In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made a Thanksgiving proclamation, in which he spoke about the importance of gratitude. But unlike today’s enigmatic definition of the concept, which is devoid of any mention of God, President Lincoln chose his words carefully by referencing his ultimate thanks to God:
“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and even soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”
As time goes on, the true definition of embodying gratitude has surely become a mystery. In the modern context, we like to think we are being grateful, yet it may not be practised in the right manner. After perusing through the many research papers on the topic, one will undeniably notice that modernity has obliterated any ties gratitude has with religion and spirituality. Yet, ironically, many scholars and theologians of the past and present associate the act of gratitude with religion and spirituality. Fortunately, we have been gifted with the Qur’an and Sunnah which afford us the advantage of guidance unparalleled to any other religious scripture. Both are replete with reminders, prescriptions and instructions on the subtle act of gratitude.
The question we ought to ask ourselves is, who are we being grateful to? By using this question as our foundation for gratitude, the answer to why we are being grateful and how we should be grateful begins to reveal itself.
Gratitude in Islam can be defined in two ways; al-Hamd (praising Allah) and al-Shukr (expressing gratitude to Allah). Although both have similar meanings, al-Hamd is commonly used to proclaim and express our praise and veneration for Allah. Whilst it is an emphatic way of thanking, the focus of al-Hamd will always be about ultimate praise for the One and Only. Shukr on the other hand has a definition which can more easily be embodied. Shukr is measured by our willingness and consciousness and relies heavily on an innate experience of deeply expressing one’s gratefulness for all that one has.
Secularism has placed limits on Shukr which has distorted our understanding of the reality of gratitude. This is probably why we feel like we’re missing something in our lives, despite being surrounded by material abundance. You could say that it is the missing key to contentment.
Contentment is searched for by the masses, yet it’s difficult to find people that possess this emotional and spiritual state. Maybe it’s because we’re going about things in the wrong way? Maybe we have no idea how to reach the best levels of contentment?
Whatever the conundrum, the answer is rather simple; though it does require some thought and reflection. Forget what you already know about gratitude and look beyond the mundane and standard definitions of the concept. Gratitude in Islam transcends a person, object and even oneself. Gratitude in Islam is all about being in a state of enumerating blessings and directing that to Allah. What’s more, one should complement this with the reflection and remembrance of Allah, who bestows upon us our provisions and guides us as we make our way through this life on earth. Whilst human beings and objects satisfy our immediate needs, – which makes thanking them vital as well – gratitude is about realising the ultimate Giver and how one would never make it were it not for His blessings.
The benefits of gratitude go beyond anything our minds can comprehend. Gratitude helps in improving our overall well-being, including our physical health, mental health, and a sense of satisfaction with the little amount one possesses. Shukr is not something that has to be verbalised; it can be a feeling or a positive thought. After all, humans make decisions and move through life using feelings and thoughts. However, Shukr should be done in a more organised manner which has been explained to us by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya:
Shukr is expressed through the heart, by feelings of subordination and submissiveness, the tongue, through verbally acknowledging the blessing and praising/thanking [Allah] and acts of obedience and unwavering devotion. [Madārij al-Salikīn]
Practical Steps To Express Gratitude
Journal – begin journaling your everyday experiences by attempting to focus on the good stuff only. Review it daily, weekly or monthly. By doing this, you’ll recollect the good moments and blessings (some of which may be very subtle or mundane) which will leave you feeling more satisfied and content.
Count Your Blessings – this one is slightly different in that you only list five to ten blessings each day as opposed to listing experiences. The blessings could be material, memories, or even your relationships.
Express Gratitude Verbally – there are many ways to do this. However, it is recommended to utter the word alhamdulillah constantly throughout the day. It may start as a verbal experience, but with time, the word will begin to internalise which will leave you expressing gratitude for more than you can imagine.
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