Patience and Forgiveness in the Quran

 Maria Khan | New Age Islam| 17 June 2017

Muslims observe day-long fasting during the month of Ramadan. This annual month of spiritual training is designed to develop, among other things, the quality of patience. The nature of the world is such that it necessarily requires an individual to cultivate patience. For one inevitably faces instances of loss, unpleasant experiences from others, disadvantages of various kinds, and so on. Enduring these situations with fortitude is what builds strong character, one that can go through life without succumbing to hardships or turning negative.

This is why the Quran attached utmost importance to patience and in one of its verses it promises “reward without measure” to the patient. (39:10). In this month, it is useful to reflect on those verses of the Quran which enjoin patience on its followers and understand how they have been interpreted by classical commentators of the Quran. The Prophet of Islam began his missionary career, he had to face stiff opposition and hostility from people who found his message detrimental to their worldly interest. Throughout his missionary life, the Quran guided the Prophet on the behavior he should adopt towards those who had developed enmity for him.

In Chapter 15, the Quran mentions the previous messengers who came with the divine message to their communities. Their people, however, poured scorn at them and denied their prophecy. The context of these verses is the similar treatment that the Prophet Muhammad is facing at the hands of his community. In response, he is advised to “behave with seemly patience” (70:5) and to “overlook [their faults] with gracious forgiveness.” (15:85). The theologian al-Maturidi explains that the Prophet is told to avoid people’s denunciation without seeking to requite them verbally or in deed.

Some are of the opinion that verses which counsel the Prophet to bear with insult have been abrogated, implying that if Muslims today face similar circumstances, they must not follow the way of avoidance and patience. But the philosopher al-Razi, in his Great Commentary running into 32 volumes, points out that the injunction given in these verses is still valid, as what is intended here is adherence to noble conduct – a command that by its very nature cannot be revoked.

The Prophet is required to not respond in like manner to those who pass derogatory remarks and to be large-hearted enough to pardon the offences of his fellowmen. The reason for this can be understood in the light of the mission that the prophets are tasked with. A prophet is charged with the responsibility of people’s moral and spiritual reform. Muhammad ibn Ahmad writes that the nature of this duty demands that the Prophet be forbearing towards those who wrong him and become friendly with those who have developed animosity for him, because he is like a doctor and not a commander or a tyrant.

The widely regarded Syrian Islamic scholar Wahhab al-Zuhayli notes that wisdom demanded that the Prophet adopt a peaceful and reconciliatory course of action with those he had to convey religious teaching. This is why the Quran repeatedly exhorts the Prophet to not get enraged at people’s improper conduct, as in this verse: “Bear patiently with what they say, and ignore them politely.” (73:10). The Prophet is instructed to avoid his belittling and disparagement. This advice, according to Sayyid Qutb, was given by God to all of His prophets, and by extension, is also applicable to the followers of these prophets. For Qutb, keeping patience is jihad – a struggle against one’s tendency to thirst for revenge when provoked.

The Quran aims to put an end to the actions that lead to intolerance and violence. At one place it guides Muslims: “If you want to retaliate, retaliate to the same degree as the injury done to you. But if you are patient, it is better to be so.” (16:126). In the Quran, the solution to the problem of enmity is not by way of revenge, but through good behaviour: “Do good deed in return for bad deed; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend.” (41:34)

Al-Tabari, in his influential commentary on the Quran, argues that the command for patience is not meant solely for certain special circumstances, rather patience was meant for every situation, both before God gave permission for war and even after that. In al-Razi’s view, verses of patience cannot be regarded as abrogated by verses that allow fighting because the virtues of patience, kindness and tolerance were exhibited by the Prophet and his Companions even during days of war.

It is said that when the Quran began to be revealed to the Prophet in 610 AD, it was the month of Ramadan. For this reason, reading the Quran is one of the important forms of worship for Muslims. But this is not meant only in the sense of recitation of the words of the Quran, instead one must delve into the message of the Quran. While reading the Book, one must reflect on whether one is following the principles laid down in the Quran in one’s own life. In this sense, Ramadan is a month for introspection of our thoughts and deeds.