In The Alchemy of Happiness, Imam Al-Ghazali writes: ”His five senses are like five doors opening on the external world; but, more wonderful than this, his heart has a window which opens on the unseen world of spirits. In the state of sleep, when the avenues of the senses are closed, this window is opened and man receives impressions from the unseen world and sometimes foreshadowings of the future. His heart is then like a mirror which reflects what is pictured in the Tablet of Fate. But, even in sleep, thoughts of worldly things dull this mirror, so, that the impressions it receives are not clear. After death, however, such thoughts vanish and things are seen in their naked reality, and the saying in the Qur’an is fulfilled: ‘We have lifted from you your veil, and keen is your sight today.’ ”
In that infinitude lays the richness we yearn for, the plenitude that is never narrowed or diminished or depreciated as it is the open-ended realm of God-consciousness
The worldly things that dull the mirror of the heart are most often associated with pride and self-aggrandizement —looking for worldly reward; that is, seeking praise from others or desiring wealth and material acquisition. When we desire to aggrandize the self, we feed the ego. Yet, the ego can never be satisfied. Ibn ‘Abbas reported that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “If the son of Adam possessed a valley full of gold, he would want to have two valleys; yet his mouth will only be filled by earth. Allah turns towards those who turn in repentance” (agreed upon). A valley full of gold won’t do it, yet we often try to find an abiding fulfillment with some fleeting thing such as food or drink or entertainment or drugs or socializing or fame.But we cannot get our fill; we cannot find enduring satisfaction in things that will perish. As Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim said, “O people who take pleasure in a life that will vanish— falling in love with a fading shadow is sheer foolishness.”
We can find satisfaction only by struggling to overcome the ego so that we pursue things of genuine value and lasting significance. Imam Abul Qasim Al-Qushayri, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “The spiritual warrior is he who breaks an idol; and the idol of each person is his [own] ego.” With efforts to overcome the ego, we are striving to attain a pure, unadulterated quality of heart — sincerity.
Seeing Things for What They Truly Are
The Qur’an says, “Truly We distinguished them with a distinct quality—remembrance of the Abode” (Qur’an 38:46).In this verse, the word “distinguished” and the phrase “distinct quality” both come from the same root as ikhlas which means “sincerity.” The root is “kha-la-sa”which holds the meaning “to be pure and unadulterated.” The more we rid the heart of egotistic tendencies and impulses, the more we attain to a pure, unadulterated quality of heart – a sincere heart. And the verse tells us that with sincerity we maintain remembrance of the Abode. This is the abode of reality – where all things are seen for what they truly are. While the veils that shroud the heart are only fully removed on the Day of Sorting Out, we can make great efforts to “see things for what they truly are,” as Imam Al-Ghazali says in the above-cited passage, “in their naked reality,” as the sight becomes increasingly keen.
The sincere soul finds its gratification in recognition and honoring by the One who guides to things of true plenitude
Removing the veils of ego — anger, envy, pride, greed and other lower states — we more and more grasp the principle of cause and effect; we understand in a deeper way what matters, what has genuine value and what has priority; we make more productive and responsible decisions; we respond rather than react; we gravitate to people and experiences which nourish and positively challenge us; we avoid or remove ourselves from those persons or situations which potentially can harm or debase us; we refrain from doing foolish, counterproductive, or self-destructive things. With this spiritual insight, we feel greater joy in seeing things for what they are rather than skewing them to suit the ego. We come to love the challenge of turning the self inside out, so to speak, to ferret out any defect. And we never lose sight of being kind and patient with ourselves no matter how strictly we strive for discipline and rigor in our efforts to transform the self and purify the heart of everything egotistic and false.
No False Pretense, No Manipulation
The dictionary defines the English word “sincerity” as being free of deceit, hypocrisy, or falseness. Without sincerity, we try to fool ourselves and others about who we are, wanting to appear more than we are: more accomplished, more wealthy, more pious, more knowledgeable, never-ending ego aggrandizement, just like wanting more valleys of gold. We fear being seen for what we really are (imperfect). Or we love to be perceived as something we are not (perfect). Instances of deceit, hypocrisy, or falseness can be very subtle, especially to our own selves! There is a long hadeeth Qudsi (a hadeeth which is divinely inspired but in the Prophet’s own words) which gives three examples of individuals who think they have lived their lives righteously, but whose “piety” is superficial and driven by the ego. They have deluded themselves and in each case they are consigned to the Fire. The third example in the hadeeth is
“…a man who Allah had made abundantly rich and granted him every kind of wealth. He will be brought and Allah will make known to him His favors and he (the man) will acknowledge them. Allah will say, ‘And what did you do about them.’ The man 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 to be described as a generous fellow.’ Orders will be given against him and he will be dragged face downward and thrown into Hell”(Muslim).
We can find satisfaction only by struggling to overcome the ego so that we pursue things of genuine value and lasting significance
The irony is that every person wants to appear sincere. But how many dedicate their lives to purifying the heart and presenting themselves exactly as they are, with no false pretense and no motive to manipulate or fool? Genuine sincerity is possible when we comprehend that being sincere in one’s deen, living for the sake of Allah SWT, encompasses living for the sake of goodness, honesty, fairness, trustworthiness, compassion, and every other virtue. The virtues become more delectable than food or drink or valleys of gold.
Sincerity comes from a heart so inclined to virtue and pure innocence, and thus can touch the hearts of others. Sincerity is believable; it is credible; a friend or spouse can feel it’s truthfulness and it’s power. Without sincerity, there is only pretense and foolery. Ultimately, insincerity is a betrayal of human potential and destiny — bringing us and others disappointment, trouble, and grief. Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim said, “Deeds without sincerity are like a traveler who carries in his water-jug dirt. The carrying of it burdens him and it brings no benefit.”
If we want to fill our hearts with sincerity, we must empty them of dishonesty, untrustworthiness, carelessness, deceit — all manner of impurity. This is done step-by-step as a lifelong dedication, examining and reflecting on our beliefs, attitudes, motives, words, and actions. As we correct our errors, hone our habits, and achieve our goals, faith is fortified and the elegance of sincerity is more and more manifest. The water-jug has been cleansed of all dirt and what remains is crystal clear, revitalizing water by which our own and others’ thirst for human maturity and magnanimity — a fully developed generosity and nobility of character — has been satisfied.
Fed by Humbleness, Energized by Taqwa
Humbleness feeds sincerity like water and nutrients from the earth being drawn up by roots of plants to feed their growth. A note of caution is to not confuse humbleness with a belittling or abasing of the self. A young man sought counseling for a social anxiety issue which made him feel self-conscious even walking down the street, overwhelmed at any social event with the feeling that others were critically watching him and could see his awkwardness. He shared with the counselor how he never felt authentic and when he tried to just be himself, it felt so unnatural. This young man lacked self-esteem, confidence, and feelings of worthiness. This is not what is meant by humbleness. Muslims are to be a “community of the middle way,” as Allah SWT says, “Thus We have made you ummat-al-wasat (a community of the middle way) that you may be a witness over all nations…” (Qur’an 2:143). The middle way for the positioning of self is humbleness, a moderate place between the two extremes of self-abasement and self-glorifying.
The etymology of the word “humble” is “on the ground,” from humus” earth.” That is exactly what human beings are, “of the earth” — “Now, indeed, We did create man out of the essence of clay” (Qur’an 23:12). In fact, the human body is made up of the elements of the earth’s crust, with 99 percent of its mass being composed of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. Until rather recently in history, people walked barefoot and slept on the ground. We are bioelectric beings whose health is positively affected by direct interaction with earth and nature. A natural therapy that is gaining in popularity is called “grounding” or “earthing” which involves reconnecting to the earth to restore and maintain the body’s proper electrical balance. This therapy is simply the practice at times of walking barefoot or sitting or lying on the ground, touching the earth from which we were created. We live in insulated buildings, wear shoes with thick rubber or plastic soles, and seldom touch the soil of the earth we live on. “Grounding” postulates that maintaining a connection to the earth has a healing power and can help to diminish inflammation, pain, fatigue, stress and other modern day stress-related ailments. We mention this as it establishes another connection to the root meaning of the word “humble” and adds an additional layer of noteworthiness to the idea that we must remain “grounded”, “down-to-earth,” humble in our attitudes and posturing in daily life.
And when we stay grounded, maintaining awareness of not only our origin, but also our status — servants of Allah SWT entrusted with vicegerency of the earth — we can then reach for the highest good and fulfill our destiny. Love and fear of God and virtuousness, as generators of God-consciousness (all aspects of taqwa), supply an enlightening and ardent energy to sincerity. If we metaphorically describe sincerity as a tree, then humbleness provides the nutrients to be drawn up by roots in the earth to feed the tree; and we can describe taqwa as the life-giving warmth and energy of the sun drawing the tree heavenward. Taqwa connects the soul to the divine presence, pulling the soul’s inclinations toward higher-minded awareness and uprightness of character, toward realization of its destiny — attaining residence in the eternal abode, in nearness to God.
Sincerity draws nutrients from below, from the earth, from humbleness; and draws warmth and energy from above by taqwa, God-consciousness, and remembrance of our highest potential destiny.
Sincerity “Without Wax”
An integral part of realizing that noble destiny is coming to terms with our weaknesses. If we are seeking to be sincere, we will not try to hide (especially from ourselves) our flaws and imperfections. Imam Shafa’i, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “Whoever bears testimony to his weaknesses, will be granted uprightness.” In fact, the more a person recognizes his or her own shortcomings, the more he will acknowledge his limitations as a human being, and this humbles and softens the heart. This is the way of sincerity. Our imperfections are opportunities to more carefully sculpt our habits, design our attitudes, and choose our thoughts and actions. Rather than pretending our imperfections don’t exist, we work on them and improve ourselves.
One popular explanation about the origin of the English word “sincere” is that it is derived from the Latin,sine = without, cera = wax. “Without wax” refers to the practice of dishonest sculptors in Rome who would try to cover up any mistakes they made while chipping away at white Carrera marble. If one chipped against the grain of the stone, he could create a crack. Even a hairline crack would be considered disastrous. So the dishonest sculptor would skillfully apply a soft, white wax to fill the crack and make the sculpture appear flawless, without defect. The people came to know about this dishonest practice and those who commissioned a marble sculpture would meticulously examine the piece before paying for it, accepting only work of the highest excellence — “sine cere,” that is, without wax.
Likewise with our flaws — the cracks in our character — we can fill them with wax and present ourselves with dishonesty, pretentiousness, and insincerity. Or we can allow the cracks to be what they are – testimony to our being human and imperfect; and opportunity to work on ourselves, to recognize our shortcomings, “to bear testimony to our weaknesses,” to be humble yet striving for excellence.
Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim said: “Satan rejoiced when Adam was ousted from Paradise, but he did not know that when a diver sinks into the sea, he collects pearls and then rises again. ”Ibn Al-Qayyim further explains this idea of falling into the depths of our imperfections as a means of attaining good: “One of the salaf (pious predecessors) said: ‘Indeed a servant commits a sin by which he enters Paradise; and another does a good deed by which he enters the Fire. ’It was asked: How is that? He replied: ‘The one who committed the sin, constantly thinks about it; which causes him to fear it, regret it, weep over it and feel ashamed in front of his Lord—the Most High—due to it. He stands before God, broken-hearted and with his head lowered in humility. So this sin is more beneficial to him than doing many acts of obedience, since it caused him to have humbleness—which leads to the servant’s happiness and success—to the extent that this sin becomes the cause for him entering Paradise. As for the doer of good, he does not consider this good a favor from his Lord upon him. Rather, he becomes arrogant and amazed with himself, saying: I have achieved such-and-such, and such-and-such. So this further increases him in self-adulation, pride and arrogance—such that this becomes the cause for his destruction.’
Ceasing Desire for the Praise from Others
So what does it mean to turn away from self-adulation, pride, and arrogance; to cease desiring the praisings of human beings? Don’t we all wish for recognition when we have done a good job or accomplished something? …or written an inspiring poem or designed a technology that makes life easier? …or campaigned to pass legislation that improves society? …or helped to found a non-profit organization that feeds the needy? Remember the young man mentioned above who lacked any sense of self-worthiness? Allah SWT does not ordain for us that lacking. He does not ask us to annihilate the self and its needs, but to elevate the covetous self to an aspiring self. God then ordains for us an abundance, a richness of self/soul: the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “Richness does not lie in the abundance of goods; richness is the richness of the soul” (Sahih Muslim). The sincere soul finds its gratification in recognition and honoring by the One who guides to things of true plenitude. But how do we get from here to there? How do we cease desiring the praisings of human beings?
When we stand in the balanced, moderate place of humbleness – grounded and knowing we are “of the earth” – and striving to attain and increase our taqwa, we are positioned to submerge the soul in the greatness of Allah SWT. By renouncing the ego and nourishing instead the heart, we can do a good job or accomplish something worthwhile or inspire others or innovate something that increases the general well-being or support charitable activities; and all the while the focus is on the goodness achieved and the pleasing of Allah SWT rather than on aggrandizing of the self. This is the open secret: the praise received, whether intended by the praiser or not, can be transmuted by the sincere heart into a declaration of “alhamdulillah,” all praise is due to Allah. It passes through the sincere heart like through a permeable membrane, to enter a boundless dimension.In that infinitude lays the richness we yearn for, the plenitude that is never narrowed or diminished or depreciated as it is the open-ended realm of God-consciousness rather than the confinement of self-centeredness.
With God-consciousness, we comprehend endless bounties — the expanse of earth with its lush pastures, majestic mountains, and vast deserts; the profound caring of kinship and marriage and friendship; the penetrating capacities of reason, intuition, and knowing; the marvels of language and communication; the passionate depths discovered in striving for meaning and purpose; the rightfulness provided by discernment and ethical choice; the miracle of consciousness, free will, creativity, and joy; the elegance of yearning and the grace of achievement — everything we need to survive, to know and understand, to attain fulfillment.
The egotist is blind to such bounties. He finds motivation and satisfaction in his self-centeredness, in being seen and lauded as hardworking or energetic or accomplished because flattery feeds his ego and puffs up his pride. Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, said: “The one who shows off has three characteristics: he is lazy when by himself, he is lively and energetic when with others; and he increases in his actions when he is praised and decreases in them when he is criticized.”The vitality of the sincere heart, contrariwise, is nourished from a fountainhead of bestowing, the Source of All-Goodness that guides away from puffery and all things insubstantial. The heart is like a treasure house and the show-off fills it with flattery and exaggerated opinion of self. The sincere one fills the treasure house of the heart with the pearls he collected upon diving into the depths. He took up diving because he knew that deep within each of his actions was an intention, and within that intention he would find either glory to self or glory to God. When he chose glory to God, he collected a pearl of spiritual wisdom, he humbled the self, nourished his sincerity, enriched his soul, and cultivated his God-consciousness. Then, in the midst of the collected pearls, the humble one realizes that within the heart is the greatest treasure of all— knowing Allah SWT. In the hadith Qudsi known as the “Hidden Treasure,” Prophet David (pbuh) asked Allah about the purpose of the creation. Allah reveals this purpose, saying, “I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known; I created the creation in order to be known.”
Sincerity: To Really Mean It!
To be sincere means being earnest, genuine, and real; “to really mean it” when we say or do or intend something. In the hadeeth Qudsi cited above about those whose “piety” is superficial and driven by ego, the three individuals mentioned in the full hadeeth are a “brave warrior,” a “scholar,” and a “generous fellow. ”Each one had defect in his intention. Their life activities might have looked like authentic bravery or scholarship or generosity. For sure, each attempted to appear (even to himself) sincere in his actions. But at the base was self-glory rather than glory for truth, justice, benevolence, and all things good which originate from and return to Allah SWT. When we reconcile two people who have a conflict, is it because we seek always to promote understanding, tolerance, and good will or because we find satisfaction in being called a peacemaker? When I make an intention to stop bickering with my spouse — do I really mean it? When I think that I have to try being more patient with my kids — do I really mean it? When I say that I want to improve my job performance — do I really mean it? Or are these words and sentiments that make me feel good for a moment and then I choose to indulge in argumentativeness or impatience or carelessness because they are habitually familiar and easier, more seemingly comfortable to me, than tolerance and patience and conscientiousness? How do I know if I really “mean it”? If I follow through, practice again and again behaving in the better manner, resolve to try another time when I fall or fail or give in to frustration. If I dedicate myself to the transformation of self as a lifelong endeavor — then I really “mean it,” with the help and the grace of Allah SWT.
Aligning One’s Life with What Endures
Acting, striving, setting goals, and accomplishing for the sake of Allah SWT is a choice to align one’s life with that which endures and brings ultimate contentment and gratification. The sincere heart yields itself to this higher good, no longer desiring a gratification of the lower self. One of the salaf said: “Whoever had a single instance in his lifetime which was purely and sincerely for the sake of Allah, the Exalted, will be saved, and this is due to the greatness of sincerity. ”The sincere heart yearns for the boundless joy of eternal greatness and ultimate contentment. That only results from striving for excellence, purifying the heart of everything false, base, and selfish so that the eye keeps sight of the final abode, the place of eternity. The sincere heart finds strength and inspiration and healing in this way. The beauty that we behold, then, is a beauty that endures beyond the aging and decay of created things. Imam Ibn al-Qayyim said, “Allah loves from His servant that he beautifies his tongue with the truth and his heart with sincerity and love, turning with repentance and reliance upon Allah.”
We can begin to clean the mirror of the heart to “reflect what is pictured in the Tablet of Fate.” For is it not the Tablet of Fate that tells the true story of our lives? What we did, what we intended, what lay deep within our hearts. How fervent was our devotion, how abiding our faith? How true was our trust in Allah SWT and His promise? If we knew the content of our soul’s narrative in its naked truth and could compare that to the soul’s elevated and distinguished potential, would we not do everything in our power to beautify our hearts with sincerity?
Some steps we can take are as follows:
We can keep in mind the fleeting nature of this world and work on freeing ourselves from attachment to its base allurements
We can stop trying to cover up our imperfections so as to appear better than we are; instead, we can work on those shortcomings and aim for excellence
We can stay grounded, maintaining awareness of our origin and status — humble servants of Allah SWT entrusted with vicegerency of the earth — we can then reach for the highest good and fulfill our destiny which is a noble destiny
When someone praises us, we can feel great about any goodness that was achieved, focusing on the aggrandizing of good rather than of the self, and then say alhamdulillah
Step-by-step, with lifelong dedication, we can strive to purify the heart of anger, envy, pride, greed and other impurities
We can realize that the true reward cannot come from human beings or from this world, but from the One who gives the truest reward
We can recognize our imperfections, our shortcomings and weaknesses, our propensity to sin, feeling sorrow for any wrongdoing and also hoping for redemption; this moves us to turn to Allah and ask for forgiveness and then follow that up with correcting of intention, attitude, thought, feeling, speech, action, or habit — whatever needs correcting.
We have a choice: take ultimate pleasure in a life that will vanish like a fading shadow; or we can strive to be of “…those who repent and correct (their lives), and hold fast unto God, and grow sincere in their faith in God alone: for these shall be one with the believers — and in time God will grant to all believers a mighty reward” (Qur’an 4:146).
We can dedicate our lives to making our hearts sincere so that we rejoice when Allah SWT says, “We have lifted from you your veil, and keen is your sight today” (Qur’an 50:22).