I know how much I didn't know 15 years ago.
After landing at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York as an exchange visitor, I was faced with a culture shock. I knew the word "Manhattan" but I didn't know what it actually meant. Was it a fruit? A car? A newspaper? I knew the name Michael Jordan but I didn't know who he actually was. A singer? A scientist? A politician? I knew Thanksgiving was an important holiday in America but I didn't know what to do on thanksgiving? Eat? Pray? Love?
Don't forget. This was 1996, when internet was not ubiquitous and search engines meant using a pillow sized book called Yellow Pages. But despite spending a lot of time, the Yellow Pages could not expand my understanding of the above three queries.
So I did what we doctors do best: read a book. It was a book about American cultural literacy.
Reading about the history of thanksgiving, however, opened up a Pandora's Box of controversies. Is it a Christian holiday? Is it a secular holiday? Is giving thanks to God a good idea or should we be thanking our fellow human beings? Or is it a reminder of the "genocide of the native Americans" and therefore should not be celebrated at all.
This was all too complicated for a medical doctor who was now having second thoughts about learning the history of Manhattan or Michael Jordan. "Who knows ... they may turn out to be just as controversial?" I thought.
Which left me with the loaded question: What should I, as a Muslim in America, do on Thanksgiving?
One good thing about medical residency was that sometime a holiday would simply pop-up on your schedule and you literally had to do something with it. So my first reaction to "do something" with my first Thanksgiving was to thank God. Thank Him for giving me peace, security and opportunity in America.
To that end, I found a rainbow of Quranic verses exhorting Muslims to thank God in various ways. Here is one for each color in the rainbow.
Want a promising violet, try: "... If you are grateful, I will, surely, bestow more favors on you;" (14:8); How about an acknowledging indigo: "(Abraham was) thankful for His bounties; God chose him and He guided him unto a straight path" (16:121); Or the true blue thanks of another prophet "Assuredly, he (Noah) was a grateful servant" (17:3); Or a the combination of a green encouragement with a yellow warning: "Remember Me so that I will remember you, and give thanks to Me and do not be ungrateful to Me" (2:152); Or consider the simply orange truth: Surely, Allah is gracious towards mankind, but most of them are not thankful...' (10:61); and if all fails, here is the red hot chastisement: "If you are thankful I will add more unto you. But if you show ingratitude My punishment is terrible indeed" (14:7).
But God was simply missing from most American Thanksgiving celebrations. Why? Because many atheists claim that giving thanks to our fellow human beings, those who make a true difference in our day to day lives, is more important than thanking a nebulous (in their opinion) entity.
There is much credence, (in my opinion), to the atheist's point of view of thanking our fellow humans. Prophet Muhammad also reminded Muslims, "The one who does not give thanks for a small blessing will not give thanks for a great blessing, and the one who does not give thanks to people will not give thanks to Allah" (Abu Dawud). By helping the poor, respecting the elders, giving up his seat for a guest, showing unconditional love and exercising fairness in every day affairs, the prophet taught Muslims an important lesson. Thank you is not just a word; it's an attitude.
Making the thanksgiving holiday a focal point of the Native American controversy is an over simplification. So I will leave it for a separate discussion.
15 years later, as a naturalized US citizen, there is much that I still don't know about a lot of things. But I do know what an American Muslim should do on Thanksgiving: Give thanks.
Let's thank our beautiful country, let's thank our living constitution, and let's thank the people around us. Only then can we truly thank God.
By the way, adding Turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy, and a pumpkin pie to the day would be a fantastic idea too.