What actions constitute hypocrisy?
Hypocrisy is loosely defined as putting up a false appearance. In matters of faith, it describes the sort of actions that are associated with pretending to accept the faith of Islam when a person actually does not. He does so in order to win favor with Muslims and to try to be accepted as one of them. At the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him, there were people in Madinah who claimed to be Muslims when in actual fact they were not. Allah describes these people at the opening of the Surah entitled "The Hypocrites" in the following terms:
"When the hypocrites come to you, they say: we bear witness that you are truly Allah’s messenger. Allah certainly knows that you are truly His messenger, but Allah bears witness that the hypocrites are indeed liars." [the Hypocrites — “Al-Munafiqun” 63: 1]
Since hypocrisy is all about pretense, it is very difficult to define who is a hypocrite. However, the Prophet, peace be upon him, has outlined for us some characteristics which are common in all hypocrites. He says: "Three qualities are the mark of hypocrite: he lies when he speaks, he breaks his promises when he has given them and he is unfaithful to his trust." [Related by Muslim]. Another version of this Hadith, also related by Muslim, quotes the Prophet, peace be upon him, as saying: "If the following four characteristics are part of a person’s character, he is a pure hypocrite. If one of them applies to him, he has a characteristic of hypocrisy until he abandons it: he lies when he speaks, he violates his pledges, breaks his promises and when he quarrels with someone he is shameless."
It should be added that these are indications of hypocrisy. When such qualities are typical of anyone’s behavior to the extent that they are a part of his nature, he is almost certainly a hypocrite. They do not necessarily mean that he is a non-believer who pretends to be a Muslim, since a Muslim may have no doubts about the Oneness of Allah and the fact that Muhammad, peace be upon him, was Allah’s messenger, and still commit one or more of these actions.
When, however, they come naturally to a person, his behavior is that of a hypocrite. These Hadiths, then, serve as a very strong warning against such actions, since they are of the type of actions that a hypocrite does all the time. The Prophet, peace be upon him, is telling us in these Hadiths that a person who does this type of action habitually runs the risk of being a confirmed hypocrite.
When the Qur’an warns and threatens the hypocrites with severe punishments in the Hereafter, the warning is directed to those who pretend to be Muslims when they are not. It is they who will suffer the greatest punishment in the Hereafter, because throughout their lives they tried to subvert the Muslim community, pretending to belong to it when they belong to its enemies.
The Prophet, peace be upon him, was ordered by Allah to accept the claims of the hypocrites and leave their punishment to Allah. The point is that no human being can really tell what is the true conviction of another. It is Allah alone who knows what is in our innermost hearts. Hence, it is up to Him to determine the sort of punishment hypocrites deserve. Those who are hypocritical about their faith will suffer the most grievous of punishments.