THE AUTHOR OF Manazil Al-Sa’irin [Shaykh Al-Harawi Al-Ansari] says the following of gratitude (shukr, sometimes better translated as ‘thankfulness’):

Gratitude is the name for the recognition of a blessing, and it leads to the recognition of the Giver. This is why Allah, the Most High, has named Islam and eman in the Quran as gratitude.

Recognition of a blessing, of course, is not all of gratitude, which also includes praise, submission, and love toward the Giver, as well as the use of the blessing in accordance with the pleasure of the Giver. Whoever comes to know the Giver, and strives to seek Him, inevitably loves Him. And whoever comes to know this world truly detests it inevitably.

[Al-Ansari], may Allah honor his soul, said:

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The meanings of gratitude lie in three things: Recognition of the blessing, acceptance of the blessing, and praise [of the Giver]. This is also the way of the common folk [the spiritually untrained].

Allah, the Most High, commanded His Prophet:

And the blessing of your Lord do you proclaim! [Surat Al-Duha, 93:11]

There are two explanations of this act of proclaiming that Allah has commanded.

The First Explanation:

It means to mention it openly and thank God for it. As Jabir, Allah be pleased with him, reports on the authority of the Prophet:

Whoever is done good should return it. If he cannot, he should praise [the benefactor] publicly for it. For to praise someone is to thank him. To hide someone’s favor is to be ungrateful. And to adorn oneself with that which one has not been licitly given is to wear the robe of injustice. (Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud)

In another report [the Prophet said]:

Whoever thanks not for a little, thanks not for much. Whoever thanks not people thanks not God. To mention God’s blessing is thankfulness, and to neglect to do so is thanklessness. To stick together as a community is a blessing and division is punishment. (Ahmad)

The Second Explanation:

The remembrance of God’s blessings which this verse mentions is to call to Allah, disseminate His message, and educate the Ummah. Mujahid said [of it]: “That [blessing] is prophethood.” Al-Zajjaj said: “It means to preach openly what you have been sent with, and speak of the prophethood that God has granted you.” Al-Kalbi said: “That [blessing] is the Quran, and he is commanded to recite it openly.”

The correct opinion is that Allah’s commandment is inclusive of both these explanations.

As for [Al-Harawi’s] saying, “This is also the way of the common folk,” Ah, would that the Shaykh had spared his book such weaknesses! As if he is suggesting that shukr, which is half of Islam and eman, is the weakest of ways. No, indeed! Shukr is most surely the way of Allah’s messengers and prophets, upon them all be peace, who are the noblest of most elite of His creation and nearest to Him.

How strange! What station can be nobler than shukr, in which are inscribed all stations of faith, including love and contentment and reliance upon Allah, among other [stations]? For thankfulness cannot be attained save after attaining these virtues. By Allah! There is no path for the elite of Allah and those near to Him other than or higher than the path of gratitude!

But the Shaykh [al-Ansari]—and the advocates of fana’ (doctrine of annihilation) all—see that above this station are ways that are higher and nobler than it. Their rationale for this is the following: Shukr, or giving thanks, according to them, is a kind of claim, which consists in thanking the Truth (Allah) for His blessings. This necessitates that there remain “formalities” (rusum) in place. Were one to truly go beyond them and annihilate them, and recognize that the Truth, the Almighty, is the One who truly thanks Himself—for how can the one “who is not” (i.e., man, the contingent creation which has no eternal being) thank the One who is Eternal (man lam yakun, kayfa yashkuru man lam yazel), one would then realize that gratitude is the station of the common folk [the spiritually untrained]. [They say] it is like the case of a Sultan who has clad a slave of his from his own garments. The slave, in attempting to thank the Sultan for it, would be deemed in error, indeed, impolite. For by thanking the Sultan it is as if he is claiming to be his equal. For thanking implies equality or commensurability. And a slave does not have that place.

To behold the reality [according to the advocates of annihilation] requires uniting the act of giving and taking and attributing both to the Giver and His power. The elite, according to such people, are those who go beyond thanking and go above that.

This is the ultimate end of their discourse on the matter. Indeed, this is the best way to present their case—and I have done so lest I transgress against them by assuming an ill interpretation, which might turn them away.

We must, however, seek protection in the principle that, except for the innocent one (the Prophet), none is infallible, and, therefore, we may accept or reject as to anyone else’s opinions. Every path that does not conform to his path is to be abandoned.

Now, we turn to their objections. If by calling thanking of Allah a claim they mean that the servant thus claims ownership and autonomy of his act independent of Allah’s grace, then, indeed, such a claim is false and unjust. If, however, the gratitude of the servant is accompanied by his recognition of Allah’s grace, and that both the blessing and the capacity to thank Allah are, indeed, Allah’s, then there is no false claim involved here.

True, his [Shaykh Al-Ansari’s] real reason [for this denigration of shukr] is that it does not accord with his doctrine of annihilation. You [annihilation advocates] have made annihilation your ultimate purpose, and that has led you to such conclusions. You have preferred it over what Allah and His Messenger have preferred. This has led you to different priorities and different considerations. Were it not for Allah’s favor upon those who are truthful among you—that is, the ones among you who still turn to prophethood and follow the Shari‘ah—things would have been different. [That is, your doctrines would have led you astray], as has already happened to many who have treaded this path. By Allah, apart from whom there is none worthy of worship! How many have been rejected, slain and crucified, or wounded and taken prisoners [by Satan] in this path!

As to your charge that “A thankful person retains only the forms”—it is said: What on earth is deficient if that remainder is worship, and servitude, and its means? For this remainder, this sense of “forms”— the sense the servant has of his or her own self—is necessary for worship. Deficiency lies in letting the self and rebellious desires ride the beast of this “remainder”—and perhaps the seeker of annihilation suffers from such a problem, for he has become confused while investigating and hair-splitting the contents of his self.

Dr Ovamir Anjum

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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