The Significance of Intentions (niyya)


The great Ḥanafī scholar Zayn al-Din bin Ibrāhīm bin Muhammad famously known as Ibn Nujaym1  in his scholarly work “al-Ashbāh wa al-Naẓâ’ir,” a book dedicated on the maxims of Jurisprudence (Qawā’id al-Fiqh), mentions the second maxim in the book “actions are judged by their end results” (al-Umūr bi Maqāsidihā) and thereafter discusses rulings that come under this maxim. Even though many any of us have probably heard lectures given on this topic, when one learns of the legal effects of their intention, the significance and impact intentions have on our actions become clear. The chapter is quite long, so I will just select some of the issues (masā’il) discussed to show how significant our intentions are in relation to our actions.

1) A person who is not in contact with another person for over 3 days, if their intention was to abandon them, then this action is forbidden due to the Prophetic tradition (ḥadīth)2 that prohibits a Muslim from deliberately severing relations with another Muslim for over three days. However if this is not their intention, and is simply a matter of circumstance for example, then this action is mubâh3 (neutral).

2) When a person dies, the Prophet ﷺ allowed us to mourn the deceased for a maximum period of three days. However this period is extended to a period of four months and ten days for the wife of the deceased. During this period a woman is to avoid socializing and beatifying herself since these actions go against what is socially accepted of a person who is supposed to be in mourning. Thus a woman who avoids beatification, etc. for three days after the death of someone other than her husband, if this is done with the intention of mourning, then this is prohibited due to the ḥadīth prohibiting the mourning of anyone above three days4. If this is not her intention and her action is simply a result of circumstance then her action is mubâh (neutral).

3) A person who is in ṣalāh, and hears news that pleases them and with the intention of showing gratefulness (shukr) to Allah utters “al-ḥamdulillah! (all praise to Allah),” then their ṣalāh is invalidated5. This is based on the discussion of whether this utterance constitutes ‘human speech’ which according to the Ḥanafī School invalidates the prayers.

4) A person who finds a lost item, if he/she picks it up with the intention of taking the right course of action to return it to its rightful owner, he/she will be rewarded for it. If however his/her intention is to take it for himself/herself, then he/she is a sinner and their action is tantamount to theft!6

If our intention has the power to change an action from being recommended (mustaḥab) to becoming forbidden (ḥarām)7  and from being a valid (ṣaḥîh) action to becoming an invalid (bāṭil/fāsid) action8, does it not warrant our attention and concern?


  1. The name of one of his grandfathers.
  2. As related by Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim and the Muwatta.
  3. This means he/she is neither rewarded for the action nor punished.
  4. As related by Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhāri.
  5. This is a Ḥanafī ruling and even they differ over this, but it still serves the purpose of highlighting the significance of intentions.
  6. Even though in such situations, the punishment of theft (sariqa) will not be applied.
  7. As indicated in example four.
  8. As indicated in example three.
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