The Meaning of Ihsan: Excellence in All Things

There is a hadith in Sahih Muslim according to which the Prophet ﷺ said:

“God has mandated excellence (ihsan) for all things. So if you kill, do so with excellence, and if you slaughter an animal, do so with excellence; sharpen your blade, and put the animal at ease.”

The hadith are considered, like the Qu’ran, a part of the divine revelation that was bestowed upon the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, God’s final Messenger, whom He sent as a mercy to all the worlds to bring glad tidings for believers and guidance for humanity. He is like a luminous lamp set in the dark niche of the final days making clear the straight path for his ummah.

If we bring this attitude to our reading of the hadith, we will be able to relate to them in a more profound way. We will see them as more than pithy sayings or words of wisdom, but as messages of mercy from God most high in the words of His beloved, our master Muhammad ﷺ.

The connection between zabihah and ihsan

When I recently read this hadith, I was struck by the association that the Prophet ﷺ makes between excellence and animal slaughter.

The hadith begins with the statement that God has mandated excellence for all things, meaning that he has commanded us to have excellence in everything that we do. That general command is then followed by a specific explanation related to killing, as in battle, and to slaughter, as in the specific killing of animals for food or religious sacrifice.

Of all things in the universe, of all of the actions that Muslims engage in, why did the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ single out these activities for emphasis? What do these acts have in common, the religiously sanctioned killing of other human beings in cases such as defensive warfare and struggles to support the oppressed, and the religiously sanctioned killing of non-human animals in cases such as slaughter for food?

Shaykh Abd al-Hakim Murad has suggested that what links these issues is that they are both things that we are squeamish about, that we approach both of these categories of taking life with reluctance and reticence; we would rather stay in the comfort of our homes than go into battle, and we would rather eat vegetarian chili than have to kill the family cow.

Why ihsan requires control and moderation

But I think there may be an even more profound link between these two kinds of killing, a link that may shed more light on why the Prophet ﷺ mentioned them explicitly in the command to have excellence in all things. Both of these actions lend themselves to loss of control, to going too far, to transgressing the bounds of religion and humanity, to committing the most offensive of violations. 

We only need to look at the genocides, the ethnic cleansing, the brutality, the devastation that has been a hallmark of both modern as well as pre-modern warfare.

In the time of the Prophet ﷺ he warned his companions against mutilating the bodies of the enemy, even when the enemy mutilated the corpses of their companions, as was done to the Prophet’s uncle Hamza, the prince of martyrs (may God be pleased with him).

In our days, it is the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and Bosnia, it is the indiscriminate killing of civilians rationalized under the label of collateral damage, it is the drone airstrikes on Afghan weddings and the bombing of mosques by other Muslims.

These are the dangerous grounds that we tread when we enter the realm of battle and war, so it makes sense that the Prophet ﷺ would warn us to take extra care to embody excellence when doing so.

The dangers of going to extremes

The danger with animal slaughter may not be as obvious, for although war crimes are underreported by the media, the crimes of modern industrial animal slaughter are even more conspicuously absent from the mainstream discourse. But if we look at the ways that animals are treated when they are taken to slaughter, be it in the U.S., Indonesia, or Egypt, we will see how justified the Prophet ﷺ was in singling out this area of human activity, alongside warfare, as a place where we need to take extra care to have excellence.

There are a number of hadiths in which the Prophet ﷺ indicates to his contemporaries the obligation and the need to treat animals well. If there was a danger that animals would be mistreated in seventh century Arabia, that danger is even more real in the modern industrial model of animal slaughter in which workers spend their entire work day killing animals. When one’s entire life is spent surrounded by death, blood, and gore, when all one does is slit throats and dismember bodies, when one is barely payed a living wage, when one is treated only slightly better than the animals themselves, there is a high risk that one will become desensitized to the killing, that the animals will be transformed into things instead of living beings, and that one will then slip into behavior that is very far from excellent; for often one of the effects of being the subject of abuse is to abuse others in turn.

The atrocities of industrial slaughter houses, even those claiming to uphold religious standards (such as Agriprocessors and certain halal slaughter houses in Indonesia) defy any and all religious sensibilities that stem from God-consciousness.

The hadith above gives us specific guidance as to what it means to slaughter animals with ihsan: namely to use a sharp blade in order to minimize the pain of the cut, and to put the animal at ease so it does not end its life in a state of agitation and fear.

Ihsan in practice (seeing the bigger picture)

But there are also hadiths that clarify the general meaning of ihsan. The hadith that I have been discussing is narrated in Sahih Muslim, but it also appears as the 17th hadith in Imam al-Nawawi’s famous collection of forty hadiths. If we read it in this context, we can see a deeper layer of meaning. The second hadith in the collection relates how the Prophet was asked by the angel Gabriel to explain what ihsan is. The Prophet ﷺ responded, “Ihsan is to worship God as if you saw Him, for if you do not see Him, He surely sees you.”

Just as individual verses of the Qur’an cannot be read in isolation, so too must we look at the larger picture that is formed by putting the different sayings of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ into conversation with one another.

What would it mean if we read the hadith about having excellence in all that we do in light of this understanding of ihsan?

Many of us may be used to considering this meaning of ihsan as a description of what it means to have excellence in prayer. What would happen if we considered this outside the realm of prayer, if we broadened our understanding of worship to include everything that we do, if through injecting them with good intentions we transformed our mundane activities into the most elevated acts of glorifying God?

What would we do differently if we slaughtered animals as if we saw God, knowing that He sees us?

This question may not have much relevance for most of us since we do not regularly, or ever, slaughter animals.

But what if we extended this further, and looked upon the people who are slaughtering the animals that we eat as our agents acting on our behalf and in our name? What would it mean if we chose to only eat meat that had been slaughtered with ihsan, the ihsan of God consciousness? Which practices would this rule out? Which would it require?

And how would it feel to look down at the food on our plates and, when we pronounce “Bismillah,” know that it was produced both in the name of, and in the sight of God, and that He is pleased with what He has seen?

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