Islam is a religion acknowledged for its profuse ritual acts that are considered the foundation of what distinguishes a person as an adherent Muslim. From the minimal five obligatory prayers, the fasting in the month of Ramadan, the observance of specific modest dress codes to the specific diet restrictions; it would seem that the religion of Islam merely encourages a relationship with God that entails a path of physical commitments (Nasr, 1987, p. 111). The question arises as to whether deeds alone are considered the essence of one’s adherence. This composition will endeavour to answer this question and determine the significance of the concept of sincerity within the theological framework of Islam.
What is Sincerity and its Significance in Islam?
Within the English language, the term sincerity can simply be defined as “the absence of pretence, deceit, or hypocrisy” (Press, 2014). However within Islamic theology, the concept of sincerity comprises of various terms in efforts of providing a sound meaning and application. اخلاص (Ikhlas) in the Arabic language can linguistically be defined as “sincerity”, “purity”, and “devotion” (Fabienne, 2014). It pertains to eliminating and freeing one’s faith in God from all things that diminish its purity (Spevack & Gulen, 2012, p. 250). An example of the use of the word اخلاص (Ikhlas) is in the Quranic chapter titled الإخلاص (Al-Ikhlas), meaning ‘The Sincerity’ or ‘The Purity’, which is a chapter describing the oneness and uniqueness of God as a response of refutation to the polytheistic beliefs prior to Islam along with the religious notions of God having a genealogy – therefore offspring (Kathir, n.d.). Another Quranic verse uses a related word to اخلاص (Ikhlas) which is the word مخلصين (Mukhliseen), referring to those who keep their religious devotion sincerely for God alone (Quran, 98:5). Contextually, the concept of sincerity in Islam simultaneously comprises the aspect of intention. Al-Ghazali (d.1111) stated,
“Know that for sincerity there is a reality, a root, and complete perfection, and these three are necessary pillars. The root of sincerity is the intention when it is sincere. Its reality is negating defects from the intention. Its complete perfection is truthfulness.”
(Spevack & Gulen, 2012, p. 245)
Whilst we have understood the association the term اخلاص (Ikhlas) holds with regards to the Islamic creed (i.e. maintaining a pure monotheistic doctrine,) in relation to deeds, it is crucial to acknowledge its connection with intention. It is therefore implicit that, if sincerity entails purity and truthfulness, that sincerity ultimately necessitates one to perform their deeds with an intention that concerns God alone (Spevack & Gulen, 2012).
What are the Contextual Evidences of its Significance?
The foundational sources of Islam are essentially the Qur’an and what is referred to as the Sunnah of the prophet Muhammad ﷺ – that which consists of ahadith (recorded transmitted narrations) pertaining to his sayings and actions (Nasr, 1987). It is therefore vital in our endeavour to determine the position of sincerity in Islam, to delve into Qur’anic verses and ahadith to provide us with prime references. The Qur’an consists of various verses in which God encourages the observance of sincerity, such as the following:
‘And they were not commanded except to worship Allah (God), [being] sincere to Him in religion…’
‘Say, [O Muhammad], “Indeed, I have been commanded to worship Allah (God), [being] sincere to Him in religion.’
The Qur’an also recounts an occasion in which Iblis (Satan) vowed that he would mislead mankind away from God. The profound lesson derived was that Iblis acknowledged that he would fail with some of mankind in which he stated “Except those of Your servants who are sincere” [Qur’an 38:83].
Profound quotes of Sincerity
Various classical scholars and thinkers from the Muslim world provided thorough explanations in an attempt to provide understanding as to what sincerity entails:
Abu ‘Uthmaan said: “Sincerity is to forget about the creation by constantly looking at the Creator (in terms of gaining admiration for your deeds).”
Some have been recorded as saying: “Sincerity is that you do not seek a witness over your action besides Allah (God) or one who gives reward besides Him (God).”
As-Sousi said: “True devotion (sincerity) is to lose the faculty of being conscious of your devotion; for someone who identifies devotion in his devotion is a person whom devotion is in need of devotion.”
(Farid, 1993, p. 6)
Yaqub said: “A devout (sincere) person is someone who conceals things that are good, in the same way that he conceals things that are bad.”
(Farid, 1993, p. 6)
Al-Ghazali mentions that: “Intention, then, is the will that motivates, and the meaning of it being sincere is purifying the motivation from defects.”
(Spevack & Gulen, 2012, p. 245)
Al-Ghazali provided a thorough explanation of sincerity by exemplifying that sincerity is essentially an aspect of the intention. In other words, sincerity in Islam necessitates that when an action of worship is performed for God, it is performed due to the individual being inclined to please and gain reward from God, as opposed to doing a deed for fame or money (Spevack & Gulen, 2012). This elucidation coincides with various ahadith (prophet narrations) that relate to sincerity:
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Verily, Allah does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather He looks at your hearts and actions.”
Abu Hafs ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, say, ‘Actions only go by intentions. Everyone gets what they intend. Anyone, therefore, who emigrates to Allah and His Messenger, his emigration is indeed to Allah and His Messenger. But anyone who emigrates to gain something of this world or to marry a woman, his emigration is to that to which he emigrated.'”
[Sahih Bukari and Sahih Muslim]
It therefore becomes implicit that attaining sincerity is perfected by establishing a truthful intention for God alone. Such an achievement illustrates that deeds done are not merely executed for the purpose of completing a ritual action alone, but that ritual actions are required to be performed with an internal incentive that pursues the pleasure of God. Hossein Nasr expounds in his chapter titled ‘The Inner Meaning of Islamic Rites’ that the core of every ritual act such as the obligatory prayers, pilgrimage, and fasting are ‘outward’ and ‘inward’ requirements; the outward being the physical aspect and the inward obliging a performance with an attentive heart (Nasr, 1987, pp. 111-143). Nasr provides an intricate exposition as to the unique relationship that exits between the physical performance of rituals and the inward implication that can be acknowledged as a spiritual form of purification. He asserts that “this inner significance gives true meaning to the ritual of outward purification” (Nasr, 1987, p. 112).
Spirituality in Islam
It has become manifested that the concept of sincerity is very much an integral aspect within the theological framework of Islam; however this actuality has not provided us with an efficient conclusion, but rather introduced us to the facet of spirituality and its relevance in Islam. Interestingly, when attempting to perceive the notion of spirituality in Islam, one is confronted by various terms in an effort to identify and define its position within the theological context. Various terms are presented as aspects of spirituality such as تزكية (Tazkiyah) ‘Purification’, تصوف (Tasawwuf) ‘the woollen-clothed ones’ – otherwise known in English as Sufism (understood as Islamic mysticism), also such words as (al-qalb) ‘the heart’ and (an-Nafs) ‘the self’. All terms are recognised as features of Islamic spirituality or having influenced the theological development of spirituality within Islam (Booso, 2012). As for the prevalent term Tasawwuf or Sufism, Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) explained it in his Muqaddima:
“It basically consists of dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah Most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of this world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men and retiring from others to worship Allah alone… this was the general rule among the Companions of the Prophet and the early Muslims, but when involvement in this worldly-things became widespread from the second Islamic century onwards… those devoted to worship came to be called Sufiyya or People of Tasawwuf.”
(Cited in Keller, n.d.)
As for تزكية (Tazkiyah), it is expounded as a process of constant striving to supress and surpass ones carnal desires and ego with the goal of perfecting the soul in its worship for God alone. It deals with both inward and outward aspects. It has been elaborated that:
“Tazkiyah deals with all the apparent and hidden aspects of ourselves… Our thought, our apprehensions, our inclinations, our movements… no department and nothing that touches our lives is outside the pale of tazkiyah.”
(Zarabozo, 2002, p. 21)
It is apparent that both تصوف (Tasawwuf) and تزكية (Tazkiyah) entail a form of spirituality that focuses on worshipping God alone and cleansing ones carnal desires from that which would distract the soul or heart from committing itself to the worship of God. For the purpose of clarification, it is necessary, in efforts to illustrate the significance of worship to define the concept of worshipin Islam. The term for worship in Islam is عبادة (Ibaadah) which Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) explicated is:
“a noun comprising every word or deed, internal or manifest, that Allah loves and approves…”
(Zarabozo, 2002, p. 20)
Whilst both disciplines esteem عبادة (Ibaadah) ‘worship’; تصوف (Tasawwuf) concerns itself moreso with the inner aspects of spirituality and purification (Nasr, 1987), whilst تزكية (Tazkiyah) concerns itself with inner as well as outer due to the notion that inner spiritual purification ultimately and consequently purifies ones external actions. This is substantiated by the hadith of the prophet Muhammad ﷺ in which he stated “there lies within the body a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the whole body is sound, and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Verily it is the heart” [Sahih Bukhari & Muslim]. It is for that reason that تزكية (Tazkiyah) ‘Purification’ with regards to the self is essentially considered interwined with عبادة (Ibaadah) ‘worship’ and thefore inseparable (Zarabozo, 2002). Nevertheless, the cognization that worship and spirituality are essential facets of the theological framework of Islam substantiate for us the veracity of sincerity within Islamic theology.
The Predicament of Sufism (mysticism)
Notwithstanding, whilst we provided a brief insight into the disciplines of spirituality within Islamic theology, it is crucial to divulge the various criticisms that exist. As mentioned prior, Ibn Khaldun (d.1406) provided for us a description, asserting those of later Muslim generations that had attached themselves to worship and spirituality were thereon known as Sufiyya. Such a perception became problematic for many who would consider themsleves as observing spirituality and therefore purification of the soul, but rejected to title of Sufi. Much of this incongruity was due to the fact that Sufism was considered unorthodox to Islamic principles (Booso, 2012). This however is hardly repudiated by the Sufiyya to which they have assertively acknowleded:
“If over the course of the centuries, Muslim mysticism (Sufism) showed itself capable of integrating the doctrinal perspectives and the elements of spiritual techniques belonging to other cultures – for example, to Neoplatonic Hellenism, to Byzantine Christianity, to the Mazdeism of ancient Iran, indeed, to Hinduism and Buddism – such a capacity for assimilation… proves rather the vitality of the way of the Sufis”.
(Nasr, 1987, p. 268)
Indisputably, we have journeyed through various Quranic verses and narrations of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ that emphasised the actuality of spirituality being an integral aspect within the religion of Islam. It is therefore evident that such disciplines existed since the beginning of Islam with the prophet Muhammad ﷺ and was undeniably not newly introduced into the realm of Islamic theology in centuries that followed. It seems that those within the methodology of Sufism do not reject such a notion as I quote the statement “the Prophet Muhammad was the first Sufi, the model that would inspire mystics for all generations to come” (Nasr, 1987, p. 268). There seems to be no realisation of the contradiction between claiming the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ to have been a Sufi, whilst conceding the fact that Sufism in itself is a methodology that has derived its principles from various sources outside of Islamic theology. Such a predicament within Muslim ideologies arises the question as to whether a Muslim of the modern era who observes spirituality and therefore sincerity within Islamic theology is considered a Sufi or merely an adherent Muslim?
Deeds Void of Sincerity
In conclusion, this composition began by asking the question of whether deeds alone were considered the essence of one’s adherence to Islam and if sincerity had any significance therein. We established through the various references to Islamic sources that ritual deeds were not sufficient in developing a relationship with God and that sincerity was a vital facet that is required for a persons deeds to be accepted and simultenously beneficial. This essay attempted to exemplify that sincerity is essentially an aspect of spirituality in Islam and can be gained through the methods of tasawwuf and tazkiyah, regardless of whether a person professes themselves to be a Sufi or not. On the contrary, we have challenged the notion that spirituality is exclusive to Sufism and attempted to ascertain that spirituality is a discipline that every Muslim must endeavour to experience and achieve in efforts to develop a relationship with God. To end with an impeccable illustration of the magnitude of sincerity in Islam, is a narration of the prophet Muhammad ﷺ in which he said:
“The first of men (whose case) will be decided on the Day of Judgement will be a man who died as a martyr. He shall be brought forth. Allah will make him recount His blessings (i. e. the blessings which He had bestowed upon him) and he will recount them (and admit having enjoyed them in his life). (Then) will Allah say: ‘What did you do (to requite these blessings)?’ He will say: ‘I fought for You until I died as a martyr.’ Allah will say: ‘You have told a lie. You fought so that you may be called a brave warrior. And you were called so.’ (Then) orders will be passed against him and he will be dragged with his face downward and cast into Hell.
Then a man will be brought forward who acquired knowledge and imparted it (to others) and recited the Qur’an. He will be brought forth and Allah will make him recount His blessings and he will recount them (and admit having enjoyed them in his lifetime). Then Allah will ask: ‘What did you do (to requite these blessings)?’ He will say: ‘I acquired knowledge and disseminated it and recited the Qur’an seeking Your pleasure.’ Allah will say: ‘You have told a lie. You acquired knowledge so that you may be called a scholar, and you recited the Qur’an so that you may be called a Qari and such has been said.’ Then orders will be passed against him and he shall be dragged with his face downward and cast into the Fire.
Then a man will be brought whom Allah had made abundantly rich and had granted every kind of wealth. He will be brought forth and Allah will make him recount His blessings and he will recount them and (admit having enjoyed them in his lifetime). Allah will (then) ask: ‘What have you done (to requite these blessings)?’ He will say: ‘I spent money in every cause in which You wished that it should be spent.’ Allah will say: ‘You are lying. You did so, so that you may be called a generous person, and so it was said.’ Then Allah will pass orders and he will be dragged with his face downward and thrown into Hell.”
The above hadith is an exceptional instance that denotes the importance of sincerity in Islam, such that even the highest regarded deeds can become repudiated due to the absence of sincerity. That leaves us to end with the Quranic verse which affirms that on the Day of Judgement, nothing will be of benefit to a person “But only one who comes to Allah with a sound heart” [Quran 26:89].
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