Reflections on the Hadith on intention and its impact on our salaf.
By Khalid Baig
One of the most important teachings of Islam has been captured in a well-known hadith in a few words. Sayyidna Umar bin Al-Khattab, Radi-Allahu unhu, narrates: I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, “The reward of deeds depends upon the intentions. And every person will get the reward according to what he has intended.”
Because of the great significance of this hadith, many hadith compilers including Imam Bukhari have chosen to begin their compilations with this hadith. It reminds us to keep our intentions pure, to avoid contaminating our motives, and to seek Allah Ta’ala’s pleasure and nothing else when performing an act of virtue. The message is central to all Islamic teachings and is repeated at many places in the Qur’an. For example: “So whoever looks forward to the meeting with his Lord, let him work righteousness and associate none as a partner in the worship of his Lord.” [Al-Kahaf, 18:110]. A few verses earlier we are told that the worst losers in the hereafter will be the people whose efforts were lost in this world while they were thinking that they were doing good. Their actions might have been good, but their intentions were not and so those actions would carry no weight in the hereafter.
It is a terrible possibility that all of our good deeds might be wiped out because of a corruption of our motives. To avoid that fate, one must know the danger and be on the lookout for it at all times. Every believer knows that we should be performing the acts of worship solely to seek Allah Ta’ala ’s pleasure. We may begin a good deed for the sake of Allah Ta’ala alone. But there may be other worldly rewards associated with the same act and we may start enjoying them and even seeking them without any realization that a switch has taken place internally. Many such rewards are intangible: fame, glory, appreciation, recognition, honor. They satisfy our deepest hidden desires. They are hard to detect and harder to repel. Besides, the chance of getting caught by others is so small. The net result is that we may be under the illusion that we are performing a certain act of virtue for the sake of Allah Ta’ala, but we might actually be in it for the praise from people.
Qur’an and hadith warn us that that is shirk, or associating partners with Allah Ta’ala. And shirk is the most severe and unforgivable sin anyone can commit. A hadith informs us that such people would be asked to go get their rewards in the hereafter from the people for whose sake they were performing those virtues. Another hadith tells us that the first three people to be thrown in the hell would be believers, known for their virtue. One would be a scholar of the Qur’an who had learnt and taught it. Another would be a philanthropist who had spent tremendous wealth in charity. The third would be a mujahid who fought and gave his life in the path of Allah. But in reality all were looking for fame and recognition instead of truly seeking Allah Ta’ala’s pleasure.
The impact of these teachings on our elders has been profound. They always prayed for ikhlas (sincerity) in all their good deeds. They always monitored their own motives carefully and ruthlessly. They were always concerned that carelessness here could lead to disaster. Through such concern their lives became totally devoted to Allah.
Just two accounts from the recent past may illustrate this devotion. Once Shah Ismail Shaheed Dehalvi (d. 1831 CE) delivered a Khutbah at the Jamia Masjid in Delhi, India. Afterwards as the people dispersed and he was about to leave, a villager met him at the door. “Has the khutbah ended,” he asked. Upon being told that it had, the villager expressed his disappointment for missing it, for which he had come from a long distance. Shah Ismail introduced himself to the villager and told him not to worry for he would repeat the khutbah for him. Then he sat down with the stranger right there, on the stairs, and repeated his entire khutbah for the next couple of hours. Someone later expressed great puzzlement that he repeated the entire khutbah for just one person. “I had spoken earlier also for the sake of the One,” he replied quietly.
The other incident is equally telling, although from an opposite direction. As a young teacher, Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi (d. 1943) once invited his mentor and ustaz Sheikhul Hind Maulana Mahmoodul Hasan (1851-1920) to speak to a distinguished gathering in Kanpur. As he states, his purpose was to impress the people with the academic caliber of Deoband as it was not getting much respect from them yet. Without mentioning his motive, he did ask his ustaz to tailor the discourse to the needs of an educated audience. Maulana Mahmoodul Hasan did proceed with the lecture but then abruptly stopped when he had just begun to discuss some fine academic points. “I am sorry I am unable to continue,” he said and sat down. It was not just disappointing; it was disastrous. After the program he was asked what happened. “I stopped because I had started to get a feeling that I am now speaking only to show my academic prowess,” he told Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi. “I was not sure I was still speaking for the sake of Allah.”
In addition to so powerfully warning us of the danger of the corruption of our motives, Islam also dispels a commonly held illusion: That there is such a thing as true selflessness or altruism. Normally what passes for such attributes is a trait that thrives on advertisement. Many of life’s evils are based on a distorted and unsustainable idea of virtue. Instead of allowing us to hide our desire for reward behind high-sounding phrases, Islam teaches us to be true to ourselves. We should seek our rewards, because that is built into our nature, but we should seek them from our Creator and Lord, not from other destitute people like ourselves.
That is why all the prophets told the people. “No reward have I asked of you: my reward is only due from Allah” [Yunus 10:72]. “And O my people! I ask you for no wealth in return: my reward is from none but Allah.” [Hud 11:29]. “Say: “No reward do I ask of you: it is (all) in your interest: my reward is only due from Allah.” [Saba 34:47]. That is why the Qur’an quotes the truly generous persons feeding the hungry as saying: “We feed you for the sake of Allah alone: no reward do we desire from you, nor thanks.” [Al-Insan 76:9]