Explanation of the Hadith: “Actions are but by intentions”

Ibn Rajab’s Commentary on Imam Nawawi’s Forty Hadith

Translation and copyright: Mohammed Fadel

Hadith

“Actions are but by intentions”

‘Umar b. al-Khattab narrated that the Prophet (S) said: Deeds are [a result] only of the intentions [of the actor], and an individual is [rewarded] only according to that which he intends. Therefore, whosoever has emigrated for the sake of Allah and His messenger, then his emigration was for Allah and His messenger. Whosoever emigrated for the sake of worldly gain, or a woman [whom he desires] to marry, then his emigration is for the sake of that which [moved him] to emigrate.” Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim.

This hadith has only one path to ‘Umar: Yahya b. Sa’id al-Ansari on the authority of Muhammad b. Ibrahim al-Taymi, on the authority of ‘Alqama b. Abi Waqqas al-Laythi, who narrated it from ‘Umar b. al-Khattab. Large numbers of people narrated this hadith on the authority of Yahya b. Sa’id, including Imam Malik, al-Thawri, al-Awza’i, Ibn al-Mubarak, al-Layth b. Sa’d, Hammad b. Zayd, Shu’ba, Ibn ‘Uyayna and others.

This was the first hadith Bukhari recorded in his book, where it serves the purpose of the introduction (khutba), pointing out that all deeds that are devoid of the proper intention are vain (batil). ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Mahdi is reported to have said that “Were I to compose a book comprised of various chapters, I would place the hadith of ‘Umar regarding deeds and intentions in each chapter.” This is one of the firm hadiths which serves as an axis of Islam. Al-Shafi’i said that it comprises a third of all religious knowledge. Ahmad b. Hanbal said that the principles axes of Islam, in terms of hadith, are three: the hadith of ‘Umar that “deeds are judged only by intention,” the hadith of ‘A`isha, “Whoever introduces into our affairs that which does not belong, it is rejected,” and the hadith of al-Nu’man b. Bashir, “The licit is clear and the illicit is clear.” Ishaq b. Rahawyahi also included this hadith as one of the axises of Islam. Abu Dawud, the collector of the Sunan, is reported to have said that of the 4,800 hadiths in his book, it is sufficient if a person knows four, the hadith of ‘Umar regarding intentions and deeds, the hadith “Part of person’s virtue in Islam is to ignore that which is of no concern to him,” the hadith “The believer is not a believer unless he desires for his brother what he desires for himself,” and the hadith “the licit is clear and the illicit is clear.”

The first question regarding this hadith is whether it refers to all actions, or only those actions whose validity requires an intention (niyya)? Thus, if it refers only to the former, it would not apply to the customary areas of human life, e.g., eating, drinking, clothes, etc., as well as transactional matters, e.g., fulfilling fiduciary duties and returning misappropriated properties. The other opinion is that the hadith refers to all actions. Ibn Rajab attributes the first position to the later scholars whereas the second position he attributes to earlier scholars.

The first sentence of the hadith, “innama al-a’mal bi-l-niyyat,” is a declaration that the voluntary actions of a person are a consequence only of that person’s purpose to perform the act or bring it into existence (“la taqa’ illa ‘an qasd min al-’amil huwa sabab ‘amaliha wa wujudiha.“).? The second sentence, “wa innama li-kulli imri` ma nawa,”is a declaration of religion’s judgment of the act in question (“ikbar ‘an al-hukm al-shar’i“).? Thus, if the intention motivating an act is good, then performance of the act is good and the person receives its reward.? As for the corrupt intention, the action it motivates is corrupt, and the person receives punishment therefor.? If the intention motivating the act is permissible, then the action is permissible, and the actor receives neither reward nor punishment. Therefore, acts in themselves, their goodness, foulness or neutrality, from the perspective of religion,? are judged according to the actor’s intention that caused their existence.

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