By Nathanael Vette, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow,

Gratitude: Christian and Muslim Perspectives

School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh

On 12-14 January, the School of Divinity hosted the third and final workshop discussing Christian and Muslim perspectives on gratitude. The workshop was held at the British University in Dubai, where participants were warmly welcomed by Vice-Chancellor Abdullah Mohammed Alshamsi. As with our first two workshops in Edinburgh and Yale, the event was chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui and sponsored by the Issachar Fund. The workshop set out to examine theological approaches to gratitude in socio-political discourse and civic life.

In his opening keynote address, Miroslav Volf (Yale University) explored the role of gratitude in the home. He explained that home is a patterned cluster of entities defined by resonance, attachment and mutuality. This provides a space for mutual beneficence—that is, the giving and receiving of love. Home is where ‘the most fundamental human goods become ours’. Thus, gratitude is the single most essential response to home. It is, above all, a celebration of dependency. But whereas gratitude is usually understood as a form of repayment, Professor Volf offered an alternative account: gratitude as recognition rooted in joy. This challenges the debt-creating account of gifts, instead focusing on the praiseworthiness of the giver—an indispensable relation which sustains the resonance, attachment and mutuality of the home.

In the breakout session, Ida Zilio-Grandi (Ca’ Foscari University) offered a survey of Islamic views of gratitude (shukr). Whereas the description of God as ‘exceedingly grateful’ (al-Shakur) is associated with his beneficence, for humans it is the mark of a servant. She went on to note two essential features of gratitude in the social life of the believer: the first is that God does not accept the gratitude of the believer who does not accept it from others. The second is that if a benefit cannot be repaid, the believer should speak of it to others and beseech God on their behalf. This was followed by my paper on gratitude for the Romans in the New Testament. As with all empires, the Roman empire demanded gratitude from her subjects. Those who revolted against imperial rule—like the Judeans during the Jewish War—were thus cast as ungrateful subjects. The New Testament echoes this polemic against the Jews as behaving improperly towards their Roman benefactors, showing how gratitude is weaponized in an imperial context.

The focus on empire continued in the breakout session with a paper from Anthony Reddie (University of Oxford) exploring the weaponization of gratitude as it relates to the Windrush Generation. The British Empire demanded gratitude from the conquered and this was especially directed at British African-Caribbeans from the 1940s to the 1970s. Professor Reddie went on to argue that the most powerful alternative to imperial gratitude is Black Phronesis—the practical wisdom of the British African-Caribbean community.

In the same session, Joshua Forstenzer (Sheffield University) explored the role of gratitude in social movements. Developing Cornel West’s idea of prophetic succession, he offered an account of gratitude as recognition of those who came before. This kind of gratitude for exemplars in the community is, in turn, able to provide resilience and fortitude for marginalized groups in the face of catastrophe.

The following day began with Mona Siddiqui’s (University of Edinburgh) keynote address on gratitude and the current state of multiculturalism. The past twenty years has seen a shift in understanding culture as monolithic—pitting ‘Islam’ against the white ‘Christian’ West. This has led public figures, like David Cameron and Angela Merkel, to announce the failure of multiculturalism. The dominant narrative is now one of resentment. Gratitude, however, is the antithesis of resentment. According to Simmel, gratitude is the recognition of someone else’s presence—a feeling fundamental to social cohesion. The response to widespread social resentment should be gratitude founded on hope in our shared humanity, rather than individualization which breeds resentment.

Linn Tonstad (Yale University) opened the breakout session by asking whether the value of gratitude relies on the nature of the good or the nature of the feeling itself. She challenged the cause and effect account of gratitude which understands gratitude as self-directed and in some sense deserved. The Christian account of creation, however, sees the world as an expression of divine gratuity. The feeling of gratitude is therefore undeserved and responds to the uncontrollable nature of the good. Life itself is gratuitous and is at odds with the effort-reward structure embedded in the social and economic systems in which we live.

Following this, Afis Ayinde Oladosu and Habibah Oladosu (University of Ibadan) presented their research on the relationship between gratitude and social upheaval in the Muslim world. They asked how Muslims in Sub-Sharan Africa move from theories of gratitude to practices of gratitude. Using the gratitude questionnaire, they surveyed beliefs about gratitude among respondents in Ibadan and Accra. More than half of respondents believed that God was the only object of gratitude. Two-thirds believed gratitude contributed to their social identity. The same percentage believed gratitude could inhibit social upheaval. Interestingly, female respondents expressed more gratitude than male respondents.

In the following session, Atif Khalil (University of Lethbridge) offered reflections on positive psychology from an Islamic perspective. He began by noting some tensions between the work of Jeremy David Engels and Robert Emmons. He went on to explore the semantic range of shukr, which has its roots in ‘unveiling’. Thus in Sufi ethics, the highest level of gratitude involves a collapsing of the distinction between God and person. This leads to an existential account of gratitude as a joyful complacency with the way things are.

Finally, Joshua Ralston (University of Edinburgh) asked whether gratitude is the appropriate response to the benefits of citizenship. He noted the tendency of some Christian theologians to romanticize exile while writing from the luxury of statehood. Gratitude for the benefits of citizenship risks reinforcing global injustices and the tyranny of borders. Those lucky enough to possess powerful passports must be careful not to misuse their privilege by re-inscribing colonial narratives.

The workshop closed with reflections from Kurt Berends, the president of Issachar Fund, and Professor Siddiqui, who chairs the project. The School of Divinity was delighted to present Kurt with an oil painting exploring the theme of gratitude by Soniya Ahmed (Glasgow School of Art), the recipient of the Issachar Fund Art Prize.

The School is deeply grateful for the hospitality of Vice-Chancellor Alshamsi and the British University in Dubai and the generous sponsorship of the Issachar Fund for making this workshop possible.