This word in Arabic, Al-Husnaa, has been variously interpreted and used and, in working on sura 92 Al-Layl, I found it essential to explain its multiple dimensions in a separate post for people to understand its use in the Quran as well as that sura in particular. Like many Quranic words, its meanings change according to the context. The root H-s-n basically means “good,” but even in English that has a broader meaning. So we examine how it is used in the Quran where it can be understood from context. Its most well-known usage is for the names of Allah — al-asma’ Allah Al-Husnaa, the most beautiful names of Allah. It can also mean “the best,” “good,” and other, always positive, connotations.
In brief, Al-Husnaa has the following meanings, each followed by a Quranic Example.
لِّلَّذِينَ أَحۡسَنُواْ ٱلۡحُسۡنَىٰ وَزِيَادَةٌۖ وَلَا يَرۡهَقُ وُجُوهَهُمۡ قَتَرٌ وَلَا ذِلَّةٌۚ أُوْلَٰٓئِكَ أَصۡحَٰبُ ٱلۡجَنَّةِۖ هُمۡ فِيهَا خَٰلِدُونَ
For them who have done good is the best [reward] and extra. No darkness will cover their faces, nor humiliation. Those are the companions of Paradise; they will abide therein eternally.
Here the word Al-Husnaa is used as a separate word and translated “the best [reward].” By this is meant “Paradise,” clarified by the use of the usual word for Paradise, Al-Jannah, later in the same verse.
وَأَمَّا مَنۡ ءَامَنَ وَعَمِلَ صَٰلِحًا فَلَهُۥ جَزَآءً ٱلۡحُسۡنَىٰۖ وَسَنَقُولُ لَهُۥ مِنۡ أَمۡرِنَا يُسۡرًا
But as for one who believes and does righteousness, he will have a reward of Paradise, and we will speak to him from our command with ease.”
Here the word Al-Husnaa is literally translated “Paradise.”
إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ سَبَقَتۡ لَهُم مِّنَّا ٱلۡحُسۡنَىٰٓ أُوْلَٰٓئِكَ عَنۡهَا مُبۡعَدُونَ
Indeed, those for whom the best [reward] has preceded from Us – they are from it [hell] far removed.
This is not translated “Paradise” but that is exactly what it refers to. Because the word Al-Husnaa also means “the Best” of something, this translation is used as well as Paradise, at the translator’s discretion. So one could say one of the names of Paradise is indeed Al-Husnaa.
Goodness, the Best
How the word “goodness” reflects the meaning of Al-Husnaa is in the sense of Good as a higher value as in the “best” of something, as in “I only intended the best for you.” It also means “goodness” in the sense of the infinitive of being Good, as with “she just radiates goodness.” This word in English itself then has a range of meaning, but it does not have the power of the word Al-Husnaa in Arabic. That’s possibly because of its English usage as a “euphemism” for God in cases where the word “God” was, rather oddly, treated as “impolite.” As in the phrases “honest to goodness” replacing “honest to God” or “oh my goodness!” Instead of “oh my God!” You can see where this usage makes “goodness” to mean not “the ultimate good” as is the meaning of Al-Husnaa, but rather some kind of “genteel” substitute for the oh-too-strong “God” as if “God” were an expletive. Something like “gosh darn it” for “God damn it” or “heck” for “hell.” These are subtle but real effects.
Even the word “the best” where in Arabic Al-Husnaa means the most superlative of a thing, and in English “best” technically has the same meaning, but because the range of meaning for “best” doesn’t explicitly include “beautiful” or “paradise” as does Al-Husnaa, the actual effect of it is less impactful. Here is its usage in the Quran for “good”:
وَأَوۡرَثۡنَا ٱلۡقَوۡمَ ٱلَّذِينَ كَانُواْ يُسۡتَضۡعَفُونَ مَشَٰرِقَ ٱلۡأَرۡضِ وَمَغَٰرِبَهَا ٱلَّتِى بَٰرَكۡنَا فِيهَاۖ وَتَمَّتۡ كَلِمَتُ رَبِّكَ ٱلۡحُسۡنَىٰ عَلَىٰ بَنِىٓ إِسۡرَٰٓءِيلَ بِمَا صَبَرُوا۟ۖ وَدَمَّرۡنَا مَا كَانَ يَصۡنَعُ فِرۡعَوۡنُ وَقَوۡمُهُۥ وَمَا كَانُواْ يَعۡرِشُونَ
And We caused the people who had been oppressed to inherit the eastern regions of the land and the western ones, which We had blessed. And the good word of your Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel because of what they had patiently endured. And We destroyed [all] that Pharaoh and his people were producing and what they had been building.
This is the same spelling as Al-Husnaa with the longer end-sound indicated in my ad hoc transliteration here using double aa’s. A derived version with a slightly different spelling is al-hasana which can refer to good deeds as specific actions or to good generally in the sense we are discussing, and is used in the ayat below.
قَالَ يَٰقَوۡمِ لِمَ تَسۡتَعۡجِلُونَ بِٱلسَّيِّئَةِ قَبۡلَ ٱلۡحَسَنَةِۖ لَوۡلَا تَسۡتَغۡفِرُونَ ٱللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمۡ تُرۡحَمُونَ
He said, “O my people, why are you impatient for evil instead of good? Why do you not seek forgiveness of Allah that you may receive mercy?”
Or this, where “good” has power over evil:
أُوْلَٰٓئِكَ يُؤۡتَوۡنَ أَجۡرَهُم مَّرَّتَيۡنِ بِمَا صَبَرُواْ وَيَدۡرَءُونَ بِٱلۡحَسَنَةِ ٱلسَّيِّئَةَ وَمِمَّا رَزَقۡنَٰهُمۡ يُنفِقُونَ
Those will be given their reward twice for what they patiently endured and [because] they avert evil through good, and from what We have provided them they spend.
This shows that the power of good over evil is given to us also as a gift:
وَأَقِمِ ٱلصَّلَوٰةَ طَرَفَىِ ٱلنَّهَارِ وَزُلَفًا مِّنَ ٱلَّيۡلِۚ إِنَّ ٱلۡحَسَنَٰتِ يُذۡهِبۡنَ ٱلسَّيِّـَٔاتِۚ ذَٰلِكَ ذِكۡرَىٰ لِلذَّٰكِرِينَ
And establish prayer at the two ends of the day and at the approach of the night. Indeed, good deeds do away with misdeeds. That is a reminder for those who remember.
You can see how this usage implies a power to “good” that makes its use in the Quran more effective. One last example:
وَٱلَّذِينَ ٱتَّخَذُواْ مَسۡجِدًا ضِرَارًا وَكُفۡرًا وَتَفۡرِيقًۢا بَيۡنَ ٱلۡمُؤۡمِنِينَ وَإِرۡصَادًا لِّمَنۡ حَارَبَ ٱللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُۥ مِن قَبۡلُۚ وَلَيَحۡلِفُنَّ إِنۡ أَرَدۡنَآ إِلَّا ٱلۡحُسۡنَىٰۖ وَٱللَّهُ يَشۡهَدُ إِنَّهُمۡ لَكَٰذِبُونَ
And [there are] those [hypocrites] who took for themselves a mosque for causing harm and disbelief and division among the believers and as a station for whoever had warred against Allah and His Messenger before. And they will surely swear, “We intended only the best.” And Allah testifies that indeed they are liars.
Here it refers to the best intentions, although it is in the noun form. But its superlative sense reflects also in its sense as seen below.
وَلِلَّهِ ٱلۡأَسۡمَآءُ ٱلۡحُسۡنَىٰ فَٱدۡعُوهُ بِهَاۖ وَذَرُواْ ٱلَّذِينَ يُلۡحِدُونَ فِىٓ أَسۡمَٰٓئِهِۦۚ سَيُجۡزَوۡنَ مَا كَانُواْ يَعۡمَلُونَ
Unto God belong the Most Beautiful Names; so call Him by them, and leave those who deviate with regard to His Names. Soon they shall be recompensed for that which they used to do.
Other translations use the expression “the Best names,” which could also work, but “beautiful” is more frequently used. This word is used quite specifically to refer to beauty in other ayat.
فِيهِنَّ خَيۡرَٰتٌ حِسَانٌ
In them are good and beautiful women –
The above verses uses a derived form hisan, but it is essentially the same word. The word for “good” here is khairat which is actually a feminine form of “someone good” and can also refer to “something good.” So this clearly shows “beautiful” as a separate meaning from “good” here.
قَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِى رَسُولِ ٱللَّهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌۭ لِّمَن كَانَ يَرْجُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ وَٱلْيَوْمَ ٱلْءَاخِرَ وَذَكَرَ ٱللَّهَ كَثِيرًۭا
Indeed, you have in the Messenger of God a beautiful example for those who hope for God and the Last Day, and remember God much. (33:21)
Others also translate this word “excellent” or “best.” But there are alternate words for “excellent” such as khair, related to the word for “good” in the aya quoted just above this one.
مُتَّكِـِٔينَ عَلَىٰ رَفۡرَفٍ خُضۡرٍ وَعَبۡقَرِىٍّ حِسَانٍ
Reclining on green cushions and beautiful fine carpets.
Since carpets cannot be “good” in the sense of “goodness” as a moral quality, it is most certainly meant as “beautiful.”
These are the three basic meanings of Al-Husnaa in its various forms (derived from the same root and closely related to where they inform its meaning).
Why This Interpretation Matters
Since all these meanings imbue their power to this word, it sometimes helps to understand and interpret it this way rather than to simply choose one English expression and lose the nuance and potential value of that meaning. A great example of this is in sura 92, Al-Layl (Night).
92:5 As for he who gives and is mindful of God,
92:6 and believes in goodness,
92:7 We will smooth his way toward all that is easy.
92:8 But as for he who is stingy and considers himself self-sufficient,
92:9 and denies goodness,
92:10 We will ease him toward hardship.
Here the word Al-Husnaa is interpreted as “goodness.” But one loses thereby the sense of “paradise” and “beautiful,” which are used in other translations, one (Saheeh International) using “the best [reward]” for example, to refer to paradise. Why this matters is in the example of one who “denies goodness” which could imply “denies that anything is good” or “denies goodness as a value in itself” or even “denies giving good things to others,” among other possibilities. To “believe in goodness” or better, “trust in goodness,” is best interpreted to mean those who consider being good as the most desirable aim in one’s behavior, but that’s an interpretation, not necessarily how individuals will read it for themselves. It does convey a general idea that more or less “fits.”
But “goodness” doesn’t mean the belief that in the Hereafter, good deeds will be exponentially rewarded in paradise, and this is an important, perhaps even the primary meaning here. The lack of such faith in the Hereafter removes a major motivation for good behavior; one feels it will not be for nothing. That is also referred to in a number of major translations. But then this too is not the exclusive meaning. The Study Quran translation uses the expression “that which is beautiful” which also does not necessarily imply the reward of paradise, but does give the sense of something so good as to be beautiful, which is in many ways a better superlative than merely “best.” So this is a perfect example of why some words simply do not translate well, often requiring either a limited substitute or an awkward or wordy expression to attempt to convey their full meaning.