"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." --Aristotle
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, drink and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset. However, these physical abstentions are but the superficial manifestations of phenomenon occurring inside the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world during this month that may go unnoticed.
Fasting is not the end in itself; rather, it is the means by which we as Muslims allow ourselves a month of clarity, devotion and purpose. Our goal while refraining from food is actually to feed our faith and to rekindle in our hearts our passion for goodness. In essence, this month's goal is to pursue excellence.
There is a term for this pursuit in Arabic: Ihsan. This word encapsulates one of the three components of the Muslim's faith:
To discuss Ishan, I must briefly go through the first two, Iman and Islam.
Iman must be mentioed as the first component of the Muslim's religion because iman serves as the roots. For many years of the Prophethood of Mohammad (peace and blessings be upon him), God revealed nothing except the concepts of taqwa (God-consciousness), ikhlas (the belief in one God) and iman (purity and sincerity of faith). It was not until the hearts of the first Muslims were saturated and strong with true iman did God through his Prophet begin introducing the next concept -- Islam -- to them.
After the Muslim's faith roots are firmly in place and take hold within rich soil that is watered and nourished continually, he or she can begin understanding and encouraging the practice of Islam, or submission to the will of God. This Islam is like the trunk of the tree -- sturdy, reaching up to heights. Children are not required to pray until they are 7 years old. Why? Because these first seven years are to be used by parents to plant the seed of faith and help this seed to grow strong roots by teaching their child about God, about His creation and preparing them to have a strong, balanced character. The "rules" of Islam come more easily to those who have prepared their hearts with iman and who have developed strong personalities focused on goodness.
Often for Muslims, Ihsan is the neglected one-third of the religion. Yet, it is like the "cherry on top." Ihsan is the fruit, the blossoms of our tree that show up when the roots and nourished and the trunk is free from disease and harmful insects. If we fail to nourish our iman or practice our faith and support it with acts of goodness, we will bear no fruit and our souls will become weak and withered. But look into the history of the Muslims. It is rich with ihsan. All the achievements in art, science, architecture, literature, geography, politics, economics, social movement, philosophy, medicine and more came from the Muslims' desire to attain excellence for the sake of God. Ihsan is our lost treasure that we must unearth and revive.
"When a man says I cannot, he has made a suggestion to himself. He has weakened his power of accomplishing that which otherwise would have been accomplished."
Ihsan -- what does it mean? Like so many other Arabic words, it has a vast array of meanings. It cannot be summed up prettily in one English word or phrase. Ihsan is the pursuit of excellence. It is the journey toward perfection. It is beauty. It is balance, harmony, discipline, good character, softness, gentleness, improvement, drive, will power. Ihsan is a human reflection, a human attempt to achieve a high level in the areas covered by the 99 beautiful names of God.
In Surat Ar-Rahman, one of my favorite chapters of the Quran, God uses one of the most powerful and difficult-to-use literary devices -- the rhetorical question. If you have studied literature to any extent, you will know that the rhetorical question can only be used in very special, particularized situations and it can only be used when the author has much confidence and much leverage in the answer and the motivation for asking the question. The rhetorical device is amazing because, as it gives the answer to the question away, it leaves the reader to contemplate deeply on the meaning of the question, the profound reasons behind the obvious. The rhetorical question posed in Surat Ar-Rahman conquers this literary device and uses it in truly miraculous ways to explain the concept of ihsan.
In Surat Ar-Rahman, the most frequent rhetorical question asked is, "then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?" which is asked 31 times out of a total of 78 verses. However, stuck in between two of these 31 rhetorical questions is another, more subtle, yet incredibly powerful verse. It reads, "Is there any reward for ihsan except ihsan?"
This rhetorical question is amazing on so many levels.
- Those who sincerely strive for excellence and attain ihsan in both their worship and their everyday activities are promised a reward for this excellence by being blessed by God with the sweetness of faith. They will be some of the few people who have walked the face of the earth and tasted this level of faith. God-consciousness will be continuous, and everything these few do will be geared for a higher purpose. They will have attained ihsan and in return, they will feel ihsan in their hearts. Ihsan, then, is its own reward.
- Those who sincerely strive in God's cause and attain ihsan in both their worship and their everyday activities will be rewarded for this excellence by being blessed by God with success in this world. This can be seen in our history, in the Muslims' Golden Age. The Muslims of that time attained ihsan in their both rituals and in their everyday activities, in their interactions with each other and with those they encountered. God rewarded this ihsan with ihsan -- the excellence in this world that we read about -- the amazing art, architecture, philosophy, medical advances, political and social progress, etc.
- Those who sincerely strive in God's cause and attain ihsan in both their worship and their everyday activities will be rewarded for this excellence by being blessed by God with the ultimate success, the ultimate ihsan: heaven in the afterlife.
So in summary, that one little rhetorical device in chapter 55, verse 60 is hidden, but it packs a huge punch. Those Muslims who realize the value of ihsan, who reach and strive and work for ihsan during this month of Ramadan and during the rest of the year, who nourish their roots and groom their trunk in order to bear plentiful, amazing fruit will be rewarded with God's forms of ihsan: the sweetness of faith, success in this world, and the ultimate success in the hereafter.
So how does this relate to Muslims right here, right now?
It means that in everything that comes into our lives, whether beneficial or challenging, is an opportunity for us to pursue ihsan. Each moment gives us a chance to make our world a better place, to bring happiness to others, to spread goodness in our small corner of the globe. It means that as Muslims, during this holy month and forever, whether we are studying for a test, teaching our children how to walk, going to the gym, or having dinner with a co-worker, we should be doing these things with ihsan. We should strive to be excellent, we should strive to be model citizens and upstanding regents of our religion.
Imagine a world in which the Muslims all collaborated to remember and revive this one-third of the religion. This Ramadan, I pray that ihsan is rekindled in the spirits of Muslims around the globe, so that we can strive together to make our world a better place.