Ramadan, Day 27: Gratitude

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The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

One of the descriptions of the Prophet Muhammad that appears often in lines of praise poetry is that “he prayed while others slept.” Indeed, it was a regular practice of the Prophet to pray well into the night during its quietest hours. Upon one such occasion, the Prophet’s beloved wife, Lady Ayesha, awoke to find that the Prophet was praying with such intensity that his feet had become swollen from standing long hours and his beard was wet with tears. Lady Ayesha turned to the Prophet and asked why he prayed with such devotion when he was already so beloved to God. The Prophet paused and then replied, “Shall I not, then, be a grateful servant?”

Gratitude appears often as a theme in the Qur’an and as a description of those who truly believe in God. “Remember Me and I shall remember you; be grateful to Me and never ungrateful,” says God in the Qur’an (2:152). Interestingly, the word for ingratitude in this passage and other similar ones is takfarun — which literally means rejection or hiding or covering. Ingratitude, then, is to reject or hide or cover the blessings of God from one’s own soul and consciousness. It is the same word that is used for rejecting or disbelieving in faith altogether — the understanding being that a denial of God is a denial of the source of all blessings. Gratitude is, therefore, seen as an essential quality in the heart and consciousness of a believer.

The Qur’an says, “If you were to attempt to enumerate the blessings of God, you would never be able to do so” (16:18). Blessings that should garner the most gratitude are often the ones most taken for granted. For example, on average we breathe 12 breaths per minute that amounts to 17,280 breaths a day. If we are prevented from breathing for even a short while the results can be catastrophic — from permanent brain injury to even death. Yet, when was the last time we thanked God or expressed gratitude for the great gift of breathing? The scholar and sage, Imam al-Ghazali (d.1111), put it beautifully when he said, “Every breath is like a priceless jewel, once gone can never be retrieved.”

During this month of Ramadan, blessings are experienced through deprivation for there is nothing that reminds us of how blessed we are until we experience loss. There is nothing that tastes sweeter and more satisfying than a glass of cold water after fasting for 16 hours during these hot summer days. But, it must also be a reminder that this blessing cannot be taken for granted outside of fasting hours for there are too many people in the world who do not have access to clean running water that is safe and refreshing to drink. According to the non-profit organization, Water.org, 780 million people lack access to clean water worldwide and 3.4 million people die each year from water related diseases.

With even the smallest blessings there come moral responsibilities to use the blessing as it was intended to be used by the Giver. In the Islamic spiritual and ethical tradition, there are two aspects of taking account of blessings: The first is to recognize blessings in one’s heart and on one’s tongue and to offer thanks to God for it; the second is to ask ourselves whether or not we are using the blessings of God in the best and most beautiful way possible, as God would want us to. This introspection begins with considering how we use our eyes, ears, tongue, hands, and feet. And, then how we use our time, wealth, and energy. And, so on. In the chapter of the Qur’an named “The Merciful,” the reader is asked over and over again, “Then which of your Lord’s blessings will you deny?” (Chapter 55).

The Prophet Muhammad advised, “Take advantage of five before five: Your youth before old age; your health before sickness; your wealth before poverty; your free time before preoccupation; and your life before death.” The key motivating factor that allow us to take advantage of these blessings is gratitude.

It is, indeed, easy to fall prey to ingratitude. Sometimes life just sucks. But, when you experience difficulties and hardships, don’t forget that there are still blessings to be grateful for. Focus on those blessings. And, remember that no matter your situation, things could always be worse, so have a positive attitude and let that carry you through life’s peaks and valleys. As God says in the Qur’an, “If you are grateful, surely I will give you increase” (14:7). This increase is not always through an increase in the blessing itself, but rather an increase in the contentment that God puts in the hearts of men and women.

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Write to Sohaib N. Sultan at ssultan@princeton.edu