Ustadh Salman Younas explains how one can improve one’s intentions and how to make them purely for the sake of Allah.
Assalam alaykum wa rahmat Allah wa barakatuh.
How do I know that I am doing things for God? How do I set my intentions?
Wa alaykum assaalam wa rahmat Allah wa barakatuh.
Being sincere in our actions – especially religious ones – is something we are commanded with in the Qur’an: “They have not been commanded except to worship God, sincerely devoting their religion to Him.” (98:5)
Imam al-Ghazali describes sincerity as “the purification of an an action from all blemishes… until the goal is exclusively to draw nearer to God with no other motive.” (Ihya’ Ulum al-Din) This can only arise from someone who constantly opposes the desires of his self, is well-acquainted with the ruses of the devil, loves God, and solely concentrates on the Hereafter such that the world is no longer desirable to him.
This particular degree of sincerity is extremely lofty and rare. Indeed, Sah al-Tustari when asked what was the most difficult thing for the self replied, “Sincerity, because the self has not share in it.” (al-Qushayri, al-Risala) For most, our acts of worship are admixed with intentions and motivations that are not god-centered. Some of these are apparent and easy to detect, while others are more subtle. Thus, for example, acting religious in order to impress a prospective spouse is clear ostentation. On the other hand, take the example of a person whose public acts of worship are sounder and better than when he is in private. He feels ashamed at such a discrepancy between his actions in front of people and when he is alone. So, he strives to make sure his private actions are just as good. This is a blemish on his sincerity since he pays heed to people and rectifies his private acts to feel better about his public ones.
Even though the rank of true sincerity is difficult to attain, this is not meant to discourage the believer in striving to attain it. God is merciful and aware of our limitations, our efforts, and sincerity. He will judge us based on our sincere efforts. Some practical steps we can take to ensure our intentions are pure:
(i) Ask God for sincerity in all of your actions. The core of sincerity is returning to God in all matters.
(ii) Exercise self-vigilance over your actions. One of the approaches recommended by some of my teachers is the ‘what/why/who’ approach. Before every action, ask yourself what you are doing, why you are doing it, and for whom it is being done. Keep at this and it will become second nature to be more aware of one’s actions and the motivations that underlay them.
(iii) Keep reminding yourself of death and the hereafter in order to diminish the value of this world.
(iv) Have a steady routine of good works that you do and especially works that no one is aware of. As Imam al-Qushayri mentioned, “Sincerity is to protect one’s actions from being observed by people. It is also true that sincerity means pious concealment [of one’s good deeds] from being observed by people.” (al-Risala)
(v) Always consider your deeds as imperfect and seek God’s repentance. Boasting and being proud of one’s actions even to ones self alone is a sign that it not fully sincere.
(vi) Surround yourself with people who keep your intentions in check and motivate you to oppose your self.
Checked and approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani.