The state of ihsan implies the perception and recognition of the believer that he is under continuous divine supervision, that is, that he is under the watchful eye of a type of ‘divine camera’. Ihsan is the ascension of the spirits of those who are close to Allah.
The fact that almighty Allah sees every action of His servants and that He will call them to account for them when the time comes is expressed in the following verses from the Qur’an:
‘We will tell them about it with knowledge. We are never absent.’ (Al-Araf, 7:7)
‘Do they not know that Allah knows their secrets and their private talk, and that Allah is the Knower of all unseen things?’ (Al-Tawba, 9:78)
‘(Luqman said to his son: ) ‘My son, even if something weighs as little as a mustard-seed and is inside a rock or anywhere else in the heavens or earth, Allah will bring it out. Allah is All-Pervading, All-Aware’.(Luqman, 31:16)
In our daily lives there are many people who refrain from saying and doing the wrong thing when they perceive a pair of eyes watching over them. And this is because of a feeble pair of eyes that cannot even punish him… in the same way, the believer who lives in a state of ihsan perceives that Allah sees him and knows everything he thinks, says and does.
Another meaning of ihsan is to perform anything one does or to act in the best way one can.
One of the most important matters in preparing for one’s last breath is to establish the feeling of ihsan in the heart. That is, to establish a union of the heart with almighty Allah and to feel that one is always under His watchful supervision. This union of the heart can only be established through much remembrance of Allah.
The second step in attaining to the state of ihsan and alertness is to reflect upon the following verses of the Qur’an:
‘Allah is with you wherever you are’(Al-Hadid, 57:4)
‘…We are nearer to him than his jugular vein.’(Qaf, 50:16)
‘Know that Allah intervenes between a man and his heart and that you will be gathered to Him’(Al-anfal, 8:24)
The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) says on this matter:
‘The highest station of faith is to know that Allah is with you wherever you are’(Haysami, I, 60).
There is no doubt that Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) was in a constant state of ‘ihsan’, day and night, in times of constriction, and in times of ease and comfort, in times of war and in times of peace. His state of constant remembrance of Allah, his prayers and supplications made with each act, his supererogatory worship that he continued to perform, his performing the prayer during the night until his ankles would swell up, his meticulousness in fulfilling other’s rights, his distribution of rights and justice at all times and other of his virtues, are strong proofs of his deep consciousness of ihsan.
Umar ibn Khattab (r.a) narrates the following hadith (which is called the hadith of Gabriel), which illustrates how they were informed of and taught the state of ihsan:
‘One day when we were sitting with the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) a man appeared wearing the whitest of clothes, and his hair was the blackest of black. He had no indication of being a traveller and none of us knew him. The man sat in front of the Messenger of Allah, placed his knees on his knees and his hands on his own knees and then asked:
“O Muhammad! What is Islam?”
The Prophet answered:
“Islam is to bear witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, to perform the prayer properly, to pay the alms completely, to fast without fault during the month of Ramadhan and to visit the Ka’bah if one is able to”.
The man said:
“You have spoken the truth”.
We thought it strange that he asked the question and then confirmed the answer. This time the man asked:
“And what is iman (faith)?”
The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) answered:
“It is to believe in Allah, in His angels, in His books, in the prophets and in the last day. It is to believe in fate and the good and evil of it”.
“You have spoken the truth” said the man again.
“In that case, what is ihsan?” he asked.
The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) replied:
“Ihsan is to worship Allah as if you see Him. Even though you do not see Him, He sees you”.
The man repeated:
“You have spoken the truth”. Then he asked:
“When will the day of judgement take place?” The Messenger of Allah answered:
“The one asked has no more knowledge about this matter than the one who asks”. The man then asked:
“In that case, what are its signs?” The Prophet replied:
That the slave-girl will give birth to her mistress and master, that you will find barefooted, destitute goat-herds vying with one another in the construction of magnificent buildings.”.
The man then left silently. I stood like that there for a while. Then the Prophet said to me:
“O Umar. Do you know who it was that asked these questions just now?” I replied:
“Allah and His Messenger know best”.
“It was Gabriel. He came to teach you your religion”(Muslim, Iman, 1,5 Bukhari, Iman 37 Tirmidhi, Iman, 4; Abu Dawud, Sunan 16).
Our scholars have said that this hadith is the essence of the sunnah. Thus reaching perfection in one’s Islam and one’s faith is dependent on reaching the state of ihsan. The religion of the believer who has not reached the state of ihsan is thus lacking. Such faith is like a fruitless tree that is unable to continue its existence. There is a strong possibility that it will soon dry up.
This hadith also most evidently indicates that tasawwuf, which is at the heart of faith and Islam, and cannot be considered anything different from them, aims to establish the state of ihsan in the heart of the believer.
In actual fact the greatest joy for the slave of Allah is for him to be together with his Lord. The Creator of the entire universe desires to be with his slave at every instant and as an indication of this, He says in the Qur’an:
‘Those who remember Allah, standing, sitting and lying on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: ‘Our Lord, You have not created this for nothing. Glory be to You! So safeguard us from the punishment of the Fire’. (Al’i Imran, 3:191)
On the other hand, a mind that is not connected to the heart and that has succumbed to the desires of its nafs will be incapable of perceiving the pleasure to be found in togetherness with almighty Allah. That is, it is ignorant of the greatest virtue and happiness.
To be able to receive pleasure and joy from worship, and not to tire from it is only possible through the feeling of ihsan. The one who does not feel this ihsan in his heart will quickly tire of prayer and it will become exhausting for him. If he is rich he will refrain from giving alms and charity and spending for the needy out of his wealth. Because he has distanced himself from divine supervision and cannot taste the pleasure of faith. From this respect it can be said that the prayer that is prayed in the proper manner, the charity that is given from the heart, the fasting that is done out of love, the pilgrimage that is done with ardour, the sound heart that is between hope and fear, good character and every other virtue is a blessing of the state of ihsan.
Scenes of Virtue
Abdullah ibn Abbas (r.a) narrates:
One day I was sitting behind the Messenger of Allah on his camel. He said to me:
“My child. I will give you some advice”. Then he continued:
“Obey Allah’s commands and He will protect you. If you hold the pleasure of Allah above all else, then you will find Allah in front of you. If you ask for something, ask from Allah. If you want help with something, ask Allah for help”(Tirmidhi, Qiyamah, 59/2516).
And in another narration:
“Beware of Allah’s commands and prohibitions and you will find Allah in front of you. Know Allah by staying bound to His commands while you are in prosperity and He will recognise you (and save you) when you fall into distress…” (Ahmad, I, 307)
These words of our Prophet nicely summarise the essence of the state of ihsan and its signs.
One time Abdullah ibn Umar (r.a) had gone to the outskirts of Madina with some of his friends. They prepared a table of food for him. At that point a shepherd appeared and greeted them. Ibn Umar (r.a) said to him:
“Come shepherd and eat with us”. The shepherd replied:
“I am fasting”. Ibn Umar then said:
“Are you fasting in this intense and suffocating heat? And you are herding sheep as well?
Later, in order to test the shepherds scrupulousness and taqwa he suggested the following:
“Will you not sell us one of the sheep from your herd and we will pay you and give you some of the meat so you can break your fast with it?”
The shepherd replied:
“This is not my herd. They belong to my master”. Ibn Umar then said:
“You can tell him that you lost one. How is your master to know otherwise?” The shepherd averted his head, lifted his finger up to the heavens and said:
“And where is Allah?”
Ibn Umar (r.a) was left very much moved by the ihsan and awareness of this shepherd. He became lost in thought as he reflected on the shepherds words. He kept saying to himself: The shepherd said: “Where is Allah? The shepherd said: And where is Allah?”
When he returned to Madina, he sent an envoy to the shepherd’s master and bought both the herd and the shepherd. After setting the shepherd free he also gave him the herd of sheep. (Ibn Asir, Usdu al-Gabe, III, 341).
Thus the beauty of the state of ihsan and awareness of Allah and the blessings and reward of this beauty even in this world… Who knows what the reward will be in the afterlife?
As was his habit, Umar (r.a) was once again walking the streets of Madina in the middle of the night. All of a sudden he stopped. He was drawn by the sounds of an argument coming from one of the houses he was passing by. A mother was saying to her daughter:
“My daughter. Add some water to the milk that we are going to sell tomorrow”
The daughter replied:
“Dearest mother, did not the caliph forbid us to mix our milk with water?”
The mother berated her daughter:
“And how is the caliph to know at this time of night, that we have added water to our milk?”
But it was to no avail. The daughter whose heart was alive with both love and fear of Allah did not accept this deceit of her mother’s.
“Dearest mother! Let us assume that the caliph cannot see us. Can Allah not see us too? It will be easier to hide this deceit from the people, but how is it possible to hide it from Allah, the Creator of the universe, who sees and knows everything…?”
The reply of this daughter to her mother moved Umar (r.a) to the utmost. This was a girl with a pure conscience and a living heart full of divine truths and a deep fear of Allah. Umar, the Commander of the Believers, arranged for her to be the bride of his son, as he recognised her extraordinary piety, and did not see her as being the mere daughter of an ordinary milk seller. And so it was that the famous Umar ibn Abdulaziz, the fifth Caliph, was born of this pure lineage. (See Ibn Jawzii’, Sifatu as-Safwa, II, 203-4)
This example is an illustration of how the state of ihsan can go beyond the individual to be a means of bounty and virtue for an entire community.
During his caliphate, Umar (r.a) once sent Muadth (r.a) to the tribe of the sons of Kilab. He was to pay whatever necessary money was to be paid from the state treasury, give out whatever property was to be given out and distribute the wealth taken from the rich to the poor and needy.
Muadth (r.a) carried out his duty with the utmost care and, winning hearts, he returned with many sweet anecdotes. When he came back, he had only the scarf around his neck, as a worldly good. This scarf was with him when he went anyway. One time his wife could no longer stand it and she said to him:
“People who take up such a duty take a certain fee, and bring back gifts for their family. Where are your gifts?”
Muadth (r.a) replied:
“I was accompanied by an escort wherever I went and this escort never left my side. He accounted for everything I took and gave out”.
His wife got angry:
“The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) trusted you with everything. So did Abu Bakr. Now Umar came and he sent an escort with you? And he followed you in everything you did?”
These words reached the wife of Umar and from there they reached the ears of Umar (r.a) himself. He called Muadth and asked him reproachfully:
“What is this I hear ohh Muadth? I sent no escort to follow you and yet I hear the opposite? Do you think that I do not trust you?”
The reply of Muadth (r.a) was most significant:
“O Commander of the Believers! This was the only excuse I could put forward to my wife. And when I said escort I did not mean your escort. I meant that I was being watched by Allah. I would not wish to lose the reward and I could not take any fee for myself for the duty I carried out, even though there is permission…”
Umar understood what he meant by these words. Muadth was above taking anything from the world for himself. However, in order to win his heart, Umar (r.a) gave him a gift from his own possessions and told him:
“Take this and go and please your family”
Another nice example that expresses concisely the state of ihsan and awareness of Allah is as follows:
A preacher was once giving his sermon about the hereafter. Amongst the congregation was Shaykh Shibli. The preacher was talking about the questions that Allah would ask in the hereafter:
“It will be asked of you – for what purpose did you use your knowledge? It will be asked of you – where did you spend your wealth? And again how did you spend your life? What is the state of your worship? Were you careful about avoiding the forbidden and only taking from the lawful?” He went on to list all the things that would be asked about.
So much detail was discussed but the heart of the matter was overlooked and so Shaykh Shibli called out to the preacher:
“O preacher. You forgot the most vital of questions. Allah Most High will ask: O my slave! I was with you at every instant. Who were you with?”
On the deathbed of one of the friends of Allah, Abu Bakr Kattani (may his spirit be sanctified), he was asked which good deeds he had done during his life. He gave the following beautiful response:
“If I did not know that my death was near I would not speak of my deeds out of fear of ostentation. For a whole forty years I kept watch at the door of my heart. I tried not to open it to any other than Allah. Eventually my heart reached such a state that it was unable to recognise anything other than Allah”.
According to narrations, the prophet Jesus (upon whom be peace) once encountered a sick man with piebald skin and with both his temples drawn. The man was virtually unaware of his sickness and kept saying to himself:
“O my Lord! Endless praise and thanks be to you that you have freed me from the worries that befall much of mankind…”
In order to determine the degree of this man’s perception and his spiritual perfection, Jesus asked him:
“O man. Which worry has Allah freed you from?”
The sick man replied:
“O spirit of Allah! The most disastrous of sickness and misfortunes is for the heart to be heedless and deprived of Allah. Thank God that I am in a state of pleasure of being together with Almighty Allah. It is as if I am completely unaware of the sicknesses of my body…”
A rumour was once spread that Shaykh Muhammad Nur al-Arabi, the famous Sufi scholar of the 19th century, denied that the human being had any will, that is, he denied the concept of ‘juz’i irada’ or the partial will of man. Hearing of this, Sultan Abdulmajid Han asked that the man be invited to talk with him where he could be asked about this matter. This took place and the Shaykh was invited to talk. When he was asked about the matter at hand, he gave the following reply:
“I did not deny that there was partial will in a general sense. However I said that for certain people it is as if it does not exist. Because for the great friends of Allah who are constantly in the presence of Allah, for them to carry out their own will is virtually impossible, so it is as if they have no partial will at all. These people do not act according to their own will but rather in accordance with the will of almighty Allah whose dominion they are in. In the opposite case they would be acting contrary to manners and would be at fault.
For instance, now we are in the presence of the Sultan. If it is said to us ‘come’, we come, if we are told to ‘go’, we go. It is not possible for us to use our will for our own desires and in opposition to the Sultan’s who has surrounded us. Whereas look around at the heedless ones and other creatures; they are quite free and uninhibited in their will”.
Quite satisfied with this reply, the Sultan showed great hospitality to the Shaykh.
Those unique people of ihsan and awareness who live knowing that Allah is ever present and watching over them, will be in a state of submission not to their own will but rather to the divine will in all situations…
In short, the state of ihsan and awareness is the essence and jewel of faith. The fruits of knowledge of Allah such as khushu (deep reverence), ikhlas (sincerity) and taqwa (piety) amongst other virtues of worship and behaviour are all possible only when one’s heart has reached this state. Every righteous deed that is done in a state of ‘seeing’ Almighty Allah will result in ikhlas blossoming, taqwa blooming with khushu as the fruit. To be on the right path even when people cannot see you, to refrain from sin even where you are far away from the watchful eyes of man, is only possible if one is conscious of the fact that ‘Allah sees me everywhere and all the time’. This is why Sufism aims for the heart to reach this degree, in all of its methods and principles. The friends of Allah are seekers of this state for an entire lifetime.
What then befalls us is to raise the degree of our heart to the level of being in a state of consciousness and perception of Allah’s continual watchfulness over us. Then it is to measure our character against the most embodied state of ihsan, that of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and then to give it direction accordingly. ‘…Allah’s mercy is close to the good-doers’ (Al-A’raf, 7:56).
. This is how this hadith (the maidservant will give birth to her master or lady) has been interpreted, namely that mothers will give birth to rebellious children who will treat them like their slaves. On the matter of barefoot, bare-headed shepherds who will build tall and perfect buildings, it is an indication of the increase in luxury and wealth, and people who used to be poor becoming rich enough to vie with each other to build huge and luxurious buildings. The world will present all of its wealth to mankind and money and wealth will become the only measurement of worth or value and people will become obsessed with consuming and displaying their wealth.