Intentions and actions

The Spirit Of Islam

Khalid Baig

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 recognised 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. 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.
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.
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.
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