By: Abu Abbaad

Sizing up Sincerity

As one prepares their luggage to meet the Lord of the worlds, there is nothing more vital to check for than ikhlâs (sincerity). The Most High says:

“…So whoever is hopeful for the Meeting with his Lord – let him do righteous work and not associate in the worship of his Lord anyone.” [Surah Al-Kahf, Verse 110]

This verse embodies the two pillars of acceptance. Whoever hopes to be accepted by his Maker and Master, and hopes to live for eternity in His Company, must ensure these two ingredients are available:

  • Sincerity: namely that none is associated alongside Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), in our motives.
  • Righteous Work: namely what has been defined as correct and righteous by the Messenger, Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him).

Upon reflection, these are realized as the summary of Islam, and the essence behind its 1st pillar: None is worthy of worship but Allah (sincerity), and Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is the Messenger of Allah (righteousness defined).

However, the more important of these two pillars is Ikhlâs, for it can sometimes compensate for other things, but nothing can compensate for it. As a scholar said, “Allah may accept from you half an action, but will not accept from you half an intention.” Others illustrated the disparity by saying, “An imperfect action that was done with sincerity is like a fisherman who brings a flawed net to a pond of fish. As for the perfect action what was performed without sincerity, it is like a fisherman who brings a perfect net to a pond without fish.” The first may possibly catch some fish, despite the flawed apparatus, whereas there is no chance for the second to catch any, regardless of how flawless his equipment is.

Surely this does not imply undermining the second pillar whatsoever, but simply aims to size things up correctly. In fact, true sincerity will necessitate that one follow the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him).If a person is genuinely seeking the pleasure of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), he/she will inquire as to what actually pleases Him, and will in turn discover that it is nothing but the perfect path of His messenger, Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him).

Sincerity Defined

Linguistically, ikhlâs means to separate and distinguish. Thus, Yahya ibn Mu'adh ar-Râzi said, “Ikhlâs is to filter the actions from every flaw, just as milk is filtered out from between blood and dung.” In that, he was referring to the words of the Most High:

…We give you drink from what is in their bellies – from between excretions and blood – milk that is khâlis (pure), palatable to the drinkers. [Surah An-Nahl, Verse 66]

The benefit of knowing the origins of this term, and not settling for just the translation “sincerity,” lies in realizing that ikhlâs is an active process, a laborious task, and an uphill climb. It literally means to strip our motives of anything but the pleasure of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), and frankly, that is unnatural! The original, raw nature of the human being is that he pursues his personal interests, and loves to be recognized, and enjoys nothing more than the mention of his own name. Therefore, extracting that egotistical drive is comparable to pulling out a wisdom tooth which is naturally, originally there. Thus, one of the salaf used to say, “Nothing is more difficult on the inner-self than ikhlâs, for it has no share of it.” In other words, the inner self sees that it gets nothing out of it (at first glance!), so why agree to it?

Realizing its Difficulty

Hence, the first step towards sincerity is coming to terms with its difficulty, and acknowledging that acquiring, keeping, and retrieving ikhlâs, is a life-long mission that ends with your last breath. This was the vigilant approach of the best generations. Consider how Sufyân ath-Thawri, who filled this planet with his knowledge, devotion, and piety, has said, “I never remedied anything more difficult on me than my intention, and it's constantly overturning on me.” Similarly, when Imâm Ahmad ibn Hanbal was asked regarding his countless journeys and trials in pursuit and defense of the religious sciences, he said, “As for it being all for Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), that is a difficult claim.” Another of the salaf said, “A moment of ikhlâs entails an eternity of salvation, but ikhlâs is indeed difficult.”

The Conspiracies of the Inner-Self

What illustrates the difficulty of ikhlâs, are the layers of false motives conspired by the inner-self; many of which are almost undetectable.  Our scholars have mentioned – I believe this was Abu Hâmid al-Ghazâli – how most people presume that insincerity only lies in seeking praise from the people, while this is only the simplest, most obvious form of “showing off.” He argues that, in reality, riyâ' (showing off) comes in four degrees, each uglier and stealthier than the one before it:

  • Acting in front of people, in order to earn their praise. An example of this is beautifying the prayer due to the presence of onlookers. A sign of this form of riyâ' is that the action stops or changes when such an audience is absent.
  • Acting in private, while hoping to be seen by the people. An example of this is a person performing night prayers in seclusion, while wishing that someone discovers his dedication. A sign of this form of riyâ' is that s/he becomes happy when they are stumbled upon, or quit the act when they are not acknowledged for it.
  • Acting in private, in order to feel self-righteous. An example of this is a person lengthening their prayer in private, so as not to feel guilty and hypocritical when beautifying his prayers for the onlookers. A sign of this form of riyâ' is that a person is only diligent with the acts of worship that have a public counterpart.
  • Acting in private, to acquire status in the hearts. An example of this is a person praying at night, so that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) would turn the people towards him in veneration by day. A sign of this form of riyâ' is that a person becomes angry when not distinguished, for his conceited heart feels entitled to the utmost reverence because of how “near” it is to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He).

None of these are ikhlâs, for the first three sought to impress the people or themselves, and the fourth sought Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) as the means and the people as the goal (making it the most pitiful form!).

Ruined without ar-Rahmân (the Most Merciful)

After considering these stealthy insinuations that flow through the veins of the human being, one now understands the importance of this Prophetic supplication:

اللهم إني أعوذ بك أن أشرك بك وأنا أعلم وأستغفرك لما لا أعلم

allâhumma inny a 'oodhu bika an ushrika bika wa ana a'lam, wa astaghfiruka li mâ lâ a'lam

O Allah! I seek refuge in You from associating [others] with You while I know, and I seek Your forgiveness for when I don't know. [Bukhari; al-Adab al-Mufrad (551)]

This brilliant hadith contains two gems that must be picked up for our quest in pursuit of ikhlâs:

  • Fear: Via remembering that there are times when we do in fact associate others with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) without realizing it.
  • Hope: Via remembering that by earnestly calling upon Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) with this du'â', those barely discernible poisons can be forgiven.

So let that be our second step towards sincerity, relying upon Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) to rescue us from this tangled web that prevents us from the sweetness of pleasing Him, the bliss of feeling near to Him, and the ecstasy of finally seeing Him.

 

24 Responses

  1. melanie

    Jazaka Allah Khayrun for the beautiful and important reminders, having Iklaas is a part of our daily struggle. May Allah give us success in having true Iklaas.

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  2. Sarah

    I found the distinguishing between the different forms of riya to be quite frightening! Especially the third one – I have definitely beautified my prayer in private, after admonishing myself for praying nicely when people are around but not in front of Allah SWT alone. I thought that I was fighting riya when I did this!

    And if riya is so indiscernible, then how do we protect ourselves and our deeds from it? It seems really terrifying to me that in this way, all of our good deeds and striving will be lost for something we couldn’t help.

    I also find it difficult to distinguish between riya and self-worth and praise. Does it become wrong to praise someone, or to treasure someone’s kind words to you, because it *might* be riya? This doesn’t seem at all fair to me!

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    • Abu Abbaad

      Assalamu Alaykum;

      May Allah increase you in strength, knowledge, sincerity, and righteousness.
      – It should be frightening! But it shouldn’t be debilitating… The point is to make us extra vigilant and try our best to weed out riya’ from our lives, not hopeless in ever attaining ikhlaas. Just to elucidate what I mentioned in the article: these are “signs” of riyaa’, but not necessarily acts of riya’! And I will give a quick demonstration of what you referred to of beautifying the prayer in public vs. in private:

      – In the article, I said beautifying the prayer in public for the onlookers is riyaa’. This is true, but only when you want the praise of the onlookers, for it’s possible that someone may beautify his prayers in public to teach others, just as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said to Malik ibn al-Huwayrith: “Pray as you’ve seen me pray.” [al-Bukhari] In that case, he was “showing others” for Allah. However, it’s easy to dismiss the notion of riyaa’ and say I’m doing it to be a good role model, but is that really your motive? A more common example: publicizing your donation motivates others, and in that case it’s for Allah, but is that really why you publicized it? That vigilance is the whole point of the article.

      – In the article, I said beautifying the prayer in private to ward off guilt is riyaa’. This is true, but only when you did so “in order that you be at ease with beautifying in public.” There are times, however, when you simply pray better in public because you are encouraged by the righteousness around you, and more susceptible to laziness in private, because shaytan eats the stray sheep. How can I know whether my struggles in private are due to laziness or because there are no praisers around? Ibn Qudamah (I think) gives a beautiful litmus test for this, he says: place yourself somewhere where you can see them worship but they can’t see you (example: crack your tent open in i’tikaf to see others, while you’re still hidden from their eyes) and see if you are motivated to be more devoted than at home. If yes, then know its a motivation for reward that drives you. If not, then know that it was their gaze that you sought.

      Basically, and I repeat, the point is to give sincerity the time of day – really spend time with these litmus tests, and more on this state of “being introspective” in the following article insha Allah.

      – As for praise, our Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said to a man that praised another in his face, “You have cut your friend’s neck.” In another hadith, he said, “Whoever is pleased that men stand for him in salutation, let him reserve his seat in the fire.” The gist of these two hadith(s) is that a person should minimize praise of others, especially to their face, or on their facebook :-), and especially when such a person can be phased by such praise (due to who is saying it, or how many people are saying it, or what compliments are being said). The wisdom in that, as you see in the second hadith, is that once a person starts being “pleased” and loving such veneration, that is the onset of their doom. May Allah protect us and you. Of course, we should differentiate between praise and gratitude, for whoever doesn’t thank the people hasn’t thanked Allah, and we should know that praise is sometimes necessary, for we must distinguish those qualified so the ummah will know who its scholars are (but still, not excessively).

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      • Melanie

        Brother, is it possible that sometimes we start off with the right intention only to have it become corrupted?? I know you said vigilance but I too would like a simple checklist of things we could do to increase sincerity.
        Also, how do distinguish those qualified?? By what kind of degrees they have or their actions, what if the two do not match up?? When are we ever able to judge??

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      • Abu Abbaad

        The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Actions are but by intentions.” In another hadith, he also said, “Actions are but by their seals.” In other words, one must safeguard their intention throughout, as the sincerity could be polluted during the act (by starting for Allah, then showing off during), and sometime even after the act (by doing it for Allah, then bragging of it,later).
        More tips for the your “checklist” in the next article insha Allah.

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    • Abu Abbaad

      Forgive me, one last point…

      As for fearing to “lose your deeds for something you cannot help” – you are absolutely right; that is totally unfair. And as you know, Allah is never unfair. He never holds a soul liable beyond its capacity. Therefore, once a person genuinely tries his best to avoid riya’, then whatever is beyond his “best” is forgivable, for being beyond their capacity. And if you consider the duaa’ in the article that our Prophet taught, you will realize that we are asking forgiveness for the times we are insincere and don’t realize. The scholars said, if this duaa’ would not be accepted, it would be meaningless – therefore, the times we truly don’t realize despite trying our best to realize, Allah will bury those with His matchless grace.

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    • O H

      @Sarah: Assalamu Alaykum. I am not sure whether this will hep but one of the great scholars of the past Ibrahim Nakha’ee is reported to have said: “When Shaytaan comes to you whilst you are engaged in prayer and says “You are showing off”, increase it in length”. Another trick of Satan is for him to make us feel hopeless, over-panicky and leave off good deeds! it’s a fine balance-May Allaah help us all in dealing with this, Ameen

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  3. Reed

    The words “sincerity” and “intention” seem to be used interchangeably as if they had the same meaning. Can you clarify their relationship to each other?

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    • Zaheer

      As-salaamu ‘alaykum

      I’m not sure where the author has used the words interchangeably – the article seems to be stressing the importance of sincerity of intention. In any event, as the article explained, the linguistic root of ‘ikhlas’ is a bit more subtle than just ‘sincerity’.

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      • Reed

        He cites “Sufyân ath-Thawri as saying, “I never remedied anything more difficult on me than my intention” and “Another of the salaf said, “A moment of ikhlâs entails an eternity of salvation, but ikhlâs is indeed difficult.”

        So intention is difficult and ikhlas is difficult. What is the relationship between them?

        You may be right that he’s talking about “sincerity of intention,” but it’s not that clear to me because he began with sincerity deriving from not associating others with Allah (SWT), which doesn’t seem to need to include the concept of intention.

        Also I’m not sure sincerity is the best translation of ikhlas. Looking in the dictionary, I see that sincerity has the meaning of being free from deceit, but there’s an archaic meaning of being pure. So, when the author uses this definition of ikhlas: “Ikhlâs is to filter the actions from every flaw, just as milk is filtered out from between blood and dung.” he seems to be using the archaic meaning, “purity”, which would have the verb form of “purify,” which has the same meaning as “filter the actions from every flaw.” Is there some reason not to use the word “purity”?

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      • Abu Abbaad

        Sincerity can be interchanged with intention, when you mean to say “a pure intention.” In other words, intentions are what drive you, and they could be could be good and bad, whereas sincerity is exclusive to the good. As for what term to use in English, that can be debated without any hard feelings. The most important element here is to recognize that ikhlaas is the process of removal, meaning the filtration of a thing. Purity is the end result of ikhlaas, linguistically speaking. The reason I sought to establish that is – just as the article mentions – we must realize that our intentions/motives are originally polluted, or call it challenged, and must be coped with and filtered, so we can reach “purity.” So ikhlaas (separation/filtration) is the means, and purity is the outcome, but it is common to use the means and goal interchangeably in language – as you know – and that is common throughout the Qur’an and Sunnah. For instance, on gender relations, the Prophet (saws) said, “The in-laws are death.” As some scholars infer, that means they could lead to death (via the legal punishment), because adultery usually happens with those whom you put your guard down with. But the point being, they are a means to death, yet were called death (the outcome).

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  4. Syma

    JazakAllah for this much needed article.

    Would be grateful if you could share practical ways to improve sincerity and perform acts of worship that are filled with Ikhlaas.

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    • Abu Abbaad

      Wa Iyyaakum,

      Two practical ways are mentioned in the article :-)
      Three more ways in the forthcoming article insha Allah :-)

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  5. Riz Khan

    Mashaallah Brother!

    I would wait for the forthcoming article. May Allah forgive all our sins. (Ameen)

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  6. O H

    Tabarak Allaah great article and very important dua.

    One of the Salaf (righteous predecessor) said the following which is sort of linked to “Acting in private, in order to feel self-righteous.”

    “Whoever sees sincerity in his sincerity, his sincerity is itself in need of sincerity. The destruction of every sincere person lies in his sincerity to the extent that he sees sincerity in himself. When he abandons seeing sincerity in himself he will be sincere and purified.”

    (Check http://www.kalamullah.com/hearts22.html for more sayings of the salaf)

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    • Zaheer

      As-salaamu ‘alaykum

      This is an even subtler type of insincerity – because, it preys upon the fact that those who wish to be sincere will constantly be on the lookout for the sincerity of their intentions and actions. As such, they will be comparing the sincerity of these to what they did in the past. Therefore, if one judges that one is making progress, already an admission of greater sincerity has been made. From there it is a slippery slope to full-blown belief in one’s sincerity.

      The flip-side to this is that denying one’s sincerity, or refusing to acknowledge progress/increase of it, can lead to depression/hopelessness. So I think it has a lot to do with perspective – it’s possible to inspire oneself by always thinking: “my intention/belief/deed is not sincere enough”, without a sense of hopelessness or a sense of false modesty (another trick of Shaytaan and the nafs).

      May Allah assist us in this most important of spiritual endeavours, Ameen.

      (Side-note: it would be interesting to know which of the salaf uttered the quoted statement. The linked page and I’m assuming the book it is taken from, simply states that “One of them said”)

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      • Abu Abbaad

        Wa Alaykum Assalam;

        – We need to remember that those who said “whoever notices sincerity in his sincerity is flawed in his sincerity” – or anything to that effect – did not mean a person shouldn’t ever feel sincere. Rather, the point is that one shouldn’t be absolutely positive that they are sincere. The reason being is that we know from the Sunnah, and from personal experience, that there are acts in our lives which we know we were more sincere in than others. For example, the Messenger of Allah (saws) asked Bilal what is your “most hopeful good deed” – and he responded that he has no good deed that he is more hopeful in than praying nafl after every wudoo’. That is the key: we should be hopeful (not positive) that an act is sincere, because we were vigilant of Allah before, during, and after it. But without that vigilance, we should not sedate our egos by saying, don’t worry it was sincere.
        – I agree, striking that balance is key, or else we become easy prey for shaytan, whereby he either gets us to be hopeless and stop trying good deeds, or we do them without ensuring the internal devotion has accompanied the external dedication.
        And Allah knows best.

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      • O H

        @Zaheer. I think the source as mentioned is as follows:Collected by Shaykh Husayn al-‘Awaa’ishah from ‘Ihyaa’ ‘Uloom ud-Deen’ of al-Ghazaali, ‘Mukhtasar Minhaaj ul-Qaasideen’ of Ibn Qudaamah and ‘az-Zuhd’ of ‘Abdullaah Ibn al-Mubaarak

        Insha Allaah it is a reliable quote and the meaning/implication of the quote doesn’t contradict the principles of the deen as explained by Br Abu Abbaad

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  7. muslimah

    Assalaamu alaykum warahmatullah

    Do you have any advice on how to attain sincerity when seeking forgiveness/adhkar

    What if a person does it and in theory they believe they feel regret but they feel a hard heart when they do it and not doing so “tadharru’aa”
    And how can this feeling be remedied when saying any dua…the person feels/says they want to be sincere but they dont feel the istighfar..and with adhkar feels nothing in their heart

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    • Abu Abbaad

      Wa Alaykum Assalam Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatuh;

      Dhikr (in all its forms) falls upon the heart like drops of fresh water. One drop may cleanse a bit of the grime, but that bit is sometimes unnoticeable. However, repeating that dose without tiring will eventually puncture the solid seal which entraps the heart, just as drops of water eventually puncture stone. Therefore, consistently trying is key. We all know the Prophet (saws) sought forgiveness a hundred times a day, and there is no way the one (saws) who taught us to make duaa with an attentive heart would be seeking forgiveness without an attentive heart. Here is a consequent guarantee: no one seeks forgiveness a) 100x a day, b) consistently, and c) with an attentive heart – will suffer from this for long. Very soon will their heart soften, and eye be quick to tear, and feel an intimate nearness to Allah, the Most Merciful. Another few tips from the Sunnah:

      – Repeat your every duaa twice or thrice.
      – Whisper your duaa (don’t yell, and don’t only say with your heart)
      – Know the meanings of what you’re saying

      Not sure if links are allowed on MuslimMatters, so I would just request you search up “the wings of duaa” on youtube for this same author. I pray that will be of benefit to us and you both. And Allah knows best.

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