The hadith of intentions is not meant to be taken in a vacuum. Nothing in the Shari`a is in a vacuum. It needs to be taken together with all the other injunctions of Allah and His Prophet which includes five hundred commands and eight hundred prohibitions. Furthermore the hadith of intention is a warning to eliminate self-display and self-delusion because they cancel reward and have negative consequences. There are other applications as well. An important requirement is to tread the path of teachers and not to try and split hairs by philosophizing on our own.
Ibn Rajab’s Commentary on Imam Nawawi’s Forty Hadith
‘Umar b. al-Khattab RadhiAllahu‘anhu narrated that the Prophet (ﷺ) 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 person’s intention that caused their existence.
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 (ﷺ ) 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 (ﷺ ) 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.”
At other times, an action might be partially for the sake of Allah and partially to display one’s self in front of the people. If the desire to display one’s self arose at the origin of the action, then the action is vain. Imam Ahmad reports that the Prophet (ﷺ ) said, “When Allah gathers the first [of His creation] and the last [of His creation] for that Day for which there is no doubt, a crier will call out, ‘Whosoever associated with Me another in his actions let him seek his reward from other than Allah, for Allah is the most independent of any association (fa-inna allaha aghna al-sharaka` ‘an al-shirk).” Al-Nasa`i reported that a man asked the Prophet (ﷺ ), “What is your opinion of one who fights [in the way of Allah] seeking fame [in the profane world] and reward [from Allah]” The Prophet (ﷺ ) replied, “He receives nothing [by way of reward from Allah’.” The Prophet (ﷺ ) repeated this three times and then said, “Allah accepts no deeds other than those that are performed solely for His sake and by which His face is sought.” This opinion, namely, that if an act is corrupted by any desire to display one’s self (riya`) then that act is rejected, is attributed to many of the Salaf, including, ‘Ubada b. al-Samit, Abu al-Darda`, al-Hasan al-Basri, Sa’id b. al-Musayyib and others.
If one’s intention is corrupted with something other than the desire to display one’s self, e.g., to earn profit whilst on a jihad in the path of Allah, such an intention reduces one’s reward from jihad, but does not negate it entirely. Muslim reported in his Sahih that the Prophet (ﷺ ) said that “Soldiers in the path of Allah attain two-thirds of their reward immediately when they obtain booty [from the enemy], whereas they receive their reward in its entirety when they obtain nothing from the enemy.”
As for an action whose origin is for Allah, then it subsequently becomes corrupted by a desire to display one’s self, then the Salaf differed as to whether such an act is vain. Their differences on this matter have been reported by Ahmad and al-Tabari. Al-Hasan al-Basri is reported to have held that such a desire, in itself, does not invalidate the proper intention that was the origin of the act.
In conclusion, the saying of Sahl b. ‘Abd Allah is most beautiful in this regard: Nothing is more difficult on a person than sincerity because the person gains no share of that [act]. Ibn ‘Uyayna said that Mutarrif b. ‘Abdallah would repeat the following prayer, “O Allah! I seek Your forgiveness for that which I sought your repentance but to which I subsequently returned; I seek Your forgiveness from that which I rendered to You from my self, but then, I was not able to maintain faithfully; and, I seek Your forgiveness from that by which I claimed I desired your Face but my heart became corrupted with that which I did.”
Wa akhir da’wana an al-hamdu li-llahi rabbi al-‘alamin, wa-l-salat wa-l-salam ‘ala ashraf al-mursalin wa ‘ala alihi wa sahbihi wa azwajihi.