Our life as a form of worship (`ibadah) requires us to attain ihsan as the Prophet s.a.w. expounds via the hadith of Gabriel. The state of the modern man, described by Al-Attas as the “terrestrialisation of man”, has caused grievous disconnection between the Creator and the created, causing much confusion and disorientation even among Muslims as to the purpose of their being in this world. The concept of ihsan, which can be interpreted as beauty, spiritual excellence and God-consciousness all in one, provides a shining beacon to Muslims which guides them in traversing life’s crossroads as a worshipper and vicegerent of Allah, having Him as their compass and as the ultimate end to which all things converge.
In describing the state of man in the modern world, Al-Attas surmounts that the “terrestrialisation of man…has resulted in the reduction of man of his transcendent nature as spirit emphasising his humanity and physical being, his secular knowledge and power and freedom, which led to his deification, and so to his reliance upon his own rational efforts of enquiry into his origins and final destiny”.[i]
In speaking of the post-enlightenment era in which pure reason and rationalism stripped religion off the hearts of man, God and religion were pushed to the periphery of his vision and subsequently out of sight. In the absence of God, man himself becomes a deity. Whatever spiritual connections that existed between man and his surroundings are now dismissed as mere superstitions and sentiments, and the once sacralised nature of the latter as vindicated by religion is now uprooted. Man, now his ego as his driving force, sets out on an endless ravaging pursuit of satisfying his corporeal self.
The current ontological confusion of our age stems from the displacement of metaphysical knowledge in the human psyche. Al-Attas famously termed it as the loss of adab, elucidating further, “I am referring to the loss of discipline – the discipline of body, mind and soul; the discipline that assures the recognition and acknowledgement of one’s proper place in relation to one’s self, society and community, …, in relation to one’s physical, intellectual, and spiritual capacities and potentials, … of the fact that knowledge and being are ordered hierarchically.”[ii]
This confusion has given birth to far-reaching problems confronting our times, from the removal of God by empiricism to the denial of absolute truths by relativism and blind scepticism, which opened the floodgates for opposing ideologies to dominate the popular worldview. Nasr in his pioneering book on environmental crisis and the secular outlook wrote “no longer was there a metaphysics and a cosmology to judge the truth and falsehood of what men said, but the thoughts of men in each epoch themselves became the criteria of truth and falsehood.”[iii]
The Islamic worldview
Islam, a religion that characterises itself as the saviour of mankind from the depths of ignorance towards the light of truth presents a hope for the man in crisis. The Quran, often described in several of its chapters as “a book of guidance”, becomes a beacon of light for man to go about his affairs in this world.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the purpose of the creation of mankind in Islam is to be found in the Quranic verse “I did not create the Jinns and the human beings except for the purpose that they should worship Me.” (The Qur’an, 51:56).
The worldview of the believer thus centers around the reality that the essence of his being is that of a servant to his Creator and so every action is an act of “`ubudiyyah”[iv], a term loosely interpreted as both “servanthood” and “worship” at once, and unrestricted to just the devotional practices such as prayer (salah) and fasting. This is portrayed in the invocation that he recites in every prayer, “Say: Lo! my worship and my sacrifice and my living and my dying are for Allah, Lord of the Worlds.” (The Qur’an, 6:162).
The relationship between man and his Creator is therefore that of servanthood, and between him and the earth in which he gently treads on is that of vicegerency as revealed in the Qur’an, “And when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am about to place a viceroy in the earth.” (The Qur’an, 2:30).
Ihsan: A reorientation
In addition to the revealed scriptures, God has sent down messengers and prophets to guide mankind, the last of them Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.
In elucidating the tenets of the religion recorded in the hadith of Gabriel,[v] the Prophet s.a.w. provided the definitions of Islam (outward submission), iman (faith) and ihsan (spiritual excellence),[vi] three key components in the foundations of the religion. In expounding upon ihsan, the Prophet s.a.w. mentioned that it is “to worship God as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He sees you.”[vii] This purposeful hadith reflects the ultimate form of worship that can be undertaken by man, culminating in his having spiritual excellence and God-consciousness in all aspects of his waking days.
Imam Al-Nawawi in his commentary on the hadith explains that “this statement is among the comprehensive sayings (jawami` al-kalim) brought by the Prophet s.a.w.. If one of us is able to worship as if he sees his Lord, Glorified and Exalted is He, he would never abandon any good thing he can do, such as being humble, reverent, behaving well, and taking care to combine outward and inward aspects completely, in the best possible manner.”[viii]
Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim in Madarij Al-Salikin writes, “The Prophet s.a.w., God grant him blessing and peace, made beautifying worship (ihsan al-`ubudiyyah) the highest level of religion, which is the beauty mentioned in the tradition of Gabriel, upon him be peace, in which he said when Gabriel asked him about beauty, ‘That you worship God as if you see Him, for even though you do not see Him, He sees you’.”[ix]
The consciousness of God in all aspects of everyday life and the beautifying and excellence of man’s worship is the paragon of ihsan. The combination of the outward and inward aspects of a human being as elucidated by Imam Al-Nawawi, coupled with the striving for beauty and excellence in worship by Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim, aptly encapsulates the concept of ihsan as narrated in the hadith, a prophetic guidance on the manifestation of `ubudiyyah.
In relation to nature and his surroundings, sufficient is the hadith of the prophet in which, “Allah has prescribed excellence (al-ihsan) in everything. If you have to slaughter, slaughter in best manner.”[x] The term ihsan is again being employed here as the overarching principle by which man the Vicegerent interacts with nature, and as an emphasis on nature as a sacralised entity, itself a being of constant remembrance and mention (dhikr) of Allah. “The seven heavens, the earth, and all that is within them give glory to Him, there is nothing but gives glory to Him with His praise.” (The Qur’an, 17:44).
A man of beauty, God-consciousness and spiritual excellence is the ideal state of being for a man, of which he finally “becomes” a human “being”. He then finds himself standing in the centrality of the universe, with revelation as his guiding book as he sought to fulfil his destiny as a human being blessed with intellect, a responsibility in which even the heavens, the earth and the mountains would crumble under.[xi]
It is not the purpose of this text to address the malady of modernity and seek to remedy it. Instead, it aims to shed light on the current state of man – a result of modernity no less – and highlight the significance of God-consciousness or ihsan in the life of the common lay-Muslim as a practical step in attempting to fully understand his being and fulfil his purpose.
To combine theory with practice remains the biggest challenge in realising the vision of Islam. This endeavour necessitates a reorientation of one’s worldview towards the Islamic paradigm, a paradigm that has been blurred amidst the confusions and distractions that depict today’s world. The Islamic conception that struggle is part of the temporal world however requires us to spur on within our God-given capacities to reach spiritual excellence that is ihsan in our personal life, and subsequently extend it beyond our personal folds into all of creation. Man, only when awakened to the truth from his slumber, will be able to fulfil the purpose of his creation, at once a vicegerent on earth and a servant to his Creator.
“The permanent worship of God in all the manifold actions of human life is the very meaning of this life; and, …, that the achievement of this purpose remains impossible so long as we divide our lives into two parts, the spiritual and the material: they must be bound together, in our consciousness and in our actions, into one harmonious entity.”
– Muhammad Asad, Islam at The Crossroads
[i] Al-Attas, S.M.N. (2020), Islam and Secularism, Kuala Lumpur: Ta’dib International, p. 35.