Actions are by intentions
From the book RIYAA: THE HIDDEN SHIRK by Abu Ammar Yasir Al-Qathi
A hadith states:
عن عمر بن الخطاب قال قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم : "إنما الأعمال بالنية و إنما لامررئ ما نوى فمن كانت هجرته إلى الله و رسوله فهجرته إلى الله و رسوله و من كانت هجرته لدنيا يصيبها أو امرأة يتزوجها فهجرته إلى ما هاجر إليه.
Umar Bin Al-Khattab (Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him) said: “Actions are by intention, and every person will receive what he intended. So whoever intended to migrate for the sake of Allah and His Messenger, then his migration will be for Allah and His Messenger. And whoever intended to migrate for the sake of some worldly benefit or in order to marry a woman, then his migration will be for that which he migrated.” (Reported in Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim)
This hadith is one of the fundamental principles of the religion of Islam. This is why it has been narrated in almost every book of hadith, and the scholars and laymen alike have accepted and spread it. In fact, Imam Al-Bukhari started his Sahih with it, to serve as an introduction to his book, indicating that any action that is done for other than the sake of Allah would have benefit neither in this world nor in the Hereafter.
Abdur Rahman Ibn Mahdee (9) said, “If I were to write chapters (of any book), I would place the hadith of ‘Umar, concerning intentions, in every chapter.” He also said, “Whoever desires to write any book, let him begin with the hadith: ‘Actions are by intention.’” Imam Ash-Shaafi’ee (10) said, “This hadith is a third of all knowledge, and can be found in seventy chapters of Fiqh (Islamic law).” Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal (11) said, “The foundation of Islam rests upon three hadiths: The hadith of Umar, ‘Actions are by intentions…,’ the hadith of Nu’man Ibn Bashir: ‘The Halal is clear and the haram is clear, but between the two are matters which are doubtful to many people. Therefore, whoever avoids these doubtful matters clears himself in regards to his religion and his honor, but he who falls into doubtful matters falls into the haram. [He is like] a shepherd grazing his sheep at the edge of a sanctuary, about to cross over the boundary. Truly, every king has a sanctuary, and truly Allah’s sanctuary is His Prohibitions. Truly, there is in the body a morsel of flesh, which if it be wholesome, the entire body is whole, and if it is spoilt, the whole body is spoilt. Truly it is the heart.’ (Sahih Bukhari) and the hadith of ‘Aa’ishah (Allah be pleased with her): ‘Whoever innovates anything into this affair of ours (i.e. Islam) that does not belong to it, will have it rejected.’ (Bukhari)
Abu ‘Ubayd (14) said, “The Prophet (Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him) combined all of the matters of the Hereafter into one phrase: ‘Whoever innovates anything into this affair of ours that does not belong to it, will have it rejected,’ and he combined all of the matters of this word in one phrase: ‘Actions are by intentions.’ Therefore these two hadiths are essential in every single affair.” And Abu Dawood (15) said, “I wrote five hundred thousand hadiths of the Prophet (Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him), from which I selected for my book (Sunan Abu Dawood) four thousand eight hundred hadiths, and of these, four hadiths are sufficient for a person’s religion:
The first is the Prophet’s statement, ‘Actions are by intentions…’ The second is the Prophet’s statement, مِن حُسْنِ إسْلام المَرْء تَرْكُهُ ما لا يُعْنِيْهِ ‘Part of one’s being a good Muslim is leaving that which does not concern him.’ (Mishkat Al-Masabih, Sunan At-Tirmidhee)
The third is the Prophet (Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him)’s statement: لا يُؤمِنُ أحَدُكُمْ حَتَّى يُحِبَّ لِأَخِيْهِ ما يُحِبُّ لِنَفْسِهِ ‘None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.’ (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Ibn Majah)
And the fourth is Prophet Muhammad’s (Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him) statement: ‘The halal is clear and the haram is clear….”
From all these statements it is apparent that the scholars of Islam considered the hadith regarding intention to be foundational pillar of the Islamic faith.
The hadith on intention indicates that every deliberate action of a person has an intention behind it. The intention may be praiseworthy, condemnable, or neither of the two, but an intention must exist. In other words, every action that a person performs has a goal or a purpose.
The Prophet (Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him) went on to say that every person will achieve that which he intended. What is meant here is that the reward that a person will receive will depend upon the intention that one had. Thus, if the intention was to do a good deed, but one was unable to perform it for a valid reason, the person will still receive the blessings of that deed. There is a narration that supports that statement:
Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah said: “Allah says, ‘If My slave intends to do a bad deed then (o angels) do not write it unless he does it; if he does it, then write it as it is, but if he refrains from doing it for My sake, then write it as a good deed (in his account). (On the other hand), if he intends to do a good deed, but does not do it, then write a good deed in (his account), and if he does it then write for him (in his account). (Reported in Bukhari)
It should be noted however that if a person intends to do an evil deed but does not do it due to Allah’s destiny, still an evil deed will be recorded. (For example, a thief plans a robbery but on his way to the bank he has a flat tire which prevents him from fulfilling his plan. He will not be rewarded for not robbing the bank. But if he changed his mind on his way to the bank and returned home he would be rewarded for preventing himself from evil.)
Also, if the person intended evil but the result of the deed is good, it will still be recorded as an evil deed.
Having correct and sincere intentions is also addressed in the Quran. Allah says, in Surah Al-Bayinnah verse 5:
و ما أمروا إلا ليعبدوا الله مخلصين له الدين حنفآء
And they (the Jews and Christians) were only commanded to worship Allah alone, sincerely, directing their religion to none but Him. (98:5)
And in Surah Al-Isra, verse 18-19, Allah says:
من كان يريد العاجلة عجلنا له فيها ما نشاء لمن نريد ثم جعلنا له جهنم يصلاها مذموما مدحورا و من أراد الآخرة و سعى لها سعيها و هو مؤمن فأولئك كان سعيهم مشكورا
Whoever wishes for the temporary (enjoyment of this world), We will readily grant what We will for whom We choose. Then afterwards We have appointed for him Hell: He will burn therein disgraced and rejected. And whoever desires the Hereafter and strives for it with the necessary effort that is due for it while being a believer, then they are the ones whose striving shall be appreciated and rewarded (by Allah). (17:8-9)
In Surah Al-Baqarah, verse 272, it is stated:
و ما تنفقون إلا ابتغآء وجه الله
And you do not spend (of your wealth) except seeking the pleasures of Allah. (2:272)
The early generations of Muslims realized the importance of sincere and correct intentions, thus there are many statements recorded from them concerning this topic. It is narrated that Ibn Mas’ood (24) said, “Speech by itself is worthless, unless it is followed by action. Speech and action by themselves are worthless unless they have the right intention. And speech, action and the right intention are worthless unless they agree with the Sunnah.” It was reported that Sufyaan At-Thawree (26) said, “There is nothing more difficult for me to correct than my intentions, for it continually attempts to change.” Ibn Al-Mubarak (27) was quoted as saying, “It is very possible that a small deed will be magnified (i.e in its rewards) by its intention, and it is very possible that a large deed will be diminished by its intention.” Ibn Ajlaan (28) was said to have stated, “No action will be accepted unless it is accompanied by three things: the fear of Allah, the proper intention, and correctness (in following the Sunnah).” Muttarrif Ibn Abdullah (29) was reported to have said, “Purity and piety of the heart can only be obtained through pure and pious deeds, and pure and pious deeds can only be obtained with the correct intention.”
In reference to the verse of Surah Al-Mulk ليبلوكم أيكم أحسن عملا (“That He may test which of you is best in deeds.” – 67:2), Fudayl Ibn Iyaad (3) said “This means those deeds that are done properly and with sincere intentions. If a deed is done sincerely, yet improperly, it will not be accepted, and likewise, if a deed is done properly but insincerely, it will also be rejected. Only when a deed is done properly and sincerely will it be accepted. And ‘sincerity’ means to perform a deed solely for the sake of Allah, and ‘properly’ means to perform it according to the Sunnah.” (32)
Therefore, we see that there are a number of prerequisites for any deed to be accepted by Allah. The first condition is that the deed is done for the sake of Allah, and only for the sake of Allah. The second condition is that the deed is encouraged by the Sunnah of the Prophet (Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him) and is not an innovation (bid’ah) invented after the Prophet’s death.
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9. Abdur Rahman Bin Mahdee (135 – 198 AH) was a great scholar of hadith. He narrated from Imam Malik Bin Anas, Sufyan Bin Uyaynah and many other scholars. Ali Al-Madeeni said of him, “The most knowledgeable person concerning hadith is Abdur-Rahman Bin Mahdee.” Cf. Tahtheeb al-Kamal (no. 3969); Tahtheeb At-Tahtheeb (no. 4161).
10. Muhammad Bin Idrees Ash-Shafi’ee (769 – 820 CE) was one of the greatest Muslim scholars. He studied under imam Malik, Imam Muhammad Ash-Shaybaanee (the main student of Imam Abu Hanifah) and Imam Layth Bin Saad, and became an independent scholar in his own right. He is considered to be one of the first to categorize the science of Islamic Jurisprudence (Usool Ul-Fiqh).
11. Ahmad Bin Muhammad Bin Hanbal (778 – 855 CE) was the author of the famous Musnad and one of the preservers of the Sunnah. He was one of the very few scholars of his time who openly spoke out against the Abbasid Caliphs concerning their heretical belief that the Quran was not eternal, and he was imprisoned and tortured as a result of this.
14. Abu Ubayd Al-Qasim Bin Salam Al-Baghdadi (d. 224 AH) was a famous grammarian and jurist (cf. Tahtheeb Al-Kamal, no. 4792).
15. Abu Dawood Sulayman Bin Al-Ash’ath As-Sijistaani (818-889 CE) was one of the most famous scholars of hadith, and the compiler of the famous Sunan. Al-Hakim said of him, “Abu Dawood was the undisputed Imam of the hadith scholars of his time.”
24. Abdullah Bin Mas’ood was an eminent Companion of the Prophet (Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him) and the sixth person to embrace Islam. He was among the most knowledgeable of the Companions in the field of Islamic law. He died in 32 AH in Madinah. (cf Al-Isaabah fee Tamyeez As-Sahabah, no. 4970)
26. Sufyan Ath-Thawree was born in Kufah in 719 CE and died in Basrah in 777 CE. He was well known for his knowledge and piety. Yahya Bin Maeen said of him, “Sufyan is the leader of the believers in hadith.” Cf. Tahtheeb Al-Kamal, no. 2407 and Tahtheeb At-Tahtheeb, no. 2538.
27. Abdullah Bin Al-Mubarak was born in 118 AH and passed away in Baheet in 181 AH. He was a very famous scholar of hadith and a preserver of the Sunnah. Al-Aswad Bin Salim said of him, “If you see anybody criticizing Ibn Al-Mubarak, then doubt his Islam.” Cf. Tahtheeb Al-Kama, no. 3520 and Tahtheeb At-Tahtheeb, no. 2687.
28. Muhammad Bin Ajlaan was a student of the Sahabah (Taabi’ee) who lectured in the Prophet’s masjid during the eighth century. He died in 148 AH. Cf. Tahtheeb Al-Kamal, 6176.
29. Muttarrif Bin Abdullah Bin Ash-Shakheer (? – 95 AH) was a successor (Taabi’ee – A person who met a Sahabi). He was born during the lifetime of the Prophet (Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him) but did not see him. He narrated hadith from Ubay Bin Ka’ab, Uthman Bin Affaan, and others. Tahtheeb Al-Kamal, no. 6001 and Tahtheeb At-Tahtheeb no. 7016.
30. Fudayl Bin Iyaad Bin Masood At-Tameemi (? – 187 AH) was born in Samarqand and grew up to be a highway robber. However, he repented from this and travelled to Kufah in search of knowledge. He became well-known for his abstinence and piety. Cf. Tahtheeb Al-Kamal, no. 4763 and Tahtheeb Al-Tahtheeb, no. 5647.
32. All of the quotes of the Salaf from this section have been taken from Jaami’al-‘Uloom, pp. 59 – 84.