NB: I am interested lately in the topic of ihsan. I intend to write a series of posts about it; this is an introduction.
“The irony is that your selfishness hurts you,” she says. “You’re so selfish that you drive other people away. The result is that you don’t get what you want.” My throat sinks into my toes. I am too demoralized to speak. The defense instinct, at times falcon-eyed, beats feebly inside my chest like a tired old one-good-winged crow.
Why fight? She is either wrong or right. If she is wrong, will arguing change her mind? If she is right, will it change mine? I want to defend myself, I decide, because I want her to think well of me. I want to be, if not admired, then at least liked. I splay and tighten my toes as I think; at times like these, there is such comfort in the mundane. Ten curved digits, yellow-white, grasp and pull at air. I want to be known as excellent. I think about ihsan.
The cat slinks across the floor. Pa-tit-tit-tit, the pads of her feet make very quiet drums. Her belly is lined with tufts of white fur, which fluff up in contrast to what is otherwise sleek. She is, by all accounts, excellent in her role as the cat. She sleeps in a moon-colored ball behind knees at the foot of my bed. Her mouth gushes in the springtime, when the birds come out of hiding to play on the windowsill’s far edge. She drinks water from every available cup, and prefers those not assigned to her. She licks herself clean in the morning, and once again at night. When her bowl is empty, she cries.
I can find no fault in her execution of cat. Even when she bites, when she pees on the floor, when she sheds fine gray hairs on the abaya’s black edge, still, she is being a cat. Biskit, I tell her in my mind, you are excellent at that.
Out the window in the streetlight, tiny pellets of icy snow whip their way to the ground through the branches of a tree. It is a flawless tree, not obsessed with playing the saxophone, or rude when it wakes up in bed. In the winter, its leaves drop abruptly, like the towel from around a woman who is sliding into her bath. Then it stands bare, alternately black and gray, as snow, clouds and sheets of icy alternately blanket the street. It witnesses the traffic’s flow. When the calendar claim’s spring’s approach, the tree resolutely agrees. Though more snow may fall, it sends out buds. It’s branches lighten as they grow, until come April, new growth crowns the top of the tree. Later, flowers, leaves, bees. Helicopters in September, continuing through autumn.
Tree, I watch as it withstands snow, you are excellent at that. Down the street near the disappearing curve, a yield sign is bent. Someone has slammed against its face; a deep crease worries its brow. Its readability is lost; were it not for color and shape, it would pass beyond recognition. Yield sign, I am sorry to say, you are not an excellent thing.
So far my search for ihsan has only measured the world which is far removed from me. I look around the flat. A dress from Palestine, embroidered red and brown, fraying all the way up the front edge. The top of the range, papered over, charred with oil gone black. A bouquet of cut carnations, flowers going limp. The apartment is full of man-made things, all of which are failing. “Say something nice,” I whisper to the phone. “Something you like about me.”
My ear continues to ache for a long time after we have hung up. I prowl from living room to kitchen, from bedroom to bath in search of a sign of something which is excellent about me. A smooth yellow passion fruit pie waits on the fridge’s top shelf. I cut a slice with a butter knife. It is soft and cold along my tongue, but not sufficiently sweet. Close, I tell myself. You are almost excellent at cooking.
Passion fruit has a taste like flowers. If anything excellent is in your pie, my sterner self answers back, it is in the ingredients which were perfectly created. The fruit, the sugar, the flour, the egg; you made none of these. You combine raw materials passably. I remember the way that scholars will sometimes begin their public speech. Bismillah, in the name of Allah. Any goodness is from Him, all mistakes are from me.
I have not yet prayed the fifth prayer for today. Demoralized by my wandering, I shut myself in the bathroom, and roll up my sleeves. I make my intention above the sink. At least, I tell myself as I wash, you can make this an excellent ablution. At least you can hope that if you are sincere, then this Allah might accept.
My musalla is a small red rug spread alone on a graying floor. I lie down on it afterward to feel its softness pressed against my cheek. Ihsan, the Prophet said to Angel Jibreel, is to worship Allah as if you see him, for even if you don’t, surely he sees you. It is clear enough to me what this means in the context of salah. To concentrate more, to clear out my heart. To make sincere intention and dua. To find within recitation and dhikr a path toward continual remembrance. It is not the outer acts of worship which tonight concern me.
Tonight, I am worried by the inner ones. Teaching First Grade is worship, is it not, if my intention makes it so? Cooking and running and writing and reading, all of the things which I love, could be worship if they were properly applied. I review faces in memory. Who do I know who is excellent? From whom can I learn, and on whom might I lean? My companion’s words from earlier this evening still, when I think of them, sting. I pretend to be hunting for emeralds. Look through your furious churning to see if anything of value remains.