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Ehsan, The Forgotten Dimension of Islam

This article is about the Islamic civilization. More specifically it is about Muslims in America and the imperative to build an Islamic community in this land based on Ehsan.

Even as I write, there are deep concerns in the community. There are dark clouds on the horizon. People ask: which way to do we turn? What ought to be the basis for an Islamic life in America?

A great civilization has an inner capacity to renew itself in times of crisis. Lesser civilizations recoil and disappear when they are tested. Great civilizations grow stronger with adversity. And Islam is a great civilization. In the words of Mohammed Iqbal, Islam is like a balloon, you squeeze it in one direction, and it bulges out in another.

Renewal is a continuous process. Each generation has to rediscover itself and define who it is, what it stands for.

If history is any guide, there are three models available to Muslims in America. The first one, based on a strict interpretation of jurisprudence, divided the world into Darul Islam and Darul harab. It evolved in a bygone era when there were insulated communities and the Islamic world was itself a self-contained unit. Communications were primitive. Events in one part of the world did not have a significant impact on another. For instance, an edict from a court in Samarqand would not even be known in Morocco for two years.

This model simply does not work today and must be discarded. Estimates vary but there are between three and six million Muslims in America. There are engineers, doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, executives, bankers, soldiers, teachers, housewives and refugees. Some are black; some are white. Some are dark and some are light. They have enriched the life of this great continent through their contributions in science and technology, trade and commerce. Some came here as early as the eighteenth century from Africa against their free will. Some are recent immigrants and they came here by choice. But altogether they constitute only two percent of the population. This simple arithmetic must always be kept in mind.

On our shrunken planet today, there are 1.3 billion Muslims. That is only 20 percent of the global population. Fully 300 million Muslims live as minorities in predominantly non-Muslim lands. That includes the countries of North America. and Europe. Must they all be condemned as citizens of Darul Harab? The old model was peppered with the vocabulary of believer, kafir, and dhimmi. It is time we moved beyond this vocabulary of yesterday.

The second model is based on the idea of sulah or contract. This model too does not apply to modern life. The relationship between a son of the soil and the land of his birth is more than just a contract or a convenience. It is based on the legacy of a father to a son, from a grandfather to a grandson, and of countless generations before them.

To those who are dismayed by the difficulties of the Islamic community in America, history offers a third model, also based on the Shariah, which was perfected and was successfully used by Muslims at various times to build a thriving life for all people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This model was based on adl and Ehsan, meaning balance, justice, compassion, love, nobility and character.

After the Mongol devastations of the thirteenth century, it was Ehsan that transformed the hearts of the conquerors and brought them into Islam. And it was Ehsan that brought Islam into India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Medieval Europe. One of the great works of the times, composed at the height of the Mongol devastations, the Akhlaq e Nasiri of Nasiruddin al Tusi (d. 1276), was based on Ehsan. Four centuries after it was published, it provided the basis for the governance of the magnificent Mogul Empire in South Asia. It was required reading in the courts of Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan. This model is so universal in its approach that it may be adopted by any modern society, Muslim or not.

The Qur’an teaches us:

Behold! God commands you justice, balance and Ehsan.

The faith of Islam has three components: Islam, Iman and Ehsan. If Iman is the root of a tree, Islam is its trunk, and Ehsan is its fruit. Voluminous books are written about Islam. Some discuss Iman. Ehsan is the forgotten dimension.

Ehsan is the sap that sustains the tree; without Ehsan the roots are dry and the trunk is but a log of wood. Have you seen a tree that is dead? It has no sap. It has roots that are infested with termites and a trunk that is bare. It may even have branches, spreading out like sticks in a haunted house. But it has no leaves. It gives no shade and it bears no fruit. Such is the status of a man without Ehsan; such is the condition of a people without Ehsan.

Another analogy is that of a rose garden which receives water from a stream. If Iman is the fountain from which gushes forth this stream, Islam is the structure that secures the well, and Ehsan is the water that irrigates the garden. Without water there are no roses.

Ehsan has its origin in Asma ul husna, the most beautiful names of God. All creation is but a reflection of attributes that emanate from the Divine Names. Hence Ehsan embraces all creation. It includes beauty, balance, discipline, excellence, charity, tolerance and good character.

The direction for Muslims in America is clear: Build an Islamic Community based on Ehsan. Where there is hatred, let us build bridges of love. Where there is conflict, build bridges of cooperation. Where there is discrimination, build bridges of fairness.

There are some who complain that life in America has become difficult, that it is characterized by suspicion, hatred, accusations and innuendo.

Inject an element of Ehsan into this life. Overcome suspicion with cooperation.

Overcome discrimination with extra hard work. Answer an accusation with a good deed. Avoid secrecy; maintain transparency. Avoid debt. Engage in trade. If you must borrow, make it qard e hasna. Evaluate people on the basis of their merits, not on the basis of color, name or nationality. Support each other. Help one another. There is strength in mutuality.

Where others use race, religion and gender as their point of departure, use our common humanity as our point of departure. Think not in the framework of Darul Islam and Darul Harab, but in the framework of insaaniat (our humanness), and admiyat (our common descent from Adam). Think not in terms of conspicuous consumption but in terms of the perfection of man through a life of taqwa (God consciousness), tawakkul (contentment), and tazkiya (purification of the heart). Build an edifice of cooperation, not on the basis of expediency, but on the basis of trust. Cement it with the cement of Ehsan.

Ehsan has many dimensions. Ehsan is worship. Recall the Prophetic traditions. When asked to define Ehsan, he said, “Ehsan is to worship God as if you see him, and if you do not see Him, know that he sees you”.

Ehsan is reflected in creation. All creation is Ehsan from Divine love. The rain that sustains life is Ehsan. To a scientific mind, creation offers countless signs to divine transcendence. Creation is also a trust so that humankind may exercise its mandate as divine trustee on earth. So, protect the environment.

Ehsan is beauty, as in husne Yusuf, the beauty of Joseph. Beauty is reflected in all creation, in a baby’s smile, in the opening of a flower, in the blossoming of a tree, in a flock of birds, in a whiff of air, in the flutter of a leaf. Each reflection is unique. Each of you is unique. There never was a time and there never will be a time when another of you will walk on this earth. Every fruit, every date, every leaf has a unique signature. Every atom says: Subhanallahi Bihamdihi, Subhanallhil Azeem (Most glorified is the Lord, Most worthy of praise is the Most High).

Ehsan is the source of art, architecture, poetry, music, language, aadab (good manners), aqhlaq (character), behavior, responsible governance, and culture. Indeed, Ehsan is the source of renewal of Islamic civilization. Muslims have tried to capture a sense of Ehsan in their art and architecture. It is Ehsan that is reflected in the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, the Mosque of Salangor in Malaysia, the Mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul, the Jami of Esfehan and the Taj Mahal at Agra.

Ehsan is love, as in the Mathnavi of Mevlana Rumi, that unparalleled rhapsody of heavenly lyrics, which is widely read in America. Ehsan is a good deed, when one person extends his selfless hand to another. Ehsan is character, as in asway e husna, the most beautiful character of the Prophet Muhammed. Ehsan is excellence, an excellent deed

Ehsan has its reward built into it. Ehsan is the basis of sound economics, as in qard e hasna. Ehsan is mercy as when you forgive a wrongdoer. God commands justice and mercy. Ehsan is mutual support. Mutual support is the basis of seeking out and building a community.

Ehsan is the cement that has held together the Islamic civilization. What binds a civilization? Look at iron crystals, how the atoms in a body centered cubic structure impact to it strength and resilience. Look at water and how the water molecules are held together so that it brings life to a dead earth. Look at the many forms of ice crystals when they shine like diamonds in the brightness of early morning sun.

Similarly, there are bonds that bind humans together. They enable ordinary people to work together to achieve uncommon results. In the Islamic civilization that bond is Ehsan.

The Ehsan of a mother is in her unqualified love. The Ehsan of a father is in his unstinted compassion. The Ehsan of a brother and sister is their support for each other. The Ehsan of a buyer and a seller is in the integrity of their transaction and the quality of the product they produce. The Ehsan in a community is in the sense of belonging of its members. The Ehsan of an employer and an employee is in the quality of the product they produce. The Ehsan between a husband and a wife is in the life and love they share.

It is said that where there is no vision, a people must perish. A vision for Muslims in America must come from within the community. It must evolve from the American experience. That vision is to build an Islamic community based on Adl and Ehsan. The solutions to the challenges we face are not going to come from abroad. They are not going to come from a fatwa from Cairo or a donation from the Gulf. External interventions only distort the cultural evolution of a people.

Value spirituality. Achieve excellence in education. Practice integrity. Accept responsibility. Support each other with good counsel, trade and commerce. Avoid debt. Know the constitution. Get involved with your communities. Feed the poor.

Protect the environment. Support homeless shelters. Strengthen the family on the basis of Akhlaq (good character). Stand up for justice.

Reach out and build bridges to other communities, churches and organizations on the basis of Ehsan. Avoid extremism and extreme positions. Practice mizan (balance and proportion). In summary, give more to the community you live in than you take in

Ehsan springs from the heart. Modern civilization suffers from a cardinal disability: it does not have a heart. Modern man is like the tin man in the movie, the wizard of oz. He carries a lot of metal but has no heart. Can Islam provide that heart? It cannot do so, when the Muslims themselves have become a statue without a soul. What we need is a little less passion and a little more compassion, a little less concern with oneself and a little more concern for the other, a little less emphasis on form and more focus on substance, a zeal to serve fellow men, a penchant for honor, loyalty, fair play, character, rectitude, moral excellence, truthfulness and ethics. It is time to move from the age of fatwa to the age of taqwa, to contribute to a rebirth of the age of Ehsan in this great melting pot, the land of America.

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