How does thanksgiving contribute to one’s belief? Is it just a faith requirement or just moral development? How can we reach the state of thankfulness?
The hadith of Jibreel (Angel Gabriel) is considered by most Muslim scholars to be one of the fundamental texts of our religion. It presents, in a comprehensive way, the foundations of Islam.
This is made clear by the fact that the Prophet (blessings and peace upon him) mentions to `Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) at the conclusion of the hadith: “’O `Umar! Do you know who the questioner was?’ Umar replied: ‘Allah and His Messenger know best’. The Prophet replied: ‘Verily, it was the Angel Gabriel. He came to teach you your religion’”. (Muslim)
This narration focuses on four things that are essential to our religion: Islam (Muslim practice), Iman (Muslim dogma), ihsan (states of inner excellence) and the Sa`ah (Doomsday).
To rephrase the focal points of this hadith, we can say that Islam is a religion that demands of its adherents that they do something, that they believe something, that they embody something and that they prepare for something. What we do involves the devotional acts that are enjoined by the religion. This is the essence of Islam, in this particular context.
What we believe involves the dogma that we affirm as agreed upon by the scholars who have mastered the prophetic message and distilled from it the essential beliefs whose affirmation is necessary if a person is to be considered a Muslim. This is the essence of iman, again, in the context of the hadith.
The states of being that a believer embodies are illustrated, in the immediate context of the hadith of Gabriel, by the saying of the Prophet: “…that you worship Allah as if you see Him. If you fail to see Him, be mindful that He observes you”. This is the essence of ihsan.
Finally, by living a life, which encompasses in a real way all of the aforementioned elements, we are preparing for the end of things in the world, or Doomsday.
To expound further on the idea of a Muslim embodying something, we can add that this is an aspect of our religion that many Muslims fail to adequately consider. Specifically, the idea that we are to embody the prophetic virtues is lost by many. Those virtues, which the Prophet embodied, are an articulation of the ontological stations he attained to.
In other words, his very being, for example, embodied the station of patience. This ontological reality then manifested itself in his character as he displayed unmatched patience in his dealings with others. This is what ihsan is about.
Imam al-Qushayri, in his Risala, mentions some of the states a believer should strive to embody: repentance or penitence (tawbah); sincere exertion in worship (mujahada); spiritual insularity (khalwah or `uzlah); God-consciousness (taqwa); religious scrupulousness (wara`); worldly detachment (zuhd); silence (samt); fear of God (khawf); hope for God’s Mercy (raja’); sobriety of heart (huzn); suppression of the appetite for food and drink (Ju`); humility (tawadu`); opposing the whims of one’s ego (mukhalafa an-nafs); avoiding envy (hasad); avoiding backbiting (ghaybah); contentment (qana`ah); trusting in Allah (tawakkul); thankfulness (shukr); being certain of divine truths (yaqeen); patience (sabr); being mindful of Allah’s observation of one (muraqabah); being pleased with Allah’s decree (rida); willing servitude to Allah (`ubudiyyah); strong conviction for truth and religion (iradah); consistency (istiqamah); sincerity in all of the relevant realms (ikhlas); honesty (sidq); shyness (haya’); freedom from the weight of worldly engagements (hurriyyah); constant remembrance of Allah (dhikr); concern for others (al-Futuwwa); viewing things in the light of truth (firasa); good character (khuluq); generosity (jud) and many others. (Abi Al-Qasim Al-Qushayri, Al-Risala)
One of the loftiest of stations mentioned by Imam Al-Qushayri, and others, is that of thankfulness (shukr). To fully strive for the actualization of this station in our lives we must know its meaning. The linguistic meaning of shukr is from sha-ka-ra, which means an animal attaining to pasture and then fattening on it.
Thus, the Arabs say, sha-ka-tat al-ibilu, meaning the camels attained to pasture and became fat. The expression hisan shakur means a horse that is fattened up by very little fodder. In general, an animal that is shakur eats little but grows much.
This definition gives us insight into the nature of a thankful person. It does not take much to please them. We find that a person that is truly thankful is appreciative of very little. When we give them the smallest gift they are deeply grateful and seek to express their gratitude in the warmest terms and kindest actions. As for the ingrate, no matter how much they receive they desire more and fail to express any gratitude for what they have received.
Thus, the effect of a blessing, be it pasture or fodder, is seen on the animal who receives that blessing, in its increased size. Likewise, the effect of a blessing given by Allah to His servant manifests itself on the tongue, heart and limbs of a thankful person. Hence, in the technical usage of the religious scholars, as expressed by Ibn Al-Qayyim Al-Jawziyya, thankfulness means ‘to manifest one’s appreciation for the blessings bestowed by Allah on the tongue, through praise and acknowledgment; in the heart by witnessing the giver of the blessing and loving Him; and on the limbs by willingly accepting His guidance and obeying Him’.
This definition helps us to understand that the spiritual path is not a philosophical picnic. It requires action; the action of the heart, the tongue and the limbs. Knowledge though, does play its part, in fact, as emphasized by Imam Al-Ghazali in the Ihya’, it is the foundation of the subsequent acts of thankfulness. He says:
‘You should know that thankfulness is among the stations of those journeying to Allah. It is also (like other stations) organized around the categories of knowledge (`ilm), state (hal) and action (`Amal). Knowledge is the foundation and it bequeaths the state, while the state (in turn) bequeaths action. As for knowledge it is the knowledge that the blessing is from the giver of blessings (Allah: Al-Mun`im).The ensuing state is the happiness resulting from His bestowing the blessing. The action is undertaking what is intended and loved by the giver of the blessing’. (Al Ghazali, Ihya’ `Ulum Ad-Deen)
Imam Al-Ghazali outlines a process whereby thankfulness can become actualized in our lives. The foundation of this process is the knowledge that every blessing we have ultimately comes from Allah. In our increasingly ’material’ world people are losing touch with this great reality. Many view their hard work, intellect or creativity as the source of the good they enjoy. They cannot conceive of the role played by the divine in their good fortune.
Hence, we witness the growing disinclination on the part of the wealthy to share their wealth with the less fortunate members of our society. In the face of appeals for greater charity we increasingly hear retorts such as, ’Poor people should work hard as I did…’ ‘Those people should pick themselves up by their bootstraps like we did…’ People uttering such statements may recognize the blessings they enjoy, but they fail to see the giver of those blessings, and because they do not see or acknowledge the giver of the blessing, they neither see nor acknowledge the rights He has established in their wealth.
The various sayings of the scholars we have considered let us know that to really be people of thankfulness we must be people who praise and worship our Lord. When the Prophet, peace and blessing of Allah upon him, was asked why he was standing in prayer at night until his feet were swollen, he replied, as the tears flowed down his cheeks, ”Should I not then be a thankful servant?” (Al-Bukhari) His thankfulness was expressed in his worship. This should be our case.
A final way we can express our thankfulness in indicated by the name of Allah, Ash-Shakur. One of the meanings of this name is one who rewards a small amount of human effort with a great amount of grace. A vile criminal can enter into Islam one moment and then die the next. Having done only one righteous deed, uttering the Testimony of Faith, he is rewarded with eternal bliss in Paradise. How small was his action compared to the magnitude of Allah’s grace?
This should remind us that in all of our relations and dealings in the world we should try to give far more than we take. This is especially important when the dominant ethos is becoming ‘take as much as you can and give as little as possible’.
Let us take time to reflect on what it truly means to be thankful, and let us work to the extent of our capabilities to extend the blessings we enjoy to others, not just on one day, but every day.
Imam Zaid Shakir is one of the most respected and influential Islamic scholars in the West. Born in Berkeley, California, he accepted Islam in 1977 while serving in the United States Air Force. He is co-founder of America's first Islamic college; Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, California, where he serves now as a scholar-in-residence and lecturer, teaching courses on Arabic, Islamic law, history, and Islamic spirituality.