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The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, "Actions are by motives, so each man will have what he intended..."
Hadith on Intentions | 40 Hadith an-Nawawi [Hadith 1]
It is narrated on the authority of Amirul Mu'minin, Abu Hafs 'Umar bin al-Khattab (ra) who said:
I heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) say: "Actions are (judged) by motives (niyyah), so each man will have what he intended. Thus, he whose migration (hijrah) was to Allah and His Messenger, his migration is to Allah and His Messenger; but he whose migration was for some worldly thing he might gain, or for a wife he might marry, his migration is to that for which he migrated."12
[The following is Commentary by Dr. Jamal Ahmed Badi (Associate Professor, Department of General Studies, International Islamic University, Malaysia)]
This hadith was said by the Prophet, sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam, at the time when a man emigrated from Makkah to Madinah during the Hijrah for the sake of marrying someone and not for the sake of Islam.
It is considered to be one of the greatest hadiths in Islam.
Al-Imam al-Shafie said: This Hadith is one third of the knowledge of Islam; related to about 70 topics of Fiqh.
Al-Imam Ahmad (with reference to al-Imam al-Shafie's statement) said: Islam is based on three fundamentals (all are among the 40 hadiths ):
Hadith 1: which is stated above.
Hadith 5: "Whosoever introduces into this affair of ours (i.e. Islam) something that does not belong to it, it is to be rejected."
Hadith 6: "Truly, what is lawful is evident, and what is unlawful is evident, and in between the two are matters which are doubtful which many people do not know…”
These three hadiths are agreed upon by Al-Bukhari and Muslim.
These hadiths can be seen as three criteria to help Muslims evaluate and judge what they do and say "as an ibadah" in their daily life:
Hadith 1 - To evaluate and judge our internal actions (actions of the heart).
Hadith 5 - To evaluate and judge our external actions (actions of the limbs).
Hadith 6 - To evaluate and judge our dealings "mu'amalat" (interaction between people).
Niyyah (intention) has two meanings:
The intention before an ibadah (e.g. prayer)
The second meaning (ii.) is what is meant in this hadith.
The Prophet, sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam, starts the hadith with the principle ("Actions are judged by intentions") and then gives three examples. This is the methodology of the Prophet, sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam. The examples help illustrate the principle so that it is easier for people to understand and they can apply the principle to other similar situations.
The three examples consist of one of good intention (migration for the sake of Allah and His Messenger) and two of bad intentions (migration for the sake of worldly gains or for marriage).
This hadith emphasises ikhlas (sincerity - to be truthful and honest to Allah alone, performing an act solely for Allah's sake whereby no other witness except Allah is sought). Ikhlas is one of the conditions of accepting good deeds. The other condition is that the actions must be done in accordance with the Shariah as it will be explained in the fifth hadith.
This can be seen in the shahadah :
"I bear witness that there is no god but Allah" is the ikhlas - ensuring that we do things for the sake of Allah and Allah alone.
"I bear witness that Mohammed is the Messenger of Allah" - the Sunnah is the manifestation of the Quran - the Prophet, sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam, is our example, our best model to follow. Following his Sunnah in our ibadah, Akhlaq (ethics), and Muamalat (dealings) ensures that we are acting in accordance with the Shariah.
Thus, the shahadah shows us the conditions for accepting a deed or performing an action: (a) it should be for the sake of Allah because He is the only One we worship, and (b) it should be in accordance with the Shariah.
To achieve ikhlas, we have to avoid shirk (associating others with Allah, which causes insincerity). Al-Imam al-Harawi said the root cause for insincerity (or shirk) is self-desire (alhawa). Therefore no action should be done because of self-desire.
Imam al-Harawi states that there are 7 types of self-desires:
To make oneself appear good in the hearts of others
To seek the praises of others
To avoid being blamed by others
To seek the glorification of others
To seek the wealth/money of others
To seek the services or love of others
To seek the help of others for oneself
Ways to obtain ikhlas:
Do righteous deeds - the more good deeds we do and hence get closer to Allah, the
more sincere we will be.
Before we do any deed we should firstly seek knowledge (ilm) - our actions/deeds should be guided by knowledge so that we do them in accordance to the Shariah.
Do not give false impressions - do not make others believe that an action we did was good when it was not.
Al-Imam Ahmad said: Before you do anything, check your intention (niyyah) - ask yourself before performing an action: "Is it for the sake of Allah?"
Ibnu al-Qayyim says: Any action we do is subject to three defects:
Being conscious that others are observing our actions
Seeking a return (benefit/reward) for the action
Being satisfied with the action
If we go to the masjid for the salah and we are early, arriving before the Imam and finding a place in the first saff, we should not be proud of ourselves and think of ourselves being better than others. We should praise Allah for enabling us to go to the masjid and for being able to perform the salah without any difficulties.
After every salah, we should tell ourselves that we could have performed it better and try to improve in our next salah.
What happens if we were to change our niyyah while performing an action? Ibn Rajab says according to the ulama' if the niyyah at the end of the action matches the beginning (i.e. doing the action for the sake of Allah), then any changes in the middle of the action will be forgiven or does not matter, insha Allah. However, if the niyyah at the end does not match the beginning, i.e. we do the action for other than the sake of Allah, then we must repent (taubah).
There are four things that contradict ikhlas:
Ma'siat - committing sins - this will weaken our ikhlas
Shirk - associating others with Allah
Riya' - performing an ibadah with the intention of showing off to others
Nifaq - hypocrisy
Even though we must always make sure that our actions do not deviate from ikhlas, there are actions, which are automatically considered that of good intentions. For example, seeking knowledge in Islam, helping the community, doing da'wah, etc.
Some rulings (ahkam) which scholars derived from this hadith:
When people 'swear by Allah' by saying "Wallahi" every now and then, their intention is not that they actually swear by Allah. They say it simply out of habit - it readily rolls off their tongue. Hence, it is harmless. However a Muslim should do his/her best to minimize it.
When someone is asked to give an oath, what is judged is his intention when he gives the oath.
There can be a combination of intentions between performing an ibadah and teaching others - we perform an ibadah for the sake of Allah, but we also do it with the intention of teaching others. e.g. when the Prophet, sallallahu 'alayhi wasallam, performed the Hajj, he did it for the sake of Allah as well as for teaching the Sahabah (his companions, may Allah be pleased with them all).
A man may go through the process of divorcing his wife, verbally or in court, but it is his intention which counts.
What could be seen as ghibah (backbiting - talking bad, but true, things about a person behind his back) could simply be a joke or a dua. If someone talks bad about someone else, it is his intentions, which determines whether it is ghibah or not.
Our actions are undermined by our intentions - whether they are good intentions or bad intentions. Therefore we should always check our intentions before we do or say anything. We must make sure that the action is for the sake of Allah so that it is accepted by Allah and that we will be rewarded for it, insha Allah.
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Sahih al-Bukhari 6689 [Book 83, Hadith 66] [https://sunnah.com/bukhari/83/66]
Sahih Muslim 1907a [Book 33, Hadith 222] [https://sunnah.com/muslim/33/222]