The Culminating Virtue of Ihsan
AMONG THE STATIONS of You alone we worship, and your help alone we seek is the station of goodness (ihsan). This station is the essence, the heart and soul, and the perfection of faith. Moreover, it combines in itself all of the stations. All of them converge in it. Thus all that has been said from the beginning of this treatise until now is but part of ihsan.
The author of Al-Manazil [Shaykh ‘Abdullah Al-Ansari Al-Harawi, d. 482/1089], in it says, “Proof for this station is adduced by the words of the Almighty: Is the recompense of goodness but goodness? [Surat Al-Rahman, 55:60].[Al-Harawi says:] “’Ihsan’ is a comprehensive name for all aspects of spiritual realities, namely, that you worship Allah as if you see Him.”
As for the verse, Ibn ‘Abbas and Quran commentators say it means:
Is the recompense of anyone who says ‘There is no deity but Allah, and who practices what Muhammad ﷺ brought, anything but Paradise?
It has been reported on the authority of the Prophet that he recited Is the recompense of goodness but goodness? and then asked:
Do you know what your Lord has said? They said: ‘Allah and His Messenger know better.’ He said: ‘He says: ‘Is the recompense for anyone whom I have blessed with affirmation of the Oneness [of God] anything but Paradise?’” (Reported by a number of Quran commentators concerning this verse, with weak isnad).
The Three Levels of Ihsan
The hadith [of Gabriel that defines ihsan as “to worship Allah as if you see Him”] makes allusion to the perfection of presence with Allah, Almighty and Magnificent, and to one’s complete attention to Him in humility, love, and awareness; in repentance and sincerity; and with all the stations of faith.
First, Intention[Al-Harawi] says: “[Ihsan] has three levels. The first level is goodness in intention, [which is attained] by refining [the seeker’s] knowledge, strengthening him in determination, and purifying his state.”
He means that goodness of intention is attained by three things:
First, Refinement by knowledge: That is to say, [one’s intention] is made in accordance with knowledge and is purified from the stain of [illicit] pleasures. Hence, one intends naught but what is permissible in accordance with sacred knowledge (‘ilm), and that knowledge is the following of the divine command and the Law (the Shari‘ah).
Second, Strengthening its determination: This means the intention must be accompanied by determination that will actualize it, and it is not to be accompanied by interruption and delay that will weaken it.
Third, Purification of one’s state: This means that the state of the one who attains [the station of goodness] is untainted by filth and stains that would indicate the impurity of the intention. For the state is both the index of intention and its fruit. It is also its very material and its cause. Each interacts with the other, and the purity of the one implies the purity of the other.
Second, Vigilance[Al-Harawi] says: “The second level [of Ihsan] is goodness in states, which is that you watch over them protectively, conceal them gracefully, and scrutinize them to attain reality.”
Cultivating Goodness by Paying Attention
By “watching over” the protection of the states, he means to say that you jealously guard them against change (to inferior states)’ for they pass like the clouds, and if one does not give them their due, they go by. “Watching over” means constancy of fulfillment and avoidance of defiance.
Observance of states also means honoring them, for they are like guests, and when guests are not honored, they depart. Their observance also requires strictly perfecting them and clinging to them, not allowing any bandit or plunderer on the path to get his way with them. In addition, observance also means following their requirements so long as they do not oppose the [divine] command.
Concealing and Revealing
Observance of spiritual states further requires concealing them gracefully from people to the extent possible such that they do not know about [your states] and not revealing them except for a reason, a need, or a preferred benefit. Otherwise, there is many a harm in disclosing one’s [spiritual] states, including exposing them to thieves, bandits, and assailants.
To the truthful ones, revealing one’s inner state publicly is a mark of foolishness and deficiency, seduction of the self and the devil. Those of sincerity and determination are more concealing, guarded about these states than those who possess treasures of wealth are in concealing and guarding their wealth.
Some of the truthful ones go even to the extent of displaying the opposite of their states, such as the Malamatiyya. This conduct is well known among them. The master of this group was called ‘Abdullah ibn Manazil. This group agrees that whoever discloses his states with Allah to the public has adulterated his path, except if it is done for a proof, need, or necessity.[Al-Harawi’s] words “scrutinize them to attain reality” means that he strives to actualize his states, correct and purify them; for a spiritual state may be a mix of truth and falsehood and none but those endowed with insight and knowledge are able to distinguish between the two.
The Right and the Left
The devotees of this path say that the ecstatic occurrence that begins with the right side of a servant (the same being true of inspirations and speech) are in most cases truthful. As for those that begin on the left side, they are in most cases false.
This is so because the “people of the right hand” are the people of truth, as they receive their Books of Deeds in their right hands; their light will appear on the Path to their right; also, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ liked to begin with the right side, in putting on his shoes, walking, purification (as in ablution) and in every such matter. Allah and His angels send blessings on the right side of the rows [in a congregational prayer].
The Prophet ﷺ also taught that the devil eats and drinks with his left, and he seduces the son of Adam from the left side. This is why purification, after answering the call of nature and removal of impurity and filth, is done with the left hand, and one enters the lavatory with the left foot.
The Divine and the Devilish
Another sign of distinction [between good and bad spiritual states] is that every experience after which one is left feeling active, delighted, and exultant is an angelic inspiration, whereas the one after which one feels awful, indolent, and burdened in body and soul is from the devil.
A further criterion is that any ecstatic experience that leaves in its wake a greater awareness and love of Allah (or a feeling of intimacy with Him and tranquility in His mention) is angelic and divine; if not, it is otherwise.
An additional criterion is that every occurrence that encourages one to act for the sake of Allah Almighty and for Hereafter, until one feels that one sees Paradise being adorned and the Fire set ablaze, is angelic and divine. Otherwise, it is from the self and the devil.
Still another criterion is that every occurrence that illuminates the heart, expands the breast, and strengthens the heart is divine and angelic; if not it is devilish.
An added criterion is that every state that sets your thoughts upon Allah is from Him, while one that separates you from Him is devilish.
Yet another is that a divine state compels you to nothing but acts of devotion and obedience, its sole causes being devotion and obedience, while the devilish state is in opposition to this.
Finally, divine states do not contradict or conflict with each other, but affirm each other, whereas the devilish ones belie and contradict one another.
Third, Intransigence[Al-Harawi] says: “The third level is goodness across time, which is that your continuing to witness [unto the Oneness of Allah] never passes, your ambition to uphold the Truth is adulterated by none, and your flight (hijra, English: Hegira) to, or seeking refuge in, the Truth is ceaseless.”
True Insight is Irreversible
That is, you do not part from your state of witnessing [reality]. This is something achieved only by the steadfast masters who have conquered their own selves (nufus; sing. nafs), and traversed the long journey between their self (nafs) and their hearts, and between their hearts and Allah, after arduous struggle on those paths.[Al-Harawi’s] words “your ambition is adulterated by none” means that your ambition is connected to the Truth alone, and to none else, for any other such connection is equivalent to associating partners with Allah in the eyes of the sincere.
Commitment to Truth is Rewarded by Certainty[Al-Harawi’s] words “and your flight to the Truth is eternal” means that anyone who turns to Allah with truth and sincerity is one who flees to Allah, and it behooves him not to lapse in this flight. Rather; he must continue uninterrupted until He meets Allah, Almighty and Magnificent.
It is but an hour, and then it ends. It is but the one who travels that praises the outcome.
Every heart owes to Allah two “flights” (hijra) that are ineluctable obligations upon every self:
- A hijra to Allah, the Exalted, by affirming Oneness, sincerity, repentance, love, fear, hope, and servitude.
- And another hijra, or flight, to His Messenger ﷺ, by turning to him for judgment, submitting to him [to his Sunnah] and turning matters over to [evaluation by] his [standards], adhering to his judgment, and receiving judgments of the outwardly and the inwardly matters emanating from Him.
One’s submission to him should be greater than the submission of a rider to an expert guide in the darkness of night and treachery of the trail. One whose heart has failed to undertake these two flights should throw dust on his head and review his faith from its roots [upward], and go back to borrow some light, before a veil is drawn between him and it and before this admonition is given from behind a wall [a reference to Surat Al-Hadid, 57:13].