The hidden self

One of the first lessons most of us learn when we set out on the path is, “Actions are by intentions.” It hardly needs to be said, for that is the primary concern of most seekers: to believe sincerely, without that prevailing sense of hypocrisy that gave birth to our search in the first place. But it provides a sound foundation for the journey ahead. It is one of a handful of narrations we know by heart, always quickly recalled.

“Actions are by intentions, and everyone will get what he intended. Whoever migrates for the sake of God and His messenger, then his migration will be for God and his Messenger. And whoever migrates for worldly gain or for a woman to marry, then his migration will be for the sake of whatever he migrated for.”

It becomes shorthand for a multitude of verses of the Qur’an which convey the same meaning, and a summary of so many other stories we have heard. One long narration speaks of the supposed martyr whose efforts are rejected because he died hoping that people would call him courageous, and the scholar whose efforts are likewise rejected, because he hoped people would say he was a learned man and an acclaimed reciter, and so on. The emphasis and implication of all these verses and reports is clear. Keep your intention sound and true.

But that is easier said than done: you have to be constantly on your guard if you wish to remain sincere. It is all too easy to be beguiled by the opinions of others, and to be set off course. And in moments of weakness, it is all too easy to hide behind the apparition of piety, to obscure the worst of intentions. Though our Lord can see even black ants wandering over a black rock in the middle of the night, nobody else on earth except ourselves knows what is truly in our hearts. Though our Lord is closer to us than our jugular vein, nobody else knows our intentions. When we are sincere, that reality has incredible power. When we go astray, it provides a terrible freedom.

You have no idea what my intentions are. You have no idea what I hide inside. You may judge me however you like, but your conclusion is based on mere presumption. You could think me a good man, but my intentions could be wicked. You could think me an opinionated fool, but my intentions could be good. Those around me may be adamant that I am as I present myself to others, but nobody knows the unseen. Am I sincere or a hypocrite, or somewhere on the continuum in between?

I am surprised that so many seem to have forgotten these founding principles. That they take for granted that every loved one is sincere and good. That they seem not to ponder at all on repeated Qur’anic warnings about the hypocrites, which scare the life out of me — am I one of them, I frequently ask myself, whenever I read these frightening verses to myself. Seek refuge in your Lord, from the whispers within, and be hopeful that you are not of those: this is the only thing I can do when I encounter those verses that drive me to reform, despite the strong counter-calls of my soul.

Having a good opinion of others is important, but there should be no blank cheque, just because someone has the appearance of greatness, humility or piety. Do not break the man’s back by over praising him, nor worship him as only your Lord should be worshipped. All of us carry this burden, battling hard to purify our intentions to keep them sound; none of us is immune. May our Lord make us sincere and true.

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