I had not seen my friend for several years; I stood nervously at her front door, excited for her to open.
At first glance, I felt like nothing about her had changed. She had the same frail stature and kind smile.
But as we began talking, catching up on all the years that had passed, I sensed something was going on. She looked weaker, frailer. I feared she was not well, but I was too afraid to ask.
Towards the end of my visit, my friend confided in me that she had been recently diagnosed with a very rare and serious medical condition. I was familiar with the disease and knew it was potentially devastating.
I wanted to throw my arms around her and start crying. She was calm, strong, but I could see the grief in her eyes. “Alhamdulillah, (all Praise and thanks are due to Allah)” she said. “I am not complaining about what Allah Almighty has willed for me. It is kheir (good).”
Then, with a faint smile, she said:
“The Prophet (peace be upon him) tells us that all the affairs of the believer are good, right?”
I swallowed back my tears and nodded, looking at her children and then at her. In my heart I prayed that Allah cure her and make this test a means of purification for her.
Prophet Muhammad said:
Strange indeed are the affairs of the believers, for all their affairs are good for them… If good things happen to them, they’re thankful, and that is good for them; and if bad things happen to them, they remain patient, and that too is good for them. (Muslim, 2999)
This hadith was one of the first things my friend referenced after telling me of her condition. She must have been keeping it at the forefront of her mind.
Days after visiting my friend, this hadith was still at the forefront of my mind. Allah tests us in different ways, sometimes with hardship and sometimes with ease. Each test has the potential to be good for us, but we must understand how to react.
According to the hadith, the right reactions stem from the presence of two very important qualities in the heart: patience and thankfulness.
Most of us understand what patience is in theory. We can tell a young child to be patient while another child plays with his toy. We can tell ourselves to be patient when stuck in traffic or in a long line at the grocery store. Indeed, when most of us think about patience, we associate it with being patient in the face of something we dislike.
The Prophet tells us that:
True patience is at the first stroke of calamity. (Al-Bukhari, 1302)
And Allah tells us:
And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, Who, when a museebah (calamity) strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to Allah , and indeed to Him we will return.” Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided. (2:155-57)
This verse, and the hadith before it, emphasizes the importance of patience in the face of hardship. What does it mean to be patient at “the first stroke of calamity,” or in the face of such difficult hardship? Where does patience come from?
True patience emanates from the heart and is very much related to the degree of our connection to Allah. When our hearts are connected to Allah, we fully realize that He is in complete control of our affairs. Showing patience in the face of hardships thus becomes easier.
Sometimes Allah tests us with hardship to help build in us this beautiful attribute of patience. We find ourselves doing everything we can to help our situation, but to no avail. He closes all the doors around us and we can do nothing else save be patient and rely on Him. But sometimes we need more than patience alone to really cope with the challenges we face in life.
As with patience, most of us understand in theory what it means to be thankful. We recognize the importance of appreciating the blessings in our lives. As a concept, we get it.
And for many of us, being thankful for the blessings in our lives is a pretty natural tendency. The Quran emphasizes this in many verses.
Allah tells us:
Then remember Me; I will remember you. Be grateful to Me, and do not reject Me. (2:152)
And Allah promises to reward those who show thankfulness:
And (remember) when your Lord proclaimed if you give thanks, I will give you more. (14:7)
Thus many of us associate being thankful with times of ease and being patient with times of trial or hardship. However, often to overcome a challenge in life with patience we need thankfulness. And to be truly thankful for a blessing we need patience. If we look a little deeper, we realize the important relationship between patience and thankfulness.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Allah actually couples the virtues of patience and thankfulness in four different places in the Quran: Surah Ibraahim 14:5; Surah Luqmaan 31:31; Surah Saba’ 34:19; and Surah al-Shura 42:33 [*]. In each of these verses, Allah repeats the exact same phrase:
Indeed in that are signs for everyone patient and thankful.
Each time, the phrase comes in the midst of Allah describing His signs to creation and mentioning some of the people who did not pay heed.
Allah identifies those who do benefit from His signs are those who show patience and thankfulness. When examined closely, we see that patience and thankfulness are actually two sides of the same coin.
Ibn Al Qayim states that patience makes up one half of iman (faith), while thankfulness makes up the other half. He cites several reasons for this, among which are that:
“Man is always a situation where he has to carry out an instruction of Allah, or avoid something which Allah has prohibited, or accept something that Allah has decreed. In all cases, he has to face the situation with patience and gratitude. Carrying out Allah’s instructions is gratitude, and abstaining from prohibited things and being content with the decree of Allah constitutes patience.”[i]
Thus, patience and thankfulness are needed for iman to be complete.
In contemporary times we see examples of people who are blessed with many gifts from Allah but move through life in such a hurry that they seldom find time to be grateful or remember that Allah is the source of their blessings. They lack the patience to show gratitude and thus miss seeing the “signs” of Allah in the blessings all around them.
We also see people who, when faced with difficulty, are unable to see beyond their hardship to any of the good that they still have. They lack the thankfulness needed to support their patience and consequently, they fail to see the “signs” in what is happening to them.
It may be that, in order for our iman to be truly complete, we must practice being patient during times of both hardship and ease, and being thankful when given both blessings and challenges
In the face of her difficulty, my friend showed both patience with what Allah had decreed for her, and thankfulness, merely by the fact that she remembered to thank Allah. It took patience on her part just to stop and say “Alhamdulillah,” and undoubtedly, saying “Alhamdulillah” and really feeling it, helped her persevere with patience in the face of her disease.
She helped me realize that patience and thankfulness are really at the core of everything we do in Islam, and are especially important if we want to journey on the path to Allah.
Understanding these virtues and cultivating them in our hearts is an ongoing struggle, but helps ensure that all of our affairs, both good and bad, are ultimately good for us.