Taken from Maṣābīḥ al-Anwār fī Ḥall Mushkilāt al-Akhbār written by al-Sayyid ʿAbdullah Shubbar (d. 1242 AH / 1827). Slight edits have been made to the original text for greater readability.
What we transmitted from Thiqa al-Islam (Shaykh al-Kulaynī) from ʿAlī b. Ibrahīm from al-Nawfalī from al-Sakūnī from Abī ʿAbdillah (a) who said: The Messenger of Allah (p) said,
نِيَّةُ المُؤمنِ خَيرٌ مِن عَمَلِهِ، ونِيَّةُ الكافِرِ شَرٌّ مِن عَمَلِهِ، وكُلُّ عامِلٍ يَعمَلُ على نِيَّتِهِ
“The intention of a believer is better than his action, and the intention of a disbeliever is eviler than his action. Every doer does according to his intention.”
This narration is widely transmitted by both sects, but it has been criticized from two angles:
1. It is in conflict with the traditions that indicate that if a believer intends on performing a good, but does not perform it, a single reward is recorded, but if he performs it, then ten rewards are recorded. If he intends a sin, but does not perform it, it is not recorded, and if they perform it then one deed is recorded. Both the intellect and the traditions strengthen the view that punishment and reward are based upon actions, not upon intentions.
2. It is in conflict with the tradition that says “The greatest of actions is the most difficult of them“, meaning the hardest of them. Action is more difficult than intention, so how it is possible for the intention to be greater than action?
Whatever the case may be, both Sunnī and Shīʿī scholars have explained the meaning of the tradition in many ways:
1. What al-Ghazzālī has mentioned: Every pious deed is regulated by intention and action. Each of them is a part of a class of good deeds. Nevertheless, intention as part of a class of pious deeds is better than action because the effect of intention in what is intended is greater than that of action. It is the goodness of the heart that is intended through responsibility and the limbs are the instruments leading to the goal. The purpose of the bodily movements is to make the heart accustomed to desiring the good, and to establish the inclination towards it, so to be free of the worldly appetites and occupy itself with invocation and reflection. Allah says: [22:37] Their meat will not reach Allah, nor will their blood, but what reaches Him is piety from you. Piety is a quality of the heart, and in a tradition, it says, “The body contains a lump of flesh by grace of which, when it thrives, the rest of the body also thrives” – the heart is intended here.1
2. That which has been transmitted from Ibn Durayd (d. 321 AH): A believer intends an abundance of good, but time does not allow him to perform them all, hence the reward which is given for his intentions is greater than the reward given for his actions.2 A narration from al-Kāfī from al-Ṣādiq (a) backs this up:
“People of hell will only remain in hell forever because of their intention in this world was that if they were to live here forever, they would disobey Allah forever. People of paradise will live therein forever because of their intention in this world that if they were to live here forever, they would obey Allah forever. It is through intentions that both groups will remain therein forever. The Imam then recited the words of Allah, [17:84] Say, “Each works according to his manner,” the Imam said, ‘Meaning, according to his intention.’”3
3. A believer intends to perform their worship in the best of manners because their faith necessitates it. Thereafter, they get distracted from it and it becomes unfeasible for them to do so to the point where what they intended does not occur and they cannot do that which they should have. In such a case, the continuous intention of such a person to perform their worship in the best of manners is better than every act of worship which is disrupted.4
4. The meaning of the tradition is a combination of the last two aforementioned meanings, due to their similarity in one matter, which is a good intention that one was unable to act upon as intended.5 What further attested to this is what al-Ṣadūq has transmitted in his al-ʿIlal from al-Bāqir (a) who said: “The intention of a believer is better than his action, that is because he intends good which he was unable to actualize. The intention of a disbeliever is eviler than his action because a disbeliever intends evil and hopes from it that which he is unable to actualize.”6
From al-Ṣādiq (a), to whom Zayd al-Shaḥḥām said, “I heard you say, the intention of a believer is better than his actions, how can the intention be better than action? He (a) said, because action can sometimes be done out of ostentation in front of creation, while the intention was sincerely for the Lord of the worlds, so He (azwj) gives for the intention that which He (swt) does not give for the action.”
Abū ʿAbdillah (a) said, “A servant during the day time intends to pray in the evening, but slumber overcomes him, and he sleeps. Allah affirms for him his prayers and records every breath of his as glorification, and considers his sleep to be alms.”7
5. It means that the intention of a believer is better than his action without intention, like when it is said the night of Qadr is better than a thousand months, and the obligatory prayers are better than twenty pilgrimages.8
However, the problem with this explanation is that firstly, actions without intention do not have any good in them whatsoever, and secondly, action without intention cannot be conceptualized except in the case of a heedless person.
6. The intention of a believer is his belief in the truth and decision to obey the Lord as long as he were to stay in the world, and this is better than his action because the fruit of the former is an eternal abode in paradise, as opposed to his actions which do not necessitate an eternity in paradise. The intention of a disbeliever is the false belief and decision to transgress against the Lord as long as he were to stay in it forever, and this is eviler than his actions, because the fruit of the latter is an eternal abode in hellfire, unlike his actions.9 This is corroborated – alongside the previous tradition – by the descriptive extension of intention to a believer and a disbeliever, essentially resembling a causal relation between the two. This meaning is better than those that have been mentioned earlier.
7. The intention is the spirit of action, and action is like the body to it. The goodness and evilness of action are both subordinate to the goodness and evilness of the intention, just like nobility and malice of the body is subordinate to the nobility and malice of the soul. Through this understanding, the intention of a believer is better than his action and the intention of a disbeliever is eviler than his action.10
8. The intention of a believer and his goal is foremost Allah, and secondly action, because that is what leads to Him (swt). The intention of a disbeliever and his goal is other than Allah, and his action leads him to it.11 Action in these cases is not more difficult than intention, rather it is the opposite, because the intention is not a mere pronunciation of certain words and the attainment of its meaning in the heart, rather its attainment is dependent on the purification of the apparent and the inner-self from all vices, and the focusing of the heart in its entirety towards Allah and avoidance of all that which is other than Him (swt).
The purification of action is the abandoning of that which results in its deficiency and corruption. From this perspective, there is no doubt that a purified intention is much more difficult than a purified action, just like what has been narrated in al-Rawḍa from Amīr al-Mu’minīn (a) who said, “The purification of action is more difficult than action, and protection of intention from corruption is more difficult on the doer of an action than a lengthy war.”12
9. It is a general statement which has been specified or an absolute statement that has been restricted. This is because some great actions, like the intention of war, are better than some easy actions, like glorification or praising Allah (swt) or reciting a verse. In the former intention, one tolerates severe hardship and is exposed to distress which cannot be compared with the ease of the latter actions.13
10. It is possible to establish continuity in intention, unlike in action as it is often abandoned by a duty-bound individual. If this continuous intention is attributed to an abandoned action, it is better than it. Likewise is the case with the intention of a disbeliever.14
11. Intention hardly ever gets polluted by ostentation and conceit, because we are presuming an intention which is legally considered valid. Unlike action, because it is polluted by it sometimes. The previous tradition strengthens this opinion.
However, the problem with this interpretation is that what is meant by action is a correct action, void of ostentation and conceit, or else preference would not occur.
12. What is meant by a believer is one who is sincere, like one who is engaged in social relations with the opponents and tolerance with the people of falsehood, because most of his actions are done due to dissimulation. His acts that are committed out of dissimulation are either those which one is rewarded for like the obligatory acts of worship, or those which one is not rewarded for nor punished for, like the rest of the actions. However, as for his intention then it is absent of dissimulation and it is necessarily rewarded.15
A tradition from al-Ṣādiq (a) strengthens this when he (a) was asked about waging war without the presence of a just Imam, he said, “Allah will assemble all people on the Day of Resurrection based on their intentions.”16
13. The superlative term (afʿala al-tafḍīl) is not intended here by the word khayr rather it is being used to indicate that which has benefit, and the preposition min is for partiality (tabʿīḍīyyah). Hence, the tradition means: The intention of a believer has greater benefit than the benefits of some of his actions, unlike what may be imagined that an intention cannot be assumed to have any good or evil in it.
If it is said that the intention is from the deeds of the heart, so how can it be considered an action? We will say, intention has been denoted as action metaphorically, just like it has been called a deed.
14. The general nature of intention is better than the general nature of action, because punishment is not based on intentions at all, rather if the intention is good then one is rewarded and if it is evil then the existence of such an intention is equal to its non-existence. Unlike action, for one who does an atom’s worth of good shall see it, and one who does an atom’s worth of evil shall see it.17
15. The intention is from the deeds of the heart and it is the most meritorious of organs, hence its actions are from the greatest of actions. Do you not see the words of Allah (swt) who says [14:20] Establish prayer for My remembrance. He makes the prayers as a means to remember, and the goal is nobler than the means. Furthermore, the actions of the heart are hidden from creation, hence ostentation and its like do not reach it, unlike the acts of the limbs.18
16. Intention is a reference to the ability of the heart to be influenced during an action, its compliance towards obedience, its attention towards the hereafter, and its avoidance of the world. That is greater than the action which is merely a form. This meaning can be reverted back to the previous one.19
17. The intention which is greater than action is a reference to the revival of the soul, its inclination and attention towards that which is its goal and requirement – either quickly or slowly. This revival and inclination are very difficult, and it is greater than action as per what has already been discussed earlier.20
18. The intention of a believer for the whole of his act of obedience is better than his action, meaning one single action, and the intention of an obscene person likewise. Thus, the intention is continuous while the action is temporary – and something continuous is better than something temporary.21
19. An act is created by intention, and not intention with action.22
20. The reason for why this statement was said was because an Anṣārī man intended to build a bridge near the entrance of Medina which had previously been destroyed, but a Jew preceded him and built it. The Anṣarī was sad over that, and the Prophet (p) said: “The intention of a believer is better than his actions” – meaning the actions of the Jew.23
21. Intention in this tradition means his will and sincerity towards all his actions is better than his action.24
22. The intention of the believer that they will not leave their faith is better than his action, and the disbeliever is the opposite of that.25
23. The intention of the believer that they will increasingly do good within their capacity is better than his action, and likewise the intention of an obscene person.26
24. Good and evil are accusative (manṣūb) because they are objects for the word intention, but the omission of al-alif from them instead conveys that they are definite nouns and superlative terms, and that they are predicates for two subjects, hence a distortion has occurred in these two words. The correct meaning is, when a believer intends to do good, even if they do not perform it, it is considered from one of their actions, while when a disbeliever intends to do evil, it is considered to be from one of their actions. A believer is rewarded and a disbeliever is punished for this. In this meaning there is an admonition that this case is from those actions that have been mentioned in the words of Allah (swt), [99:7-8] So whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it, and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it.27
As for the second criticism, then the response to it has already been alluded to, which is that if one action occurs in various scenarios, then the greatest of those scenarios is the most difficult one, for example performing Wuḍu’ in the summer and winter – and Allah knows best.
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.
- Iḥyā’ ʿUlūm al-Dīn of al-Ghazzālī, v. 14, pg. 162-163. For the translation of Ghazzālī’s original discussion on this tradition, see Al-Ghazālī on Intention, Sincerity and Truthfulness [Kitāb al-niyya wa’likhlāṣ wa’l ṣidq], Translated with introduction and notes by Anthony F. Shaker.
- Al-Mujtana, Ibn Durayd, pg. 11.
- Uṣūl al-Kāfī, vol. 2, pg. 85, #5.
- Al-Wāfī, v. 4, pg. 367.
- Al-Wāfī, v. 4, pg. 267
- ʿIlal al-Sharāʿi, v. 2, pg. 524
- ʿIlal al-Sharāʿi, v. 2, pg. 524
- See Rasā’il of al-Murtaḍa, v. 3, pg. 236; Iḥyā’ ʿUlūm al-Dīn of al-Ghazzālī, v. 14, pg. 162; al-Arbaʿūn Ḥadīthan of Shaykh Bahā’ī, pg. 232.
- Al-Qawāʿid wa al-Fawā’id by al-Shahīd al-Awwal, v. 1, pg. 110; Al-Arbaʿūn Ḥadīthan, pg. 232.
- Commentary on Uṣūl al-Kāfī by al-Māzandarānī, v. 8, pg. 267; Biḥār al-Anwār, v. 67, pg. 192 – acquired from the words of al-Muḥaqqiq al-Ṭūṣī in some of his treatises.
- Commentary on Uṣūl al-Kāfī by al-Māzandarānī, v. 8, pg. 267-268.
- Uṣūl al-Kāfī, v. 8, pg. 24, #4.
- Rasā’il of al-Murtaḍa, v. 3, pg. 239.
- Iḥyā’ ʿUlūm al-Dīn of al-Ghazzālī, v. 14, pg. 162.
- Al-Qawāʿid wa al-Fawā’id, v. 1, pg. 111.
- Uṣūl al-Kāfī, v. 5, pg. 20, #1.
- Iḥyā’ ʿUlūm al-Dīn of al-Ghazzālī, v. 14, pg. 162.
- Ibid., pg. 162-165.
- Al-Arbaʿūn Ḥadīthan of Shaykh Bahā’ī, pg. 236-237
- Al-Durar al-Najafīyyah, v. 3, pg. 120 – as transmitted by some Sunnīs.
- Ibid., v. 2, pg. 352.
- Ibid., v. 3, pg. 120.
- Anwār al-Nuʿmānīyyah, by al-Sayyid Niʿmatullah al-Jazā’irī v. 2, pg. 353 – attributed to some contemporaries.