وَّيُحِبُّونَ أَن يُحْمَدُوا بِمَا لَمْ يَفْعَلُوا
Wayuhuhibbūna an yuhmadū bimā lam yaf‘alū
And [those who] love to be praised for what they have not done.
(Sūrat Āli Imrān, No 3, Āyat 188)
This verse talks about the qualities of hypocrites. They like to boast about what they do, and they want to take credit for good deeds they have not performed. According to Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān this could refer to the people who refused to acknowledge that the Prophet Muhammad sallal-lāhu ‘alayhi wa-ālihi wasallam was mentioned in their holy books. They hid this truth from the people and then continued portraying themselves as well wishers and guides of the people. They wanted people to praise them for their guidance while they betrayed the faith of the people in them. Their hypocrisy ran so deep that they declared they were the loved ones of Allah while they harbored enmity towards anyone who threatened their position.
People are of three types regarding their deeds:
A group of sincere believers who love Allah ‘azza wajall and wish to please Him only. They do good deeds but desire no reward or appreciation from people. The Ahlul Bayt ‘alayhimus-salām taught this noble behavior through their interaction with the poor, the orphan, and the prisoner they fed while fasting for three days. They said: We feed you only for the sake of Allah. We desire no reward from you, nor thanks (Q 76:9).
This group is not eager for praise for their deeds. Rather they are afraid of being praised for their deeds. Imam Ali (a) explains their reaction when someone praises them: They are not satisfied with their meagre good acts, and do not regard their major acts as great. They always blame themselves and are afraid of their deeds. When anyone of them is spoken of highly, he says, ‘I know myself better than others, and my Lord knows me better than I know. O Allah do not deal with me according to what they say and make me better than they think of me and forgive me (those shortcomings) which they do not know’ (Nahjul Balāgha, Sermon 193).
2) Another group does good deeds to show people, so they are respected and praised in society. The Quran says about them: And those who spend their wealth to be seen by people and believe neither in Allah nor in the Last Day (Q 4:38). The main motive behind the actions is praise of people. This type of riyā’ is greatly condemned. Imam al Sādiq ‘alayhis-salām said: Riyā’ in any of its forms amounts to shirk, (polytheism); verily, one who works for the people, his reward lies with them, and one who works for God, his reward lies with God (Al-Kulaynī, al-Kāfī, v. 2, p. 402).
3) A third group does not even do any good deed, but they put on a false appearance and want people to praise them. This group are the shallow hypocrites who have no character or morals. They are not ashamed to seek credit for what they have not done. The above verse condemns this third group.
Let this verse be a reminder for us that we do not take credit for deeds we have not done. It is the quality of hypocrites. Instead, we should strive to be part of the first group that wishes only to please Allah subhānahu wata‘ālā and the praise or criticism of people do not make a difference to him. We should have faith that Allah gives honor and respect to people as he wishes. Imam al-Sādiq (a) says: There is no one in the world who has concealed his good deeds and after a passage of time God has not revealed them. And there is no one in the world who could conceal his wicked deeds for ever, for they will be exposed by God before he passes away from the world. [Al-Kulaynī, al-Kāfī, v. 2, p. 453]
Sources: Shaykh Tabarsī, Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Byān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Agha Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr.