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

Niyya is used in two senses by the scholars of Islam.? The first is to distinguish some acts of worship from others, e.g., salat al-zuhr from salat al-’asr or to distinguish acts of worship (‘ibadat) from mundane matters (‘adat).? This is the primary usage of the term in the books of the fuqaha`.? The second usage is to distinguish an action that is performed for the sake of Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, from an act done for the sake of Allah and others, or just for the sake of other than Allah.? This second meaning is that which is intended by the gnostics (‘arifun) in their discussions of sincerity (ikhlas) and related matters.? This is the same meaning that is intended by the Pious Ancestors (al-salaf al-salih) when they use the term niyya. Thus, in the Qur`an, the speech of the Prophet (S) and the speech of the Salaf, the term niyya is synonymous, or usually so, with the term desire (irada) and related terms, e.g., ibtigha`.? The texts of the shar‘ testifying to this usage are too numerous to be cited in this posting, but include such verses as “Among you are those who desire (yurid) the profane world and among you are those who desire (yurid) the next,” and “You desire (turidun) the profit of the profane world but Allah desires [for you] the next,” and “Whosoever desires (yurid) the harvest of the profane world, etc.” and “Whosoever desires (yurid) the immediate [gratification of the profane world], we hasten it to him what We wish to whom We desire,” and “Do not expel those who call out to their Lord in the early morn and in the evening, who are seekers (yuridun) of His face and let not your eyes wander from them out of covetous desire (turid) of the frivolity of the profane world.”?

Likewise, Imam Ahmad and al-Nasa`i report that the Prophet (S) said that “Whosoever takes part in a military campaign in the cause of Allah, but sought only booty [thereby], shall gain [only] what he intended (nawa),” and on the authority of Imam Ahmad, “Most of the martyrs of my community shall die in their beds (ashab al-furush), and many a man killed in battle whose intention is known only to Allah,” and the hadith of Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas in Bukhari, where the Prophet (S) says “Indeed, you shall never spend of your property an amount whereby you are desirous (tabtaghi) of pleasing Allah save that you shall be rewarded for it, even the morsel of food that you place in your wife’s mouth.”? Similarly, it is reported that ‘Umar said “One who has no intention (niyya) has no [meritorious] deeds (“la ‘amala li-man la niyyata lahu”).

Despite the importance of having a good niyya, and its centrality to Islam, it is among the most difficult things to achieve. Thus, Sufyan al-Thawri is reported to have said, “Nothing is more difficult for me to treat than my intention (niyya) for indeed it turns on me!.”? Yusuf b. Asbat said, “Purifying one’s intention from corruption is more difficult for persons than lengthy exertion (ijtihad).”?

An act that is not done sincerely for the sake of Allah may be divided into parts:

The first is that which is solely for display (riya`) such that its sole motivation is to be seen by others in order to achieve a goal in the profane world, as was the case of the Hypocrites in their performance of prayer, where Allah described them as “When they join prayer, they go lazily [with the purpose] of displaying [themselves] to the people.”

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