A Moral Understanding of al-Ihsan

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

May 27, 2020

A Moral Understanding of al-Ihsan

Finally, we turn to the concept of ‘doing what is fair and just’ (al-Ihsan), the crucial moral term for Eman. In short, ‘doing what is fair and just’ means doing good deeds that fight evil acts and misdeeds. Hence, good and bad deeds stand in a dialectical relationship. Good deeds are for the benefit of humankind and other creatures, while bad deeds bring them harm. This is, in simplest terms, the general definition of al-Ihsan. It has nothing to do with human behavior in the eyes of God, because He, in His omnipotence, sublime majesty, and perfection, is above human deeds and misdeeds. Al-Ihsan is purely defined by the way we interact as human beings in this world. Worryingly, the lack of clarity in defining the term al-Ihsan has always been the Achilles heel of the way moral ethics have been conceptualized in Islam.

By describing it purely as a Sufi term (‘to act as if God sees you’, etc.), we forget that al-Ihsan actually means that we should respect one another and care for those close to us, that is, our spouses, children, neighbors, and parents, as we are told by the Book: …and do good [ihsanan] to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet), and what your right hands possess… ( Al-Nisa” 4:36) If we do something bad, we are requested to do something good in compensation for the bad deed.

We are reminded that we should judge others by their deeds and good work, not their outward appearance. It is like a warning that we should not judge, for example, a woman by what she wears or whether she is veiled or not, but by the deeds she has done for others and for society as a whole. This means that we act righteously and justly by working for others and not by following rigid dress codes or other shallow norms of external religious correctness.

The moral aspect of al-Ihsan has been tragically ignored by contemporary Arab believers, to the point where people are now more obsessed with appearance than with good deeds. But do our physicians not do good deeds by taking care of their patients? And do not lawyers, teachers, builders, farmers, and so on do al-Ihsan by being good and professional in their work? Is it not high time to open a completely new chapter of fiqh and write it under the title ‘Good deeds at work”?

talking about competence and excellence in performing good deeds in all spheres of life, perhaps one section for each sphere (good work at home; neighborhoods; environment; spiritual happiness; citizens, etc.). What would be important is that all good deeds are firmly located in this world. We cannot ignore the fact that this world is the field where the seeds of the Afterlife grow, even if we acknowledge the existence of the next world. But without life in this world Hell and Paradise would not make sense, neither would the Day of Judgement or the concepts of reward and punishment. Once we have grasped the dialectics between this world and the Next, we are able to nourish this life and give it meaning.

We will then be able to fully participate in establishing a prosperous human society that can positively influence the course of events in history. Let us look at these two verses from the Book: Nay, whoever submits his whole self to God and is a doer of good [muhsin], he will get his reward with his Lord… ( Al-Baqara 2:112) Who can be better [ahsana] in religion than one who submits his whole self to God, does good [huwa muhsin], and follows the way [milla] of Abraham the true in faith [hanifan]? For God did take Abraham for a friend. ( Al-Nisa” 4:125) In both verses the category of a person who is a ‘doer of good’ (al-muhsin) is discussed. We hear in the first verse (2:112) that the Afterlife is intrinsically linked to ‘doing what is fair and just’ in this world.

As we have said, this world lays the foundation for our life in the next world where we will reap the fruits of our work in this world. We learn that good deeds are recorded by Allah for each individual soul, because the Book says ‘he will get his reward with his Lord’, using the singular (his), which indicates an individual account with God, and not the plural form (their), that is, a collective account. When it uses the plural form as in ‘on such shall be no fear (for them), nor shall they grieve, it is directed to the entire group of muhsinin in the next world, reminding us in more general terms that ‘doing what is fair and just’ in this world does not entail losing sight of the Next.

In the second verse (4:125) we hear that ‘who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to God’. We learn that every religious community, of whatever name or title, in which there is a person who assents to God (and who is someone who is ‘doing what is fair and just’), will find God’s approval. The same verse clarifies the dialectics between the individual and society in terms of ‘doing what is fair and just’. The verse links the opening part that talks about al-Ihsan with the concluding part that talks about the ‘way (milla) of Abraham’ who is called a hanif. We gather from this link that ‘doing what is fair and just’ is part of ‘the true way of faith’ (al-hanifiyya) which is embodied in the community of Abraham (millat Ibrahim).

Note that the text does not say ‘religion of Abraham’ but ‘community of Abraham’, because ‘religion’ (din) is different from ‘community’ (milla). Religion consists of all those civil and ethical rules which are upheld by ‘doing what is fair and just’ and which define the relationship between individuals and society.

The Book tells us that there is only one religion in this world—and this is Islam. As for the term ‘community’, it refers to the assembly of like-minded people who translate these ethical rules into concrete norms of behavior that are obligatory for the members of this community. Their socio-communal behavior is based on the principle of hanifiyya, which means that in the way they formulate and translate these ethical rules they are influenced by the historical context in which they live.

Allah has given us rules that are fixed, the ‘straight path’ and His commandments, but He left us to deal with hanifiyya, the task of allowing and constantly absorbing diverse developments. The principle of hanifiyya is embodied in Muhammad’s message of a theory of limits ( al-hudud ). As for the problem of historical change and the potential constant evolution of what is ‘fair and just’, we need to recall that historical circumstances govern most ethical rules.

New, unprecedented ethical rules will have to be introduced in the light of new developments in human society, and new ethical rules, of which we have yet no knowledge, will have to be created in the future. Today, we are asked to apply the principle of hanifiyya to our contemporary community (milla), which we do by following the example of the community of Abraham. In order to achieve this, Allah has given us the principles of moral behavior, its foundation and ethical boundaries, but He has left it to us to formulate ethical rules according to the idea of hanifiyya.

Exactly how this is done is a matter of historical variance and differs from one place to another and from one historical period to the next. ‘Doing what is fair and just’ in terms of working in a factory, for example, depends on the existing conditions of production. And the conditions of production are often troublesome and oppressive; so we hear the Book calling: ‘So establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance.’ ( Al-Rahman 55:9). This implies, however, that the conditions of production might change and develop, primarily because of the effects of scientific and technological progress. Means of transport and the driving conditions differed tremendously between the late and the early twentieth century.

We need to be aware that if we applied the same old rules of driving today with our current means of transport and much-improved infrastructure, we would be in danger of ceasing to be ‘those who do righteous things’ because, as we said before, this would not apply the principle of hanifiyya of Abraham’s community. Its core message is to take historical change into consideration and to adapt the concept of ‘doing what is fair and just’ to the actual conditions of the time and the place in which it is to be practiced.

Our fundamental position that the Qur’an should not be regarded as a book of codified law that stipulates exact punishment for specific crimes but, instead, only indicates the outer boundaries (the upper and lower limits of moral and social tolerance) in God’s law. Human legislation, thus, should not take place with these outer boundaries but in between them.

The two verses of Surat al-Baqara and Surat al-Nisa” stipulate that whoever submits his whole self to God is ‘doing what is fair and just’ on condition that the principle of hanifiyya is applied to his ethics. The following verse articulates this idea nicely by giving us the example of a prosperous, thriving person who has a firm grip on the rope that Allah has given him: Whoever submits his whole self to God, and is a doer of good, has grasped indeed the most trustworthy hand-hold; and with God rests the end and decision of (all) affairs. (Luqman 31:22)

Finally we want to stress again that the need to develop an understanding of ‘doing what is fair and just’ ( fiqh al-ihsan) for all spheres of life is the biggest challenge that contemporary Arab believers face. As believers we need to be familiar with ‘doing what is fair and just’, its underlying principle of hanifiyya and its fundamental condition to believe in Allah and the Hereafter.

We need to realize that such familiarity is the only way to avoid remaining isolated and outside history, outside civilization and outside the Center of the world’s creative powers. If we continue to give priority to our prayers and the fast of Ramadan, to hide our women behind the hijab (under false convictions) , and to grow our beards, that is, if we continue to be obsessed with the superficialities of external behavior and appearance, we will stay backward and remain a miserable, humiliated nation.

If we do not implement the concept of ‘doing what is fair and just’ and the principle of hanifiyya with all its different practical implications in our daily life, if we do not socialize our youth in this spirit, and if we do not replace the traditional manuals of religious rituals ( fiqh al-sha’a’ir) with the new practices of fiqh al-ihsan we will, in the long run, achieve absolutely nothing.

Conclusion is next.