“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 Moses accompanying the great and mysterious sage commonly known to us by his natureevoking nickname, Al-Khidr, The Green. Many have dwelled upon who this "Servant from among the servants” of Allah might be, from the Buddha, to Gawain’s Green Knight, to the Celtic Cuchulainn (whom some claim to be the real figure behind the legends of St. Patrick).
In some, I think, this is to miss the point. Among the many genuine imports of this true narrative, however, is the primacy of niyyah, intention, in our lives.
So, what is intention? It is a notion that springs from within us and which consolidates in our hearts, emerging from our bodies as action. If it is formed with authentic knowledge, it is blessed. If ill will mingles with it, it is cursed. Thus it is here, with intention, where true value resides.
But before I get to intention, allow me to tell an old joke I like for its illustrative purposes.
A hadith student is walking home from his studies at Al-Azhar in hisjubbah and imamah. Along the way, he passes by a group of young men in 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 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? ‘Innama a’malu bin-niyyat.’ Actions are by intention. The first hadith in SahihAl-Bukhari."
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, the most dreaded state among the believers, hypocrisy.
The testification of faith, La ilaha illa’Llah, Muhammadan rasulla’Llah, rolls easily enough from practiced lips, but it is only the intention that underlies this declaration that hinges it to our Heavenly prosperity. The postures of salah are anatomically simply assumed. 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 die ‘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 it germinates into the seeds from which our actions grow. These deeds include the conceptions of our minds, 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 Surat Al-Isra': “And you shall not ever follow that of which you have no sure knowledge. Indeed, hearing, and sight, and [conceptions of] the heart–[every act of] each of these [faculties] shall one answer for [in the Hereafter] (Surat Al-Isra’, 17:36). It is the conceptions of the heart I want to focus on. For it is here that we premeditate our deeds.
If our deliberation is for a good that is based on knowledge that stems from revealed truth, we are awarded with blessing. If it is against this in the intertwining of cither of these elements, 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 ‘ilm Allah has bequeathed to us in recited and un-recited revelation, wahy matluw and wahy ghayr matluw, in the parlance of the usulis, the scholars who study the principles of Divine Law, meaning the Quran and the Sunnah.
Allah says: 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 (Surat Al-Ahzab, 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 (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.
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. But, 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 He shall 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 Follow-Through
Niyyah , then, sets up an important dichotomy. Allah alone knows our intention. We human beings see only action. We may raise our palms to our shoulders in the commencement of the prayer, but Allah alone knows if we have truly entered into the solemn covenant of salah 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 Surat Al-Ma’un (107): Woe to all those who pray…
What could this mean? The people of 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, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, taught us, must reflect in our sound mental and spiritual performance of the ritual prayer, yes. But if it is truehearted, it needs also to be followed through in all of 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 salah yields an unripe fruit if not mentally and spiritually cultivated to activation in our lives. For that diligent self-gardening comes to fragrant flower only when its 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 (under girded 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 not acting out our 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, or volunteering in the service of our mosques and communities, or to defend or uphold vulnerable people who are at risk, or 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 cannot be made merely once. They must be remade 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 who has been blessed with a special education or craft through which he serves people for the sake of Allah.
This might become particularly confusing in our mind and in the minds of others when it comes to receiving pay for what we do. Our intention still remains vital. Indeed, it may well be even more critical in such circumstances. We should not become confused by our pervasive commercial culture, which attaches monetary value and worth to everything from ideas to time.
This cuts two ways. On one hand, our intentions should at all times be clear and good–and the outcomes good. On the other, we should not fall victim to vacating our good intention by ourselves being the ones who unfailingly attach an invoice to our ever “higher service.” Our attitude should be indeed, we sustain you for no other reason than we seek the Face of Allah. We desire from you neither recompense nor thanks (Surat Al-Mursalat, 76:9). This is the way of the prophets and 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, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, forewarned.
It is this truth of intention and action that Al-Khidr, Moses’ erstwhile teacher, knew, and that Moses did not in these specific circumstances, for the former ha”d been granted a special mercy from the Providence of Allah and Allah had taught him much knowledge ‘min laduna,’ from Our own (SuratAl-Kahf, 18:65).This underscores (1) the imperative of ‘ilm, 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 a ship that was transporting them, killing a boy without retribution or provocation, and spontaneously building up a crumbling wall for a people who wronged them by refusing the two travelers’ request for provision and hospitality, Moses 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 guided intentions, based on divine knowledge, that attached to his every seemingly inexplicable and wrong deed.
Yet when his intentions were clarified, so too became the high virtue (and the certain divine reward) of all his actions.
Article provided by Al Jumuah Magazine, a monthly Muslim lifestyle publication, which addresses the religious concerns of Muslim families across the world.
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