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The role of intention

With the New Year having passed, it can only be assumed that we have a myriad of our own resolutions to tackle this year. It could be anything from getting out of debt to managing a proper diet or even spending quality time with our family. As is usually the case with previous New Years, how many of these resolutions will we truly stick to and see through to the end. On January 1st we tell ourselves that this year will be different. However, as in previous years, we find ourselves slowly drifting back to our old habits. As they say “Old habits die hard”.

It is time to replace our old habits with new ones and make sure that these fresh habits are here to stay, but how? When trying to create a new habit, it is very important not to rush into it. Take it one step at a time because sometimes, slow and steady really does win the race.

In order to get a clearer picture on creating habits, we might be advised to look to the Japanese. If they want to form a new habit, for example, to exercise, they do it for one minute, yes only one minute, the next day they increase it to two minutes until the exercising is a part of their routine. For those who smoke, if you smoke ten a day cut it down to nine, there isn’t much difference between the two and when you are comfortable cut it down to eight. Some day you’ll be smoking one a day, then one every two days until the bad habit becomes a distant memory. Instead of having a new year’s resolution, isn’t it better to have a daily resolution, even if we break it, the next day is just around the corner instead of months away. Some of us might identify with the following examples:

During December Ali decided to become more serious about his health and fitness. He planned to join the gym and lose weight but he thought it would be a good idea start in January because gyms always have great deals then. He drifted into a daydream about what it would be like when he achieved his goal. He thought, “It is fine to be unhealthy now because when January comes I will be a new man”. In the first week of January, Ali went to the gym every day, his body was aching because he didn’t give his muscles enough time to rest. He got a little unhappy because some times it got too busy at the gym, he complained to the staff and they said; “Not to worry as January is always the busiest month, the numbers will go down soon”. The next week he went twice and the third week he didn’t go at all. Soon February arrived and Ali had not lost any weight – the only pounds he lost were the pounds in his wallet.

Fatima works very hard and she barely has the time to see her aging parents. It’s December and she has many deadlines. Her new year’s resolution is to make some time during the weekends to spend with her family.  January came and went and Fatima saw her parents twice – even though she was with them physically her eyes were on her phone and her mind was thinking about work. Now it’s February, she is busy once again and distraught because she never finds the time to see her parents.

We make intentions all the time be they good or bad, sometimes we go through with them and at other times we don’t. According to Islamic ethics, are actions themselves beneficial or do we need intention? What is the role of intention?

Imagine seeing two people praying next to each other, both look sincere and perform identical actions. Can we say they will be rewarded the same? Now say if one of them is an Imam, is the rewards the same? The answer is an emphatic no because the intentions and sincerity of the Imams will most definitely be higher. A hadith from Prophet Muhammad(s) says; “actions are judged according to intentions.” Therefore we cannot look at an action and judge, simply because the intention can change the course of that action. Sometimes we have good intentions but the action will bring harm, for example if we unknowingly give contaminated water to someone thirsty, our intention may be good but the action is not because it poisoned the thirsty person. A good intention must result in a good outcome for it to be amal as-salih (righteous action).

In one of the battles in early Islam a Muslim soldier was killed, people thought he was a shaheed (Martyr). The people were informed the reason he was killed was because he wanted to take a donkey from the enemy. He was not a killed for the sake of God but for the sake of a donkey.

Sheikh Shomali said that in this world we have limitations because we can’t help all those in need but in the spiritual realm we can have the intention to help everyone. Does this mean we will be rewarded for those intentions? That depends on whether we have exhausted our capability. For example, if we can feed ten people and we only feed nine then how can we make the intention of feeding a million people? If we had the capability to do so, then according to the above ratio even 100,000 would not be fed. But if we feed the ten and have the intention to feed all of humanity then the reward is beyond measure. On the other hand should we make a bad intention, for example, to go to a haram gathering and for some reason we don’t make it, then we will not be punished. Sheikh Shomali emphasised that although we will not be punished for the bad intention, this bad intention will affect our soul in a negative way, whilst a good intention will expand our soul and increase the positivity in our hearts.


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