Chapter 2: Intention [niyyah]

The first essential element [rukn] of prayer is the intention [niyyah].

Intention means that we have to know what we are doing, what we are reciting, and for whom and for what a certain movement is made.

The value of every deed lies in the intention and motive behind it; not merely in the deed itself. Thus, the quality of the actions of a person who stops on a red traffic light in order to maintain order and respect for the law is different from that of a person who carries out the same actions but out of fear of the traffic officer or of the fine that he might receive for violating traffic regulations. In all forms of worship, especially in prayer, intention occupies a special importance. In principle, what makes an action a form of worship is the divine intention behind it. If such an intention is not present, even if the outward appearance of a deed is good and proper, it would not have the value of worship.

In this regard, the Holy Prophet of Islam (s) said:

Verily, the action is (judged) by the intention (behind it).[121]

Yes, the criterion for an action to be judged materialistic or spiritual lies in the intention and motives behind it.

Sincere intention

Sincere intention means that man acts for the sake of God only and in the depth of his being, God and His pleasure are his aims, without expecting reward, gratitude or admiration from others.[122]

The loaves of bread that the Ahl al-Bayt of the Messenger of Allah (s) gave to the orphans, captives and poor on successive nights at the time of breaking fast [iftar] did not have much material value, but since they were given sincerely, on this account God revealed a surah.[123]

And concerning it, Attar an-Nayshaburi says:

No one in this world can describe his sword. No one in the hereafter can describe his three loaves of bread.

We read in history that a certain person was slain in the battlefield and everybody said: He is a martyr [shahid]. But the Prophet (s) said: He was killed in the way of a donkey [qatil al-himar]! The people were astonished, but the Prophet (s) said: His aim in going to the battlefield was not God; rather, when he saw that the enemy was riding a good donkey, he said to himself: I will kill him and take his donkey as war booty [ghanimah]. But he did not succeed and that infidel killed him instead. So, he was killed in the way of a donkey [qatil al-himar]![124]

Making ones intention sincere is indeed a difficult and taxing work. Sometimes, wicked thoughts penetrate the soul of man to such an extent that he himself is unaware of it. As such, it is narrated in the tradition that ostentation [riya] in matters of worship and polytheism [shirk] are more subtle and silent than the movement of a black ant on a black rock during a dark night.[125] So many individuals imagine that their intention is nearness [qurb] to Allah, but during the ups and downs of their lives, it becomes obvious that their motive is not a hundred percent pure and sincere.

In the words of Allamah Shahid Mut?ahhari, intention means self-awareness, and thus, the value of worship lies on gnosis and awareness. We read in the traditions:

The intention of the believer is more valuable than his action.[126]

Just like the comparison between body and soul, the soul is better than the body and the humanity of man is related to his soul. In comparing intention and action, intention is better than the act itself because it is the spirit of the action.

Intention is so valuable that even if a person is unable to perform a good deed, God will reward him for he had the intention to do so.[127]

The motive for seeking nearness [qurb] to Allah

The motive for nearness [qurb] means seeking proximity to the Divine Station. When it is said, So-and-so is near or close to a certain national official, what is meant is not spatial, bodily and physical nearness, for if it were such, the office attendants are the closest or nearest to him. Rather, what is meant by this nearness is spiritual, emotional in status and nearness in intimacy.

Doing deeds seeking the pleasure of God does not mean that God would be influenced by our deeds and change His attitude or position toward us, and as such, He becomes the subject of events and change. Instead, nearness to Allah means exaltation of the spirit through the ladder of existence whose consequence is the acquisition of influence in the creation. That is, proximity to the Fountainhead of Creation and finding Him in ones heart.

Just as there are differences in the levels of existence among inanimate objects, plants, animals, and human beings, there are also differences on the level of human beings with respect to proximity to the Fountainhead of Creation. Man could attain such nearness to God and be the nearest to Him so that he becomes the vicegerent of Allah on the earth.

Worship which is motivated by nearness [qurb] will make man more luminous and perfect and have more existential capacity [zarfiyyat-e wujudi]. All forms of worship, recommended prayers in particular, have significant roles in this affair, just as we read in the hadith:

That is, man can always get nearer to God through recommended prayers.[128]

Obligatory prayer is possibly done on account of fear of hell and the divine wrath, but the optional prayer is a sign of love and the secret of love to the Worshipped Being [mabud].

The degrees of proximity [qurb]

The term ʔ darajat [degrees] has been mentioned frequently in the Quran and it has appeared with diverse interpretationsa fact which elicits subtle points. For some, the Quran states:

For them, there are degrees.[129]

For others, however, it says:

They (themselves) are degrees[130] It is like the case of great figures who even if they sit at the lower section of an assembly, that section can become high; they are themselves makers of degree and rank, and are not subject to degree and station.

This spiritual ranking is not exclusive to human beings; for, there is also hierarchy among the angels. The Quran thus says regarding Jibrail (Archangel Gabriel) (a):

One who is heard and trustworthy as well.[131]

In any case, the degrees of human beings in obedience to God are not similar:

1. Sometimes man obeys [muti], but not out of pleasure.
2. At some other times, he obeys [muti] as well as loves [muhibb]; that is, he obeys God based on love and affection.
3. There are also times when he attains perfect gnosis [marifah] far higher than obedience [itaah] and love [muhabbah] and whatever he sees is only God. H?adrat Ali (a) says:

I do not see anything except God, before it, after it and with it.[132]

We have to love God for the sake of God

It is said that in order to test the loyalty of his courtiers, Sultan Mahmud Ghaznawi set out with a caravan and placed an unlocked container of jewelry on a camel. Along the way, they reached a valley. He roused the camel and thus the container turned upside down and the jewels fell into the valley.

The Sultan said: Whatever jewels one may get belongs to him. Those who were around him left him, and they engaged themselves in amassing gold and silver. Meanwhile, it was observed that Ayyaz had abandoned the jewels and pursued the Sultan. The Sultan asked him: Why did you not amass jewels? In reply, Ayyaz said:

For me, I prefer to cling to you and thus I did not serve the grace [nimah].

Then, from this event Mawlawi concludes:

If you are hoping for the Friends grace, you love yourself not the Friend.

It is contrary to the spiritual path [tariqah] of the awliya to beseech God something other than God.

The Quran has strongly condemned those who call on God only for their own sakes and remember Him only in times of problems and at other times forget or even deny Him:

When they board the ship, they invoke Allah putting exclusive faith in Him, but when He delivers them to land, behold, they ascribe partners [to Him], being ungrateful for what We have given them!.[133]

At any rate, working for ones self is egotism; for the sake of the people is idol-worship; and working for the sake of God and His creatures is dualism; and making ones work and that of the creatures for the sake of God is worship of God.

We thus read in the litanies [munajat]:


O God! My worship is not out of fear of hell or desire for Your paradise. Rather, it is because I found You worthy of being worshipped and thus I worshipped You.[134]

Yes, only traders work to earn profits and only slaves work out of fear, but free and noble men worship Him to express their gratitude for the divine graces, just as has been narrated in the words of the Infallibles [masumin][135] (a):

. .

Indeed there is a group that worships Allah for gain; that is the worship of the trader. There is a group that worships Allah out of fear; that is the worship of the slave. And there is a group that worships Allah out of gratitude; that is the worship of the free.[136]

In the language of Hafiz,[137]

There is no one in our hearts (minds) but the Friend. Give the two worlds to the enemy as the Friend suffices for us.

In materialistic love, the person loves his object of love for himself, but in spiritual love the person dedicates himself to the Beloved. In the Supplication of Kumayl [dua kumayl],[138] Ali (a) says:

[O Lord!] Make my heart enthralled by Your love!

Attainment of the state of proximity [qurb]

Attainment of the divine proximity [qurb-e ilahi] and motive for nearness [qurbah] is achieved in two ways:

One is to recognize the grandeur and station of God and the other is to recognize the meanness and abjectness of other than Him.

The Quran always mentions the divine favors and graces to the servants (of God) so as to make man enamored by the love for God. Stating His Attributes, His creatures, His material and spiritual assistance and the many favors, great and smallall in all are meant to enhance our love for God.

On the other hand, there are many verses which indicate the weakness and meanness of other than God, saying: Anyone and anything other than God have neither honor nor power. Even if they combine together to create a fly, they would not be able to do so. Except Him who could answer the call of helpless and the indigent? How could it be proper to discuss others in association with God and regard them as equal to and partners of God?

A recollection

One of the maraji at-taqlid[139] of the Shiah world was ayatullah al-Uzma Burujerdi. During days of mourning, he used to hold mourning ceremonies in his residence. In one of these assemblies, he was not feeling well. So, he was resting in his private room while listening to the speeches of the orators.

One of those present in the mourning assembly said: Extend salawah (invocation of blessings to the Prophet and his progeny (a)) for the sake of the health and safety of the Imam of the Time and aqa Burujerdi!

Suddenly, they found out that he was knocking the door with his staff. His near relatives came and asked: Is there anything we can do for you? This great marja at-taqlid said: Why did you mention my name along with the name of the Imam of the Time (a)? I do not have the worth for you to mention my name along with the name of the Imam and invoke blessings [salawah] on us both.[140]

This religious authority who was a deputy [naib] of the Imam of the Time (a) was not willing to let his name be mentioned along with the name of an infallible Imam, but many of us, on account of incorrect understanding and impoliteness, place the names of weak and thoroughly needy creatures along with the name of God, the Omnipotent, Absolute and Exalted, as if we regard them as equals.

Quality or quantity?

Islam has paid much attention to the manner of performing a task and the underlying motive and purpose behind it. The Quran praises the better acts and not the amount of acts accomplished, saying:

That He may test you [to see] which of you is best in conduct.[141]

While in a state of ruku [bowing down], H?adrat Ali (a) gave his ring to a beggar, and on account of this, a verse [ayah] of the Quran was revealed. Some people imagine that the reason behind the revelation of a verse because of a ring was that the ring was precious and thus they have said: The value of the ring was equal to the tax and revenue of all of Shamat.[142] This is while a ring with such a price could never be consistent with the simplicity [zuhd] of Ali (a). It was equally incompatible with his sense of justice for him to have such a ring on his hand while some people were in a state of poverty and indigence. But the truth of the matter is that it was on account of the quality of the deed and not its quantity, and on account of the sincerity and intention for nearness [qurbah] and not the weight and magnitude of the rings value that the following verse was revealed:

Your guardian is only Allah, His Apostle, and the faithful who maintain the prayer and give the zakat while bowing down.[143]

A recollection

Bahlul saw a group of people constructing a mosque and claiming that they were doing so for the sake of God. He inscribed on a stone: The builder of this stone is Bahlul, and placed it at the door of the mosque one night. The following day, when the workers saw the inscribed stone, they reported it to Harun ar-Rashid. So, he summoned Bahlul and asked him: Why have you assumed ownership of a mosque I am constructing?

Bahlul replied: If you are really constructing the mosque for the sake of God, then let my name be inscribed therein (as the owner). Anyway, God knows who the real builder is. Besides, He will not commit any mistakes in giving the reward. If it is really for the sake of God, whether my name or your name is inscribed there does not matter.

In doing so, Bahlul let him understand that he had no intention for nearness [qurbah] (to Allah), but rather for desire and fame. For this reason, the Quran likens the deeds of the infidels [kuffar] to a mirage which seems to be water but it is not:

As for the faithless, their works are like a mirage in a plain, which the thirsty man supposes to be water.[144]

In principle, Islam regards an act as righteous if its four constitutive elements are good: the components of the action, the motive, means, and method.

The motive for nearness [qurbah] is necessary not only at the beginning of an act; rather, the intention for divine proximity should remain throughout the course of the action otherwise the act in its entirety becomes void.

If the motor of an airplane malfunctions for only a minute, the airplane will definitely come crashing down. Polytheism [shirk] or ostentation [riya] in the intention [niyyah], though for only a moment, will extinguish the entire act and render it useless.

Another recollection

On a certain flight, the passengers of an airplane preparing for take off were asked to disembark from the aircraft and the flight was delayed for many hours. I asked about the reason behind the delay. Someone said: A cockroach had been seen in the aircraft! I exclaimed: All this delay is because of a cockroach?! It was said in reply: Yes, because there have been many cases when a cockroach would gnaw through a wire and the control system of the aircraft would malfunction and this could lead to a mishap.

Many good deeds are supposed to lead to mans ascension toward God, but because of a spiritual vice, not only do they not lead to his ascension; instead, they would lead to his fall.