by Zaineb Shebani
Having spent a large part of my adolescence in the Arab Gulf, I can say that I was brought up in a consumer driven and materialistic society where the principal concerns of the majority of the population were the shopping centers with their designer shops, the latest and most expensive cars, and the pampered lifestyle. Being from a modest and religious family, my parents disapproved greatly of the lifestyle led by most who lived in the Gulf and put in much effort to bring up their children with the idea that true wealth was not measured by the amount of money and possessions one owned but rather by leading a lifestyle that was dedicated to the devotion of Allah (swt) and His message.
However, despite being brought up by pious parents, there is no doubt that the materialistic environment I was surrounded by took its toll on my way of thinking. Being a teenager, it was only natural to become influenced by the materialistic world that I lived in, and I slowly found myself sinking into a society where the pursuit of possessions and the materialistic things of the world mattered most; where the most significant of matters such as virtues, good deeds, and contributions to societies were forgotten. In fact, during my adolescent years, it wasn’t very often that I found myself counting or appreciating my blessings. I seemed to focus more on what I lacked than on the blessings that Allah (swt) had already given me.
After I graduated from university, I was offered a teaching job in Libya. Although I wasn’t very familiar with Libya at that time as I had only visited it for the first time the previous year, I thought it was an ideal opportunity to make a contribution to my country and become better acquainted with my relatives. Having lived abroad my entire life, I was aware that life in Libya was going to be difficult, so my initial plan was to stay there from a few months to one year. Surprisingly, I ended up living and working there for five years. Subhan’Allah, Allah (swt) is the most merciful and always knows what is best for His creation. When He feels we are beginning to go astray, He makes sure we go through a certain experience that will guide us to the right path. The five years I spent in Libya were one of those experiences, as they transformed my perspective on life entirely.
Being surrounded and working with Libyans who have been under the oppression of Gaddaffi’s brutal regime for decades opened my eyes to what really mattered in life and made me realize how superficial I had been. All the problems I thought I had suddenly seemed so insignificant compared to the problems the Libyan people were facing and had faced for decades. Hearing heartbreaking stories from my relatives and students about the injustice and corruption of the entire regime in Libya – and experiencing some of it myself – made me look at life from a completely different angle.
In a country with the worst possible infrastructure, I saw how the Libyan people were deprived of a proper education, good health care, and safe roads. I met families of ten or more who had to live off a salary of less than 150 dollars. I saw people who had to live with disabilities their entire life due to a small problem at birth that could have easily been treated by a simple medical procedure which was never performed, either because the doctors weren’t qualified enough, the equipment and medication weren’t available, or people just couldn’t afford it. I heard of businesses that were shut down by the government simply because they became too successful (a result of Gadaffi’s obsessive fear of anyone with the minutest amount of wealth or power). And of course, I cannot forget the psychological and emotional trauma most Libyans had gone through at one time or another in the past. Almost every single family in Libya has had at least a father, a brother, a husband, an uncle, or a cousin who was imprisoned, tortured, or brutally murdered by Gaddafi and his followers simply because they spoke the truth. The least harmful and most sincere of actions, such as performing Fajr (dawn) prayer in the mosque, was considered a threat to the regime and resulted in the imprisonment of many. The amount of suffering that the Libyan people have endured in the past (and are enduring even now) is beyond imaginable.
This forced me to reflect on my life and contemplate that which surrounds me. I looked back at my life and thought of the endless opportunities I was offered in life that most Libyans in Libya could not even dream of. How could I have wanted more? How could I have not been content? Although I used to say AlhamdulilLah (Praise be to God) for my blessings in the past, I never really meant it from the depths of my heart. I would say it, but at the back of my head there was always this nagging worldly desire of something that I needed or wanted. I soon found myself for the first time thanking Allah (swt) from the bottom of my heart for all my blessings every time I raised my hands in du`a‘ (supplication) instead of asking Him for some worldly matter.
This brought me to the realization that striving for this dunya (world) will never make one happy. I marveled at the difficult life the Libyans had experienced and how little they had in comparison to many who lived in other Arab or western countries—yet they were happy. Some of my most cherished moments in Libya were with family members gathered around a large round tray, called a sufrah, opening a can of tuna to make traditional Libyan sandwiches called nufs, and dipping homemade bread (khubzat tanoor) in olive oil; or sitting in the front yard with the neighbors, sipping tea and chatting away while the older women picked olives from the nearby trees and the children played around us. My most cherished classes were with my Libyan students, who despite everything they had gone through and were going through, were the liveliest, most cheerful, and most appreciative students I have ever encountered throughout my entire career as a teacher.
At those moments, the life I was surrounded by in the Gulf seemed so meaningless. I remembered the expensive high-class restaurants I used to eat at with friends where a tiny portion would cost a ridiculous amount, and the fancy shopping centers where I would spend hours (something Libya has never seen); and realized that I was so much more content when I was sitting on the moist grass with family members or neighbors sipping away shahee akhdar (green tea) and eating fresh almonds picked straight from a tree.
This opened my eyes to the fact that the key to a happy life is to be thankful for the simple pleasures and blessings of this world. And that chasing after this dunya will only lead to the weakening of one’s heart by making one greedy and always wanting more. I began to think about all my possessions that at one time I thought I had desperately needed. How many of them did I really use on a regular basis? How many of them had an impact on my life or made me happy beyond the first few minutes of purchasing them? Suddenly, many of the possessions I owned seemed extra and I began to give away a lot of what I had to people I thought needed them more than I did. Not only did I begin to feel that I didn’t need so many things anymore, but I began to make a conscious effort to thank God for everything he had given me. I had finally experienced true gratitude– or at least I thought I had.
Gratitude at a Deeper Level
Thinking that I had finally mastered the skill of gratitude and feeling quite good about myself, something happened that made me realize that true gratefulness is really at a much deeper level and that no matter how thankful we think we have become, we can never be thankful enough for all the blessings in the world that Allah (swt) has bestowed upon us.
During my stay in Libya, my uncle’s wife fell ill with colon cancer. Her condition was beyond curable. She went to many different doctors, travelled to the UK for treatment, underwent chemotherapy and surgery, but at the end, the doctors told her that the cancer had spread and that there was nothing more that they could do for her. Due to hospitals in Libya not being the most safe or comfortable of places, she spent the very little time she had left to live in the comfort of her home.
As the months passed, she became more and more ill. A couple of months before she passed away – May Allah (swt) have mercy on her soul and grant her firdaws – she developed a condition called Bowel incontinence, which is the loss of the voluntary control of bowel movements. As a result she had to use a fecal collection device, which consists of a drainable pouch attached to a tube that is inserted into the rectum. This allowed the feces to be taken straight out of her rectum to be poured into the pouch which was taped to her waist under her clothing. Of course the pouch needed changing once or twice a day. As she was extremely ill at that time, was in a lot of pain, and spent most of her time in bed, her daughters had to ensure that the soiled pouch was removed when needed and replaced with a clean one. Upon hearing this news, I found myself feeling very bad for my uncle’s wife. On top of all the pain she was already experiencing, I thought about how difficult and how much discomfort it must cause her to not have any control over her bowels. For the first time in my life I found myself thanking Allah (swt) with every molecule in my body for granting me the ability to control my bowels. What an amazing blessing it is! How come I had never thanked Allah (swt) for it before?
I soon found myself thanking Allah (swt) every time I entered the bathroom for granting me such an incredible blessing. We all use the bathroom several times a day, but how often do we thank Allah (swt) for this blessing? How often do we think about how difficult our lives would have become had we lost the ability to control our bowels? I’m sure if that had happened, all our worldly desires wouldn’t seem so important, would they? In fact, I’m sure we would give up everything we had in order to regain control of our bowels. But unfortunately, this is one of the most important blessings Allah (swt) has bestowed upon us that we tend to take for granted.
I began to look back at how I thought I had become more grateful and realized that I had left out a large number of blessings that I hadn’t learnt to appreciate. Before knowing about my uncle’s wife’s illness, I was mainly thankful for the visible and obvious blessings – for having a car, a roof to live under, food to eat, a good job, a good education, a good family etc. While there is no doubt that these are amazing blessings and one should always be grateful for them, one must also keep in mind the more subtle blessings, the ones we don’t really think about but wouldn’t be able to function without: the ability to breathe, sneeze, cough, blink, our nerve cells, our organs our senses, etc. The list is endless! When we take a breath, how often do we stop and think alhamdulilLah I am able to breathe on my own? AlhamdulilLah, I’m not bedridden with a tube inserted down my windpipe knowing that if the machine suddenly stopped working I won’t be able to breathe anymore?
When we sneeze, we say alhamdulilLah, but how often do we stop and think why we are saying alhamdulilLah. Or do we just say it because that’s what our parents taught us to say after we sneeze? Or perhaps because it has become a habit? We sneeze; we say alhamdulilLah – almost always on an unconscious level. But let’s ponder this for a moment, it is said that when we sneeze, our body lets out unwanted microorganisms and substances that have entered our bodies and that may cause us a serious illness. Perhaps this is the wisdom behind saying alhamdulilLah after one sneezes – alhamdulilLah, my body rid me of those substances. But how often do we actually stop and think about that? How often do we take that moment to think ‘alhamdulilLah, I was just saved from possibly becoming very ill’? And really mean that alhamdulilLah with a wakeful heart and all sincerity? How often do we say it and mean it from our hearts and not from our mouths?
The means of purifying the heart and freeing it from greed, envy, jealousy and the attachment to this dunya is by expressing true and sincere thankfulness to Allah (swt). By continuously being thankful, we become consciously aware of Allah and remember Him at all times. In fact, it is at the moments of true and sincere gratitude that the faith in our hearts strengthens, our love for Allah (swt) increases, and our attachment to worldly pleasures weakens.
It was when I experienced my uncle’s wife’s illness that I truly understood the meaning of this verse: “And if you should count the favor of Allah , you could not enumerate them.” (Qur’an, 14:34). The visible and subtle blessings of Allah (swt) are with us in every second of our life and surround us from all directions. No matter how bad a situation may be, a true believer will always find a blessing to be grateful for. In fact, even hardships and calamities are blessings in disguise as there is always a valuable lesson that one learns from them. But we must make that conscious effort to remind ourselves of these blessings, reflect on them, and be truly grateful for what we have and mean it from the depths of our hearts and with all sincerity.
Allah (swt)’s blessings are here for us to enjoy, but we shouldn’t just enjoy what Allah (swt) has created for us but should also remember Allah (swt) every time we see, feel or touch these things. Allah (swt) said in the Qur’an “And few of My servants are grateful.” (Qur’an, 34:13). Allah (swt) knew when he created humans that only very few would appreciate His blessings. Therefore, let us strive to be from those few.
May Allah (swt) make us from His grateful slaves, strengthen the faith in our hearts, and keep us away from the attachment to this dunya. Ameen.