General #iḥsānology: beneficence, goodness, and badness

The fourth chapter of Shajarat al-Maʿārif concerns iḥsān in general. The chapter begins with a section on iḥsān that is confined to its actor and iḥsān that extends to others. This section gives definitions and examples of what he means by iḥsān, maṣlahah and mafsadah. Al-ʿIzz writes:

Everyone who obeys Allah is beneficent [muḥsin] to himself through his act of obedience. If his obedience benefits another, then he is beneficent to himself and to others. His beneficence to others can be general or particular. Beneficence [iḥsān] refers to obtaining that which is good [maṣlaḥah] of the two abodes [this life and the Afterlife], or of one of them; and repelling that which is bad [mafsadah] of the two abodes, or of one of them. That which is good is pleasure or its causes, or happiness or its causes. That which is bad is pain or its causes, or sadness or its causes. Desiring benefit is beneficence [iḥsān] since its desire is a cause for it [to happen]. Desiring harm is a wrong [isāʾah] since it is a cause for it [to happen]. Amputating a gangrenous arm is beneficence [iḥsān] since it is a cause for saving life. Enduring the difficulties of responsibilities beneficial only to oneself and beneficial also to others is beneficence [iḥsān] since they are a cause for goodness [ṣalāḥ] in the two abodes. Disciplining youths via scolding or adults via discretionary punishments [taʿzīrāt] and fixed punishments [Ar. ḥudūd] is beneficence [Ar. iḥsān] since it is a cause for encouraging them to do good, and deters them from doing evil.

Many readers will find the concepts in the passage above to be similar to utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism. The basic claim of consequentialism is that the moral status of an act is determined solely upon its consequences – not something intrinsic to the action or the circumstances wherein it occurs. While there are many similarities between consequentialism and the concepts presented in the previous passage, there are also several significant differences.

One difference is that iḥsān, maṣlaḥah, and mafsadah are not limited to this life, but rather can include or be limited to the Afterlife. So when it comes to an action’s consequential pleasure, happiness, pain, and sadness, we must look at the consequences of both this life and the Afterlife. Actions can have consequences limited to this world, the Afterlife, or affecting them both. When an action has consequences in both this life and the Afterlife, those consequences can be positive in both, negative in both, or a mix. Some actions lead to pleasure in this life and pain in the Afterlife. We must look at the consequences in both this life and the Afterlife.

Another difference is that religion is the authoritative source for knowing iḥsān, maṣlaḥah, and mafsadah – not human reason, or trial and error. While human reason and experience do identify some things as good and others as bad, they often lead to disagreement about the status of an individual action. Trial and error are limited to matters of this life, so neither it nor rationality can tell us anything specific about an action’s goodness or badness in the Afterlife. Revelation, then, is the authoritative source for knowing which of the things we deem good [maṣlaḥah] are truly of significance to Islamic legal rulings.

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