Ihsan is one of those words that can’t be translated into just one English word, but has a rather broad and deep meaning. We read in the Qur’an that [Allah loves al-muhsinin (those who do good)] (Aal `Imran 3:148). A muhsin is one who is generous, one who does good actions, and ihsan is goodness itself. Ihsan also means to perfect, to excel, or to show proficiency and excellence. Therefore it could be considered that the Arabic word ihsan has a dual meaning, goodness and excellence. We Muslims need to strive to achieve excellence, proficiency, and perfection in all good actions we make.
A civilization can’t rise if people don’t try their best to achieve the best results in whatever they are doing. If you are a student you should not focus your efforts on barely passing your exams. No. You should be aspiring to actually increase your knowledge throughout the academic year and at the end prove that you have learned by achieving the best results you can. If you are a teacher, you shouldn’t just stand in front of the class and deliver a lesson. No. You should try your very best to have a positive impact on your students, to add something to their knowledge. The same thing applies if you work in a factory or produce any type of product. Don’t just make something that looks good on the outside but will function for only half of its intended life.
This may seem like general behavior that everyone should apply regardless of his or her belief; but aside from that, it’s a fundamental Islamic behavior. It is reported that Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Verily, Allah loves that when anyone of you does a job he should perfect it.” Unfortunately, some Muslims have forgotten this concept and abandoned it. On the other hand, the West realized the importance of quality and perfection, and by applying them, its civilization grew and became more powerful. This is a divine law and applies to Muslims and non-Muslims alike: If you perfect what you do, you improve your condition and the condition of your surroundings. It applies to all people regardless of their belief, the same way the law of gravity applies to us all.
A study was made to estimate the number of hours worked by employees each day in different countries all over the world; not the number of hours they spend in their workplace, but the net hours spent actually working (i.e., after subtracting lunch breaks, going to the bathroom, chatting, etc.). While some Western countries and Japan reached high numbers like 8 hours, some Muslim countries reached as low as 12 or 5 minutes! Five minutes of pure work! Can you believe that? And we want Allah to give us victory! How can you expect Allah to give the Muslims victory and let them lead the world if some Muslim countries work for less than an hour a day? We are not applying the divine rule and therefore our situation will stay as it is. We need more ihsan in our lives, with both of its meanings: goodness and perfection. [Allah commands justice, ihsan, and liberality to kith and kin] (An-Nahl 16:90).
Maintaining ihsan is something Allah Almighty commands us to do; why is it, then, that sometimes we Muslims are the laziest or the sloppiest? Of course not all Muslims are like that, but it seems to be the current theme in our Ummah. Some countries are famous for certain products because they perfect them and have the highest quality. For example you have Japanese electronics, Italian shoes, and Swiss watches, army knives, and cheese. What about Muslim countries; how many products have we perfected to the extent that a customer buys them while confident that they’re the best in the market? Advancing and achieving such a reputation isn’t a “modern world” concept: It is Islamic, it is in our religion.
Someone once told me, “Thank God the non-Muslims in the West are so advanced and are discovering all these new things every day so we can benefit from them directly without effort, and thus we have more time to worship Allah!” At first I thought he was joking but unfortunately he wasn’t. He forgot that working is a form of worshiping Allah if the intentions are correct. Didn’t Allah instruct his Prophet in the Qur’an:
[And say: “Work! For Allah will observe your work, and His Messenger, and the Believers. Soon will you be brought back to the Knower of what is hidden and what is open, then will He show you the truth of all that ye did.”] (At-Tawbah 9:105)
Muslims should participate in making this world a better place and we must have our contribution. Worshiping Allah isn’t only by performing rituals. For example, going to school or work every day could be a form of worship if your intentions are to obey Allah, acquire knowledge for the betterment of the Muslims and humanity, and be a good example of a Muslim. If we are not successful and at the forefront, how will we attract non-Muslims to Islam?
One meaning of ihsan is to do good actions, but when doing good we should also try to perfect it. For example, greeting another Muslim by saying “as-salamu alaykum” (peace be upon you) is a good act, but giving the complete form of the greeting “as-salamualaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh” (peace, mercy of Allah, and His blessings be upon you) is far better. There’s even another step higher, which is saying the greeting and shaking hands, and you could approach perfection even more by also smiling. See how we should try to achieve perfection and excellence in all of our acts. It should be a constant attempt in all aspects of life, be they rituals, working, relationships, etc. We need to try to implement ihsan in everything we do.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) instructed us in several ways and situations to seek perfection. One of the Prophetic sayings dealing with ihsan is particularly interesting. Please read the explanation after it to understand what the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) meant:
Verily Allah has prescribed ihsan in all things. Thus, if you kill, kill well; and if you slaughter, slaughter well. Let each one of you sharpen his knife and let the slaughtered animal die comfortably. (Muslim)
One might wonder why the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) didn’t say, “If you pray, pray well, and if you fast, fast well.” Why kill and slaughter? Do you know why Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) referred to slaughter in this hadith? Not because Muslims are bloodthirsty, absolutely not, but because slaughtering an animal means that you are ending its life. So? What difference does it make if I kill it well or not, it’s going to die anyway, it won’t have any “bad memories” about it, so what’s the big deal? No, that’s not how a Muslim sees things. A Muslim should implement excellence in every aspect of life, even when it comes to an animal’s final moments in life. If you treat the animal well and with perfection when killing it, you will certainly treat it even better while it is alive; you will shelter it with excellence and mercy, and you will feed it in such a manner as well.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) did not teach us this just with words. He explained the practical steps to achieve this proficiency (sharpening the blade and sparing it suffering). This shows us that proficiency isn’t just “an idea,” but one must also seek the means to apply it.
Another example is divorce. Usually one correlates divorce with arguments, fights, and going to court. But look at what Allah says:
[Divorce must be pronounced twice and then (a woman) must be retained in honor or released in ihsan (kindness).] (Al-Baqarah 2:229)
Even during divorce a person is supposed to maintain ihsan; because if you can do so during divorce, you will certainly be able to do so during a happy marriage. Do you see how the Qur’an and Prophetic sayings give examples of certain extremes in life? If you can achieve ihsan during these extremes, you’ll certainly be able to achieve it in normal situations also.
Prophet Yusuf (peace and blessings be upon him) was imprisoned unjustly. He was falsely accused of trying to rape the wife of the minister. It is a disgraceful accusation, but he was patient. Many years later while still in prison, he was told that the king of Egypt had had a dream:
[The king (of Egypt) said: “I do see (in a vision) seven fat cows, whom seven lean ones devour, and seven green ears of corn, and seven (others) withered. O you chiefs! Expound to me my vision if it be that you can interpret visions.”] (Yusuf 12:43)
Yusuf (peace and blessings be upon him) knew what it meant: a devastating starvation that would last for seven years. What did he do? Did he request that they let him free first? Did he decide not to tell them what it meant so all those non-believers would starve to death? No, instead he demonstrated to us ihsan. Without putting any conditions, he interpreted the dream for them: seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of devastating drought and starvation.
Not only that, but even though he wasn’t asked, he gave them the solution to these coming crises. He planned for them what to do in the following 15 years. He told them to increase their productivity as much as possible in the first seven years while minimizing their consumption, so that they would have enough food to survive the seven years of drought.
Furthermore, when he (peace and blessings be upon him) was freed from prison and became the minister of agriculture and economy, he organized the process of storing the food and then distributing it during the second seven years. Since the drought was all over the Middle East, he introduced a system where foreign countries could exchange food from Egypt with any of their homemade products. He did this in order to encourage them to be productive and so they would look at the food they got from Egypt as trade and not charity. He did all this even though they were all non-believers. This is a message to all our brothers and sisters that are living in non-Muslim countries. Wherever you are, you must have a positive impact, you have to make a contribution, because you are a Muslim.
The best type of ihsan though, is ihsan in your relationship with Allah, your Creator. To worship Allah as if you see Him, and even though you can’t really see Him, always keep in mind that He sees you.
Excellence leads to perfection, and perfection is our ultimate goal. We strive to perfect our characters so that we can reach the highest attainable status in the sight of Allah, and also to perfect our surroundings and work so that we won’t feel ashamed when we present them in front of Allah, the Messenger, and the Believers.
Those who achieve excellence and perfection in this world will lead because the divine rule says so, and if anyone else leads us, we will always be lagging behind. So we must change our current condition, and when we do that, certainly, Allah will change the condition of our entire Ummah, and we will lead the world in sha’ Allah.