Okay, I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I just feel the need to get it off my chest….
A lot of times, if you complain about something, you’ll be told “You should be grateful to Allah for what you have! Don’t complain!” I find this mindset to be limited, to say the least.
Now, I am the first person to say “alhamdulillah”, praise be to Allah. My family is healthy, I have a roof over my head, I have food in the fridge, I have a car that runs, and I have more than one outfit of clothing to wear. Alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah. I recognize that there are people who would fight to eat some of the scraps of food that end up in my trash or compost heap. I get it, I really, really get it. I am thankful to Allah and I know I’m in a better financial situation than a majority of the people on this planet.
Having said that, I want to say this: Saying that something is not right, or something is broken and needs to be fixed, or saying that you wish you had a certain thing, does not imply ingratitude to Allah. Seeking your rights or seeking justice is not ingratitude to Allah. Being poor and refusing to strive to be rich (in a permissible fashion) is not necessarily a worthy thing or a healthy mindset. Just as living for the dunya only is not a virtue, neither is failing to strive for the best in this world.
Imagine that you were the victim of a mugging and the mugger shot you in the arm and stole your money. You go to the police to file a report, and the police officer says “You should be grateful! Don’t you know another guy got shot in the head and they stole his money and his jewelry!” And then they tell you to go away. What kind of logic is this? You are grateful that the wound was not more serious, but you still expect the police to investigate, arrest the criminal, and return your property, if possible. Yet often times we ask for simpler things than this and are told that we are not being grateful for what we have. Women especially are put in this position if they are not working outside the home and they have to approach their husbands for their needs.
“Honey, I need money to buy curtains for the living room”. “Curtains? Why do you need curtains?” “Well, the bedsheets we have up now look kind of tacky.” “Don’t you know there are people in (insert third world country name here) who would be grateful to even have bedsheets?” And there you are, left feeling like you are an greedy person obsessed with the trappings of dunya, when in reality you were making a perfectly reasonable request for window coverings that are customary in your society.
This accusation of ingratitude is used as a cudgel to discourage a woman from asking for her rights. American revert women usually get taken the worst, because they are seen as women who can be acquired cheaply without a high mahr (bridal gift) and without the high maintenance required of a bride in many other societies. You want a sofa? The floor is good enough. You want more than one set of bedsheets? Wasteful lazy woman, go wash them. You want a mixer so you don’t have to mix the bread dough by hand? Hah! Meanwhile, the man is often styling in the nicest galabiyyah (have to look good in the masjid!) talking on his 4G iPhone (have to be able to download the Adhan!) and visiting the local shisha place a few times a week with his friends (have to network with the brothers!) while his wife sits at home, on the floor, watching local TV because he won’t spring for “evil cable TV” (which, ironically, plays constantly at the shisha place – take your pick, soccer or Arabic music videos).
So, let me tell you, my brothers and sisters – because this cudgel can be used against men, too, though not as much. Telling someone that you are not satisfied with the landscaping in your yard is not a sin. If your yard looks like a blasted moonscape and all the other homes on the block are sporting neat lawns, it’s a sin not to spend money on it. If you only have chipped thrift-store mugs in which to serve tea, and only four of those so you can’t invite more than two people at a time over for a visit, it’s not a sin to invest in a decent tea or coffee set. It’s not a sin to have enough towels, or a couple of changes of bed linens, or curtains, or a car with air conditioning. If you can’t afford it, truly can’t afford it, alhamdulillah ala kulli hal and you should be content with what you have. But if you can afford it, if you can budget for it, buy wholesale, buy used, find it on craigslist, somehow take care of that need, then do it.
See, there’s a concept in Islam of the ‘urf, or custom. For instance, here in the United States it is customary to have a stove and usually a microwave in the kitchen rather than a wood fire in a pit in the yard. It is customary to have a mixer or food processor so you don’t have to cut everything by hand. It’s customary to eat at a table, sit on a sofa or chair, and sleep on a bed with a mattress. It’s customary to have air conditioning in the car in hot climates and it’s customary for a woman to have a matching set of dishes. The person who is in charge of setting up and furnishing the home should do so in the customary way that is within his means. If you want to eat on the floor off of a common dish in the sunni fashion, then that’s great. But if you’re marrying a woman who grew up eating dinner at the dining room table and sitting on a sofa in the living room, you have to take into account her custom and respect that and accommodate her as much as you can. Don’t just say haraam alaiki and tell her the floor is good enough. Because if you want to go that far you may as well strip off the carpet, pull up the hardwood floor, and take it down to the dirt. And buy a camel to commute to work on. Because if you’re gonna be Sunni, you may as well go all the way.