I recently had some car trouble and started getting incredibly frustrated with my vehicle. It was a 2001 model, practically falling apart at the seams. It felt like every month or two I was forking out a few hundred dollars to get different parts replaced or fixed. I finally decided it was time for me to purchase a newer car. Like most people looking to buy a car, I spent weeks scouring Auto Trader and test-driving different makes and models. For some reason, though, none of the cars felt exactly right to me. I made dua, asking Allah (SWT) to bless me with the car most suited to me.
I smiled to myself. For many years before this took place, I knew of my dad’s friend as a good father to his own children, and a kind, generous believer.
A few weeks after I started my search, my father received a call from an old friend of his. This man was traveling overseas for an extended period of time and needed to find a new home for his car. So he asked my dad if I would like to have the car, as a gift. I wasn’t sure if he knew I needed a car, but my answer was a resounding YES! The next day I went to pick the car up from my dad’s friend, and we made sure all the paperwork was in order. What happened then, surprised me.
It can feel a bit uncomfortable when receiving such a large gift, and I really was quite nervous on my way to his house. However, his demeanor immediately put me at ease. When I thanked him for his incredibly generous gift, he acted as though I was the one doing him a favor. When I looked at the car, I noticed it was perfectly clean. Having a clean car in the middle of a slushy, icy, snowy, road-salted Canadian winter is impossible – he clearly had it washed specifically for me. When I got into the car and turned on the ignition, I noticed the gas tank was completely full. He had also hung a new vanilla air freshener in the car, and there was one single CD lying next to the gearshift – Juz Amma (the 30th chapter of the Quran) as recited by Muhammad Jibreel.
The state of the car immediately reminded me of how Aisha (R) treated money before giving it away in charity. She was known to spray perfume on the coins before placing them in the hands of those in need. When asked why she did this, she would reply that the charity would reach Allah (SWT) before it ever touched the hands of those in need. The very first word I thought of while sitting in that newly-cleaned, freshly scented vehicle was “ihsan.”
Not only did my father’s friend want to gift this car to me – a very generous deed in and of itself – he did it in the kindest and noblest way possible. He made sure that it was one hundred percent ready to drive, that it looked clean and smelled fresh, and that I would even have something to listen to while driving away! He didn’t have to do any of these things. I would’ve been equally happy picking up a car that needed some cleaning, or that had barely any gas left in it. It was still a car after all! But he was practicing ihsan.
The word “ihsan” in Arabic is derived from the word “ahsana,” which roughly means, “doing things better.” In a well-known hadith of the Prophet (pbuh), Jibreel comes to him in the form of a man and proceeds to ask him a series of questions concerning Islam, iman, and ihsan. Umar (R) narrates the following: “While we were one day sitting with the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), 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 (pbuh), rested his knee against his thighs, and said, ’O Muhammad! Inform me about Islam.’ The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) 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 and telling him that he was right, and he went on to say, ’Inform me about iman.’He [the Prophet] 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 [destiny], both in its good and in its evil aspects.’ He [the man] said, ’You have spoken truly.’ Then he said, ’Inform me about ihsan.’ He [the Prophet] answered, ’It is that you should serve Allah as though you can see Him, for though you cannot see Him, yet He sees you.’”
Three Levels of Faith
Based on the Prophet’s answers to Jibreel, the scholars have deemed that there are three levels of faith. The first level is Islam – submission to God and testifying that there is no one worthy of worship except Him. By definition, declaring the testimony of faith presupposes the responsibility to perform the basic obligatory acts of faith listed in the above hadith. The second level is iman – a more in-depth understanding of the religion that causes true belief to enter the heart. Not only do you perform the basics of the faith, you also have certainty of belief, and are on a path to deepening your knowledge.
While both levels are intertwined, it is technically possible to be a Muslim without necessarily being a Mumin (one who has iman). For example, a tribe of Arabs came to the Prophet in order to accept Islam. The Quran tells us, “The Bedouins say, ‘We have attained to faith.’ Say, ‘You have not [yet] believed; you should say [instead], ‘we have submitted,’ for faith has not yet entered your hearts. And if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not deprive you from [the reward for] your deeds. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful’” (49:14).
The final level of faith is ihsan – worshiping Allah (SWT) as though you see Him, or at least knowing that He sees you. It’s the final and highest step – a state of being where you are consistently aware that Allah (SWT) has full knowledge of all that you do. With this awareness comes the desire to push yourself to not only do good deeds, but to strive to perfect them. Aisha (R) didn’t just give from her wealth; she did it in a beautiful way that honored the recipient. This is an example of aiming for excellence in every action.
If you think of these three levels as a series of steps on a flight of stairs, you’ll understand that you may not be able to leap from the bottom to the top in one bound. If you start your journey of learning and faith by taking on too much, too fast, you risk losing your footing, tumbling down those steps, and injuring yourself. Just as the Quran was revealed over the course of 23 years, Islam was brought to the people in a step-by-step manner. If it had come down all at once, with every commandment and ruling in place, it would have been difficult for the people to begin practicing and to persevere. Instead, it brought about deep societal changes because the people were given time to understand and digest the teachings. Then came changes in their attitudes, thinking, and behavior. The companions of the Prophet (pbuh) were given time to graduate from Islam to iman to ihsan.
The very nature of the revelation coming down in steps, and over the course of two decades, teaches us the importance of this kind of consistent work. When we want to make lasting changes in our lives and communities, we start small and grow steadily. We climb the steps and ensure that we have sturdy footing before moving forward.
As I drove off in my new vehicle that day, I smiled to myself. For many years before this took place, I knew of my dad’s friend as a good father to his own children, and a kind, generous believer. He had this reputation in our community, even before I was born. While I cannot peer into anyone’s intentions, it seems to me that his knowledge of Allah’s ever-watchful gaze motivates him to use every opportunity to serve Him. It was his decades-long consistency as a good man that allowed him the ability to go the extra mile when performing a good deed. It had become second nature to him. That day I knew that Allah (SWT) had blessed me to see how ihsan can be practiced in our everyday lives. Sometimes all it takes is a little finishing touch on a good deed to take it from good to excellent. But that finishing touch that seems so simple in the eyes of an observer, is actually the product of years of steady climbing and consistent worship.
May Allah (SWT) grant us the opportunity to develop our faith until we are able to serve Him with perfection.