexually, physically or emotionally; sabr in her marriage, sabr with her in laws, sabr with her children and sabr with every alien – Ali, Umar and Muhammad – she meets…
Why is she never told to have sabr with herself? Sabr enough to self-actualise her dreams, wants, needs and desires? Sabr enough to feel her own pain and heal from it?
Sabr in many cases, is sold as a noun – a passive noun – under the guise of religiosity and spirituality. At times it becomes the shackles by which we are told to restrain ourselves and our voices. We are encouraged, wrongly, to put our needs and feelings aside, be it in marriage or the profession we are supposed to pursue. In these situations, it is usually for the betterment of keeping some outsider’s idea of peace, respect or in aligning with what is culturally expected.
Our mothers were told to have ‘sabr’ and remain silent and in turn from their wounded voices, we are told to have ‘sabr’ and remain silent even when the most horrific things happen – traumas and violations that should have no place in any home, let alone a Muslim home. A resigned and culturally rooted idea of sabr is used to unintentionally bury, repress and force our emotions and needs into a Pandora’s box that cannot be contained in the long run.
Recently, I have been struggling with the concept of Sabr in Islam; my own Pandora’s box was overflowing and spilling out like a powerful Tsunami. Memories, feelings, events which my younger mind had buried in order to survive, started to haunt me in the form of Complex PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). A mental health condition that not many people are aware of but one which is the outcome of multiple traumas and abuse over a period of time; for me it was sexual and physical abuse in childhood and in my teenage years alongside parental abandonment in these moments. My mind in order to survive the horrors of the violations, had suppressed the memories, the pain and the fear. My family never acknowledged the things which happened to me; perhaps it was too much for them to acknowledge themselves, so they swept it under the carpet until even I believed it never happened to me.
My PTSD symptoms began in the form of random flashbacks while driving. Then during the night, I struggled to sleep; insomnia and fear clouded me as the sky grew darker. The night which Allah (SWT) made for rest, became a grave for me. I kept myself awake terrified that I’d be attacked or something would overtake my body, if I allowed my aching eyes to close. I began to go to work with less than 2 hours of sleep, working often till late hours of the evening in order to repress the emotions and memories that were starting to hit me like tumultuous waves.
As a 31-year-old Muslimah, who others see as strong, independent and modestly successful, I became confused and increasingly anxious. The lack of sleep started taking its physical toll, I nearly crashed one morning on the way to work and I could feel that burn out was nearby. I began to resent my job, my life and myself.
Why was this happening to me? Didn’t I have sabr?
For a period of time after I left home at 16, I didn’t believe in organised religion but once Allah (SWT) guided me, I started to pray five times a day, read Qur’an daily, gave in charity; I actively tried to be there for my friends, even my family – mostly at the expense of my own needs. I thought this was sabr. I would tell myself that the traumatic events that had occurred were so Allah (SWT) would guide me back to Islam; it was all a test and I just needed to be patient, keep praying, keep working hard, keep smiling and saying “Alhumdulillah!” Yes, I’d convinced myself, this was sabr… but why was I feeling so hopeless and helpless?
Why did I want to die?
Hadn’t I been turning to Allah (SWT), trying to not complain, begging for respite and then waking up the next day with a smile; with the independent, strong Muslim woman’s head on? Why at 31 years of age was sabr failing me? Why weren’t all these things enough to take the memories and pain away?
I started to read more non-fiction aside from my religious obligations, to spend more time alone instead of masking and pretending to myself that I was ok. A friend recommended Bruce Lee’s biography, The Warrior Within:
Lee said, ‘Empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless. Like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.’
This, to me, was the perfect analogy for active sabr. I’d been raised to see sabr from a passive light, whereas active sabr is being ‘like water’ allowing your intention and energy to flow to the places inside you that need the most attention.
My emotional reservoirs had become dry; there was no ‘water’ left within me and I needed to find a source of water inside me that was ever flowing despite the suffering. Alongside prayer, I started therapy and also begun to educate myself about the warrior women in Islam like Khadijah (RA) who flowed ‘like water’ in their sabr during the times in their lives when things looked the bleakest.
Many view the term ‘sabr’ as a passive noun but in Islam it is a verb, a doing word, an action. The root meaning of the verb ‘sa-ba-ra’ can mean to restrain, confine or restrict ourselves. To withhold something, in a religious context, it could be in order to avoid satisfying our ego. However, as a positive concept in Islamic spirituality, having sabr does not mean to be passive in this restraint. While having sabr, we have a responsibility to put in our best efforts and exhaust the resources available to us. To be in a state of active sabr, is to be like water. It is being able to exercise and possess the quality of striving and surging forward – like water does. It is to not slack in purifying the mind and soul; in fact, it is to hold firm in what is right, what is just and what is pleasing to the Divine – despite the obstacles we face in everyday life.
It is unhealthy to be passive about one’s self, to lose our identity and soul to someone else’s distorted view of Islam or life. Sabr does not mean to oppress oneself to the point where, we are left with a thousand doubtful, hurtful and negative voices running around in our heads.
Sadly, this has become the norm in many cases in our community. Sabr is used as a tool to scaremonger and guilt trip us into staying small, staying quiet, staying silent. This is not the way of a Muslimah; Khadijah (RA) we could argue, was the most active in her sabr. She (RA) was a business woman, independent, assertive and soft.
Like flowing water, she took an active role in decisions that were life changing; she flowed forward in every aspect of her life towards the ocean that was the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). She proposed and used her wealth without hesitation to support the best of men to embody his calling. She actively gave him solace when he returned, shaken, from his first meeting with Jibril (AS) after receiving revelation. She encouraged an active state of sabr by taking him to see her uncle, a Christian monk, for guidance. She reminded him of his true self, “you are truthful, kind and just, God wouldn’t do ill to you”.
It was Khadijah (RA) who embraced Islam and shed her old skin readily when she was faced with the truth. Like water she flowed through the rivers of change, the valleys of barren desert and up to the mountains, to nourish her Beloved (ﷺ) when he was called to stand for a higher purpose. This is Sabr. Being active in knowing one’s self. Self-actualising your desires, needs and wants. Khadijah (RA) is the greatest example of sabr in its active form.
She had enough inner strength and sabr that nothing could make her feel small enough to doubt herself or her Beloved (ﷺ). She readily embraced change and in fact, strove for change to better herself, family and community.
This is why the Prophet (ﷺ) always said of Khadijah, “She believed in me when no one else did, she embraced Islam when people disbelieved me; and she helped and comforted me when there was no one to lend me a helping hand.”
Unfortunately, her sunnah and way has been lost in our internalisation of passive sabr. If we don’t conform or hide behind a pained smile, then our friends, family and even the religious society say, “God doesn’t like the impatient; those who are not patient are not true Muslimahs; you’ll never get married being so impatient and picky!”
And once again we are left feeling empty, alone, confused and broken. Do I not have Iman? Am I destined for hell? There must be something wrong with me; I’m not grateful enough, I’m too much, I need to hold back; I need to pray fervently; I need to give more in sadaqa, smile more – I… I… I… do… do… do!
Upon reflection, I realise I internalised this passive concept of sabr for years and years. Every time I felt the depression and pain of my past kick in, I went off repeating the sabr mantra, “I need to pray more, give more, be more grateful…” while my traumatic past was threatening to burst through like water blocked in a rusty pipe. I tried my hardest to act in a more ‘Muslim’ manner; pray harder, dress more modest, restrained my creative forces and instead chose a respectable career path. I even lowered my voice like many in relationship contexts, family, marriage, and stifled my rights because I, like many other women, was taught, “beta, you have to have sabr…” I continuously chose what I thought was expected of me as a Muslim, including the wrong spouse, out of fear even though race truly didn’t matter to me. My soul was screaming in the face of what felt unjust but I thought I was having sabr.
In the end I had to question: what happens when this concept of sabr that we are taught no longer serves us? What happens when we are tired of showing up wearing the mask of passive sabr all the time?
We’ll be left still feeling lost, alone, confused and wondering why Allah (SWT) did not reward us for our patience.
We cannot surge forth with active sabr when we internalise others concepts and voices of what we should be doing as Muslimahs. Khadijah (RA) was likely frowned upon when she stood by her Beloved (ﷺ); he (ﷺ) was called a soothsayer, a magician and a liar. The journey wasn’t easy, yet she stood in active sabr in every prayer, every word and every deed. Knowing that despite the trial of the moment, Allah’s (SWT) plan for them was better. She continued to strive in every action even when everything and everyone they knew stood against them.
Islam is not a religion of standing still. Sabr is a state of inner strength which if understood correctly and modelled accurately, leads to what Allah (SWT) described as “sabrun jameelun”. A state of beautiful patience in the face of every joy or trial. An active state of being and trusting in one’s own self because that self is rooted in the knowledge that Allah (SWT) will not lead it to anything that isn’t right. If we teach our daughters this from a young age, hopefully they will not question their belief at the age of 31; they will not wonder why their Lord wasn’t rewarding their sabr. They will not fear the trial of the dunya, no matter how horrific because we would’ve shown them how to walk in sabr, through embodying this trait.
And just like water, Sabr is an active flow of our natural self as encouraged by Allah (SWT). Sabr is not repressing your pain or trials, it is meeting them in a manner which is healing, knowing Allah (SWT) doesn’t burden a soul with more than it can bear. A heart active in Sabr meets every river, valley, desert and mountain with ease, naturally flowing towards the direction of the mighty Ocean.
‘Be water, my friend.’
I am a 31 year old Muslimah, UK based; I have a background in English and Creative Writing and currently teach in this area. I am also currently a trainee Counsellor and aim to work within my community and support the mental health crisis that was always there but is becoming more vocal and obvious. I love to travel and understand different cultures and places; I write in my spare time and devour both fiction and non fiction books. I like to read on Islam, spirituality, psychology, philosophy and fantasy. I believe in advocating for the Muslimah’s Mental Health and believe our voices need to be heard and healed in the wider narrative. I believe a holistic therapy service is needed to heal some cultural wounds that are showing up more and more within our female communities and I would like to actively work in supporting this; much of what is Islam is misinterpreted even within our own communities. I believe it is time to tackle this as well as the wider Western narrative that is imposed on us. I have previously worked to support domestic violence survivors; supported young people, many who are from the ethnic minority communities in hostels and care homes; homelessness victims and supported ex-prisoners in their journey to integrate into society. I believe we are related and connected under Allah’s love and mercy. The only way to heal is to be truthful about ourselves and choose to heal ourselves and support others in their healing journey.