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Purification of the Soul- The Nature of Intention Print E-mail

      The Purification of the Soul

compiled from the works of Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Ibn Al-Qayyim
and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali


The intention of a person is not his utterance of the
words, "I intend to do so and so." It is an overflowing
from the heart which runs like conquests inspired by Allah.  At
times it is made easy, at other times, difficult.  A person
whose heart is overwhelmingly righteous finds it easy to summon
good intentions at most times.  Such a person has a heart
generally inclined to the roots of goodness which, most of the
time, blossom into the manifestation of good actions.  As for
those whose hearts inclide towards and are overwhelmed by worldy
matters, they find this difficult to accomplish and even
obligatory acts of worship may become difficult and tiresome.

The Prophet (saw) said: "Actions are only by intention,
and every man shall only have what he intended.  Thus he
whose hijra was for Allah and was for Allah and His Messenger,
his hijra was for Allah and His Messenger, and he whose hijra
was to achieve some worldly benefit or to take some woman in
marriage, his hijra was for that for which he made hijra."(1)

Imam ash-Shaf'i said: "This hadith is a third of all
knowledge." The words, "actions are only by intention",
mean that deeds which are performed in accordance with the
sunnah are only acceptable and rewarded if the intentions behind
them were sincere.  It is like the saying of the Prophet, may
Allah bless him and grant him peace, "Actions depend upon their

Likewise, the words, "every man shall only have what he
intended", mean that the reward for an action depends
upon the intention behind it.  After stating this principle, the
Prophet (saw) gave examples of it by saying, "thus he the
Prophet (saw) gave examples of it by saying, "Thus he whose
hijra was for Allah and His Messenger, his hijra was for Allah
and His Messenger, and he whose hijra was to achieve some
worldly benefit or to take some woman I nmarriage, his hira was
for that for which he made hijra." So deeds which are apparently
identitcal may differ, because the intentions behind them are
different in degrees of goodness and badness, from one person to

Good intentions do not change the nature of forbidden
actions. The ignorant should not misconstrue the meaning
of the hadith and think that good intentions could turn
forbidden actions into acceptable ones.  The above saying of the
Prophet (saw) specifically relattes to acts of worship and
permissible actions, not to forbidden ones. Worship and
permissible actions can be turned into forbidden ones because of
the intentions behind them, and permissible actions can become
either good or bad deeds by intention; but wrong actions cannot
become acts of worship, even with good intentions.(3) When bad
intentsions are accompanied by flaws in the actions themselves,
then their gravity and punishment are multiplied.

Any praiseworthy act must be rooted in sound intentions;
only then could it be deemed worthy of reward.  The
fundamental principle should be that the act is intended for the
worship of Allah alone. If our intention is to show off,then
these same acts of worship will in fact become acts of
disobedience.  As for permissible deeds, they all involve
intentions -- which can potenitally turn them into excellent
acts which bring a man nearer to Allah and confer on him the
gift of closeness to Him.

The Excellence of Intention

Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him,
said: The best acts are doing what Allah has commanded,
staying for away from what Allah has forbidden, and having
sincere intentions towards what-ever Allah has required of

Some of our predecessors said: "Many small actions are
made great by the intentions behind them. Many great
actions, on the other hand, are made small because the
intentions behind them are lacking."

Yahya Ibn Abu Kathir said: "Learn about intentions, for
their importance is greater than the importance of

Ibn Umar once heard a man who was putting on his ihram
say: "O Allah! I intend to do the Hajj and Umrah." So he
said to him: "Is it not in fact the people whom you are
informing of your intention? Does not Allah already know what is
in your heart?"(5)  It is because good intentions are
exclusively the concern of the heart, that they should not be
voiced during worship.

The Excellence of Knowledge and Teaching

There are many proofs in the Qur'an concerning the
excellence of knowledge and its tranmission.  Allah, the
Mighty and Glorious, says:

"Allah will raise up to high ranks those of you
who believe and those who have been given
knowledge. (58:11)"

And also:

"Are those who know equal to those who do not
know? (39:9)

Also , in the Hadith, the Prophet (saw) says, "When
Allah desires good for someone, He gives him
understanding of the deen."(6) He (saw) also said, "Allah makes
the way to the Garden easy for whoever treads a path in search
of knowledge."(7)

Travelling on the path to knowledge refers both to
walking along an actual pathway, such as going on foot
to the assemblies of the ulama', as well as to following a
metaphysical road, such as studying and memorising.

The above saying of the Prophet (saw) probably means
that Allah makes learning the useful knowledge that is
sought after easier for the seeker, clearing the way for him and
smoothing his journey.  Some of our predecessors used to say:
"Is there anyone seeking knowledge, so that we can assist him in
finding it?"

This hadith also alludes to the road leading to the
Garden on the Day of Judgement, which is the straight
path and to what precedes it and what comes after it.

Knowledge is also the shortest path to Allah. Whoever
travels the road of knowledge reaches Allah and the
Garden by the shortest route.  Knowledge also clears the way out
of darkness, ignorance, doubt and scepticism. This is why Allah
called His Book, "Light".

Al-Bukhari and Muslim have reported on the authority of
Abdullah ibn Umar that the Messenger of Allah (saw)
said: "Truly, Allah will not take away knowledge by snatching it
away from people, but by taking away the lives of the people of
knowledge one by one until none of them survive.  Then the
people will adopt ignorant ones as their leaders. They will be
asked to deliver judgements and they will give them without
knowledge, with the result that they will go astray and lead
others astray."

When 'Ubadah ibn as-Samit was asked about this hadith he
said: If you want, I will tell you what the highest
knowledge is, which raises people in rank: it is humility."

He said this because there are two types of knowledge.
The first produces its fruit in the heart. It is
knowledge of Allah, the Exalted - His Names, His Attributes, and
His Acts - which commands fear, respect, exaltation, love,
supplication and reliance on Him. this is the beneficial type of
knowledge. As ibn Mas'ud said: "they will recite the Qur'an, but
it will not go beyond their throats. The Qur'an is only
beneficial when it reaches the heart and is firmly planted in

Al-Hasan said: "There are two kinds of knowledge:
knowledge of the tongue, which can be a case against the
son of Adam, as is mentioned in the hadith of the Prophet (saw):
'The Qur'an is either a case for you or a case against you'(8),
and knowledge of the heart, which is beneficial knowledge.  The
second kind is the beneficial kind which raises people in rank;
it is the inner knowledge which is absorbed by the heart and
puts it right. The knowledge that is on the tongue is taken
lightly by people: neither those who possess it, nor anyone
else, act upon it, and then it vanishes when its owners vanish
on the Day of Judgement, when creation will be brought to

Notes:  1. Al-Bukhari and Muslim 2. Al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Qadar,
11/499.  3. This is illustrated in a hadith recorded by Imam
Muslim in his Sahih, in which it is related on the authority of
Abu Dharr that the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and
grant him peace, said, "You will receive the reward for sadaqa
even when you have sexual intercourse with your wives." The
sahaba said, "Will we really be rewarded for satisfying our
physical desires?" He replied, "If you have haram intercourse,
you will be committing a sin; similarly, if you have halal
intercourse, you will be rewarded." Imam an-Nawawi said, "This
hadith clearly shows that permissible actions become acts of
obedience if there is a good intentino behind them; sexual
intercourse becomes an act of worship if it is accompanied by
any one of the following good intentions: keeping company with
your wife in kindness, as Allah ta'Ala has commanded; hoping to
hae, as a result of intercourse, good and righteous offsping;
guarding your chastity and that of your wife; helping to prevent
haram lustful glances or thoughts, or haram intercourse; and any
other good intention." 4. Tahdhib al'Asma' li-Nawawi, 1/173. Abu
Ishaq ash-Shirazi once entered the mosque to have something to
eat, as was his custom, and then realised that he had dropped a
dinar. He retraced his steps and found it lying on the ground,
but then left it where it was, saying, "Perhaps it is not mine;
perhaps it belongs to somebody else." 5. Sahih, Ja'mi 'l-'Ulum
wa'l-Hikam, p. 19.  6. Al-bukhari and Muslim.  7. Muslim,
21/17.  8. Muslim, Kitab at-Tahara, 3/99.