The idea of excellence is something we are all familiar with. It is the praise you always want to hear when you’re young, the epitome of good behaviour. I remember the feeling of getting homework back in primary school, having your work marked as “very good” was nothing compared to having “excellent” written across the top of your page. And as we grow, those standards don’t change. Whether it is in high school, university, the workplace, or even our appearance, we always want to be the best we can possibly be.
But sometimes the world can get too much for us, and in the fast paced, tick-box lives we live; we don’t always remember to strive for excellence. Over the years, we become content with mediocrity, and often the first area in our life to fall to this standard is our spirituality. Our daily ibadah can easily become monotonous, and we don’t put the same thought into our actions as we did when we started them.
As Muslims, we understand that Allah (swt) has given us guidance for everything in our lives, and when trying to improve ourselves, we turn back towards the Deen. And in this case, we find that Islam has a unique view towards excellence, holistically summarised within the concept of Ihsan.
What is Ihsan?
Linguistically ihsan is derived from the verb ahsana, which means doing things better and in an excellent manner. Thus the literal linguistic meaning of Ihsan is doing the best, namely goodness or excellence.
But in terms of how this applies to our lives, our blessed Prophet Muhammad (saws) explained it best, in the famous hadith Jibril. In this hadith, Jibreel (as), disguised as a man approached the Messenger of Allah while his companions were present and proceeded to ask him questions about the Deen. The third question he asked was: “What is Ihsan?”. To which Muhammad (saws) responded: “Ihsan is to worship Allah as if you see Him, for though you cannot see Him, He sees you.”
This is such a simple, but at the same time deep statement. What does it mean to worship Allah as if we see him?
If we were to see Allah (swt), we would be in so much of awe of His greatness and majesty, that we would not only worship because we had to, but rather because we wanted to. Nothing else would be more important in that moment than showing our utter humility in front of the Lord of the worlds. This zeal for our worship is what it means to achieve ihsan.
There are numerous other hadith related to the importance of achieving this excellence
“Allah loves that when one of you accomplishes a work, that he accomplish it with excellence“ (Narrated by Al Bayhaqi)
“Allah has prescribed Ihsan in every matter.” (Muslim)
“Verily, Allah has enjoined Ihsan with regard to everything. So, when you kill, kill in a good way; when you slaughter, slaughter in a good way; so everyone of you should sharpen his knife, and let the slaughtered animal die comfortably.” (Muslim)
Here we are clearly invited to seek “excellence” in everything; excellence in one’s spiritual observances, excellence in one’s relationships with others whether this other is Muslim or not, regardless of whether they are even human or not! Allah has made this an obligation upon us.
But despite the importance given to striving for excellence in all things, this can be very hard in the society we live in today. For those in the West, we live in a predominantly secular environment, where there is no idea of accountability to a higher being. At most people want to toe the line of the law and often even that isn’t a deterrent! So when we are not in an atmosphere of people who are constantly trying to abide by God’s laws, this can make it harder for us to do the most basic actions, let alone go that extra mile.
So how can we reinvigorate our ibadah and our daily activities with this concept of excellence? Read on to find out more!
As well as the basic definition of Ihsan we have spoken of, this idea can be divided into four more measurable components to work towards.
- Sincerity (Ikhlaas)
To put it briefly, we must make sure that every single action that we do is purely for the sake of Allah (swt), and not any other individual. We know of the famous hadith “Actions are judged by their intentions”, so it is essential for us to have ihsan, to also be sincere, and not be thinking of any benefits this action may bring,. Often without realising we can be side-lined by thinking of how other people will react to a certain deed we do, or how it will enhance our own reputation. This has been exacerbated in recent years with the rise of social media. As we put our lives out there for the world to ogle at, we can sometimes be tempted into doing good deeds for the sake of publicising them. To avoid this, we should again follow the advice of Muhammad (saws) and hide our good deeds, safeguarding our intention and purifying our actions
This is taken to encompass not picking and choosing the parts of Islam we choose to practice. We can sometimes be tempted to compromise on aspects of the Deen, especially in a climate of heightened scrutiny of Islam, and many practices being labelled “extreme”. But despite this pressure, we must not be frightened off of practicing our deen because of labels. We must remain strong and firm in our conviction to obey Allah (swt) in every respect.
This refers to doing acts of worship in a nice manner and taking pride in performing them. There are so many actions in Islam, particularly ibadah that sometimes we can fall into doing hastily. To achieve true ihsan we need to dedicate that extra time into doing actions in the best way possible. One example is salah. It’s easy to forget that when we pray, we are literally standing in front of Allah (swt) and addressing him alone. When we think about being in front of our Lord, we ought to look our best and give him our utmost attention. We should try to prepare for salah and make sure that before we are wearing clean clothes, we smell fresh and clean and that we are in an environment where we will not be distracted. This automatically increases our khushoo, because it has become not an action we just happen to do in the day, but an event in our day, our day has become scheduled around it.
This refers to doing things in the right way, and by “right”, we specifically mean in the way Allah (swt) prescribed. We do not abandon the actions he prescribed for us and we do not add anything extra. We don’t use our own mind to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is important to do and what is not, we look only to Allah for this definition, as He alone is unlimited in knowledge.
All these factors can be summarized in one simple idea – that Ihsan is when we act as a labour of love, not merely a duty. This can result only from an inner sense of being before Allah at all times, and eternal love for Him.
The Rewards of Ihsan
Abu Hurayrah (ra) reported that the Messenger of Allah (saws) said: “When one of you reaches the level of excellence in faith, then every good deed is multiplied for him ten times up to seven hundred times; and each sin is recorded as only one, until he meets Allah” [Muslim].
Our purpose in life is to acquire reward in the hope that our scale of good deeds will outweigh our bad. To have ihsan is to multiply those rewards to such a level that Allah (swt) is offering us the opportunity of our lives – to seize as much reward as possible for the same action.
But the rewards of ihsan are not only reserved for the afterlife as Allah (swt) tells us in Surah Rahman, verse 31: “Is any reward for Ihsan except Ihsan?”
This rhetorical question is amazing on a myriad of levels.
Firstly, Allah (swt) emphasises how those who sincerely strive in Allah’s Cause and attain ihsan in both their worship and their everyday activities will be rewarded for this level of excellence by being blessed by Allah (swt) with the sweetness of faith. God-consciousness will be continuous, and everything these few do will be geared for a higher purpose. They will have attained ihsan and in return, they will feel ihsan in their hearts
Secondly those who sincerely strive in Allah’s cause to attain ihsan will be rewarded for this excellence by being blessed by Allah (swt) with success in this dunya. And we see evidence of this in our own Islamic Golden Age. The Muslims of that time attained ihsan in their rituals and in their other activities. Allah rewarded this ihsan with ihsan – the excellence in this dunya that we read about – the amazing art, architecture, philosophy, medical advances, etc.
Those who sincerely strive in Allah’s Cause and attain ihsan in both their worship and their everyday activities will be rewarded for this excellence by being blessed by Allah (swt) with the ultimate success, the ultimate ihsan – that of jannah (heaven) in al-
So in summary, in one little rhetorical device in 55:60 is hidden a huge message. Those who realize the value of ihsan, who reach and strive and work for ihsan, who nourish their roots and groom their trunk in order to bear plentiful, amazing fruit will be rewarded with Allah’s form of ihsan – the sweetness of faith, success in the dunya, and the ultimate success in the Akhira.