Aside from his unsurpassed efforts in reviving the Islamic orthodoxy in the 7th/8th century, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya is equally admired for his generous treatment of his friends and particularly his foes. His laudatory accounts of patience, perseverance, compassion and forgiveness were recorded by his students, such as Ibn Kathir and Ibn ‘Abd al-Hadi in great detail. He was subjected, on numerous occasions, to horrendous treatment by some of his contemporary judges who were his staunch theological rivals, belonging to the Ash’arite heretical sect. He was extradited to Cairo, where he was forced to undergo an unfair trial and subsequent imprisonment for years, and thereafter dispatched to Alexandria without any guards in the hope that he may be killed on his way by bandits. Later, God willed that the de facto ruler of Egypt, responsible for Ibn Taymiyya’s persecution, was removed. The new ruler admired Ibn Taymiyya greatly and despised the judges who were close to his predecessor. He thus suggested to Ibn Taymiyya that the judges who persecuted him be executed. Instead of exacting revenge, Ibn Taymiyya bravely and publicly spoke in their defence, which resulted in the preservation of their lives. On this occasion, his chief adversary, Ibn Makhluf, remarked: “We haven’t seen the like of Ibn Taymiyya. We incited people against him, yet we failed to overpower him. He overpowered us, yet he forgave us and furthermore argued in our defence”.
It is this strong, selfless, compassionate and forgiving personality that is Ibn Taymiyya which makes us wonder what precisely went through his mind the moment he forgave his opponents of such gross misconduct towards him. It is with the desire to find out the secret behind Ibn Taymiyya’s personification of patience that I decided to translate Ibn Taymiyya’s own words on the topic. The reader should, therefore, realise that these are the words of one who spent nearly his entire life suffering at the hands of his adversaries, and demonstrated to us how to practically forgive and forget, and to rise above the animal instinct of revenge and retribution.
The treatise is called Qa’idatun fil-Sabr, ‘A principle governing patience’, which is found in Jami’ al-Masa’il, edited by Muhammad ‘Uzayr Shams, and published by Dar ‘Aalam al-Fawa’id, vol. I page 164
Ibn Taymiyya says:
God has prepared for his believing servants good in every stage. Thus, the servants are constantly enjoying God’s blessings, whether they experience that which they like or which they dislike. Fate and divine decree that He has planned for them are like business deals from which they earn profits, and ways through which they can reach Him. It is confirmed in an authentic report on the authority of their leader and guide; the one – when people are called on the Day of Resurrection by their leaders – his people will be called by him, may God’s peace and blessings be on him; that he said: “Strange is the affair of a believer. Everything about him is strange! Whatever God decides for him is always good for him. If he is granted ease he shows gratitude, and so it is good for him. If he afflicted by hardship he shows patience, and so it is good for him”
This report applies to all of God’s decrees for His believing servants, and indicates that it is always good for him, if he observes patience over what he dislikes, and shows gratitude for what he likes. In fact, this reality is part and parcel of faith. It is, as the predecessors said: “Faith is in two halves; One half is patience, and the other half is gratitude”, as God has said: “In this are signs for anyone who strives to observe patience and shows gratitude”
If one were to consider the religion in its entirety, he would notice that it all goes back to patience and gratitude. This is because patience is of three types:
The first type is to observe patience over obedience to God up until its performance. For one is not able to perform what he is ordered to do except after observing patience and perseverance, and by struggling against the hidden and the apparent enemy. It is in proportion to this observance of patience that one can perform his duties and recommended actions.
The second type is to observe patience over not performing a forbidden act. For the soul, its motives, the devil’s ploy of beautifying sins and bad company, all of these call and compel one to commit sins. It is only in accordance with the strength of one’s patience that one can abstain from the sins. Some of the predecessors have said: “Righteous deeds are performed by both, the righteous and the wicked. However, none is able to abstain from sins except a true servant.”
The third type is to observe patience over what afflicts one without choice. This patience is divided further into two subtypes:
The first subtype: It is when the creation is given no choice, such as diseases and other such heavenly afflictions. It is easy to observe patience over such calamities, because the servant witnesses the decree of God, and that people have no role to play in such cases. Hence, he resorts to patience, willingly or unwillingly. However, if God ever inspires one’s heart to think of the hidden advantages in a calamity, and how it is filled with God’s bounties and gracefulness, one moves on from observing patience to showing gratitude over the calamity and his happiness with it. Such calamity, in his case, turns into a bounty, where his heart and tongue cannot cease to utter: “Lord! Help me to remember You, thank You and worship You in the best of manners” This experience often strengthens and weakens in accordance with the strength or weakness in one’s love of God. Moreover, one often experiences this in reality, as a poet once said addressing his beloved who mistreated him:
Even if it pains me that you mistreated me
I am still glad that you remembered me
The second subtype: It is when the afflictions that befall his wealth, honour or self are the result of the actions of his fellow man. This is the type over which it is very difficult to observe patience, because the soul is aware of the one who caused harm; it hates being overpowered, and therefore, seeks revenge. None is able to observe patience here except the Prophets and the truthful believers.
Our Prophet – peace and blessings of God be upon him – whenever he was harmed he said: “May God be merciful with Moses, who was harmed much more than this, yet he observed patience” He also informed us of one of the prophets, that when he was beaten by his people, he said: “O Lord! Forgive my people for they do not know” It is also reported from the Prophet – may God’s peace and blessings be on him – that he received similar treatment from his people, and he gave a like response. This reaction combined three noble actions:
i) to forgive the wrong doers,
ii) to seek forgiveness for them, and
iii) to excuse them due to their ignorance.
The ultimate result of this type of patience is victory, guidance, happiness, tranquillity and strength in God’s cause, as well as an increased love of God and people for the one who observes such patience and an increase in divine knowledge. Hence, God has said: “We made from amongst them leaders, guided by our orders, when they observed patience. They surely believed in our signs with certainty.” For this reason, leadership in religion is attained by observing patience and maintaining certain faith. When such patience is coupled with the strength of one’s certainty and faith, the servant is elevated to the ranks of happiness by God’s bounty. “This is the bounty of God, He gives to whoever He wills. God is the owner of great bounty” For this reason God has said: “Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! He, between whom and you there was enmity (will become) as though he was a bosom friend. But none is granted it save those who are steadfast, and none is granted it save the owner of great fortune.”
There are several things that help one to observe this type of patience:
One: One should realise that God is the creator of all of His servants’ actions, their movements, their stationary positions and their volition. Whatever God wills occurs, and whatever He wills not to happen does not occur. There is not an atom in the heavens above or the earth below that moves without His permission and His will. Men are merely tools, so turn instead to the One who unleashed them upon you. Do not look to their bad actions towards you, and in doing so, you will alleviate sadness and sorrow.
Two: One should consider his own sins and realise that God only unleashed the oppressors upon him due to his sins. God has said: “Whatever calamity befalls you, it is due to what your own hands have earned. And He forgives much” When one realises that all the bad that has befallen him is due to his own sins, he becomes busy with repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness from sins due to which He unleashed his enemies on him, instead of criticising, blaming and insulting his enemies. When you see a person insulting the people when they harm him, and not holding himself to account and seeking forgiveness, then realise that his calamity is, indeed, a real one. However, if he repents and seeks forgiveness and says: ‘This is due to my sins’, his calamity turns into a bounty for him. ‘Ali b. Abi Talib – may God honour him – once said something very precious: ‘Let a man not have hope in anyone except his Lord. Let a man not fear anyone except his sin’. It is also reported from him and others: ‘No calamity befalls except due to a sin, which is not alleviated except with repentance’
Three: One should contemplate on the good reward which God has promised to the one who forgives and observes patience. God has said: “The recompense for an evil is an evil like it. So whoever forgives and reconciles, then his reward is with God. Surely, He does not love the oppressors” Since people, with respect to retaliation, are of three types; the oppressor who takes more than what he deserves; the balanced individual who takes only what he deserves; and the good-doer who forgives and forgets what he deserves; God mentions these three types in this verse. The first part of the verse refers to the balanced ones, the middle part refers to those who outdo others in good deeds, and the last part refers to the oppressors.
One should also contemplate the call of the caller on the Day of Resurrection: “Rise the one whose reward is due to God!” No one would rise except for one who forgave and reconciled. If he then contemplates on that fact that he may lose out on his reward by seeking revenge and retribution, it becomes easier for him to observe patience and to forgive.
Four: One should realise that if he forgives and does good in return, it gives him a sense of open-heartedness towards his brothers, and cleans his heart of treachery and malice, the desire to revenge and desiring ill for others. He tastes the sweetness of forgiving which only increases and multiplies his joy and gain, be it in the near or distant future, over any gain he may have attained through revenge. He is thereby included in God’s saying: “And God loves the doers of good”, and thus becomes beloved to God. He is akin to a person from whom only one dirham was taken, yet he was recompensed with thousands of dinars. He then becomes overjoyed with what Allah has bestowed him with.
Five: One should know that no one takes revenge for himself except that he inherits thereby a sense of dishonour. But if he were to forgive, God would have honoured him. This is what the most truthful person confirmed as he said:“God does not increase a man, by his action of forgiveness, except in honour” The honour achieved through forgiving becomes more beloved and of greater benefit to him than the honour received through revenge. For the latter may outwardly be honourable, inwardly, though, it is ignominious, whereas forgiveness may inwardly be humiliating, but it does yield honour internally and externally.
Six: This is from the greatest benefits; and it is for one to realise that the recompense of an evil deed is its like, and that he himself is an oppressor and a sinner; and that the one who forgives people, God in turn forgives him; and whoever pardons them, God in turn pardons him. When one realises that the fact he forgives and pardons them, and furthermore does good to them, despite of their ill-treatment, is a cause for God repaying him in the like by forgiving and pardoning him, and further doing good to him despite of his sins; it becomes easier for him to then forgive and observe patience. This benefit alone would suffice any intelligent person.
Seven: One should know that if one busies himself with revenge and retribution, he wastes his own time, and his heart falls into confusion. He thereby misses out on many benefits that he may never be able to achieve again, and perhaps, this becomes a greater calamity for him than whatever evil that may have befallen him due to men. Yet, if he forgives and pardons, his heart and limbs are free to achieve his own benefits that are of greater importance to him than revenge.
One should realise that his revenge, retribution and championing the cause of oneself is merely that, championing his own cause; whereas the Messenger of God – may the peace and the blessings of God be upon him – never took revenge for himself. If the greatest of God’s creation, the most honourable of them in God’s sight, did not seek revenge for himself, despite the fact that harming him is in fact harming God; knowing that many religious rights are linked to this topic; knowing that his self is the most noble, the purest and the most righteous of all, and the furthest from all bad character, and the closest to all the good character; yet, despite this, he never sought revenge for himself. How can then, any of us seek revenge for himself, while being well aware of ourselves and all the evil and faults that exist in us. In fact, a person who knows his true value does not consider himself worthy of taking revenge. For him, his self does not hold enough value to champion its cause.
Nine: If one was harmed for doing an act for the sake of God, for doing what he has been ordered to do, or ordered to abstain from, it becomes incumbent on him to observe patience, and it is not for him to seek revenge, because since he has been harmed for God’s sake, his reward remains with God. For this reason, when the fighters in the path of God sacrifice their blood and wealth, none of that is insured. Rather, God has purchased from them their lives and their wealth. Therefore, it is upon God, not the creation, to pay the price. And if someone demands the price from the people, God will have no price to pay for him. For whoever is harmed for God’s sake, it is for God to recompense him with good. Yet, if one is harmed due to some calamity, then one should blame no one but himself, and doing so would keep him busy from blaming others who hurt him. And if one is harmed in his wealth then he should thoroughly prepare himself for perseverance. This is because reclaiming one’s portion in wealth is bitterer than observing patience; for the one who cannot observe patience with midday heat, rain and snow, along with the roughness of journeys and the highway robbers, he cannot pursue a career in business. This is something commonly known amongst people that the one who sincerely seeks something, his patience over attaining that thing is recompensed for in accordance with the level of his sincerity.
Ten: One should remember God’s presence with him upon observing patience, as well as God’s love for, and pleasure with him during patience. Whoever God is with, He averts from him the various types of harms and troubles, which otherwise cannot be removed by anyone of his creation. God has said: “Observe patience! For God is surely with the patient ones” God has also said: “And God loves the patient ones”
Eleven: One should also remember that patience is half of faith, therefore, one should not replace the reward for his faith in order to champion the cause of his self. If he remains patient, he preserves his faith and protects it from any decrease, for it is up to God to defend those who believe.
Twelve: One should realise that his patience is a decree from him upon his own self; an act of domineering and conquering the self. Whenever the self is overpowered and conquered, it cannot wish to enslave, or bind the person and throw him into ruin. However, whenever the person becomes obedient to his self, lends an ear to it and becomes overpowered by it, his self remains dominant until it finally destroys him, unless he is saved by God’s mercy. If there was not anything in patience except overpowering one’s self and the devil within, it would suffice. This is when the authority of the heart is manifested, while its soldiers remain firm; the heart feels happier and stronger and successfully manages to chase away the enemy.
Thirteen: One should know that if he observes patience, God will most certainly aid him, for God is the Defender of the patient one. Hence, one leaves his oppressor unto God’s discretion. However, the one who champions his own cause, God leaves him urtherto his own defence, and therefore, he remains the only aide to his self. What is the comparison between the one whose aide is God – the best of all aides; and the one who has no helper but himself – the most helpless and weakest of all aides?
Fourteen: His patience and perseverance with those who him would result in his oppressor desisting from wronging him further, feeling remorse towards his misdeeds, and begging his pardon, as it would also cause people to condemn him. He will then return, after wronging him, feeling embarrassed and remorse over his actions, and in fact, end up becoming his friend. This is the meaning of God’s saying: “Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! He, between whom and you there was enmity (will become) as though he was a bosom friend. But none is granted it save those who are steadfast, and none is granted it save the owner of great fortune.”
Fifteen: It is possible that his revenge and retribution may boost the evil and strength of his foe, and make him think of further ways to inflict various harms on the person, as it is witnessed. Hence, if one were to observe patience and forgive, he would have saved himself from the increased aggression. An intelligent person does not opt for the greater of the two harms by averting the lesser. How often has revenge and retribution resulted in harms which the person is unable to ward off? How often have lives, status and wealth been lost, which otherwise would have remained only if one forgave the oppressor?
Sixteen: The one who becomes accustomed to taking revenge and does not observe patience, it is inevitable that he becomes guilty of wrongdoing. This is because the self often does not cease at the precise mark of justice due to it, neither out of knowledge nor will. In some cases it may be unable to stop at its limits, for anger often leads a person to a state where one’s speech and actions are beyond his comprehension.. So whilst he was wronged and awaited assistance and honour from God, instead he become the wrongdoer himself, awaiting God’s wrath and punishment.
Seventeen: The wrong that has been done to him was either to wipe away his misdemeanours or to raise him in rank. If he were to seek revenge instead of observing patience, the wrong done to him would neither efface his sins, nor exalt his status.
Eighteen: His forgiveness and patience is the greatest army he can amass against his foe. For the one who observes patience and forgives, his patience and forgiveness would result in the humiliation of his enemy and further instil in his heart the person’s fear and that of the people. This is because the people would not simply remain silent over his foe, even if he were to remain silent. However, if the person were to retaliate, all such gains will be lost. This is why we find many who, when they insult or harm someone, they would wish that revenge is sought from them. And if revenge is sought, they feel at ease and forget about the burden of shame they used to feel.
Nineteen: When one forgives his adversary, his adversary begins to feel that the one who pardoned him is on a higher level than him, and that he is the one who profited out of forgiveness. Thus, the adversary does not cease to view himself of a lower status than him. This is enough of a virtue and honour for one to forgive.
Twenty: If one were to forgive and pardon, this would have been a virtue on his part. This virtue would have resulted in another virtue, which would have resulted in another, and so on. His good deeds would never cease to increase. For the recompense of a virtue is virtue, just as the recompense of vice is vice. This may even be a cause for his salvation and eternal happiness. Yet, if he were to extract revenge and champion his cause, all of this would be nullified.