Notes from the Lecture “Shukr in Action: Prophetic Attitude of Gratitude” by Ustadh Usama Canon
Ustadh Usama Canon addressed a full hall at Singapore Expo Max Atria on Saturday, 26 November 2016. The lecture is titled “Shukr in Action: Prophetic Attitude of Gratitude” and he covered all the bases.
He began with a story about forgetting to thank Allah for having a croissant. He says that it’s easy to thank Allah for a croissant (small blessing) but we forget to do it anyway. If we apply this forgetfulness regarding this croissant to other aspects of our life, then it becomes worrisome.
Ustadh Usama also said, “Some of you may say, ‘There’s so much difficulty in the Muslim world and critical social issues happening all around us, why are we not talking about them?’”. He says that he believes that gratitude is at the heart of healing for the Muslim community and the human family.
He began with defining gratitude as your heart being filled with witnessing the blessing of Allah. To do so, you’ll need to be present and be consciously aware about the fact that you are a recipient of blessing. He emphasized that gratitude is not a detached and passive feeling and that it’s difficult to allow your heart to be filled with witnessing when it’s filled with things that inhibit it.
An example of something that inhibits one to feel that one is a recipient of blessings is entitlement. We feel that we deserve all the good that we enjoy, example the safety and stability of the land we live in. Ustadh Usama says, “It’s insane to feel entitled because we’re not entitled to even existing. Allah didn’t have to create us.” When we take out entitlement, we can start to be grateful.
In Verse 18 of Chapter 16: “If you were to attempt to enumerate the blessings of Allah, you would not be able to do so.”
It’s often translated as ‘blessings’ but the word that Allah uses in Arabic is actually in singular form: nikmatullahi. This is important because the commentator says that if you pick any one blessing from among the blessings of Allah, you would not be able to enumerate the blessings in that one. For example, sight. The blessings that come out of sight is perception and depth, seeing colour, being able to follow a road, being able to read, see the face of your loved ones, watch a sunrise etc. If we are to count the blessings within one blessing, we wouldn’t be able to do so.
Another subtlety in this verse is that some scholars say “the blessing of Allah” refers to Prophet Muhammad sallallahu alaihi wasallam. If we tried to count number of blessings in our beloved Prophet, we would not be able to do so and that we should reflect on his blessed life.
Ustadh Usama then spoke about how showing gratitude to people is showing gratitude to Allah as He has chosen them as the means for a blessing to reach us. He says it does not matter if we like the person, if they are religious, or even a Muslim, for us to show gratitude to them.
He then went on to speak about the way to show gratitude is to use a blessing for its intended purpose. For example, using your wealth not just for your family and to live a comfortable life but to think of the community and its future. He also said that as Singaporeans, living in a safe and stable society, we have a level of privilege that many people don’t have and we should therefore use our privilege to raise awareness for those who don’t enjoy similar privileges.
He ended his talk by asking the audience to go home that night and listing down all the blessings that Allah has given them, even the ugly things in life. Ustadh asked, “Could it be that what you perceive as an affliction is actually a blessing?” At the end of this exercise, we would feel some shyness in front of Allah and feeling “I don’t deserve any of this.”
Question & Answer
The first question from the crowd was “Are all things good?” in the context of needing to be grateful for everything, the good and the bad that happens to us. Ustadh Usama said that for the believer, all things are good as the narration from Prophet Muhammad: “Wondrous is the affair of the believer as there is good for him in every matter, and this is not true for anyone but the believer. If he is pleased, then he thanks Allah and there is good for him. If he is harmed, then he shows patience and there is good for him.”
He also said that in the Qur’an, we see that the etiquette of the Prophets is that they don’t attribute anything bad to Allah. Even though Sayyidina Ayyub was afflicted with illness, he said “I am ill” and not “You gave me illness”.
One of the wisdoms of Allah giving the most beloved of the Prophets difficulties is to show that it is not indicative that Allah is mad at you or want to punish you. But that this is the realm of dunya. Our primary concern should be what is pleasing to Allah and be in accordance to the Prophet’s actions. Persevere even in difficult times. There’s a wisdom in it. Try to submit to the decree of Allah.
Someone else asked, “How do we affirm and inspire faith in this nihilistic age?”
Ustadh Usama replied that in a study done, more than 30% of college students in the US think that life is just an existential hell. For a believer, the world of faith is a world of meaning. We should attempt to see meaning in everything. “What does this mean?” – we should ask this question in every situation. Concerning the election of Donald Trump, yes we may worry and do the necessary as Muslims in America to protect ourselves but there’s a meaning to it too. Allah raises and debases who He wishes. Affirm meaning in things and you’ll increase in faith. Corporate boardroom, the mosque, the ocean are all places for you to increase in faith. The world is meaning set up in imagery.
Digital Director, SimplyIslam
Urwah bin Zubayr (Rahimahullah) said after losing his eldest son when a horse trampled him to death and thereafter losing his leg due to gangrene,
"Allah has bestowed upon me four sons and He has taken back one and allowed me to remain with three, so for Him is the Praise. Allah has given me four limbs and has taken one and allowed me to remain with three, so for Him is the praise. I swear to you by Allah, that if he has taken from me a little, then he has caused to remain with me much, and if he has tried me once then he has forgiven me many times."
Having spent a large part of my adolescence in the Arab Gulf, I can say that I was brought up in a consumer driven and materialistic society where the principal concerns of the majority of the population were the shopping centers with their designer shops, the latest and most expensive cars, and the pampered lifestyle. Being from a modest and religious family, my parents disapproved greatly of the lifestyle led by most who lived in the Gulf and put in much effort to bring up their children with the idea that true wealth was not measured by the amount of money and possessions one owned but rather by leading a lifestyle that was dedicated to the devotion of Allah سبحانه وتعالى and His message.
However, despite being brought up by pious parents, there is no doubt that the materialistic environment I was surrounded by took its toll on my way of thinking. Being a teenager, it was only natural to become influenced by the materialistic world that I lived in, and I slowly found myself sinking into a society where the pursuit of possessions and the materialistic things of the world mattered most; where the most significant of matters such as virtues, good deeds, and contributions to societies were forgotten. In fact, during my adolescent years, it wasn’t very often that I found myself counting or appreciating my blessings. I seemed to focus more on what I lacked than on the blessings that Allah سبحانه وتعالى had already given me.
After I graduated from university, I was offered a teaching job in Libya. Although I wasn’t very familiar with Libya at that time as I had only visited it for the first time the previous year, I thought it was an ideal opportunity to make a contribution to my country and become better acquainted with my relatives. Having lived abroad my entire life, I was aware that life in Libya was going to be difficult, so my initial plan was to stay there from a few months to one year. Surprisingly, I ended up living and working there for five years. Subhan’Allah, Allah سبحانه وتعالى is the most merciful and always knows what is best for His creation. When He feels we are beginning to go astray, He makes sure we go through a certain experience that will guide us to the right path. The five years I spent in Libya were one of those experiences, as they transformed my perspective on life entirely.
Being surrounded and working with Libyans who have been under the oppression of Gaddaffi’s brutal regime for decades opened my eyes to what really mattered in life and made me realize how superficial I had been. All the problems I thought I had suddenly seemed so insignificant compared to the problems the Libyan people were facing and had faced for decades. Hearing heartbreaking stories from my relatives and students about the injustice and corruption of the entire regime in Libya – and experiencing some of it myself – made me look at life from a completely different angle.
In a country with the worst possible infrastructure, I saw how the Libyan people were deprived of a proper education, good health care, and safe roads. I met families of ten or more who had to live off a salary of less than 150 dollars. I saw people who had to live with disabilities their entire life due to a small problem at birth that could have easily been treated by a simple medical procedure which was never performed, either because the doctors weren’t qualified enough, the equipment and medication weren’t available, or people just couldn’t afford it. I heard of businesses that were shut down by the government simply because they became too successful (a result of Gadaffi’s obsessive fear of anyone with the minutest amount of wealth or power). And of course, I cannot forget the psychological and emotional trauma most Libyans had gone through at one time or another in the past. Almost every single family in Libya has had at least a father, a brother, a husband, an uncle, or a cousin who was imprisoned, tortured, or brutally murdered by Gaddafi and his followers simply because they spoke the truth. The least harmful and most sincere of actions, such as performing Fajr (dawn) prayer in the mosque, was considered a threat to the regime and resulted in the imprisonment of many. The amount of suffering that the Libyan people have endured in the past (and are enduring even now) is beyond imaginable.
This forced me to reflect on my life and contemplate that which surrounds me. I looked back at my life and thought of the endless opportunities I was offered in life that most Libyans in Libya could not even dream of. How could I have wanted more? How could I have not been content? Although I used to say AlhamdulilLah (Praise be to God) for my blessings in the past, I never really meant it from the depths of my heart. I would say it, but at the back of my head there was always this nagging worldly desire of something that I needed or wanted. I soon found myself for the first time thanking Allah سبحانه وتعالى from the bottom of my heart for all my blessings every time I raised my hands in du`a‘ (supplication) instead of asking Him for some worldly matter.
This brought me to the realization that striving for this dunya (world) will never make one happy. I marveled at the difficult life the Libyans had experienced and how little they had in comparison to many who lived in other Arab or western countries—yet they were happy. Some of my most cherished moments in Libya were with family members gathered around a large round tray, called a sufrah, opening a can of tuna to make traditional Libyan sandwiches called nufs, and dipping homemade bread (khubzat tanoor) in olive oil; or sitting in the front yard with the neighbors, sipping tea and chatting away while the older women picked olives from the nearby trees and the children played around us. My most cherished classes were with my Libyan students, who despite everything they had gone through and were going through, were the liveliest, most cheerful, and most appreciative students I have ever encountered throughout my entire career as a teacher.
At those moments, the life I was surrounded by in the Gulf seemed so meaningless. I remembered the expensive high-class restaurants I used to eat at with friends where a tiny portion would cost a ridiculous amount, and the fancy shopping centers where I would spend hours (something Libya has never seen); and realized that I was so much more content when I was sitting on the moist grass with family members or neighbors sipping away shahee akhdar (green tea) and eating fresh almonds picked straight from a tree.
This opened my eyes to the fact that the key to a happy life is to be thankful for the simple pleasures and blessings of this world. And that chasing after this dunya will only lead to the weakening of one’s heart by making one greedy and always wanting more. I began to think about all my possessions that at one time I thought I had desperately needed. How many of them did I really use on a regular basis? How many of them had an impact on my life or made me happy beyond the first few minutes of purchasing them? Suddenly, many of the possessions I owned seemed extra and I began to give away a lot of what I had to people I thought needed them more than I did. Not only did I begin to feel that I didn’t need so many things anymore, but I began to make a conscious effort to thank God for everything he had given me. I had finally experienced true gratitude– or at least I thought I had.
Gratitude at a Deeper Level
Thinking that I had finally mastered the skill of gratitude and feeling quite good about myself, something happened that made me realize that true gratefulness is really at a much deeper level and that no matter how thankful we think we have become, we can never be thankful enough for all the blessings in the world that Allah سبحانه وتعالى has bestowed upon us.
During my stay in Libya, my uncle’s wife fell ill with colon cancer. Her condition was beyond curable. She went to many different doctors, travelled to the UK for treatment, underwent chemotherapy and surgery, but at the end, the doctors told her that the cancer had spread and that there was nothing more that they could do for her. Due to hospitals in Libya not being the most safe or comfortable of places, she spent the very little time she had left to live in the comfort of her home.
As the months passed, she became more and more ill. A couple of months before she passed away – May Allah سبحانه وتعالى have mercy on her soul and grant her firdaws – she developed a condition called Bowel incontinence, which is the loss of the voluntary control of bowel movements. As a result she had to use a fecal collection device, which consists of a drainable pouch attached to a tube that is inserted into the rectum. This allowed the feces to be taken straight out of her rectum to be poured into the pouch which was taped to her waist under her clothing. Of course the pouch needed changing once or twice a day. As she was extremely ill at that time, was in a lot of pain, and spent most of her time in bed, her daughters had to ensure that the soiled pouch was removed when needed and replaced with a clean one. Upon hearing this news, I found myself feeling very bad for my uncle’s wife. On top of all the pain she was already experiencing, I thought about how difficult and how much discomfort it must cause her to not have any control over her bowels. For the first time in my life I found myself thanking Allah سبحانه وتعالى with every molecule in my body for granting me the ability to control my bowels. What an amazing blessing it is! How come I had never thanked Allah سبحانه وتعالى for it before?
I soon found myself thanking Allah سبحانه وتعالى every time I entered the bathroom for granting me such an incredible blessing. We all use the bathroom several times a day, but how often do we thank Allah سبحانه وتعالى for this blessing? How often do we think about how difficult our lives would have become had we lost the ability to control our bowels? I’m sure if that had happened, all our worldly desires wouldn’t seem so important, would they? In fact, I’m sure we would give up everything we had in order to regain control of our bowels. But unfortunately, this is one of the most important blessings Allah سبحانه وتعالى has bestowed upon us that we tend to take for granted.
I began to look back at how I thought I had become more grateful and realized that I had left out a large number of blessings that I hadn’t learnt to appreciate. Before knowing about my uncle’s wife’s illness, I was mainly thankful for the visible and obvious blessings – for having a car, a roof to live under, food to eat, a good job, a good education, a good family etc. While there is no doubt that these are amazing blessings and one should always be grateful for them, one must also keep in mind the more subtle blessings, the ones we don’t really think about but wouldn’t be able to function without: the ability to breathe, sneeze, cough, blink, our nerve cells, our organs our senses, etc. The list is endless! When we take a breath, how often do we stop and think alhamdulilLah I am able to breathe on my own? AlhamdulilLah, I’m not bedridden with a tube inserted down my windpipe knowing that if the machine suddenly stopped working I won’t be able to breathe anymore?
When we sneeze, we say alhamdulilLah, but how often do we stop and think why we are saying alhamdulilLah. Or do we just say it because that’s what our parents taught us to say after we sneeze? Or perhaps because it has become a habit? We sneeze; we say alhamdulilLah – almost always on an unconscious level. But let’s ponder this for a moment, it is said that when we sneeze, our body lets out unwanted microorganisms and substances that have entered our bodies and that may cause us a serious illness. Perhaps this is the wisdom behind saying alhamdulilLah after one sneezes – alhamdulilLah, my body rid me of those substances. But how often do we actually stop and think about that? How often do we take that moment to think ‘alhamdulilLah, I was just saved from possibly becoming very ill’? And really mean that alhamdulilLah with a wakeful heart and all sincerity? How often do we say it and mean it from our hearts and not from our mouths?
The means of purifying the heart and freeing it from greed, envy, jealousy and the attachment to this dunya is by expressing true and sincere thankfulness to Allah سبحانه وتعالى. By continuously being thankful, we become consciously aware of Allah and remember Him at all times. In fact, it is at the moments of true and sincere gratitude that the faith in our hearts strengthens, our love for Allah سبحانه وتعالى increases, and our attachment to worldly pleasures weakens.
It was when I experienced my uncle’s wife’s illness that I truly understood the meaning of this verse: “And if you should count the favor of Allah , you could not enumerate them.” (Qur’an, 14:34). The visible and subtle blessings of Allah سبحانه وتعالى are with us in every second of our life and surround us from all directions. No matter how bad a situation may be, a true believer will always find a blessing to be grateful for. In fact, even hardships and calamities are blessings in disguise as there is always a valuable lesson that one learns from them. But we must make that conscious effort to remind ourselves of these blessings, reflect on them, and be truly grateful for what we have and mean it from the depths of our hearts and with all sincerity.
Allah سبحانه وتعالى’s blessings are here for us to enjoy, but we shouldn’t just enjoy what Allah سبحانه وتعالى has created for us but should also remember Allah سبحانه وتعالى every time we see, feel or touch these things. Allah سبحانه وتعالى said in the Qur’an “And few of My servants are grateful.” (Qur’an, 34:13). Allah سبحانه وتعالى knew when he created humans that only very few would appreciate His blessings. Therefore, let us strive to be from those few.
May Allah سبحانه وتعالى make us from His grateful slaves, strengthen the faith in our hearts, and keep us away from the attachment to this dunya. Ameen
Being grateful is something that we all know is a virtuous quality. Lecture after lecture has been delivered on the subject of “showing thanks to God for His favors.” Articles have been written to encourage us to “recognize His blessings,” and “be grateful for what God has given us.” We are continuously reminded of how little appreciation we show for the fact that many of us have food on our table, a roof over our heads and relative peace and security in our lives. This discussion almost always takes place in the context of experiencing trials and tribulations, and I couldn’t agree more. There is a lot of room for improvement for many of us when it comes to gratitude. When the going gets tough, we should strive to avoid going towards ingratitude.
Yet, part of me always has always wondered—is gratitude an emotion to be experienced exclusively during times of hardship? And what are many of us actually grateful for? The gifts or the Giver? These may seem like easy questions to answer, but the next time you come across “gratitude,” be it as a topic of a discussion or an emotion you experience, I want you to pay close attention to the circumstances in which it arises and where exactly your heart lies. Does your heart only show thanks when it is pushed against the wall? And even then, does it only find happiness and peace intrinsically in the gifts of this world (albeit with some acknowledgement that God is the Giver), like a child who loses their favorite Buzz Lightyear toy, only to be consoled by the fact that he still has his awesome Optimus Prime helmet that his dad gave him for ‘Eid last year? Or does your heart delight in the fact that it can use those very gifts to draw nearer to Him and that the gifts, themselves, are meaningless?
In his Ihya `Ulum Al-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), Imam Al-Ghazali draws a beautiful analogy in trying to show the different form of gratitude that people express:
“Let us give an example. We say that a king who desires to make a journey grants a man in his entourage a favor in the form of a horse. He imagines that the man to whom it is granted will be delighted with the horse for three reasons. Firstly, he will be delighted because it is a horse and because it has monetary value which can be of benefit to him; because he can use it for riding and that suits his purpose; and because it is a valuable racer as well. This kind of joy is for one who has no interest in the king, his interest is only in the horse. Had he found the horse in a desert, he would have taken it and his joy would have been similar to this joy.
“The second kind of joy is when he delights in it, not because it is a horse, but because he infers the care of the king expressed in it, and his [the king’s] compassion for him. Had he found the horse in the desert, or someone other than the king had given it to him, he would not really be happy with it because, in principle, he has no need of the horse and it is of no significance to him compared to his desire to have a place in the heart of the king.
“The third kind of joy is when the servant delights in the horse in order to ride it, to go out in the service of the king and bear the toil of the journey in his service and to obtain the rank of nearness to the king. Perhaps he will be promoted to the position of a minister, because he is not content that his position in the heart of the king should be limited to his [the king’s] giving him a horse and caring for him only to this degree. Rather he does not want the king to convey the [favors] from his wealth on anyone. Except through him. Yet, he does not want the ministry for the sake of the ministry, rather he wants to see the king and be near him. If he had to choose between this proximity to him without the ministry and the ministry without proximity, he would choose proximity.
“These are the three levels [of joy]. In the first, there is no thankfulness at all because the vision of the one possessing it [this level of joy] is confined to the horse and his joy lies in the horse, not in the one who gave it. This is the state of all those who are made happy by a blessing because of the pleasure of it and because it is agreeable to their purpose. This is far from the meaning of thankfulness. The second [kind] enters the definition of thankfulness in that the person delights in the giver but not exactly because of him [the giver], rather, because of the knowledge of his care; this incites [the person] to seek favor in the future. This is the state of the righteous, who worship God and are thankful to Him for fear of His punishment and hope for His reward.
“Perfect thankfulness is found only in the third kind of joy. It is when the joy of the servant in the blessing of God (exalted is He) is because it enables him to reach a place of proximity to Him (exalted is He), to reside in His companionship, and enjoy the vision of His countenance continually! This is the highest level [of attainment]. Its characteristic is joy in this world only for what it is, a field under cultivation for the Hereafter and the means to assist him to it. He grieves at every blessing that diverts him from the remembrance of God (exalted is He) and turns him away from His path. He does not desire the blessing because it is pleasurable, just as the possessor of the horse does not desire the horse because it is a racer or an ambler, but because it carries him in company with the king, that he may continue to see the king and be near him.
“Thus Shibli (may God grant him mercy) said, ‘Thankfulness is the vision of the Bestower, not the vision of the blessing.'”1
May God enable us to show continuous gratitude towards Him, as best as we can, so that He will give us even more (Quran, 14:7), and so that we can use that more to draw nearer to Him. May He enable us to be amongst the “few” who are “thankful” (Qur’an, 34:13) and may He protect us from being amongst “most human beings” who “do not give thanks” (Qur’an, 2:243) and the terrible punishment that they face (Quran, 14:7).
When recognizing His gifts, may He empower us to say, as Sulaiman (`alayhi assalam, peace be upon him) said, “…This is from the favor of my Lord to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful. And whoever is grateful – his gratitude is only for [the benefit of] himself. And whoever is ungrateful – then indeed, my Lord is Free of need and Generous,”(Qur’an, 27:40).
Littlejohn HT. Al-Ghazali on Patience and Thankfulness. 1st ed. Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society
This cannot be undone and I am sure it will be greatly appreciated.
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