All praises are for Allah, The Almighty, and may His peace and blessing be upon His true servant and final Messenger Muhammad, on his Companions, and on his household.
This topic, “purifying your intentions,” is a basic one and much talked about, as it permeates our everyday lives and all of our acts of ibaadah (worship). As such, it is never too much to be reminded of purifying the intentions. After all, it is the level of purity of intention that gives weight to a deed and which, in turn, will make the “scales” heavy on the Day of Judgment so that the deed gets the fullest reward. The opposite is also true. If the sincerity is light, so will be the deeds, the scales, and the reward.
Deen Is Sincerity
First and foremost, the entire deen (religion) is built upon sincerity and purification of intention. Deen is not how good one looks or how one performs. Indeed, everyone should strive for excellence in whatever has to be done, as Rasoolullah (peace be upon him) said: “Verily, Allah has prescribed excellence in everything…” (Muslim). But this excellence must come with pure intention.
In another hadith narrated by Tameem Ad-Daari (RA), Rasoolullah (pbuh) said: “Religion is sincerity. We asked to whom and the Prophet (pbuh) said ‘To Allah, His book, and to his Messenger, and to the Muslims, and to the common folk of the Muslims” (Muslim). Here the words used are “ad-deenu naseehah,” roughly translated as “religion is sincerity.” Rasoolullah (pbuh) tells us that there are five aspects to this, the first of which is sincerity to Allah SWT.
Sincerity to Allah SWT means there are certain requirements, and to assess our fulfilling of these requirements, we should try to answer some self-examining questions when getting ready to take action for Allah SWT. Here are examples of such questions:
• Is the action done sincerely for Allah SWT alone?
• Is the action done for the pleasure of Allah SWT alone?
• Is the action done for the sake of Allah in the best possible way?
• Is the action done, even partially, to be seen or talked about by others?
Remember, one should not give that which is flawed or left over for Allah SWT’s sake. Such actions Allah SWT describes in Suratul Baqarah: “O you who have believed, spend from the good things which you have earned and from that which We have produced for you from the earth. And do not aim at getting anything which is bad, in order that out of it you may give away something, while you would not take it [yourself] except with closed eyes. And know that Allah is free of need and Praiseworthy” (2:267).
Ali (RA) said, “Do not be concerned with the smallness of a deed; rather be concerned with the acceptance of that deed.” Obviously, acceptance means that it is done purely and sincerely for Allah SWT. Imam Aḥmad bin Hanbal said, “Before you do anything, check your intention. Ask yourself before performing an action, ‘Is this for the sake of Allah SWT?’”
Actions Are by Intentions
Every book of hadith or fiqh begins with this hadith: It is narrated on the authority of Amir al-Mu’minin (Leader of the Believers), Abu Hafs ‘Umar bin al-Khattab (RA), who said: “I heard the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), say, ’Actions are according to intentions, and everyone will get what was intended. Whoever migrates with an intention for Allah and His messenger, the migration will be for the sake of Allah and his Messenger. And whoever migrates for worldly gain or to marry a woman, then his migration will be for the sake of whatever he migrated for’” (related by Bukhari and Muslim).
We can understand from this hadith that while the outward action may seem fair and good, like migrating in order to marry a woman, if that action is not subsumed by the more important intention of migrating for the sake of Allah SWT, then that action will be only for the sake of the outward intention (i.e., marrying a woman). The deeper one goes in examining his intentions, the more he might find that while he thinks he is doing something for the sake of Allah SWT, his more outward pursuit of some tangible benefit is holding sway.
Also, the outward action has the same stress and tiredness of the migration. Imagine two people migrating to get married. Both persons have to climb the mountains and cross the desert. Both might be in the same caravan, but one walks for Allah SWT’s sake alone and so he seeks to marry to fulfill his religion and please Allah, and the other to get married to a woman solely for his own personal, human reasons. These two migrations do not have the same value and do not get the same reward.
How about a Masjid full of worshippers? All the worshippers stand, bow, prostrate, and sit. All the worshippers stand in line, but how sincere the intention of each man or woman will determine the level of the reward. Rasoolullah (pbuh) said, “A person may offer a prayer and nothing of it is recorded for him except one tenth of it, one ninth of it, one eighth of it, one seventh of it, one sixth of it, one fifth of it, one quarter of it, one third of it, or half of it” (this hadith is classed as hasan). This should not be a reason to be despondent, rather a reason to examine the intention when doing acts of worship.
Purifying the Intention Is a Part of Aqeedah (Matters of Belief and Faith)
Allah SWT says in the Qur’an, “…whoever hopes for the meeting with his Lord, let him work righteousness and associate none as a partner in the worship of his Lord” (18:110). In this verse, Allah SWT directs mankind to prepare for meeting Him by fulfilling two conditions:
1. Working righteousness: a deed must be saalih (righteous) by following the guidance of Rasoolullah (pbuh) and be within the framework of deen.
2. Worshipping the Lord: there should be no shirk or association of any partner with Allah SWT.
With regard to both, working righteousness and worshipping the Lord, the focus must be on doing any act of good or any act of worship correctly in the outward sense and, at the same time, on being sincere to the core. Rasoolullah (pbuh) sent a man to redo his salaah because he did not perform it properly, and that is the outward aspect of acts of worship. But more importantly, the inner aspect, the intention and the degree of sincerity, can a reason for the deed to be accepted or rejected. The inner self is such that no one can see it except Allah SWT. Oftentimes, the individual can be blinded by the lower nafs and fail to see what obstructs his deed from being accepted.
Struggling to Achieve Sincerity — Beware of the Ego
The battle to purify the intentions should not be taken lightly. It is a big struggle. Ikhlaas (sincerity) means that nothing should come between you and Allah SWT in your actions. The struggle is to strive to make one’s emotions, speech, and actions free from all impurities. To achieve ikhlaas, one has to battle one’s own ego as well as the whispers of Shaitaan.
Sahl bin Abdullah (died 896 CE, Basra, Iraq) said, “There is nothing tougher upon the soul than ikhlaas. How many times have I tried to extinguish riyaa (showing off) from my heart and it is as if it has appeared in a different color!”
One of the challenges of doing good deeds is to maintain sincerity for Allah SWT alone, throughout that deed. So, before the action, there is the niyah (intention); during the action there is the necessity of ittiba’ (adhering to the teachings of Qur’an and following the guidance of Rasoolullah (pbuh); and after the action there is shukr (thanking Allah SWT for His guidance, for being able to complete the act, and for not boasting about it).
Some of the root causes of insincerity are 1) being overly concerned about others’ perceptions and the desire to make oneself appear good in the eyes of others. This is a heart that loves praise and hates criticism. It seeks being glorified by others; 2) yearning to obtain what which is possessed by other people.
Abu Hurairah (RA) narrated the following:
“I heard The Prophet of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, say: ‘The first of people against whom judgment will be pronounced on the Day of Resurrection will be a man who died a martyr. He will be brought, and Allah will make known to him His favors and he will recognize them. [The Almighty] will say: And what did you do about them? He will say: I fought for you until I died a martyr. He will say: You have lied. You did but fight that it might be said [of you]: He is courageous. And so, it was said. Then he will be ordered to be dragged along on his face until he is cast into Hellfire.
‘[Another] will be a man who studied [religious] knowledge and taught it and who used to recite the Quran. He will be brought, and Allah will make known to him His favors and he will recognize them. [The Almighty] will say: And what did you do about them? He will say: I studied [religious] knowledge and I taught it and I recited the Quran for Your sake. He will say: You have lied. You did but study [religious] knowledge that it might be said [of you]: He is learned. And you recited the Quran that it might be said [of you]: He is a reciter. And so, it was said. Then he will be ordered to be dragged along on his face until he is cast into Hellfire.
‘[Another] will be a man whom Allah had made rich and to whom He had given all kinds of wealth. He will be brought, and Allah will make known to him His favors and he will recognize them. [The Almighty] will say: And what did you do about them? He will say: I left no path [untrodden] in which You like money to be spent for Your sake. He will say: You have lied. You did but do so that it might be said [of you]: He is open-handed. And so, it was said. Then he will be ordered to be dragged along on his face until he is cast into Hellfire’” (related by Muslim, at-Tirmidhi, and an-Nasa’i).
The three men represent, respectively, those who look like they are willing to give of their lives, those who look like they are willing to give their time to become learned, and those who look like they spend of their wealth. All three thought they were taking action for the sake of Allah SWT. But they deceived themselves, falling victim to insincerity. The three represent people who allow their lower nafs/ego to dominate them, even when they think they are acting with sincerity and pure intention.
Train the Soul Not to Crave Praise or Admiration:
• Develop firm knowledge and conviction that there is no individual who can confer benefit upon you, and that the only true honor comes from Allah SWT being pleased with you.
• Likewise, there is no individual who can inflict damage upon or disgrace you except Allah SWT.
Train the Soul Not to Crave What People Possess:
• Develop firm knowledge and conviction that Allah SWT alone possesses the treasures that are supreme and everlasting. What people possess is only temporary.
• Likewise, know with conviction that no earthly pleasure or material possession can compare with the treasures that Allah SWT alone can bestow upon a person.
These reminders are necessary as they help when the servant stands in front of the Creator on the Day of Judgment to answer for one after the other of his or her deeds. So, remember when we perform our good deeds, let us be cognizant that the intention needs to be purified. May Allah SWT facilitate for us the purifying of our intentions and the capacity to maintain sincerity in all that we do!