When are ‘Good Actions’ No Longer Good?
Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim
Allah Most High Says:
“They display to people [their acts of worship]” (Qur’an 4: 142).
The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: Verily, even a little ostentation is shirk (Ibn Maja).
Many of us are engaged in a variety of noble initiatives, ranging from teaching young children to enhancing the active engagement of British Muslim communities in our national life. In all our endeavours, our purpose is to gain the pleasure of Allah, Most High.
Precisely the opposite of this is Ostentation (riy?’). Since show or display of worship involves division of purpose, ostentation is termed the lesser shirk . By means of ostentation one splits up the purpose of worship by endeavouring to attain both public acclaim as well as the pleasure of Allah Most High. As an illustration, one may strive at great lengths to organise a Charity dinner for Orphans in Somalia. However, the objective may be to enhance one’s career or utilise the event as a networking opportunity. Whilst many people may attend and vast sums are pledged, the question that requires answering is: who is pleased? Therefore, while some actions may outwardly appear good, they are cancelled out due to the negative state of the person they emanate from.
There are several Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) mentioning the destructive effect ostentation has on our actions . It is mentioned in the noble hadith that on the Day of Resurrection, when Allah Most High compensates people for their deeds, the people of ostentation will be commanded to go to those they did their works for and ask them for reward .
The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), also said that a deed contaminated by even an atom of ostentation is unacceptable to Allah, Most High . Prior to performing a good deed, reflect and ascertain your motive. What is your intention for doing the act? Is it to seek the pleasure of Allah, Most High, or to seek the pleasure of others? If you discern any contamination in your intention, then purify your intention.
Imam al-Ghazali said that if you want to know whether something you did was purely for the sake of Allah or not, you should test your reaction when someone acts ungratefully. Do you feel self-righteous, like you were doing the person a favour? Do you feel angry that they did not appreciate your work? It may not mean that your act was ostentatious, but it points to the fact that it was not solely for the sake of Allah Most High. We were expecting, at the very least, recognition and respect from the person as a result of the good we did to them.
Elimination of ostentation is precisely the acquisition of sincerity. No matter how righteous and how trivial an act may be, if it is accomplished by sincerity, it will permeate with baraka (blessing). Rewards will increase in proportion to the degree of sincerity. For this reason it has come to us in a hadith: “half a measure (mudd) [of corn] given in charity by my Companions is nobler than gold equal to Mount Uhud given in charity by others” . The secret is the degree of sincerity. The sincerity of the Companions is far superior to the sincerity of others. Their reward is in terms of their sincerity and love.
The cure is to rid the heart of desire for fame and name . Perform acts of worship in abundance and within a short while the ostentation will be dispelled, and by force of habit, the worship will become sincere. The acceptance of our endeavours will be judged by its sincerity, as the following story if Imam Malik illustrates:
There were some people who wrote hadith compilations in the same style as Imam Malik i.e. the Muwatta’ style. When he was informed of them he wished to see these books. Having seen the books, he remarked: “You should know that only those things are accepted by Allah which are based on true intentions and devotion.” So, today no Muwatta of that time remains except that of Imam Malik.
Another example is Khalid bin al-Walid. He was removed from his post as commander of the army by ‘Umar. Imagine being the head of a youth group, captain of a sports team, or a manager at a company. Suddenly there is a change of management – you are removed from your position and demoted to a regular team member or employee. How would you react? How would that affect your work? Instead of being offended and refusing to fight, Khalid fought with even more vigour. When he was asked why, he said: “I fight for Allah and not for Umar.” He wanted to ensure that he was not working hard because he was put in a specific position – rather wherever he was, he would work hard for the sake of Allah.
Sincerity is the foundation of any work that we do – if the foundation is corrupt, then the building can easily be broken. May Allah Most High help us attain Sincerity.
By Haroon ibn Ebrahim Sidat