In the well-known hadith of the Prophet known as Hadith Jibreel, when the Prophet Mohammad, Allah's peace and blessings be upon him, is asked to define ihsan, he replies: "It is to worship Allah as if you see Him, for though you do not see Him, surely He sees you."
The meaning of the Arabic word ihsan can be translated as "excellence," "righteousness" or "deeds of goodness and beauty." Ihsan is the highest form of worship; Worship, however, is not limited to ritual worship such as fasting, salat, and zakat. The Quran and hadith urge Muslims to seek ihsan in every aspect of our lives. For example we are asked to seek ihsan in speech, in knowledge, in charity, in greeting one another, and even in divorce and animal slaughter.
Ihsan is the highest act of worship to Allah. Imagine leading life as if we were seeing Allah moment to moment. How well would our time be spent? What heights would we reach?
This is the essence of excellence which we must teach our students and which we must strive to inspire in them.
The Goal Of Excellence
The idea of excellence in education is thrown about so frequently, specially by politicians, that it has become a meaningless abstraction for some. However, the idea of ihsan is powerful, and the definition of ihsan, as explained by the Prophet is clear and applicable. It is the act of excellence defined above we must keep that as our goal.
The Quran says again and again, Allah has created us so that he may see which of us is most excellent in deeds: “He Who created Death and Life, that He may try which of you is best in deed: and He is the Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving” (Ch. 2, al-Mulk, The Sovereignty, v. 2).
Measurements of success in school, such as standardized test scores and grade point averages, must be viewed as tools in this context. They can not determine excellence in education, rather they are some tools, among others, which can help us to see whether our efforts are in the right direction.
The purpose of ihsan is to please Allah. The rewards of excellence are found both in our life here on earth and the hereafter:
To the righteous (when) it is said, "What is it that your Lord has revealed?" they say, "All that is good." To those who do good, there is good in this world, and the Home of the Hereafter is even better and excellent indeed is the Home of the righteous,- Gardens of Eternity which they will enter: beneath them flow (pleasant) rivers: they will have therein all that they wish: thus doth Allah reward the righteous (Quran, ch. 16, an-Nahl, the Bee, vv. 30-31)
You Must Believe All Students Can Excel
Study after study has concluded that students tend to fulfill their teacher's expectations, whether those expectations are voiced or not. Students pick up cues from their teacher regarding their abilities and decide those abilities are fixed, regardless of their own effort. Unfortunately, despite these studies, our society is fixated on the idea that innate ability is a prerequisite for excellence.
Talk shows parade before us children who show uncanny aptitudes, schools create special programs for students who exhibit traits of giftedness, a constant comparison of children's abilities, whether in school or at home, all influence our students' perception of themselves. Rather than devoting themselves to living and worship with ihsan, too many children give up on themselves.
Therefore, it is imperative that we as teachers form high expectations of our children. Every student can excel, and they can excel in everything. Allah says in the Quran: “It is He Who brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers when ye knew nothing; and He gave you hearing and sight and intelligence and affections: that ye may give thanks (to Allah)” (Quran, ch. 16, an-Nahl, the Bee, v. 78). We were all brought into the world knowing nothing, and we are all given the capabilities to learn. All children therefore have the potential to excel.
To learn more about the relationship of teacher expectation and student achievement, please see “Expectations for Students” and “Good or Bad, What Teachers Expect from Students They Generally Get!” (Eric Digest)
Help Your Students To Aim High
When Sultan Mohammad Al-Fateh was a small boy, around age seven, he was told by his teacher the hadith of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) stating, "Surely, Constantinople (Istanbul) will be opened (by my community); how blessed the commander who will open it, and how blessed his army."
Sultan Mohammed asked if it had already been opened, and when his teacher said no, he asked if he could himself do it. His teacher replied that he certainly could, and so as a child, that become his goal and he talked about it to all the other children. At the age of twenty-one, he achieved this goal.
Similarly we should nurture the aspirations of children from a young age. Show them examples of great work and let them believe they can do the same. So yes, they can be president, they can find the cure for cancer and they can end world hunger.
As adults, our world-view can become jaded and we allow ourselves to set low standards for ourselves and our students. We must combat these negative, or "practical" feelings, and give our students the tools to become the very best rather than just aim for mediocrity.
Set An Example
Examples of excellence are the greatest motivator towards excellence. Whether it be Olympic athletes, the older student who was accepted at Harvard, or a kindergarten teacher, most children can identify excellence in action. If we as teachers are satisfied with mediocre classrooms, boring lessons, and the lack of hard work by our students, students will absorb that as a habit. Remember the hadith: “Verily, Allah loves that when anyone of you does a job he should perfect it" (Al-Bayhaqi). Though Allah alone is perfect, we should strive for it in all of our endeavors.
Strive To Meet Every Student's Level And Mode Of Learning
Too many students resign themselves to mediocrity when they cannot successfully navigate through the process of schooling. The process of schooling includes set schedules and particular methods of learning. These problems have been pointed out for decades, however they continue to be pervasive in our schools.
As we strive to teach our students the ethic of excellence, we must not ignore students' individual interests, learning styles, and readiness. One way to ensure that our we meet the needs of all student is to differentiate instruction. The four main areas in which instruction can be differentiated are:
- Content: what the student needs to learn or how the student will get access to the information;
- Process: activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content;
- Products: culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit; and
- Learning environment: the way the classroom works and feels. (Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. Eric Digest.)
Allowing students to master skills helps them to build confidence and continue to strive for excellence.