The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Sincerity: How to Empty the Heart for God?

10A well-known hadith says that: ‘God declared: I am so self-sufficient that I am in no need of any partner. Whoever does an action for someone else’s sake as well as Mine, will have that action renounced by Me to him who he associated with Me.’1 That God is in no need of partners brings us to the all-important virtue of ikhlas – “sincerity”.

In modern English useage, sincerity is now a sort of byword for crass individualism. Shakespeare puts these famous words in the mouth of Polonius, as he advises his son: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Today, this Shakespearean adage is now an excuse for doing whatever makes you feel good. As long as you are sincere – that is, as long as you are true to yourself – then whatever you do is fine. This way of looking at things is, however, utterly foreign to the Islamic thinking, where sincerity is not in relation to one’s own whims and caprice – the false gods of the self – but in relation to our Maker and Creator.

In Islam’s teachings, ikhlas is best appreciated by contrasting it with its two opposites. The first opposite is nifaq, or “hypocrisy”.

The word nifaq, as classical Arab lexicalists gloss it, comes from the root, n-f-q, which signifies (among other things) something being saleable or goods selling readily. Thus, nifaq carries the notion of “trying to sell oneself”. According to the Qur’an, a munafiq or “hypocrite” is someone who tries to sell himself to others by convincing them that he is something he is not. A munafiq, in other words, outwardly parades as a Muslim, for some worldly gain, while inwardly rejecting Islam.

The second word ikhlas is contrasted with is riya, which stems from the root meaning “to see”. Which is to say that riya is “making a show of one’s deeds.” It’s acting to show others, to impress them, or to curry favour with them. In making a show of one’s deeds, rather than doing it for the sake of God, one loses sight of tawhid – not, it must be said, in the sense of negating it, but by ruining its acceptance.

One hadith states about riya – usually translated as showing-off or ostentation: ‘Shall I not inform you what I fear for you more than the Anti-Christ?’ They said: Certainly, O Messenger of God. He replied: ‘Hidden shirk; meaning a person stands to pray, but lengthens his prayer because he sees someone watching him.’2

The Prophet, peace be upon him, also warned: ‘What I fear for you most is the lesser shirk.’ On being asked what lesser shirk was, he replied: ‘Riya.’3

So riya, described in the hadiths as the “hidden” or “lesser” shirk, is when good deeds and spiritual works are outwardly done, but with defective intentions. For instead of intending the pleasure or “Face” of God, the person intends other than Him, thereby setting-up a partner with Him. It is lesser shirk because, as Ibn al-Qayyim explains, ‘it emanates from one who has a firm belief in la ilaha illa’Llah; and that none can harm, benefit, give or withhold, except God; and that none is deserving of worship but Him; and that there is no Lord besides Him. However, he has not exclusively intended God in his transaction and devotion to Him. Rather the act is also done, at times for the sake of one’s ego; at times for achieving some worldly ends; and at times for seeking fame, status or standing with others.’4

Now, what about the word ikhlas? Well the Arabs say: khalasa’l-ma’ min al-kadar – “the water became clear of murkiness.” From it comes the words khalis and ikhlas, which signify: “becoming clear, pure or free from contamination”. Sincerity (ikhlas), then, is when one’s intention for performing an act of worship is purified from false pretence, deceit or showing-off. The motive behind acts of obedience must be disentangled and be made purely for seeking God’s acceptance and good pleasure.

It has been said that: ‘Sincerity is to forget creation seeing you, due to continuously contemplating the Creator.’ Another way sincerity has been defined is: ‘It is to single-out [God] the Real as the object of obedience.’ Yet another: ‘Purifying the act from any traces of people having a share in it (tasfiyat al-fi‘l ‘an malahadhat al-makhluqin).’5

These, and other words from the masters of the inward life, bring us to the essence of ikhlas which, according to Imam Raghib, requires the heart ‘to be emptied of all else besides God.’6 This emptying is never that simple, for it involves struggling against the lower self so as to strip away the heart’s heedlessness; its love of praise; and its undue reverence of created beings. Once the cup is sufficiently emptied – for some hadiths liken hearts to “receptacles” or “vessels” – it can then be filled with the light of certainty and profound awareness of God, so that it may be made to be present with God. Whenever acts of worship are performed with presence of heart (hudur al-qalb), sincerity is realised and tawhid truly manifested.

Allahumma jammilna bawatinina bi’l-ikhlasi laka,
Wa hassin amalana bi ittibai rasulika.

1. Muslim, no.2985.

2. Ibn Majah, no.4204.

3. Ahmad, Musnad, 4:428.

4. Al-Da’ wa’l-Dawa (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1998), 201.

5. For these, and other expressions of what ikhlas is, see: al-Nawawi, Bustan al-‘Arifin (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2013), 96-8.

6. Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 293, where it says: haqiqat al-ikhlas al-tabarriy ‘an kulli ma duna’lLah.

7. See: Purification of the Heart (United States of America: Sandala, 2012), 176.

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15 thoughts on “Sincerity: How to Empty the Heart for God?

  1. ikyas on said:

    Jazak Allah khair

  2. sincerity also means sincerely doing for others…while not doing for self…and yet wanting to….denial towards self…and never letting anyone know what faith truly lies within ones heart…..standing with patience….4evr xxx….for me that is what Islam truly means…..

  3. A very timely and a SINCERE reminder… Jazak Allah Khair !

    “Deeds without sincerity are like a traveller who carries in his water-jug dirt. The carrying of it burdens him and it brings no benefit.” [Ibn al Qayyim]

  4. Greetings,

    I like this a lot. Thank you for it.

    I greatly admire the example of Hazrat ‘Uways Qarani who was connected with the Prophet – with physical distance meaning nothing – without outward show. I like his example of service to his mother and hidden piety.

    Is it correct that, according to shaykh Fariduddin ‘Attar, the Prophet also said:

    “The most loving of God’s friends are those who are pious in secret?”

    All good wishes,


  5. Salaamun ‘Alaykum wa-Rahmatullaah,

    I find the reference to Hamza Yusuf odd; especially in a blog that ostensibly presents the Hanbali perspective most of the time. There are many contemporary scholars, Hanbali and others, who could have been chosen. As I said, very odd …
    Allaahu A’lam.

    • Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah.

      Thank you for your comment and concern, Br Saeed. I hope this brief response (informed by various background understandings) helps to settle your discomfort:

      1. Though the blog aims to present mainstay Hanbali rulings, most of its content is taken up with spiritual and social concerns where Hanbali fiqh rulings (or any other fiqh rulings) tends not to be so applicable. That is to say, the majority of the blog’s content is non-fiqhi.

      2. Almost from when this blog was birthed, I have not limited myself to Hanbali scholars: hence blogs citing al-Ghazali, Ibn Juzayy, al-Nawawi and other prominent Ash’ari authorities, appear on it.

      3. Citing Shaykh Hamza (or Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, for that matter) – no doubt an Ash’ari proponent – is simply from the angle of “taking the truth from wherever it comes”. His writings on tazkiyah and suluk, and his observations about Muslim life in the West (and how he articulates such matters) are immensely beneficial and relevant to our needs and our times. His academic and spiritual discourses set benchmarks for us all to strive and live up to. It is Allah’s tawfiq that has allowed the Shaykh to rekindle faith in so many dying hearts. (And every person’s saying can be taken or left, except that of the Master of the Messengers.)

      4. Yes, you are right, I could have probably found a nice Hanbali quote from somewhere, if I had tried. But would it have flowed with what I was trying to say? What I know is that the words from Shaykh Hamza’s book could hardly have been expressed any better. (I also wanted to highlight that the second print of his book, Purification of the Heart – a truly worthy book to read on the subject – is now available).

      5. As for how Ash’arism squares up to the Athari creed, I hope to write a blog piece about it in the near future, God-willing.

      So, as the Arabs say, idha ‘arafa sabab batala ‘ajab – “When the reason is understood, the incredulity is removed.” So I pray this gives a better insight into the blog’s nature and method.

      Your brother,

      Surkheel (Abu Aaliyah)

  6. JazaakAllahu khair

  7. Assalaamu ‘alaykum warahmatullah
    JazaakAllahu khair
    Is there a way to contact you with a private (rather lengthy) issue related to this topic

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