Muslims often talk about the importance of being thankful. That’s not surprising since there are many instances of the words “thanks,” “thankful,” “grateful,” and “gratitude” being used in the Qur’an. And most know the principle stated in the following verse: “If you are thankful, I will grant you increase” (Qur’an14:7).It is the sunnah, and standard practice, that when a Muslim is asked how he or she is, that they answer “alhamdulillah,” “all praise is due to Allah,” which certainly expresses appreciation for Allah SWT and the bounties that He has provided human beings.
When gratitude infuses our hearing, sight, intelligence, and affection, all things “come to life,” at times revealing something of their mystic essence
Like any habit of thought, attitude, or behavior, being thankful can become second nature. In one sense that is good, as the dictionary tells us that second nature is “an acquired behavior or trait that is so long practiced as to seem innate.” That’s good! But second nature has an underbelly that’s not so good, as it is also defined as “a habit or tendency that is so deeply ingrained as to appear automatic.” When something becomes “automatic,” the danger is that we stop paying deliberate, mindful attention to it. I might, therefore, be thankful for the good things in my life but it’s in a generalized, free-floating, surface, way. Then when the subject of gratitude comes up, I might think “Oh yes, I am grateful for the good things in my life.” But how much deep and detailed attention do I pay to my experience of gratitude? Is it possible to feel gratitude the way an artist or photographer “feels”nature? Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century lecturer, essayist, and poet, wrote in Nature, “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration…”
Can we also experience such a primal and unadulterated connection to life and world thatwe are inclined to gratitude in the mundane occurrences of our everyday lives? Can we even feel thankful in times of lack or suffering? About this, Emerson wrote, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” This idea that “all things have contributed” to one’s advancement, that all things can accrue to one’s benefit, is expressed beautifully in the hadith, “How wonderful is the affair of the believer, for all his affairs are good, and that does not apply to anyone but the believer. If something good happens to him, he is grateful, and that is good for him; and if something bad happens to him, he bears it with patience, and that is good for him” (Sahih Muslim).
Rabia al-Adawiya, born in Basra (in what is now Iraq), between the years 95 A.H. and 99 A.H. (around 717 C.E.), was a major spiritual influence in the classical Islamic world, with a reputation of exceptional religious devotion. She was once asked how to know if you are content with Allah’s decree. She replied, “When you feel the same joy in periods of tribulation as you do during periods of blessing.” While we may not be of such purity of heart that we feel joy even in the midst of tribulation, we can strive to, at a minimum, feel gratitude no matter what our situation. For, as the Qur’an tells us, “God is responsive to gratitude” (2:158). And as stated above, that “If you are thankful, I will grant you increase” (14:7). Yet, Allah SWT declares that “…few are the truly grateful [even] among My servants!” (34:13). And the Qur’an is full or exhortation about those who are ungrateful. Muhammad Asad points out in the commentary in his English translation of the Qur’an that, according to Zamakhshari, “truly grateful [to God] is only he who realizes his inability to render adequate thanks to Him.” And how easy it is to hear the many verses about gratitude, or the lack thereof, and yet not really stop to reflect deeply upon the meaning. It may be that something in the conscience keeps us from really digging below the surface meaning because we don’t want to do the necessary work to change sinful ways or counter-productive habits like quickness to anger. Or being impatient or envious. These are traits or habits that contravene gratitude. We may not consciously think about those connections and how that applies in our own lives — how getting easily resentful or aggressive or bossy or compulsive or greedy or harsh or inconsiderate or intolerant or irresponsible or overcritical or blaming or patronizing or rude are attestations of lapsing gratitude — but subconsciously we know it. Yet only if we dig below the surface, can we avoid superficiality in our understanding and the perils of self-delusion.
The Qur’an alerts us: “Do they not ponder the Qur’an in order to understand its deep meaning or is it that their hearts are locked up?” (Qur’an 47:24). Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali wrote in reference to this verse, “I then wish to rouse you from your sleep, you who recite the Qur’an to a great length, and who absorb some of its outward meanings and sentences. How long will you ramble on the shore? Is it not your duty to sail the ocean of these meanings in order to see their wonders, and to dive into their depths so that you might obtain their jewels? Do you not feel ashamed by your persistence in staying on their shores and looking at outward appearances?”
The definition of gratitude is “the quality or feeling of being grateful or thankful;” “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received.” Interestingly, the thesaurus lists as synonyms of gratitude words such as appreciativeness, acknowledgement, obligation, thanks, indebtedness, praise, and responsiveness. These all add some scope to my understanding of gratitude.
Adding Dimension to the Definition
In the commentary on a verse in Surah An-Nisa’ — “Why would God cause you to suffer [for your past sins] if you are grateful and attain to belief, seeing that God is always responsive to gratitude, all-knowing?” (Qur’an 4:147) — Muhammad Asad states, “The gratitude spoken of here is of a general nature —a feeling of thankfulness for being alive and endowed with what is described as a ‘soul’: a feeling which often leads man to the realization that this boon of life and consciousness is not accidental, and thus, in a logical process of thought, [leads] to belief in God. According to Zamakhshari, this is the reason why ‘gratitude’ is placed before ‘belief’ in the structure of the above sentence.”
Asad is pointing out that gratitude is connected to the realization that life itself, and consciousness, are blessing and benefit, and a veritable baseline for gratitude. Being conscious is having awareness of one’s own existence, an awareness that is fed by sensations, thoughts, emotions, perceptions of one’s surroundings, and experiences in everyday life and in relationship to other people. Realizing that life and consciousness have meaning and purpose, that they are divine provisions given to human beings, we are led to nothing if not gratitude. “It is He who brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers when you knew nothing, and He gave you hearing and sight and intelligence and affection so that you may give thanks”(Qur’an16: 78). The scope of “hearing” and “sight” and “intelligence” and “affection” encompasses, in the most simple and direct way, the entire being of the human creature. And Shaikh Hamza Yusuf has said about “the one who submits their entire being”: “This means that the future is not a concern for them, and the past is not a worry for them. They are living in the present…children are very much in the moment, they do not worry or care about their past or future. The arif’s [gnostic’s, i.e., the one with spiritual knowledge] heart is like the child. Children’s hearts are in submission. They are in tawheed.”
With a heart in submission and being grounded in tawheed, one can see with fresh eyes, rather than with eyes that see nothing but the commonplace, as if all things are ordinary, banal, and uninspiring. Failing to see with fresh eyes, we risk falling into spiritual ingratitude: “We can be thankful to a friend for a few acres or a little money; and yet for the freedom and command of the whole earth, and for the great benefits of our being, our life, health, and reason, we look upon ourselves as under no obligation,” wrote Marcus Annaeus Seneca, a writer and orator of ancient Rome. But when gratitude infuses our hearing, sight, intelligence, and affection, all things “come to life,” at times revealing something of their mystic essence. Then when I see a canoe floating on glistening smoothness, surrendered to the gentle ripples of a lake, I might be reminded of the peace that emanates from our own surrender.
Being in tawheed is simple but profound spiritual knowledge of the One who conferred upon humankind the bounty of life and unparalleled consciousness — the ability to appreciate the beauty of nature and the innocence of children, and the veritable cornucopia of other wondrous things.This profound human capacity of awareness, perception, attentiveness, reason, and intuition —with their potential for both understanding and devotion —what is yielded from such abundance of the heart must be gratitude.
Gratitude: The Antidote to Self-Glory
With capacity for self-awareness, as integral part of human consciousness, and dedication to continual deepening of self-knowledge, we might avoid the pitfalls that attach to times of gain or success.
“And thus it is if We let him taste ease and plenty after hardship has visited him, he is sure to say, ‘Gone is all affliction from me!’ For, behold, he is given to vain exultation, and glories only in himself” (Qur’an 11:10).
How easy it is for the person who enjoys success and good fortune to feel entitled, and to forget that his bounties are due to the grace of God and that many others contributed to his success, including parents, teachers, mentors, and a myriad of people he doesn’t even know. Elizabeth Warren, when she was running for the Senate in 2011, spoke about the delusion of those who acquire wealth and think it is due entirely to their own efforts. She said, “You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.” She continued: “Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific… God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” A Chinese proverb points to the importance of recognizing the unseen multitude who contribute to our survival, happiness, and comfort:“When eating bamboo sprouts, remember the man who planted them.”
The Qur’an points out that the pretense and delusion of self-sufficiency easily afflict man: “Proclaim! And your Lord is Most Bountiful – He Who taught by the pen, taught man that which he knew not. Nay, but man does transgress all bounds, in that he looks upon himself as self-sufficient” (Quran 96:3-7). Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, whose research focuses on “the interface of personality psychology, the psychology of emotion and the psychology of religion,” writes,“…we are never truly self-sufficient. Humans need other people to grow our food and heal our injuries; we need love, and for that we need family, partners, friends, and pets… Seeing with grateful eyes requires that we see the web of interconnection in which we alternate between being givers and receivers.” He says, “The humble person says that life is a gift to be grateful for, not a right to be claimed.”
Gratitude in Times of Difficulty or Sorrow
The person filled with gratitude would believe that, as Emerson says, all things contributed to his advancement and therefore he should include all things in his gratitude, even those things that make him suffer. The grateful one would live by the hadith mentioned above so that when “something bad happens to him, he bears it with patience, and that is good for him.” The thankful person, who lives with gratitude as a life theme, would be as Umar, (R), who said, “There was no single difficulty I faced or calamity which struck me, but that I had four bounties bestowed on me by Allah (SWT). First, that the calamity was not in my deen (religion); second, that it was not worse than it was; third, that I was not deprived of contentment and surrender to Allah (SWT); and fourth, that I yearned for the reward from Allah (SWT).”
Gratitude for the Bounties of Allah SWT
Al-Junayd said, “I once heard al-Sari saying, ‘Because to give thanks for blessings is itself a blessing, one can never cease to give thanks.’ “ We can never run out of benefits, blessings, and bounties for which to give thanks to God. Here are just a few examples that are cited in the Qur’an, reminding us that it is Allah who has:
made the earth a couch and the heavens a canopy (2:22)
provided gardens and fruits (6:141)
subjected all things to humanity’s use (31:20)
favored humankind through the service of animals (16:80-91)
fashioned man perfectly, giving him due proportion (82:7)
given human beings hearing sight, intelligence, and affection (16:78)
created the senses (23:78)
taught the use of the pen and taught man that which he knew not (96:4-5)
favored man with speech (55:3-4)
provided a Criterion between right and wrong (25:1)
given wealth and sustenance (3:27)
enabled man to travel through land and sea (10:22)
sent Revelation (6:91-92)
provided guidance (2:38)
offered healing, guidance, and mercy (17:80-82)
sent winds and rain (25:48-50)
supplied flowing water (67:30)
“…And If you would count the blessings of Allah you would not be able to count them…” (Qur’an 14:34). And Imam ash-Shafi’i points out, “To be able to thank Allah for a blessing is a blessing within itself.”
Some Ahadith About Gratitude
Prophet Muhammad (S) used to recite long prayers at night, as Aisha (R) reported: “The Prophet used to offer prayer at night [for such a long time] that his feet used to crack. I said, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! Why do you do it since Allah has forgiven you your faults of the past and those to follow?’ He said: ‘Shouldn’t I love to be a thankful servant (of Allah)?’” (Bukhari).
Another hadith shows the all-embracing responsiveness of Allah SWT to gratitude. Al-Qasim ibn Muhammad reported from A’ishah (R) that the Prophet (S) said: “No blessing is bestowed on a servant [of Allah] and he realizes that it is from Allah, but the reward of giving gratitude for it is written for him… No man buys a garment with his own money then puts it on and thanks Allah, but Allah will have forgiven him all his wrong action before the garment reaches his knees.”
The Prophet (S) also said: “Allah is pleased with His servant if, when he eats something, he thanks Allah for it, and when he drinks something, he thanks Allah for it” (Muslim).
Studies About Gratitude
Cultivating gratitude does not mean that we don’t feel anger or resentment or disappointment. Dr. Robert Emmons discusses the paradox of gratitude, pointing out that no one feels grateful for losing a job or being diagnosed with a serious health condition, or any of the countless other challenges human beings face. He says, “Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth.” He continues, “Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.”
Researchers at UC Davis have found through their studies on gratitude the following:
People who are thankful for the good things in their lives do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life but rather put them in a healthy perspective and strive to focus on the positive.
Grateful people report more positive emotions, satisfaction with their lives, greater energy and optimism;and they report lower levels of depression and stress.
A predisposition of gratitude enhances the experience of pleasant emotions.
Grateful individuals are more empathic and are better able to see things through others’ perspectives.
Grateful individuals are more likely to believe in the interconnectedness of people and all things in life and feel a sense of responsibility to the welfare of others.
Grateful individuals are in general less materialistic.
Grateful people are less envious of others.
Those who regularly attend religious services and engage in religious activities are more likely to be grateful.
Other studies have found that grateful people are more inclined to take better care of themselves physically and mentally; engage in regular physical exercise; eat in a more balanced and healthy way; have improved mental alertness; cope more effectively with stress; have stronger immune systems; and have a lesser tendency to aggression.
In a study done in neuro-psychology by Dr. Rollin McCraty, director of research for the Institute of HeartMath, individuals were taught to practice feeling gratitude or appreciation for the good things in their lives in order to self-generate a regular and healthy heart rhythm (referred to as heart rhythm coherence).They were instructed to recall a past positive memory that elicits warm, pleasant feelings. Over time and with practice, most were able to experience feelings of gratitude or appreciation without reference to the originative memory, and thus self-generate a healthy heart rhythm.
Gratitude Begets Generosity and is Contagious
In a study done to explore whether gratitude begets generosity, researchers gave each student participant an exercise to do on a laptop. But the computer had been disabled. For some of the participants it was arranged that another student would appear in the room for some other purpose but would notice the study participant struggling with the computer and offer to look at it. They, of course, knew how to “fix” the problem and did so. Those students who had been helped were more likely to volunteer to help someone else with an unrelated task. The study concluded that gratitude begets generosity.
Gratitude Improves Relationships
Thankfulness (shukr) is an essential part of happy relationships. According to Imam Ibn Qayyim, there are two types of rights owed to Allah (SWT): the fulfillment of His commands and showing shukr to Him. And showing shukr to people is part of showing shukr to Allah (SWT). The Prophet (S) said: “Whoever does not thank people, does not thank Allah.” This is a very profound hadeeth. It inspires us to express our thanks to other people as a daily practice, especially to our spouses and family members. Gratitude improves relationships and spreads goodness by sending a simple message of love or caring or appreciation, not only to the recipient of the thanks, but also to those who witness it. A sage once said, “The fragrance of flowers spreads only in the direction of the wind. But gratitude spreads goodness in all directions.” This is shown so poignantly by the writing of a girl in a 4th grade class when the teacher asked the students to write a paragraph about what they think love is. The girl wrote:
“When my grandma got Alzheimer’s and couldn’t make tea anymore, my grandpa made the tea each afternoon and picked flowers in the garden to put on the table. He would also make sure that grandma’s favorite snacks were on the table. Even when she really got forgetful and didn’t talk much anymore and many times didn’t even know who my grandpa was, he would prepare the afternoon tea every day. One day, while he was pouring the tea into their cups, I heard him say, ‘Thank you my love for all the years you made tea. You are the best companion anyone could ever have, and for that I am so grateful.’ And then he kissed her cheek. That’s what I think love is.” – Sarah
The teacher asked Sara if she could read her paragraph to the class. The image of caring, gentleness, and gratitude so beautifully captured by the grandpa’s words and actions could potentially contribute to the developing personal schema of virtue in each of those children who listened to Sara’s paragraph about what she thinks love is.
A Story About Gratitude & Journaling
A mother and her daughter were reminiscing about the many happy memories they had. They reviewed family stories and events that they had talked about many times before but always the joy remained each time they reminisced. Then the mother said, “There’s one story I think I never told you. When your father and I first married, he was a good husband, a good provider, and very responsible. But he rarely smiled and always seemed to be in such a rush that sometimes I felt like he didn’t even notice me and thought that maybe he wasn’t happy being married to me. Then one day he came to breakfast, sat down, and gave me the biggest smile you can imagine. And he didn’t seem so rushed as he usually was, and after breakfast he thanked me. I was stunned. And every morning after that it was the same — a smile and a thank you at breakfast and that started my day in such a beautiful, positive way. But I never knew what caused him to change his behavior. Back then I was afraid to ask, like maybe he would revert back to his former ways. Then on the last day before he died I asked him. He told me that he had seen a news story about people in a town hit by a tornado, who had lost everything — homes, cars, businesses, anything that could be picked up or knocked down, destroyed by the powerful winds. He said he realized that providing a roof over our heads was not enough as the roof itself could be gone in a split second. And he started thinking about things that could not be destroyed by a wind or other force of nature, or by the common ups and downs of life.
His smile and thank you that first morning, he told me, was the beginning of an inner journey that lasted for the rest of his life. His expressions of gratitude each morning — a smile and a thank you — were a demonstration of his love, a gift to me, a beautiful demonstration of how much he cared. And he vowed those many years ago to live his life giving gifts that can’t be destroyed in the physical world. He would give gifts that come from the soul and endure forever. And he told me that he felt so grateful for the greater insight and understanding of what is truly valuable in this life that he started a journal to record all the things he was grateful for, all his thoughts and experiences and analyses and researches about gratitude. He included stories, quotes, anything he could find related to gratitude as that had become a life theme for him. And the journal, he told me, served as great reminder and motivator for him.
What he said was so profound and poetic. We cried and laughed together that last day in the hospital and that night he passed away. And truly, that night with all my grief and sadness that he was gone, I smiled. And I thanked God for the many years of happiness I spent with your father and that first smile and thank you at breakfast so long ago — for it was the beginning of our deep and abiding love for each other. And that I shall always carry in my heart. And he gave me that day, before his passing, his gratitude journal.Actually, let me go get it right now…I want to share it with you because it’s so beautiful.” Her daughter smiled, tears of joy and appreciation in her eyes,as she felt truly blessed.
The Far Reach of Gratitude
As related throughout this article, being grateful is associated with the following:
Increased blessings and bounties from God; protection from punishment for sin; a shield against arrogance, vanity, and self-glory; more positive emotions and life satisfaction; a general feeling of contentment with one’s life; greater energy; increased optimism; lower levels of depression or stress; ability to put difficult or negative things in a healthy perspective and focus on the positive; being more empathic and having the ability to see and understand others’ perspectives; feeling an interconnectedness with life and other people and having a sense of responsibility about others’ welfare; being less materialistic; feeling less envy; lower aggression; taking better care of oneself physically and mentally; eating a healthier diet; coping better with stress; a stronger immune system; ability to generate regular and healthy heart rhythm; being more generous; experiencing improved relationships.
This long list throws interesting light on the verse that tells us if we are grateful, Allah SWT will grant us “increase.” This could be understand as an increase in gratitude itself; or a general “increase” of bounties and blessings. Certainly the list of so many positive and salutary effects from practicing gratitude is nothing short of a stunning and exquisite “increase” in good. Thus, we should feel awe and thankfulness for the bounty and miracle of life and the provision of guidance, seeking many moments of quiet reflection to contemplate what we perceive in the outer world and in our innermost beings. We will discover and give as gifts the many enduring treasures we collect as we “sail the ocean of these meanings,” “see their wonders,” and “dive into their depths.”
Contentment & Gratitude: Hand-in-Hand
One of those treasures that endure — contentment —that is to be cultivated: contentment in being who we are, giving up envy of others for what they have and we don’t. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “Consider well contentment, for it is a treasure without end” (Al-Tabarani). Contentment means that our appreciation of beauty, love, talent, knowledge and wisdom, achievements in the arts and sciences, justice, and wholesome things of the material world —anything good in this life — our appreciation does not depend upon us possessing or experiencing those things first hand; and conversely, it too often happens that the more a person possesses, the less he appreciates what he has. Ibn Hazm points out this wisdom: “I would rather be able to appreciate things I cannot have than to have things I am not able to appreciate.”
Contentment and gratitude go hand-in-hand.There is a fable about a peacock which complained to God that the nightingale has a sweet song and he did not. God replied to the peacock that he had a most beautiful tail. The peacock asked what good was this beauty without a voice to sing like the nightingale. God replied that every creature has its unique gifts and each should be content with who they are and grateful for what they have been given.
We human beings do not have a beautiful tail like the peacock or as exquisite a song as the nightingale. What we do have is hearing and sight and intelligence and affection, all of which can lead us to a deep and heartfelt expression of contentment with, and gratitude for, the good in our lives; however it comes to us — in gain or loss, suffering or joy. Alhamdulillah.
“If you are thankful, I will grant you increase” (Qur’an14:7).