The Quranic Emphasis on Intentions and the Moral Worth of an Act


G.E.M. Anscombe once decried, in a seminal piece titled Modern Moral Philosophy, the adoption of a consequentialist form of ethics by many philosophers. This view considered the moral status of an act to be determined solely by its consequences. The piece, based on the famous interpretation of it, appeared to call for a revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics, discarding much of the baggage that Kantian and Utilitarian ethics had bought forth.[1] This did indeed have the impact of reviving Aristotelian ethics in modern philosophical discourse as a credible ethical outlook. This piece will very briefly outline the gist of Aristotelian ethical thinking using its insights to understand some verses of the Quran.

A Brief Outline of Aristotelian Ethical Thought

A key point emphasised by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics is that an act cannot be judged virtuous unless it meets some certain conditions. This contrasts with determining whether a person has a particular skill, for, in that case, all that suffices is to see whether the product is of a sufficient standard to make that judgement. In contrast, it is not enough to see that a person is giving to determine that he is charitable; one must know why the agent acts in the way he does:

Again, the case of the arts and that of the excellences [aretai] are not similar; for the products of the arts have their goodness in themselves, so that it is enough that they should have a certain character, but if the acts that are in accordance with the excellences have themselves a certain character it does not follow that they are done justly or temperately. The agent also must be in a certain condition when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge; secondly, he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes; and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. (1105a 27-33)

These conditions are mentioned in the infamous definition Aristotle provides, in which he tells us that virtue is:

A habitual disposition connected with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, a mean which is determined by reason, by which a person of practical wisdom would determine it. (NE II.6.1106b3b-1107a2)

A habitual disposition, as Aristotle tells us, is a tendency to have appropriate feelings. (1105b25–6). Virtues and vices are “habitual dispositions to respond to situations by having appropriate or inappropriate feelings.”[2] Moreover, what is important for virtuous action, on this account, is that the person who does it does so based on correct judgement, a judgement which practical wisdom issues. This, for a virtuous person, will often come to be second nature and will result in the right emotional response towards the action. As such, a person who begrudgingly helps another person, or does so for particular immoral ends, will not be considered virtuous even if the action has the consequence of helping the other. A person must choose a correct act for its own sake, not to achieve some further good. Likewise, a person will not be considered ill-tempered if they get angry under extreme provocation. To judge that someone is ill-tempered, we “say something about a regular pattern of feeling-response which they exhibit.”[3]

The Aristotelian picture, of course, rests on an important conception of the human. Humans are organisms, and hence they have inbuilt functions, the fulfilment of which constitutes their telos, final goal. The human possesses certain capacities which are distinctive to him, and the fulfilment of these constitutes the highest good for man. Our highest capacity is that of grasping knowledge and it is this that makes us uniquely human. It is also through this capacity that we can develop practical wisdom and subsequently be virtuous humans.[4]

As humans, capable of making choices determined by our free will and guided by our reason, our moral status is determined precisely by the acts of our will. As David Oderberg puts it, “it is the act of the will understood as comprising a certain object that determines the quality of any other act that the will commands for the purpose of realising that object.”[5] Hence, if I intend to obtain someone else’s property, my intention is directed at an act of theft, which is morally bad. This is regardless of whether I act on such an intention.[6] Likewise, if I intend a good action, I am morally praiseworthy even if external circumstances prevent the realisation of the act. This means the external act, in of itself, adds nothing of a qualitative nature to the intention, though as pointed out by Oderberg, it often adds something quantitively in that executing one’s intention requires prolonged effort and thus a greater focus on the intention behind the act.[7]

The Quranic Picture

Having painted a rough picture of the traditional Aristotelian system of ethics, it’s time to observe some verses whereby the aforementioned themes come into prominence.

الَّذِينَ يُنْفِقُونَ أَمْوَالَهُمْ بِاللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ سِرًّا وَعَلَانِيَةً فَلَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِمْ وَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ

Those who spend their wealth in charity by night and day, secretly and openly, they will have their reward from their Rabb. They shall have nothing to fear or to regret. (2:274)

In this verse, those who are praised by God for their charitable acts are those who give repeatedly. The verb yunfiqūn (those who spend) is in the present tense which indicates an action that is performed recurrently. The act of giving is thus a habitual disposition, manifest in their constant acts of charity, which range over different circumstances; they give both in the day and in the night, both secretly and openly.

Moreover, the act of giving at night and secretly is an indication that the intention behind the act was a morally praiseworthy one. It is possible for people to give huge sums of charity, as is the case with many philanthropists today, but the intention behind such acts of charity may be for publicity purposes. As such, giving is merely a necessary condition to determine that someone has the virtue of being charitable, but it is not a sufficient one. What is more important is that the act is characterised by the correct intention, the will directed at performing a good for its own sake.

It is perhaps for this reason that in the same chapter, just prior to this verse, God tells us that:

إِنْ تُبْدُوا الصَّدَقَاتِ فَنِعِمَّا هِيَ ۖ وَإِنْ تُخْفُوهَا وَتُؤْتُوهَا الْفُقَرَاءَ فَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَكُمْ ۚ وَيُكَفِّرُ عَنْكُمْ مِنْ سَيِّئَاتِكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرٌ

To give charity in public is good, but to give the poor in private is better and will remove from you some of your sins. Allah is aware of your actions. (2:271)

This verse raises several interesting points. First, that giving in private is better than in public is a moral judgement. Secondly, it cannot be better merely from the consequences of the acts, for they are evidently the same in that respect. What can be reasonably concluded from these two points is that it is better precisely because the act of giving in private is far more likely to have the correct intention, which determines the real value of an act. “Open charity, it is reasoned, provides a good example for others, shows the poor that there is recourse in their neighbours, and creates an open bond between people and the community. Secret charity is a test of sincerity, since one gives but garners no prestige in the eyes of others for one’s generosity.”[8] And it may be for this reason that God ends the verse by informing us that He is aware of our actions; He knows precisely what was intended by our acts, what is worthy of praise and what isn’t.

Moreover, we observe explicit condemnation in the Quran for those who give with the intention of seeking the approval of others.

وَالَّذِينَ يُنْفِقُونَ أَمْوَالَهُمْ رِئَاءَ النَّاسِ وَلَا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَلَا بِالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ ۗ وَمَنْ يَكُنِ الشَّيْطَانُ لَهُ قَرِينًا فَسَاءَ قَرِينًا

Similarly, Allah does not like those who spend their wealth to show off to the people, believing neither in Allah nor in the Last Day. Whosoever has Satan for a companion has an evil companion indeed! (4:38)[9]

This kind of charitable act is disliked because it is performed for the attainment of another end, rather than the good end in the act itself. One uses charity as a means to obtain a good repute and thus in the process devalues the act itself. This act for the moral agent has no positive value whatsoever, even if it may help the destitute. In fact, as is the implication of the verse ending, this act is a Satanic one, embodying all that is morally repugnant.

In yet another passage, God compares those who give for the sake of God with those who give to be seen by others:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تُبْطِلُوا صَدَقَاتِكُمْ بِالْمَنِّ وَالْأَذَىٰ كَالَّذِي يُنْفِقُ مَالَهُ رِئَاءَ النَّاسِ وَلَا يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ ۖ فَمَثَلُهُ كَمَثَلِ صَفْوَانٍ عَلَيْهِ تُرَابٌ فَأَصَابَهُ وَابِلٌ فَتَرَكَهُ صَلْدًا ۖ لَا يَقْدِرُونَ عَلَىٰ شَيْءٍ مِمَّا كَسَبُوا ۗ وَاللَّهُ لَا يَهْدِي الْقَوْمَ الْكَافِرِينَ

وَمَثَلُ الَّذِينَ يُنْفِقُونَ أَمْوَالَهُمُ ابْتِغَاءَ مَرْضَاتِ اللَّهِ وَتَثْبِيتًا مِنْ أَنْفُسِهِمْ كَمَثَلِ جَنَّةٍ بِرَبْوَةٍ أَصَابَهَا وَابِلٌ فَآتَتْ أُكُلَهَا ضِعْفَيْنِ فَإِنْ لَمْ يُصِبْهَا وَابِلٌ فَطَلٌّ ۗ وَاللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ بَصِيرٌ

O you who believe! Do not annul your acts of charity through preening and injury, like he who spends his wealth to be seen by people and believes not in God and the Last Day. His parable is that of a smooth rock with dust upon it; a downpour strikes it, and leaves it barren. They have no power over anything of what they earned. And God guides not the disbelieving people. And the parable of those who spend their wealth seeking God’s Good Pleasure, and out of a confirmation in their souls, is that of a garden upon a hill; a downpour strikes it, and brings forth its fruit twofold. And if a downpour strikes it not; then a soft rain. And God sees whatsoever you do. (2:264-265)

“These verses compare the merit of two kinds of giving through the symbolism of rain striking the earth. When a downpour strikes the earth on a smooth stone, it can only wash it away, meaning it produces no real benefit. When it lands on a fertile garden, the surplus of water causes the garden to double its yield, symbolizing the fruit of charity with the right intention. And if a downpour strikes it not, then a soft rain is taken to mean that, even if the amount of rain is not great, the garden will at least thrive normally and bear its fruit.”[10] Those who give it purely for the sake of attaining God’s pleasure do the act with the noblest of intentions, for they seek the Highest Good which is God.

It is, for this reason, that the servants of God, mentioned in Surat al-Insān are worthy of the supreme praise and are promised countless rewards in that chapter. This is because as the verses tell us they are those:

وَيُطْعِمُونَ الطَّعَامَ عَلَىٰ حُبِّهِ مِسْكِينًا وَيَتِيمًا وَأَسِيرًا

إِنَّمَا نُطْعِمُكُمْ لِوَجْهِ اللَّهِ لَا نُرِيدُ مِنْكُمْ جَزَاءً وَلَا شُكُورًا

who give food, out of love for Him, to the poor, the orphan and the captive. “We feed you only for the Face of God; we seek from you neither reward nor thanks. (76:8-9)[11]

Their acts of giving are not done for the sake of a particular human reward nor do they desire thanks from the recipients of their charity. The act is characterised by the seeking of God as the Summum Bonum, the highest good. In seeking God, the ultimate end and the greatest good, the act carries the most moral value and is worthy of the most praise. It is not performed for subsidiary ends that transform the same external act into one that is morally bad.


The sacred importance of one’s intention when acting was highlighted in the famous and widely narrated Prophetic hadith which that tells us that “Verily, actions are by intentions and for every person is what he intended.” A good intention is the product of the deliberation of reason, a practical judgement accrued from recognition what constitutes the real good of man and leads to repeated actions that seek the realisation of those goods.


[2] Hughes, Gerard. Routledge philosophy guidebook to Aristotle on ethics. Routledge, 2001, p57.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p36-51.

[5] Oderberg, David S. “Moral theory: A non-consequentialist approach.” (2000), p86.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, p88.

[8] Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph EB Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom. “The Study Quran.” A new Translation and Commentary. New York (2015), p117.

[9] The notion of showing off is condemned in other verses; in the context of prayer see 107:4-6 and 4:142 and in the context of jihad see 8:46

[10] . “The Study Quran.” A new Translation and Commentary. New York (2015), p115. Emphasis in original.

[11]  عَلَىٰ حُبِّهِwhich is translated as out of love for Him can also be translated as despite loving it, i.e. the food. On both interpretations, they “indicate the manner to which this world is transcended by overcoming love for it and focusing love entirely upon God.” See ibid, p1453.

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