Ihsan is a special Islamic term, defined by the famous hadith known as the Hadith of Jibreel.
Once Angel Jibreel (peace be upon him) visited the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in the guise of a man and in the presence of the Companions. This happened toward the end of the Prophetic mission and its purpose was to summarize some fundamental teachings of Islam for the education of all of us.
Jibreel (peace be upon him) asked questions about Islam, iman, ihsan, the Day of Judgment, and Fate. Regarding ihsan, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) responded:
“It is that you worship Allah as if you are seeing Him. For though you see Him not, verily He is seeing you.” (Muslim)
Obviously, our worship will be at its best when performed with that feeling. Ihsan, therefore, means striving for excellence in achieving piety, through an overwhelming feeling of closeness to Allah.
For anyone seeking spiritual purification, this is the goal. Abdul-Hameed Siddiqi, well known for his English translation of Sahih Muslim, notes that what is implied by the term tasawuf is nothing but ihsan. With that in mind we can understand the joy of the person who once reported to his mentor that he had achieved ihsan in his Prayers. He felt being in the presence of Allah every time he stood up for Prayer. “It is great that you should feel that way while praying,” his mentor replied. “But, do you have the same feelings when you are dealing with others? Have you attained ihsan in your relations with your spouse and children; your relations with friends and relatives? In all social relations?” To the perplexed disciple he went on to explain that one must not restrict the concept of ihsan to the performance of ritual prayers. The term is general and applies to all endeavors in our life.
The Sufi mentor in this story was Dr. Abdul Hai Arfi, himself a disciple of Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi. One of the many great contributions of Maulana Thanvi was that he reintroduced Islamic teachings regarding social relations and dealings with others as a religious issue. His message was: You must become a good human being before you can ever become a good Muslim. This message destroys a disastrous and tragic misconception that reduces Islam to only the performance of the ritual acts of worship -the pillars- thus robbing it of much of the rest of the building. A very important and integral section of that building deals with our social relations. It is concerned with how we behave in the family. How we interact with relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and all the rest of humanity.
The cornerstone of Islamic teachings in this area is the requirement that we do not cause anyone any harm through our words or actions. A famous hadith states,
“A Muslim is the one from whose hands and tongue other Muslims are safe.” (Bukhari)
Keeping others safe from our hands and tongues does not only mean that we do not hurl stones or abuses at them, it also means that we do not say or do anything that would hurt them.
This hadith clearly describes this as a defining trait of a Muslim. While it refers to “other Muslims”, scholars agree that it is a general requirement that equally applies to non-Muslims except those who are at war with Muslims. A person who through his intentional or careless actions or words inflicts unjustified pain on others is not worthy of being called a Muslim.