Sabr In The Time of Pandemic

I shared some of my thoughts on how challenging sabr has been during our current pandemic in my entry for the Writing Category of AIKOL’s Got Talent contest at the end of last year. The topic was the Covid-19 Pandemic and now that we’re in our third year living with the pandemic, I believe the essay is still relevant.

It was the pitch of her voice, an octave higher than her usual melodic tone, that first rang alarm bells in my head.

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” she cried, her fast breaths piercing with desperation. “I’m done with being fermented in my own house.”

I felt my heart crumpling up in sympathy, in understanding but mostly, in pain. My grip grew tighter as my muscles argued between pushing the phone away and stuffing it into my ear. To hear the voice of my once exuberant and vivacious grandaunt in her despair, one year after Covid began was heart-wrenching. And I too crave the physical contact we were once blessed but never truly appreciated.

I wanted to reassure her. I wanted to hug her and look into her eyes and tell her that things will be well.

But all that came out was a feeble, “I know” and a silence that stretches as far as the distance between us. The electrical modulated sound waves made no justice to the iron weight of our emotions.

Just a year ago, she was telling me how grateful she was that she had been used to keeping herself busy at home. While there was an undertone of apprehension, she was still excitedly rattling off the list of needlework projects she was going to work on, and the skills she planned to teach her grandchildren. But after many lovingly crocheted ‘kopiahs’ and knitted bags had found their way to various friends and family; she too was feeling the dread of monotony and the feeling that we’ve all been trapped.

We were just two of the billions of others whose lives were scarred by the arrival of Covid-19, and with our families safe and sound, we were two of the luckier ones.

For all of us, when the Movement Control Order was announced, our palaces of comfort and respite were transformed into bar-less prisons overnight. We all knew that this instruction was made for our benefit; to keep ourselves and those we love with all our lives safe from the deadly virus. And yet why is it so hard to reconcile ourselves and be at peace with the knowledge that we are all being heroes to our community?

Of course, there are many opinions and professionally-conducted researches that had been done on this issue. However, I’d like to invite you to explore this question with me, an observer with limited knowledge but with a penchant for pondering, from the perspective of speed and impulse as well as the beauty of Sabr.

Speed and Impulse

In the age of globalisation, technology, and artificial intelligence, we could have all that our hearts desire at the touch of a fingertip. In the past, we had to travel the sea for months to get a taste of authentic foreign dishes. However, with the magic of the internet, our own devices could guess our preference, persuade us into making an order, and a tantalizing box of jeera rice and chana masala can reach your door in 30 minutes.

This advancement in technological communication and social connection has brought us many advantages and opportunities to society. Places of education that were once reserved in urban areas are now accessible virtually anywhere and anytime. In my life, during the day, I attend my university lectures with more than a hundred other people, scattered all over Malaysia, and at night I practice my Spanish directly with a Colombian teacher living in France.

The scale of our economic opportunities too has expanded beyond the geographical and societal barriers. Anyone can start up a new business and approach customers from all over the world through the magic of the Internet. Those with a creative mind and a keen eye are no longer bound to traditional investors to launch their project with platforms like Kickstarter and GoFundMe.

The term ‘The sky is the limit’ is becoming quite literal with the ability to communicate with anyone beneath the exosphere.

However, this digital movement is built on speed. Brands and companies are always promising that they can serve you faster than their competitors. They remind you that you have so much to do and that they’ll do the hard work for you. Just look at the array of instant food and services our post-modern world has to offer. And when you have the smallest amount of discomfort, you receive a notification of a sale with products that will relieve you of your displeasures immediately.

We are not given the time to think. Every offer has a deadline and every content begs for a reaction. We are encouraged to act on our impulses and are rewarded for acting on them with highly emotive content quickly racking up likes and shares on news sites and social media.

Braking at Breakneck Speed

We may not notice it but this convenience does not come without its drawbacks. We have become accustomed to this new standard of speed to the point where we unconsciously expect that we could achieve things quickly and efficiently. And it does not help that the capitalist market is taking advantage of our own psychology by tapping into our reward system and tethering it to their products.

We no longer feel a strong appreciation for all of the ease technology has given us. We expect to be constantly occupied. We rely on instantaneous communication. We crave pleasure and gratification approaching that of the ethics of hedonism.

This breakneck cycle of minimal effort and maximum reward is not a bonus for us anymore; it’s a necessity.

When the coronavirus began its ravage across the globe, slowly but steadily, much of the areas of our lives that we had been taken for granted had been brought to a stop. While the globalisation process had promoted democratisation of access in every part of life and the ideals of liberty; in the time of the pandemic, we were suddenly told “No.”

The shift was sharp in both its speed and magnitude. In a matter of days or weeks after the first signs of a local infection, we had to change how we work, how we socialize, and just how we live. Every single aspect of our daily lives had to be modified and restricted. There were limits to where we were allowed to go, who we were allowed to see, what we were allowed to wear, and even how we were allowed to sneeze. And this level of control is so detested by the people of today whose principles are built on personal freedom.

Essentially, the sudden removal of our many liberties was like ripping the needle that was pumping rewards into our veins at high speed without the lull of anaesthesia.

Teetering Balance

As our lives got more and more entangled in the web of technology, we are being bombarded with warnings and statements from experts on the risks of being too dependent on our devices. While physical risks like computer vision syndrome and sedentary lifestyle are known, many people are unaware of the silent, but just as dangerous, risk to our psychology.

Excessive screen time in children has been linked to mood swings, aggressive behaviour, and shorter attention span. Reliance on social media and mobile devices are shown to may have contributed to depression and difficulty to focus on tasks.

I personally find myself checking my phone even when I am in a lecture, with the anxiety of “did I miss anything important?” ever-present at the back of my mind. And when I do get a message that isn’t urgent enough to warrant an immediate reply, my mind keeps running back to it; drafting and editing a reply that correctly communicates my message while I missed half of what my teacher is telling me.

However, this isn’t to say that this speed in technology is all bad. As is proven in the peak of Covid 19, despite the fact that the world was trapped in a physical standstill, we could still connect to anyone from virtually anywhere in the world for a near-instantaneous conversation. Students were still given their rights to education through online learning. Freshly cooked food could still miraculously arrive at your doorstep within minutes without physical human contact.

Technology has brought us such a huge improvement in our quality of life, especially in giving some of the underprivileged a chance to reach into places beyond their economical or geographical means.

At the same time, we cannot deny the fact that video games are curating their codes to hack into our dopamine system. We need to be aware of how social media preys on our emotion, benefitting from our impulse and rewarding it with functions such as liking and sharing, further encouraging thoughtless behaviour. Texts are encouraged to be shorter and more emotive. Contents are suggested to catch audiences within the first 5 seconds.

This technology that has brought so many improvements into our lives is also keeping our emotions running on a never-ending treadmill. This lifestyle is not sustainable. It balances like an egg teetering on the edge of a horn.

The Beauty of Sabr

My earliest introduction to the word sabr was during one of my many childhood tantrums. When I wanted something, I was told to be patient. I was told to practice sabr. And for most of my childhood, sabr to me was a challenge against negativity. It was the remedy to emotions like anger and frustration about menial, unimportant issues.

But sabr is a lot more than just holding yourself back from losing your temper or being willing to wait for an eternity to receive a reward you may never see in your lifetime. And with impatience being a weakness of mine, I had to learn the hard way that sabr also means taking a moment to check if my assumptions are correct because I take action. That Sabr includes consulting with someone who knows better, in crises that I am not equipped to handle.

Most importantly, sabr is learning to appreciate both the rewards and challenges you encounter in life; to explore the beauty behind both patterns, and to grow into someone wiser than before. The Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. said, “Amazing is the believer, for whatever Allah decrees for him, it is better for him! If he is tested with a bounty, he is grateful for it and this is better for him; and if he is afflicted with a hardship, he is patient with it and this is better for him.”

In the hadith above, we are reminded that we should be patient when we encounter hardship and accept that Allah, the All-Knowing, has given us a path that is curated for our good. In the same sentence, one is said to be tested with bounty. We are encouraged to first take a moment to reflect and to praise Allah for His blessings. Neither goodness nor harm should be dealt with the impulsive attitude that our current technology is encouraging.

Sabr in the Time of Pandemic

For many people, Covid-19 is when they are pushed to their very limits. Employers are struggling to keep their business rolling behind closed doors so their workers can bring food home to their children. Doctors and healthcare workers are running around the clock to save as many lives as they could while still protecting their loved ones. Educators are suddenly forced to learn an entirely new medium while dealing with complaints and confusion from equally stressed parents and students.

Some families were pulled apart for more than a year without contact. Many left without a proper goodbye and would never again return. Others were tied together in a social dynamic that is so alien to their usual system that they broke down under stress. Very few people are left unscarred by the pressure of this pandemic. Our struggles may differ but one thing is true for most of us: our concerns and our worries are valid and legitimate

And in my humble opinion, from the short duration of life I’ve experienced, patience under desperation based on legitimate concern is the hardest form of sabr.

When we don’t have enough food to feed our family, when people are threatening to take away our homes and when our mother is struggling to breathe on the other side of the country; this is when we are most tempted with impulse and we look for someone, or something, to blame. Having something to blame will rationalise your emotions internally. It is like telling yourself, “I have no fault in this. I am right to feel this way. I deserve to feel this way.”

And without us realising it, we have been dragged from a completely legitimate concern down to the slippery slope of emotion, impulse, suspicion, and enmity. Even friends and family may not be spared from your su’u zon. You may see your once loving parents as now an invader of your privacy, your teachers being too demanding and inconsiderate to insist on turning on your cameras and your siblings’ heart are black with greed and hate as they disturb every single moment of your day.

For us Muslims, we need to always remind ourselves that first and foremost, we are sent to this Earth to worship Allah. Our faith, our din is the most important thing we have to protect under the maqasid shariah. We are living in dunya to prepare for our home in akhirah.

So, in every worldly concern, we must realign our compass back towards Allah. We cannot, should not, and must not let these legitimate but earthly worries be the rust that tarnish our hearts from our true purpose and our true destination.

This pandemic may be the worst in our living memory. Our quality of life may be in a terrible state compared to just a year ago. We may have lost so many people that we love and care for without the chance for a proper farewell. But be patient and have faith that there is relief in every pain; and turn to Allah in your desperation and your solace. InsyaAllah, our sabr will help us to strengthen our Iman.


Verily, with every difficulty there is relief.
Therefore, when thou art free (from thine immediate task), still labour hard,
And to thy Lord turn (all) thy attention.”

– Surah Al-Insyirah, verses 6-8 –

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Covid-19: Our Fear and What Can We Do About It?

On the morning of the 17th of March, I went to a nearby supermarket to buy a few things we’re running low on. The night before, the prime minister had announced that starting on the 18th, Malaysia would be placed under movement control, and although we already have been stocking up on some essential items, we thought it would be a good idea to get some fresh food, just in case they would be hard to come by in the future.

The roads leading to the supermarket were eerily silent. They weren’t completely empty but for a Tuesday morning, there usually would be a lot more traffic especially on the main road. As I approached the supermarket however, I began to see some of cars slowly building up a mini traffic jam but it was nothing compared to what greeted me next.

The moment I walked through the glass door, I found the supermarket to be absolutely crowded. Trying to make your way from one end of the supermarket to the other was a complete obstacle course. People of all ages were clearing out already bare shelves. Elderly couples and families with young kids are standing shoulder to shoulder, snaking their way into the cashier queue which have stretched all the way to the entrance. And although I’ve decided that the grocery is not worth spending any more time than I need to in the mini mass gathering, I still had to worm my way between the crowd just to make an exit, trying in vain not to touch anyone.

Back at home, we hear about similar events taking place all over Malaysia. People are rushing into stores in a manic frenzy and families are frantically packing to escape the city. Instructions on precautionary measures like staying at home, standing a metre away from each other or just frequent hand washing are nothing but hazy recollections at the back of one’s head, blocked by a more urgent sense of impending doom. The people’s underappreciated freedom to do whatever they please have now been revoked and that have placed everyone into a state of uncertainty, confusion and fear. And as varied as the colours of people who walk this Earth, so are their reactions to their fears.

The Need to Act

For most of us, fear drives us into immediate action. We are plagued by a sense of restlessness and helplessness, propelling us into doing simply anything to ease our discomfort. It doesn’t matter if we know which mask to get, how a mask even works against infection or how to use it best; we simply buy them by the dozens. It doesn’t matter that proper hand cleaning with soap and water is the best way to prevent the virus from spreading through contact, we’ll just get bottles of hand sanitizer because it seems much more medical.

This is partly why people are buying seemingly irrational things too. After news of the toilet paper robberies in Hong Kong and Australia spread through the social media, people all over the world are buying rolls and rolls of toilet paper. Fueled by FOMO (or the Fear Of Missing Out) and the shock at such desperate an act, even those who usually don’t use toilet paper are now asking themselves “Should I get one too? Or perhaps a few, just in case?”

Similarly, it is the reason why people are leaving their homes in droves in a search for a ‘safer’ place. The availability of good facility in major hospitals has given the appearance that these cities have high number of cases and those seeking assurance assume that it would be safer for them to stay away.

For others, the thought of living far apart at a time of crisis is too much to bear even in the age of instant communication. Their sleeps are disturbed by the thoughts of loved ones dying far away from them and they want to be together for each other. The unseen risk of them being the catalyst for spreading the disease seems negligible in compared to these more imminent fears.

State of Denial

Another common reaction to fear is to rebel against it as the thought of being weak is too uncomfortable for us to deal with. Instead of admitting to ourselves that there is a problem which they have to face, we would rather tell ourselves that everything is okay. And the harder the world tries to force us into believing that something is definitely wrong, the more inclined we are to not face it. Suddenly, the thought of staying at home is giving us the heebie-jeebies even though we could spend hours on the game console without a word of complain.

To others, this denial may be more subtle. They are consciously aware and admit that it is a time of crisis, but to actually live in a way which reflects that is so unbearably uncomfortable. It is similar to the actions of a heavy smoker who, deep inside, do feel the need to cut down a few packs, but would rather just not think about it and keep smoking.

Is It All Fear Though?

Of course, humans are much more complex and no matter how much we try to dissect each other, we would never be able to even begin comprehend the whole truth. There are lots of different factors that affect our actions in all situations. However, humans are social beings and in a society, emotions can be just as contagious, or even more so, than the virus that threatens our lives.

And fear itself is a very powerful emotion that had been hardwired in the brains of all creatures to ensure their survival. We often hear amazing things one could do in the midst of an adrenaline rush. At the same time, fear can cause you to do something that you would regret as it often only cares about your short term survival. And at a time of crisis, even those who generally have a good hold on their fears are now being affected by the accumulated anxiety of the whole population that surrounds them.

So What Do We Do?

Fear often cause the steadiest of people to act on their impulse. It comes with a sense of urgency that demands immediate action. Especially at a time like this, it is wise to practice a bit of mindfulness and self awareness as a tool to help us make wiser actions. Keep checking in with yourself and ask yourselves questions like “What is the reason behind my action? How am I feeling and how is it affecting me? Do I really need to do this or would it harm other people? Based on my beliefs, what is best thing that I could do right now?”

By being more in tune with your values, your actions would bring a more permanent sense of satisfaction rather than the quick bites of temporary relief that would simply lead to another round of panic. And by constantly checking in with your emotions, you would be more sensitive to the irrational urges that may cause you to do something that you will later regret. The more control we have over ourselves, the less burden we will put on all of the healthcare workers and members of the public service who are racing against the clock to save lives.

On top of that, keep yourself informed with current updates from reputable sources that would help you prepare yourself for what is to come. Pay attention to and carry out the precautionary measures given by the authorities so you could tell yourself honestly that you have tried what you could to protect yourself, your family, your friends and your community.

Be patient and be calm. Insya Allah, if we all work together, by His help and guidance, we will get through this.