Sincerity leaves an imprint on the personality and lifestyle of a Muslim. It affects the way she looks at herself and those around her. Described in this chapter are some of the signs of a sincere heart.
A sincere person avoids having her deeds and accomplishments broadcasted to other people. Such a person trusts that Allah accepts all actions, the secret and the public, and knows that the admiration of other people will not help her in front of Allah on the Day of Judgment. Sometimes, avoiding prominence, status, and the community spotlight can be a greater sacrifice than abstaining from wealth and other desires. Imam Shihab Az-Zuhri said, “We have seen nothing renounced by fewer people than leadership. You would see a man who readily abandons the pleasures of food and wealth, but when he loses a position of leadership, he becomes angry and hostile.”
Many of the pious scholars and righteous people feared that the charm of publicity and prominence would ruin their hearts and warned their students of its dangers. Descriptions of the dangers of fame and status are found in many of the early scholarly works, including Abul Qasim Al-Qushairi’s Risalah, Abi Talib Al-Makki’s Qawt Al-Quloob, and Al-Ihyaa’ by Al-Ghazali. Let us take note of the following stories and words of advice about the perils of enjoying people’s attention and admiration.
“He who loves fame cannot be truthful to Allah,” said Ibrahim Ibn Adham, a scholar known for his sincerity and renouncement of worldly pleasures. Although Ibrahim Ibn Adham was famous and lauded in his time, he found no pleasure in the admiration of people.
“I never found any delight in this world, except once,” said Ibrahim Ibn Adham. “I had slept one night in a mosque in a village in Syria while I was suffering from stomach pains. The mosque’s custodian came to me [not knowing who I was] and dragged me by my legs until he kicked me out of the mosque.” Ibrahim Ibn Adham’s joy came from the realization that the custodian did not recognize him, for no one would have treated a renowned scholar in such a manner.
In another story, we can see the companions’ loathing of admiration. Sulaym ibn Handhala said, “A group of us followed Ubayy ibn Ka’b wherever he went. When Umar ibn Al Khattab saw us doing so, he hit Ubayy with his riding whip.”
“What are you doing Amir Al-Mumineen?” we asked in alarm.
“This manner of following degrades the followers and is a temptation to the person being followed,” said Umar. Such seemingly harmless gestures of admiration can have a damaging effect on the self-image of both the admirers and the leader being followed.
Ibn Masud, one of the great companions, came out of his house one day to find a trail of people following him out of fascination.
“Why do you follow me?” he asked. “By Allah, if you knew what Allah has kept secret about me, hardly two of you would walk behind me.” Al-Hasan once found a group of people walking behind him as well—he said to them, “Do you want anything? If not, this behavior is unbecoming to the heart of the believer.”
Ibn Masud once advised,
Be fountains of knowledge and lamps of guidance. Take to [the privacy of] your homes, be a bright torch at night, earnest with rejuvenated hearts and simple clothes. Be known to the dwellers of the sky, inconspicuous to the people of the earth.
And Al-Fudayl ibn Iyad, another great scholar of Islam, asked the following,
If you can be anonymous, do so readily. What is wrong with being unknown? What is wrong with being ignored by people if you are praised in the presence of Allah?
These words of wisdom should not be misunderstood as an invitation to isolation from people’s company and disinterest in social affairs. If you examine the lives of the scholars who spoke these words, you will find that they were righteous public leaders and social activists! They earned livings for their family, knew the state of the society they dwelled in, and could relate to people on a deep level. They worked actively to improve the society around them and bring positive change to the lives of others. The previous words of advice were meant only as a caution to believers of the effects of praise and recognition. In order to guard the heart’s sincerity, an individual should know well the hidden windows and cracks from which the shaitan will try to enter.
Fame in and of itself is not scorned, for there is none more famous and praised than the Prophets of Allah, the righteous Caliphs, and great Imams. It is rather the pursuit of fame and status that is detested. If a person finds himself renowned and in a high position without having sought it, then, as Imam Al-Ghazali said, “Fame and status are only a trial for the weak heart, not the strong.”
A sincere person always worries that he has not fulfilled his duty and that his shortcomings have taken him far from the company of Allah. There is no opportunity for self-satisfaction or arrogance to creep into the heart of such a person, because he constantly fears that his sins will not be forgiven and his deeds will not be accepted.
Many righteous people would weep incessantly on their deathbeds. They would be asked why they feared meeting Allah after all the fasting, prayers, jihad, remembrance, hajj, and charity they performed.
“How do I know any of that will weigh anything on my scale on the Day of Judgment?” they would reply. ”How do I know Allah has accepted anything from me? Allah says, "... Indeed it is from the righteous that Allah accepts.”
The source of taqwa, God-consciousness, is only the heart. The Quran says, "... Such (honor) should come truly from piety of heart." The Messenger of Allah said, “Taqwa is here …” He repeated it three times, pointing to his heart.
Aisha once asked the Prophet who was meant by the verse, "Those who give forth of what they give with their hearts full of fear because they will return to their Lord."
“Is the verse talking about the people who steal, fornicate or drink alcohol but still fear Allah?” she asked.
“No, daughter of As-Siddiq,” the Prophet responded. ”The verse speaks about those who pray, fast, and spend in charity but they fear that Allah will not accept their deeds. It is these people who hasten in every good work and these who are foremost in their actions.”
Cherish Hidden Actions
A sign of a sincere heart is to love hidden, inconspicuous deeds more than those surrounded by the allure of publicity and attention. Such an action, shrouded from the eyes of others but sincere for the sake of Allah, is like the foundation of a building buried beneath the earth but essential to the stability of the entire structure. Without the foundation’s strength, the walls would not stand and the ceiling would cave in. Even so, it is only the outer walls that receive the attention of onlookers. Shawqi, a famous 20th century poet, wrote,
The foundations of buildings hide modestly, though they carry the walls and roofs with firmness.
Umar ibn Al-Khattab was once on his way to the masjid when he found Mu’adh ibn Jabal standing at the grave of the Messenger of Allah crying. “Why are you crying?” Umar asked. Mu’adh replied, “I remembered a hadith I heard from the Prophet:
Verily the most insignificant of riya’ is shirk, and whoever opposes the friends of Allah has openly declared war against Allah … Allah loves those who are pious, god-fearing, and hidden—those who, if they are absent are not missed and if they are present are not noticed. Their hearts are lamps of guidance that fill every dark, dusty corner with their light.
Contentment as a Follower
The sincere individual works with the same vigor and enthusiasm whether her position is one of leadership or not. As long her actions are pleasing to Allah and helpful to the spread of Islam, she is satisfied. She is not busy trying to attract the attention of other people or running after positions of leadership. Perhaps, in her fear that she would not fulfill the responsibilities of a leader, she prefers to be a common soldier. Such a person does not seek out positions of power and leadership. However, if they are given to her, she carries the burden firmly and trusts in Allah.
The Prophet described this sort of person, saying,
Joy to the servant who grasps the reins of his horse for the sake of Allah. With disheveled hair and dusty feet, it is the same to him whether he is in the rear or in the forefront.
May Allah also be pleased with Khalid Ibn Al-Waleed, the celebrated warrior and commander, who was removed from his commanding post and replaced by Abu Ubaidah. Instead of resenting the demotion, Khalid Ibn Al-Waleed served contentedly and earnestly as a common soldier.
A sincere heart is unconcerned with the opinion of other people—there is nothing attractive in an action that pleases other people but angers Allah. Striving to gain the approval of everyone is a hopeless endeavor; people are created with different tastes, preferences, viewpoints, and goals. A poet once said:
Who among us can please the likings of every soul, Between each soul and another are miles in between.
Another poet wrote:
If I please the notables, The humble disapprove. And if I please the insignificant, The noteworthy turn away.
Sincerity frees a person from the stress and concern that results from trying to please everyone. Life is simplified because he yearns only to please Allah. His longing for Allah is captured by the following poem describing a sincere Muslim’s relationship with Allah:
Life is bitter — if only I could find sweetness with You, Rejection everywhere—if only You would be pleased. Even if my world crumbles—that my bond with You would flourish. Knowing of Your love, all else becomes simple, For the earth is dust, and all on its face shall turn to dust.
Loving and Rejecting only for Allah’s Sake
The sincere Muslim directs his love and anger only through the channels that Allah commands him to—anger and happiness, pain and satisfaction, proceeding or withholding is motivated by whatever pleases Allah, not by personal wants and preferences. Such a person cannot be compared to hypocrites who are pleased with the will of Allah only when they themselves gain some personal benefit. Allah says,
And among them are men who slander you in the matter of (the distribution of) the alms. If they are given part thereof, they are pleased, but if not, behold! They are indignant.
Sometimes, when we are active in Islamic work we may quickly become angry or discouraged when someone offends us or hurts our feelings. Some of us may be so sensitive that we are dissuaded from participating in our work any further. However, a person who is sincere is determined to stay firm and remain focused on his goal, regardless of whether he is personally slighted or his feelings are hurt. He is working only for the sake of Allah, not his personal self-esteem or the satisfaction of others.
Our mission of practicing Islam and spreading its message is not the exclusive property of anyone nor is it the monopoly of a few community leaders. It is the responsibility of every individual. It is inappropriate for a believer to retreat because he took offense or because of disagreement.
The road is long, success takes its time, and working with others can be difficult. The sincere Muslim endures all of this. The obstacles he meets do not discourage him nor does he hasten the fruits of his labor. Quitting halfway or taking a break are not options—he is not working for the sake of victory itself, but rather for the sake of pleasing Allah in all circumstances.
A role model for such dedication is Prophet Nuh. He spent 950 years calling his people to worship Allah and succeeded with only a handful of believers for his millennium of strife. He persevered in his mission, varied his approach when it didn’t work, and attempted new strategies to reach the hearts of his people. The Quran relates his story to us,
He said: ‘O my Lord! I have called to my People day and night. But my call only increases their flight [from the truth]. And every time I have called to them, that You might forgive them, they only thrust their fingers into their ears, cover themselves up with their garments, grow obstinate, and give themselves up to arrogance.
As nearly 40 generations passed him by, Prophet Nuh was ignored and rejected by his people, though he wished only to guide them. However, he remained focused and steadfast in carrying out his mission.
The Quran gives us another example in Surah Al-Burooj of believers who sacrificed their lives for the sake of Allah, patiently enduring the burning flames they were thrown into as the disbelievers looked on. It did not matter to them what difficulty they suffered for the sake of Allah. They did not ask themselves, “Will sacrificing our lives really advance our cause in any way?” The believers knew that they were responsible for persevering, and that Allah was responsible for the end results. Perhaps their sacrifice was the seed from which new faith sprouted in the hearts of future generations!
When work is performed sincerely for the sake of Allah, it will be firm and consistent. The sincere person is sure that Allah is responsible for the results, which will come at the time and in the manner that He prescribes. Even if actions seem to produce no results, Allah will not ask people on the Day of Judgment, “Why did you not succeed?” Rather, He will ask, “Why did you not act?”
A sincere person is pleased whenever another qualified individual emerges and joins the ranks of the Islamic workers. He welcomes potential contributors with open arms. He gives every person room to exercise his talents and play a role, without holding him back or feeling threatened and envious. Whenever he finds someone who can better assume a position, he gives it to him willingly and offers his support, content to take a step back and hand the torch to another.
Some Islamic workers, especially those in the public view, may cling to their position of leadership and fight anyone who challenges it. They will say, “This position was entrusted to me by Allah and I will not leave it to anyone else.” They do not realize that times change and that someone who was once suited to lead may no longer be the most qualified. We often see this fault in rulers who refuse to let go of their stations, insisting decade after decade that they are the ones who can best man the helm and tend the sails. It would be unbecoming if the workers of Islam harbor the same characteristics as the rulers they criticize!
It is also inappropriate that Islamic workers use their role in Islamic work as a means of acquiring authority, as others have used patriotism and national unity. Shaitan lays many traps for the hearts of Islamic workers—those who fall into them may think they are serving Islam while they are really feeding their own hunger for status and worldly benefits.
So many organizations and movements have been assaulted with condemnation from the outside, discord from the inside, weakness, lack of motivation, and an unwillingness to try new things only because of the ambitions of a few controlling individuals. This type of leader refuses to change with the times—sometimes he burdens himself with more responsibility than he can carry, blocking the road for those workers behind him who have talent and youthful energy. Would that he allowed his burdens to be shared among other workers, whom, although they might lack in expertise, are willing to learn through experience. Qualities are earned only by working to gain them! By nurturing the abilities of those around us and giving them the opportunity to excel, we are tending to the future of Islam.
Muslim on the authority of Ibn Umar
Ibn Majah and Al-Baihaqi