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Hilm (forbearance)

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Forbearance (Arabic: الحلم) is a moral virtue which has been both attributed to human being and God. This attribute in human being, refers to have patience in interactions with others and also when encountering difficulties in life and for God, forbearance is postponing the punishment of sinners out of mercy while having power to punish them.

According to Shia hadith, forbearance results in one's moderation and calmness of his soul. From the viewpoint of mystics and Sufis, forbearance is one of the seven major attributes of the soul which are the origin of other qualities. Forbearance is the origin of poise, modesty and tolerance.

Meaning and Usage

The word "Ḥilm" is an Arabic word from the root ḥ-l-m (ح ل م). "(stative) participial adjective" derived from it is "ḥalim". Arabic language references have meant "ḥilm" as forbearance, endurance, delay in punishing a wrongdoer, self-control against excitement and anger and also as intellect. They have considered imprudence, lightheadedness and thoughtlessness opposite to it. Intellect is not among real meanings of "ḥilm", but since it is a cause of it, they have interpreted ḥilm as intellect.

In the Qur'an

In the Qur'an, the word "ḥilm" has not been used, but its derivations have been mentioned 15 times. In the Qur'an, both God and humans have been praised as "ḥalim". In 11 verses, God has been mentioned as "Ḥalim" and in the other verses, prophets such as Ibrahim (a), Isma'il (a) and Shu'ayb (a) have been mentioned as "ḥalim".[Note 1]

Exegeses have interpreted "Ḥalim" for God as His delay in punishing sinners out of His mercy despite His power upon them.

The attribute of "ḥalim" about Prophet Ibrahim (a) refers to his forbearance against slanders and harassments of disbelievers. According to exegeses, the good news telling Prophet Ibrahim (a) about his son means that his son would reach an age that the attribute of forbearance would be seen in him and it would make him patience against difficult tests of God including the order of sacrifice.

The meaning of some verses of the Qur'an refers to forbearance of God and some people; such as, the word "hawnan" in verse 63 of the Qur'an 25 has been interpreted about the forbearance of the servants of God when encountering ignorant people. Controlling anger is also partially synonymous with forbearance and has been mentioned among the attributes of the God-wary and the good-doers. Also, the phrase "But He respites them until a specified time;" in the verse 61 of Qur'an 16 refers to God's delay in punishing oppressors.

In the View of Arabs before Islam

Forbearance was among important virtues for Arabs before Islam as well and it was among the seven elements of gentlemanliness which they considered as important as the religion. One of the attributes of the chief of a tribe and also one of the requirements for leadership and judgment among people was forbearance. One deserved to be the leader and chief who could forbear the harassments of his people, overlook the ugly and foolish behaviors and could control his anger. The proverb "Forbear and lead" refers to such characteristics. However sometimes, they considered forbearance a sign of weakness.

Izutsu following Goldziher referred to the usages of the two words of "ḥilm" and "jahl" in the poems of the Age of Ignorance and considered "ḥilm" the true opposite concept for "jahl", not "'ilm" [knowledge]. Although sometimes, "ilm" is mentioned opposite to "jahl", but in such cases "jahl" is used in a secondary meaning. In fact, calling the period before the mission of the Prophet (s) as the Age of Jahiliyya, does not mean that it was "the age of ignorance", but it means that it was a time when tribal cruelty, mercilessness, revenge and arrogance dominated the society.

Therefore, achieving forbearance was difficult for polytheist Arabs and even if they achieved a level of that, it was difficult for them to keep it for a long time, because this merit did not have a strong foundation among them. The Prophet (s) made an essential change in the meaning of forbearance and established it based on unity of God. In Islam, the most important issue against jahiliyya is turning away from worshipping idols, oppression and immoral behaviors. Thus, jahiliyya will be opposite to a spectrum of meanings as vast as the religion.

In Hadiths

In hadiths, "ḥilm" has been interpreted as self-control and controlling anger and mindlessness and anger have been introduced opposite to "ḥilm".

Hilm (forbearance) has been likened to the lamp of God which helps those who want to reach Him. Also, it has been introduced as the best of honor and help for human being and among the seven principles of social interactions. Moreover, one of the best ten moral virtues of divine Prophets is ḥilm. It is also one of the signs of the true Imam. That is why, in hadiths, people have been advised to practice forbearance and to request it from God if they do not have this quality.

The Infallible Ones (a) mentioned the root of ḥilm, its requirements and fruits and explained about its different dimensions. As Imam Ali (a) says, the root of ḥilm is in high-mindedness, patience and silence. However, trying to achieve ḥilm would not be successful without the knowledge of God and admitting to His Unity. In this regard, Imam al-Sadiq (a) mentions some conditions when a person needs to practice forbearance and explains about its difficulties.

According to hadiths, forbearance and controlling fear lead to one's moderation in life and calming his soul. It covers one's defects as well and uplifts his position in the eyes of people and in the hereafter.

Some hadiths have addressed the relation between forbearance and concepts such as intellect, knowledge and faith. Forbearance is among the fruits of intellect and knowledge and an essential requirement of both. Also, forbearance is among the requirements of faith, a sign of the pious and ascetics and a requirement for judge and among the necessary qualities of worshipers.

In Ethical Books

In ethical books, forbearance and controlling anger are among the virtues originated from courage (in the sense of controlling anger by intellect). al-Ghazzali considered forbearance a sign of good manner, perfection of intellect and its control over anger. Naraqi regarded forbearance the most honorable human perfection after knowledge, without which knowledge would not have any benefits. Scholars of ethics have interpreted ḥilm as the tranquility of the self against the thrills of anger, so that the person does not become angry quickly and easily. Yahya b. 'Adi gave this meaning a practical aspect and interpreted ḥilm as leaving revenge upon the intensity of anger despite the person's power to apply punishment.

Another requirement of forbearance is that it must be practiced by a person at higher position toward a person at a lower position, because if the person at the lower position avoids taking revenge while having the power for it, it will be called "khawf" [fear], not ḥilm. According to al-Raghib al-Isfahani, the perfection of this attribute [i.e. ḥilm] is when a person prevents his limbs from giving a positive response to thrills of anger when the situation is leading him towards it.

al-Ghazzali and Naraqi have considered forbearance better than controlling anger, because a person would control his anger who has not gained forbearance yet and anger can arise in him, but he is trying to control it.

In Mysticism and Sufism

Mystics and Sufis have almost mentioned the same issues about ḥilm and its merits. Regarding the forbearance of God, they have explained that hastening about punishment of the wrongdoer would be for the fear of the punisher about the escape of the wrongdoer which is non-existent in God, so He delays about punishing sinners and surly this proves His Absolute Might.

They believe that forbearance is one of the seven essential attributes of soul, from which other attributes originate such as it is the origin of poise, modesty and tolerance against harassment of others. Last stations of spiritual wayfarers, i.e. submission and contentment originate from forbearance. Forbearance together with humility, generosity and good manner lead a person to closest places to God, even if his knowledge and practices are little.

According to 'Abd al-Razzaq al-Gilani, the true role and fruit of ḥilm is leading people toward the godly attribute of deliberation and preventing them from the satanic attribute of haste. This is so important that by itself will bring about many other fruits, because the cause of all the mistakes of one's tongue and actions is in haste.


  1. Abraham was indeed most forbearing, plaintive, [and] penitent (Qur'an 11:75), So We gave him the good news of a forbearing son [Isma'il]. (Qur'an 37:101), You (Shu'ayb) are indeed [a] gentle and sensible [person].’ (Qur'an 11:87)


  • The material for this article is mainly taken from حلم in Farsi Wikishia.