'Sabr': Arabic word for patience derives its meaning from an unlikely source

Used commonly in all dialects, sabr also has major spiritual significance

Sabr in English can translate to patience. Illustration: Talib Jariwala / Getty Images
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

In all Arabic dialects, sabr means patience, but its definition encompasses so much more.

It is one of the most commonly used words in everyday language, yet is also one of the most spiritually significant.

Endurance, perseverance, persistence, to detain, refrain, withhold, withstand, to be steadfast, to be resolute and unwavering ― it is a word of many facets, encompassing the word patience and most of its synonyms, and the root is rather surprising.

Sabr is derived from the word sabbar, which is the name of an aloe vera plant shoot that grows in the desert. Used for its healing properties, the plant is also known for its ability to grow in harsh, dry climates. Needing little maintenance or water, aloe vera tends to find a way to grow and still maintain many of the beneficial medicinal qualities it is known for.

Thinking of the root of sabr in this context, we understand that the essence of the word is not only about having patience or to withstand a difficult period of time, but to thrive in spite of one's direct circumstances and environment.

Sabr plays an important role in the context of Islam. Mentioned 90 times in the Quran, the word is considered one of the two parts of faith. The other is shukr ― meaning gratitude and thankfulness.

In Islam, sabr is a quality one aims to attain. It is to remain spiritually steadfast, continuing to perform well intentioned, good actions in one’s personal domain and within the community even in the face of opposition, setbacks and what appears to be failure.

Sabr is considered the highest form of patience, where one fuels one's faith by continuing to believe and create acts of greater good in the face of all possible obstacles.

The word and all its qualities are also used as names — Sabr or Sabir for men and Sabira or Sabreen for women.

The legendary Umm Kulthum’s popular song Wasafouli Al Sabr (They Described Patience To Me) is an ode to the impracticalities and torturous nature of patience within love and heartbreak.

Scroll through the gallery below to see The National's pick of Arabic words of the week

Updated: October 14, 2022, 6:02 PM