Wednesday, August 10, 2016

“Seeking Help Through Patience and Prayer”: Reflections on 2:152-157

One of the dearest passages in the Qur’an to me is 2:152-157.  Whenever I am in a state of difficulty and sadness, I stand in prayer reciting it, and find new consolations, counsels, and insights in it.  I want to share a few of them here.

Allah says,

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اسْتَعِينُوا بِالصَّبْرِ وَالصَّلَاةِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَ الصَّابِرِينَ

“O you who believe, seek help through patience (ṣabr) and prayer.  God is indeed with those who are patient.” (2:153)

For a long time, something in this verse puzzled me.  It’s obvious enough what it means to seek help through prayer.  But what does it mean to seek help “through patience”?  Patience isn't something that we think of as a means of seeking help or even attaining something that we need.  Rather, it is more of a passive condition of accepting, tolerating, and enduring hardship or pain, waiting for it to go away, while trying to keep pushing on.

But the Arabic word ṣabr, which is typically translated as “patience,” denotes more than just this.  It includes steadfastness, constancy, and perseverance.  It means that after an initial period of grief, and after (or while) seeking Allah’s help in prayer, one keeps pushing on, being constant in continuing to make the steps towards one’s goals, and persevering despite the circumstances.  With this, one will certainly attain some success eventually.  But without it, one will not be able to gain anything.  That is why it is a key ingredient, and why Allah says to “seek help” by means of it.

I believe there is also great significance in the fact that this verse, which counsels towards patience and prayer, follows from the conclusion of the previous section of the sura, in which God says, 
فَاذْكُرُونِي أَذْكُرْكُمْ وَاشْكُرُوا لِي وَلَا تَكْفُرُونِ 
“So remember Me; I will remember you.  Be grateful to Me and do not disbelieve/be ungrateful to Me” (2:152).
The purpose of “prayer,” as we know, is precisely (1) remembrance of God and (2) gratitude for His blessings.  These ingredients—prayer, frequently returning to remembrance of God, seeking His help, and developing gratitude for His blessings—are keys to achieving patience, constancy, and perseverance.  

وَلَا تَقُولُوا لِمَن يُقْتَلُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ أَمْوَاتٌ ۚ بَلْ أَحْيَاءٌ وَلَٰكِن لَّا تَشْعُرُونَ

“And do not say about those who are killed in God’s way, ‘They are dead.’  Rather, they are alive, but you do not perceive it.” (2:154)

This verse teaches us to not look only at what is apparent to our eyes in this world, but to be certain that the mercy Allah has in store in the future, in the unseen, is far greater than what is apparent to us in this world.

وَلَنَبْلُوَنَّكُم بِشَيْءٍ مِّنَ الْخَوْفِ وَالْجُوعِ وَنَقْصٍ مِّنَ الْأَمْوَالِ وَالْأَنفُسِ وَالثَّمَرَاتِ ۗ وَبَشِّرِ الصَّابِرِينَ

الَّذِينَ إِذَا أَصَابَتْهُم مُّصِيبَةٌ قَالُوا إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ 

أُولَٰئِكَ عَلَيْهِمْ صَلَوَاتٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ ۖ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُهْتَدُونَ

“And We are most certainly going to test you with something of fear, hunger, and a loss of wealth, lives, and fruits.  But give glad tidings to the patient:

Those who, when they are struck by a calamity (muṣība), say, ‘Truly it is to God that We belong, and it is to Him that we are bound to return.’

It is those upon whom are salutations from God and mercy, and it is those who are guided.” (2:155-157)

The word “calamity,” muṣība, comes from the verb aṣāba, “to hit,” but which more precisely suggests, “to hit the correct target (aṣ-ṣawāb).”  When a trial hits you, it is specifically designed for you.  It hits you where it hurts you the most, at the time when it hurts the most. Something is taken away from you when you need it the most, when you needed to find support, comfort, or reassurance in it the most.  Think of the passing of the Prophet’s beloved wife Khadija and uncle Abu Talib at the most critical period when he needed them, peace be upon him.

Why does Allah do this?  It is so that you will throw yourself before Him, fall in front of Him, in tears and in the most earnest supplication, resigning yourself completely to Him, throwing yourself into His hands: “It is to Allah that I truly belong, and to Him that I am destined to return.”

And it is so that in exchange, He might shower upon you His love, His regard, His warmth, His care, and His mercy: “It is those upon whom are salutations from God and mercy.”

Whenever Allah hits you with a trial, taking away something dear to you, He is going to replace it with something even better, something even more.  Think of how Allah followed the Prophet’s Year of Sadness with the Night Journey to Jerusalem and the Ascension to Him.

But the catch is: you do not know when that mercy will become manifest.  Allah may give you a taste of that in this world, the way He saved Noah and his followers on the ark, the way He distinguished Abraham with the Promised Land, an unparalleled spiritual status, a new offspring, and other gifts, and the way He reunited Jacob with Joseph and made Joseph one of the most powerful and respected men in Egypt.  But if you think about it, those rewards do not really seem in and of themselves completely worth all the pain and grief that these prophets were required to experience beforehand.  Those rewards are, in fact, just a glimpse and small manifestation of Allah’s mercy and reward to come.  They are a tiny preview into the full and complete mercy and reward that Allah has in store in the next life.

And if, on the other hand, you have to wait a long time to see that glimpse, or you die before you see it, then know that Allah is only delaying it in order to increase that mercy and reward for you on the Day of Judgment.  As our Prophet, peace be upon him, is reported to have said, 
“On the day that God created the heavens and the earth, He created one hundred portions of raḥma (mercy, care, compassion). From it, He placed on the earth one portion, by virtue of which the mother has compassion for her child, and the livestock have compassion for each other, and so do the birds. And God kept back the other ninety-nine. When the Day of Resurrection comes, God will complete the distribution of this mercy.”
For more on this beautiful Qur'anic passage, I recommend the sermon, “Why do bad things happen?: the Qur'an's perspective,” by my teacher, Nouman Ali Khan.