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ON THE LITERAL MEANING OF THE WORD IHSAN

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IHSAN

IHSAN

The word Ihsan is the verbal noun of the trilateral verb Hasana/Hasuna, yahsunu, husnan. It means beauty, balance, betterment, benevolence, piety, and goodness. It is the opposite of ugliness and evil, sin and vice and bad deeds. The antonym of Ihsan is isa, a, which means the same thing as ugliness.

In Tahdhib al-lugha Imam Abu Manur Muhammad al-Azhari quoted the saying of al-Layth al-Shaybani regarding the basic meaning of Ihsan. Regarding the verse:

‘And speak with goodness [husnan] to people’,

Al-Layth said that it means to say good and pleasant words to others. Al-Zujaj also maintained that it is to talk to people in a nice manner and possess beauty, goodness, and benevolence, because hasin has been derived from hasuna, as azim is from azuma and karim is from karuma. Al-Mundhiri reported from Abu al-Haytham that the words husnan and hasanan both imply a beautiful thing. It points to beauty in everything, whether in utterance or action, moral acts or general behaviour. The divine command is to be nice and refined not only in conversation but in general behaviour. One must interact with others cordially, piously, and with a sentiment of well-wishing, goodness and beauty.

This word has also been employed as a command for benevolent and beautiful behaviour with parents. God Most High says,

‘And We have enjoined man to behave benevolently with his parents’.

The intention of this divine decree is to teach us that we should speak nicely to our parents, treat them with refined conduct and behave with them in every matter with beauty, kindness, good manners, love and affection, and that under no circumstances should we be harsh with them. This entire manner of behaviour and conduct is called Ihsan. The Quran has further made it easy:

‘And they repel evil by means of good’

The mu’min and mu’sin repel evil with good, and vice with virtue. They respond to what is painful with pleasant behaviour. Similarly, the Quran has mentioned another divine principle:

‘Surely, good actions remove the evil actions’.

Spiritually, the impact of pious deeds is so strong that they eliminate evil deeds, and the acts of Ihsan defeat wrongs and render sins into nothingness. The Quran has further explained,

‘And good and evil cannot be equal’.

The message here is that a wrong action should not receive a wrong reaction. Muslims should respond to vice with virtue. When they hear something bad, they should reply to it with something good and beautiful. A beautiful act or saying effaces the odious act or saying, and permeates the environment with love and cooperation. Evil leads to disunity and division, while good leads to unity and strength. Evil conduct and wrong-doing generate hatred, while good conduct and piety bring about goodness, benevolence, love and harmony. That is the truth of Ihsan. That
is why God has ordained the Muslims to beg for ‘hasana’ in this world as well as in the Hereafter:

‘O our Lord, grant us excellence [^asana] in this world, and excellence in the Hereafter, and save us from the torment of Hell’.

One must realize that in this verse, the word hasana does not only imply good deeds and acts of worship—because it is not possible to perform meritorious acts in the Hereafter—hasana means Ihsan both here and Hereafter. In this Quranic supplication, goodness, benevolence, beauty and conduct based on Ihsan are requested. When we ask for ‘hasana’ in this life, we beg for a peaceful life, free of every evil, mischief, wrong-doing and strife. And when
we beg for ‘hasana’ in the Hereafter, we beg for Ihsan, which is superior to justice alone.

The hasana in this world refers to goodness and betterment and protection from evil and pain, and hasana in the Hereafter signifies emancipation and deliverance from torment, hardships on the Last Day, reckoning and Hell. This meaning of hasana has been elaborated by Anas b. Malik’s saying, quoted by the Imams of Quranic exegesis, including Ibn Kathir. Similarly, Imam al- Hasan al-Basri, Abu Wail, al-Suddi, Ibn Zayd, Qattda, Muqatil,
Sufyan al-Thawri and Ibn Qutayba also maintain that hasana in this world connotes ‘knowledge, bounty, worship, expansion of sustenance and security and protection from every evil, mischief and disruption’. The hasana in the Hereafter implies ‘Paradise, forgiveness, and protection from torment and hardships’. In both cases, hasana means goodness, betterment, expansion, facility and protection. Deliverance is being implored from torment in both the worlds. This highlights the inherent meaning of goodness, and security that Ihsan conveys.

Two modes of action have been described in the Quran: justice and Ihsan. God says,

‘Indeed, God enjoins justice and benevolence [towards everyone]’.

According to Imam al-Raghib al-Asfahanai, justice means that whatever is obligatory for a man to give should be given, and whatever he has the right to take, he should take. Ihsan, however, means to give more than is due and to take less than is one’s right. This conduct emphasizes benevolence when giving to others and taking from others. Ihsan is, therefore, a higher grade than justice. Justice is due compensation while Ihsan is added excellence. God says,

‘And is the reward of good anything but good?

That is what has been ordained. Someone who gives to others more than their due demonstrates Ihsan, and God will reward him or her more than what is due. God says,

‘For those who do pious works there is good recompense and more [added to it]’.

The benevolent will be awarded Paradise and will also be awarded more than what is their due. The Quranic exegetes have further elaborated the meaning of ‘more’ [ziyada], and held that it implies the beholding of God’s Countenance.

By revealing to us his beautiful name of al-Salam, God shows us the meaning of peace that is inherent in Islam, and by revealing to us His name al-Mu’ min, He highlights the inherent sense of peace and protection found in the word Iman. And how beautiful it is that God, after revealing the concept of Ihsan, informed us that His names are all husna (beautiful)! He says,

‘And to God alone belong the most beautiful names [al-asma al-husna]

The Quran orders us to exemplify Ihsan and benevolence and give others their rightful due. God says,

‘And it should be paid in a graceful manner [bi ihsan]’.

God loves Ihsan and blesses the people of Ihsan with His companionship, saying,

Certainly, God is with the people of Ihsan’.

He declares His love for them, saying,

‘Certainly, God loves the people of Ihsan’.

He pronounces His guarantee for the people of Ihsan that they will have His exclusive protection and divine shelter, and He declares them free of all blame,

‘The people of Ihsan are not to be blamed’.

God also says,

‘And with regard to dÏn, who is better than the one who submits his whole being entirely to God, while he also holds spiritual excellence?’

Certainly, those who conduct themselves benevolently are the people of excellence. According to the Quran, it was said to the Prophet Joseph

‘Surely, we see you one of the spiritually excellent [muhsinin]’.

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