What does ihsan mean? Why is ‘worshipping Allah as if seeing Him’ is expressed with the phrase ihsan?

Details of the Question

What does ihsan mean? Why is ‘worshipping Allah as if seeing Him’ is expressed with the phrase ihsan?

(editor) on Tue, 27/03/2018 - 15:14

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Ihsan is a term that is generally used in the sense of doing someone a favor, doing something in the best way, worshipping Allah sincerely.

It is a noun derived from the root husn, which lexically means "to be nice/beautiful/good"; it is generally used in two different ways:  "to do someone a favor" and "to do something very well/in the best way".

A person who does ihsan is called muhsin. In order to reach the level of ihsan while doing something, man needs to know how to do it and to put his knowledge into practice in the best way. 

That is what Hz. Ali meant when he said, "People become valuable as they do things with ihsan."

The term ihsan is used in this sense in the verse stating that Allah created everything with ihsan (as-Sajda, 32/7).

In ethical literature, ihsan is generally used in the sense of "doing favors by wanting and loving and by doing more than what is necessary". According to the view of Raghib al-Isfahani, which is also agreed by the other Islamic scholars, ihsan is a degree above justice; justice means to pay one’s debt and to obtain his receivables; ihsan means to give more than what is necessary and to obtain less than what one deserves. Therefore, it is wajib to act in accordance with justice and mandub and mustahab to act in accordance with ihsan. (Mufradat, "hsn", "adl" item)

In the Quran, the concept ihsan is mentioned in more than seventy verses by being attributed to both Allah and people in the form of verbs and nouns; in some of those verses it is used in the sense of "doing favors to others", in some verses in the sense of "doing something very well"; it is used in its absolute sense, without any specifications in most of the verses. (see M. F. Abdulbaqi, al-Mu’jam, "hsn" item)

The same usages are seen commonly in the verses too. (see Wensinck, al-Mu'jam, "hsn" item)

In both resources, the word ihsan expresses Allah’s perfect creation when it is attributed to Allah as it is seen in the verses “He Who has made everything which He has created most good” (as-Sajda, 32/7) and “He has given you shape, and made your shapes beautiful” (at-Taghabun, 64/3) or His grace and generosity toward His slaves as it is seen in the verses "but do thou good, as Allah has been good to thee" (al-Qasas, 28/77) "Allah has indeed granted for them a most excellent Provision" (at-Talaq, 65/11)

However, as it is seen in the supplication of the Prophet (pbuh),

"O Allah! Make my ethics beautiful as You made my creation beautiful" (Musnad, 1,403),

when it is used especially for Allah, we cannot mention a certain difference between them. For, the beauty and perfection of Allah’s deeds are also His grace.

Since believers accept all of the beauties and the boons that they see in the universe and in man and even in all beings as manifestation of divine existence and beauty, man needs to know Allah as the real being ontologically and he needs to be His slave only, to know only Him as the real owner of boons, grants and grace in all occasions, to turn toward Him with his spirit, to love Him and to love everything because of Him ethically.   

The concept ihsan is used in two contexts in verses and hadiths in which it is attributed to man:

a) It includes the spirit of deep respect, loyalty and obedience to Allah that a slave feels in accordance with its meaning summarized as "doing what he does in the best way". The explanation of the Prophet (pbuh) in the hadith known as "the hadith of Jibril" as,

"Ihsan means to worship Allah as if you see Him for even if you cannot see Him, He sees you"(Bukhari, Iman 1)​

is regarded as the best definition of ihsan in this context and great emphasis was put on it.

That the Prophet (pbuh) said "to worship Allah as if you see Him" when he defined ihsan aims to elevate man to spiritual realms while worshipping. Every form has a reality. Prayer is also a form. The reality in that form is ihsan. It is necessary to worship by knowing and thinking that one is in the presence of Allah, not as mere form and deeds of the body. The real target of worshipping is to establish this spiritual dialogue with Allah and to continue it during worshipping.  

Firuzabadi states that ihsan is the essence, spirit and perfection of belief and hence the highest level of the levels of worshipping (Bashair, II, 465); this content of ihsan seems to be closely related with taqwa. As a matter of fact, these two concepts are mentioned in a semantic connection in various verses. For instance, it is understood that the virtue of ihsan is in the scope of taqwa in verse 93 of the chapter of al-Maida and that it is used in order to express its highest degree.

"He that is righteous and patient,- never will Allah suffer the reward to be lost, of those who do right."(Yusuf, 12/90)

The verse above shows the relationship between ihsan and taqwa.

Besides, in two chapters, (al-Anam, 6/83-84; as-Saaffat, 37/80-131), the names of some prophets are mentioned and they are described as "muhsins", which shows that ihsan expresses the perfect religiousness seen in prophets and hence righteous deeds.  

Sufists have been interested in the hadith of Jibril and the statement "Ihsan means to worship Allah as if you see Him". Dividing religious sciences (ilms) into three as the science of the Quran, the Sunnah and the truths of belief, Abu Nasr as-Sarraj states that the origin of those sciences is that hadith and describes Islam in the hadith as “zahir”, belief as “batin” and ihsan as “the reality of zahir and batin”. Harawi regards the same hadith as a summary of the method to be followed by the people of sufism. Muraqaba, which has an important place in sufism, is attributed to this hadith. For, muraqaba shows the consciousness of the slave being inspected by Allah all the time.

b) Ihsan expresses the self-sacrificing attitude of man based on love originating from the virtue of lenience toward his parents and other people. As a matter of fact, in various verses, some distinguished characteristics of the believers that reflect the spirit of lenience are dwelled on; thus, the virtues that are included in the content of the concept ihsan are pointed out. Some of them are as follows:   

- Restraining anger, forgiving, tolerance, patience (Aal-i Imran, 3/134-135; al-Maida, 5/13; Hud, 11/115; Yusuf, 12/90);

- Avoiding transgression; determination and courage (Aal-i Imran, 3/147-148);

- Contentedness and generosity (al-Baqara, 2/236; Aal-i Imran, 3/134).

The concept ihsan is dwelled on in the books of ethics and sufism along with the books of tafsir due to the verse stating with the phrase "Allah commands justice, the doing of good..."(an-Nahl, 16/90)​. Tabari seems to prefer the view that limits justice as "kalima at-tawhid" and ihsan as "obeying Allah's orders and prohibitions, patience shown related to putting up with hardships" (Jami'ul-Bayan, the interpretation of the verse in question) but, as he states, the view that this verse is the most comprehensive verse of the Quran related to good and bad deeds has been adopted by many scholars since the first periods of Islam.   

From this point of view, explanations have been made about the meaning of the concept justice and ihsan in the verse; in conclusion ihsan has been interpreted as follows: "man’s reaching the highest level of self-sacrifice and virtue by passing beyond limits of fard and wajib based on his means and talents in his attitude toward his close and distant environment, all people and even nature"(see Abu Bakr Ibnul-Arabi, Razi, Qurtubi, the interpretation of the verse in question)

Dealing with ihsan in this context in terms of its relationship with love and its social dimension, Ibn Miskawayh states that a good and virtuous person always has the wish of doing favors to others and names this inclination in him as "personal ihsan"; he says that such a person loves the people whom he does favors more than they love him.  

Afterwards, Ghazzali developed Ibn Miskawayh's ideas about the relationship between ihsan and love. Ghazzali states that man basically loves himself and that he loves those who do favors to him but that he himself is in the center of this love as it is also stated by the proverb "Man is the slave of ihsan." However, good deeds and beauty themselves are loved for the people whose ethical and esthetic sensitivity are developed. In that case, man loves ihsan and the doer of ihsan even if it is not related with him. 

However, since the real muhsin is Allah and since it is a grace of Allah that there are doers of ihsan among people, He is the one that really has to be loved.   

Nevertheless, love is ego-centered in cases when the values of reality, goodness and beauty are not noticed sufficiently. However, loving Allah due to His beauty is a degree higher than loving Him due to His ihsan. (see TDV. İslam Ansiklopedisi, İhsan item)


Hz. Jibril (Gabriel) came to visit the Prophet (pbuh) when he was sitting with a group of Companions; he asked the Messenger of Allah some questions about belief, Islam, ihsan and signs of Doomsday and received the answers. This hadith, in which Jibril himself asked questions and confirmed the answers is called "the hadith of Jibril".

This hadith, which Abdullah ibn Umar reported from Hz. Umar, is as follows:

"One day while the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) was sitting with us, a man who was dressed in pure white clothes and whose hair was extraordinarily black appeared before us. There were no signs of travel on him. None amongst us recognized him. He sat next to the Prophet and his knees touched the knees of the Prophet. He said,

O Muhammad! Tell me what Islam is.” The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, “Islam implies that you testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and you establish prayer, pay Zakah, observe the fast of Ramadan, and perform pilgrimage to the House if you can afford.” He said, “You have told the truth.” My father said, “It amazed us that he would put the question and then he would himself verify the truth.”

He said, “Inform me about belief.” The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, “That you affirm your faith in Allah, in His angels, in His Books, in His Apostles, in the Day of Judgment, and you affirm your faith in the Divine Decree about good and evil.” He said, “You have told the truth.” Then, he said,

Inform me about ihsan.” The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, “That you worship Allah as if you see Him; for, though you do not see Him, He, verily, sees you.” This time, he said,

Inform me about the hour (Doomsday).” The Messenger of Allah said, “The one who is asked knows no more than the one who is inquiring about it.” The man said, “Then, tell me about some of its indications.” The Prophet said,

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.” My father said,

Then, the inquirer went on his way. I waited for a while. Finally, the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) asked, “O Umar! Do you know who this inquirer was?” I replied, “Allah and His Messenger knows best.” He said,

He was Jibril. He came here in order to teach you your religion." (Bukhari, Iman 1; Muslim, Iman 1)

Abdullah b. Umar narrated this hadith when Yahya b. Yamar and Humayd b. Abdirrahman al-Himyari, who came to Hejaz for umrah or hajj from Basra, asked him questions on qadar (divine decree). In Basra, Ma'bad al-Juhani and those who followed him denied qadar and they claimed that things would happen without predestination and knowledge of Allah. After listening to them, Abdullah b. Umar said,

“When you happen to meet them in Basra, say to them, I have nothing to do with you and you have nothing to do with me. And verily you are in no way responsible for my belief.” I swear by Allah that if any one of them had with him gold equal to the bulk of the mountain Uhud and spent it in the way of Allah, Allah would not accept it unless he affirmed his faith in qadar. Then, Abdullah narrated the hadith above. (Ahmed Davudoğlu, Sahîh-i Müslim Tercüme ve Şerhi, İstanbul 1977, I, 106).

Qadar lexically means amount, quantity, regarding something big, power, strength and limiting something. As a religious term, it means Allah’s predestinating what will happen and when, where and how they will happen. His creating what he had predestinated one by one is called “qada”.  Since qadar is related to Allah’s attribute of ilm (knowledge) and iradah (will), and qada is related to His attribute of takwin (creation), belief in qada and qadar is equal to belief in Allah. A person who believes in Allah with all of His attributes also believes in qada and qadar but the issue of qada and qadar is dealt with separately in the ilm of kalam. It is stated that there were some people who denied the issue of qadar in Makkah. When Abdullah b. Zubayr's army was besieged by Hajjaj az-Zalim, the Kaaba burnt down. Some people believed that it was an issue of divine predestination (qadar) while others denied qadar by saying it did not burn down with predestination.  (A. Davudoğlu, ibid, I, 106-108).

The second question in the hadith of Jibril and its answer mention the principles of belief. There are six of them:

1) Belief in Allah: This belief is realized by knowing and approving Allah's existence, all of His attributes that are wajib, mumtani (impossible) and permissible. Some kalam scholars divide Allah’s attributes into two as salbiyya and subutiyya:

There are six salbi attributes:

a) Wujud: Allah's existence, b) Qidam: Being pre-eternal; His existence is without beginning, c) Baqa: He is everlasting. His existence is without ending, d) Mukhalafa lil-hawadith: Allah not resembling any of His creatures, e) Qiyam bi dhatihi: Allah being self-existent, f) Wahdaniyyah Allah being one.

There are eight subuti attributes:

a) Hayah: Allah being alive, b) Ilm: Allah knowing everything c) Iradah: Allah allocating every possible thing to a permissible form and time. d) Qudrah: Allah having power to do everything, e) Sami': Allah hearing everything, f) Basar: Allah seeing everything, g) Kalam: Allah speaking without needing voice and letters, h) Takwin: It is an attribute that is the beginning of the deeds like creating, eliminating reviving and killing.  

2) Belief in His angels: It means to believe that Allah has some innocent slaves called angels that were created from light and that can take any shape. There are some other invisible creatures that resemble angels in some aspects; they are called "jinn". Jinn were created from pure fire flames; they can also do hard work like angels and take any shape. However, unlike angels, they are not innocent. There are believers and unbelievers among them. They “eat, drink, reproduce and die”. (an-Naml, 27/87; az-Zumar, 39/68; al-Infitar, 82/10-12; al-Kahf, 18/50; ar-Rahman, 55/31; Muslim, Zuhd, 10; Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad, VI, 153, 168; Tabari, XX, 29; Ibnul-Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Kitabur-Ruh, Haydarabad 1357, p. 41; Ibn Nujaym, al-Ashbah wan-Nazair, jinn issue).

3) Belief in His books: Allah sent down some phrases and words to some of His prophets informing them about truths and decrees; they are called "books". Among the great books, the Torah was sent down to Hz. Musa (Moses), the Psalms to Hz. Dawud (David), the Gospel to Hz. Isa (Jesus) and the Quran to Hz. Muhammad (pbuh). In addition, He sent down one hundred pages (suhuf) to various prophets. It is fard to believe in all of those books. (ash-Shura, 42/51; al-A'la, 87/67; al-Hijr, 15/9; Hud 11/49; al-Isra, 17/88)

4) Belief in His prophets: Allah sent some prophets to show His slaves the straight path. The prophets who were given books and shari’ahs are called "rasul". The prophets who were ordered to act in accordance with the shari’ahs of other prophets and to inform people about their decrees are called "nabi". The first prophet is Hz. Adam and the last prophet is Hz. Muhammad (pbuh). (an-Nahl, 16/36; an-Nisa, 4/164; al-Ahzab, 33/40).

5) Belief in the Day of Judgment: The Day of Judgment is an infinite day that starts with hashr, the resurrection of all dead people. The strike of Doomsday, the blowing of the Trumpet, the resurrection of the dead, the books of deed given to people, the establishment of the Scale, the questioning of the slaves, the pond of Kawthar, intercession, Sirat, Paradise and Hell are included in the content of the Day of Judgment; therefore, it is fard to believe in them. (Aal-i Imran. 3/185: ad-Dukhan, 44/56; al-Mu'min, 40/11; Taha, 20/74; al-Baqara, 2/28; at-Tur, 52/45; al-An'am,6/93; al-Fajr, 89/27-30; ash-Shams, 91/97; az-Zumar, 39/42; Bukhari, Khusumat, Muslim, Fadail,10,161, 162; Tirmidhi, Qiıyamah, 26; Qurtubi Tafsir, the interpretation of at-Tur, 45)

6) Belief in qadar: We mentioned belief above and said the the hadith of Jibril was reported upon a question about those who deny qadar. That belief in qadar is especially included in the hadith shows that Hz. Muhammad knows that his ummah will have disagreements on this issue. (at-Talaq, 65/3; Bukhari, Janaiz, 83; Tafsiru Sura, 92/6; Muslim, Qadar, 1,8; Ibn Majah, Muqaddima, 10)

The first question in the hadith was asked in order to teach the pillars of Islam. They are witnessing that there is no god but Allah, performing prayers, giving zakah and performing hajj if one can afford. Those pillars are mentioned in various verses of the Quran and are repeated. (al-Baqara, 2/238; Bukhari, Iman 1, 2; Zakah, 41, 63; Maghazi, 60, Tawhid, 1 ; Muslim, Iman, 19-22; Nasai, Zakah,1; Ibn Majah Iqama,193; Ahmad b. Hanbal, I, 72; Darimi, Zakah 1)

The third question "What is ihsan?"and the Prophet’s answer "Ihsan means to worship Allah as if you see Him..." aims to elevate the believer to spiritual realms during worshipping. Every form has a reality. Prayer is also a form. The reality in that form is ihsan. For instance, in Islam, the ilm of fiqh is interested in the outer form of prayer; sufism tries to find the reality in it; that is, the degree of ihsan. It is necessary to worship by knowing and thinking that one is in the presence of Allah, not as mere form and deeds of the body. The real target of worshipping is to establish this spiritual dialogue with Allah and to continue it during worshipping.

Another question in the hadith is about the time of Doomsday. The Prophet (pbuh) states that he does not know more than the one asking the question. God Almighty keeps the time of Doomsday a secret. It is generally a boon for people not to know the incidents that will happen in the future. A believer needs to take necessary measures based on his previous experience and the rules of science; after that, he needs to wait for the result from Allah. Man will not be held responsible for the negative outcomes if he has taken all necessary measures. Besides, man has not been given the power to prevent such a result. For, he is held responsible for only what he can do.

It is stated in the Quran that five things have been kept secret from people; they are called "mughayyabat al-khamsa". The first one of them is the time of Doomsday:

"Verily the knowledge of the Hour is with Allah (alone). It is He Who sends down rain, and He Who knows what is in the wombs. Nor does any one know what it is that he will earn on the morrow: Nor does any one know in what land he is to die. Verily with Allah is full knowledge and He is acquainted (with all things)." (Luqman, 31/ 34)


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