So they proceeded. And at last when they embarked in a ship, he scuttled it. [Moses] said: Have you scuttled it to drown its people? Very truly, you have done a grievous thing! He said [to Moses]: Did I not say that, indeed, you can never be patient [enough to bear] with me? (Surat Al-Kahf, 18:71-72)
Conception and Perception
This, of course, is a scene from the Quran’s recounting to us of the delightfully instructive story of the Prophet Moses (A.S) accompanying the great and mysterious sage commonly known to us by his nature-evoking nickname, Al-Khidr, The Green. Many have dwelled upon who this “Servant from among the servants” of Allah might be—from the Buddha, to Sir Gawain’s Green Knight, to the Celtic Cuchulainn (whom some claim to be the real figure behind the legends of St. Patrick).
I think this is to miss the point. Among the many genuine imports of this true narrative—and you better believe it and he are true!—is the primacy of niyyah, intention, in our lives.
So, what is intention? It is a notion that springs from within us, consolidates in our hearts, and emerges from our bodies as action. If it is formed with authentic knowledge, it is blessed. If ill will mingles with it, it is cursed. For this reason intention is where true value resides.
But before I get to intention, allow me to tell an old joke I like for its illustrative purposes.
A ḥadîth student is walking home from his studies at Al-Azhar in his jubbah and imâmah, the long black coat and red fez wound round with a white cloth. Along the way, he passes by a group of young men on a soccer field.
“Ya Shaykh! They call out to him. He goes to them. “Please. We have an important soccer game and our referee did not show up. Do a good deed and referee our game, and be fair. We see you are a righteous person.”
The young scholar agrees. But as soon as the game is on, a player kicks the ball to the goalie, who stops the shot. “Goal!” he shouts.
“How can you call it a goal?” the players protest. “It never entered the net! Fear Allah!”
The referee-shaykh looks at them and shakes his head. “Don’t you people know anything? ‘Innamâ aʿmâlu bi-niyyât.’ Actions are but by their intentions. The first ḥadîth recorded in Sa ḥî ḥ Al-Bukhârî.”
Denotation and Connotation
Intention is the engine that propels a person to deed, be it the solemn offering of an act of worship or deliberate mundane motion. Profoundly, it is niyyah that links our behavior to belief (or unbelief), or to that most dreaded state among the believers, hypocrisy.
The testification of faith, Lâ ilâha illa’Llâh, Muhammadan Rasûlla’Llâh, rolls easily enough from practiced lips, but it is only the intention underlying this declaration that hinges it to our Heavenly prosperity. The postures of ṣalâh (ritual prayer) are simply assumed anatomically. But our bowing and bowing down to the ground are divinely assessed and accounted in accordance with the present, mindful niyyah that accompanies them.
The Arabic word ‘niyyah’ denotes the ‘pit of a date,’ a ‘fruit kernel’ or ‘stone,’ or the ‘source’ from which something proceeds or grows. By extension, it signifies a ‘core,’ ‘center,’ or ‘nucleus.’ Hence, niyyah resides in our center, in our hearts. There germinates the seeds it implants and from which our actions grow. These deeds include the conceptions of our minds (including all the shades of our cultivar fantasies), the speech of our tongues, and the willful sensory perceptions, gestures, and movements of our bodies toward whatever conceived of ends.
Thus, Allah commands us in the Quran in Sûrat Al-Isrâ’:
And you shall not ever follow that of which you have no sure knowledge. Indeed, hearing, and sight, and [the conceptions of] the heart—[every act of] each of these [faculties] shall one answer for [in the Hereafter]. (Sûrat Al-Isrâ’, 17:36)
It is the conceptions of the heart I want to focus on. For it is in this piece of flesh that we premeditate our deeds.
If our ideation and deliberation are for a good based on knowledge that stems from revealed truth, we are awarded with blessing. If it is against this in the imaginative processes of intertwining either of these elements—conception and revealed knowledge, that is—we reap the recompense of sin, if we act on it.
What is important here is that it is not the act in and of itself that is blessed or cursed, but the niyyah with which it is purposed in accordance with one’s knowledge, the word knowledge here being shorthand for the ʿilm Allah has bequeathed to us in recited and un-recited Revelation—wa ḥy matluw and wa ḥy ghayr matluw in the parlance of the u ṣûlîs, the scholars who study the principles of Divine Law, meaning the principle sources of Revelation, the Quran (recited Revelation) and the Sunnah (un-recited Revelation).
But there is no sin reckoned against you wherein you err as to this. Rather, [you are accountable] only for what your hearts premeditate. And ever is Allah all-forgiving, mercy-giving (Sûrat Al-A ḥzâb, 33:5).
It is for this reason that intention has been variously and meaningfully called by the people of knowledge the “seed of sincerity,” the “root of truthfulness,” and the “vertex (Arabic, ra’s, or ‘head’) of faith.” As one writer put it (I summarize): Niyyah is covert. Only an act’s outer, physical results manifest. Its inner, moving parts are buried silent, its motive hidden to all its earthly and heavenly observers, save the One. And He is its Ultimate Determiner.
Says Allah in Sûrat Al-Baqarah:
To Allah belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. Hence, whether you disclose what is in your souls or you conceal it, Allah will call you to account for it.
Repentance remains for bad intentions enacted. Nonetheless, the deed is done and accorded its core value by Allah. What He chooses to do with it—verily, He is our Master and we are His servants.
Thus shall He forgive whomever He so wills and torment whomever He so wills. For Allah is powerful over all things (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:284).
Worshipful Intention and Worldly Follow-Through
Niyyah, then, comprises an important dichotomy. Allah alone knows our intention. We human beings see only action. We may raise our palms to our shoulders or ears in the commencement of the Ṣalâh-Prayer, but Allah alone knows if we have truly entered into the solemn covenant of ṣalâh with Him at that moment with good and guided intention, or if our motives lie elsewhere.
This explains the initial shock we experience when first we read verse four of Sûrat Al-Mâʿûn (107:4): Woe to all those who pray…
What could this mean? The people of the Prayer? These are the blessed! Why are they recipients of this divine threat? The closing three verses unveil intention’s infinite implications.
…those who are unmindful about their prayers…
The actions of the prayer alone are insufficient. One must first bring full consciousness to the act, both in entering the state of divine communion and keeping focused upon the only One worthy of Worship.
…those who only make a show…
Nor is our consciousness that we are in prayer enough, according to Allah, even though we are bringing ourselves to pray before Him. It must not be an empty act, done for the sake of image or the good opinion of others. These are corrupted intentions, but intentions nonetheless.
…while they withhold basic aid [from people].
Nor does our sincere prayer complete our intention. That intention, to worship Allah alone in the way His Prophet ﷺ taught us, must reflect in our sound mental and spiritual performance of the ritual prayer, yes. But if it is truehearted, it needs also for us to follow it through in all of our life to the earthly purposes of service to the One—namely, to serve His people, humankind, and all His creation, for His sake alone.
The intention of ṣalâh yields a fruit unripe if it is not mentally and spiritually cultivated to activation in our lives. Our diligent self-gardening comes to fragrant flower only when our consciousness and spirit of worship fills the living world with selfless charitable action, done for the sake of the One alone, and nothing else and no other, and when we persevere in thankless struggle for the fulfillment of the rights and needs of the other—the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the wayfarer, the imprisoned, the war-weary, the overcome.
But the most unheralded virtue of the good intention undergirded by Revealed knowledge is this: Allah forever binds it to its good deed, whether or not that deed succeeds. When the good intention is made to fulfill the letter and the spirit of worship, it wins for its intender the Heavenly reward attached to its act even if the occasion to carry out that good deed disappears beneath the haze of some unforeseen, impeding cause.
Not just this, but Allah has decreed that when our intentions grow malformed and bend our hearts to some evil, if we abandon that evil deed for the sake of Allah, He will reward us just for not acting out our bad intention.
Now, human beings have a great propensity to rationalize as good the evil they want to do. One need only peruse the news to hear all the noble reasons why some of us find it necessary to kill, maim, dispossess, rob, jail, impoverish, silence, and banish others—all for their own good or the good of the world, mind you.
We, too, who hold ourselves to be believers, often justify our own lusts and desires with the same hyper-reasoning when it comes to our intentions. But never, ever can an evil act be legitimized by a good intention.
A friend of mine once put it this way: “You don’t guzzle the wine to save your brother from it. You don’t knock your sister unconscious to keep her from hearing or seeing something wicked.”
The Renewal of Intention
We tend to think of intention in association with one-time actions, or acts that we plan to do at specific, usually quick intervals, like giving charity, saying a kind word, or aiding someone. These are important.
But some intentions are tied to long-term endeavors—like committing the Quran to memory; studying useful knowledge or teaching it to others; acquiring a beneficial skill to help others, or volunteering in the service of our mosques and communities, or to defend or uphold vulnerable people who are at risk, or those who have been falsely accused, by means of whatever knowledge, skills, resources, or talents Allah has conferred upon us, and doing this for the sake of Allah alone.
In the ordinary course of life and being human, these kinds of intentions we cannot make just once. We must remake them periodically (usually frequently) in order to renew our hearts.
The long-term good intention requires that we consciously remind ourselves of our original purpose in our endeavor, for example, as a community or organizational leader, as a helper, or as someone blessed with special knowledge or a craft through which he serves people for the sake of Allah.
This might become particularly confusing for us (and in the minds of others) when it comes to receiving pay for what we do. Still, our intention remains vital. Indeed, it may well be even more critical in such circumstances. We should not fall into confusion because of our pervasive commercial culture, which attaches monetary value and worth to everything from ideas to time.
This cuts two ways. On one hand, at all times we should make sure our intentions are both clear and good—and the outcomes good, as far as we can envision them. On the other, we should not fall victim to vacating our good intention by never failing to attach an invoice to our ever “higher service.”
Rather, our intention, if given voice, should match the utterance of our forbears in faith, immortalized in the Quran: Indeed, we sustain you for no other reason than we seek the Face of Allah. We desire from you neither recompense nor thanks (Sûrat Al-Mursalât, 76:9). This is the way of the prophets and the believers before us, and its inspiration must be revitalized in all our hearts.
If we permit the intentions of our long-term endeavors to fade in our hearts, they may disappear altogether and be silently replaced by our innate avarice and ulterior selfishness. This happens a lot easier than one may think.
In such a case, the true worth of the deeds we formerly seeded with good intentions will have taken bad root, and our once beautiful, virtuous endeavors will have come to ugly immoral ends—not, perhaps, in the ken of people, but definitely in the Eyes of Allah, with whom actions are finally acquitted by their intention, even as the Prophet ﷺ forewarned.
* * * * *
IT IS THIS truth of intention and action that Al-Khidr, Moses’ erstwhile teacher, knew, and that Moses (A.S) did not, indeed, could not comprehend, in these specific circumstances, for the former had been granted a special mercy from the Providence of Allah, and Allah had taught him much knowledge ‘min ladunnâ,’ from Our own (Sûrat Al-Kahf, 18:65).
This underscores (1) the imperative of ʿilm, or Revealed knowledge, as the basis for our intentions and the actions tied to them, and (2) that deeds in and of themselves are, in fact, neutral, and that it is intention that ensouls them.
Thus in Al-Khidr’s scuttling of the ship that was transporting him and Moses (A.S), in his killing a boy unlicensed by retribution or provocation, and in his spontaneously building up a crumbling wall for a people who had just wronged them by refusing the two travelers’ request for provision and hospitality, Moses (A.S) was at a loss for the motives, but not Al-Khidr. The Green One dismisses his objecting prophet-pupil, but not before disclosing to him the divinely guided intentions that attached to his every seemingly inexplicable and wrong deed.
Yet when Al-Khidr clarified his intentions, and their divinely revealed knowledge bases, so too became eminently clear the high virtue of all his actions…and the unqualified certainty of their, no doubt, immense divine reward.
Originally posted 2015-02-24 05:00:26.