The Nature of Intention

From the works of Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya, and Imam Ghazali

The intention of a person is not his utterance of the words, "I intend to do so and so." It is an overflowing from the heart which runs like conquests inspired by Allah. At times it is made easy, at other times, difficult. A person whose heart is overwhelmingly righteous finds it easy to summon good intentions at most times. Such a person has a heart generally inclined to the roots of goodness which, most of the time, blossom into the manifestation of good actions. As for those whose hearts incline towards and are overwhelmed by worldy matters, they find this difficult to accomplish and even obligatory acts of worship may become difficult and tiresome.

The Prophet (saw) said:

Actions are only by intention, and every man shall only have what he intended. Thus he whose emigration  (hijrah) was for Allah and was for Allah and His Messenger, his emigration was for Allah and His Messenger, and he whose emigration was to achieve some worldly benefit or to take some woman in marriage, his emigration was for that for which he made emigration.(1)

Imam ash-Shaf'i said: "This hadith is a third of all knowledge." The words, "actions are only by intention", mean that deeds which are performed in accordance with the Sunnah are only acceptable and rewarded if the intentions behind them were sincere. It is like the saying of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, "Actions depend upon their outcome."(2)

Likewise, the words, "every man shall only have what he intended", mean that the reward for an action depends upon the intention behind it. After stating this principle, the Prophet (saw) gave examples of it by saying, "thus he the Prophet (saw) gave examples of it by saying, "Thus he whose emigration (hijrah) was for Allah and His Messenger, his emigration was for Allah and His Messenger, and he whose emigration was to achieve some worldly benefit or to take some woman in marriage, his emigration was for that for which he made emigration." So deeds which are apparently identical may differ, because the intentions behind them are different in degrees of goodness and badness, from one person to another.

Good intentions do not change the nature of forbidden actions. The ignorant should not misconstrue the meaning of the hadith and think that good intentions could turn forbidden actions into acceptable ones. The above saying of the Prophet (saw) specifically relates to acts of worship and permissible actions, not to forbidden ones. Worship and permissible actions can be turned into forbidden ones because of the intentions behind them, and permissible actions can become either good or bad deeds by intention; but wrong actions cannot become acts of worship, even with good intentions.(3) When bad intentions are accompanied by flaws in the actions themselves, then their gravity and punishment are multiplied.

Any praiseworthy act must be rooted in sound intentions; only then could it be deemed worthy of reward. The fundamental principle should be that the act is intended for the worship of Allah alone. If our intention is to show off, then these same acts of worship will in fact become acts of disobedience. As for permissible deeds, they all involve intentions -- which can potentially turn them into excellent acts which bring a man nearer to Allah and confer on him the gift of closeness to Him.

The Excellence of Intention

Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

The best acts are doing what Allah has commanded, staying for away from what Allah has forbidden, and having sincere intentions towards what-ever Allah has required of us."(4)

Some of our predecessors said:

Many small actions are made great by the intentions behind them. Many great actions, on the other hand, are made small because the intentions behind them are lacking.

Yahya Ibn Abu Kathir said:

Learn about intentions, for their importance is greater than the importance of actions.

Ibn Umar once heard a man who was putting on his ihram say: "O Allah! I intend to do the Hajj and Umrah." So he said to him: "Is it not in fact the people whom you are informing of your intention? Does not Allah already know what is in your heart?"(5) It is because good intentions are exclusively the concern of the heart, that they should not be voiced during worship.

The Excellence of Knowledge and Teaching

There are many proofs in the Qur'an concerning the excellence of knowledge and its transmission. Allah, the Mighty and Glorious, says:

"Allah will raise up to high ranks those of you who believe and those who have been given knowledge. (58:11)"

And also:

"Are those who know equal to those who do not know? (39:9)

Also , in the Hadith, the Prophet (saw) says, "When Allah desires good for someone, He gives him understanding of the religion."(6) He (saw) also said, "Allah makes the way to the Garden easy for whoever treads a path in search of knowledge."(7)

Traveling on the path to knowledge refers both to walking along an actual pathway, such as going on foot to the assemblies of the `ulama, as well as to following a metaphysical road, such as studying and memorizing.

The above saying of the Prophet (saw) probably means that Allah makes learning the useful knowledge that is sought after easier for the seeker, clearing the way for him and smoothing his journey. Some of our predecessors used to say: "Is there anyone seeking knowledge, so that we can assist him in finding it?"

This hadith also alludes to the road leading to the Garden on the Day of Judgement, which is the straight path and to what precedes it and what comes after it.

Knowledge is also the shortest path to Allah. Whoever travels the road of knowledge reaches Allah and the Garden by the shortest route. Knowledge also clears the way out of darkness, ignorance, doubt and scepticism. This is why Allah called His Book, "Light".

Al-Bukhari and Muslim have reported on the authority of Abdullah ibn Umar that the Messenger of Allah (saw) said:

Truly, Allah will not take away knowledge by snatching it away from people, but by taking away the lives of the people of knowledge one by one until none of them survive. Then the people will adopt ignorant ones as their leaders. They will be asked to deliver judgments and they will give them without knowledge, with the result that they will go astray and lead others astray.

When 'Ubadah ibn as-Samit was asked about this hadith he said: If you want, I will tell you what the highest knowledge is, which raises people in rank: it is humility."

He said this because there are two types of knowledge.

The first produces its fruit in the heart. It is knowledge of Allah, the Exalted - His Names, His Attributes, and His Acts - which commands fear, respect, exaltation, love, supplication and reliance on Him. this is the beneficial type of knowledge. As Ibn Mas'ud said: "they will recite the Qur'an, but it will not go beyond their throats. The Qur'an is only beneficial when it reaches the heart and is firmly planted in it."

Al-Hasan said:

There are two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of the tongue, which can be a case against the son of Adam, as is mentioned in the hadith of the Prophet (saw): 'The Qur'an is either a case for you or a case against you'(8), and knowledge of the heart, which is beneficial knowledge. The second kind is the beneficial kind which raises people in rank; it is the inner knowledge which is absorbed by the heart and puts it right. The knowledge that is on the tongue is taken lightly by people: neither those who possess it, nor anyone else, act upon it, and then it vanishes when its owners vanish on the Day of Judgment, when creation will be brought to account.

NOTES:

1. Al-Bukhari and Muslim

2. Al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Qadar, 11/499.

3. This is illustrated in a hadith recorded by Imam Muslim in his Sahih, in which it is related on the authority of Abu Dharr that the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, "You will receive the reward for sadaqa even when you have sexual intercourse with your wives." The sahaba said, "Will we really be rewarded for satisfying our physical desires?" He replied, "If you have forbidden intercourse, you will be committing a sin; similarly, if you have lawful intercourse, you will be rewarded." Imam an-Nawawi said, "This hadith clearly shows that permissible actions become acts of obedience if there is a good intention behind them; sexual intercourse becomes an act of worship if it is accompanied by any one of the following good intentions: keeping company with your wife in kindness, as Allah ta'Ala has commanded; hoping to have, as a result of intercourse, good and righteous offspring; guarding your chastity and that of your wife; helping to prevent haram lustful glances or thoughts, or forbidden intercourse; and any other good intention."

4. Tahdhib al'Asma' li-Nawawi, 1/173. Abu Ishaq ash-Shirazi once entered the mosque to have something to eat, as was his custom, and then realized that he had dropped a dinar. He retraced his steps and found it lying on the ground, but then left it where it was, saying, "Perhaps it is not mine; perhaps it belongs to somebody else."

5. Sahih, Ja'mi 'l-'Ulum wa'l-Hikam, p. 19.

6. Al-Bukhari and Muslim.

7. Muslim, 21/17.

8. Muslim, Kitab at-Tahara, 3/99.