On Intentions and Actions
From Islamic perspective our actions can fall in one of three categories and our intentions have different implications for each of them.
Posted: 11 Rabi-u-Thani 1422, 3 July 2001
The hadith about intentions is so important, some scholars have expressed the opinion that it encompasses fully one third of Islamic teachings. Also, it is one of the most remembered and quoted ahadith and one that is frequently quoted in its original Arabic even by non-Arabic speaking Muslims. There is hardly a Muslim who has never heard it. While all this attention to its words is superb, unfortunately we have not done as much to understand its implications and let that understanding inform our actions.
From Islamic perspective our actions can fall in one of three categories and our intentions have different implications for each of them. In the first category are the religiously mandatory acts or the voluntary acts of worship (like voluntary salat). In the second category are the permissible acts that include most of the mundane activities in life, like eating, drinking, sleeping, earning a living, and raising a family. The third category consists of prohibited acts.
The most direct application of this hadith is to the first category. It tells us that such deeds must be performed for the sole purpose of pleasing Allah for even the slightest corruption of our motives could destroy them. The five pillars are the prime example of such deeds. For example if a person offers salat (ritual prayers) to be recognized as a pious person, he has not only destroyed his salat, he has committed the unforgivable sin of associating partners with Allah. For he was praying for the sake of others. The same is true of Hajj, and Hijra, and Jihad, and charity, etc, etc..
A believer is fully aware that this sincerity and purity of intention are his most important assets, for without them his most generous donation may bring nothing but disaster.
The Qur'an explains it further through a beautiful simile. It compares the case of two persons engaged in what would appear to be identical acts of charity. Both spend money to help the needy. One does it purely for the sake of Allah; the other has the goal of getting a good name from it. "You who believe, do not cancel your acts of charity by [making] any reproach or scolding like someone who spends his money simply for people to see it while he does not believe in God and the Last Day. He may be compared to a boulder covered with some soil, which a rainstorm strikes and leaves bare. They cannot do anything with whatever they have earned. God does not guide such disbelieving folk. Those who spend their wealth seeking God's approval and to strengthen their souls may be compared to a garden on a hilltop; should a rainstorm strike it, its produce is doubled, while if a rainstorm does not strike it, then drizzle does. God is Observant of anything you do." [Al-Baqarah 2:264-265 (Translation by Irving)].
Charity is an important example because here the chances of corruption of our motives are especially high due to the very nature of the act. We deal with other people who may thank and recognize us and we may begin to love and seek that appreciation. What is more, we may brush aside any qualms by assuring ourselves that the publicity is only meant to inspire others.
If we keep this background in mind, we can begin to see the now nearly routine practice of holding a fundraising dinner --- by the Muslims living in the West ---- very differently. It is obvious that this is not a Muslim institution; they borrowed it from their host countries. And they did so without much thought. For here are its underlying ideas. First, a nice dinner in a nice restaurant is a way of putting people in the mood. Second, advertising each donation is a means of inspiring others as well as rewarding the donors. Third, high-pressure techniques, like putting people on the spot, are quite productive.
Each of these elements is poles apart from Islamic teachings. A Muslim gives out of concern for his hereafter, not by being lulled into giving by posh surroundings. He knows that the reward for his donation depends upon the sincerity with which it is given and not its monetary amount. He is fully aware that this sincerity and purity of intention are his most important assets, for without them his most generous donation may bring nothing but disaster. A person with such concerns would be very leery of going to a fundraising dinner with his donations. An entire community of such people would be very reluctant to hold such an event in its present form.
That despite remembering, and often repeating, the words "innamal aamalu bin niyyat" (Actions depend upon intentions), the Muslim communities in the West (with the notable exception of Islamic religious schools) have shown little qualms about this borrowed fund raising practice, shows that somehow we have lost sight of its message.
We can turn every moment of our life into an act of worship through a change in our intentions.
In fact often times this hadith is invoked in a twisted manner; with reference to the third category of deeds (the prohibited acts), for example. When we commit a mistake, we try to assuage our guilt feelings by assuring ourselves that we meant no harm. For our failures or shortcomings, we have the satisfaction that our intentions were good. In the worst case we may interpret the hadith to suggest that the ends justify the means. We need to remember that sheer good intentions do not repair a bad act. If we do not perform our salat or sacrifice or hajj correctly, mere good intentions will not make them right. The extreme case is that of justifying a known prohibited act based on good intentions. "It is like playing games with the religion," says Maulana Manzoor Naumani. He goes on to add that such an act could tremendously add to one's burden of sin.
With regard to the second category (permissible mundane acts) our intentions have a potential for turning them into acts of worship. This is also an aspect we ignore to our own loss. For here is the possibility of turning every moment of our life into an act of worship through a change in our intentions. For example, when a believer goes to his place of work with the intention of fulfilling his religious responsibility to provide for his family and earn halal living, he may be engaged in the same physical activity as the next person but his outlook is very different. And so is his reward!
Through this small effort we could really be living for a higher purpose. And at a higher level.