The Reality of Gratitude and Its Fruits

Shaykh Faraz Rabbani explains the radical reality of gratitude in Islam and how it finds expression in all aspects of Muslim life.

Gratitude is not just a warm sentiment that one has. The believers’ gratitude has an object. Our gratitude is to Allah Most High. So the gratitude of the believer is different from other peoples’ gratitude. Our gratitude is also different because we don’t just feel gratitude for some things. The believer feels gratitude for everything.

This gratitude is radical because this gratitude is transformative. It’s transformative of your emotional state, of your life, of your spiritual state, and of your standing with Allah.

The Reality of Gratitude

To approach gratitude soundly, we begin by looking at the reality of gratitude. The word for gratitude in Arabic, shukr, is a very interesting word, because its essential meaning comes from increase. Gratitude is a response to something with increase – with more than was expected. That’s the sense of shukr. It has the sense of increase in response.

There’s a number of types of plants that were called shakir. You plant one tree and these plants would grow around the tree even though you didn’t plant them. They would form around the prior growth.

The other use for shakir was a type of shrub or bush that would grow in a very dry environment and would have vegetation on it despite there being very little for it to grow upon. So it’s a response with increase.

Similarly in the Arabic language they say of an animal that it is shakur. An animal such as cattle that grows bigger than you would expect given what you fed it. Something is nurtured, something is given some sustenance, and shukr describes that it’s responding to it in the right way but with increase.

They’d also referred to camels as being or having shukr in the sense that it would take you much further than you would expect given how much it had to eat a drink.

Gratitude in Religion

Now gratitude, shukr, religiously has a more specific connotation. Ultimately gratitude in its religious meaning is a spiritual act. It does have worldly implications because the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, said: “Whoever is not grateful to people is not grateful to Allah.”

How is it understood religiously that our gratitude to people is done as an expression of gratitude to Allah Most High? Ultimately all gratitude is to Allah. Part of gratitude to Allah is to be grateful to people, but gratitude to people is not separate from gratitude to Allah. All gratitude of ultimate significance is gratitude to Allah.

Someone is a shepherd and has a dog. They have gratitude for the shepherd dog because it is helping you out, but that gratitude is out of gratitude to Allah in that the dog is a blessing from Allah. Someone is grateful to their friend but that too should be from gratitude to Allah Most High.

One of the great scholars of Islam, Imam Ahmed al-Zarruq, defines gratitude as having several as having a basis and an expression. He says: “Gratitude is a rejoicing of the heart at the bestower of blessings, not merely the blessing itself. This is manifest on one’s limbs such that one’s tongue actively praises Allah and one’s limbs Express good works and leave contraventions.”

This is the definition he gives in his third commentary on the Hikam of Ibn Ata’illah. Imam al-Zarruq over 30 commentaries on the Hikam, at least 18 of which were complete. So gratitude is the hearts’ rejoicing at the blessing, but not but not at the blessing insofar as there’s something pleasing to you.

Gratitude Is also a Test of Faith

Gratitude is a type of happiness but it’s not a happiness at the blessing, because that kind of gratitude, that kind of happiness or appreciation, will actually turn you away from Allah Most High. That’s why happiness and rejoicing and blessings can be a more difficult test than sadness and feeling down and being in difficulty. When you’re in difficulty, anyone with some faith in their heart, if you’re in difficulty what do you do? Turn to Allah. The difficulty ends up being good to you. You had a difficulty and you turned to Allah.

When pleasing things happen, when success happens, when joyous things take place in your life, naturally, you rejoice. You feel happy. But the key that distinguishes gratitude or religiously consequential gratitude is that it’s not just feeling happy, it’s not just feeling satisfied, it’s the hearts rejoicing at the bestower of blessings. It’s rejoicing with Allah for having given you that blessing.

Allah Most High tells us in the Qur’an: “You have no blessing except that it is from Allah.” (Sura al-Nahl 16:53) He also tells us: “Say! In the bounty of Allah and in His mercy, in that let them rejoice. It is far better than the things that they amass.” (Sura Yunus 10:58)

When is Gratitude Real?

So you paid for the new SmartWatch. It arrived. You rejoice. Is that gratitude? No, it would only be gratitude if the rejoicing was by seeing that as being from Allah Most High. That is gratitude and not merely the blessing itself, which is why the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, tells us in one of the hadith in Imam al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith: “Whoever finds any good let them praise Allah.”

This is a very important definition: “Gratitude is a rejoicing of the heart at the bestower of blessings, not merely the blessing itself.” What is the result of this? That your tongue would be praising Allah, and your limbs would direct the blessing towards the obedience of Allah, towards what is pleasing to Allah in your life. And that you would keep from disobeying Allah with what He has blessed you with.

Imam al-Zarruq says: “There are three integrals of gratitude. The first is the hearts rejoicing at the giver due to his blessings, due to his giving. That is,” he says, “the reality of gratitude.” Gratitude is then expressed on the tongue by praising Allah out of recognition of His gift by saying “Alhamdulillah.”

When is it gratitude to say “Alhamdulillah”? When that saying of “Alhamdulillah” comes from a recognition in your heart of this matter being a blessing from Allah.

Imagine you’re stuck somewhere. You got a notification that the taxi you ordered is one minute away. You went outside but the guy took a wrong turn and you’re stuck in the cold. The taxi comes and you say: “Alhamdulillah.” Are you rejoicing at the taxi coming? If you are, is that gratitude?

It’s not a religiously consequential gratitude. “I feel grateful that the taxi has come.” Okay. Good. It’s better for you than to feel miserable, but that’s just worldly gratitude. The gratitude we’re talking about – that is transformative – is that when pleasing things happen to you you feel grateful to Allah, because the taxi didn’t come on its own. “You have no blessing except that it is from Allah.”

Building Gratitude

We need to train ourselves to be grateful when we say “Alhamdulillah.” Zubayr and Zubayda finally got married. Zubayda was trying to explain the relationship between gratitude and saying “Alhamdulillah” to Zubayr.

They both went to a steak house. Zubayda had a steak and she is in a state of gratitude to Allah Most High. But she didn’t say “Alhamdulillah.” Zubayr ate it. He’d been vegetarian. When you get married you’re basically wrapped around your spouse’s finger, so he stopped being vegetarian for the sake of Zubayda, because she loves steak. He finished and he says: “Alhamdulillah.”

Who is spiritually in a better state, Zubayda or Zubayr? Zubayda, because her heart is in a state of rejoicing at the Giver due to His giving. That is the reality of gratitude. It is light upon light to them that appreciation in the heart is expressed on the tongue by you saying “Alhamdulillah.”

But saying “Alhamdulillah” without this appreciation of this blessing as being from Allah, this is not gratitude. It’s something that’s not quite gratitude. Then if the gratitude is true it will have a manifestation, which is a third aspect of gratitude, which is to keep one’s limbs within Allah’s commands.

Gratitude for each limb is to direct what Allah has blessed you with towards Allah’s good pleasure. And not to use Allah’s blessing towards the disobedience to Allah. If you see it as a blessing from Allah use it within Allah’s limits.

This is taken from a live seminar on Radical Gratitude given by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani and Ustadh Amjad Tarsin at SeekersHub Toronto this year.

How To Be Free of All But Allah

There are those who choose Allah over all else, and then there are the chosen ones who Allah chooses above all others as an acceptance of their devotion to Him. In under 16 minutes, Shaykh Faraz Rabbani gives us clear guidance on how we can too, become free of all intention to please anything or anyone but the One who created us.
This recording is part of the weekly gathering at SeekersHub Toronto, Circle of Light: A Night of Remembrance, Praise & Inspiration. Join us in-person and online. 

There’s more where that came from…

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Cover photo by Fadi El Binni

Contemporary Wisdom – Imam Zaid Shakir on the Hikam of Ibn Ata’illah

Contemporary Wisdom – Imam Zaid Shakir on the Hikam of Ibn Ata’illah

The largest Islamic organization in the United States, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), publishes a bi-monthly magazine called “Islamic Horizons.” In the most recent issue (May/June 2013), they began publishing Imam Zaid Shakir’s contemporary commentary on the famous “Ḥikam (Wisdoms)” of Ibn ‘Aṭā’illah (d. 1309). I am reproducing it here so that it can reach a wider audience, ’in shā’ Allāh. May Allah bless ISNA, Imam Zaid Shakir, and Ibn ‘Aṭā’illah, and grant us benefit through them, yā Nāfi‘ (The Source of All Benefit), āmīn!

Wisdom #1: “Among the signs one is relying upon actions is a lessening of hope when a slip or setback occurs.”

The principal lesson Ibn ‘Ata Allah conveys in this aphorism is a warning against relying on our actions, in the sense of believing they can ultimately bring about outcomes. God is the Ultimate, however, although our actions do have an important part to play in terms of both our spiritual progress and our salvation. When we believe that our actions affect outcomes, which are solely controlled by God, we might tend to lose hope in God when we perform certain acts and the outcomes we consider to be associated with those acts do not ensue.

This aphorism is orienting us away from reliance on actions and directing us toward reliance on God. Reliance on other than God, including on the acts we undertake ostensibly for God, can become a factor that erodes the purity of tawhid, or Divine unity, and, hence, sour our relationship with God. This is the great danger that Ibn ‘Ata Allah warns us against.

One of the signs that we are relying on actions is a lessening of hope when a slip or setback occurs. For example, we can find ourselves in a situation where we are undertaking all of our prayers on time, we fast Mondays and Thursdays, we read a regular portion from the Qur’an, yet we do not feel we are making any “spiritual progress.” Therefore, our hope that God will elevate us is lessened; because we are doing what we believe is sufficient to obtain the outcome we desire, however, we do not witness the outcome. Something must be wrong. Something is wrong. Namely, while we are acknowledging it is God who elevates us, we may come to feel He must elevate us because of our deeds. Hence, it is our deeds that we view as the critical factor for our elevation, and not the grace and mercy of God.

In a somewhat related manner, when we are unable to perform our normal portion of devotional actions, owing to illness or lawful preoccupation, we may feel that we are not doing enough to invite God’s mercy into our lives, and this becomes a source of lessening our hope in God. We should understand, again, that God knows our state and that it is He who has tested us with the situation that resulted in a lessening of our actions. If we persevere, and maintain a good opinion of God, we will find that our patience brings us greater spiritual benefits than our actions ever could.

Reflect on the saying of the Prophet, “When the child of Adam falls ill or travels the reward of the devotional actions he used to perform while in residence or in good health is recorded for him” (Bukhari). In other words, God, from the profundity of His grace bestows upon him the reward of those devotional acts, even though he has done nothing, other than entertaining a good opinion of God, and patiently enduring the trial that prevented him from acting. This narration clearly emphasizes the primacy of God’s grace over our actions.

Overreliance on our actions can also prevail in our mundane affairs. We can work hard preparing for a critical examination. When we learn that we have failed the examination, we might feel that God has let us down because we did everything necessary to succeed. Again, we are subtly blaming God, because “we” did everything necessary to succeed. We studied hard, we reviewed with our peers, we took practice examinations, etc. Hence, we feel that we should have succeeded. In the face of our failure, our hope in God is lessened.

Ibn ‘Ata Allah is alerting us to just how important it is for us to rely solely on God. By so doing we actualize one of the critical meanings of tawhid in our lives. Namely, there is no source of harm or benefit except God. When we understand this we understand that our responsibility is to work. As far as the consequences or outcomes of our work that is something we depute to God.

This orientation, that it is grace and mercy of God that determines our success, is also relevant in salvation. In this context, one can point to the Qur’anic verse that mentions our entering Paradise based on our actions, “Enter Paradise because of the devotional acts you were undertaking” (16.32). This verse apparently contradicts the prophetic hadith, “No one’s actions will enter them into Paradise.” They said, “Not even you, O Messenger of God?” He replied, “Not even me. Only if God covers me in His Mercy” (Muslim).

The apparent contradiction between the verse and the Hadith is reconciled in the following way. Actions are only considered if they are acceptable and their acceptability depends on the grace and mercy of God; as does the propensity to undertake them in the first place. Hence, while actions are necessary for our entrance into Paradise, they are not sufficient. Sufficiency comes through the grace and mercy of God. As recipients of that grace we should be forever joyous. God reminds us in the Qur’an, “Say, in the Grace of God and in His Mercy, in this let them rejoice. It is better than anything they gather [from the world]” (12.58).

This orientation requires a very high state of spiritual maturity. Such a station is one that lies at the end of the spiritual path. Ibn ‘Ata Allah mentions it first to alert the traveler as to his or her destination. However, while journeying towards that goal actions are very important and should never be minimized or neglected. They are the foundation of subsequent spiritual stations. Ibn ‘Ata Allah alludes to this in a subsequent aphorism, “Whoever has an enlightened beginning will have an enlightened end” (Al-Hikam, no. 27). The enlightened beginning lies in consistency and vigorous enthusiasm in devotional actions. The enlightenment at the end lies in refined spiritual stations.

In fact, at the beginning of the spiritual path, the fear of disappointing God by falling short or displaying insincerity in our devotional acts pushes us along the way like nothing else. This fear is captured in the Qur’anic verse, “Those who offer what they offer [of charity and worship] while their hearts are trembling with awe, knowing that they are returning to their Lord” (23.60).

Hence, actions play a critical, necessary part in this life and in salvation. Sufficiency, however, lies with God. God reminds us in the Qur’an, “O Prophet! God suffices you and those who follow you of the believers” (8.34).

If we can look beyond our actions, we will never be disappointed or lose hope when we do not experience the outcomes we anticipate to ensue after the performance of those actions. We work as assiduously as we can in undertaking the worldly means normally associated with a particular outcome. However, we leave the outcome to God. This is not only a key to actualizing the reality of tawhid and maintaining good manners with God, it is also a great source of internal peace and tranquility.