Faith

The Story of Saba and the Importance of Being Thankful

They lived in a lush green plain, skirted by two verdant gardens on both sides which were constantly irrigated by water from an adjacent dam. Fruits and vegetables grew in abundance. Their town was strategically located between Yemen and Syria, connected to the historical Silk Route. Nature was bountiful, trade was thriving and life was at ease. They were full of joys of the spring, blessed with a ‘beautiful country and a forgiving Lord’. “Delight in the bounties of your Lord and be grateful to Him,” they were told. Gratitude was the only thing they were asked in return to sustain this life of plenty and prosperity. They not only declined to be thankful to God but failed to understand the value of the good things in their life. They took all their blessings for granted, grew more arrogant, more jealous and greedier. They pursued a policy of reckless aggrandizement and tried to monopolize the trade around them. Instead of being content with what they had, they wanted to have more and more; instead of recognizing the value of what they were given, they lamented over what they were denied. This ungrateful and boorish manner led to their tragic fall from prosperity to poverty, from affluence to penury.

An enormous dam, later estimated to be two-mile long and 120-feet high, which used to irrigate their farms burst under the weight of water, causing a massive flood inundating the entire cultivable area. Their two gardens were destroyed and the whole area rendered uncultivable. Instead of crops, fruits and vegetables, it started producing some wild fruits of bitter taste, tamarisks and a few lote-trees which were good neither for fruit nor for shade. The arable fields were turned into a wasteland growing nothing worthwhile for the local community. It took only a while for the farm of luscious fruit trees to be converted into an arid land of plants bearing bitter fruits.

This was how the people of Saba’ (Sheba) grew thankless and arrogant and met their nemesis.

In a chapter named after them, the Quran portrays succinctly in a few verses the circumstances leading to the fall of the Ma’arib dam and what happened to the people of Sheba downstream, who once led a happy and prosperous life. The Quran begins the narration saying, “There was indeed a sign for Sheba in their dwelling places: Two gardens on the right hand and the left…”, and the following verses cite ingratitude, a flagrant disregard for the blessings of God, monopolistic greed, aggrandizements etc. as the cause of their destruction: “This we awarded them because of their ingratitude. Punish we ever any except for the ingrates?”

Be thankful

The story of Sheba conveys a universal message relevant to all times and climes. Sheba had their signs in their own dwelling place, they didn’t require to seek it elsewhere in order to be thankful. Like Sheba, each individual, as well as each society or nation as a whole, has within itself a lot to reflect on and be thankful for. They don’t need to look out elsewhere in order to be thankful.

Gratitude, or being appreciative of what we were getting, is one of the defining characteristics of a believer, while non-belief (Kufr) is marked by ingratitude, arrogance and forgetfulness of all freebies we enjoy in our daily life like air, health, security etc. Gratitude is simply sending an acknowledgement to Allah for what He has bestowed upon us, while ingratitude is akin to forgetting or denying His role in what He has given to us.

Gratitude is an attitude or way of life that we need to discipline ourselves to. Gratitude can be achieved by training ourselves to look at what we have, however small or trifling they might be, appreciate it and think about its importance in our daily life, instead of complaining of what we don’t have or being jealous of what others have but we lack. Shukr (gratitude) is constantly being alert to what we have and being thankful for that. The wise believers build on what they have, while non-believers fail to recognize or value what they have, and spend their life craving for and lamenting over what they don’t have.

Focus on what you have

Focusing on what one wants instead of what one has is one of the most pervasive and destructive mental tendencies leading to stress or hypertension in today’s world. When you forget to think about what you have, you will keep expanding your list of desires. As your wish list continues to get expanded, your desires will never be fulfilled and you always remain dissatisfied. It will make you unable to understand the value of what you have and utilize it all to the maximum. Happiness will delude you as long as you remain a prisoner of your desires – the more you think about what life denied to you, the more dissatisfied and disgruntled you grow, whereas the more you think about what you have, identify its potential and work to develop it to a new level, the happier and more optimistic you will become. If you feel more grateful for what you have been given, you will grow more confident, become more focused and concentrated on what you are doing and be more productive in that, and your life will become more fruitful and rewarding.

Believers are told to consider their obstacles as blessings in disguise. They consider everything as an opportunity from God and constantly live a life of gratitude and appreciation for what they have. They are not supposed to complain about the challenges but accept them as an opportunity to prove their patience and endurance and get rewarded for that. There is no point in complaining about life, but brace yourself to embrace it head-on and try to prove yourself. The Messenger of Allah marvelled at the state of a believer saying,

“If something good happens to him, he is grateful and that is good for him; and if something bad befalls him, he is patient and that is also good for him.”

So let us be thankful for what we have, stop fretting and ranting about what we don’t have and fantasizing about the different tacks our life would have taken – had we lived a different life, in a different place and time, born to a different set of parents, being educated in a different way, doing a different job, married to a different spouse and so on and so forth. Let us stop blaming the destiny for not achieving what we wanted. Let us not wait for the right moment to come for our actual life to begin, and let us not wait for all obstacles to be cleared before we act because our life will never be cleared off obstacles.

1 Comment

  1. A long time ago, I remember learning that it was Muslims who preserved the philosophical texts from antiquity. Aristotle’s famous Nicomachean Ethics we have only in incomplete portions in Greek. The full text that everyone reads was translated from Arabic. Of course, Islam is fundamentally about insuring the word of God is not corrupted again. So it makes sense, especially in the early centuries, that Muslims would preserve all the wisdom they could that was bestowed on mankind due to God’s blessings.

    What I increasingly find impressive about the Quran is that this simple concept – written as a story and clearly a command by God – was laboriously argued for millennia before Muhammad. Reading the meditations of Marcus Aurelius is fascinating, particularly when you understand the duress he was under nearly being deposed. But in the end, had he known this simple concept from the beginning, he would have had no need to waste time on such meditations.

    While it is important to be thankful for the fate God has given us, and it is often hard either due to the struggle of pain or the temptation to evil that comes with abundance, it is also important to note simply how much *happier* life is when you take this path.

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