As a distinctly American phenomenon, Thanksgiving remains a very unifying and reflective holiday. It is a time where as Americans, we partake in large dinners at home with family and friends. Thanksgiving is associated with giving thanks for the blessings we’ve received not only throughout the year but throughout our lives. It is perhaps one of the things that Americans do as a collective public which brings the pleasure of Allah, for Allah reminds us in the Quran, “And so few of my servants are thankful” (Quran 34:13). One of the abstract benefits of Thanksgiving is that it affords people who are normally heedless and forgetful of the myriad of blessings, of which we are recipients, to at least once a year acknowledge those blessings. Consequently, Thanksgiving, while not directly legislated by Islam, is at least in essence compliant with the spirit of Islam.
In reflecting about Thanksgiving, we must ask ourselves, as Muslims, how should we process this and how do we help our children identify with what’s going on in our country at this time? In examining the practices that occur during Thanksgiving, we find that food, family, and giving are a major part of this holiday. The notion of feeding others, giving, and being with family is an extremely obvious form of good deeds (hasanat) in our deen. However, so too is the act of saying ‘thank you.’ In most houses, the practice of circling the dinner table with family, expressing what we are thankful for, and why we are thankful for it, is a way of not only expressing thanks to Allah, but also declaring and announcing our gratitude to others. It is an expression of the verse in the Quran, “And as for the blessings (ni’mat) of your Lord, proclaim them!” (Quran 93:11).
Blessings (ni’mat) are of two types: material (maddi) and abstract (ma’nawi). Material blessings are certainly far too numerous to enumerate. The abstract blessings, however, are not only too numerous but also too subtle to count, and thus because they are unseen, they escape enumeration completely– out of sight, out of mind! We may likewise classify blessings into those that exist and those that do not exist. That, in my opinion, is a far more significant classification because the absence of something may in fact be among the biggest blessings. Think of the absence of constant pain and suffering to our loved ones, the absence of more difficulty and harder trials in our lives, the absence of imbalance in our bodies and in our environment, and the absence of disorder and chaos. All of this and other absent blessings that we can all conjure up is itself a blessing worthy of thanks. The famous companion of the Prophet (may the peace and blessing of Allah be upon him), Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) used to say, "Any trial or tribulation you find yourself in, know that it could be worse, and that alone is a blessing (ni’mat) for which you should thank Allah for." The fact that our hardships are not worse than they are is perhaps one of the greatest blessings for which we don’t thank Allah. To realize this is to realize our ontological weakness and incapacity to thank Allah for everything but therein is the point. He constantly showers us with blessings and the more blessings we receive the more we either attempt to thank Him or forget and become heedless of Him. Either way, He still gives! What then is our role?
In Islam we have two forms of thanksgiving. The first is called hamd and the second is termed shukr. Hamd is to thank someone for something because they gave you something out of their generosity. When someone demonstrates kindness to you and doesn’t expect anything in return from you, your thanking them is called hamd. In other words, when we benefit by receiving something, we give back hamd. Shukr however, is something very different and is a higher level of human conduct. Shukr is employing all of the blessings that we have been given to ultimately please Allah. This means utilizing what we have been given to benefit others for the sake of Allah alone. This is moving beyond benefiting us, and journeying towards benefiting others for the pleasure of Allah. This is higher and loftier. It is easy to take benefit and say thank you, thereby displaying hamd. It is quite something else to use our time, energy, money, body, mind, possessions and life to benefit others for the sake and pleasure of Allah. This is shukr. So as we explain to our children the Islamic perspective of thanksgiving, we should remind them and ourselves of not only the blessings we take for granted, not only of blessings that we have that don’t exist, but also that with these blessings comes an ethical responsibility - the responsibility to become men and women who utilize what we have been given to please Allah, for if someone were to give us a gift, and then later we were to misuse and abuse that gift in the present of the giver, how would they feel? Similarly, for the American Muslim, Thanksgiving should be about remembering our duty to perform shukr, not just hamd; to strive to live a life of shukr and not become complacent with a life of hamd.
May Allah give us all a fruitful and blessed Shukr Day!
Khalil Abdur-Rashid is the first full-time University Muslim Chaplain at Harvard University and Instructor of Muslim Studies at Harvard Divinity School. He holds two full ijaazas in Sharia disciplines, both usul and furu, as well as an ijaaza in the spiritual sciences (tasawwuf) and Quran recitation.