My closest friends have heard me say it before, “I’m counting on pork to get me to heaven.” Irreverent though that sentiment may seem, this is because refraining from eating pork is about the only thing I do purely for the pleasure of God. I don’t expect any health benefits from my abstinence and it certainly doesn’t give me a lot of social cache, it doesn’t bolster my ego or make me feel like a super pious person; it’s just there, a simple and pure act of “I hear and obey.”
Beneath nearly every other thing I (and I assume the vast majority of Muslims) do is a complex weave of personal, communal and pious reasons. I give in charity not only because God extols charity in the Qur’an, but because it makes the world a better place, it alleviates suffering, it makes me feel good and assuages my conscience for having and consuming more than I need. Indeed, before I’d ever heard of the Qur’an, or accepted Muhammad as a Messenger, back when I was a true-believer atheist, I gave in charity because it is clearly the right thing to do. I educated my daughters (and would have educated my daughters without the Qur’an or the Prophet telling me to do so) because I want the best for them, for them to be able to use their abilities to the fullest, for them to have choices in life and economic stability, because an educated woman makes a better mother, because society is stronger when women are educated, because I have personally benefited immensely from my own education in so many ways. That is also happens to be part of the Message is frosting on the cake. Indeed, nearly every good deed the Qur’an extols has a very clear worldly purpose.
I suppose, then, that it is small wonder that I have struggled for a long time with the role of intention in the Qur’an and in our Muslim community. On the one hand, judging actions by intention makes a certain amount of sense. The hadith rightfully points out that the man who seeks knowledge so that other people will look up to him and sing his praises is not the same as the one who seeks knowledge so as to better himself; and that fruits of their deed should go according to their intentions. On the other, I cringe whenever I hear imams or scholars telling us to offer more charity in Ramadan because Allah gives us 70 times the reward of every good deed done in Ramadan, even though this is based upon authentic hadith. Where, I wonder, is the good in those good deeds when they are done only for the rewards God has promised, an intention that seems to me crass, shallow, and ultimately self-serving? Even worse is the exhortation to do good because it will cancel out bad deeds and protect us from Hell. How good are we if the only thing holding us back from evil is the threat of punishment? Doesn’t the actually being good count for something?
Doing a good thing because God asks you to, because it makes the world a nicer place, or because its the right thing to do, seems far better than doing it for rewards or to avoid punishment. The beginning of Rabi’as famous poem, ” If I adore You out of fear of Hell, burn me in Hell! If I adore you out of desire for Paradise, lock me out of Paradise,” seems spot on.
But the last half of that poem, “But if I adore you for Yourself alone, do not deny to me Your eternal beauty,” steers me back into murky waters. What about those of us who are not doing things for God alone? What about those of us mix wordly intention in with our Godly ones? Or who do good without any reference to God at all? The Qur’an tells us that, “The good deeds of disbelievers are like a mirage seen in vast deserts. A thirsty person thinks from a distance that it is water. But when he comes up to it, he does not find what he expects,” (24:39) and again that,”The parable of those who disbelieved in their Lord is that their works are as ashes, on which the wind blows furiously on a stormy day; they shall not be able to get aught of what they have earned. That is the straying, far away.”(14:18)How can a just, compassionate, loving God (as we are told She is) throw away deeds that serve His creation, that serve to make the world a better place, simply because they do not reference Him? I cannot fathom that a God who is capable of creating the Universe cares whether we do deeds for Him or because they make His creation a better place, because it lightens the load for those less fortunate than we are.
The Prophet points to this serving of the world as serving God in many hadith. “Helping a person or his belongings onto his mount is an act of charity. A good word is charity. Every step taken on the way to performing prayers is charity. Removing an obstacle from the road is charity.” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari) As-Suyiti referenced the Prophet as saying, “If a man is working to support his small children, then it is for the sake of God. If he is working to support his elderly parents, then it is for the sake of God. If he is working to occupy himself and keep his desires in check, then it is for the sake of God. If, on the other hand, he is doing so to show off and earn fame, then he is working for the sake of Satan.” “Sleeping with your wife is a charity.” (Bukhari) “Smiling upon your brother is charity.” (Muslim)
Or again in this hadith Qudsi, “O son of Adam, I fell ill and you visited Me not. He will say: O Lord, and how should I visit You when You are the Lord of the worlds? He will say: Did you not know that My servant So-and-so had fallen ill and you visited him not? Did you not know that had you visited him you would have found Me with him? O son of Adam, I asked you for food and you fed Me not. He will say: O Lord, and how should I feed You when You are the Lord of the worlds? He will say: Did you not know that My servant So-and-so asked you for food and you fed him not? Did you not know that had you fed him you would surely have found that (the reward for doing so) with Me? O son of Adam, I asked you to give Me to drink and you gave Me not to drink. He will say: O Lord, how should I give You to drink whin You are the Lord of the worlds? He will say: My servant So-and-so asked you to give him to drink and you gave him not to drink. Had you given him to drink you would have surely found that with Me.”
It is in hadith like these, and the very wordly focus of the Qur’an, that I find the God I expect, the God who recognizes good in all its forms, who acknowledges that service to the world is a good in and of itself, and will not suffer even the smallest good deed to go uncounted. And yet, I cannot deny that other picture of God… the One who insists upon belief as the necessary condition for good, who motivates people with promises of rewards and threats of punishment.
All I can believe is that God is as we need God to be. Some of us are motivated by good for good’s sake, some of us are motivated by love of God alone; others need to see the worldly benefit, and others need the carrot or the stick. A God who encompasses all of these, without being bound by any of them… that I can believe in, for God surely provides a path for all to attain goodness if they so desire.