One of the most oft-quoted hadith (Prophet Mohammad’s saying) is the following meaning that rewards of deeds depend upon the intentions.
innamal aamal-u bin-niyyaat
It is also one of the most misapplied hadith, relied upon in the wrong places, and totally side-lined in the right ones. In order to understand the rights and wrongs in applying this hadith, we must first understand that there are three types of actions in Islamic terms.
The first type of actions is those which Allah has asked us to perform. These encompass not only the musts but also the oughts of Islam: the basic forms of worship, serving the rights of others, and contributing relief to the needy are major examples. A second type of activities are those mundane ones which are the necessary part of daily living: eating, drinking, , raising a family, earning for sustenance and so on. The final type of actions is the prohibited ones.
Now the hadith about intentions stands in a different relation with each of these. Let us begin with the first type.
All of the actions in the first category are GOOD DEEDS. Religiously, socially, morally, some-how or the other, they are good acts. Now when our Prophet (salla-Allahu alaihi wa sallam) reminds us to analyze our real INTENTIONS behind a GOOD DEED, he teaches us an important psychological distinction: There’s a difference between a genuine and a fake act, between a real kindness and an apparent one.
Allah only accepts genuine acts of goodness, not posed or contaminated ones. And why should He? If you were given a gift where you knew the giver was merely fulfilling a formality, showing off, intending to obtain some gain in return, or partronizing you in some way, would you like such a gift? I bet not!
Note, it’s very EASY to mix our intentions behind these good deeds. They are so attractive because they attract others’ attention and earn us a quick good name. A string of speedy rewards follows those who successfully engage in one good act after another. There is the name, the fame, the good talk behind the back, the praise and appreciation on the face, the attention. Temptations to ‘indulge’ in piety merely for the sake of enjoying this good name are numerous. Those who have even slightly tasted the admiration following the public performance of a moralistic act know it can be addictive. Soon it can be a lust of its own, all the time so subtle we may succeed in deceiving ourselves we are being good for sake of pure goodness.
At first glance we may not recognize the symptoms of this subtle behind-the-facade contamination. But wait…. Do you remember the time when you were rather irritated with the gift you received on your last birthday? You thought it should have been at least at par with the one you had given to the giver on her birthday! Remember the fight you ended up having with that friend whom you realized failed to live up to your expectations after eliciting favors from you first? Remember the lady who chastised her maid on her shortcoming after all the material help the lady had given her so far? The greater the favor before the more the irritation later!
It is difficult to detect the trail of impure intention while we are attempting the goodness. But the scent can be easily picked up in the aftermath.
There’s another key issue linked to this aspect of Intentions that deserves clarifying. What about the non-Muslims who commit good acts? What about them, particularly when they are presumably free of the kind of impurities I have mentioned above? Will Allah accept their deeds? The answer depends on which perspective you are taking, this world or the one to follow.
As far as this world is concerned, the return for a good deed is a good consequence. And in that there’s no distinction among people. Sure, Allah tests everybody with unexpected setbacks and disappointments, but sooner or later the good is returned to us in some form. The point of distinction is the afterworld: No matter how pure and good the good deed, its usefulness in the afterworld rests SOLELY upon the pivotal aspect of intention: Did we do it for the sake of the ONE TRUE GOD?
Consider it like this: You are the principal in a certain college and unbeknown to you, an unregistered person not only attends all the classes as a student but plays the role very well. He is a highly capable person with genuine talent and uses it well in assignments and presentations and projects. He reaps all the immediate and positive consequences for his efforts: he is learning at the highest rate and acquiring a geniune reputation among the faculty and the class-fellows. Both things which will be definitely be of use to him later. At the end of the program, however, he comes up to you with a rather frivolous expectation: that you should award him the degree as a result for his untiring and spectacular performance! Absurd, isn’t it?
So Allah will return the goodnesses of the non-believers in this world. But why should He do so in the afterworld when He has made it clear from the outset for whom the Heaven is reserved? In fact this aspect too applies to all of us, Muslims or not. The terms for gaining admission into that pleasant eternal life are clearly set out in the Quran. Our Muslim name doesn’t make a difference. Fair!
As a clarification and authentication of this last point, I refer to you to that famous Hadith-e-Qudsi detailing that the first three to be entered to hell-fire on the Judgment Day will be a martyr, a Quranic scholar and a philanthropist, all three of whom had engaged in their respective noble activities for sake of wordly rewards. Read the full hadith here.
IN the second part of this post, we shall turn to the third category of actions, the prohibited ones. I wish to discuss about this one before the second class of activities (the mundane, daily life ones) because of the widespread mis-use of the concept of intention in its case.
Thanks for being with me so far.