The Holy Quran has time and again emphasized on “Ihsan”, which means to do things in a beautiful way. The word “Ihsan” has been derived from the root word “Husn”, which means beauty. The text of the Quran uses the word “Ihsan” and “Husn” at many places in different contexts. While the root word “Husn” means beauty in Arabic, “Ihsan” means to beautify, to do something beautifully or excellently or even to feel beautiful. The one who feels good or beautiful or does some beautiful deed is thus called “Muhsin” in Arabic. Allah asserts at many places in the Quran that “Verily, Allah loves those people who do things in a beautiful way.”
While asking man to maintain balance in economy, Allah says in the Quran, “And spend [freely] in God’s cause, and let not your own hands throw you into destruction; and persevere in doing good: behold, God loves the doers of good”, thereby emphasising on doing things in a good way. In yet another ayat, Allah says, “Then, for having broken their solemn pledge, We rejected them and caused their hearts to harden, [so that now] they distort the meaning of the revealed words, taking them out of their context; and they have forgotten much of what they had been told to bear in mind; and from all but a few of them thou wilt always experience treachery. But pardon them, and forbear: verily, God loves the doers of good”. There are many more ayats like this in the Quran that emphasise on doing good things. Of course all these ayats reflect what Prophet Mohammad (SAW) has said in one of his traditions about Allah: “Innalaha jamilun wa yuhibul jamal” which means “Verily Allah is beautiful and loves beauty”.
Theologians and exegetes of the Quran have in detail talked about the different dimensions of “Ihsan”, for example, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) while talking about the beauty and perfection of prayers is reported to have said in one of his traditions: “It is to worship Allah as though you see Him, and though you do not see Him, you know that He sees you”. The beauty of fasting is according to different ayats of the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet to keep the body away from the fires of lust and desires, so that beauty of the soul is revealed. All the acts of charity that a Muslim is directed to carry out in the Quran are to be carried out beautifully, like “while giving the alms, the left hand should not know what the right hand has given to someone”; and to forgive and to forget the wrongs done by someone to a person is what the Quran appreciates as the best thing that one must do. Allah condemns in the Quran such acts of charity which are followed by malice, ill-will and disrespect to the recipient by the one who gives it.
In other words, “Ihsan”, according to the Quranic text and the traditions of Prophet Mohammad (SAW), is to enact most beautifully all those deeds and speech that a Muslim is supposed to manifest in terms of conduct, behaviour, attitude and character; therefore, beauty in Quranic terms is both an internal and external manifestation of human character. It is external in terms of beautiful deeds and speech and it is internal in terms of the intention with which something is said or done.
How does one interpret “Assalamalaikum wa Rehmatullah” (Peace and mercy of Allah be upon you), the expression with which we greet each other, expect as the sharing of beauty and grace with each other? If heart and tongue correspond with each other in saying these beautiful words, the effect would be doubly beautiful.
As famous English poet John Keats said: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever/ Its loveliness increases and it will never/ Pass into nothingness”, the concept of “Ihsan” is that joy forever as the person not only performs a beautiful act but there is a beautiful and pure feeling also associated with the act. Above all, the speech/ deed is altogether directed towards seeking the pleasure of Allah. It could be explained in Quranic language and metaphor in these words: “The example of the pure word is that of the tree which has its roots deep in the earth and branches high in the sky. It gives it fruits in every season.”
To attempt a definition of beauty, it is both concrete and abstract. In concrete and material terms, anything that we may call beautiful is so because of its symmetrical features, harmony and balance in its shape and structure. If anything has any imbalance in all these aspects, we tend to call it ugly. By the same standards, if a speech or deed or point of view is balanced, symmetrical and harmonious, we find it beautiful; therefore, according to the Quran, any speech or deed falls in the category of beautiful if it is accompanied by a good intention. Prophet Mohammad (SAW) is reported to have said, “Innamal aamal bin niyyat” which means “Intentions are the base of all actions”; therefore, the beauty of all the actions and deeds of man depends on the purity and sincerity of feelings and intentions in the heart of man.
The concept of “Ihsan” is one of the core concepts of the Quranic idea of man’s beauty of conduct. It is so important that even while warring for a cause when swords clash with swords and horses are galloping for the blood of enemies in the battlefield, “Ihsan” is what according to the Quran should regulate the conduct of a Muslim. There is a beautiful story about Imam Ali (RA), son-in-law and cousin of Prophet Mohammad (SAW). It is said that one day he overcame a fighter from the enemy camp and was about to kill him. The enemy spat on his face. Imam Ali immediately left him. The other person whom he was about to kill a moment ago was surprised; therefore, he asked Imam Ali why he let him go when his act of spitting on his face could have further justified his revenge on him. Imam said, “Your act of spitting on my face turned the battle into something personal. Had I killed you thus, the whole act would have been personal and it would have devalued all of my efforts for a cause; therefore, I let you go”. What was it that forbade Imam Ali from killing the enemy in the midst of the heat of the battlefield? It was “Ihsan”, as I see it, that shifted the focus of his sword from his neck to his own heart, as a result of which the enemy lost his heart to the beauty of Imam Ali’s act.
Another historical event that comes to my mind while thinking about the concept of Ihsan is when Prophet Mohammad (SAW) conquered Makka and he had all the reasons to take revenge from the people of Makka who had been after his life since the day he received apostleship from Allah. Many companions in his army raised slogans like “al yom yom al malhamat” (“it is the day of taking revenge from Makkans”); however, Prophet Mohammad (SAW) responded, “al yom yom ul marhamat” (“It is the day of mercy”). Prophet Mohammad (SAW) forgave one and all. Even Hinda, wife of Abu Sufyan who had chewed the liver of Hamza after he was killed in the battle of Uhad, was forgiven. He behaved like Prophet Joseph who when in power said to his step-brothers: “la tasriba alaikum al yom; antum ut tulaqa” which means “There will be no punishment for you today. You are free”. The principle that regulated and governed the conduct of Joseph and Mohammad in such a situation was undoubtedly the principle of “Ihsan”, which is to behave beautifully even in the worst of situations.
Concluding, the students of Quran must aim at looking for the essences of the Quran. “Ihsan” is one of the most beautiful essences of the Quranic teachings that one may start looking for, thereby beautifying one’s conduct and behaviour in normal as well as extraordinary situations. Prophet Mohammad (SAW) was the embodiment of Quranic concept of Ihsan and mercy; therefore, the Quran says, “innka laala khulqin azeem”, which means, “Verily, you are the embodiment of the greatest character” and he himself is reported to say about himself: “I was sent to complete the highest moral conduct on the earth”. It was this beautiful conduct of the Prophet that compelled one poet to write this quatrain about him: “He attained heights of conduct by his perfection/ He dispelled darkness by his beauty/ Beauteous are all of his features of conduct/ Blessings of Allah be upon him and his family”.