I had a group of GCSE students in the mosque the other day. Nothing out of the ordinary, but one of the boys asked a question and it is not the first time that I heard it.
"Isn't a person who does something just because it is good not expecting any reward better than a person who does something because they want Allah to reward them with paradise."
So my response was something like this:
This is a good question, and its not the first time I have heard it asked. I rather suspect that it's one of those arguments put forward by secular humanism that seems to be popular these days.
My answer to this is from two angles.
The first is that I don't believe that there is any such thing as a truly selfless act. It is true a believer is seeking God's pleasure and His paradise, but even a person who is doing good for no other reason than it is good gets something from that. For example, they get a feeling of satisfaction, a sense perhaps of being noble and just and fair and good . The conscience is satiated. So this is in no way selfless. In fact it could even be argued that this is the ultimate in selfishness. Such a person puts themselves at the centre of the universe. Indeed, such an attitude could even breed arrogance and pride! Hardly "good" characterisitics. As for the believer, God is the centre of all. No good deed is ever accomplished except by the grace of God and an essential component of the deed is that it is done with the pure intention to please God alone. So arguably the believers act is truely more selfless, although he or she still hopes to gain something from it.
The second angle is, who defines what is good? If this person doing good just because it was good was a Fascist in Nazi Germany then herding Jews into gas chambers would make him a highly commended individual. Even recently we can see some Serbs have virtually canonized Slobadan Milosovich. I have even seen paintings of him with a halo and wings like an angel, yet he was responsible for the murder, rape and torture of thousands of Bosnian Muslims. Can we accept that this is good? I think not. So it comes back to this essential matter, who decides?
In Islam there is an absolute standard of morality that has been determined by the Creator. In fact, it is for God alone to determine what is good and evil, right and wrong. Allah, unlike humans, has no vested interest. Allah does not need our obedience and worship. He is self-sufficient, free of wants and needs. What is revealed by way of guidance is because He knows from His perfect wisdom that that is best us.
He thought it was a good answer!