Subhanallah, this counsel by the honorable Shaykh Dr Muhammad bin Yahya Al-Ninowy, in my humble opinion is the only talk about sincerity that we need to hear and understand. Shaykh Al-Ninowy gave this tausiyah on 9th Jan 2015 in Georgia at a majlis ta'lim organized by Madina Institute USA. I found this precious recording on a friend's FB, she is a mureed of Shaykh Al-Ninowy.
Challenges are abound as we struggle to do as many good-deeds as possible, hoping to replace any bad or not-so-good good-deeds committed. The struggle is within because a deed springs forth from an intention/niyyat and that is an inside job. It has a beginning, a middle part and an end. I remembered one ustaz saying, "Sometimes we are ikhlas in the beginning but not at the end. We have to make sure it's ikhlas all the way." Shaykh Al-Ninowy calls it 'calibration of ikhlas' - keeping one's ikhlas calibrated.
As we struggle with the inside job, we are sometimes thrown with all kinds of accusations from holier-than-thou people who think our inside job is under their purview. They are God-wannabes.
Anyway, Shaykh Dr. Muhammad Al-Ninowy, in this 25-minute tausiyah, gave a deep yet succinct summary of what ikhlas is and how it should be. Below is my attempt at transcribing what the shaykh articulated, with minor editing.
Ikhlas means sincerity in general. Allah says in the Quran, 'To Allah belongs a deen that is khalis.' Khalis means pure. Pure from everything. Maqam of ikhlas is one of the maqamat/stations that is very important.
Ulama of suluk are in agreement that the fuel on the trip/journey to Allah is ikhlas. If you think it's about how much deeds you do, it won't work. Hadith calls that shirik khafi. There are two kinds of shirik. One takes you out of the fold of Islam. On the other hand, shirik khafi or the concealed shirik does not take you out of the fold of Islam but it renders everything you do invalid or unacceptable.
From suluk point of view, ikhlas is purifying the deed from any impurities. We move away from sincerity per se to purifying from impurities. For example: what is the key/fiqh to solah? It's taharah. That you do your wuduk etc. There is taharah in iman, that is having no impurities in iman being ikhlas lillahi ta'ala. There is also taharah in ehsan and it's all about attaining purity from any impurities. Some of the impurities in ikhlas, for example, is showing off or doing something for other people.
The first level of ikhlas is blindness from seeing the deed or the acts of worship, after doing it. That is perfecting them and then putting them behind your back.
What's the point of doing amal/deeds? Without amal we are not going to go anywhere because Allah asks us to do deeds. We must perfect our deeds. The way to Allah is sunnah Rasulallah salallah alaihi wasalam. The Prophet says: "Who does not follow my sunnah, is not from me." The point is that you perfect your amal and then in one level you belittle it. In the real level, you don't see it at all.
What does it mean by you don't see it? Does that mean you don't brag about it even though it is the best deed you've ever done? Don't believe that you are worthy of reward for the best deed you did. Don't have belief in you that you are worthy of a reward for it.
For example, Allah sends you an opportunity to build a masjid and you have $100,000 so you give away $90,000 and keep only $10,000. If you did that for Allah, ikhlas entails that you don't think and believe that you deserve a reward for what you did. Why? The one who deserves a reward (ajar) is the Ajir - higher person. A slave works without rewards. It's enough that his Master feeds him and provide him safety.
If you believe you deserve a reward from Allah, then you are in trouble, from ikhlas point of view - from a fine ikhlas point of view. Don't view yourself as a higher person to do this, that Allah owes you something back in return.
So, do your amal, perfect it and then know that you don't deserve a reward because it is not you who did it anyway. It is Allah who facilitated it for you to do it and you actually need to be thanking Him for opening the opportunity to you in the first place; driving it to your door in the second place; then giving you something in the third place; and making you give what He gave you, in the fourth place.
Again, the first level of ikhlas is not seeing the deed. Ikhlas is that you perfect the deed, you need to perfect it, you cannot do a sloppy job. Then take it out of the equation because you are Abdullah. You are slave to Allah.
But then, no matter how much you perfect your deed, it's not acceptable, it's not good enough. In a hadith, the Prophet says: "None of your deeds will take you to Jannah". Not Sayyidina Abu Bakar nor Sayyidina Umar. Sahabah asks: "How about you Rasul?" The Prophet says: "Not even my deeds except that Allah grants mercy." So, no one can thank him enough. Even the best of creations, the one closest to Allah tries to do, yet he views himself as falling short in praising Allah.
You should not see where the deeds come from e.g. "I give $90,000. What do you want me to do?" Don't see where the deed is coming from. You should see where the deed is going to. Don't see yourself doing something good: "I gave 90% of what I had." But see who are you presenting the deed to? If you are giving to Allah then look at those who are competing in giving deeds to Allah. That's where you measure.
For the pious slaves of Allah, they view Allah giving them good things that happen to them, as Allah facilitating it to run on their hands, out of the generosity of Allah. Allah wills it for us to be in the right place at the right time.
Maqam of ikhlas means you need to absolve yourselves from expecting a reward for the good deeds in dunya or in the akhirah, both. Why? If you still see the deed, take out all these expectations of rewards. Do good deeds to please Allah. If it's pleasing Allah then your relationship is based on Allah and not the rewards He gives you. So that you will not be upset if He doesn't give you in dunya and if He doesn't give you in akhirah you will not be upset either, thinking 'Oh, I wasted my money'.
Next, you need to calibrate your ikhlas. What's the point? Fast for what? Illa liyak budun. It's actually illa liyakrifun. That is to know Allah. We must realize ibadah has an objective and the objective is to know Allah. If you know Him, you have taqwa, if you don't know Him, no matter what you say, you don't have taqwa.
You must check: did the amal I did, make me know Allah better? Am I closer to Allah? Was it robotic or mechanical thing I did and had no bearing to my relationship to Allah? Then ikhlas is questionable. If your niyyat is with Allah from the beginning, then your niyyat is for Allah at the end.
The act of worship is not the objective itself. The objective of amal is to get closer to Allah. Then check your ikhlas. For example, you come to masjid with what niyyat? If you make it purely for Allah: I come for the pleasure of Allah and remain in this niyyat until you leave the masjid, then you will be closer to Allah. But once you step out of the niyyah e.g. come for acquiring information, to attend majlis solehin, to see good people, which is good, but then correct your intention solely for Allah. Purify your ikhlas and keep it calibrated. Niyyah must be there and remain intact so that your coming to majlis ilm such as this becomes a wasilah/tool for you to be closer to Allah.
After perfecting the deed, you should be embarrassed by it. Why? Because one sees the good things from the generosity of Allah. You must be emancipated by it. Leave yourself out of the recognition. When Allah enables you to do a good thing, say Alhamdulillah. That is the meaning of la hawla wala quwwata illah billah. The real meaning is: there is no power to stay away from sins and there is no power to do obedience except with the power of Allah. The slave who is with of Allah, when they do something, it's with Allah, for Allah, by Allah, to Allah.
The last level of ikhlas is freedom. First, you do the work, then you don't see the work, then you see the facilitation. Then the last level of ikhlas is you don't see anything but Allah. The last level of ikhlas, they say is: khalas. It means emancipation. Do a deed but don't see the deed, see a path, not seeing you did it but Allah facilitates it, so you see the facilitation until you don't see anything. Nothing is important for you to see. What is important to see? Fawalli wajhaka shatral masjidil haram. Put your face towards that direction - Masjidil Haram. They call that emancipation. So you and your heart are with Allah Al-Qadir Al-Haqq, not with the manifestation of Allah's qudrah. You do not be dazzled and amazed by the manifestation of Allah's qudrah rather than Him Al-Qadir Himself. Similarly, you do not busy with promise of reward, you are not more attached to His Jannah than you are attached to Him. You are close to Him. Jannah is good but it is His creation. It is Him you want to know and be close to. Then if He gives you Jannah or whatever He gives you, you are pleased.