What does “perfect intention” mean? What are the properties of an intention, which is stated as being better than one’s deeds?
Scholars of both Islamic Jurisprudence and discipline of Hadith defined intention as “what the heart truly wills.” As for what is meant by perfect intention, as the true will of the heart, it can be defined as a person solely turning toward God, who is the Absolute One to be worshipped and the True Desired One, and seeking His approval in all their deeds. As it is known, the most famous saying of the Prophet about intention is the first one Imam Bukhari included in his classic work:
“Actions are judged by intentions, and a person will get a reward according to the intention. So, whoever emigrated for God and His Messenger, his emigration will be for God and His Messenger; and whoever emigrated for worldly benefits or for a woman to marry, his emigration would be for what he emigrated for.”1
According to this hadith, if somebody observes the prayers to deceive people by attempting to appear pious, they find no reward in the Afterlife for such deeds; since their heart was not oriented to God but to appreciation by people. Actually, such an attitude is the character of hypocrites. They do not believe in making ablution, observing prayers, guiding others, and serving their people and humanity with altruistic attitude. By stating that actions are judged by intentions, the hadith lets us know that actions which do not seek God’s good pleasure bear no value.
Varying Degrees of Intention
On the other hand, we need to admit that not everybody is on the same level. A person’s purity of intention is directly proportional with their horizons of knowledge of God. Their intention will vary in accordance with how sound their faith is, how immersed they are in knowledge of God, and how the consciousness of omnipresence of God flourishes in their hearts. For this reason, those with broad horizons in regards to knowledge of God need to aim higher with their intentions, which can be seen as the starting point of worship. One who makes a sound intention, which we can call the basmala of worship, can offer acts of worship—such as the prayers, fasting, and zakat—with due awareness and consciousness.
In the Hanafi school of thought, pronouncing one’s intention was seen as preferable. On the other hand, even though he is not renowned as a jurist, the great guide Imam Rabbani objected pronouncing the intention. Accordingly, since intention is what the heart truly wills, the heart must become oblivious to all other things than God and totally become fixed on Him in full concentration. Pronouncing the intention with the mouth must not busy the mind and having such additional concern might make it difficult to become fully concentrated. Therefore, that great imam held such a profound and immense consideration about intention for prayer. Personally, even though I say the intention with my tongue, I favor this view of Imam Rabbani, since making the intention with the tongue might sometimes be misleading. Believers might feel content with having said the words but fail to orient themselves to God Almighty with all of their outward and inward faculties. They may not achieve a full concentration of the heart. The voice of their heart may not have accompanied the voice coming out from the mouth. However, words being uttered are not the basis for intention; they only bear a meaning as far as they are the voice of the heart. On the other hand, holding everybody responsible for such a level of intention means expecting everybody to be at the same horizons of the heart and spirit, which will not be a realistic expectation. For this reason, it is best to believe that the acts of worship will be accepted from those who turn to God with a sincere intention at their giving alms as zakat, fasting, and going to Hajj. At the same time, such an approach is an expression of taking into consideration that Divine Providence will help the worshipper, the principle of easiness in religion, and having a positive opinion of people. It should not be forgotten that holding a positive opinion about others is one of the branches of worship.
The Connection between Pure Intention and Deeds
We need to expound on what we mean by “what the heart truly wills,” the phrase we used while defining intention. “What the heart truly wills” does not denote something passing a person’s mind or heart. On the contrary, it denotes being resolved at one’s intention and making a serious effort to put that intention to practice. In other words, as orienting oneself to God is the theoretical side of intention, attempting to do this is the practical side. In this respect, one needs to be resolved at putting the intention into practice by achieving such concentration. In other words, although intention is an issue to be considered within religious commandments, its realization depends on an individual’s religious practices. And seriousness of intention reveals itself in having the theory and practice together. This is not only limited to essential acts of worship such as fasting and prayers, but applicable for all acts of goodness. The practical value of intention can be understood from the following statement of Bediüzzaman: “The intention to be humble spoils humility, the intention to be great provokes contempt…” Lowering one’s wings of humility down to the ground is an important virtue in Islamic morality, but the thought “let me appear a tad humble,” eliminates it; because it is an indication of running after one’s desires and fancies. It may turn out that the speaker’s intent is not being humble, but being appreciated, applauded, and becoming a person recognized by others. Similarly, attempting to appear great provokes contempt in others, the exact opposite of the intended purpose. Or, for instance, assuming a proud attitude toward a proud person is not an indication of being proud, since there is a different intent. In sum, an intention finds its value in practice, the real motive is revealed through its practical dimension.
The Reward that Corresponds to the Intention
As the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, once stated in the name of stressing the importance of intention, a man’s intention is better than his deed. At another instance, he stated that a person who intends to do something bad but then desists from it, and a person who intends to do something good but does not find the chance to do it will also gain rewards for their intention. Accordingly, if someone who intends to do an evil act and is determined to do it desists from that act for the sake of God, this will be recorded as one good deed. In the same way, someone who cannot find the chance to do and intended an act of goodness will be rewarded for this intention.
To give an example, the volunteers disperse to the four corners of the world for the sake of humanity to share their values and spiritual heritage, and they act sincerely. Their devotion reaches such a degree that when they think about it, their eyes fill with tears and they cry their hearts out. At the same time, they make use of every opportunity for the sake of their sublime ideals. However, they cannot realize their intent owing to adverse conditions. So the glad tidings of the noble Prophet are true for believers in this situation; their intention is more valuable than their deed, and they will be rewarded as if they realized that deed, according to their intention.
Intention is of a crucial importance with respect to a person’s eternal bliss. However, the intention that helps a person to be saved is one that serves as a motive for good deeds. In other words, perfect intention is a complementary component for good deeds and this makes it resemble a mysterious key unlocking doors to infinity in this finite worldly life. To clarify that with an example, if people observe the Divine commandments for worship such as the prayers and fasting as much as they can, these acts will not amount to even a tenth of the due of the blessings to be granted by God Almighty in Paradise; not even when these deeds are multiplied by twenty, or a hundred, because Paradise is a place adorned with blessings surpassing human imagination. Bediüzzaman also stated that thousands of years of happy life in this world cannot be compared to one hour in Paradise. The blessings of Paradise narrated in the Qur’an and authenticated sayings of the noble Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, provide us with some food for thought; they give us an idea about the issue. Otherwise, the blessings in Paradise are far beyond human conception and imagination. Therefore, it is not possible for us to become eligible for and deserve such a Paradise with our acts of worship. But let’s say that you try to avoid sins and carry out Divine commandments—observe the prayers, speak the truth, follow right guidance, give the zakat, go to Hajj, and strive to uphold the Divine teaching—all along this finite worldly life. All of these will be too little with respect to the worth of Paradise. However, through your attitude and intention, you virtually say, “O God, to the Ruler belongs the Royal manner that befits Him, just as servitude befits a slave. As a poor servant, this is what I can do.” Thus in return for such an immense intention, God Almighty will say, “This servant of mine lived for sixty years and spent his (or her) life in obedience to Me. If he were to live for a million years, he would spend his life in the same way. So I consider him as if he worshipped Me that much.” That is, God Almighty will replace a person’s intention with their practical deeds, and count their intention as better than their deeds.
Keeping up the Initial Sincere Intention
There is another reason for an intention being better than the deed: a person can be sincere with respect to their initial intention. However, when the deed is being put to practice, other considerations such as showing off to others and taking sanctimonious pride can spoil sincerity. As for intention, it does not face such a degree of risk as the deed does. Since it is a will in the heart, it is not possible for others to see it. For example, one man can say, “I gladly accept it even if God takes my life a thousand times, if only the blessed name of the Messenger of God was honored in these lands.” Even his closest friends cannot exactly know the feeling and the excitement in his heart. Seeing the entire world dark without him, believing that everywhere will gain light with him, feeling agony with this concern, suffering with shame for failing to be true to him, and living with a troubled conscience with this concern—such feelings and considerations enveloped by sincerity in one’s heart have great value in the sight of God, for they cannot be spoiled by sanctimonious concerns of showing off to others. In this respect, it can be said that as these feelings and thoughts inside are not exposed to the destructive effect of negative considerations, God Almighty accepts them as if they were actions carried out, counts them as compensation for the gaps one’s deeds fail to fill, and grants that person eternal bliss in return for them.
People can erase their wrongs and sins through repentance and penitence. However, even if sins are removed, there will be certain gaps in one’s record of deeds. The mysterious capital to fill up those gaps is a person’s sincere intentions, orienting oneself heavenwards, and their intents and wills bound to put into practice. We hope that God Almighty accepts them as if they were actual deeds and fill the gaps in the record of deeds with them, and thus will not let His servant in shame on the day of reckoning. In this respect, great guides gave much importance to intention.
One of the Most Eloquent Invitations for Divine Providence
As intention is an invitation for Divine help in order to realize the intent, then one should never refrain from making it. In the face of loads of work to do, one should make an intention and begin working, do as much as she can do, which is an invitation of great significance in the name of asking from God Almighty to make it possible to complete the task, instead of waiting idly in hopelessness. Then it is not right for a person to neglect this petty task they are responsible for in terms of apparent causes. People should target great ideals and keep their standards high, at least in terms of their intention. Besides that, when they cannot realize all that they desired to, they should not give in to disappointment, be respectful to how Divine Justice operates, and after having done what they were supposed to, they should wait for the right time to do what remains undone.
Intentions that Surpass the Available Means
Those who fail to do what they planned to do owing to valid excuses beyond their power will be treated in accordance with their intentions. For example, the Qur’an praises the ones who felt sad since they could not find the means for making a contribution to the Tabuk Campaign: “…they returned, their eyes overflowing with tears in sorrow that they could not find anything to spend” (at-Tawbah 9:92). As those who donated for the campaign were praised for their deed, the ones who could not were appreciated for the purity of their intention, depth of their heart, and immensity of their feelings. Referring to those who could not join the army for a valid excuse, who could not find a mount or who had relatives they had to look after, the noble Messenger of God stated, “There are some men in Medina who are with you (on account of their intention) wherever you march and whichever valley you cross…”2 and gave the glad tidings that they would also have their share of the Divine reward like others. In other words, the noble Prophet meant to say that if they had the same means and conditions as others, they would also join them, practically make the same efforts, and therefore receive the same reward. In one case, the Pride of Humanity even spared a share from war gains for Uthman ibn Affan, who was unable to join the Battle of Badr for a certain reason, and that distinguished Companion was also counted among the blessed souls who attended the Battle of Badr.
As it is seen, those who cannot realize what they wish to do for a valid reason are excused according to the Qur’an and Sunnah, and they are counted as if they realized their intent. Even during our times, there are various people who serve in different areas of life enthusiastically. They are full of enthusiasm for carrying out the duty that falls on their part. So those people, by God’s grace, will be rewarded as people who strived for a sacred cause. Their intention, determination, efforts, and resolution will meet them in the other world as such a pleasant surprise that most others will not be able to help but envy them for the blessings God Almighty will grant them. For this reason, it is always commendable to cherish high intentions and ideals. It should never be forgotten that a person whose intention embraces a nation is like embracing an entire nation; further than that, a person whose intention embraces the entire humanity, is like a huge humanity.
1. Sahih al-Bukhari, Bad’ul-Wahy, 1
2. Sahih Muslim, Imara, 159