Shall I not be a Thankful Servant?
a brief guide to understanding shukr
let’s go back in time. back to madinah, through the masjid and to the prophet’s (sal allahu alayhi wa sallam) home. we see him there, in the darkeness of the night, praying to his lord. he is crying as he reads the ayat of the qur’an. he has been standing for so long, and you see that his blessed feet have swelled and the skin is cracking.
many of us would think what a’ishah, his beloved wife, (radi allahu anha) asked him afterward. she said, “o prophet of allah, why do you undergo so much hardship despite the fact that allah has pardoned for you your earlier and later sins?” he (sal allahu alayhi wa sallam) responded, “afala akuna abdan shakura? should i not prove myself to be a thankful servant?”
we learn from this hadith that gratitude is shown through deeds. shukr is by action. the prophet (sal allahu alayhi wa sallam) was not commanded to worship to this degree but rather it was a complete act of devotion and thankfulness to allah (azza wa jall).
when we want to thank someone, we go the extra mile to make them happy, especially when they are beloved to us. we go to great lengths to show our parents, spouse or friend that we appreciate them. we offer our help without their asking. we plan time to spend together. we give them gifts without expecting one in return. we do whatever will make them happy. we show our love and appreciate through our actions.
yet, how can we claim that we love allah when we do not even act this way with him? we do not abide by his rulings. we hardly go past the bare minimum of worship. we do not honor his book. we swear by his name in vain. we are not shy to sin in front of him while we are shy when others are watching. we delay our daily conversations with him, and when we finally do go to pray, we do it as fast as we can – rushing back to what we think is more important than him.
would we ever claim to love our mother, spouse, or friend if we treated them this way? would they feel that we love them and appreciate them if we treated them this way?
aren’t we ashamed that we treat our family and friends better than we do our own creator? surely for allah is the highest example.
allah (azza wa jall) does not need us or our worship at all. we are not harming him or benefiting him in any way by worshiping him or disobeying him. he does not need anyone or anything, rather he is self-sufficient and always deserving of praise. this parable is to show how we contradict ourselves – we say that we love allah, that we are thankful to him, yet our actions show the complete opposite. our actions show that we are careless, ungrateful and that we are very good at saying what we don’t mean.
what is shukr?
as a creation, we are wired to love those who give to us. in an authentic hadith, the prophet (sal allahu alayhi wa sallam) taught us, “give gifts and you will love one another.” linguistically, shukr is used to describe a healthy cow – a cow that has visible signs of nourishment. islamically, the scholars define shukr as the mentioning of allah’s blessings upon the slave’s tongue, the slave’s recognition of these blessings in his heart, and obedience of the limbs due to these blessings.
being thankful to allah does not mean to only say “alhamdulillah” or doing a quick sajdah when we feel blessed. the prophet (sal allahu alayhi wa sallam) taught a’ishah that night that you must show your thankfulness to allah. you have to strive to prove it.
we also learn from the qur’an that shukr is by action. allah (azza wa jall) says to the family of dawud (alayhi salaam):
اعْمَلُوا آلَ دَاوُودَ شُكْرًا
“work, o family of david, in gratitude.” (34:13)
allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) did not say, “be grateful!” rather he said to work in gratitude. we learn from the prophet (sal allahu alayhi wa sallam) that the most beloved fasting and prayer to allah is the fasting and prayer of dawud (alayhi salaam).
thabit al-binani (rahimahullah) says regarding this ayah, “dawud (alayhi salaam) would divide the hours of the night and day between his family so that there wouldn’t be an hour of the night or day except that a person from the family of dawud would be praying, so allah addressed them all by saying, ‘work, o family of david, in gratitude.’” [uddat al-saabireen]
from this ayah, imam ibn al-qayyim (rahimahullah) states that there are three branches of shukr:
1. knowledge: knowledge is the foundation of shukr. we must be aware and knowing of the fact that allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) is the one who is bestowing us with these blessings. we attribute all of our blessings to him ta’ala. some people attribute good to themselves, and when they are faced with difficulty or hardship, they attribute it to allah. this is not gratitude rather it is kufr, a defiant denial of allah’s favors.
2. recognition and awareness: the slave remembers allah and his favors with his tongue – by praising allah, and remembering him through supplication and words of remembrance, and acknowledges it in his heart. it is reported in tafsir al-qurtubi that dawud (alayhi salaam) said, “o my lord! how can i be grateful to you when gratitude is a blessing from you?!” allah (azza wa jall) responded to him, “now you have shown true gratitude (because you’ve recognized that all blessings are from me).”
3. deeds: the slave works in gratitude by being an obedient slave to allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala). it is reported in tafsir al-tabari that abu abdur-rahman al-hubaly (rahimahullah) said, “prayer is shukr, fasting is shukr and any deed done for the sake of allah is shukr.”
imam ibn al-qayyim states that the pillars of being grateful to allah are:
1- submission of the believer to allah
2- love of allah
3- acknowledging his favors
4- praising him for his favors
5- refraining from utilizing the favors in a way displeasing to allah
benefits of shukr
allah calls mankind ‘ungrateful’ in many ayat in the qur’an, and he says that only few of his slaves are grateful. it is easier for us to be heedless of his blessings because being a thankful slave is not easy. when we do show gratefulness to allah, he blesses us in many ways:
1. allah will increase you in blessings. he ta’ala says, “and (recall) when your lord proclaimed: ‘if you thank, i shall certainly increase (my blessings on) you, and if you are ungrateful, then my torment is surely severe.’” (14:7)
2. allah will reward you for being thankful. he (azza wa jall) says, “allah will give reward to the thankful.” (3:144)
3. shukr saves you from punishment. allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) tells us in the qur’an, “the people of lot denied the warning. indeed, we sent upon them a storm of stones, except the family of lot – we saved them before dawn. as a favor from us. thus do we reward he who is grateful.” (54:33-35)
4. allah will be pleased with you. “and if you are grateful, he is pleased with you.” (39:7)
5. allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) will love you.
practical ways to show shukr
now that we know what shukr really means, how can we be among al-shaakireen?
1- take the first step. for many of us, extra deeds seem difficult because we are so used to the little we do. don’t think that you cannot do more, rather remember the hadith qudsi: “when my slave walks to me, i run to him.” if you take that first step, which is the most difficult, allah will make everything else easy for you. it’s time we push ourselves to do more for allah (azza wa jall). it’s time that we don’t accept the bare minimum from ourselves. it’s time that we have great goals for our deen just as we do for our education, career and families. and for this to happen, we go to step #2:
2- seek the help of allah by means of du’a. the prophet (sal allahu alayhi wa sallam) taught us to say: “allahumma a’inni ‘alaa dhikrika wa shukrika wa husni ebadatika. o allah, help me to remember you, to be thankful to you and to worship you in the best way.” say it like you mean it. beg allah from your heart with this duaa. ask him to make you from among his few slaves that are grateful.
3- work, work and more work. nothing comes without work. if we want to worship allah more, we must work for it. if we want to enjoy our worship, we must put in the effort. for some, praying and fasting is easy. for others, it is extremely difficult. if it is difficult for you, don’t interpret it to mean that you do not love allah. rather, it means that you have to strive more and work more to see the fruits of your labor. allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) says,
وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا ۚ وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَمَعَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ
and those who strive for us – we will surely guide them to our ways. and indeed, allah is with the doers of good. (29:69)
allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) used the word “jaahadu” here, meaning they strive and work hard for the sake of allah (azza wa jall).
we can all do something extra in one way or another. start slow and it will become easier, inshaallah. you know yourself the best, so get out of your comfort zone to train yourself.
- if you cannot fast three days every month, fast at least one day.
- if you want to pray qiyam but already struggle with fajr, stay awake after fajr to remember allah and read qur’an before heading back to sleep, even for 15-30 minutes.
- keep your tongue moist with the remembrance of allah by learning the du’as from the sunnah for various actions we perform throughout the day.
- always do your adkhar – a collection of supplications and remembrances to make after fajr and asr prayers.
- keep a portion of day, even 30 mins, just to remember allah – reading qur’an, making du’a and reflecting.
- thank those around you. it is stated in a hadith, “whoever does not thank the people has not thanked allah.”
- help others in your community. you can help at a soup kitchen, or prepare a meal for a needy muslim in your community.
make it your habit to not belittle any good deed. if you have a chance to do a good deed, then do it. the prophet (sal allahu alayhi wa sallam) said in the hadith about the man who gave a drink to the thirsty dog that, “allah thanked him for that deed and forgave him.” (bukhari) we learn from this that a small deed sincerely for allah can earn allah’s forgiveness and appreciation.
al-shakur: the most appreciative
remember that this work of yours is not in vain. it may be difficult for you to fast those extra days. it may be hard for you to get to sleep early so you can wake up at night, but do not forget the one you are worshiping! you are worshiping al-shakur, the most appreciative. he ta’ala does not only look at your deeds, but he looks at the effort behind it. imam al-qurtubi (rahimahullah) explains this name by saying, “he accepts the little from their good deeds, and repays them with a great reward.”
he is al-shakur: he does not waste your efforts. he does ihsan to you – utmost good by accepting your few deeds and giving you greater in return. he blesses you with something better when you leave something for his sake.
allah, al-shakur, not only rewards you for your deeds but he increases them for you because he appreciates your obedience to him. he is al-shakur of your shukr! while you are struggling to show your thankfulness to him, al-shakur is keeping account of all that you do, of all the effort you are putting in, of how much you sincerely want to worship him in the best way. he will reward you with what you do not even deserve. our deeds can never earn paradise, but this is how al-shakur shows his appreciation to his righteous servants.
always remind yourself of this name of allah (azza wa jall), it is the key to coming closer to him. remind yourself of the day that allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) shows his gratitude by saying:
إِنَّ هَٰذَا كَانَ لَكُمْ جَزَاءً وَكَانَ سَعْيُكُم مَّشْكُورًا
“indeed, this is for you a reward, and your effort has been appreciated.” (76:22)
we ask allah (azza wa jall) to make us of those who hear these words. may he make us among his truly grateful servants and we ask that he blesses us to worship him, remember him and thank him in the best and most beautiful way. ameen.