The Art of Gratitude and Embodying Beauty as Islam

“Alhamdullilah” ["All praise be to God"] is an expression of gratitude to God. So much of what disciplines the soul of a human being is our relationship with this simple yet demanding core value of gratitude. Gratitude is the simple recognition by a human being that they are not an independent force in nature, but that everything about a human being is contingent upon everything else in creation. In gratitude, then, a human being is always mindful of what is owed to everyone and everything else, and what is supreme over everyone and everything else is the Almighty, the Owner of this universe, the Creator, the Planner, the very purpose behind this creation.


The art of gratitude. We are grateful for the fact that at this time and place, we are able to enjoy our health, stand on our own two feet, and speak without the encumbrance of pain or physical ailment. Gratitude is to enjoy all this while being ever mindful of the fact that at any point it can all be taken away. While we enjoy it, we simultaneously form a bank of gratitude from which we can withdraw when times change and the health that we once enjoyed dissipates. This is so that we can meet the challenge that comes with patience, forbearance, and strength.


The art of gratitude is to fully enjoy the moment while strengthening yourself for the challenge of deprivation that may come. It is to enjoy what you enjoy, form your bank of gratitude, and build your strength. At the same time, you are ever mindful of the many others who, at the same moment and in the same place, do not have what you have and do not enjoy what you enjoy. It is to be mindful of the fact that there are others who cannot partake and enjoy. So you turn toward this universe and say, "I know this is not happenstance. This is not an accident. This is a carefully measured world that has an Owner, a Planner, and a Supreme Being that is responsible for giving and taking away." 


We are grateful for the ability to enjoy meals and delight in good taste and good company. We are mindful that there will come a time in which we may not be able to enjoy food that we currently enjoy. So, we build our bank of patience and endurance so that when the challenge comes, we are able to withstand it with power, forbearance, and understanding. As we enjoy the food that we enjoy, we are mindful of the millions of people who cannot enjoy what we have just enjoyed. The millions that, whether for health reasons or for reasons of economic deprivation, are denied the simple joy of filling their stomachs, of savoring the taste of food that we have just savored.


Gratitude is to look around and see the family that keeps you company, the family that you are able to reunite with at this time and place. It is to enjoy the good relations with good friends that you are able to reunite with. It is to understand that but for the grace of God, families are unable to reunite and friends are unable to come together. But for the grace of God, Satan is capable of driving all types of divisions between family and friends. Gratitude is to realize the extent to which it is a blessing that we can enjoy the company of family and friends. It is to be ever mindful of how vulnerable this enjoyment is. But for the grace of God, the family and friends that you have could be gone by tomorrow.


You build your bank of forbearance in anticipation of the time of deprivation, so that when that time comes, you are strong. You do not despair. Nor do you become bitter. The art of gratitude is to enjoy the moment and realize how precious that moment is. At the same time, it is to be ever mindful of all the others who have loved ones with whom they cannot reunite. It is to never allow the intoxications of enjoyment make you forget others or take the moment, the relationships, and the time for granted.


It is to be mindful that the universe had to rotate and events had to come together in just the right order for God to allow you to enjoy the moment, at the time and place that you enjoy it. All it takes is something very minor for you to be denied the pleasure of the company of a loved one. All it takes is for God to remove God’s protections so that the devil can sow division, ill will, and ill feelings. Never allow yourself to enjoy something without thinking of the countless others who cannot enjoy what you enjoy at that very moment, in that very place.


The art of gratitude is to be mindful of the fact that in this season, you have a roof over your head. We always take that simple reliance for granted. By nighttime, we will go to sleep and wake up in a nice warm home. We expect that we will still have a home the next day. Meanwhile, so many others are denied that simple, straightforward pleasure.


The biggest challenge to the egotistical nature of human beings is the move from habit to entitlement. You may have become accustomed to a paycheck, a profession, food, friends, family, intelligence, memory, or even the dexterity that you rely upon day after day. But that is all habit. The nature of the egotistical human being is that habit becomes entitlement. When we feel entitled, we quickly forget to build our bank of gratitude. We quickly forget the importance of forbearance, which allows us to weather the challenging times that will inevitably come in life. The problem with entitlement is that we then fall into a new habit, that is, the habit of enjoying without thinking of the deprivation that others experience. 


After an evening in which I have enjoyed the blessings of stability, safety, and security, I often wonder, "What if I did not have this home, how would it feel to be out in the elements? How would it feel if I was worried that tomorrow my home would be foreclosed or that I would lose the roof above my head?" So often, after I enjoy the pleasure of the company of loved ones, and I fear that I will slip into entitlement, I very starkly remind myself of others that are so easily forgotten. 


I immediately look up, for instance, the news about 16-year-old Ahmad Amjad Shehada. Israeli forces shot Shehada through the heart, killing him. Four others that were shot were wounded and are now in critical condition. I think of Ahmad Amjad Shehada's family. I think of how the loss of their 16-year-old has robbed them of all sense of security and safety. I think of how the death of their 16-year-old has robbed them of any ability to enjoy a meal and has turned their social events into sorrow and misery. I think of the fact that this family can look at this world and know that there is no justice for their child. They know that those responsible for the killing of their 16-year-old will not be held responsible. They know that because they are Palestinian, the world does not care. Not even their fellow Muslims. Not even their fellow Arabs. No one cares.


I think of the fact that we live in the world in which the High Commissioner for Human Rights will raise the issue of the murder of Palestinian children at will by Israeli forces, and remind the world that while Arab countries and the West rush to appease Israel, Israel is, indeed, an apartheid state that treats Palestinians as subhuman and holds deeply racist policies, As a result, the High Commissioner was maligned, slandered, and accused of being an anti-Semite, so much so that it has become an international incident. The High Commissioner has since demanded an investigation into those who launched a smear campaign accusing her of anti-Semitism simply for speaking for those who have no voice. But the response to her words is the result of a deeply ingrained hypocrisy in the soul of the world.


I think of this Commissioner, who is neither a Muslim nor Arab, and of the isolation, loneliness, and hurt that she must feel as she looks around and sees that there are no Muslims or Arabs upon whom she can count. Instead, Muslims are too preoccupied with the mundane, the trivial, and the marginal. I think of Ahmad Shehada's family, the family of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and I allow the reality of the suffering of fellow Muslims to temper my sense of entitlement so that I can truly understand what a blessing it is that God has allowed me to enjoy the moments that I enjoy in my life. This is truly a gift from God. It is not an entitlement or a right. It is not something that I should rely upon or expect. It is truly a gift that God has allowed our families to be healthy, mobile, and stable enough to come together to have a meal. It is truly a gift that God has granted friends the same blessings of stability, mobility, and sufficient independence. The art of gratitude is to realize the extent to which every second of enjoyment is truly a gift. 


Build your bank of strength and forbearance so that you can weather the challenging moments when they come. Commit yourself to the discipline that every time you indulge in enjoyment, you think of all the others who wish they could be in your place to enjoy what you just enjoyed. Resist the sense of entitlement that creates the destructive egoism of human beings in this life.


Among the lines that are often repeated by imams in khutbahs is something that the Prophet used to say, "I thank God for the blessing of Islam (Alhamdullilah ‘ala ni‘mat al-Islam).” But the blessing of Islam is a blessing of salaam (peace) and rahma (mercy). There are so many things to say about this expression. But there is one element that I want to focus on. It is an element that God reminds us of in God’s Revelation: 


O you who have attained to faith! Behold, many of the rabbis and monks do indeed wrongfully devour men's possessions and turn [others] away from the path of God” (Q 9:34).


You cannot in any way be truly grateful for the blessing of Islam unless, as a Muslim, you come to embody the ideals of Islam. Unless you become the embodiment of what it means to say that Islam is peace and mercy. Put differently, God warns us in Surah al-Tawbah that many of those who claim to represent the Divine, in fact, repulse people. Instead of attracting people to the Divine, they do the opposite. They repel people by being poor examples of what a person who is committed to the Divine is like. There is no way that gratitude for Islam can have any meaning if, as a Muslim, you do not embody what is so attractive about being a Muslim.


I will give you just one example. It is an example that is, sadly, all too common. How many times have you heard the following scenario: a Muslim man meets and marries a non-Muslim woman. She converts to Islam because of the marriage. Instead of embodying the beauty of Islam, however, this Muslim man, suddenly, becomes a living embodiment of all the abuses that a religious faith can put forward. There are so many examples of Muslim men who, after marrying a convert, become authoritarian, misogynistic, and patriarchal. They start citing to the woman they married what they claim is evidence that the woman has to be subservient, obedient, mindless, without personality, without will, and without character. They represent this authoritarian personality type as the Divine will, as what God wants.


This is the embodiment of an Islam that repels, disgusts, and terrifies people. It is like the Islam of the Taliban that denies women an education; or the type of Islam that executes up to 80 people in one day in Saudi Arabia; or the type of Islam that sacralizes authoritarianism, despotism, and silence before injustice; or the type of Islam that is thoroughly patriarchal and tells women that just because they were created as women, they are subservient to men, despite their intellects, the right to personality, or their right to character; God gave them a personality and intellect, but God expects them to fold this personality and intellect in subservience to their male companions, their husbands.


“...(A)nd turn [others] away from the path of God” (Q 9:34). It is the height of ingratitude for the blessing of the Islamic faith to be presented in such a way that repels people from the faith. The only way that we can be truly grateful for the blessing of Islam is to commit ourselves to investigating, finding, discovering, and embodying beauty through Islam in a simple word: al-ihsan. If you are truly grateful for this faith, then you become a muhsin. As a Muslim, you become a muhsin, in every place and in every situation. A muhsin is someone who goes beyond the boundaries of normalcy to achieve actual beauty. Beauty in everything. Beauty in how you treat your friends, your coworkers, your neighbors, your children, and your spouse. That is Islam, and that is true gratitude for Islam.


When God warns us about priests and rabbis that scare people from the path of God, God is not telling us a story about the Other. Rather, God is warning us against following the same path. I must therefore ask you in all honesty: in the world in which we live today, how many imams truly invite to the path of God in ihsan, in beauty and perfection, instead of being agents that repel from the path of God? Nothing remains of faith if you do not commit yourself to the art of gratitude, the art of al-hamd. Every relationship that truly exists with God is an extension of our understanding of what gratitude is. There are many who say they believe, but they do not understand what gratitude is about. They do not feel it. They do not live it. They do not experience it. The simple core, the pulsing heart, of faith is simple gratitude.

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