incerity (ikhlās) is to protect one’s heart from the thought of worldly interests when one performs a duty towards Allah the Almighty. The fruit of sincerity is ihsān – to worship Allah as if one can see Him, and to live with the awareness that Allah is watching one’s actions at all times. Imam Qushayrī narrated the following account:
‘Amr b. Layth was a commander of an army in Khurasān. After he passed away, a pious man saw him in his dream. He asked the army commander:
“How has Allah treated you?”
“Allah has forgiven all my sins.”
“Why has Allah forgiven all your sins?”
“One day I climbed to the top of a tall hill and I looked down upon my army. Their strength and great number gave me great satisfaction, and I said to myself: ‘I wish I could have joined the battles of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) with this well-trained army, and helped the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) during his times of difficulty. I would have given my life to carry out this honor.’ Because of these sincere feelings I had, Allah the Almighty forgave me and rewarded me with great things.”
This incident is a good example of how sincere feelings and actions are rewarded. Even though the believer did not actualize his intention he was rewarded for his sincerity.
Concerning this, the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) says that the intention of a believer is more valuable than his action. The value of the action comes from the good intention behind it. If there is no good intention behind a good act, it cannot be accepted as good. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) says, actions will be judged according to the intentions behind them:
The [reward of] deeds depends solely upon the intention and every person will get their reward according to what he or she has intended. So, whoever emigrated for Allah and His Apostle, then his emigration was for Allah and His Apostle. And whoever emigrated for worldly benefits or for a woman he meant to marry, his emigration was for what he emigrated for.
Therefore we must always control our intentions when we perform an action. We must always aim to please Allah through our deeds. This quality is known as ikhlās (sincerity) in Islamic terminology. Actions are like the body and the intentions are like the soul. If the soul is ill, then so too is the body. Prayers and other religious activities which are not accompanied with sincere good intentions do not give any benefit to the person who performed them. They will only produce exhaustion. On the other hand, if a person aims to please Allah, even the most ordinary and trivial actions are rewarded by Allah the Almighty.
Mankind shares the characteristics of other living creatures in many respects. However, Man is different from them by the fact that he acts in such a way that he can save himself from the selfishness of his nafs and the cravings of his animal instincts. He can achieve domination over his base desires. In this way he can manifest the superiority over nature given to him by Allah. Once mankind achieves this state, all worldly actions such as sleeping, eating and drinking, getting married and having children, and all other acts, are in complete submission to the will of Allah. They are considered the deeds of mankind which are worthy of reward in the divine court.
Hence, a believer should cleanse his or her heart of all selfish intentions, leaving in his or her heart only the intention of attaining Allah’s satisfaction. Through sincerity, a man or woman can come nearer to Allah.
The fruit of sincerity towards Allah is the station of ihsān. Ihsān means to worship Allah as if one sees Him, and to act accordingly, feeling His presence at all times. Behind all actions Allah asks sincerity towards Him: “Verily it is We Who have revealed the book to you in truth; so serve Allah, offering Him sincere devotion. Is it not to Allah that sincere devotion is due?” (Zumar, 39:2-3); “Say: Verily, I am commanded to worship Allah with sincere devotion.” (Zumar, 39:11).
When Iblīs (Satan) was cast away from the divine presence he said: “O my Lord! Because You have put me in the wrong, I will make wrong fair-seeming to them on the earth, and I will put them all in the wrong, except Your chosen servants among them” (Hijr, 15:39-40). As the verse makes clear, Satan cannot influence the believers who are sincere to Allah in their devotion. Apart from them, all other believers are in danger. This fact is stated in the following verses: “This is for me a straight path. No authority shall you have over My servants, except such as put themselves in the wrong and follow you” (Hijr, 15:41-42).
In the chapter of al-Isrā’, this fact is again repeated: “As for my servants, no authority shall you have, except such as put themselves in the wrong and follow you.” (Isrā’, 17:65)
In a hadith qudsī, Allah the Almighty says: “Sincerity is one of my divine secrets and I bestow it upon the servants whom I love. Neither an angel can discover it to record it, nor can a devil discover it in order to spoil it.” (Tāj, I, 43)
This hadith indicates that a believer is endowed with sincerity if he has love in his heart for Allah. The phrase in the above hadith “the servants whom I love” shows that love is the preconditon of sincerity. The believers should place love for God in the highest place in their hearts. Consequently love should also be sincere. If love has no sincerity it will bring destruction to the lover as in the story narrated by Nakhshabī:
“One day a young man knocked at the door of the king’s daughter and told her that he loved her. She told him to take a thousand dirhams (pounds) from her and go away and to disturb her anymore.
The young man did not give up and continued to come to her door.
She offered two thousand dirhams. In the end the young man accepted ten thousand dirhams in order to give up his love.
However, the real intention of the king’s daughter was to test his sincerity in love. She asked him, ‘What kind of love is yours that you prefer money over my love? Do you know the punishment for preferring something over me?’ Then she commanded her soldiers to kill this young man who was not sincere in his love.”
One of Nakhshabī’s disciples was a deeply spiritual person, and when he heard this story he fell down. When he came back to his senses, he told his friends: “O my friends! Look at the punishment for false love in this world. Then consider the punishment of those who claim to love Allah and prefer trivial things over Him in the hereafter.”
In that way, he gave us a good lesson on the significance of sincerity. Rūmī summarized the story saying: “A man’s value is judged according to what he is looking for in life.”
Sincerity is the most necessary condition of all the forms of worship. The Holy Qur’an states that only those who are sincere will be saved from their fate: “Most surely you will taste the painful punishment. But the chosen servants of Allah, for them is a sustenance determined, fruits; and they (shall enjoy) honor and dignity” (Sâffât, 37: 38-42).
“O you who believe! Guard your own souls: Follow right guidance. No hurt can come to you from those who stray. The return of you all is to Allah: it is He that will inform you of all that you do.” (Mā’idah, 5:105)
Mawlānā Rūmī addresses those who pray without sincerity:
Would that, in your bowing low in prayer, you would turn your face (to attentive consideration) and apprehend the meaning of “Glory be unto my Lord! Who is the Most Exalted.” Bow down with your heart, not only with your head. (Mathnawī, II, 1801)
As Rūmī emphasises, the important thing is that we prostrate ourselves in front of Allah with our hearts full of sincerity. Prayer has no value if it is contaminated by spiritual diseases such as hypocrisy. Allah the Almighty condemns such kinds of worship: “So woe to the worshippers who are neglectful of their prayers.” (Mā‘ūn, 107:4-5)
Sincerity is to protect ourselves from making partners with Allah when we perform an action – to be sincere in our worship and not carry other any worldly intention when we do something for Allah. Hence we can describe righteous deeds as the sincere deeds. Sincere deeds are the ones which are cleansed of bad intentions. It is the pure milk which comes out of blood and feces.
And verily in cattle (too) will you find an instructive sign. From what is within their bodies, between excretions and blood, We produce, for your drink, milk, pure and agreeable to those who drink it.”(Nahl, 16:66)
In contemplating the above verse the commentators of the holy Quran say that sincerity means purification of intentions from worldy concerns other than Allah, just as milk is pure and free from blood and excretions.
Junayd Baghdādī describes sincerity as the purification of deeds from any admixture of ostentation. However, claiming sincerity is not considered to be good behavior in Sufi circles. A friend of Allah once said: “To claim to be sincere is to be insincere.”
Prophet Moses was commanded by Allah to choose seventy pious believers from his tribe. When he asked his people, three men came forward supposing themselves to be pious and sincere people. Upon this the following revelation came from Allah: O Moses! Those three men are the farthest from Me among My creation since they claimed to be pious and sincere.
The Prophet Jesus (upon him blessings and peace) was once asked about the definition of sincere deeds, and he answered, “To do deeds for the sake of Allah and not to expect any worldly rewards.”
What is the biggest enemy of sincerity? It is hypocrisy, ostentation and showing off – to act in order to obtain worldly gain rather than for the pleasure of Allah. If deeds are done for other than Allah, then it is a hidden association of partners with Allah. The following hadith is very important in explaining the negative consequences of hypocrisy and showing off.
On the authority of Sulaymān b. Yasār it has been narrated: “People surrounded Abū Hurayra. Nātil, a Syrian, said to him, ‘O Sheikh, relate (to us) a hadith you heard from the Messenger of Allah.’ He replied, ‘Yes. I heard the Messenger of Allah (upon him blessings and peace) say: ‘The first of those men (whose case) will be decided on the Day of Judgement will be the man who died as a martyr. He shall be brought before the Judgement Seat and Allah will make him recount His blessings (i.e. the blessings which He had bestowed upon him) and he will recount them (and admit having enjoyed them in his life).
(Then) will Allah say: ‘What did you do (to requite these blessings)?’
He will say, ‘I fought for You until I died as a martyr.’
Allah will say, ‘You have told a lie. You fought so that you might be called a brave warrior, and you were called so.’ Then orders will be passed against him and he will be dragged with his face downward and cast into hell.
Then will be brought forward a man who acquired knowledge and imparted it (to others) and recited the Qur’an. He will be brought, and Allah will make him recount His blessings and he will recount them and admit having enjoyed them in his lifetime. Then will Allah ask, ‘What did you do (to requite these blessings)?’ He will say, ‘I acquired knowledge and disseminated it and recited the Qur’an seeking Your pleasure.’ Allah will say, ‘You have told a lie. You acquired knowledge so that you might be called a scholar, and you recited the Qur’an so that it might be said, “He is a Qāri’’” and such has been said.’ Then orders will be passed against him and he shall be dragged with his face downward and cast into the Fire.
Then will be brought a man whom Allah had made abundantly rich and to whom He had granted every kind of wealth. He will be brought and Allah will make him recount His blessings and he will recount them and admit having enjoyed them in his lifetime.
Allah will (then) ask: ‘What have you done (to requite these blessings)?’
He will say: ‘I spent money in every cause in which You wished that it should be spent.’
Allah will say: ‘You are lying. You did (so) that it might be said about (you): “He is a generous fellow” and so it was said.’ Then will Allah pass orders and he will be dragged with his face downward and thrown into hell.”(Muslim)
In Islam, certain deeds are very valuable and highly praised. Fighting for the religion of Allah, learning the Islamic disciplines and teaching them, and making donations to the poor are some such deeds. However, this hadith clearly teaches us that without sincerity, no actions are acceptable in the Divine Presence even though they might seem very valuable actions externally.
Faith does not consist in mere words, but is demonstrated by the actions of the faithful. A faithful man or woman obeys the commandments of Allah with his/her whole heart and refrains from forbidden things without complaining. They prefer Allah over everything. Those who prefer worldly gains over Allah are the hypocrites. They use Islam as a cover for their mischief and deceive the believers. Such people accept their nafs as their supreme Lord. Allah says concerning such people:
Did you not see him who takes as his god his own vain desire? Allah has, knowing (him as such), left him astray, and sealed his hearing and his heart, and put a cover on his sight. Who, then, will guide him after Allah (has withdrawn guidance)? Will you not then receive admonition? (Jāthiyah, 45:23)
This verse teaches us that vain desires should be eliminated when a person serves Allah.
For the friends of Allah, sincerity has a very deep meaning. It means preferring Allah over everything else. Abū Yazīd al-Bistāmī once listened to the verse of the Qur’an: “Among you are some that hanker after this world and some that desire the hereafter” (Āl ‘Imrān, 3:152). He started sobbing and said: “These words are the words of regret from Allah to us. He is saying that some choose the other world and some choose this world where are ‘the people who choose only Me and My pleasure?’”
A little amount of worship which is done in sincerity is better than a great amount which lacks sincerity and good intention. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) says: “Perform your deeds in sincerity. (If you behave like this) even a small number of deeds are enough.” He also said: “Allah does not look at your bodies and your wealth. He looks at your hearts (in order to see your sincerity) and deeds.” In the following Qur’anic verse, Allah says that He created man in order to test the quality of his deeds: “He who has created death as well as life, so that He might put you to a test [and thus show] which of you is best in conduct, and [make you realize that] He alone is almighty, truly forgiving.” (Mulk, 67:2) Of course the most significant characteristic of a righteous deed is the quality of the sincerity in which it was performed. Allah has different ways of testing the sincerity of man. Sometimes the believers are persecuted and tortured due to their faith and ideals. If they do not swerve and keep true to their faith, then they prove their sincerity and loyalty to Allah.
Alif Lām Mīm. Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, ‘We believe’, and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and Allah will certainly know those who are true from those who are false. (‘Ankabūt, 29:1-3)
However, we should not misunderstand the nature of sincerity, especially in refraining from performing good deeds due to the fear of ostentation. Sometimes Satan inspires man not to do a good action because he is not sincere, and in that way keeps man away from good actions. We might sometimes get the feeling of ostentation and lack of sincerity in our actions. However, instead of refraining from these good actions, we should strive to correct our intentions. The path of sincerity is not an easy path. There are many difficulties. It requires fighting against the nafs and its base desires. We can climb to the pinnacle of sincerity step by step. It is necessary that we both use our willpower and to ask for divine help in attaining this station. In order to achieve this aim, the following points should be followed:
1) Through remembrance of Allah and the repetition of His names we must try to feel Allah’s presence at all times. When we perform an action, we must know that Allah is watching over us.
2) We must keep a spiritual communication with the Prophet and other good people who follow the path of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). Through this spiritual connection we must strive to obtain their spiritual energy, which is called fayd in Sufi terminology.
3) We must attend the Islamic suhbahs (sermons and talks about Islam). In these gatherings we must try to enjoy the sweetness of brotherhood in Islam. We must also learn how to sacrifice ourselves for our brothers and sisters.
4) We should serve all humanity and love all people for the sake of Allah.
5) We should eat only what is earned by halāl (Islamically permitted) means. When the food comes from harām (illegal) ways, the heart cannot find any inclination towards serving Allah sincerely.
The important thing is that through these works we must realize the beauties of Islam in our hearts and attain the reality of sincerity in our deeds. It is very difficult nowadays to find sincere people. People are mostly running after worldly gains and they think of human beings as mere objects used to reach these targets. May Allah help us all in the path of attaining sincerity towards Him, the Almighty.