When Thanksgiving Meets Ashura

Originally published in November 2013.

The day of Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, is unfortunately not given its full due because we choose to observe it through the polarizing lens of our own personal ideology. Some observe Ashura as if the death of Imam Husain, the grandson of our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him and his family), never happened on this day, while others observe Ashura as if only the death of Imam Husain happened on this day. Others are ignorant or apathetic about observing it at all. In all of these circumstances, this blessed day is being shortchanged, and we are the only ones who lose out.

With Thanksgiving season in the United States approaching, a reflection on gratitude, however, may lead us to a more comprehensive and unifying perspective on Ashura. Gratitude is one of the recurrent themes in the many historical events that are reported to have happened on this day. When informing us of the virtues of Ashura, our Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) stated:

“This is a tremendous day. Allah saved Musa and his people on this day and drowned Pharaoh and his people. Musa fasted it out of thanks, so we fast it too.”1

Some narrations tell us that the Ark of Prophet Nuh was saved and came to rest on this day, and that Prophet Nuh fasted as a result. Ali bin Abi Talib (may Allah be pleased with him and ennoble his face), the father of Imam Husain, once told a man, “After Ramadan, the best month to fast is Muharram, for in it is a day that Allah turned in repentance one (Adam) and he will do it for others.”

The Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) further pointed to the redemptive potential of the day of Ashura, telling another man:

“If you want to fast a month after Ramadan, then fast Muharram, for it has a day in which Allah forgave an entire people, and He turns to others in repentance in.” 2

In these narrations, an undercurrent of thankfulness resides. Allah saved Prophet Musa and his people on this day, so he fasted out of thanks. The Ark was saved, so Prophet Nuh fasted out of thanks. Prophet Adam’s repentance was accepted on this day, so we ourselves are thankful for Allah’s grace, grateful for His promise of forgiveness and His giving us the opportunity to turn to Him in repentance on this day.

In showing gratitude on this day, it has been recommended to focus on three things: fasting, spending on one’s family, and charity. It is reported that Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘As said, “Whoever fasts Ashura, it as if he has fasted the entire year. And whoever gives charity this day, it is like the charity of an entire year." 3

Many of these and other essential rites of worship in Islam show us the bidirectional connection between thankfulness and sacrifice. In sacrificing our earthly needs for food and drink while fasting, our thankfulness for those blessings and others increases. In the physical sacrifice of an udhiya or aqeeqah, we embody gratitude for Allah’s blessings while learning that continued spiritual and worldly sacrifice will ultimately refine and perfect our character and reliance on God. Sacrificing our wealth in charity teaches us to realize that giving to others will not bankrupt us, but enrich us.

Recent studies in psychology demonstrate the links between thankfulness and a person’s ability to empathize, sacrifice and help others. People with higher levels of gratitude, for example, have been shown to give more, and were more likely to sacrifice their own personal gain if the community would profit. 4 5

Prophet Musa’s life, for example, embodied this link between gratitude and prosocial behavior. When Allah first spoke to Musa, he reminded him of all the favors bestowed on him, while concurrently commanding Musa to risk his own life and liberty to confront Pharaoh and liberate others. 6 Later, before giving him the difficult task of implementing the Sacred Law among the children of Israel, Allah said, “O Musa! Surely I have chosen you above the people with My messages and with My words, therefore take hold of what I give to you and be of the grateful ones.” 7 In each of these circumstances, a prerequisite for improving the collective public good was the cultivation of his personal gratitude to God.

The road for a grateful servant of God will naturally lead to sacrifice and selflessness, just as the sacrificing servants of God will gain a deeper appreciation of the blessings bestowed on them. It’s in the combination of sacrifice and thanksgiving where the most elect of the elect can be found. The gratitude of imaan (belief) and every blessing is to do more and spend more from the blessings we have been given.

It should therefore be of no surprise then that on the eve of Ashura, Imam Husain, the moral standard-bearer of his time and heir to the Prophetic legacy, gathered his followers and commenced his remarks with the following:

“All praise is for Allah. Whether in comfort or in trouble, I always thank Him. I thank You because You have honored us by means of Prophethood, taught us the Qur’an, made us comprehend the religion and its commandments, granted us eyes, ears and hearts; kept us free from polytheism and then enabled us to thank You for Your blessings. O Allah! Make us Your grateful servants.”

By initially thanking Allah for the blessings given to him and his family, Imam Husain made it clear the natural consequence of that gratitude was to serve Allah and humanity. In opposing the oppression and moral decay of the political establishment, Imam Husain chose to sacrifice for the greater good, showing the Muslim community that the values all the Messengers had advocated must be preserved. Blessed with personal virtue and moral ascendancy, his political actions ultimately elevated these very merits in the public conscience. In giving out of his own virtue, he inspired countless others to be virtuous. His lasting message: To thank Allah and sacrifice for Him, by living for the benefit of others.

That’s what Imam Husain did on this day, living and giving for others to benefit. That’s what Prophet Musa did on this day. And that’s what our beloved, the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him), did every day. This is a day where we remember all of them, and this is a day for all of us, regardless of our real or imagined differences. Let this be a day where we unite in repentance. Allah already forgave one previous nation on this day. Perhaps if we call on Him all together, He may forgive our entire nation, with all its shortcomings, as well.

May Allah shower innumerable blessings, peace and honor on our master Muhammad, his family, his companions, his wives, and his descendants, and guide us all to the straight path.

1. Related in Bukhari and Muslim.
2. Related in Tirmidhi.
3. Recorded by Imam Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali in Lata’if al-Ma’arif.
4. DeSteno, D., Bartlett, M., Baumann, J., Williams, L., & Dickens, L. (2010). Gratitude as moral sentiment: Emotion-guided cooperation in economic exchange. Emotion, 10, 289-293.
5. Bartlett, M. Y., & DeSteno, D. (2006). Gratitude and prosocial behavior: Helping when it costs you. Psychological Science, 17, 319-325.
6. As told in Surah Ta-Ha, Verses 9-48.
7. Surah Al-‘Araf, Verse 144.


Faith & Spirituality Related Articles