In American culture, we usually associate gratitude with Thanksgiving—awash in images of happy families, sitting in front of a cornucopia of holiday fare replete with turkey, stuffing, and pies while warmly exchanging toothy smiles or bowing our heads and giving thanks for life’s many blessings. However, as family arguments sometimes erupt even before the mashed potatoes are passed, many slump back into deeply grooved thought patterns of resentment, fear, despair, self-pity, and hostility. Fortunately, gratitude is far more robust than a single holiday, thanks to multitudes of cultures, philosophers, traditions, and religions that celebrate and encourage giving thanks. This essay explores Muslim practices that help cultivate a gratefulness that endures.
We spoke with Muslim cultural researchers, religious scholars, and renowned thought leaders such as Imam Zaid Shakir. These experts shared how habituated, daily gratitude practices are a core element of an action-oriented faith embedded in the very language of Islamic prayer. Practices that can help buoy you beyond holiday platitudes, spiritually sustain you through life’s most challenging events, and even propel you to greatness. Gratitude, beyond Thanksgiving.
What Is Gratitude
In their influential 2003 paper, psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough defined gratitude as a two-step cognitive process: 1) recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome and 2) recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome. Gratitude is often directed towards other people, but it can also focus on God, nature, or other sources.
“I think gratitude, as it is applied in the life of a Muslim, would be very similar to members of other faith communities. Even people who might lack any faith per se, when it comes to being thankful for the gifts one might receive from others, the blessings that one receives,”
says Shakir, whose very own name is derived from the Arabic word Shukr, denoting thankfulness and gratitude.
The Many Aspects Of Gratitude In Islam
A form of gratitude that Shakir says may be unique to Islam is that “we specifically engage in acts of worship as expressions of gratitude for the gifts received from our creator.” The posture of prostration (Sujūd or sajdah) is a physical practice of thanksgiving and gratitude to God, in which Muslims bow on the ground.
Shakir shares the story of Prophet Muhammad’s wife, A’isha, asking him why he prayed so much and so often, standing until his feet swelled and cracked, although God had already forgiven any of his mistakes in the past or future and promised him salvation. The Prophet responds, “O A’isha, shouldn’t I then be a grateful servant?” A foremost duty in Islam is to be grateful to God for his blessings.
“Shukr is the most common terminology used to signify expressing gratitude, whether that’s a gratitude to God…but also even just general interpersonal gratitude,” says Munir A. Shaikh, Vice President of Operations and Academic Affairs at Bayan Islamic Graduate School. “In Arabic, there’s a common expression called shukran. Shukran means thank you. And people use it in their everyday interactions, people to people.”
Hamd is an Arabic word that “goes hand-in-hand with praising and thankfulness to God…a way of not taking for granted the blessings that one has in one’s life. It’s a very routine feature of Muslim life,” says Shaikh. Citing Muslim daily prayers, “It is to say thanks to God and praise be to God almost at the same time.”
Imtinān refers to “being grateful for the bountiful nature of God,” says Shaikh. “Broadly speaking, the endless, limitless capacity of the divine to provide sustenance, protection, and guidance. It’s an inexhaustible source of benefit and goodness.”
Gratefulness Through Hardship And Tragedy
But often, life doesn’t always feel good. Awful things happen, seemingly too much to bear. “In the Islamic tradition, there’s definitely a lot of emphasis on looking for the good in whatever situation one might face,” says Shaikh. In hardship, “We still use the word alhamdulillah, which is praise be to God.”
From everyday challenges of health and housing issues, to the floods in Pakistan and the plight of Syrian refugees, the experts shared the importance of finding a silver lining in the darkest cloud.
Indeed, multiple studies report associations between religiosity and gratitude, where emotional stress is lessened by “religious coping strategies.” Gratitude, as expressed by Muslims, habitually, individually, and communally, may allow them to reframe memories of negative events by viewing adversity as an opportunity for personal development, to build resilience to transcend trauma and find new purpose in life, to forge a stronger connection with God, and feel relief that the situation did not turn out worse than it might have.
“There’s always this sense of, regardless of what is coming to you, everything happens within God’s awareness and that there’s some benefit that will emerge from that scenario, even if it’s not immediately apparent,” says Shaikh. “There is a certain sense of trust in God’s goodness.”
Shakir describes an experience walking home after a party he attended in a housing project in Britain, Connecticut, on a frigid night. A Puerto Rican girl, just 8 or 9 years old, ran out of a building yelling, “Why doesn’t anyone love me?!” It was an incident that, in part, led him to Islam. How do you tell children or even adults to be grateful if they’ve gone through incredible horrors?
“In Islam, one of our foundations is eloquence of speech. Saying words that are appropriate to the situation,” says Shakir. When we’re talking to a child or even an adult who’s deeply grieving because they’ve just lost someone, let’s start with the child, it would be very inappropriate to present a very mature argument related to thankfulness such as ‘Thank God that, you lost your mommy, but you still have your father.’ That’s something you might say later, but in that immediate moment, just comforting that child and reminding them that we’re here for you…whatever you need, just tell your Dad to call.”
Shakir himself was challenged with a malady that threatened his eyesight. “I’m patient. I’m not complaining. I’m thanking God for the fact that I still have my hearing. I can still taste. I can still smell the beautiful fragrances that surround us everywhere from the kitchen, or the flowers outdoors in the spring.”
Gratitude Is Key To Good Relationships
“The Prophet Muhammad said that you should give gifts and be hospitable to one another because it strengthens relationships,” says Shaikh.
Indeed, gratitude is prosocial and deeply intwined in human history. It is the social glue that strengthens and bonds existing relationships and nurtures new ones. Sara Algoe, a psychologist at University of North Carolina, devised a “find-remind-and-bind” theory: gratitude helps “find” people who are candidates for future relationships, “remind people” of the goodness of their existing relationships, and “binds” them to their romantic partners, family, and friends by making them feel appreciated and encouraging behaviors that prolongs their relationships.
Gratitude is contagious, encourages us to appreciate what is good in our lives, and compels us to pay this goodness forward.
Giving thanks. Illustration by Marina Muun.
Don’t belittle the smallest amount of kindness, “even if it’s meeting your brother or sister with a pleasant face,” says Shakir adding that gratitude can be expressed by recognizing, feeling, and appreciating blessings within your heart, with gestures and body language, saying thanks with the tongue, or with righteous deeds. “A very human smile or a strong hug could literally save someone’s life.”
Don’t Be An Ingrate
Kafir is an Arabic and Islamic term used in different ways in the Quran. It can mean a non-Muslim in the eye of Islamic law. But a fundamental etymological connotation of the word is “ingrate”, i.e. one who adopts a position of thanklessness toward God.
Philosopher Seneca “ranked ingrates below thieves, rapists, and adulterers.” And Hume wrote, “Of all crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude.”
According to a recent study, highly narcissistic individuals may not even notice that a gift has occurred because they believe they are entitled to the benefit. Cynicism, neuroticism, materialism, and envy block being able to feel grateful. It’s almost impossible to dwell on what we don’t and do have simultaneously. “Someone has a closet full of sneakers and still wants more – his heart has become blind to the blessing,” says Shakir.
Perceived intentions of the benefactor, age, cultural influences, parenting, and personality traits such as extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to new experiences, and gender also influence gratitude. Girls and women report feeling more grateful than boys and men, possibly because boys and men may be more likely to associate gratitude with weakness or indebtedness, as do certain cultures.
“Sometimes we think of religion as a set of rules of dos and don’ts…You know, you should speak honestly. You should not be cheating people. You should adhere to whatever agreements you’ve made with people,” says Shaikh. “But what we’ve been talking about with gratitude are attitudes that can enrich our interactions with one another. So even if we are technically following the rules and fulfilling those expectations, do we wrap them with a nice blanket of warmth, humility, and gratitude? That is a dimension of religion that I think often is underappreciated with respect to our perceptions of Islam as a religion.”
Gratitude That Heals Not Hurts
Researchers noted potential negative aspects of gratitude that can manipulate people. For example, in an abusive relationship, children in bad family situations, unfair workplaces where people are told to still be appreciative even though they are being treated poorly.
“There are times to really have a frank conversation with God,” says Tasneem Farah Noor, Interfaith Minister-in-Residence with the Southern CA Episcopalian Diocese. “What do you want me to learn from this? This hurts. To look for the lessons, genuinely process, and be grateful for the experiences. Not to use gratitude as an excuse or a barrier but as a tool to move forward…. If you’re using gratitude to justify hurt, delay action, or not take responsibility for yourself and your actions, your choices. Then it’s not good.”
Muhammad Ali: Learning From The Great And Grateful
How is gratitude practiced by those thriving and achieving great things, such as Muhammad Ali? The late boxer’s headstone featuring the quotation, “Service To Others Is The Rent You Pay For Your Room In Heaven,” holds a clue.
“Muhammad Ali had the skills, the talent, and the work ethic that allowed him to achieve greatness. Some people are blessed with the skill but don’t have the work ethic. Some people have the work ethic, but they don’t have the skill. Muhammad Ali’s first trainer, the policeman, Mr. Martin, said Muhammad Ali was the hardest working young man he ever trained,” says Shakir. “Ali understood that he wouldn’t have been Muhammad Ali without the gifts that God gave him. And so, Ali wanted to express his thanks by serving God. He wanted to be a Muslim Billy Graham, the evangelist who goes around the world telling people about the good word of Islam. God had other plans for him, but he wanted to do that as an expression of appreciation to God for providing him with those gifts that translated into a global platform. Thanking God for the ability to achieve greatness and then secondly, for the blessing of longevity to be able to sustain greatness.”
Shakir continues, “One who does not thank the people has not thanked God.” Ali thanked his parents, trainers, the group that financially sponsored him in Louisville, his doctors, teachers, family, children, pastors, ministers, Imams – people who, without their support and sacrifices, he could not have achieved his accomplishments.
“Muhammad Ali was supported by the community when he was being very outspoken against the war in Vietnam. He was hated by mainstream society, but the overwhelming majority of the African-American community loved him, supported him, and appreciated him because he was saying things a lot of people were thinking, but they were afraid to say,” says Shakir.
"Muhammad Ali was a deeply appreciative person. And so, as he became a global icon, culminating with lighting the torch for the Olympic Games, he realized that all the adoration, support, prayers, and well-wishes that he received from the people was something he owed thanks for."
“You don’t become the people’s champ without the people’s support. And if you’re truly the people’s champ, you don’t allow that support to go unappreciated and without expressions of gratitude.”
“Gratitude is an action,” says Shakir, “It’s also an action of the heart where one is deeply appreciative in one’s heart to the depths of the being. And then it’s an internalized state. So through constantly expressing appreciation, constantly reflecting on appreciation, constantly looking for those things to be thankful for, this transforms our beings until we become a walking, talking vessel of gratitude. And that’s not an easy state to attain.”
“We believe that if you show your gratitude, God will increase your blessings…And that increase might come in very profound ways that we could never, ever fully anticipate,” says Shakir. “And finally, as Muslims, we believe that this world is the abode of trials and tribulations. And if we’re thankful for what we do have and receive, despite the trials and tribulations…then that elevates our station in the next world. And in that world, there will be no trials, no tribulations for the believer who persevered, who was patient, who was thankful in this world.”
Alene Dawson is a Southern California-based writer known for her intelligent and popular features, cover stories, interviews, and award-winning publications. She’s a regular contributor to the LA Times.