Allah (subḥānahū wa taʿālā) says in the Noble Qur’ān,
قُلِ اللّٰهَ أَعْبُدُ مُخْلِصًا لَّهُۥ دِيْنِىْ
“Say, “It is (only) Allah that I worship, being sincere in my devotion to Him” (39:14).
Ikhlāṣ is the foundation of our dīn. Ikhlāṣ, often translated as sincerity, refers to doing everything solely for the sake of Allah. Ikhlāṣ is when you don’t wish for someone other than Allah to see your actions, and you don’t wish for someone other than Him to reward you for them.
“The believer who is sincere to Allah is the happiest, most content, blessed and peaceful of all people. And this is an early paradise before the upcoming Paradise.” – Ibn al-Qayyim (raḥimahullāh)
Be Vigilant About Your Intention
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “Actions are according to intentions” (Bukhārī). Before we begin our good deeds, we should rectify our intentions and only intend the pleasure of Allah. The stronger and purer the intention is, the greater the reward will be. A sincere intention can cause a pound donated in charity to become the equivalent of donating a thousand pounds. ʿAbdullāh b. al-Mubārak (raḥimahullāh) said, “How many a small act is elevated by an intention, and how many a great act is diminished by an intention.”
Similarly, an intention can transform an ordinary permissible action (e.g eating) into an act of worship. Our beloved Prophet ﷺ said, “Indeed you do not spend anything seeking the pleasure of Allah, except that you will be rewarded for it, including what you place in your wife’s mouth” (Bukhārī).
It is very easy to start a deed with sincere intentions, but then find half way through the deed that we are not doing it only for the sake of Allah. Sufyān al-Thawrī said, “I have never dealt with anything more difficult than my intention; it keeps changing on me.” Sahl al-Tustarī (raḥimahullāh) was asked, “What is the most difficult thing for the nafs to attain?” He replied, “Ikhlāṣ, because it (i.e. the nafs) does not get anything out of it.” Thus, we should constantly renew our intentions. We should be conscious of our intentions before we do a good deed, during it, and after it.
“Indeed your actions are few, so make the few that you have sincere.” – Maymūn b. Mahrān (raḥimahullāh)
What is your secret deed?
For years, the poor of Madinah would find food left on their doorsteps. They only found out who the ‘mystery’ donor was the day he passed away. It was none other than the great grandson of the Prophet ﷺ, Zayn al-ʿAbidīn ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn. When they bathed him, they saw marks on his back and shoulders due to him personally carrying the provisions to the home of the poor.
One of the most effective ways of building sincerity is to perform good deeds in secret, and inform nobody about them thereafter, not even in passing. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “Whoever amongst you is able to have hidden good deeds, then let him do so” (Musannaf b. Abī Shaybah).
Ibn al-Jawzī (raḥimahullāh) wrote, “How few are those who purely dedicate their good deeds to Allah, glory be to Him! Most people like their acts of worship to be known. Sufyān al-Thawrī (raḥimahullāh) used to say, ‘I have never relied on my public good deeds.’” ʿAbdullāh b. al-Mubārak (raḥimahullāh) said, “Whoever wishes to see the Face of his Creator (in Paradise), let him do good deeds and not inform anyone about them.”
“Action without sincerity and without confirming to the Sunnah is like a traveller who carries sand in his bag: carrying it burdens him and does not benefit him.” – Ibn al-Qayyim (raḥimahullāh)
Ayyūb al-Sakhtiyānī (raḥimahullāh) would stand the entire night in prayer. In the morning, he would raise his voice, making it out as though he had just woken up at that moment.
The wife of Ḥassān b. Sinān (raḥimahullāh) said that her husband would come and lie next to her and then try to fool her as the mother tries to fool her child. When he would see that she had fallen asleep, he would slip out of bed. He would then stand and pray. She says, “I said to him: ‘O Abū ʿAbd-Allah! How much will you torture yourself? Go easy on yourself.’ He replied: ‘Woe to you! Remain silent, for am I about to sleep, from which I will not awaken for a long time (i.e. sleep in the grave).’”
“The one who is sincere to his Lord is like the one who walks on sand. You don’t hear his footsteps, but you see his footprints (i.e. the impact of his deeds).” – ʿAbdullāh b. Masʿūd (radiy Allāhu ʿanhu)
Dāwūd b. Abī Hind (raḥimahullāh) fasted for an entire year, without his family knowing. He was a cloth merchant, and he would take his lunch with him to the market. On the way, he would give his lunch to the poor, and when he would return in the evening, he would eat with his family. His fellow merchants would think he ate at home, and his family would think that he ate in the market.
Allāhu Akbar! Imagine fasting for an entire year without your own family knowing!
We should try to do as many ‘secret deeds’ as possible. It may be additional night prayers, or charity, or helping someone. No doubt we will see the effects of such deeds in our lives, and we can only imagine the reward in the hereafter.
Imām al-Shāfiʿī (raḥimahullāh) said, “(Imām) Mālik (raḥimahullāh) said to me: ‘Muḥammad, fear Allah! When you are alone with Allah and you perform a good deed, then beware that anyone finds out about it. For Allah (ʿazza wa jall) only accepts that which is sincerely for His pleasure, as He said: Everything is going to perish except His Face (28:88) i.e. that which is done seeking His pleasure. Adhere to the station of knowledge, as it is attached to the station of Prophethood. This is what Rabīʿah b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān related to me.’ Then Mālik wept, and caused me to weep. I then realised that Allah did not elevate the status of Mālik, except through a secret which was between him and Allah.”
“Whoever would like to have peace in his heart, and be saved from the agonies of death and the terrors of the Day of Judgement, then let his private deeds be greater than his public ones.” – Imām Mālik (raḥimahullāh)
The Sincerity of Imam al-Mawardi (raḥimahullāh)
It has been said that Imām al-Māwardī (raḥimahullāh) did not disclose any of his writings during his life, and instead stored them in one place. When death approached him, he said to a person he trusted:
“All the books in such and such a place are my writings. I did not disclose them as I did not find my intention to be sincere. When you see that I am about to die, place your hand in my hand. If I hold on to it and squeeze it, then know that none of it has been accepted from me, in which case take the books and throw them in the River Tigris. However, if I stretch my hand out, then know that they have been accepted from me.”
The man said: “When he was in his final moments, I placed my hand in his hand, and he stretched his hand out. So I disclosed his books.” (Siyar Aʿlām al-Nubalā’)
The opposite of ikhlāṣ is riyā (showing off/ostentation) and sumʿah (seeking fame), both diseases of the heart. In an era of social media and constant ‘sharing’, we are more susceptible to riyā’, as we focus on impressing the watchful gaze of our followers instead of being watchful of the Gaze of Allah, al-Muhaymin (The Vigilant). Likewise, if we are involved in seeking knowledge (ʿilm) and spreading the message of Islam (daʿwah), we are more vulnerable to shayṭān’s attempts to pollute our efforts with riyā’. Thus, we should constantly guard and renew our intentions.
– Do I sometimes mention my good deeds – which could easily be kept as a secret – casually in passing, in conversation?
– Do I yearn for praise from others? Do I curate my social media profiles and status so that people hold a certain image of me?
– What ordinary everyday actions can I transform into actions of worship, by consciously changing my intention?
Let us end with the supplication of ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu):
اَللَّهُمَّ اجْعَلْ عَمَلِيْ كُلَّهُ صَالِحًا وَاجْعَلْهُ لِوَجْهِكَ خَالِصًا وَلَا تَجْعَلْ لِأَحَدٍ فِيْهِ شَيْئًا
O Allah, make all of my deeds righteous, and make them purely for Your sake; and do not let there be a share for anyone else in them.