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Quranic Maxims – 4 Meanings of Excellence (Ihsan)

The Quran is guidance for believers and all of humanity. Its style is full of variation, with instructions and prohibitions appearing alongside stories, parables and more besides. The unique style of its verses not only made it captivating for its first listeners, and ensured that it would be cherished and memorized by millions, but it also presented a challenge for anyone who doubted its divine origin.

According to many scholars, the defining quality of the Quran is how so much meaning is conveyed in words of small number and great beauty. In this series, Sohaib Saeed, founder of Quranica and graduate of Al-Azhar University, explores some short phrases from the Quran which can be treated as guiding principles for life.

Although they have meanings which suit their context of relevance and place in their respective surahs (chapters), they also carry wisdom which transcends those contexts and invites reflection.

This series is intended to aid reflection on the Quran, and listeners are encouraged to memorize these short phrases or verses along with their meanings, and make them part of their daily lives and conversations. Each episode contains clips from the Quran vocalized by a variety of reciters.

This podcast is from Reading Islam’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date.

Shall the reward of good be anything but good? (Quran 55:60)

The word translated here as good (ihsan) can otherwise be translated as excellence and seeking perfection. Along with Islam and Imaan, Ihsan is one of the three core dimensions of the faith as elaborated in the famous hadith of Jibreel (angle Gabriel peace be upon him).

When the angel Gabriel came to meet with the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and ask him a series of questions in order to teach those around him the essentials of the faith. He asked him: “what is Islam?”

And the Prophet replied him with those things we now know as the five pillars of Islam.

He asked him “what is Imaan (faith?)”

And the answer came with the essential articles of faith: To believe in God, His Angels, His books, His messengers, , and the Last Day, and the predestination both good and bad of it.

The third question: “what is ihsan (excellence)?”

And the answer came from the prophet in a way that is both marvelous and enigmatic. He said is to worship Allah as though you see Him for though you see Him not, yet surely He sees you.

So this is the first meaning of ihsan that we have be aware of: it is to perfect our faith to believe in God and worship Him alone- to make worship only and solely for Him as elaborated in chapter Al-Ikhlas 112.

The second meaning is to do better and to improve ourselves. And this is something which many people understand is a virtue when it comes to the body to develop and train the body, and to train and develop the mind by learning new things; but also Islam sees the essential nature of developing and training the soul, the spirit and cleaning the heart.

The third meaning is to seek after perfection, perfectionizm in all things. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Indeed God has prescribed perfection in every action” So this means that whatever that we do, we do it in the best way, the most perfect way, the most correct way, the most sincere way, and the most kind way to others.

And this leads us on to the fourth meaning of Ihsan. Ihsan is something which extends to others, doing good spreading benefit. Indeed in common language nowadays, people refer to philanthropy and those who are generous and supporting the causes of the needy as muhsineen; they are people who spread good and benefit and perfect the society around them.

Following from this, we can mention one more meaning and sense of the word Ihsan and this word we can take a verse from the chapter Yusuf (Josef peace be upon him) (12:36).

The people who entered the prison with him wanted to ask him about some dreams they had in order to interpret those dreams for them and after the request they said to him: “indeed we see you as one of the muhsineen”. What does this mean is that whether they were observing the perfection of his character, or whether it was a perfection and excellence in his knowledge in the way that means he is seen as one of the muhsineen.

Here we will ask ourselves a serious question, indeed a painful one: When people look at the Muslim societies today, would they say to us “indeed we see you as muhsineen? When they look towards the Muslim communities living as minorities in other societies, would they see this minority as contributing to the society so that they would say that we are the muhsineen?

All of this follows from seeing God in everything we do and knowing that He sees you. And there is no reward for ihsan except ihsan. Doing good in this life will lead to good in this life even before the hereafter.

Shall the reward of good be anything but good? (Quran 55:60)


About Sohaib Saeed

Sohaib Saeed is a Scottish Muslim scholar specializing in Quranic studies and exegesis. He is founder and director of Quranica, an institute for research, education and outreach (www.quranica.com).

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