Purification of Deeds

Translated by Tariq Hashmi

By purification of deeds we mean that a particular deed should itself be justified and also be done with sincere motives.1 In other words, motivation is something through which we can determine the purity of a deed. Sometimes, an act appears to be very virtuous at the outset but when scrutinized, the motives working behind it turn out to be awfully heinous. Such an act is not accepted by God. Similarly, sometimes a doctor removes an ailing part from a patient’s body, but his act can never be branded as cruel because his motive was to save his patient from fatal effects that could have spread in his entire body. A Municipality sometimes demolishes a building, but we don’t declare it a tyrannous act only because it aims at the welfare of that locality’s populace.

On the contrary, consider that someone has opened an orphanage, or built a mosque, or erected a school in order to serve the Almighty and his own people. However, if his ill motives are disclosed to the masses as to pile up wealth or to show off no one gives any value whatsoever to his undertakings.

This is why Islam attaches such great importance to the motives behind an act, so much so, that even a deed very pious and good in nature does not carry any value unless done with pure motives. Likewise, someone may not be held responsible for a bad act which has emanated from him unintentionally or for an evil act which he somehow perceived good and carried it out with pure intentions.

The question regarding good or bad motives of our acts originates from the freedom of intent. Man is not a passive entity, an immobile tree or senseless animal whose acts must be judged in their apparent form while no thought is given to the motives working behind them. No doubt, ignoring the motives ultimately means that we are equating man to animal.

It is for this reason that Islam gives importance to only those deeds which are done with freedom of intent. The deed which one is forced to do or which one performs unintentionally or accidentally has no importance in Islam. In other words, the question of acceptance or rejection is only concerned with deeds carried out knowingly and with proper intention. Allah will certainly accept an act done with pure intent whereas the one done with impure intent will be dealt with accordingly no matter how decent it appears to be at the outset. The following narrative sheds light on this very reality:

‘Umar (rta) narrates that he heard the Prophet (sws) say: Actions are judged by intentions. Every person will be held accountable for his intention. If someone migrated really in the way of Allah and His Messenger (sws), then his migration will be counted so. If someone migrated to meet a mundane purpose or to marry a woman he loves then his migration will be counted for the act before him. (Bukhari, No: 52)

Islam attaches such importance to intention that sometimes an evil act is added to a person’s account before he actually commits it because of his firm intention. Similarly, a person is not deprived of the reward of a virtuous deed which he intends to do but somehow fails to do so. The reason being that he had full intention of carrying out that deed, but failed because circumstances prevented him. The following two narratives throw light on two aspects of the issue at hand:

Abu Bakrah (rta) narrates that the Holy Prophet (sws) said: ‘If two Muslims draw their swords to slay one another, both of them, the victim and the victor, will go to Hell’. I asked: ‘O Allah’s Prophet (sws), the murderer going to Hell is quite clear, but how can the victim go there?’ The Prophet (sws) replied: ‘Because he also had intended to kill his rival’. (Bukhari, No: 30)

The narrative regarding rewarding a person for good intentions follows:

Anas (rta) narrates: ‘We were returning from the Tabuk expedition when the Prophet (sws) said: “There behind us in Madinah are those who despite being in their homes accompanied us in every pass we trudged and every valley we crossed. These are the people who were left behind because of a reasonable excuse”.’ (Bukhari, No: 4071)

Motives of Deeds

After explaining the importance of intentions and motives working behind deeds, it seems appropriate that we analyze the human psyche and find out the real factors, which prompt us on doing certain acts. There could be many motives of human activity but a thorough study of human psyche shows that these can be arranged under five major categories. These are:

i. Needs

ii. Desires

iii. Sexual Desires

iv. Emotions

v. Divine Spark

i. Needs

By needs we mean the basic necessities of life on which our existence depends. These needs force a man into various acts. For example, he eats when he feels hungry; drinks when he feels thirsty; puts on clothes to cover himself; finds shelter and makes weapons to ensure safety from dangers; gathers food for adverse weather conditions and builds houses to face hot and cold weather.

ii. Desires

Desires are a developed form of needs. Basic needs can be fulfilled by the very simplest of ingredients that can satisfy our needs. For instance, we can do with very rough form of clothes and very simple substance of food. However, human nature is instituted such that man does not only want to fulfill his needs through meager and simple resources but he has a taste for a variety of foods and loves different kinds of drinks. Deciding to cover his body, he ends up adorning it with the finest of attires. He does not just long for a simple shelter to protect his self from hot and cold weather, but often yearns to live in very well-decorated and comfortable lodgings. These desires prompt him to tread many paths in this world. Actually, all the colors of the world are the natural outcome of these desires. All the advancements in the fields of education and civilization were spurred by these desires. It is these desires which are at work behind all that is done in art and industry. These desires have developed a moral value which renders the craving for respect and repute, the hunger for immortality and the struggle for pre-eminence and domination, the most important elements in life.

iii. Sexual Desire

Although sexual desire could have been placed under the category ‘Desires’, we have portioned out a separate place for it because the basic drive here is sex. Many other desires also come into being as a necessary consequence of this drive. It is difficult to list the achievements that have been influenced by man’s sexual desires because there is much controversy as to what has really been prompted by the desire for sex. However, it is an undeniable fact that this desire has led man to most of the magnificent works done in the fields of art, industry, literature, culture and civilization. Any other factor could hardly claim such great influence on these fields.

iv. Emotions

By emotions we mean love and compassion, hostility and hatred, envy and jealousy, honor and nobility, wrath and revenge, etc. These emotions have deep effects on the human mind and manifest themselves dynamically. They force a person to carry out various acts. Many of humankind’s feats – both good and bad – are a manifestation of these emotions. They are analogical to steam, which can be very useful if kept controlled, but causes irreparable loss if let loose. So this force is very useful if handled wisely, otherwise it can be a source of grave dangers for humanity.

v. Divine Spark

By divine spark we mean the divine spirit that the Almighty has blown into man. In the words of the Holy Qur’an:

I breathed into him of my spirit. (15·29)

This divine spark in man is the reason that the angels prostrated before him. It enables him to differentiate between right and wrong. He has learned to appreciate moral values because of this quality. He is attracted to God because he has received this light from the Almighty. It always drives him upward if mundane needs try to overpower him. All positive qualities of man, which distinguish him from other creatures, spring from this source. This is the spark which subsequently made him capable of receiving revealed guidance. In short, it is this divine motive that prompts man to do good works and, subsequently, encourages him whenever he does so. Conversely, it rebukes him if he commits wrong. The Qur’an has also used the term Nafs-i-Lawwamah (reproaching self) for it. The Almighty swore by it in Surah Qiyamah of the Qur’an and offered it as a very important argument present within man as proof of the Hereafter. Those who follow the theory of evolution presented by Darwin are not aware of this divine spark in man. This ignorance either leads to their failure to explain certain human inclinations or takes them to wrong conclusions in this regard. These people wander in search of some broken links in the chain of so-called evolutionary theory whereas they should seek the link provided by God, which the Holy Qur’an alludes to.

Role of these Motives

These motives are actually the source of every human activity. A critical analysis of all human activities will reveal that each of them is a direct result of one of these motives.

Once we succeed in establishing such importance for these motives, some questions inevitably arise. Is it intellectually and morally proper for a person to let himself be driven by these motives in whatever direction they take him? Although most people hand their reins over to their desires and needs, no sane person would answer the question in the affirmative. Most will declare that none of these motives can be trusted. The reason for this denial is that the first four motives, needs, desires, sexual desires, and emotions, have been proven totally blind. These only target satisfaction of their primary urge. They never account for what is legal and what is not, nor what method should humans employ to achieve their targets. They compel man to look for water to quench his thirst and food to kill his hunger like an ox or a donkey would. A person seems less concerned about moral or legal limits in fulfilling these desires. Every avenue that can potentially fulfill their desires must be trespassed, even if it is forbidden. People driven by these motives know no contentment, sacrifice or moderateness. They cause people to measure things with their stomachs, similar to a donkey. In a nutshell, those who spend their lives under the influence of these motives seldom attach importance to moral and legal limits. These are the people about which the Holy Qur’an says:

They eat like animals. (12·48)

However, the fifth motive is undoubtedly reliable in that it abides by the instructions of our sense of morality and our faculty of reasoning. It is divine in its essence and it leads towards Allah. Therefore, there is no danger that it will trap us in a worldly mirth. A little deliberation here reveals that despite its good traits it also has a negative effect upon us because it forces us to move in a single direction. This one sidedness, if let free, does not compromise with other drives. Thus, the fifth motive sometimes ignores the others without giving attention to the basic needs of the person driven by it. Consequently, it causes the combination of imbalance and extremism as we find in the lives of monks and ascetics.

Remedies for these drawbacks

It has been made clear that none of these motives can be trusted. They are good in one aspect but are harmful if viewed from another. No doubt, their presence is necessary to pull the cart of our life. However, if they are given reign over our lives we know not where they will lead us.

Thus, the nagging question is if these motives are necessary for life and are also harmful, then what is to be done in order to cleanse them of imbalance and extremism. Islam has guided us to two things that will help us avoid this extremism. First, the real target of all these motives should be seeking the pleasure of God. Second, these motives should be subject to the limits set by Allah and legal injunctions of the Shari’ah.

Setting the target of pleasing God does not mean that all our motives would have to abandon their material demand and wants. Rather, material demands and cravings will certainly be present, the difference being that previously their target was satisfying the mortal self and now it is winning the pleasure of God. Until now we were eating and drinking to meet the bodily needs of our self, but now we do so in order to obey our Master. Similarly, we were previously interested in our family for self-gratification, but now it becomes a source to win Allah’s favor. We loved and hated because of our own feelings and now our feelings of love and hate are for the sake of Allah alone.

One must not consider this a superficial or ordinary change. It is very important and has far-reaching consequences. When we perform an act for the sake of someone else, their tastes and interests are prominently reflected in that act. The liking or disliking of others is either ignored in this act or it is only considered in accordance with liking of the real person. If observed keenly, it becomes clear that there is a world of difference between the anger we express because of our self and the one we express on violation of God’s decrees.

For the reasons mentioned above, only those of our good acts will be rewarded which are done to please God. If the pleasure of Allah is not the real aim then an act is worth nothing, no matter how pure it may seem. If done with this purpose in mind, even providing for one’s wife becomes an act of worship. However, if actions are performed for any other motive, even an act as virtuous as Jihad becomes a naked mundane act. Consider the following sayings of the Prophet (sws):

Whatever you spend seeking Allah’s pleasure you will be rewarded on that, even on feeding your wives a bite. (Bukhari, No: 54)

Abu Musa ‘Ash’ari (rta) narrates: The Prophet (sws) was asked: ‘A man fights to prove his gallantry, the other does so because of his ego and yet another fights for show. Whose fight among these can be called Jihad in the way of Allah?’ The messenger of Allah replied: ‘Fight of that person can be declared done in the way of Allah who fought to hold the religion of Allah high’. (Bukhari, No: 6904)

Observing the limits prescribed by Allah means these motives should not be left free to reign on their own. Rather they should be governed by instructions issued by the Shari’ah. In short, their scope must be confined to the limits demarcated by Allah. He has indeed prescribed some limits regarding what we eat or drink, our sexual desires, feelings of love and hate, and even worship. These limits differentiate between the allowed and the prohibited, permissible and intolerable, and define every thing as obligatory, optional or recommended. It is very important to observe these limits and conditions. Man gets closer to God by respecting these limits. As an obvious corollary of this compliance comes moderateness in every aspect of our lives, which transforms every act and saying of ours into deeds of worship no matter how worldly their nature may be.

If the foregoing explanation is kept in view, it becomes evidently clear that the only cure for the blindness of these motives is to become aware that our ultimate goal should always be to seek the pleasure of God. In a nutshell, observing the limits set by the Shari’ah puts a check on the extremeness of these driving forces.

Two essentials

As mentioned earlier, we need to seek the pleasure of God and follow the Shari’ah in order to keep these motives on the straight path. Consequently, the real task is to learn how to keep the target of pleasing God before our eyes and never ignore it in all worldly affairs. To my mind, two things can help us accomplish this task: remembering Allah and keeping the thought of the Hereafter fresh in mind.

Remembering Allah

By remembering Allah we mean not only remembering Him occasionally but also keeping this remembrance alive in our heart. We should remember our Lord at every turn we take during a day. This will surely prevent us from taking any wrong turns. We must remember Him during every activity we undertake. This will surely save us from wandering far away from the real path. This remembrance should be done with an open mind, being fully conscious and appreciative so that it does not become a mere verbal exercise. It is not sufficient to repeat the name of Allah but to always keep in mind what is communicated to us through His attributes regarding his interactions with His creatures. In addition, we should always seek His guidance and help and also ask for His forgiveness for our mistakes. Due to this remembrance a man’s heart is fully devoted to his God and if by any trick of Satan he stumbles, God protects him.

Another fact that needs to be kept in mind is that when a person forgets his Lord, he in fact forgets himself because he no longer remains aware of the purpose of his presence in this world. Who has created him? Where will he go after this world ends? Who blessed him with all the blessings he enjoys? Why has he been blessed? Who and why has bestowed upon him all the powers and abilities he has? How do these blessings stand in conformity with his status in this world? As soon as he forgets Allah, he forgets all these things. Once he decides to blindly fulfill his mundane desires, he falls to a place even worst than the one occupied by animals. The Holy Qur’an has alluded to this reality in these words:

They forgot Allah and He made them unaware of themselves. (59·19)

On the contrary when man remains aware of God, he in fact remains aware of himself. He understands the significance of every moment of his life. He knows that he is the vicegerent of Allah on this earth and that because of his abilities angels prostrated before him. He is clear about the fact that after this ephemeral life is over, he will certainly get eternal joy and happiness. This creates in him awareness of all matters in his life. He considers that all blessings are entrusted to him and therefore he deals with all things in light of this consideration.

This remembrance must be an ongoing process. As breathing is the basic requirement of physical life, remembrance of Allah is necessary for our spiritual life. It does not mean that we should leave all other activities of life and go into seclusion for the very purpose of remembrance. We don’t need to abandon our activities in order to remember our Master. Rather, the true nature of this remembrance manifests itself in our financial worries, intricacies of relations with others, and practical struggle for the establishment of the religion. This remembrance should be kept alive while striving to keep all the activities of life going. The Holy Qur’an indicates the matter in the following words:

[Men] who keep remembering Allah while standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the wonders of creation in the heavens and the earth [with the thought]: ‘Our Lord! not for nothing have you created all this. Glory to You; give us salvation from the torment of the Fire’. (3·191)

This verse shows that remembering Allah keeps us on the right path when accompanied by the thought of the Hereafter. The words: ‘while standing, sitting and lying’ indicate that this remembrance is required to be performed in active life. Man does not need to abandon all his worldly activities in order to remember the Master of this universe.

Concern about the Hereafter

Concern about the Hereafter is in fact an aspect of the remembrance of the Almighty. This remembrance is useful only on the condition that we add concern of the Hereafter to it. It means that man pays heed to the fact that his life and the blessings of this world are mortal. All those who came into being are bound to die. Death is certain to visit all the infants, the young and the old. Nobody knows how long his breath will last. The rich and the destitute, the learned and the ignorant, the weak and the mighty all are subject to death. Every one has to face the darkness and loneliness of the grave. Allah has not created this world without any purpose and He is not affected by our decision of whether we spend our life following the right path or dissipate it in worldly affairs. He will certainly count our each and every saying and deed. We will not be able to hide anything from Him. Our dishonesty and deception will be caught. No interceder will be able to save us except with the permission of God. Nothing will bring us close to God except belief and virtuous acts. Allah is just as well as merciful and forgiving. Both His mercy and justice will be demonstrated in a perfect balance in the court of the Hereafter. Whoever is punished will suffer forever and whoever is blessed with Paradise will enjoy an eternal life. The truth of the matter is that we can neither imagine the severity of the torture nor the blessings that Allah has in store for us in the Hereafter.

Some Obstacles

If a person keeps on remembering Allah and remains conscious of the Day of Judgment, he will certainly be aware of his final target – all his actions should be for the sole purpose of pleasing God. It will also help him observe the limits set by Allah.

However certain human weaknesses obstruct this remembrance and meditation. The most prominent of such hindrances is our tendency towards procrastination or overlooking our obligations. The second major obstacle is unchecked love for this worldly life and wealth. The third one is the demand of our desires, be they sexual or otherwise.

Islam has prescribed cures for all these diseases. Prayer cures indolence and carelessness. Spending in the way of Allah cures the illness of undue love of this life, fasting counters the urges of all desires. However, the most comprehensive cure of the three is Hajj.

1: Translated from ‘Tadhkiyah-i-Nafs’ by Tariq Hashmi



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