Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim
Some of us take perfection very seriously. We take time and deliberate a lot about any project we wish to take in hand, and once we take in hand something, we exert ourselves to accomplish it to perfection. Sometimes in doing so, we spend way too much time than would be normally necessary for the job. We do this based on the following hadith of our beloved Prophet (saws):
Verily, Allah loves that when anyone of you does a job he should perfect it. (Al-Bayhaqi)
The highest level a believer can achieve is the level of Ihsan, as was related in the famous hadith Jibreel. Those who have this quality are called the muhsinoon. What is ihsan then, and who are the muhsinoon? Ihsan comes from the root letters ha-sa-na connoting the meaning of goodness. The word itself can mean excellence as in the hadith:
Verily Allah has prescribed ihsan all things. So if you kill then kill well; and if you slaughter, then slaughter well. Let each one of you sharpen his blade and let him spare suffering to the animal he slaughters.” [Muslim]
Or it could mean good behavior and kindness, as in the following verse:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَأْمُرُ بِالْعَدْلِ وَالْإِحْسَانِ وَإِيتَاءِ ذِي الْقُرْبَىٰ وَيَنْهَىٰ عَنِ الْفَحْشَاءِ وَالْمُنكَرِ وَالْبَغْيِ ۚ يَعِظُكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَذَكَّرُونَ
Indeed, Allah orders justice and good conduct and giving to relatives and forbids immorality and bad conduct and oppression. He admonishes you that perhaps you will be reminded. [16:90]
‘Perfectionism can be defined as a tendency to set standards that are unreasonably high, and to measure an individual’s worth in terms of their ability to meet these standards. Typically, these perfectionistic standards are applied to oneself.’ [Martin M. Anthony]
If a person always sets the highest goals for oneself, surely one will fail most of the time. This gives rise to feelings of guilt, of being a failure, leading to low self-esteem.
‘…perfectionism correlates with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems.’ [Hewitt, 2003] He further said, ‘In the literature right now–this astounds me–people have said that self-oriented perfectionism is adaptive. People will make that claim, and they’ll just ignore the fairly large literature that says that it’s a vulnerability factor for unipolar depression, anorexia and suicide.’
Perfectionism is therefore a pathology. How then is it that Allah the Most Merciful recommends it? It just doesn’t make sense. Since we are absolutely sure that Allah in His infinite mercy cannot recommend for us something harmful, and that the Prophet, the mercy to all humankind, will not propagate such a teaching, we can be sure that perfectionism is not a teaching of Islam. How do we then correlate perfectionism with ihsan? The logical conclusion is that perfectionism is not Ihsan, and that Ihsan is something totally different.
In the light of the above argument, what is Ihsan then? This can be best understood from the definition which the Prophet himself gave, and which Jibreel (as) endorsed:
قَالَ فَأَخْبِرْنِي عَنِ الإِحْسَانِ قَالَ ” أَنْ تَعْبُدَ اللَّهَ كَأَنَّكَ تَرَاهُ فَإِنْ لَمْ تَكُنْ تَرَاهُ فَإِنَّهُ يَرَاكَ ” .
Jibreel asked the Prophet, “Tell me about Al-Ihsan.” He said: “It is to worship Allah [SWT] as if you can see Him, for although you cannot see Him, He can see you.” [Nasai]
Ihsan is not always expecting perfection from yourself, because the only one who is perfect is Allah. Of course, as Muslims, whenever we undertake a job, we try our best to make it excellent, but that doesn’t mean that we spend a week doing a job that usually takes one day, just so that every nick and corner is honed to perfection. That is pure waste of time, and Islam places a lot of value on time, and furthermore it is also a sign of obsessive compulsive disorder. Islam is a balanced religion, and excessiveness in religion is disliked to say the least.
How to make a balance then? Strive for excellence, but not for perfection in its absolute sense. This will come automatically if we’re aware that Allah can see us, and that is the basis for Ihsan.
And Allah knows best.
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