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The Messenger of Allah said: "Verily actions are by intentions, and for every person is what he intended. So the one whose ‘hijrah’ (migration) was to Allah and His Messenger, then his ‘hijrah’ was to Allah and His Messenger. And the one whose ‘hijrah’ was for the world to gain from it, or a woman to marry her, then his ‘hijrah’ was for what he made ‘hijrah’ for." [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]
Many scholars began books with this Hadeeth. Imaam Al-Bukhari commences his book of Hadeeth (Saheeh Al-Bukhari) with this Hadeeth and explains that every action that is done without seeking Allah’s pleasure is invalid and devoid of reward.
It can be said that the entire religion revolves around this Hadeeth. Imaam Ash-Shaafi'i said, "this Hadeeth constitutes a third of all knowledge."
Muslim scholars differ in opinion as to the limits of the Prophet’s saying: ‘actions are by intentions’. Many of the later scholars are of the opinion that the limit is that the action is made correct or acceptable with the intention. What is meant by this is that a legislated action needs an intention. As for habitual actions such as eating, drinking, dressing, etc., they are not in need of an intention.
Some say 'actions' here is to be understood in its generality; therefore, nothing is exempt from it. Others relate this as the saying of the majority, meaning the majority of the early scholars. This occurs in the words of Ibn Jareer At-Tabari, Abu Taalib Al-Makki, and others from the early scholars . Imaam Ahmad said: “I like that for every action, from prayer, fasting or charity or any action of righteousness that there be an intention preceding the action. The Prophet said: ‘actions are by intentions’, and this is taken for every matter.”
Fadl Ibn Ziyaad said: “I asked Abu Abdullaah (i.e. Imaam Ahmad ) about the intention in action, how should it be? He said: ‘One should concentrate on himself when he intends to do an action, not doing it for the sake of people (i.e. showing off).’"
It is possible that the limits of the saying, 'actions are by intention', are that the action is good, corrupt, acceptable, rejected, rewarded, or not rewarded according to the intention. Therefore, this statement informs us of the Islamic ruling concerning this: the correctness or incorrectness of the action is in accordance with the correctness or incorrectness of the intention.
The saying of the Prophet after this: 'and for everyone is what he intended' informs that one can not gain anything from his action except what he intended. So if he intended good, he gets good. If he intended evil then he gets evil. This second statement (of the Hadeeth) is not merely reiterating the first, because the first statement points to the fact that the goodness or corruptness of the action is according to the intention necessary for that action to exist. The second statement points to the fact that the reward of a person for his action is according to his good intention, and that the punishment for his action is according to his evil intention.
Scholarly definition of the word ‘Intention’:
1. To distinguish different types of worship, one from the other. Like distinguishing Noon (Thuhr) Prayer from Afternoon (‘Asr) Prayer, or distinguishing the fast of Ramadan from other fasts, or distinguishing actions of worship from actions of habit: like distinguishing bathing from impurity from bathing for the purpose of cleanliness.
2. To distinguish for who or what the action is done: is it for Allah only, for other than Allah, or for Allah and others than Him?
The meaning of ‘intention’ in the speech of the Prophet and the Salaf (righteous predecessors) was used generally to carry the meaning of ‘desire’. In the Quran, the word ‘desire’ is often used to describe an intention, as in Allah’s saying (which means): "…Among you are some who desire this world, and among you are some who desire the Hereafter…" [Quran 3: 152]
Also (what means): "Whoever desires the life of this world and its adornments…" [Quran 11: 15] And (what means): "And keep yourself patient [by being] with those who call upon their Lord in the morning and the evening, seeking His countenance. And let not your eyes pass beyond them, desiring adornments of the worldly life..." [Quran 18: 28]
Sometimes intention is described with the word ‘seeking’ as in Allah’s saying (which means): "But only seeking the countenance of his Lord, Most High."[Quran 92: 20] And (which means): "…and you do not spend except seeking the countenance of Allah…" [Quran 2: 272]
Regarding the second meaning of intention, there are numerous examples from the ‘Sunnah’ and the statements of the ‘Salaf’. To mention a few:
The Messenger said: "People will be gathered upon their intentions." [Ibn Maajah] He also said: "Mankind will be resurrected upon their intentions." [Muslim] Another Hadeeth says: "Verily those slain on the battlefield will be resurrected upon their intentions." [Ibn Abi Ad-Dunyaa]
The Prophet also said: "For the ones whose concern is this world, Allah will scatter his affair, and place poverty between his two eyes. He will not get from the world except what is written for him. For the one whose intention is the Hereafter, Allah will gather for him his affair and place contentment in his heart, and the world will come to him willingly."[Ibn Maajah]
Zayd Ash-Shaami said: "Verily I like to make an intention for everything I do even if it is eating and drinking."
Sufyaan Ath-Thawri said: "I have not treated anything more difficult than my intention, because it keeps changing."
Ibn Al-Mubaarak said: "Maybe a small action is made great by its intention, and maybe a great action is made small by its intention."
The three above-mentioned sayings were reported by Ibn Abi Ad-Dunyaa in his book ‘The Sincerity and the Intention’.
Imaam Ahmad said that the foundation of the religion is upon three Hadeeths:
1. "Verily actions are by intention." [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]
2. "Whosoever introduces into this affair of ours that which is not part of it then it is rejected." [Muslim]
3. "The Halaal (lawful) is clear and the Haraam (prohibited) is clear." [Al-Bukhari & Muslim]
Islam teaches us to perform good actions, stay away from the forbidden actions and stop at the doubtful matters. All of this is perfected upon two matters:
Actions must be done correctly, according to the teachings of Islam, and seeking the Pleasure of Allah, Almighty.
Fudayl Ibn `Iyaadh said about the saying of Allah (which means): "He who created death and life to test you [as to] which of you is best in deed.” [Quran 67: 2]
Who is sincere and correct in it? If the action is sincere and incorrect, then it is not accepted. Likewise if it is correct and not sincere then it is not accepted. It is only accepted when it is both sincere and correct. It is sincere when it is for the sake of Allah, and correct when it is done according to the teachings of Islam.