Translations from Madarij Al-Salikin (Steps of the Seekers) of Imam Ibn Al-Qaiyym: On the Deeper Meanings of Gratitude – Part 1

On the Deeper Meanings of Gratitude

THE LEXICAL MEANING of the Arabic word ‘shukr’ [root: sha ka ra, represented by the English letters ‘s’ ‘k’ ‘r’, respectively] is “appearance of the effect of food on the body of an animal.” It is said: shakarat al-dabbatu tashkuru shukran: “The animal has shown the effect of what it has been fed.” An animal whose bulk grows proportionally greater than what it has been fed is called shakoor. [Linguistically, this is an intensive form of the word.] The Prophet is reported to have said Sahih Muslim,

Even the animals show [their feeding] through the increase of flesh. [Translator’s note: This hadith is not included in Sahih Muslim, but it is in Ahmad, Tirmidhi, and other collections.]

This is the case with the worship of Allah: It is the appearance of Allah’s blessings on the tongue of the servant through acknowledgment and praise of Him, and on his heart through testimony and love, and on his body through his obedience and submission.

Gratitude thus consists of five pillars:

  1. Humility of the grateful to the Giver
  2. Love of Him
  3. Acknowledgment of His gifts
  4. Expression of that blessing
  5. Using the blessing only in a way that the Giver likes.

If any of these foundations of gratitude are missing, one’s gratitude is incomplete and defective. The teachings of all who have discoursed on the nature and definition of gratitude can be contained in these five categories.

Thus the discourses of the scholars on the topic of gratitude (shukr) revolve around these meanings. Some have said that gratitude is humbly acknowledging the benefit gained from the Allah’s gift. Others hold that it is to praise the Benefactor over His favor. Yet others say that it is the settling in the heart of love for the Benefactor. Some hold that it is keeping the body constant in His obedience and the tongue constant in His mention and praise. Others hold that gratitude is vigilant observance of [applying] such favor while safeguarding [against transgressing] His limits.

Yet how elegant and subtle is what Hamdun Al-Qassar says of it:

Shukr for a blessing is to see yourself as its undeserving recipient.

Abu ‘Uthman said:

Thankfulness is to recognize one’s incapacity to [sufficiently] thank [for a blessing].

Al-Junayd said:

Gratitude is that you do not see yourself as worthy of the blessing,” which is similar in meaning to the aforementioned opinion of Hamdun.

Ruwaym said:

Gratitude is to do one’s utmost [with the blessing].

Ash-Shibli said:

Gratitude is to bear witness to the Giver rather than the gift.

In my opinion, this last statement can be interpreted in two ways. First, that one is so lost in one’s witness to the [glory of the] Giver that one does not notice the blessing. Second, that one’s witness to the [greatness of the] gift ought not blind one from witnessing [as to the greatness of] the Giver. This latter is a better interpretation. They [i.e., the Sufis] prefer the first one, however. Yet the best way is to bear witness to the gift and the Giver, for the extent of one’s gratitude is in accordance with one’s appreciation of the gift. Allah loves the servant’s appreciation and acknowledgment of His gifts, not that the servant should be too lost [in love] to notice His blessings.

It has also been said that gratitude is to secure the gifts that are present and seek one’s that are not. The gratitude of ordinary people [who are not purposeful in their spiritual striving] is [typically] for food, drink, clothing and bodily sustenance, while the gratitude of the [spiritual] elite is for their faith in God, and His Oneness, and the sustenance of the hearts.

According to an Israelite tradition: David, upon him be peace, prayed: “O Lord! How shall I thank You, when my very thankfulness to You is Your blessing upon me, which itself deserves thanks for?” God said: “Truly now, O David, you have thanked Me!”

According to another Israelite tradition: Moses, upon him be peace, said: “O Lord, You created Adam with Your Hand. You breathed into him Your own breath. You made Your angels bow before him. You taught him the names of all things. You gave him, and You gave him yet more. How was he ever able to thank You?” Allah, Most Exalted and Magnificent, said, “He knew that all that was from Me, and his awareness of this was his gratitude to Me.”

Young Junayd was asked by his uncle Sari [Al-Saqati] about gratitude, and he said: “Gratitude is that you do not use any of God’s blessings in acts of disobedience against him!” Sari said: “How did you acquire this [wisdom]?” He said: “From your company.”

It has also been said: “One whose hands who are incapable of returning favors should at least use his tongue in gratitude [for them].”

Gratitude Breeds Increase in Gifts

The Most High has said,

If you give thanks, I shall, most surely, increase you. [Surat Ibrahim, 14:7]

Thus, if you do not see increase in your blessings, try increasing your gratitude for what you have.

It has also been said,

Whoever hides God’s blessings acts ungratefully, and whoever shows them has thanked God.

This is derived from the saying of Allah’s Messenger, upon him be peace:

When God gives a servant a blessing, He loves that the marks of His blessings show on his servant. (Ahmad, Tirmithi, graded hasan by Tirmidhi.)

The Difference Between Hamd (Praise) and Shukr (Gratitude)

People have discoursed on the difference between hamd and shukr and about which of the two is superior and better. One hadith reports:

Hamd is the epitome of shukr. Whosoever does not praise God has not thanked Him. (see the Musannaf of Abd Al-Razzaq, and Al-Bayhaqi on the authority of Ibn ‘Umar).

The difference between the two is that shukr is more general with respect to its types and causes and less general with respect to what it is associated with. The opposite is true for hamd. This means that shukr consists of the humility and submission of the heart, praise and acknowledgment in speech, and obedience and submission of the entire body. It is, however, associated with a [particular] blessing. One thanks the Giver for a blessing. One does not say, for instance, we thank God for His Eternal Life, His Hearing, His Sight, His Knowledge, etc. Rather, He is praised (mahmood) for these attributes of His, while shukr is directed at His blessings upon His servants.

Written By

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim’s Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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