Shukr, Teaching Your Hurting Heart Gratefulness

O Allah! I have wronged my soul, so forgive me.

I have forgotten myself, so pardon me.

I have become frustrated and distressed, so have mercy on me.

O Allah! I deserve nothing of Your goodness, yet You shower it upon me.

I have doubted You in times of darkness, yet You gifted me with light. 

I have stood before You with a heart that is dead, yet You bestowed upon me emaan—the gift of life.

I sought distractions in abandoning Your remembrance, yet You taught me Your Book.

I have so often preferred death over life, yet You, over and over, gifted me with another day to better my life.

—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah

The more I live, the more I’ve come to appreciate the trials that have brought me pain and difficulty, and even betrayal and abandonment by those I loved and trusted. It certainly isn’t an experience I’d want to relive or repeat, or that I’d wish on anyone. But there is something healing and purifying in suffering in solitude. It gives you insight into the world around you and within you that you could never have gained otherwise.

Prosperity, happiness, and social acceptance so often act as blinders to the soul. Most of us are not propelled toward gratefulness, humility, and generosity through them; but rather entitlement, arrogance, and the obsessive need to protect our privilege at all costs, even if it means that innocent people suffer.

And no, I’m not speaking of political movements or legal environments. I’m speaking of personal spaces and environments cultivated by those who profess faith in God and the Hereafter.

It seems that for so many of us, social, financial, and marital privilege does not make us more content with our circumstances and grateful to our Creator. It makes us more anxious and paranoid, as we are constantly on guard against anyone who we imagine threatens our status or privilege—even if that person has no meaningful connection to our life in any way.

This restless discontent leads so many of us to work tirelessly against what our Lord is most pleased with, as our anxious imaginations cause us to distort reality in a self-destructive way. Thus, our husbands and wives become our enemies for the very reason that we want to keep them close. In our paranoia about losing them, we watch them closely and distrust their every word and decision, lest they betray us or abandon us some day.

In this mental space, other people’s private decisions in their own lives and marriages somehow threaten our own. And then, most tragically, God Himself becomes a threat to our discontented souls, as we frantically try to reinterpret even His Words and decisions such that our social and marital statuses become superior to others—or the only ones that are allowed.

If we are tested with the additional blessing of social influence, we use the public platforms that God has given us to share with the world our broken souls—through calling others to our manmade codes of behavior that our emotional wounds have made us imagine will bring about some greater good. However, we call our brokenness “wisdom” and “spiritual insight” as we warn others of phantom threats to their worldly statuses and marital privileges, and as we teach them our self-serving interpretations of God’s Words.

So yes, I’m grateful for the painful and lonely paths that I’ve treaded in life. Or at least I’m striving to be. Because I genuinely don’t know how it feels to imagine that the world literally revolves around me and my personal privilege. I genuinely don’t know how it feels to open the Book of Allah and actually imagine that it was revealed for the sole purpose of praising my personal choices—and denying that others have a right to theirs.

And I genuinely don’t know how it feels to actually imagine that God is here to serve me, grant my demands, and support my ideas of how life should be—and not the other way around.

Regret and Healing

I didn’t always have a healthy perspective on life. It took several painful trials and spiritual struggles before my heart submitted to what it should have submitted to all along: that Allah’s behavior codes and decisions are always superior to our own, even when we have no idea the benefit or wisdom behind them.

To be honest, I’m still striving to teach this spiritual lesson to my heart. Even today, sometimes my heart is at peace after Allah has decreed a painful trial in my life, and sometimes it is restless and confused. But alhamdulillah, Allah has blessed me to get past the spiritual wounding that once incited all sorts of opinions about other people’s lives, even when they were doing nothing haraam (divinely forbidden). For me, learning that it is kufr (disbelief) to hate anything that Allah revealed or to seek to change the halaal (divinely permissible) into haraam, or the haraam into the halaal, has quieted a lot of the restlessness of my heart and tongue.

However, I still struggle mightily with the trials of being part of an ummah (faith community) that puts humans’ behavior codes before Allah’s, especially when these manmade codes are taught by those with the title imam, sheikh, or spiritual teacher. I know this trial is a part of Allah’s qadar (divine decree) for those living in the Last Days, but I still find it difficult for my heart to accept. So I pray for sabr (patience and perseverance) and shukr (sincere gratitude).

In this, I daily ask Allah to help me and forgive me for having so much difficulty dealing with this trial. For when the revelation of Qur’an first came to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), his beloved wife Khadijah (may Allah be pleased with her) reassured him by saying, “…You [patiently] endure hardships in the path of truthfulness” (Bukhari). So I understand that having sabrun-jameel (beautiful patience), as well as a lifestyle of shukr, is a basic characteristic of a heart endowed with true emaan (faith and spirituality).

In seeking to teach my heart beautiful patience and sincere gratitude—shukr in particular—I’ve found Allah’s prescriptions for attaining sabr and shukr the most helpful in calming my frustrations, removing my ungratefulness, and healing my spiritual wounding. In this blog, I share some of these prescriptions, as well as some personal lessons, I’ve learned on my spiritual healing journey.

Patience and Prayer

In the Qur’an, Allah tells us that the starting point of seeking help with anything that we are struggling with is maintaining patience and establishing the prayer. He says what has been translated to mean, “And seek help in Sabr and the Salaah, and truly it is extremely heavy and hard except for Al-Khaashi’oon (those who are sincerely and humbly submissive)” (Al-Baqarah, 2:45).

If we are seeking help through sabr (patience), this means we are patiently withholding ourselves from doing anything that would harm our lives and souls, and we are patiently and continuously doing whatever would benefit our lives and souls.

If we are seeking help through Salaah (prayer), then we are at the bare minimum praying our five daily prayers every day on time. Additionally, when possible, we are also praying any optional prayers that would help us through life’s trials and demonstrate true gratefulness to Allah, such as Qiyaam or Witr, or the Sunnah prayers that accompany Fajr, Dhuhr, Maghrib and ‘Ishaa.

However, when we are struggling in our emaan (faith and spirituality), maintaining patience and keeping up with our obligatory (let alone optional) prayers can be very difficult, hence the saying of Allah, “…truly it is extremely heavy and hard except for Al-Khaashi’oon (those who are sincerely and humbly submissive)” (2:45).

Thus, we should constantly supplicate to Allah to make us of the khaashi’oon. In the meantime, it is important for us to show sabr in keeping up with what helps our souls, especially the five daily Salaah and any other spiritual obligations, even when we feel unmotivated or empty inside. I remind myself of this in my personal journal:

Struggling in your emaan? Do you feel dead inside when you pray, make du’aa, or read Qur’an?

Remember this: It’s okay to show up empty. Just be sure to show up.

And your Lord will fill your heart with the spiritual fuel it needs, eventually.

But you have to show up.

Show up to prayer.

Show up to du’aa.

Show up to Qur’an.

Just the act of showing up is a powerful act of faith.

Allah will take care of the rest.

Repentance and Forgiveness

In seeking to attain shukr (gratefulness) specifically, we can seek forgiveness from Allah for our sins and wrongdoings because the Qur’an teaches us that forgiveness is a path toward being grateful.

For example, when Allah is sharing with us the story of the Children of Isra’eel, He tells us how they wronged themselves through neglecting the rights of their Lord and becoming wrongdoers. Then He says, “Then after that We forgave you so that you might be grateful” (Al-Baqarah, 2:52).

Thus, in seeking a truly grateful heart, we can sincerely reflect on our faults and sins, and then humbly repent to Allah for them, while hoping for His forgiveness.

Fasting and Dhikr

Two other paths to gratefulness are fasting and using our tongues to glorify Allah for His blessings.

Allah says, “The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful” (Al-Baqarah, 2:185).

We can continue to strive for gratefulness outside of Ramadan by fasting optional days such as Mondays and Thursdays, ‘Ashooraa, the Day of Arafat, and/or six days of Shawwal. We can also continuously keep dhikr (the remembrance of Allah) on our tongues by glorifying and praising Allah, even when we are not motivated to.

In my journal, I wrote this personal reminder to myself: Even when your heart feels dead, keep your tongue alive with dhikr. It may become the resuscitation of your heart.

Reflecting on His Provision and Blessings

The truth is that no matter how empty or dead we feel inside, and no matter how much emotional pain we are suffering in life, we are still immersed in innumerable blessings from Allah. We can remind ourselves of this by speaking about these blessings aloud or writing about them in a journal, saying something like, “I’m thankful to Allah for such-and-such, and such-and such…” and so on, even if the exercise feels a bit dry at first.

In fact, this is a good practice even in times of ease and happiness, for Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us, “Remember Allah during times of ease and He will remember you during times of difficulty” (from Forty Hadith An-Nawawi). Furthermore, Allah says, So remember Me; I will remember you. And be grateful to Me and never be ungrateful to Me” (Al-Baqarah, 2:152).

However, even in our limited ability to be truly mindful and grateful for His countless blessings, Allah remains merciful and forgiving to us (which is in itself another cause to be grateful). He says, “…Truly, Allah is full of Bounty to mankind, yet most of mankind give no thanks” (Ghaafir, 40:61). In another ayah, He says, And if you should count the favors of Allah, you could not enumerate them. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful” (An-Nahl, 16:18)

In helping us to be more mindful of His immeasurable mercy and kindness, Allah reminds of us of some of these blessings so that we can reflect and be grateful:

And have you seen the water that you drink? Is it you who brought it down from the clouds, or is it We who bring it down? If We willed, We could make it bitter, so why are you not grateful?” (Al-Waaqi’ah, 56:68-70).

“And it is He who subjected the sea for you to eat from it tender meat and to extract from it ornaments which you wear. And you see the ships plowing through it, and [He subjected it] that you may seek of His bounty; and perhaps you will be grateful” (An-Nahl, 16:14).

And Allah has extracted you from the wombs of your mothers not knowing a thing, and He made for you hearing and vision and intellect that perhaps you would be grateful” (An-Nahl, 16:78).

And there are many more ayaat like this, reminding us of Allah’s blessings so that we can reflect and be grateful.

Purifying Our Thoughts and Speech

One thing to be mindful of is that ungratefulness can cloud our perception such that we are unable to appreciate even times of ease and prosperity, as our hearts are so overcome with spiritual diseases. I reflect on this in my journal:

Ungratefulness can make times of ease feel like times of difficulty. So be careful. In this, we’re so busy complaining about our hectic schedules, our personal troubles, and the things we *don’t* have, that we miss out on the soul-rejuvenating experience of shukr, that sincere gratefulness that allows us to truly appreciate all that we *do* have—and that can be easily taken away by the One who gifted it to us…

And as for all those blessings you are impatiently seeking and that are distracting you from true shukr? Allah says what has been translated to mean, “And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed, ‘If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]…” (Ibrahim, 14:7).

In highlighting the importance of gratefulness, Al-Nu’man ibn Bashir (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said while he was on the pulpit, “Whoever is not grateful for small things will not be grateful for large things. Whoever is not thankful to people is not thankful to Allah. Mentioning the blessings of Allah is gratitude and ignoring them is ingratitude…” (Musnad Aḥmad, 17982 Sahih by Al-Albani).

Thus, it is crucial for the health of our souls and for attaining worldly favors, that we strive to be in a constant state of shukr (as well as beautiful patience), even when life isn’t going the way we’d like.

Prostration for Gratefulness

In addition to speaking aloud or writing down our blessings, Sajdatu-shukr (the prostration for gratefulness) is also a good practice to implement in our lives, even when the blessing or good news we receive isn’t “huge.” Here is a personal entry from my journal to remind me of this: Sajdatu-shukr… Fall into it whenever you’re in distress yet witness even the smallest of victories or hear even the smallest good news. It helps calm the heart, clear the mind, and refocus the soul.

I also wrote this reflection in my journal:

I’m growing to appreciate the wisdom in the simple utterance, “Alhamdulillaah” (i.e. “All praise and thanks belong to God”) and in the simple act of sajdatu-shukr (prostration for gratefulness), wherein we place our heads humbly on the ground and glorify our Creator after something good has happened in our lives.

In moving our tongue in remembrance of our Creator after every decree (good and bad), we are reminded where both the power and praise always belong. And in placing our heads humbly on the ground after receiving good news, we are reminded where we ourselves always belong—in humble remembrance that our highest honor is found in embracing our humility before God, not in claiming our greatness before His creation.

Obeying Allah and Guarding the Soul

So how do we experience shukr—true and sincere gratefulness?

Shukr (gratefulness) is not only a declaration of thankfulness on the tongue. It is an action-based lifestyle rooted in thankfulness in the heart. And the most basic form of gratefulness is submission to God (Allah). This is also the highest form.

In other words, shukr is essentially the opposite of kufr (disbelief), as refusing to submit to the Creator and believe in His Messenger (peace be upon him) is the worst form of ungratefulness. Therefore, we attain shukr by striving upon sincerity in our emaan and istislaam, submission and surrender to Allah.

Submission begins with a declaration of emaan on the tongue and is followed up with a lifetime commitment to surrendering to Allah through obeying Him, even if we fall short at times. This lifestyle of submission and surrender is the essence of ‘ebaadah (sincerely worshipping Allah), and this ‘ebaadah is in turn how we attain taqwaa (piety and guarding our souls from spiritual harm). Allah says, O mankind, worship your Guardian Lord, who created you and those before you, that you may attain taqwaa (Al-Baqarah, 2:21).

It is then through striving for taqwaa that we attain true shukr (gratefulness to our Creator). Allah says, “…Then have taqwaa of Allah; perhaps you will be grateful” (Ali ‘Imraan, 3:123).

In our practical lives, taqwaa means striving our level best to protect our souls from spiritual harm in this world and in the Hereafter. This is achieved through using our tongues, limbs, and worldly blessings to obey Allah and seek His pleasure, while understanding there will be occasional pain and suffering upon this path.

Ubayy bin Ka’b (may Allah be pleased with him), who was one of the first Companions to accept Islam, once asked ‘Umar bin al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him). “Have you ever walked on a path that has thorns on it?” Umar said, “Yes.” Ubayy said, “What did you do then?” Umar said, “I rolled up my sleeves and struggled.” Ubayy said, “That is taqwaa” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir).

In reflecting on the necessity to bear with patience the inevitable trials that will befall us as we strive for taqwaa and Allah’s Pleasure in the Hereafter, I wrote this reflection in my journal: You’re not getting to Paradise without the pain. So stop looking for ways to numb it, suppress it, or escape it; and start looking for ways to bear it with beautiful patience. Until you meet your Lord.

Wudhoo’, Purity and the Night Prayer

We can also attain shukr through consistently being in a state of spiritual purity and bodily cleanliness, and through making Qiyaam (the Night Prayer) a regular part of our lives (in addition to the five obligatory prayers).

Allah says what has been translated to mean, “O you who have believed, when you rise to [perform] prayer, wash your faces and your forearms to the elbows and wipe over your heads and wash your feet to the ankles. And if you are in a state of janabah (impurity), then purify yourselves. But if you are ill or on a journey or one of you comes from the place of relieving himself or you have contacted women and do not find water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and hands with it. Allah does not intend to make difficulty for you, but He intends to purify you and complete His favor upon you that you may be grateful” (Al-Maa’idah, 5:6).

Once, at the time of the Fajr prayer, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) asked the famous Companion Bilal (may Allah be pleased with him), “Tell me of the best deed you did after embracing Islam, for I heard your footsteps in front of me in Paradise.” Bilal replied, “I did not do anything worth mentioning except that whenever I performed ablution during the day or night, I prayed after that ablution as much as was written for me” (Sahih al-Bukhari 1149).

Also, Al-Mughirah ibn Shu’bah (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) would pray until his feet were swollen. It was said to him, “Why do you do this when Allah has forgiven your past and future sins?” The Prophet said,Shall I not be a grateful servant?” ( Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1078 and Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2819)

Regarding the virtues of praying Qiyaam each night, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Our Lord (highly glorified is He) descends every night to the lowest heaven, when only one third of the night remains. He says, ‘Who will call on Me, so that I would answer him? Who will ask Me, so that I would give him? Who will seek My forgiveness, so that I would forgive him?’” (Bukhari and Muslim).

If we find it difficult to pray Qiyaam every night, we can develop this habit by praying Qiyaam once a week or every other week or even once a month. Our Mother `Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) said that Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately; and know that your deeds will not make you enter Paradise, and that the most beloved deed to Allah is the most regular and constant even if it were little” (Sahih al-Bukhari 6464 Book 81, Hadith 53).

This hadith is an encouragement to all of us, as it is a reminder that ultimately it is Allah’s Mercy, not our own deeds, that will allow us to enter Paradise. Thus, so long as we are striving to do the best we can, then Allah will reward us for this striving.

In emphasizing the importance of pacing ourselves and focusing on the best we can do, Allah advises us to recite in Qiyaam whatever is easy for us, and this is most certainly an encouragement for those of us who have not memorized much Qur’an.

He says: Indeed, your Lord knows, [O Muhammad], that you stand [in prayer] almost two thirds of the night or half of it or a third of it, and [so do] a group of those with you. And Allah determines [the extent of] the night and the day. He has known that you [Muslims] will not be able to do it and has turned to you in forgiveness, so recite what is easy [for you] of the Qur’an. He has known that there will be among you those who are ill and others traveling throughout the land seeking [something] of the bounty of Allah and others fighting for the cause of Allah. So recite what is easy from it and establish prayer and give zakaah and loan Allah a goodly loan. And whatever good you put forward for yourselves – you will find it with Allah. It is better and greater in reward. And seek forgiveness of Allah. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful” (Al-Muzzammil, 73:20).

In further encouraging us to be compassionate with ourselves as we consistently worship and obey Allah, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The Religion is easy.  So whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way.  So you should not go to extremes, rather strive to be near perfection.  Receive good tidings that you will be rewarded, and gain strength by offering the prayers in the mornings, afternoons, and during the last hours of the nights” (Bukhari).

Therefore, no matter how much or how little we are able to do of these optional deeds, we should know that Allah will reward us for whatever good we do, and He will help us attain true shukr.

Reading and Understanding Qur’an

Undoubtedly, one of the most important aspects of attaining true emaan and teaching our hearts sincere shukr, with the help of Allah, is making the Qur’an an integral part of our lives such that we humbly interact with it each day. Allah says, “Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an, or are their hearts locked up?” (Muhammad, 47:24)

One place we can start is by reciting Ayatul-Kursi (i.e. Al-Baqarah, 2:255) after each obligatory prayer, for Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Whoever recites Ayatul-Kursi after each obligatory prayer, then nothing stands in his way to Paradise except death” (An-Nasaa’i).

The translation of the meaning of this ayah is as follows: “Allah – none has the right to be worshipped except Him, the Ever-Living, the Sustainer of [all] existence. Neither drowsiness overtakes Him nor sleep. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. Who is it that can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is [presently] before them and what will be after them, and they encompass not a thing of His knowledge except for what He wills. His Kursi extends over the heavens and the earth, and their preservation tires Him not. And He is the Most High, the Most Great” (Al-Baqarah, 2:255).

In encouraging myself and my brothers and sisters in faith to integrate the Qur’an into their daily lives, I wrote this reflection:

Read Qur’an every day, even if only for a few minutes, even if you don’t feel like it, and even if your heart feels empty or distant from Allah.

Just as your body benefits from physical cleansing even when you’re not fully “enjoying” the bath, your heart and soul benefit from spiritual cleansing even when you’re unable to taste the sweetness of emaan.

Yes, a bath you enjoy refreshes you far beyond merely cleansing the skin, and a spiritual practice you enjoy makes your heart come alive far beyond merely earning blessings for uttering divine words.

But with or without enjoyment, your body needs daily cleansing—and with or without “feeling faith”, your soul needs daily purification.

So in addition to praying your five daily prayers, read Qur’an each day, dear soul, even if only a few lines or for only a short time. Your heart might not *feel* the purification happening within you during prayer and reading Qur’an, but it is happening nonetheless.

O Allah write us down amongst the shaakireen—those who are sincerely and consistently grateful to You—and do not allow us to die except in a state of sincere emaan!

Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.

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