You must, O my brother, improve the soundness and sincerity of your intentions, examine them, and reflect well before embarking on your actions. For intentions are the bases of deeds; according to them your deeds will either be good or ugly, sound or unsound. The Prophet has said, may blessings and peace be upon him: ‘Deeds are only according to intentions; each man has that which he intended.’
You must, therefore, utter no word, do not action, and decide no matter without the intention of drawing nearer thereby to God and seeking the reward He has assigned, through His beneficence and grace, to intended act. And know that drawing nearer to Him can only be done through the obligatory and supererogatory devotions that He has indicated through His Messenger, may blessings and peace be upon him.
A sincere intention may change the merely licit into the devotional, for means are judged according to their ends. For example, one may eat to get the strength to perform devotions, or sleep with one’s wife to obtain a son who would worship God.
It is a condition of the sincere intention that behaviour does not belie it. For instance, a man who seeks knowledge claiming that his intention is to practice and teach it will be proved insincere in his intention if, when he becomes able to, he does not do so.
Or a man who pursues the world and claims that he is doing so only that he may be independent of other people and be able to give charity to the needy and help his relatives will be proved ineffectual in his intention should he not do so when able.
Intentions do not affect sins, just as purification does not affect that which is, by its very nature, impure. A man who goes along with another who is slandering a Muslim, then pretends that he only wanted to humour him, is himself a slanderer.
Anyone who refrains from the enjoining of good and the forbidding of evil and pretends that he only did so to protect himself against the culprit, is his partner in evil-doing. A malicious intention attached to a good deed spoils it and renders it malicious; likewise when one performs good deeds for the sake of wealth and prestige.
Strive, my brother, always to intend that your obedience be solely for the sake of God, and that whatever licit things you may use are only to help you to obey Him.
Know that many intentions can attach to a single act, and that each of them will attract its full reward. An example of this is in devotional activities is when someone reads the Qur’an intending to commune with God (which thing he will indeed do) but also to extract from it different kinds of knowledge, (for the Qur’an is the very mine of knowledge), to profit those who listen or [just happen to] hear, or any other good intention.
And an example in licit matters is to eat with the intention of obeying the command of your Lord in His saying (Exalted is He!): O you who believe! Eat of the good things with which We have provided you, and give thanks to God. (2:172) Intend by so doing to acquire strength for devotion, and to put yourself in a situation where you must thank your Lord, for He says (Transcendent is He!): Eat of your Lord’s provision and thank Him. (34:15) You can apply these two examples in an analogous fashion to all other devotional and licit activities; and always do your best to increase your good intentions.
The word ‘intention’ can have one of two meaning. The first is the aim which made you decide, do, or say something. Taken in this sense the intention is usually better than the act when the act is good, and worse when the act is evil. He has said, may blessings and peace be upon him: ‘The intention of a believer is better than his action;’ notice how he specifically mentioned the believer. The second is your decision and determination to act. Taken in this sense it is not better than the act. A man, when he decided to do something, can only be in one of three situations. [I] He decides and acts. [II] He decides but fails to act while able to.
The way to evaluate these two situations can be clearly found in that which Ibn ‘Abbas, may God be pleased with them both, has transmitted to the effect that the Messenger of God, may blessings and peace be upon him, said: ‘God has written good and evil deeds, then rendered them clear; anyone who intend a good deed but does not perform it, God records it as one good deed, whereas should he intend and then perform it, God records it as ten good deeds, up to seven hundred fold, and to yet more multiplications. If he intends an evil deed and does not do it, God records it as one full good deed; if he intends and then does it, God records it as one evil deed.’ [III] He determines upon something which he is for the time being unable to do so and says: ‘Were I able, I would do [such-and-such a thing].’ He receives the same as the one who acts, whether this be for or against him.
The evidence for this is the Prophet’s saying, may blessings and peace be upon him: ‘People are of four kinds: a man to whom God has given knowledge and wealth, and who uses his knowledge to manage his wealth; another who says: “Were God to give me just as He has given so-and-so I would act like him,”–their rewards are equal. And a man to whom God has given wealth but no knowledge, who mishandles his wealth through ignorance; while another says: “Were God to give me as He has given so-and-so I would act like him”–their burdens of sin are equal.’
-Imam ‘AbdAllah ibn ‘Alawi al-Haddad, Book of Assistance (Risalat u’l Mu’awana)