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The meaning of spiritual excellence in Islam

August 29, 2015

Allah has decreed excellence in all things

By Abu Amina Elias

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

Spiritual excellence (ihsan) is the highest level of righteousness and faith a Muslim can achieve in Islam. It is the state of being when a Muslim perfects his worship of Allah and his good character towards people. We should not be content simply to perform the minimum requirements of Islam, but rather we should strive toward spiritual perfection. Allah has made this lofty goal achievable for anyone who is willing to work for it.

Excellence is the way of Abraham, upon him be peace, and subsequently all of the prophets who came after him. It can be seen in his readiness to surrender and submit himself to the Creator in everything that he did.

Allah said:

وَمَنْ أَحْسَنُ دِينًا مِّمَّنْ أَسْلَمَ وَجْهَهُ لِلَّهِ وَهُوَ مُحْسِنٌ وَاتَّبَعَ مِلَّةَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ حَنِيفًا

Who is better in religion than one who submits himself to Allah while being a doer of good (muhsin) and follows the religion of Abraham, inclining to truth?

Surat An-Nisa 4:125

Allah has praised excellence in several verses of the Quran. It is the combination of all good characteristics in Islam such as submission to the will of Allah, true faith, mercy, righteousness, and piety.

Ibn Rajab writes:

وَأَمَّا الْإِحْسَانُ فَقَدْ جَاءَ ذِكْرُهُ فِي الْقُرْآنِ فِي مَوَاضِعَ تَارَةً مَقْرُونًا بِالْإِيمَانِ وَتَارَةً مَقْرُونًا بِالْإِسْلَامِ وَتَارَةً مَقْرُونًا بِالتَّقْوَى أَوْ بِالْعَمَلِ

As for excellence, it has been mentioned in the Quran in many places, sometimes associated with faith, sometimes with Islam, and sometimes with righteousness or good deeds.

Source: Jāmi’ al-‘Ulūm wal-Ḥikam 2

Excellence, like many other aspects of Islam, can be divided into two parts: excellence towards Allah, sometimes referred to as the “vertical” dimension of religion, and excellence towards people, sometimes referred to as the “horizontal” dimension of religion.

As-Sa’di writes:

وَالْإِحْسَانُ نَوْعَانِ الْإِحْسَانُ فِي عِبَادَةِ الْخَالِقِ وَالْإِحْسَانُ إِلَى الْمَخْلُوقِ

Excellence has two types: excellence in worship of the Creator and excellence towards the creation itself.

Source: Tafseer As-Sa’di 3:134

As for excellence of worship, it is to be fully conscious and aware of Allah in times of prayer and other acts of devotion, as if we are able to see Allah directly with our own eyes. That is, to worship Allah as if we can perceive Him and all of the realities of the Unseen world.

Umar ibn Al-Khattab reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

أَنْ تَعْبُدَ اللَّهَ كَأَنَّكَ تَرَاهُ فَإِنْ لَمْ تَكُنْ تَرَاهُ فَإِنَّهُ يَرَاكَ

Excellence is to worship Allah as if you see Him, for although you do not see Him yet He certainly sees you.

Source: Sahih Muslim 8, Grade: Sahih

Ibn Rajab comments on this tradition, saying:

فَقَوْلُهُ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فِي تَفْسِيرِ الْإِحْسَانِ أَنْ تَعْبُدَ اللَّهَ كَأَنَّكَ تَرَاهُ إِلَخْ يُشِيرُ إِلَى أَنَّ الْعَبْدَ يَعْبُدُ اللَّهَ عَلَى هَذِهِ الصِّفَةِ وَهِيَ اسْتِحْضَارُ قُرْبِهِ وَأَنَّهُ بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ كَأَنَّهُ يَرَاهُ وَذَلِكَ يُوجِبُ الْخَشْيَةَ وَالْخَوْفَ وَالْهَيْبَةَ وَالتَّعْظِيمَ … وَيُوجِبُ أَيْضًا النُّصْحَ فِي الْعِبَادَةِ وَبَذَلَ الْجَهْدِ فِي تَحْسِينِهَا وَإِتْمَامِهَا وَإِكْمَالِهَا

The explanation of excellence in the Prophet’s saying that you worship Allah as if you see Him indicates that the servant worships Allah in this manner, which is consciousness of His immanence and that he is in front of Him as if he sees Him. This requires reverence, fear, veneration, and glorification… and also requires sincerity in worship and the effort to make it excellent, complete, and perfect.

Source: Jāmi’ al-‘Ulūm wal-Ḥikam 2

Achieving excellence in prayer is a difficult task and it can take a lifetime to finally perfect it. However, we can practice in small steps which, over time, will accumulate and help us reach our goal. We should also consider the advice of the righteous predecessors (as-salaf as-salah) for how they were able to perfect their worship.

Rabah reported: It was said to Hatim Al-Asam, “How do you pray so well?” Hatim said:

أَقُومُ بِالأَمْرِ وَأَمْشِي بِالْخَشْيَةِ وَأَدْخَلُ بِالنِّيَّةَ وَأُكَبِّرُ بِالْعَظَمَةِ وَأَقْرَأُ بِالتَّرْتِيلِ وَالتَّفَكُّرِ وَأَرْكَعُ بِالْخُشُوعِ وَأَسْجَدُ بِالْتَوَاضُعِ وَأَجْلِسُ لِلتَّشَهُّدِ بِالتَّمَامِ وَأُسَلِّمُ بِالسَّبَلِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَأُسْلِمُهَا بِالإِخْلاصِ إِلَى اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ وَأَرْجِعُ عَلَى نَفْسِي بِالْخَوْفِ أَخَافُ أَنْ لا يَقْبَلَ مِنِّي وَأَحْفَظُهُ بِالْجُهْدِ إِلَى الْمَوْتِ

I establish the command, I walk with fear, I begin prayer with a sincere intention, I exalt Allah with grandeur, I recite with a measured recitation and reflection, I bow with reverence, I prostrate with humility, I sit to complete the testimony, and I invoke peace properly and according to the prophetic tradition. Then I sincerely surrender the prayer to Allah the Exalted and I return to myself afraid that it will not be accepted from me. I guard it with effort in this way until I will die.

Source: Hilyat Al-Awliya 11623

Fear of Allah is an important part of true faith and a perfect prayer. We should always be concerned that we perform our prayers sincerely as best as we can, lest they be unacceptable to Allah.

At the same time, hope in Allah is an equally important part of true faith and worship. Our worship should balance the fear of Hellfire with the hope of Paradise, and in doing so we will achieve a peace of mind unbeknownst to most people on earth. The righteous predecessors used to say that the peace and happiness they had in their hearts would be the envy of the rich and powerful if only they knew about it.

Ibn Al-Qayyim reported:

وَيَقُولُ الْآخَرُ لَوْ عَلِمَ الْمُلُوكُ وَأَبْنَاءُ الْمُلُوكِ مَا نَحْنُ فِيهِ مِنَ النَّعِيمِ وَالسُّرُورِ لَجَالَدُونَا بِالسُّيُوفِ

Some of the scholars would say: If the kings of the world and their sons knew what we have of blessings and happiness, they would fight us for it with their swords.

Source: Al-Jawab Al-Kafi wa Ta’reekh Dimshaq 4475

Along with excellence in worship must be excellence in good character and behavior towards people and the creation in general. The components of this excellence are expressed in one succinct passage of the Quran:

Allah said:

وَسَارِعُوا إِلَىٰ مَغْفِرَةٍ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ وَجَنَّةٍ عَرْضُهَا السَّمَاوَاتُ وَالْأَرْضُ أُعِدَّتْ لِلْمُتَّقِينَ الَّذِينَ يُنفِقُونَ فِي السَّرَّاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ وَالْكَاظِمِينَ الْغَيْظَ وَالْعَافِينَ عَنِ النَّاسِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ

Hasten to forgiveness from your Lord and a garden as wide as the heavens and the earth prepared for the righteous, those who spend in charity at times of ease and difficulty, who suppress their anger and pardon people, for Allah loves those who are excellent.

Surat Ali Imran 3:134

Thus, the components of excellence in behavior consist of the mindfulness of Allah (taqwa) that prevents us from committing sins, charity as a philosophy of life, controlling our anger, and forgiving people. The truly excellent are those who have all of these characteristics in their deeds.

Ar-Razi writes:

وَلَمَّا كَانَتْ هَذِهِ الْأُمُورُ الثَّلَاثَةُ مُشْتَرِكَةً فِي كَوْنِهَا إِحْسَانًا إِلَى الْغَيْرِ ذَكَرَ ثَوَابَهَا فَقَالَ وَاللَّهُ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ فَإِنَّ مَحَبَّةَ اللَّهِ لِلْعَبْدِ أَعَمُّ دَرَجَاتِ الثَّوَابِ

If these three characteristics are combined in good behavior towards others, then Allah has mentioned their reward: Allah loves those who are excellent. Indeed, the love of Allah for a servant is the most comprehensive degree of reward.

Source: Tafseer Ar-Razi 3:134

What this amounts to is not simply doing good deeds for those who are good to us, but rather it is doing good deed for those who are evil to us. Likewise, we should not return an evil deed with another evil deed, but rather forgive people and overlook their faults.

Aisha reported:

لَمْ يَكُنْ فَاحِشًا وَلَا مُتَفَحِّشًا وَلَا صَخَّابًا فِي الْأَسْوَاقِ وَلَا يَجْزِي بِالسَّيِّئَةِ السَّيِّئَةَ وَلَكِنْ يَعْفُو وَيَصْفَحُ

The Prophet was not indecent, he was not obscene, he would not shout in the markets, and he would not respond to an evil deed with an evil deed, but rather he would pardon and overlook.

Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 2016, Grade: Sahih

Ash-Sha’bi reported: Jesus the son of Mary, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِنَّمَا الْإِحْسَانُ أَنْ تُحْسِنَ إِلَى مَنْ أَسَاءَ إِلَيْكَ لَيْسَ الْإِحْسَانُ أَنْ تُحْسِنَ إِلَى مَنْ أَحْسَنَ إِلَيْكَ

Verily, excellence is that you are good to those who are evil to you, not merely that you are good only to those who are good to you.

Source: Tafseer Ibn Kathir 29:69

Hence, Allah has prescribed such excellence in all matters and in everything we do. We should strive to be just, pious, compassionate, kind, healthy, wise, knowledgeable, and generally beneficial to people around us. Even when we must slaughter an animal for food, we should do so in the most compassionate way by minimizing the animal’s pain and fear.

Shaddad ibn Aws reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَتَبَ الْإِحْسَانَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ فَإِذَا قَتَلْتُمْ فَأَحْسِنُوا الْقِتْلَةَ وَإِذَا ذَبَحْتُمْ فَأَحْسِنُوا الذَّبْحَ وَلْيُحِدَّ أَحَدُكُمْ شَفْرَتَهُ فَلْيُرِحْ ذَبِيحَتَهُ

Verily, Allah has prescribed excellence in everything. So if you have to kill, then kill in the best manner. If you slaughter, then slaughter in the best manner. Let one of you sharpen his knife so his animal feels no pain.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1955, Grade: Sahih

In another narration, the Prophet said:

إِذَا حَكَمْتُمْ فَاعْدِلُوا وَإِذَا قَتَلْتُمْ فَأَحْسِنُوا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ مُحْسِنٌ يُحِبُّ الإِحْسَانَ

If you make a judgment, then be just. If you have to kill, then kill in the best manner. Verily, Allah the Exalted is excellent and He loves excellence.

Source: Mu’jam Al-Awsat 5884, Grade: Hasan

The closer we can achieve this level of excellence in our worship and manners, the more will we earn the love of Allah and become agents of His will through which He blesses the world by His mercy. The truly excellent Muslims are no longer acting and speaking of their own volition, but rather due to their submission and conformity to the will of Allah, such that it is in fact Allah who speaks and acts through them.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِنَّ اللَّهَ قَالَ مَنْ عَادَى لِي وَلِيًّا فَقَدْ آذَنْتُهُ بِالْحَرْبِ وَمَا تَقَرَّبَ إِلَيَّ عَبْدِي بِشَيْءٍ أَحَبَّ إِلَيَّ مِمَّا افْتَرَضْتُ عَلَيْهِ وَمَا يَزَالُ عَبْدِي يَتَقَرَّبُ إِلَيَّ بِالنَّوَافِلِ حَتَّى أُحِبَّهُ فَإِذَا أَحْبَبْتُهُ كُنْتُ سَمْعَهُ الَّذِي يَسْمَعُ بِهِ وَبَصَرَهُ الَّذِي يُبْصِرُ بِهِ وَيَدَهُ الَّتِي يَبْطِشُ بِهَا وَرِجْلَهُ الَّتِي يَمْشِي بِهَا وَإِنْ سَأَلَنِي لَأُعْطِيَنَّهُ وَلَئِنْ اسْتَعَاذَنِي لَأُعِيذَنَّهُ

Allah Almighty said: Whoever shows hostility to a friend of mine, then I have declared war upon him. My servant does not grow closer to me with anything more beloved to me than the duties I have imposed upon him. My servant continues to draw near me with extra works until I love him. When I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hands with which he strikes, and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask something from me, I would surely give it to him. If he were to ask me for refuge, I would surely grant it to him.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 6137, Grade: Sahih

Therefore, those who become the beloved of Allah by their excellent behavior are considered his allies and special friends. Allah protects them from the evil plans of those who wish to harm them and He will answer their every prayer and supplication.

In Islam, we should not be satisfied with performing only the basics of Islam. The basics of Islam, its pillars, are the foundation of this religion and the very beginning of our spiritual journey. The end goal of a Muslim in this life is to increase in obedience and righteousness until we become the intimate friends of Allah and we perform His will in all of our actions.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.