From an Islamic perspective, actions alone are not valuable and it is only when accompanied by good intentions that they become valuable. Therefore, thinkers like Kant are correct in saying that intention is very important. There are many hadiths in our sources and many verses in the Qur’an from which the importance of intention can be understood. A particular action could be counted as either good or bad depending on the intention behind it. For instance, daily prayers can be performed solely for the sake of God or instead to show off to people and gain their admiration. Thus, the very same action which could help us and elevate us a step higher, can be destructive when done with bad intentions.
This is why we read in hadiths that “the intention is the foundation of an action”1 or “action depends on intentions and what each person receives is according to their intention.”2 Therefore, actions are to be evaluated according to intention and not merely according to physical action. This is why in Islam both actions and intentions are important.
A person should not think that since their intentions are good, any action they perform is necessarily going to be good. There are many people with good intentions who unintentionally do damage because their actions are not good. Therefore, in Islam both husn-e fi’lī (goodness of the action) and husn-e fa‘ilī (goodness of the agent) are necessary. “Goodness of the action” means that in and of itself the action must lead to good outcomes, and “goodness of the agent” means that the doer of the action must also have good intentions.
Although scholars such as Kant also believed that actions must be performed out of moral responsibility, which is in a way the same thing as good intention, according to Islamic ethicists goodness of the agent has many aspects.
First of all, the agent must understand what they are doing. An action done while the agent is not in a conscious state or awake is not considered moral even if the action is in itself good. A moral action is when someone decides to do something and does it with understanding.
Furthermore, it is entirely possible that a person who has a bad intention performs actions which result in good outcomes. In this case, the agent will not be credited for those good outcomes which were not intended. The same can also be true of a person who is doing an action with good intentions because there is a hierarchy of good intentions. To illustrate this, let us consider the example of helping people which by itself is a good action. If this action is performed without any good intention then there will be no credit for the agent.
However, as soon as good intentions arise, the action becomes valuable, but the value of the action may vary according to the level of goodness of the intention. If it is done in order to bring good to the life of certain people, it will be valuable. However if it is done to please God through serving His servants, the intention is more valuable and so the action becomes better and the agent gains credit which the one who only did it out of sympathy for people will not receive. The value of an action can also vary depending on how strong the agent is in their moral character or in their faith.
Sometimes two people perform a similar action – like performing the morning prayer – but their intention and understanding is different, which causes their prayers to be different. Sometimes the intention of a person is so pure that God allocates verses of His Qur’an to telling the story of it. For example, on one occasion the members of the family of Prophet (s), the Ahl al-Bayt (a), fasted for three consecutive days and every evening as they were about to break their fast a person would come to their door asking for help. On the first day it was a needy person, on the second an orphan, and on the third a captive who went to them and asked for food. The family offered them all the food they had and were left with no food with which to break their fast. God loved this action so much that He
revealed some verses about this incident in Chapter Insān:
َ يُطْعِمُونَ الطَّعَامَ عَلىَ حُبِّهِ مِسْکِينًا وَ يَتِيمًا وَ أَسِيرًا إنّما نُطْعِمُکمُ لِوَجْهِ اهلل النُرِيدُ مِنکمُ جَزَاءً وَ الشُکُورًا
They give food, for the love of Him, to the needy, the orphan and the prisoner, saying, “We feed you only for the sake of Allah. We do not want any reward from you nor any thanks.”(76:8-9)
God found this honest and sincere act so worthy that He praised it in the Qur’an and it will therefore remain alive forever in the memory of mankind. Many people have given away food but they are not all listed and registered in history. However, these members of the Ahl al-Bayt (a) had so much sincerity and purity in their intention that God decided to create a memory of this event which cannot be forgotten since it is preserved in the final message of God, the Qur’an.
Another example is the following story about Imam Ali (a). Imam Ali (a) was praying in the masjid and whilst he was in the state of rukū‘, a needy person entered the masjid and started asking people for help. However, no one helped him. Then Imam Ali (a) stretched out his hand towards the needy person indicating to him that he should come and take the ring from Imam Ali’s finger. It was then that God revealed the following verse:
إِنَّمَا وَلِيُّکُمُ اهلل وَ رَسُولُهُ وَ الَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ الَّذِينَ يُقِيمُونَ الصَّلَوةَ وَ
يُؤْتُونَ الزَّكَوةَ وَ هُمْ رَاكِعُون
Your guardian is only Allah, His Apostle, and the faithful who maintain the prayer and give the zakat while bowing down.(5:55)
Thus, it can be understood from the above quoted verses that the intention behind an action plays a very important role in the value of that action.
However, at the same time the action is also important. It is not acceptable to say that someone’s intention is very good and therefore they are allowed to do anything they like. There are people who have good intentions but make things
worse. For example, there are people who have not taken any medical training and yet they prescribe medicine. Although their intention is to help, prescribing medicine without having the necessary knowledge to do so is very dangerous. Another example is people who start teaching or preaching without having the knowledge and skills needed for such a job. They might do some good but the harm resulting from their lack of knowledge is at times so great that their action cannot be considered moral no matter how good their intention may be.
There is a famous historical event in which an old man was given a drink and was told to offer it to Mālik al-Ashtar, a great companion of Imam Ali (a). He did not know the person who gave him the drink and yet he gave it to Mālik al-Ashtar. Malik took the drink and drank it because he thought it was provided by the old man who appeared to be a good person. However, the drink was poisoned and Mālik was martyred. The old man had the intention of helping Mālik but he gave Mālik a drink the contents of which he did not know and also did not tell Mālik that the drink came from someone else. Therefore, the old man’s action was not moral and led to the death of a very respectable person.
Thus, we have to make sure that we have both good intentions and good actions, and in the Qur’an there is the concept of al-‘amal al-sālih (the righteous deed). It should be noted that a righteous deed is one that is good in itself as an action and is also performed with good intentions by the agent.
- ‘Uyūn al-Hikam wa al-Mawa‘idh, p. 29. The original text is as follows: امام علي )ع(: النِّيَّةُ أَسَاسُ الْعَمَل
2. Misbah al-Shari‘ah, p. 53. The original text is as follows:
قَالَ رسول اهلل )ص(: إِنَّمَا األَعْمَالُ بِالنِّيَّاتِ وَ لِکُلِّ امْرِئٍ مَا نَوَ