It is narrated on the authority of Umar ibn Al-Khattab who quoted the Prophet (peace be upon him) saying: “All actions are judged by motives and each person will be rewarded as per his intention. Thus, he whose migration was to God and His Messenger, his migration is to God and His Messenger; but he whose migration was for some worldly thing he might gain, or for a wife he might marry, his migration is to that for which he migrated.” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari, Saheeh Muslim)
This Hadith is indeed one of the greatest and most important of the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), as it sets one of the most important principles in the religion of Islam, specifically in regards to the acceptance of one’s religion and deeds by God, and generally to all other normal everyday activities in which a person involves himself. This principle implies that in order for any action to be accepted and thus rewarded by God, it must be done purely for His sake.
At one stage in the life of the Prophet, God ordered all the Muslims to migrate from Makkah to Madinah. In this Hadith, the Prophet gave an example of two types of people in regards to migration:
The first example was that of a person who migrated to Madinah purely for the sake of God, seeking His pleasure and seeking to fulfill His command. The Prophet stated that the deed of this person will be accepted by God and he will be rewarded in the fullest.
The second example was of a person who fulfilled this religious service, but his intention was not the pleasure of God nor fulfilling His command, and so such type of person, although he might achieve what he was intending in this life, will not receive reward for it from God, and the deed is not one which is considered acceptable.
In Islam, there are two realms to a person’s life, the religious and the mundane. Although there is a clear separation between the two in regards to religious jurisprudence, they are in fact inseparable, as Islam is a religion, which legislates in family matter, society and politics as well as the belief and worship of God.
As mentioned earlier, this Hadith sets the first principle for one’s deeds to be accepted by God, which is that they should be done purely for God. In regards to those deeds, which have been commanded as a form of religious devotion, known as worship, one must do them for God alone. These deeds include prayers, fasting, giving zakah, Haj and all other services, which have been ordained in the religion.
Islam is a religion, which believes and practices true and strict monotheism. This monotheism not only entails that that there is only one God and Creator, but also that God has the right that all worship be done solely for His sake and nobody else. The Quran says: “And they were not commanded except that they should worship God, keeping the religion pure for Him, and worship none but Him alone, and establish the Prayer and offer the compulsory charity, and that is the upright religion.” (Qur’an 98:5)
Another aspect of this purity of intention is that a person should never seek any worldly gains through religious service and acts of worship, even if that worldly gain be something permissible. In the Hadith mentioned above, the second person did not perform this religious obligation of migration for other deities besides or alongside God, nor did he intend something intrinsically evil. Rather his intention was something deemed permissible in the religion.
Still, however, the act was not accepted by God, and the person may or may not have received what he intended from this worldly life. Thus, if a person seeks any permissible worldly gain through an action, the reward of the deed diminishes.
A Hadith says: “A person learned (religious) knowledge and taught it (to others), as well as recited the Qur’an, he will be brought to the presence of God, and God will mention to him all the favors He granted, and he will recognize them. God will ask him, ‘What did you do with them?’ He will answer, ‘I learned religious knowledge and taught it to others and I recited the Qur’an purely for Your sake.’ God will say, ‘You have lied! Rather you learned religious knowledge to be called a scholar, and you recited the Qur’an to be called a reciter, and it was said of you!’
Then He will command him to be punished; and so he will be dragged on his face and will be thrown into the Fire.” (An-Nasa’i)