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; 2011. p. 73-75 [↩]