When Kindness Is Met with Ingratitude
By Adil Salahi
In our present topic of fostering ties of kinship through kindness to relatives, it is universally accepted that such an attitude is bound to benefit not only the individual and his relatives, but also society at large. It strengthens the unity of the community and establishes its structure on very solid foundations. Moreover, it is something that comes naturally. There is something within us that draws us close to our relatives. We feel that we belong to the same branch of a large tree. There is much to unite us and keep us close together. We remain together through a great deal of what life has to offer.
In spite of all this, some people do not give the ties of kinship their true value. Some go even further than that - they meet kindness by their relatives with ingratitude. This is bound to hurt those who are at the receiving end of such treatment. Nothing is more painful than the lack of appreciation by those to whom we are attached.
When a person finds his kindness so badly received, his immediate reaction is to deal back in the same measure. On a larger scale, these traits may eventually weaken the society as a whole and cause division amongst its people.
Therefore, It is not surprising that Islam, which calls for the Muslim community to always be united and closely knit, places great emphasis on the need for fostering the ties of kinship. As part of this emphasis, it counsels those whose kindness is not properly appreciated, to not react in the same way.
Abu Hurairah transmitted a hadith that says that a man came to the Prophet (PBUH) and said: "Messenger of Allah, I have some relatives whose relationship I foster but they cut me off. I am kind to them but they are unkind to me. They treat me harshly and I forbear." The Prophet (PBUH) said: "If what you say is true, it is as if you are making them eat burning ashes. You will continue to have Allah's support against them as long as you maintain your attitude toward them."
(Related by Muslim and Ahmad)
We note in this hadith that the man brings his case to the Prophet (PBUH) in a way which suggests that he is deeply hurt. He does everything that can be expected of a relative who is keen on fostering his ties with his kinsfolk, but everything he does is met with a hostile attitude. No one would blame him if he wonders how long he is expected to continue with this sort of relationship which most of us would consider untenable. How long can one continue to show kindness to someone who, not only continues to be ungrateful but also rebuffs his kind relative.
We have all heard of people who behave in this way. Although their attitude fills us with disgust, it remains a fact of life. How should one treat such relatives? It is clear from the hadith that the Prophet (PBUH) counsels his questioner to continue to be kind to his relatives despite their hostility.
First, he tells him that they are like a person who eats burning ashes. It is a highly vivid image of a hungry person who finds nothing to eat except something which badly burns his stomach, in addition to its being absolutely distasteful. While no one eats something like this if he can ever help it, the image describes the condition of a person experiencing deep and genuine regret. When they realize how Allah will reward their kind relative and punish them for the bad deal they had given him, they also realize that it is completely their own fault.
It is not at all difficult to return kindness. A genuinely kind person, like the Prophet's questioner, is happy with even the slightest expression of appreciation. However, some people are unkind to their relatives for a variety of reasons that are simply unacceptable in Islam. A relative may be in a low social position, which causes his more privileged relatives to look down upon him. Someone who may have managed to acquire wealth over a short period may consider that his poorer relatives want to trick him out of a portion of his wealth. Some people find their relatives not very intelligent, or they consider their company not very pleasant. Whichever reason makes someone unkind to his relatives cannot be considered acceptable.
Indeed, such reasons should encourage us to be more kind to our relatives. If we can help them, then our help should be forthcoming. The more less-fortunate than us they seem to be, the more they are in need of our kindness and the easier it is for us to be kind to them. Our duty toward them acquires even greater urgency. Moreover, it earns us more rewards from Allah. The less we expect for our kindness, the more genuine it is. Allah rewards us not only for the kindness we show, but also for the motive behind it. If our actions are free from any self-interest, our reward is always greater.
Yet, it is difficult to continue to be kind when the recipients of our kindness are hostile toward us. For this reason, the Prophet (PBUH) reassures his questioner that he will always enjoy Allah's support as long as he maintains his highly commendable attitude.
To a Muslim, this reassurance is very real indeed. It is not merely a moral support, but it strengthens us in our daily lives. It gives us what we need to have, so that we can do what Islam expects of us. It encourages us to be even more kind to those who are unkind to us. What is more, it gives us reassurance that when Allah supports us, we are in no need of support from anyone else.