Ehsan, is the Islamic concept of doing good, and additionally, attaining excellence in the good, both in belief and action.
The word can also be used to emphasise sincerity (earnest and seriousness to achieve good in an action), and doing an action in a good manner (i.e. discharging a duty or activity in the most efficient manner, compliant with the highest of Islamic ideals, like mercy, compassion, justice, without waste etc).
Unfortunately, like the concept of Tawhid (http://wp.me/p1yZme-m4 ), this Islamic ideal has undergone a insidious secularisation in the last 100 years.
Whereas before, the concept of Ehsan referred to all things in Muslim life. All activities, skills and endeavour were pursued to perfection, in the worship of Allah (swt).
In the worship of Al Rahman, Muslims perfected their pursuit of Mercy: Muslims invented Bimaristan (i.e. warded hospitals), new medicines to treat existing (and newly discovered) illnesses, improved operating procedures to minimise damage, invention of anaesthetics to reduce pain, improved crop irrigation and farming methods to reduce hunger and effort.
In the worship of Al Adl, Muslims perfected their pursuit of Justice: Muslims developed elaborate jurisprudence and court systems to account the ruler and the ruled, Muslims developed new weapons of war and military tactics to defend the oppressed and weak throughout the world. Muslim weapon systems were the most advanced, and during the time of the Crusades, europeans were known to import weapons built and crafted in the Muslim world (including the counterweight trebuchet, where previous types of siege engines, required inefficient massive twisted cords to produce elasticity to fire projectiles). Muslims adopted and developed accountancy and departmental bureaucracy to ensure justice in the distribution of state funds to the people (which europe borrowed via the Norman conquest of Islamic Sicily), and algebra in order to precisely calculate inheritance according to the just measurements in the Quran.
In the worship of Al Khaliq, Muslims perfected their pursuit of the worship of their Lord through learning about His creation – the universe. Muslims studied astronomy, geology, mathematics, physics and chemistry, considering the natural world to be another revelation (or ayat verse/sign) of Allah (swt).
Considering how much latitude (no pun intended) Muslims are given by the Sharia to estimate the direction of Mecca for prayer, it demonstrates how committed they were to absolute perfection that Muslims studied and developed cartography and astronomy in order to tell the direction of Mecca with a highest degree of mathematical accuracy possible.
Muslims were not content to do the bare minimum, but were always looking to develop themselves and their talents. Muslim women engaged in studying jurisprudence as a hobby! To the point that Muslim male scholars (who had to work during the day time doing other jobs to make money), frequently relied on their wives for Islamic legal opinions!
However, a terrible calamity hit the Muslim civilisation, it reached a zenith and supremacy of power in the 16th century that it never recovered from, and colonialisation of the Muslim world in the 18th century onwards compounded this problem and imposed shackles upon Islamic revival.
In the 16th century, the Muslim world was powerful, wealthy and enjoying great ease. This started to mire Muslims in luxury, comfort and an easy life, which stunted problem-solving thinking, improvement, intellectual and technological progression and narrowed from their memory the goal of the Islamic world project – to see the world filled with justice, mercy and peace. Endless wars with an ascending europe – who were galvanised by immense wealth from the horrific colonisation of the ‘new world’, industrialising and commodifying slavery – meant that the Muslim world slowly lost its wealth, economic strength and technological superiority over its Western neighbour. Muslims became more insular, inward-looking and retreated into the world of the ‘spiritual’ for their failures in the world of the ‘material’.
By the time Europeans realised that the Muslim armies had lost their tactical and technological advantage, the Muslim world became ripe for their colonisation. As each European power took a part of the Muslim world, they deposed the existing power structure, or held it captive, meanwhile changing the economy into one fitted purely for the extraction of natural resources for shipment to the West, and the markets to be one suited to consuming the imported and higher priced produced goods of the Western industries (powered by the natural resources received). The education system was changed to teach Western ideas, philosophy and imitation of Western styles.
Muslims who kept themselves separate from this, and being unable to change the political situation, retreated into aspects of Islam that didn’t involve politics, and thus were not disliked by the colonialists. This retreat was also marked by defeatism, when Muslims justified why they should retreat – daring to assume Allah’s will – exclaiming ‘this is how Allah wants it’, or ‘the ends times is coming, so that’s probably why we’re in this situation’.
Along with this, the Western ideas of Secularism, entrenched this separation of Deen (way of life) from the affairs of mankind, and the concept of Ehsan, along with many other Islamic ideas, was cropped into only the areas of Islam permitted to exist – the rituals, the personal emotions in the heart, and personal transactions.
Therefore in today’s secularised Ehsan, colonialised Muslims will preach the importance of perfection in the ‘heart’, or perfection in ritual prayers, or giving charity to the poor – some even convinced themselves that the degradation of the Muslim world is because of a lack of pursuit of these things. However, they forget that the causes of corruption of the heart, and the biggest opposition to the perfection of the heart all come from the one area of human life they dare not tread into – society.
This partly explains why Muslims who were inducted into the new colonial systems being built in the Muslim world, and who rose to power, or work in the new society, believe that devout Muslims and Muslim scholars are generally ignorant of the world. They came to hold this view because they saw that Muslims focusing only on personal emotions, rituals or transactions were incapable of governing or ruling due to their not having knowledge of the world, nor do they hear from these Muslims how Islam can provide real practical solutions for it – therefore corrupt Secular politicians are resorted to, despite the conditions of the Muslims world still degrading under their leadership.
British colonial government over Egypt, Lord Cromer described this:
“the Europeanised Egyptian is in the majority of cases a Moslem. In reality, he is generally an Agnostic. The gulf between him and the ” Alim ” [Islamic scholar] of the El-Azhar University is as great as between the ” Alim ” and the European….The Europeanised Egyptian…will often look on the *’ Alim ” with all the pride of an intellectual parvenu [i.e. a person coming from backward origins]. From the pedestal of his empirical knowledge, he will regard the ” Alim ” as a social derelict, who has to be tolerated, and even occasionally, for political purposes, to be utilised, but who need not be respected”.
Modern Egypt, 1916
Humans, quite simply, are social creatures, they adapt to the society they come from, and a corrupt, unjust and selfish society will breed the same in individuals (Ali’s narrated, swearing by Allah, that people resemble their rulers more than they resemble their fathers) . Furthermore, the heart’s purpose is to drive correct action. If people abstain from changing their society, which they inescapably live in, how could they ever change their hearts? Putting it another way, it’s easy to be polite and kind when no one lives around you. When people live around you, that’s when the test really exists. Likewise, how can charity be pursued to perfection, if Muslims do not seek to stamp out the unjust economic systems that prevail upon them, which create hundreds more poor people than they can individually help? Muslims have forgotten that Allah (swt) in the Quran punishes entire societies for the neglect of their duties, and not just individuals. In fact, the Quran gives more examples of how collectives of people were punished, than examples of specific individual people that were punished!
Furthermore, why did Allah (swt) grant China ascendency, despite the fact that the Chinese, by and large, are not Muslim (or Christian or Jewish)? It is quite simply because Allah (swt) rewards people according to their works, whether sincere Muslims and non-Muslims, or insincere Muslims and non-Muslims. The difference of treatment between the sincere and insincere, is that with the insincere, Allah (swt) gives them the reward of their works only in this life. Whereas for the sincere, Allah (swt) rewards in this life (with abundance and blessings), AND in the hereafter. But without a desire to do works, there can be no rewards from Allah (swt) in this life or the next.
The Quran teaches that Allah does not change a condition of a people until they change what is within themselves. It is notable that the verse in the Quran does not mention believers, but is generally for any society or people.
Therefore Muslims should cast of the Secularised version of the Islamic concept of Ihsan, and strive for Ihsan in all things, whether in themselves or their society. This means improving their understanding of the world, of all areas of human knowledge, of technology, engineering and medicine, of how Islam can be applied in a state using modern technology and in circumstances of modern urbanisation – all in the service of continuing the work of Porphet Muhammed (saaw) to acheive the Islamic world project of global justice, mercy and peace for all.
Note: This should be pursued SIMULTANEOUSLY along with the perfection of each individual Muslim’s personal traits. Each Muslim must, while striving to achieve the aforementioned, perfect their health, virtues [morals and reputation (yes, improving the conduct you are known for socially, leaves no where left for anti-social corruptions in the heart to manifest)] their excellence in their profession, and discover, apply and develop their natural talents, until it is razor sharp. Muslim doctors should strive to be the best doctors in the world, Muslim engineers should strive to create the most efficient, most elegant designs in the world. Muslim teachers should strive to discover the best methods for teaching their students and raising their attainment of understanding beyond even what their teachers did in their age.
The Prophet Muhammed (saaw) is narrated to have taught that a Muslim is never stung by the same hole twice, which indicates that Muslims should be intelligent, rational, not naive, and committed to work in the best of manners, to the best of plans, to achieve the best of goals.
Anything less than all this, and you cannot say you are seeking Ehsan.
Allah (swt) has already put you into the life of this world, so say not that you will only come into the world after you have perfected yourself, but seek to perfect yourself using this world.