Reward Only From Allah
Reflections on the Hadith on intention and its impact
on our salaf.
Posted: 26 Safar 1422, 20 May 2001
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 Allahs 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 Quran. 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
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 Allahs pleasure. We may begin a good deed for the sake of
Allah 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, but we might actually be in it for the praise from people.
Quran and hadith warn us that that is shirk, or associating partners with Allah.
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 Quran 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 Allahs 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.
It is a terrible possibility that all of our
good deeds might be wiped out because of a corruption of our motives.
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 lifes 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 Quran 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]