Intentions in Islam
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Why Does Islam Tell Us to Keep Our Intentions in Check?

Keeping our intentions in check is a pivotal part of Islam; Allah (SWT) tells us that our actions are based on our motives more than anything else. But then, more often than not, the concept itself of “good v. bad intentions” poses the question of whether we actually know the intentions that matter to Allah (SWT).

Good intentions and Bad Intentions

We have all heard the saying the path to hell is paved with good intentions. To say this is not Islamic is understated. In Islam, our intentions are at the heart of how our deeds are judged. Intentions are at the heart of the good or bad of a deed. Most people are familiar with the famous hadith, the first in the 40 hadith of Imam Nawawi which says, “Actions are but by intention.”

It has been narrated on the authority of Umar b. al-Khattab that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “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.” [Sahih Muslim 1907a]

[S]etting the right intention is more complicated than just making an intention to ourselves, being convinced we are doing the right thing and moving on.

The merit of action and its reward are determined by what someone intends as a result. However, setting the right intention is more complicated than just making an intention to ourselves, being convinced we are doing the right thing and moving on. 

It’s been narrated in another hadith on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (ra) that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “The first of people against whom judgment will be pronounced on the Day of Resurrection will be a man who died a martyr. He will be brought and Allah will make known to him His favors and he will recognize them. [The Almighty] will say: And what did you do about them? He will say: I fought for you until I died a martyr. He will say: You have lied — you did but fight that it might be said [of you]: He is courageous. And so it was said. Then he will be ordered to be dragged along on his face until he is cast into Hell-fire.

“[Another] will be a man who has studied [religious] knowledge and has taught it and who used to recite the Quran. He will be brought and Allah will make known to him His favors and he will recognize them. [The Almighty] will say: And what did you do about them? He will say: I studied [religious] knowledge and I taught it and I recited the Quran for Your sake. He will say: You have lied — you did but study [religious] knowledge that it might be said [of you]: He is learned. And you recited the Quran that it might be said [of you]: He is a reciter. And so it was said. Then he will be ordered to be dragged along on his face until he is cast into Hell-fire.

“[Another] will be a man whom Allah had made rich and to whom He had given all kinds of wealth. He will be brought and Allah will make known to him His favors and he will recognize them. [The Almighty] will say: And what did you do about them? He will say: I left no path [untrodden] in which You like money to be spent without spending in it for Your sake. He will say: You have lied — you did but do so that it might be said [of you]: He is open-handed. And so it was said. Then he will be ordered to be dragged along on his face until he is cast into Hell-fire.” [Hadith Qudsi – Muslim, at-Tirmidhi and an-Nasa’i]

The problem with intentions, according to the scholars, is that they are hard to correct. Correcting your intentions is an ongoing struggle, and the scholars often commented that even they, the most pious among us, had to work continually to rectify their intentions. 

Sincerity or Riya?

Sincerity is of critical importance in Islam, standing at the center of our faith as a barometer of the value of our deeds and our religion. Sincerity can be destroyed by bad intentions. Even if we follow the outer dictates of the religion, we can derive no benefit if we have the wrong intentions. Allah (SWT) says, “So woe to the worshippers, who are neglectful of their prayers. Those who want to be seen (by men).” [Quran 107:4-6]

Our Prophet (ﷺ) was so concerned about this that he said it was one of the things he feared the most for his ummah. One hadith relates, “Shall I not inform you of what I fear for you more than the Masih ad-Dajjal? It is the hidden shirk. It is when a man stands up for prayer, then beautifies his prayer for another to look at.” [Ibn Majah (2604) from the hadith of Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (ra). The hadith is hasan]

This form of shirk, showing off, or riya, is able to destroy our religion. It is a battle to keep our intentions clear of riya because it sneaks in. It is not just a matter of setting out to do something to show off that is the problem, but if we start with a good intention and people start to praise us and we begin to work or worship for that praise, our intention has been destroyed. One scholar noted that this should not mean that we then choose not to do something because we are afraid to show off. This is not the solution. No, do the good deed either way, and then correct your intention.

Waswas pollutes intentions

Where does this pollution of our intentions come from? It is produced in part by shaitan and the ongoing waswas (whispers of the shaytan) that we all have to be vigilant to resist. If shaitan has polluted our intention he has won, but if he so scares us to not perform good deeds, or to be so worried about showing off that we stop doing a good deed, then he has also won. We need to continue to fight the shaitan and do good deeds with attention to our intentions.

One of the ways that waswas can hurt people is by getting people to commit the exact sin that got Iblees cursed by Allah. We all know Iblees refused to bow to Adam (AS) because he thought he was better than him. Arrogance was the motive behind this, he was too arrogant to be respectful to Adam (AS) and therefore disobeyed Allah (SWT).  Why? Because he was convinced of his superiority. Believers can get trapped by this form of shirk. So for a pious believer to say, there are other gods outright doesn’t really happen. 

But some of us believers can get trapped by arrogance and … elevate ourselves over other believers and belittle their religion. We accuse other people of being hypocrites, kafirs, or that they aren’t really Muslims because they aren’t sincere…

But some of us believers can get trapped by arrogance and think that we can judge other people when in fact Allah is the only One who can judge. This subtle form of shirk is that we elevate ourselves over other believers and belittle their religion. We accuse other people of being hypocrites, kafirs, or that they aren’t really Muslims because they aren’t sincere when this, in fact, is not our role or place to do this. This is Allah’s place, this is Allah’s job, this is for Allah to say, not us. It is a form of shirk to judge other people’s intentions. “Oh, her prayer doesn’t count because she is showing off.” “Oh that brother is so arrogant and he just wears those robes and has a big beard to impress people, there’s no barakah in his deen for sure.” This is a form of shirk, caused by the waswas where we have listened to shaitan and obeyed his call.

At the same time, there is something to be worried about if other people are more critical of your intentions than you are. Ironically, it is a sign of insincerity to be certain of your intentions and complacent about them. If you are sure you aren’t showing off and other people are criticizing you while you just don’t worry to correct yourself, that is something to be worried about. It is a sign of sincerity if you’re constantly correcting and rectifying our intentions. 

So, that super self-righteous believer who is in your head judging you with their arrogance may be annoying, offensive, and out of line, but they shouldn’t be the only voice questioning you; you ought to merely be humble enough to say to yourself that maybe you need to try harder to have your intentions right. It’s hard to humble yourself when people are arrogant toward you, but it is the Sunnah. 

“A black ant on a black stone”

Riya is insidious. Ibn ‘Abbas said: “Riyaa is more hidden than a black ant on a black stone in a dark night.” There is a hadith about this as well. How do we fight riya if it is this hard to see?

Ma’qil ibn Yasar reported: I departed with Abu Bakr to meet the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). And the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “O Abu Bakr, there is idolatry among you more hidden than the crawling of an ant.” Abu Bakr said, “Is there idolatry other than to make another god alongside Allah?” the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “By one in whose hand is my soul, there is idolatry more hidden than the crawling of an ant. Shall I not tell you something to say to rid you of it both minor and major? Say: O Allah, I seek refuge in you that I associate partners with you while I know, and I seek your forgiveness for what I do not know.” [al-Adab al-Mufrad 715]

This prayer is something that we should all learn and incorporate into our daily dua.  Dua is the weapon of the believer and this is how we should fight riya.

May Allah bless all of the ummah, every one of us, with freedom from riya, shirk, and nifaq, rectify our intentions, and bless us with sincerity in our religion.

Sarah is a social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area with at-risk and homeless youth. She likes to paint, drum, sing, and spend quality time with her family and God.