On Sincerity and Devotion

The moral guidance furnished to mankind by Prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, attains fulfillment in the teaching of Ikhlas (sincerity in action) and Lillaahiyat (single-minded devotion). Or, in other words, sincerity and single-minded devotion to God mark the culminating lesson of the Book of Morality, and the highest stage of moral and spiritual advancement. What Ikhlas and Lillaahiyat denote, in short, is that every good deed should be performed for the sake of God and for His propitiation, i.e., so that our Lord and Master might be pleased with us and bestow His good graces and we remain safe from His indignation. The Prophet has stressed that single-minded devotion is the most essential part – the inner reality – of all good and virtuous acts and behaviour. Should the apparently good deeds and morals be bereft of the spirit of sincerity and soundness of intention and prompted by any other urge, desire or motive, apart from the seeking of Divine good pleasure and reward, such as, the earning of good name, they would carry no merit in the sight of God.

(1)  It is related by Abu Hurairah that the Apostle of God said: “God is not regardful of your fine visages or wealth, but of your hearts and deeds.”

– Muslim


It shows that Divine favour or acceptance does not depend on anyone’s form and figure or wealth, but on the state of his heart and mind. God judges and requites only on the basis of our motives and intentions. In some other versions of the same Tradition, it is stated a little more candidly that ‘God is regardful not of your form and figure and apparent deeds, but of your hearts.’ It makes it abundantly clear that goodness or badness, and acceptability or otherwise of a deed is dependent on the intention, and however good and noble an act may apparently be, it is worthless in the judgement of the Lord if the heart is lacking in earnestness, and the aim, wholly, in not His propitiation.

(2)  It is related by Abdullah b. Umar that the Apostle of God said: “(Once), three men were going somewhere that it began to rain. They took shelter in a cave. In the meantime, a rock fell, covering completely the opening of the cave. Of the three men, one said to the others: ‘Think of the good deeds you may have done and pray to God through the propitiousness of the deed you may have done particularly for His sake to remove the rock (and relieve us of the distress).’ Upon it one of them said:’ Oh God! My parents were very old and I had many children. I used to graze goats etc., in order to provide milk for them. I would return (home) in the evening, milk the goats and give the milk, first to my parents, and, then, to the children. One day it so happened that the trees of the pasturage took me far. (I lost the sense of distance and went a long way off grazing the goats), and could not return on time till it grew dark. When I reached home, I found that both my father and mother were asleep. I milked the goats, as usual, and went to my parents with the milk vessel [in my hands], and stood at the head of their beds. I neither liked to wake them up nor to give the milk to the children before my parents had drunk it. My children were crying at my feet owing to hunger and I was standing still with the milk. It went on like that until it was morning. Oh God! If Thou knoweth that I had done it solely for Thy propitiation, move the rock a little so that we could see the sky.’ The Almighty, thereupon, moved the rock to the extent that the sky could be seen. The second man, then, said: ‘Oh God! My uncle had a daughter with whom I was madly in love. I asked her for sexual intercourse, but she replied that it could take place only when I paid her a hundred sovereigns. I tried and collected the sovereigns and took them to her. Then, as I sat between her legs (to commence the act), she said: ‘O bondsman of God! Fear God and don’t break the seal’. I, at once, got up out of the fear of God, and did not perform the act. My Lord! If that act of mine was wholly for Thy propitiation, remove the rock and open the way for us’. God, thereupon, moved the rock a little further. After it, the third man said: ‘I had, (once), engaged a labourer on a Faraq of rice. When he had completed the work, he came to me and demanded the wage, but as 1 was about to pay, he disappeared and did not return. I, then, began to do farming with the rice, i.e., paddy and went on with it for years until, with the money thus earned, 1 had collected several bullocks and men to look after them. After a long time, the man returned, and said: ‘Fear God, and do not be unjust, and give me back my due’, I told him to take the bullocks and the labourers (as they belonged to him), upon which he remarked: ‘Oh man! Fear God, and don’t joke with me’. ‘I am not joking’, I replied. All these are yours’. He, thereupon, took them away. Oh God! If, in Thy sight that act of mine was wholly for Thy sake, remove the rock completely’. The Lord, thereupon, removed the rock and opened the way (for them).

– Bukhari and Muslim


The three persons mentioned in it were, perhaps, the followers of an earlier Apostle and the Prophet has related the parable for his own followers to draw a lesson from it. A few noteworthy features of the deeds narrated above may be mentioned here. Firstly, as it is clearly stated in the report as well, all the three acts had been performed solely for the sake of God and for earning His good pleasure, and it was for that reason that the men had placed them before the Almighty and beseeched Him for mercy. Secondly, the deeds offer a marvelous example of subordinating one’s desires to the will and command of the Lord. Just imagine, how severe is the struggle of the first man, mentioned in the parable, against the urges of the self. He has been grazing cattle, throughout the day, in the jungle, and returns home late in the evening, tired out. and fatigued. He will, naturally, be wanting to go to bed soon. But since his parents have fallen asleep without taking the milk, he feels that the pleasure of the Lord lies in giving them the milk when they wake up, and spends the whole night standing by the bed-side, with the milk-vessel in his hand. His children cry due to hunger at his feet, but he gives priority to the right of the parents, and to the good pleasure of the Lord, and willingly restrains himself from giving the milk to his children before he has fed the aged parents with it, until it is daybreak.

The same quality is evident from the deed of the second man. He is passionately in love with a girl and when a large amount of money is settled between them as her charge for the sexual act, and he has, also, paid it and is about to fulfill the greatest desire of his life, the Name of God comes in at that very moment, and, out of the fear of God and eagerness to earn His good graces, he stands up and leaves the girl alone. Now, anyone who is not altogether dead to the cravings of the flesh can imagine what it means and what a glorious instance of subduing the carnal self for the sake of God does it offer. The case of the third man, too, is identical. A labourer leaves behind a few seers of paddy with him. He sows it on his land, and regarding the crop it yields to be the property of the labourer, saves it back year after year and invests the money in some other business as well until he acquires a whole herd of cattle. When, however, the labourer returns after a long time, the honest and trustworthy bondsman hands over to him the entire wealth he had earned by the sweat of his brow and careful planning. What temptations would the Devil not have thrown in his path? How would he not have tried to induce him to keep the property he had thus acquired with himself, and of which the labourer had no knowledge? But the bondsman stood firm against all the inducements of the Devil and his own baser self, and handed over the whole property to the poor labourer out of the fear of God.

Besides, an additional peculiarity of all the three acts is that none of them belongs to the class and category of traditional worship. One is related to Mu’ashirat (Social Conduct), one to Mu’amilat (Monetary Dealings), while the special feature of another – the second deed – is that a bondsman abstained from a sin wholly for earning the countenance of the Lord although it was the ruling passion of his life and he had, also, made the necessary arrangement.

(3)  It is related by Shaddad b. Aus that he heard the Apostle of God say: “Whoever offered Salah for display was guilty of Polytheism, and whoever observed fasting for display was guilty of Polytheism, and whoever practiced charity for display was guilty of Polytheism.”

– Musnad-Ahmad


Real Polytheism lies in associating anyone with God in His Being, Attributes and Functions, and in His Special Rights, and yielding obeisance and offering worship to anyone aside of Him. This is the ‘actual’, ‘open’ or ‘major’ Polytheism about which it is stated in the Qur’an and is an Article of Faith with us, the Muslims, that whoever is guilty of it shall never be admitted to Heaven. But there are some acts and morals which though they do not amount to Polytheism in that sense, are related to it, one way or the other. One of these is that a person offered worship or did any other virtuous act not with the intention of propitiating God and seeking His good graces, but for impressing others so that people might say that he was a godly man and become his disciples. This is what is called Riya, and despite the fact that it is not Polytheism in the true sense it does represent a grade of it. It is a kind of Hypocrisy and a highly sinful practice. In another narrative, it has been described as ‘concealed’, and, in yet another as ‘minor’ Polytheism, We shall take up both the reports later. It should, however, be noted that Salah, Sawm and charity have been mentioned in this Tradition merely as an example or else any good deed which is performed with an eye on renown or any other worldly advantage is equivalent in significance to Polytheism and will merit severe chastisement in place of reward.

(4) Abu Saeed Khudri narrates: “One day, the Apostle of God came to us, i.e. to the place where we were sitting, from his apartment. At that time, we were talking about Dajjal, the Imposter. The Prophet remarked: ‘May I tell you of something which is even more dangerous for you than Dajjal?’ ‘Do, please,’ we replied. The Prophet, thereupon, said: ‘It is concealed Polytheism, (an example of which is that) a man stood up for Salah, and, then, extended the prayer because someone was seeing him offering it’.”

– Ibn Majah


What the holy Prophet, probably, wanted to stress was that he had no great fear of the open Polytheism and Apostasy to which Dajjal will try to lead the people through various artful and ingenious expedients as he was confident that his true followers will not fall a prey to his deception, but he, indeed, was afraid that the Devil succeeded in pushing them into disguised Polytheism, an example of which was that Salah was prolonged simply to impress others. In another Tradition quoted, again, in Sunan Ibn Majah, it is stated that, once, as the Prophet expressed his fear of the Muslims falling into Polytheism, some Companions remarked, “Oh Apostle of God! How can it be that, after you, your followers took to Polytheism?” The Prophet replied, “I am confident my followers will not worship the sun, the moon, the stones and the idols, but it can and will be that they fell a prey to concealed Polytheism of the class of Riya.”

(5)  Mahmood b. Labeed relates that the Apostle of God said: “The greatest fear I have concerning you is of ‘minor’ Polytheism.” “What is ‘minor’ Polytheism?” asked the Companions.” “Riya (i.e., the doing of a virtuous act for show or display),” the Prophet replied.

– Musnad-i-Ahmad

(6) It is related by Abu Hurairah that the Apostle of God said: “The will and command of God is: ‘I am absolutely independent of the need of Polytheism and partnership. (I cannot put up with partners and associates, in any case, as others do. Every kind of Polytheism and ascribing of partners is extremely repugnant to Me). Thus, whoever performs an act (like worship) in which he associates anyone with Me, i.e., apart from My favour and good pleasure,  his motive is to gain something from anyone else or make him his disciple or follower, I reject him and his Polytheism wholly and altogether”. In another Tradition referring to the same incident it is stated that “I have nothing to do with him. That act of his (is not for Me), but for the person for whom it is done, i.e., who is associated with Me in it’.”

– Muslim

(7)  Abu Sa’eed b. Abu Fazalah relates it from the Apostle of God that he said: “When God will gather all men, (both the former and the latter ones), on the Day of Resurrection, which is absolutely certain, a herald will proclaim: ‘Whoever associated anyone else in a deed he performed for God should claim the reward for it from him, for God is more independent of Polytheism, i.e., partnership than all the partners’.”

– Musnad Ahmad


The moral of the above Tradition is that God accepts only the deed and gives the reward on it which is performed with single-minded devotion and in quest: of His pleasure, and no one aside of Him is associated, with it. As against it, if the winning of the favour of anyone else, too apart from the Almighty, or the gaining of an advantage from him be the aim, it will, definitely, not find acceptance with God who is exceedingly intolerant of Polytheism. This is the effect and consequence of deeds that are; performed for the sake of God, but the intention .is .not pure, and anyone besides the Lord IS made a partner ill it by any means. But the good deeds that are done merely to make a name or a. favourable impression on others will not only be rejected with disdain, but the faithless traders in duplicity and deception will, also, be thrown into Hell.

(8)  It is related by Abu Hurairah that the Apostle of God said: “During the Last Phase, deceivers and dissemblers will be born who will seek after the world in the garb of Faith. They will wear sheepskin to impress the people with their asceticism and meekness, (and) their speech will be sweeter than sugar, but in their breasts there will be the hearts of wolves. About them, the Command of the Lord is: ‘Are they being mistaken by My tolerance or have they become so bold as to contend against Me? I swear by Myself that I shall raise from among them a mischief that will confound even the wise and the learned in their midst’.”

– Tirmizi


It shows that the worst kind of fraud and double-dealing is to pose before the people as holy men and exploit their simplicity and credulousness for worldly gain. These pedlars in faith and spirituality who by their glib tongue and soft speech ensnare the simple-minded folk are guilty of both deception and trading in religion. For them the warning of the Lord is that they will be caught in various troubles and afflictions even in their life-time.

(9) Narrates Abu Zarr Ghifari that, once, it was enquired from the Apostle of God: “What is the command about a man who does a good deed and people speak highly of him because of it?” (In another version of it, it is stated that the questioner had asked: “What is the command about a man who does a good deed and people love him on account of it)?” “It is the ready glad tiding for the faithful bondsman,” the Prophet replied.

– Muslim


The sayings of the sacred Prophet concerning dissimulation and the seeking of praise and honour had made the Companions so greatly afraid that some of them felt that if people started admiring anyone for a good deed, and his devoutness and well-doing began to be talked about, the deed might not find acceptance with God as he had been recompensed already, in this world, in the form of affection and admiration. It was as a result of this fear and anxiety that the enquiry was made. The Prophet replied that there was nothing wrong if a person was held in high esteem owing to his virtue and good-doing. On the contrary, it should be taken as an indication of his worthiness, in the sight of God, and a ready recompense, in the present existence, and in advance of the real reward that awaited him in Futurity. In the same way, once, as Abu Hurairah was offering up Namaz, someone chanced to corne and see him in that state. The celebrated Companion tells that he felt pleased at being seen while engaged in a virtuous act like Salah. He narrated it to the holy Apostle so that if his reaction, too, was a form of Riya, he might repent for it and seek the forgiveness of the Lord. But the Prophet assured him that it was not so, and he will be rewarded both for doing a good deed in private and in public.

We, thus, learn from it that if a virtuous act is performed for the sake of God and without the intention of being seen during it, but the others come to know about it, and the person who does so feels happy over it, it will not be opposed to single-minded devotion. Moreover if anyone does a virtuous deed in the presence of others with the idea that they learnt about it and tried to emulate his example, it would not be hypocrisy. In fact, he will be rewarded for the preaching and propagation of Faith. As many Traditions show, the Prophet had the same purpose, also, in the mind while performing an act on a number of occasions.

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