In one of the best known and most authentic ahadith (=narrations of the blessed beloved, peace be upon him), known as the ‘hadith Jibra’eel’ (=Gabriel narration), the archangel Jibraeel (peace be upon him) visits the blessed beloved and questions him about three facets of the religion of Islam.
“While we were one day sitting with the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), there appeared before us a man dressed in extremely white clothes and with very black hair. No traces of journeying were visible on him, and none of us knew him. He sat down close by the Prophet (peace be upon him), rested his knee against his thighs, and said, “O Muhammad! Inform me about Islam.”
The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “Islam is that you should testify that there is no deity except Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger, that you should perform salah, pay the Zakah, fast during Ramadan, and perform Hajj to the House, if you are able to do so.”
The man said, “You have spoken truly.” We were astonished at his questioning him (the Messenger) and telling him that he was right, but he went on to say, “Inform me about iman.”
He (the Messenger of Allah) answered, “It is that you believe in Allah and His angels and His Books and His Messengers and in the Last Day, and in qadar (fate), both in its good and in its evil aspects.” He said, “You have spoken truly.”
Then he (the man) said, “Inform me about Ihsan.” He (the Messenger of Allah) answered, “It is that you should serve Allah as though you could see Him, for though you cannot see Him yet (know that) He sees you.”
He said, “Inform me about the Hour.” He (the Messenger of Allah) said, “About that, the one questioned knows no more than the questioner.” So he said, “Well, inform me about the signs thereof.” He said, “They are that the slave-girl will give birth to her mistress, that you will see the barefooted, naked, destitute, the herdsmen of the sheep (competing with each other) in raising lofty buildings.“ Thereupon the man went of. I waited a while, and then he (the Messenger of Allah) said, “O Umar, do you know who that questioner was?” I replied, “Allah and His Messenger know better.” He said, “That was Jibril (the Angel Gabriel). He came to teach you your religion.”
It was narrated on the authority of Umar (may Allah be pleased with him), and recorded in Muslim.
These three facets; Islam, Iman and Ihsan, together make up the whole of the practice of the religion. We say about these three words, that used separately each can be used in place of the other – i.e., Islam (=practice), Iman (=faith), ihsan (=excellence or beauty of practice/faith) can singly denote the meaning of all three, the statement ‘a person has iman’ also means that person has islam and ihsan by default – but used together, each word has a specific meaning. E.g., saying “you’re iman is strong” can be taken to also mean ‘you are a strong muslim’ or ‘your practice of the deen has ihsan’, but if you say “you’re iman is strong and you have ihsan” that means the person has a strong faith and excellence in character and personality.
Therefore the statement, ‘a person has islam, iman and ihsan’ here denotes a distinct meaning for each word; islam means the ritual practices and jurisprudence determining the lifestyle of a practioner of the religion, iman means the faith or beliefs of that person, and ihsan denotes a higher state of perfection where the practioner is able to marry perfect faith to perfect practice. I.e., he or she feels with the heart, what occurs on the limbs.
Under this schema, Islam is usually the domain of study of ‘fiqh’ = jurisprudence… or law, Iman the domain of study of ‘aqeeda’ = creed, and Ihsan the domain of study of ‘tazkeeya’ or ‘tasawwuf’ = purification of the soul, or mysticism.
God willing as this blog evolves more and more will be covered on the above three aspects, especially the last, which is has been considered the pinnacle and adornment of the religion – Ihsan or Islamic Mysticism.
But suffice to say now, that sadly in today’s Muslim world we see a polarization between those who lean too much toward the external practices devoid of any internal meaning, epitomized by the puritanical ‘wahhabi’ school of thought – those of strict fiqh. And on the opposite pole are those who lean so deeply toward the internal, that they forget to practices islam, the people who have unfortunately been called ‘sufis’ (a great insult to the term, as true sufis are the most conscientious about practicing Islam in all its dimensions), who focus so much on belief in God, they may disregard it’s pillars such as prayer etc.
It is marrying the two, that Ihsan is achieved… excellence is in marrying the faith to practice. By doing this the Muslim is able to be as the prophet, peace be upon him was, truly of the world, but truly other-wordly, at all times.
This is the great beauty and challenge of Islam, which does not promote a priestly class, does not encourage ascetism, but calls upon on its practitioners to be completely with God at all times, while being totally in the world serving humanity and all of creation, at all times.
On this note I will end with the prayer that God enable us all to be like this. Completely able to give and receive and fulfill all the immense potential of the creation we are, by, for, from and through God.
Peace be upon you all. Assalamu alaikum.