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.”
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.