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Ramadan Reflection Day 3: On Surat al'Adiyat -- Qu'ranic Advice on Gaining Contentment Through Gratitude

I had read this verse over and over throughout my life, but when I read it that day, it felt like I was reading it for the first time. I didn't know how to be appreciative, and the impact it was having on me was quite severe.
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Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the fifth year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

One of my favorite chapters of the Qu'ran is the 100th chapter called Al-'Adiyat. I can still remember reading it about seven years ago while I was yearning for some answers, despite not knowing what actual questions I was wrestling with. I was looking for purpose and meaning and found a connection through this small chapter that made me then see the entire Qu'ran in a different way.

It opened up for me insight into the human condition, particularly my own and more generically those of people all around me, helped me to see the Qu'ran and in turn Islam through more than the legalistic framework I often was taught about it in, and served as a starting point in my continued spiritual quest to understand God through His own words, rather than the words of those who claim to speak on His behalf.

Like many other chapters of the Qu'ran, the initial verses of Al-'Adiyat start with an oath. In Islam, a person can only take an oath, if ever, by God. God, however, can take oath by any of His creation. The chapter title takes its name from the oath as God is swearing by Al-'Adiyat, a group of horses that He describes quite vividly.

Horses in a Meccan Arabia were considered to have great worth and to conceptualize the impact these verses have, its important to recognize their dissemination was not in a book form that we have today, but rather as the verses were revealed they were told to the people. The description given of these horses is quite captivating and it's key to understand this to get the point of the chapter.

In the first five verses of the chapter, they are described as a group of horses, pushing themselves to their limits as they run forward, breathing heavily and nostrils flaring. Their feet move at such a speed that they leave a trail of sparks behind them caused by their hooves striking the ground. They come upon the people they have been charging against in the morning, having no fear of it being known that they are coming. Their hastened arrival causes clouds of dust to arise with them, and as they reach their destination, they go head on and penetrate into the middle of the group, essentially surrounded. If you've ever seen any movie with a battle, from the Lord of the Rings to Braveheart, you can picture the scene in your head. A smaller group going against a larger one -- what will the end result be?

At this climactic point, when everyone is waiting to hear what happens next, the listener is given a most important message:

Inna-al insaana li rabbihi la kanood
Indeed, mankind, to its Lord, is ungrateful.

I had read this verse over and over throughout my life, but when I read it that day, it felt like I was reading it for the first time. I didn't know how to be appreciative, and the impact it was having on me was quite severe. I saw a lot of the world in terms of what I was missing and not what I actually had. I was quite focused on my wants at the expense of the fulfillment of my needs. But when I read it this time, I realized I needed some positive emotion in my life, and being purposeful and deliberate in the acquisition of appreciation was the key to it.

The word kanood in this verse can denote a few things:

  1. A person who always looks at the hardships, but never looks at the blessings . Our blessings come in so many different shapes and forms, but we become those people who focus on the negative always rather than the positive.
  2. A person who misuses the blessing in a way that the one who gave it to us did not intend for us to use it.
  3. A person who acknowledges the presence of a blessing, but fails to recognize the one who gave it to them in the first place.
Being any of those things wasn't bringing me anything other than short-term satisfaction, if that. More often than not, it was bringing me a lot of despair. But in being open to taking advice from God that He was offering not for His benefit, but for mine, I found in this verse insight not just on what not to be, but also on what to actively be. If the absence of gratitude was yielding pain, then the presence of gratitude would quite possibly yield the contentment I was seeking, or at least help me in my pursuit of obtaining it.

Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the second caliph of Islam, once heard a man saying, "Oh God, make me from amongst the few." Umar said, "What is this supplication?" The man said, "I refer to the saying of God the Exalted: And few of My servants are grateful." (Qu'ran, 34:13) Umar said, "All of the people know better than you, Oh Umar!"

In the work that I do, I find a lot of people who are very hurt, and that hurt puts a blanket over their hearts that makes the world that much more of a heavier place.

I also find a lot of people who then fail to recognize the goodness inside themselves. The pain has become so consuming that they believe there is nothing good about them and they have nothing good to offer to anyone, including themselves. I would be the first to tell you that is the farthest thing from the truth. Where the world has failed to help you recognize the value inside of you, don't fail to recognize it yourself. Confidence can be built by affirming with appreciation the God-given talents that we have been endowed with uniquely and through that affirmation finding the strength needed to acknowledge and take on areas where we can improve. Arrogance causes us to only see weakness in the world around us -- they are two very different things.

I firmly believe that active pursuits of gratitude can help to ease hurt. Where there in pain, anger, bitterness, jealousy, envy, hatred, or negativity of any kind, its removal can be sustained and actualized through the interjection of gratitude and Ramadan creates ample opportunity to start bringing some of that positivity into our hearts. The water we drink tastes that much more refreshing, the food we eat that much sweeter. Build into your routine, whether it is daily or a few times a week, moments where you sit and just reflect. Be around people who are positive and can uplift your insides. Two actionable items that are suggested by psychologists:

  1. Keeping a gratitude journal -- something in which you document regularly things that are blessings and bring benefit in your life. We see that this is built into the Islamic tradition as there are numerous advices from the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, to take time after our daily prayers and perform certain litanies that praise God, glorify God, and proclaim God's Greatness, subhanallah, alhamdulillah, Allahu Akbar. Rather than just rattling them off your tongue, take a moment to attach reason and meaning to them from your heart by thinking of specific occurrences and instances to tie to each remembrance.
  2. Writing thank you letters to someone you might not have ever properly thanked before and, if possible, as a second step sharing that letter with the person you wrote it to. I ask my students and community members to do this often and the experience is always moving and remarkable. Hearts tremble as they recognize what someone has done for them as much as they tremble when someone hears that we are appreciative for all that they have done for us. And as the prophet Muhammad has said, "He who has not thanked people has not thanked God."

Tomorrow I will probably write more on the concluding verses of the chapter Al-'Adiyat as it speaks about a second aspect of human condition that is important to reflect upon.