It is related in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and his family and grant them peace) once told a story to illustrate the importance of sincerity: “The first person judged on Resurrection Day will be a man martyred in battle. He will be brought forth, Allah will reacquaint him with His blessings upon him and the man will acknowledge them, whereupon Allah will say, ‘What have you done with them?’ to which the man will respond, ‘I fought to the death for You.’ Allah will reply, ‘You lie. You fought in order to be called a hero, and it has already been said.’ Then he will be sentenced and dragged away on his face and flung into the fire. Then a man will be brought forward who learned Sacred Knowledge, taught it to others, and who recited the Qur’an. Allah will remind him of His gifts to him and the man will acknowledge them, and then Allah will say, ‘What have you done with them?’ The man will answer, ‘I acquired Sacred Knowledge, taught it, and recited the Qur’an, for Your sake.’ Allah will say, ‘You lie. You learned so as to be called a scholar, and read the Qur’an so as to be called a reciter, and it has already been said.’ Then the man will be sentenced and dragged away on his face to be flung in the fire. Then a man will be brought forward whom Allah generously provided for, giving him various kinds of wealth, and Allah will recall to him the benefits given, and the man will acknowledge them, to which Allah will say, ‘And what have you done with them?’ The man will answer, ‘I have not left a single kind of expenditure You love to see made, except that I have spent on it for Your sake.’ Allah will say, ‘You lie. You did it so as to be called generous, and it has already been said.’ Then he will be sentenced and dragged away on his face to be flung into the fire.”
This is one of the most spiritually challenging hadiths that I know of. We are presented with three archetypes of people who devote their life to religious matters in an outward fashion. One has sacrificed their life, one has sacrificed their time, and the other has sacrificed their wealth. Each of them has made an extraordinary effort, and yet they have failed to reach the desired goal. This is because while their bodies were apparently with Allah, their hearts were with people.
What does it mean to do something purely for the sake of Allah? This question is as important for all of us to ask as it is difficult to answer. In the Qu’ran it states: “Say: Surely, I am but a human being like you; it is revealed to me that your God is One God. So the one who hopes to meet his Lord must do righteous deeds and not associate anyone in the worship of their Lord.” (Sūrah al-Kahf, verse 110)
We attend the Friday prayer out of a belief that it constitutes a “righteous deed,” but our worship is not complete until it is for God alone. We could ask ourselves a variety of introspective questions: Do we pray so that we feel like a good person? To tell our parents or our spouse that we attend jumu’ah regularly? To reaffirm our Muslim identity? To see a friend, or someone that we are romantically interested in? To get a mental break from our daily schedule? Thinking about such questions helps us to understand why we do what we do. These other motives are not inherently bad; for example, there is nothing wrong with being excited about meeting up with friends at jumu’ah. But we should have a clarity in our hearts about our primary reason for attending jumu’ah, or engaging in any other communal act of worship. We must tell ourselves that we would still come to pray even if our friends chose not to.
Saying the phrase “lā ilāha ill Allāh,” whether out loud or silently, is a powerful means to increasing our sincerity. It is a sword by which we cut through the various delusions that make us think that there is anything more deserving of our attention than Allah. Are governments to be feared? lā ilāha ill Allāh. Are beautiful people to be desired? lā ilāha ill Allāh. Is money to be sought after? lā ilāha ill Allāh. Is our well-being ultimately in the hands of a doctor? lā ilāha ill Allāh. As the Qur’an states: “Say: Will you worship other than Allah that which has no power to benefit or harm you, while Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing?!” (Sūrah al-Mā’ida, verse 76)
Reflecting on this verse helps us to realize that everything we want, in this world and the next, is with Allah. This does not mean that we negate the “asbāb” (the proper means that are taken in order to attain a certain goal), such as going to a doctor in order be cured. But the doctor is not the one who cures; it is Allah who ultimately cures, by means of the doctor. And the more we realize this truth, the more we turn to Allah with sincerity, knowing that only Allah can give and take away.
We fear so many things. We fear getting cancer, we fear being harassed at the airport, we fear being alone, we fear saying the wrong thing – but it is only Allah who is truly deserving of our fear (khawf). We hope in so many things. We hope in our family, we hope in our friends, we hope in our careers, we hope in our religious leaders – but it is only Allah who is truly deserving of our hope (rajā’). If Allah is pleased with us, then there is nothing in the world to fear, and no need to hope for anything else. Allah has said, “Behold! Truly, on the friends of Allah there shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (10.62)
This is an exalted level, and it is to this height that we are climbing. We must strive for righteous deeds, we must try to manifest sincerity, we must turn to Allah alone and ask for every noble quality. Along the way, we will begin to discover what little control we have over our own lives. Each step on the path will lead us further and further into Allah’s embrace, and further and further away from our own selves and our attachment to this world. We will begin to understand why we say, when someone passes away, innā li’llāhi wa innā ilayhi rājiʿun (to God we belong and to Him we are returning). We will willingly embrace the reality of our life and our inevitable death. And as we progress, we will begin to see that when we thought in the past that we had been sincere, we were actually far from sincerity. There is no fooling the One who knows every secret we have ever hid from others, and even the secrets we try to hide from our own selves.
As is stated in a well-known ḥadīth, Allah does not look at our outward forms. In our spiritual path, it ultimately does not matter whether we are a male or a female, an Arab or an ʿajam (non-Arab), well-dressed or simply attired. What matters is the state of our hearts, which is known as “amīr al-badan,” the commander of the body, and the actions that reflect the states of our hearts. And since even impressive outward actions, such as those mentioned at the beginning, are no guarantee that one is on the straight path, we must get real with our selves in the presence of our Lord. In many instances, sincerity simply means that we admit to ourselves that which Allah already knows. It is only after we see ourselves more clearly that we can walk more sincerely towards Allah. This is one meaning of the often quoted line, “the one who knows their self, knows their Lord (man ‘arafa nafsahu ‘arafa rabbahu).” If I look within, and see doubt, then at the very least I can ask Allah to strengthen my faith. If I look within and see a desire to sin, then at the very least I can ask Allah to fill my heart with repentance. If I look within, and see a desire to be praised by people, then at the very least I can ask Allah for the inspiration to worship Him alone. But if I am veiled from the realities of my own soul, from what is actually going on inside me, then I am lost. I might end up doing the outward actions of the people of Paradise, but have a heart that is leading me to the Fire. May Allah save all of us, and our loved ones, from such a fate, āmīn.
“To God belongs everything that is in the heavens and everything that is on the earth. Whether you disclose what is in yourselves or hide it, God will call it to account. And He will forgive whomsoever He wills and punish whomsoever He wills, and God is powerful over all things.” (Sūrah al-Baqara, verse 284)