By Dr. `Umar Sulayman Al-Ashqar (may Allah have mercy on him) | Translated by Naiyerah Kolkailah
The Difficulty of Attaining Sincerity
Having true sincerity is one of the most difficult things to achieve, and it is not only the common people who experience this; many scholars and righteous people struggle with it too. Sufyan Ath-Thawri says: “I have never dealt with anything more difficult than my intention; it keeps changing on me.”
That is why the Messenger ﷺ (peace and blessings be upon him) would often supplicate, “O turner of hearts, keep my heart firm upon Your faith.”
He would also often say in his oaths, “Nay, by the turner of hearts.”
The heart changes frequently in its aims and intentions, and you can see this just by how much your heart’s aims and wishes vary within one hour. The Messenger ﷺ says: “There is no heart except that it is suspended between Two Fingers of the Most Merciful; if He wills, He keeps it firm, and if He wills, He deviates it; and the scale is in the Hand of the Most Merciful—He elevates some people and debases others, until the Day of Judgment.”
The Messenger ﷺ says: “Surely, the heart of the son of Adam turns over and over more than a pot of boiling water.”
The reason hearts change and turn so much is because of the amount of factors influencing the heart. As Sahl ibn Abdillah says, the heart is “delicate and easily affected by passing thoughts.”
Al-Harith al-Muhasabi mentions three factors that affect the heart.
The first is the warnings of the Most-Merciful. As the hadith (narration) says, “Whomever Allah wills good for him, He will place for him a warning conscience in his heart.”
In another hadith, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ says, “Allah, the All-Mighty, sets forth a parable of the straight path: on either side of the path are walls with open doors, and the doors are draped with curtains. On the path, there is a caller saying, ‘O people enter all of you onto the path and do not deviate.’ Another caller also calls at the head of the path. So, when a person attempts to open one of these doors, the caller says, ‘Beware, do not open it. If you open it, then you will go through it (and leave the straight path).’ The path is Islam, and the walls are Allah’s legal boundaries, and the open doors are what Allah has forbidden. The caller at the head of the path is the Book of Allah, and the caller on the straight path is the warning conscience of Allah that is in the heart of every Muslim.”
The second element that influences the heart is Satan’s adornment of evil acts, and all his suggestions and whispers. Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) has commanded His messenger to flee to Allah, seeking refuge from Satan’s attempts: “And if an evil suggestion comes to you from Satan, then seek refuge in Allah. Surely, He is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.”
It is out of Allah’s wisdom that He made the hearts of His servants this battlefield, where both an angel and a devil vie for influence; one overtakes it sometimes, and the other at other times. The All-Mighty says, “Satan threatens you with poverty, and commands you to evil, while God promises you forgiveness from Him and bounty.”
The Messenger ﷺ elucidates this in the hadith: “Surely, an angel puts thoughts in the heart of the son of Adam, and the devil also puts thoughts. The angel’s thoughts promise goodness and affirm the truth, and the devil’s thoughts promise evil and reject the truth.” Then he read, “Satan threatens you with poverty, and commands you to evil, while God promises you forgiveness from Him and bounty.”
As Ibn Al-Qayyim says, “Satan bewitches the mind until it overpowers it, and nobody is safe from his magic except whomever Allah wills. He makes the harmful act seem appealing, until a person imagines that it is the most beneficial of things; and he turns him away from beneficial things, until he imagines that they are harmful to him. La ilaha illa Allah (there is no deity but God). How many people are deceived by this magic, and how many hearts are deprived of Iman (faith), Islam, and Ihsan (excellence in faith/worship) because of it; and how much has falsehood been adorned so it appears positive; and how much has truth been denigrated so it appears negative!”
The third source of influence on the heart is the self, since it commands one to do evil acts, and calls to disobedience: “Surely, the self constantly commands to evil.” The Prophet of Allah, Ya`qub (Jacob), told his sons when they claimed that the wolf ate Yusuf (Joseph): “No, your own selves enticed you to something (evil).” The All-Mighty also said regarding Adam’s son who killed his brother, “Then his own self persuaded him to kill his brother.”
The Muslim cannot be saved from the self that incites evil, and his own whims and desires, except through persistent struggle and self-discipline, and through arming oneself with the weapons Allah (swt) gave him, such as dhikr (remembrance of Allah), recitation of the Qur’an, acts of devotion and worship, etc.
Why God is the Ultimate Aim
The human being will be miserable if his aim is directed toward anything besides His Creator, and he will become even more miserable when he accumulates more worries and aimless endeavors. If a person’s aim is not uniformly devoted to One above all worldly endeavors, this person will find herself not knowing where to go and what direction to take. But a Muslim’s aim is One, and the methodology that guides her toward this aim is one; and thus, she is able to please God and follow His guidance.
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ says, “Whoever makes the Hereafter his goal, Allah places abundance in his heart, and organizes his affairs, and the world comes to him despite its unwillingness. And whoever’s aim is worldly gain, Allah puts poverty before his eyes, and disorganizes his affairs, and nothing of this world comes to him, except what has been decreed for him.”
Signs of Sincerity
Imam al-Shafi`i (may Allah have mercy on him) says, “How I wish the creation would learn this knowledge without attributing even one letter of it to me.”
He also says, “I have not spoken to anyone except that I wished that he is supported and aided, and that he is under Allah’s care and protection.”
Imam al-Ghazali says, “There is one sign that shows true sincerity in a person who counsels and advises others for the sake of God and not for people’s acceptance; if he is replaced by someone who is better, more knowledgeable, or more articulate than him, and people’s acceptance of that person surpasses his own, then he will be pleased, and he will thank Allah for relieving him from his obligation with someone more qualified than him.”
The sign of one who aims to impress others is that he will be pleased with words of praise or appreciation, even if they are not true; and he will be upset with words of criticism, even if they are true. The same applies to those who are after money. But that is not the case with the sincere one; she is pleased with the word of truth—whether it be for her or against her, and she is angered by a word of falsehood—whether it be in her favor or against her.
The sincere person finds no problem in everyone’s hearts being void of appreciation for him, if his heart is sound in the Eyes of Allah, the All-Mighty. He also does not wish for any person to see even an atom’s weight of his good deeds. If the sincere person is presented with two matters, one for Allah and one for worldly gain, he will prefer what is for Allah— knowing that this life is fleeting and the Hereafter permanent.