Hadith of Intentions: Arabic Discourse

Bismillah. Before we begin the discussion of the first Hadith in An-Nawawi’s 40, we will look at the different Arabic terms in the hadith and the word “niyyah” in particular.


The word innamaa implies emphasis and exclusiveness. Saying “actions are by intentions” is not sufficient. Every action is based on its intention without anyexceptions to this principle.

There is a difference of opinion whether or not this is literal (haqeeqi) or non literal (majazi) exclusion, ut the majority of the scholars say that is is literal. The reader should know that there is such a thing as “relative exclusiveness.” For example, when Allah says, “You [O Muhammad] are only one who warns.” (Al Rad, 7)

Al A’amaal

Al A’amaal is the plural of “deed” or “action.” The “al” (alif laam) at the beginning of the word means that it is a general term and includes all actions that fall under the possible meaning of this term. However, it may be shown that exceptions are made.

These include all actions of the body and speech, obligatory and voluntary deeds small and large deeds. The acts must be restrictedto conscious, intentional acts. Some acts are done unintentionally without any purpose and are hence excluded here.


The letter ‘ba’ has many meanings in the Arabic language. The Prophet sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam said, “Verily, all actions are but ba intention.” The interpretation the author favors is what is called ba al-sababiya – the ba of causation. Therefore the meaning here would be, actions are “caused” be intention. The reward is confirmed due to the intention as it is the intention that led to the act in the first place.


Niyyah is not just a thought that comes to one’s mind, but it is a determination want and aspiration to do something. Therefore, if one has the intention to do something, that means he/she will do it so long as there is nothing preventing them or they don’t change their intention.

The shareeah meaning of intention is not any different. Jurists, however, use it in a slightly different sense. They refer to it as the intent in the heart that must accompany and precede anhy act of worship.

The place of intention is the heart/conscience, not the tongue. Simply saying “I intend to do such and such” is not the same as having the intention to do something. The author mentioned the innovation of saying “I intend to pray two rak’ahs” out loud. I used to do this myself, because that was just the way I was taught. Niyyyah for prayer is made in the heart.

Words Similar to Niyyah

The Qur’an usually uses different words that are similar to niyyah. They are: Al Iraadah, Al-Qasd and Al ‘Azm. Sometimes they are all used for the same meaning, but they do have specific characteristics that make them different from one another.

Iraada encompasses intention. The author translates it as volition. (See Israa, 18-19 for an example).

Qasd (purpose) implies turning towrads something or desiring it. It can be used for what a person wants for himself as well as what he wants from others. Niyyah cannot be used in teh former sense. Qasd is used for what is within a person’s capability, niyyah is not restricted so.

‘Azm is the resolve of the heart to fulfill a matter. In the Qur’an, it has four meanings: purpose, patience, resolve and fulfillment. It also implies doing something without any hesitation or doubt concerning the  matter. Of all the terms, ‘azm is the strongest in terms of resolve. 

Niyyah, qasd and iraada all imply knwoledge and action. No act is complete unless it has three components: knowledge of the act, want to do the act and ability to do it. No one will to do something that he does not know and no one can do something that he has not the ability to do.

‘Azm is niyyah for a future act. Niyyah and qasd are used for an act at present. Iraadah is for future and present acts.


A believer should always make his intentions purely for Allah. This is known as ikhlaas. Before any act of worship, we must make our intentions purely for Allah. Otherwise, we are either committing major or minor shirk.

Something Left Out?

In Arabic, it’s not unusual for part of a sentence to be left out. In English, we call this ellipsis. In Arabic, there are two instances where this can happen: idhmaar (very close to ellipsis) or taqdeer (a missing word or words that ust be assumed or implied). We don’t generally resort to this unless the sentence can’t be understood without idhmaar or taqdeer.

Words are assumed when:

  1. The statement is simply not correct or true unless something is assumed.
  2. The statement doesn’t make rational sense.
  3. The speech is not correct from a shareeah point of view.
  4. The grammatical construct requires extra speech, as in idhmaar.

wAllahu ‘Alam, it seems that one must stick as closely as possible to the literal meaning of any statement of  the Qur’an and Sunnah unless there is overriding evidence to do so otherwise. According to the majority opinion, the hadith must be understood at face favule and in its general sense.

The correct translation of the phrase would be, and Allah knows best, that every conscious act has an intention behind it as its driving force that brought it about.  

“Every man shall have but that which he intended”

Some scholars say that this statement just reemphasizes the first, but a basic principle of speech is taht it would give new information, not stress.

In every case – of good, evil and neutral intentions – a person will get what he intended.  If the intention was for the sake of Allah, then He shall receive the pleasure of Allah and reward from Him. If the intention was religiously neutral the result may not be exactly what the person intended, but Allah doesn’t wrong any soul and He gives to those who strive. If the intention was evil, the result will be evil – that is, it will be evil for him in the long run.

This understanding of the hadith is supported by the following verse:

Whoever desires the life of the world and its glitter, to them We shall pay in full (the wages of) their deeds they did therein, ad they will have no dimunition therein. They are those for whom there is nothing in the Hereafter but Fire; and vain are the deeds they did therein. And of no effect is that which they used to do.” (Hood, 15-16)

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