Sincerity is to seek the pleasure of Allah through actions that are free from worldly impurities. The actions of a sincere Muslim are uncontaminated by desires; she does not seek status, wealth, popularity, or the esteem of any creation. When deeds are performed to win people’s praise or to satisfy a petty desire, the heart becomes blind in essence. It is distracted by its desires and loses contact with Allah.
This cherished sincerity comes only as a fruit of complete dedication to the Creator, as expressed in the verse "Verily You alone do we worship, and from You alone do we seek help." Riya', the antithesis of sincerity, was considered a disastrous sin by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Shaddad ibn Aws, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “During the life of Prophet Muhammad, we used to consider riya’ the lesser shirk."
The Challenge of Sincerity
Cleansing actions from worldly desires and secondary motives is not an easy task. Sincerity is the triumph over selfishness and worldly inclinations, a feat that calls for more than just a passing effort. Besides purifying actions from riya’ and corruption, the Muslim must constantly be on guard lest the shaitan devise a new way to penetrate her heart.
Attaining sincerity is an accomplishment that has no worldly comparison. A righteous man was once asked, “What characteristic is most difficult for the soul to attain?”
“Sincerity,” he answered. “For it gains nothing in this world.”
“The most challenging thing in this world to attain is sincerity,” said one of the scholars of Islam. “How many times have I chased riya’ out of my heart only to have it reappear in a different guise?” Some scholars went even further to say, “Joy to the one who is able to take a single step forward, not desiring anything but the pleasure of Allah!”
There are some people who appear to work for Islam with a fervent, sincere vigor. You could not imagine, perhaps such a person could not imagine himself, that there would be any insincerity mixed with his actions. However, if you searched his heart, you would find that he seeks some benefit of worldly life in the guise of a religious worker. Or perhaps he earns no profit from his actions at the moment, but he yearns for the worldly gains tomorrow might bring.
Allah does not accept the actions of a distracted heart nor the defected work it fashions. He accepts only sincere actions directed entirely to Him.
The Benefits of Sincerity
In the Quran, Allah commands His servants to observe sincerity, especially in the verses revealed in Makkah. The Makkan verses refer often to sincerity because of their emphasis on the oneness of God, correct belief, and firm devotion to Islamic objectives. Allah says in the Quran to Prophet Muhammad:
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?
Let us reflect on the following verses that demand sincerity of the believer. Allah said to His Messenger:
Say: ‘It is Allah I serve, with my sincere (and exclusive) devotion. ‘Serve what you will besides him.’…
Say: 'Truly, my prayer and my service of sacrifice, my life and my death, are all for Allah, the Cherisher of the Worlds.' No partner has He: this I am commanded and I am the first of those to bow to His Will.
Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to Allah, does good, and follows the way of Abraham the true in faith?
…Whoever expects to meet his Lord, let him work righteousness, and, in the worship of his Lord, admit no one as partner.…Whoever expects to meet his Lord, let him work righteousness, and, in the worship of his Lord, admit no one as partner.
Criteria for Actions To be Accepted by Allah
Every righteous action must satisfy two conditions in order to be accepted by Allah:
It should be a sincere action with the correct intention.
It should be in accordance with the Sunnahand Islamic law, as derived from the Quran.
The first condition ensures the purity of the heart, which is hidden, and the second ensures the purity of the action itself, which is usually seen by others. This first condition of sincerity is explained in the saying of the Prophet, “Actions are but by intention and every man shall have but that which he intended.”
Thus, intentions determine the internal soundness of a righteous action. The second condition is identified in the hadith, “He who performs an act that is not in accordance with our religion will have it rejected.”
These two conditions for accepted actions are mentioned in several verses in the Quran:
Whoever submits his whole self to Allah, and is a doer of good, has grasped indeed the most trustworthy hand-hold.
Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to Allah, and does good…
In the latter verse, “submitting the whole self to Allah” is to purify intentions for Him. The “one who does good”—the Muhsin—is the one who strives to perfect the outer performance of his actions according to the Sunnah of the Prophet.
The scholar Al-Fudayl ibn Iyaadh illustrates the importance of both sincerity and correct performance in his explanation of the verse in the Quran, "…that He may try which of you is best in deed…" as follows:
The ‘best deeds’ are the ones that are both the most sincere and correct.” Someone asked Al-Fudayl, “O Abu Ali, what are the deeds that are most sincere and correct?” He answered, “A sincere action will not be accepted if it is not correct and a correct action will not be accepted if it is not sincere—it should be both sincere and correct. Sincerity means that the action is for Allah and correctness means that it is according to the Sunnah.” Then, Al-Fudayl read the verse: “… Whoever expects to meet his Lord, let him work righteousness, and, in the worship of his Lord, admit no one as a partner.” Qur'ran 18:11
We can learn from this explanation that sincere intentions are not enough: actions must also be performed according to the Quran and Sunnah. Similarly, an action that is performed in perfect accordance with the Quran and Sunnah is not accepted unless it is sincere and cleansed of all intentions other than for the sake of Allah. Below are two examples that illustrate the importance of sincerity:
Building a mosque for a corrupted purpose.
There is no doubt that the mosque is a vital cornerstone of the Muslim life; it is a house of worship, a school that spreads the teachings of Islam, and the social center of the Muslim community. Islam actively promotes the establishment and maintenance of mosques, promising a generous reward to those who do so. The Prophet said, “Whoever establishes a mosque seeking the pleasure of Allah, Allah will build for him a house in Paradise."
However, the hadith specifically mentions that only the one who seeks the pleasure his Lord, not any one who builds a mosque, wins the prize. A mosque established with a corrupted intention is like an enduring blight for whoever built it. Evil intentions spoil good work and turn its fruit into blemishes.
Allah revealed verses in regard to a mosque built with mischievous intentions at the time of the Prophet . The verses confirmed that corrupt intentions destroy all goodness in actions—the foundation crumbles without the support of virtue and taqwa.
And there are those who put up a mosque by way of mischief and infidelity—to disunite the Believers—and in preparation for one who has warred against Allah and His messenger aforetime. They will indeed swear that their intention is nothing but good; but Allah declares that they are certainly liars. Qur'an 9:107
Jihad for the sake of other than Allah.
Jihad for the sake of Allah is one of the finest actions that a Muslim can perform to bring himself closer to his Lord. In spite of this, even jihad is not accepted unless the intention is cleansed of all worldly distractions and impurities, such as seeking the admiration of people, showing off personal courage or defending a tribe or country.
It might happen that a person spends long hours in community projects and Islamic work, thinking that she is surely among the best in her dedication and commitment. However, it may be that her intention was not directed entirely towards Allah and was instead mixed with other objectives.
A man came to the Prophet and asked him, “What of the man who fights for wealth and praise?”
“There is nothing for him,” said the Prophet, repeating the sentence three times. Then he continued, “Allah does not accept actions except those that are sincere and purely for Him.”
Allah says in a hadith qudsi, “I am the absolute self-sufficient, beyond all need of an associate. Whoever performs a deed for someone else’s sake as well as Mine, I will leave him to the associate.”
Mahmoud ibn Lubayd narrated that the Prophet said, “The thing I fear for you the most is the minor shirk." "O Messenger of Allah, what is minor shirk?” asked the companions. “Riya’,” answered the Prophet. “Allah will say on the Day of Resurrection when people are receiving their rewards, ‘Go to those for whom you were showing off in the material world and seek your reward from them.’”
Ubayy ibn Ka’b related that the Messenger of Allah said,
Let the ummah rejoice with the promise of facility, brilliance, and loftiness in their religion, as well as strength on earth and victory. So whoever of them performs a deed of the Hereafter for the sake of this life, no share of it shall they get in the Hereafter.: Ahmad, Ibn Hibban in his collection of authentics.
These ahadith indicate that merely directing part of the intention towards other than Allah is enough to nullify any reward that may have come from the action. Mixing sincere and insincere intentions occurs when a person seeks the pleasure of Allah while at the same time fulfilling some worldly motivation, such as gaining wealth, status, or serving the ego. Allah does not like partial actions and hearts that have any room for other than Him. As explained by Ibn Ataa’ illah, a well-known scholar: “Allah does not accept a shared deed, and He does not draw nearer to a shared heart.”
We can think of a number of ulterior motives that may creep into our intentions for Islamic work. We may not always recognize them for what they are. Perhaps being part of a group and working for a cause gives us a sense of self-importance and utility. Some personalities thrive on being active and busy—their ardor for Islamic activism may stem partly from fulfilling this need. Maybe we enjoy the spotlight that intermittently shines on budding activists. Others may find good friendships in the arena of Islamic work.
These are not necessarily negative side effects of Islamic work—some are the blessings of being part of a group that is working solely for the sake of Allah. And that is the key—your intention must remain firmly focused on Allah, despite any “perks” that may lure you on the way. While we may love the thrill of being busy and on the go or deeply value the company of our fellow workers, those should not become the motivations behind our participation. If we find the arena of Islamic work suddenly empty of close friends, behind-the-scenes, and tedious to our inner ego, we should still muster the sincere intentions that supply us with enthusiasm and a give-it-all-I’ve-got attitude. Allah must always be the foremost and only goal in our minds—wherever we can gain His pleasure, that’s where we want to be.
The reward of an action is lost when intentions are mixed. This complete loss of reward occurs when the two motives behind a person’s action are equal: when she seeks worldly life and the Hereafter with the same eagerness. It is also obviously the case when she seeks a worldly objective more eagerly than the Hereafter.
On the other hand, when her motive to please Allah is greater than her worldly motive, we have a deep hope in the Grace of Allah that the deed will not be fully rejected. We hope that Allah, in His Mercy, will not totally deny the servant of all reward since the influence of the worldly desire on her heart was minimal. In this case, the insincere desire was not the motivating factor—had the worldly desire been out of reach, she would still have stepped forth to perform that good deed. Imam Al-Ghazali discussed this in his book, Al-Ihya’ fi Ulum ad-Din, in the chapter of sincerity. Allah says,
Allah is never unjust in the least degree. If there is any good performed, He doubles it and gives from His Own Presence a great reward. Qur'an 4:40
This is our hope—that Allah may give us a partial reward if our intentions were mixed. However, it should not be forgotten that the apparent meaning of the aforementioned ahadith is that any deed not performed purely for the sake of Allah will be denied all reward. Hence, we should exercise the highest level of caution and fear in our intentions.
As for the one who seeks nothing more than to please other people or to gain some material benefit, not only does he receive no reward, but he invokes the punishment of Allah. He chose to turn away from his Creator, chasing instead after others. He made them equals to Allah, and brought about his own destruction.
In a hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah, we are told the story of three people who will be cast into Hell-fire on the Day of Judgment: the soldier who fights so that people might admire his courage, the scholar who seeks knowledge so that people praise him for his wisdom, and the wealthy person who gives charity so that people admire his generosity. Riya’, showing off, destroyed the deeds of those three people and led them to Hell-fire. A similar lesson can be learned from the following verses:
Those who desire the life of the present and its glitter—to them we shall pay the price of their deeds therein without diminution. They are those for whom there is nothing in the Hereafter but the Fire: vain are the designs they frame therein, and of no effect are the deeds that they do. Qur'an 11:15-16
An action that has no sincerity is like a barren field, a body without a soul. Allah wants the intention behind our actions more than the form. An action unaccompanied by sincerity is thrown back at its owner like counterfeit bills rejected by a wary banker. The Prophet said, “Allah does not look at your forms or appearance. Rather, He looks at what is in your hearts.”[^24] Allah also says in the Quran to the pilgrims who sacrifice during Hajj:
"It is not the meat nor the blood [of the sacrifice] that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him. Qur'an 22:37
Islam’s strong emphasis on sincerity is not harsh or meaningless—life itself will not function nor reach for its lofty ideals without the actions of sincere people. The misery that afflicts people throughout the world is wrought by insincere individuals who do not care that they tread on the well-being of others, so long as their own happiness is secure. In pursuit of the meager enjoyments of the world, it does not bother them that they destroy lives, reduce buildings to rubble, turn houses into graves, and life into death. Some good may be performed by philanthropists or famous people who want only some good press or a moment in the spotlight. Those who run after personal fame and status often do so at the expense of their neighbors and countrymen. Such individuals gain only a short-lived applause and the admiration of ignorant crowds.
Showing off and seeking the admiration of others.
Shirk means to associate partners in the worship of God.
The Arabic name for the devil or satan who tempts humans. In Islam, every individual is accountable for his own actions; the whisperings of satan are no excuse to be led astray.
The example set by Prophet Muhammad.
A hadith is a saying of Prophet Muhammad. The sayings of Prophet Muhammad were meticulously documented and recorded during and after his death.
Reported in Sahih Muslim.
Being God-conscious, fearful, and filled with humility before God.
Jihad literally means struggle. In Islam, it refers to the internal struggle of self-improvement, as well as the external struggles of defending those who are oppressed, working for social justice, and inviting others to the religion of Islam.
A saying of the Prophet in which he conveys something that Allah said.