Sincerity, or Ikhlas in Arabic, could be a mundane topic to discuss but undoubtedly holds a crucial role in determining whether or not our righteous deeds will be accepted by Allah s.w.t. What does sincerity really mean? How is it important in Islam and in developing ourselves as human beings? What are some of the tips to achieve sincerity? These are some of the questions intended to be addressed in this article.
In his magnum opus Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, al-Imām al-Ghazālī (may Allah have mercy upon him) explains that sincerity originates from Niyyah (intention), and is established by freeing intentions from any impurities while inculcating Sidq (truthfulness). Impurities here means things that can nullify the sincerity of the intention.
This quality of sincerity is explicitly and implicitly emphasised in the Quran and the Hadith (Prophetic traditions). In this regard, Prophet Muḥammad s.a.w. said:
إِنَّمَا الأَعْمَالُ بِالنِّيَّاتِ وَإِنَّمَا لِكُلِّ امْرِئٍ مَا نَوَى
“Indeed, deeds are but by intentions. Every man will be rewarded only for what he intended.”
In one of the Quranic verses, Allah s.w.t. states about this quality:
إِنَّآ أَنزَلْنَآ إِلَيْكَ ٱلْكِتَـٰبَ بِٱلْحَقِّ فَٱعْبُدِ ٱللَّهَ مُخْلِصًا لَّهُ ٱلدِّينَ. أَلَا لِلَّهِ ٱلدِّينُ ٱلْخَالِصُ
“Indeed, we have sent down to you the Book (O, Muḥammad) in truth. So worship Allāh (being) sincere to Him in Religion. Verily to Allāh belongs the Complete Religion”
(Surah Az-Zumar, 39: 2-3)
As such, it is crucial to set one’s intention right due to the foundational role and great benefits of Ikhlas. Thus, the acceptability and the impact of a deed (‘amal) are the main reasons why we should constantly review our intentions.
On that note, some may have wondered; Is sincerity (Ikhlas) the same as Khushu’, that is observed particularly in Solat?
Sincerity (Ikhlas) and Khushū‘ (focus and humility in Solat) are closely related and may be mistakenly perceived as the same. They are both linked to our Niyyah. The distinction between them lies in their rulings.
Sincerity is necessary for every righteous deed to be accepted by Allah s.w.t., whereas Khushū‘ is a commendable trait that seeks a better quality of the deed. Therefore, the absence of Khushū‘ does not nullify our ‘Ibādah (worship).
For instance, when a Muslim establishes Solat for Allah’s sake (while having sincerity), his prayer will be accepted even if he may have instances of inattentiveness (i.e. lacking the Khushū‘) over the recitations and the actions throughout the prayer.
Sincerity has a considerable number of benefits. Any deeds imbued with sincerity can lead to a number of rewards. Some of which are as follows:
Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran:
أَلَا بِذِكْرِ ٱللَّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ ٱلْقُلُوبُ
“Verily, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest.”
(Surah Ar-Ra‘d, 13:28)
Allah s.w.t. guided the Ashāb al-Kahf (People of the Cave) who were youngsters sincerely and strongly holding to the true faith despite the challenges they faced during their time:
نَّحْنُ نَقُصُّ عَلَيْكَ نَبَأَهُم بِٱلْحَقِّ ۚ إِنَّهُمْ فِتْيَةٌ ءَامَنُوا بِرَبِّهِمْ وَزِدْنَـٰهُمْ هُدًى
“We relate to you (O Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.) their story in truth. They were youths who truly believed in their Lord, and We increased them in guidance.”
(Surah Al-Kahf, 18:13)
The Prophet s.a.w. said:
إِنَّمَا يَنْصُرُ اللّٰهُ هٰذِهِ الْأُمَّةَ بِضَعِيْفِهَا بِدَعْوَتِهِمْ وَصَلَاتِهِمْ وَإِخْلَاصِهِمْ
“Allah only gives victory to this nation through the weak (amongst them), because of their dua, prayer and Ikhlas.”
The Prophet s.a.w. said:
إِنَّ اللّٰهَ تَبَارَكَ وَتَعَالَى إِذَا أَحَبَّ عَبْدًا نَادَى جِبْرِيلَ إِنَّ اللّٰهَ قَدْ أَحَبَّ فُلاَنًا فَأَحِبَّهُ فَيُحِبُّهُ جِبْرِيلُ، ثُمَّ يُنَادِي جِبْرِيلُ فِي السَّمَاءِ إِنَّ اللّٰهَ قَدْ أَحَبَّ فُلاَنًا فَأَحِبُّوهُ، فَيُحِبُّهُ أَهْلُ السَّمَاءِ وَيُوضَعُ لَهُ الْقَبُولُ فِي أَهْلِ الأَرْضِ
“If Allāh loves a person, He calls Jibrīl, saying, ‘Allāh loves so and so, O Jibril, love him' So Jibril would love him and then would make an announcement in the Heavens: 'Allāh has loved so and so, therefore you should love him also.’ So all the dwellers of the Heavens would love him, and then he is granted the pleasure of the people on the earth.”
This is based on the Hadith narrated by Imam Al-Bukhari and Imam Muslim about a story of the three men who were trapped in the cave as a big rock rolled down and blocked the mouth of the cave.
Essentially in the long Hadith, they made Dua to Allāh s.w.t. by the blessing of the past deeds they did sincerely for Allah’s sake. Thus, the rock slowly moved until they could eventually escape. Their Dua were accepted because of their sincerity in their past deeds.
This is what the Prophet s.a.w, as well as other past Prophets a.s, went through when carrying out their righteous mission of Prophethood. They went through hardships and faced losses in life, but their life becomes a testament to success because of their sincerity in fulfilling their responsibility. In other words, sincerity grants one the strength to endure.
Allah s.w.t. mentions how Prophet Yusuf a.s. was protected from committing indecent acts:
وَلَقَدْ هَمَّتْ بِهِۦ ۖ وَهَمَّ بِهَا لَوْلَآ أَن رَّءَا بُرْهَـٰنَ رَبِّهِۦ ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ لِنَصْرِفَ عَنْهُ ٱلسُّوٓءَ وَٱلْفَحْشَآءَ ۚ إِنَّهُۥ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا ٱلْمُخْلَصِينَ
“She advanced towards him (Yūsūf a.s.), and he would have done likewise, had he not seen a sign from his Lord. This is how We kept evil and indecency away from him, for he was truly one of Our chosen servants.”
(Surah Yūsūf, 12:24)
Sincerity is the inner quality that triggers self-motivation to do good. It is essentially the core element that needs to be developed first, followed by the actions manifested externally to bear the intended outcomes. This is what was clarified by the Prophet s.a.w. regarding actions based on intentions.
Achieving and maintaining a high degree of sincerity is what every Muslim should constantly strive to realise. Here are some steps we can take to cultivate this quality:
Our attention should always be drawn to the right cause or the objective of every action we do. Despite that, we should also be constantly aware of possible distractions to our intention especially due to temptations.
Good intentions can transform al-mubaḥāt (actions that are neither commanded nor prohibited) into rewarding actions. For example, eating and drinking with the intention of gaining strength that enables us to perform more ‘Ibādah (acts of worship).
According to Imam Al-Ghazali, amongst the signs of sincerity is the ability to exercise strong determination. This level of determination can vary and fluctuate from one person to another. A person can intend to give regular charities if given wealth, but becomes less determined and wavered later on. On the other hand, another person can continue to have a strong resolve because of their resolute sincerity.
With the right intention, we can then be motivated and determined to act upon a righteous deed, reap its benefits, and remain dedicated to doing such commendable acts in the long term.
This is to realise the trait of truthfulness (Sidq) as part of being sincere. Having intention with no action or with contradicting or unguided actions will not reflect the true meaning of sincerity.
Having multiple good intentions for one righteous deed
We can further strengthen our sincerity by making a number of good intentions while performing a righteous deed. For example, when we enter a mosque, our intention is first to consider ourselves as guests of Allah s.w.t. visiting His house. This is based on the Prophet’s saying:
مَنْ قَعَدَ فِي الْمَسْجِدِ فَقَدْ زَارَ اللّهَ تَعَالَى، وَحَقٌّ عَلَى الْمَزُوْرِ إِكْرَامُ زَائِرِهِ
“Whoever sits in a mosque, he is indeed visiting Allah s.w.t. And it is the right of the visitor to be honoured by the one being visited.”
(Sahih Ibn Ḥibbān)
Besides that, we may also have the intention of Murābaṭah (waiting for the next prayer after performing a prayer). This is one of the interpretations for the Quranic verse:
“Compete with each other in patience, and do murābaṭah (wait for the next prayer after you have performed a prayer).”
(Surah Āli-’Imran, 3:200)
While waiting for the next prayer, we may also intend to do I'tikāf in the mosque. And we may also regard our stay in the mosque as Khalwah (keeping ourselves busy with matters of the hereafter). Simultaneously, we put ourselves in the state of Zikir (remembering Allah s.w.t.) and avoid any sinful acts while in the mosque.
These are all various good intentions that can be instilled in us for one single righteous act. If we think deeply enough, we would be able to do sets of intentions in our daily routines, and thus it will impact us better in many ways.
In its definition, sincerity is when intentions are free from impurities that deviate from the right purposes. Al-Imām al-Ghazālī explains about different degrees of impurities that can affect sincerity. Some are apparent and some hidden, and some are strong and some weak. The most distinct and damaging of them all is Riyā’ (ostentation).
Riyā‘ is the opposite of sincerity, which means to falsely make oneself appear to be virtuous before people to earn their respect and admiration and not for Allah’s sake. It is also called al-Shirk al-aṣghar (minor polytheism), but the person with such a reprehensible attribute is still a Muslim.
In reality, there can be a mix of both sincerity and Riyā’. For example, a Solat (prayer) is established based on what has been ordained by Allah s.w.t., but at the same time a person would show off his prayer to others to get their attention and praise. In this instance, his prayer would be accepted by Allah s.w.t. - as his sincerity still prevails although not totally throughout the prayer.
Sincerity can possibly be nullified by Shirk when not even a small fragment of sincerity exists. This is where we should be more careful so that we do not deviate to such an extent.
On that note, however, we should never judge the person for lacking Ikhlas and instead leave it to Allah s.w.t. This is because intentions are hidden, and thus we will not be able to tell the exact intention a person holds. There might even be a mix of good and undesirable intentions altogether.
As we are expected to have blessed days ahead, may Allah s.w.t. guide us all to having better intentions in all situations and be rewarded with the best. Amīn.
1. Ihyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn by al-Imām Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī.
2. Kitāb al-Ikhlāṣ by Ḥusayn Al-Awāyishah.