Ghazali on Sincerity – purify and multiply your intention

Ghazali on Sincerity - purify and multiply your intention

Ghazali lived in 5th century Hijri and his book, Kitaab Al-Arba’in Fi Usul ad-Din, ‘The Forty Principles of the Religion,’ which he wrote before his death, is a summary of Ihya Ulumuddin (Revival of the Sciences of the Religion), and his life’s works and thoughts.

In the last ten principles of the forty, he looks at good traits that we should adopt and nurture within ourselves. The first is tawbah (repentance); the second is khawf (fear) and the third is zuhd (asceticism), the fourth quality is sabr (patience). The fifth quality is shukr.  Ikhlas and sidq (sincerity and truthfulness) are the sixth qualities.

This is a long chapter and Ghazali dives into it and takes us with him.

He says that sincerity (Ikhlas) comprises three pillars which are:

  • Reality (haqiqa) – sincere intention
  • Foundation (asl) – removing any corruption in the intention
  • Perfection (kamal) – truthfulness

The essence of ikhlas is niyyah (intention) because you find ikhlas inside the intention. The reality of ikhlas is to purify your intention from anything corrupting it. And the perfection of it is to be truthful. Though this sounds complicated, Ghazali explains it further.

The intention

 In the Quran, Allah Almighty said:

وَلَا تَطْرُدِ ٱلَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ رَبَّهُم بِٱلْغَدَوٰةِ وَٱلْعَشِىِّ يُرِيدُونَ وَجْهَهُۥ ۖ

˹O Prophet!˺ Do not turn away those ˹poor believers˺ who invoke their Lord morning and evening, seeking His pleasure. (6:52)

Ghazali picks this verse to show that the core of these believers’ actions is seeking Allah’s pleasure.

This is why, in the famous hadith of the Prophet (peace be on him), he said:

“إِنَّمَا الأَعْمَالُ بالنِّيَّاتِ

Actions are but by intention[i]. (Bukhari)

This narration has generated a huge debate – whether it means that the reward for an action is linked to the intention or the validity of the action. Without doubt, if you want your deeds to be accepted by Allah you have to have the right intention. What if you did not have an intention – will your action be valid and rewarded or not? To examine this further we have the example of the man who goes for a swim and then proceeds to pray. There is a difference of opinion between the Hanafi and Shafi school of thought on this matter.

The man in the swimming pool – validity and reward

A man jumps into a swimming pool and then proceeds to the mosque where the imam has began to pray. The man does not have wudu, but joins the salah and follows the imam. Is his prayer valid or not valid?

The Shafi school say that niyyah is obligatory. If you did not make the intention, plunging in the pool does not count as wudu, even though you have washed your limbs. Moreover, the Shafi school follow the  sequence as mentioned in the Quran, that you have to wash your face first, then hands till the elbows, then the head and then the feet up till the ankles.

O you who believe, when you get up to observe the Salat, wash your faces and your arms to the elbows, and wipe your heads and your feet to the ankles. (5:6)

In the Shafi school, if you wash your feet before your face, they consider the wudu invalid as the one who jumped in pool did not wash the limbs in order, but all together.

By contrast, the Hanafi school say that the sequence is not a necessary part of the wudu, as the ‘and’ in the verse means that as long as all the limbs mentioned were washed, it does not matter what order they were washed in. It us a linguistic discussion. The Hanafi school therefore consider the dip in the pool constitutes a valid wudu, but is not rewarded due to the missing intention, but the Shafi school do not accept this as a valid wudu.  

Imam Shafi says two thirds of fiqh (jurisprudence) depends on the intention behind the act.

Ghazali says the meaning of intention is seeking Allah’s pleasure – whether it is wudu or fasting or being nice to parents or friends, it is all about Allah. Ghazali quotes a weak narration that shows that actions not done for the right intention will not appear in your record, whereas actions you intended to do but did not get the chance to do wil appear in your record, when you intention was sincere.

Truly the angels life up a page of a salve’s deed and Allah says: ‘Throw it away for surely he did not desire my countenance. Write for him such and such’. So the angels say: ‘He did not do any of these things. So Allah says, He certainly intended, he certainly intended.’ (Daraqutni)

The person with knowledge and wealth who distributes it and the one who doesn’t but wishes he could

Abu Kabshah Al-Anmari narrated that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said the one who acts and the one who intends to act are rewarded equally:

‘The likeness of this nation is that of four people: A man to whom Allah gives wealth and knowledge, so he acts according to his knowledge with regard to his wealth, spending it as it should be spent; a man to whom Allah gives knowledge, but he does not give him wealth, so he says: “If I had been given (wealth) like this one, I would have done what (the first man) did.” The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: ‘They will be equal in reward. And a man to whom Allah gives wealth but does not give knowledge, so he squanders his wealth and spends it in inappropriate ways; and a man to whom Allah gives neither knowledge nor wealth, and he says: “If I had (wealth) like this one, I would do what (the third man) did.” The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: ‘They are equal in their burden (of sin).’” (Ibn Majah)

The man who did not have the money or knowledge desired deeply that he could do the same as the one who did. This is good envy (when you wish to have knowledge or wealth to give, and you do not wish it to be taken away from those who have it). He is rewardable.

Conversely a person who had wealth but not knowledge and uses his money on haram things will be sinful and so will a man who had no knowledge or wealth but wished to have the wealth so he could do all those haram things too, will be equal in sins.

Are you sinful for bad thoughts or ill-will if you have not carried them out?

In another narration Abu Hurayrah stated that the Prophet (ﷺ) said:

 “Allah forgives my followers those (evil deeds) their souls may whisper or suggest to them as long as they do not act (on it) or speak.”(Bukhari and Muslim)

It seems that there is a contradiction between this hadith and the previous hadith which mentioned that the man who wished to have money so he could commit haram was sinful. The answer to this lies in the reflection of Al-Izz, as reported by As Suyyuti:

What is in the soul is divided into two parts: (waswasah) whispers, and (azimah) determination. So waswasah is the talk of the soul, and it is only transcended, and as for the wills, he’s accountable for all of them. Therefore there is a difference between hearing the whispers and not acting upon them, and having an ill-will which you have not yet carried out. You won’t be sinful for the whispers which you fight, but for you are accountable for having ill-will and mal-intent.

The man who goes to battle for the wealth

In another example is the man who goes into battle, not for the sake of Allah, but for the wealth or glory. He is sinful and will be punished.

Whoever embarks on a military expedition yet intends nothing by material gain, he shall have what he intended.  (ibn Hibban)

The man who migrated to marry

The background to the most famous hadith, ‘actions are by intention’ is that a man left Makkah to migrate to Madinah not for the sake of Islam but to marry a woman. Migration carried huge reward but the Prophet (peace be on him) explained that this man would not be rewarded for the migration as those who migrated for the sake their religion because that was not the reason for his moving.

‘Umar bin al-Khattab narrated that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

Deeds are [a result] only of the intentions [of the actor], and an individual is [rewarded] only according to that which he intends. Therefore, whosoever has emigrated for the sake of Allah and His messenger, then his emigration was for Allah and His messenger. Whosoever emigrated for the sake of worldly gain, or a woman [whom he desires] to marry, then his emigration is for the sake of that which [moved him] to emigrate.” (Bukhari)

It is clear that reward of an action relies on the intention behind it.

Intention the key for acceptance.

The man who wished to turn sand to food

In a weak narration which is not authentic but conveys the concept a man, during the time of Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) passed by a heap of sand, and  wished he had the food instead of sand, so that he could distribute it. Allah revealed to Musa (peace be on him) ‘Say to him: Indeed, Allah has accepted your charity, appreciated your good intention and given you reward of what you would have given in charity, had it been food.’

Allah accepts the intention, if it is sincere.

The killer and the killed in the fire

In another narration, the Prophet (peace be on him) said

If two Muslims confront one another with their swords, both the killer and one who has been killed are in the fire.

Why is the killed in the fire? Because he intended to kill the one he was fighting.

The man who did not intend to give his wife her mahr

We have another example of a man who promises his wife a mahr (dowry) without intending to pay it. The Prophet (peace be on him) said:

Whoever marries a woman for a dowry but does not intend on giving it, he is a fornicator. Whoever take a loan and does not intend repaying it, he is a thief. (Ibn Majah)

This variety of examples shows that intention is key in every action.

The reality of intention

Ghazali says that any action relies on ability, will and knowledge. One of my teachers, Mullah Abdul Aleem az Zenki (may Allah have mercy on him), said these are applied in reverse – knowledge first then will then ability. Ghazali explains this by saying that Allah created desire for food, but it can be dormant until you see food – then your desire for it is aroused by seeing it and the knowing what it is. However you need your limbs to be able to pick up the food to eat it. Thus we have a connection between the three: desire – knowledge – action.

Desire for what lies in the future

Just as Allah created desire in us for things in the present, we can also desire things in the future. You do not just want to have an apple hanging on a tree in the garden, but you can visualise the apples when you plant the seeds or water the tree. Accordingly the image triggers the dormant desire, and with your will and limbs action it based on knowledge.

Desire could be to earn wealth or can be for the afterlife. The one who wants booty is not interested in fighting for Allah’s pleasure. By contrast, someone seeking knowledge could be motivated by wanting to disseminate the knowledge to please Allah. Or he could be motivated by the desire to get a high position in the community and get money out of it.

The link between intention and action

Any act of worship has two elements – the intention (niyyah) and the action. We saw this with the sample of wudu. In the Hanafi school you can have the action without the intention but you will not get the reward without the intention. In the Shafi school the wudu is invalid without the intention. When it comes to salah, you have to have intention in all schools, because you cannot enter a salah without the awareness of what you are doing or which prayer you are performing, otherwise it will not count. Unlike wudu, which you might perform without realising it, like going in a swimming pool, or for a different intention, like cooling down on a hot day, one does not perform salah for no reason. Therefore the intention is a necessary component in all schools.

Purifying the intention brings sweetness

How does one have sincerity in one’s intention? Sincerity is to purify your intention from anything that ruins it. The ultimate aim of sujud is not to put your head on the ground, but is an act of submission. Moreover, actions have an effect on the heart so when you do sujud, the heart should feel khushoo (tranquility). If your salah is robotic and you are not understanding why you are doing it, it will not bring comfort and closeness to Allah. When you give zakat, it is not to decrease your wealth it is to fight the stinginess and purify our wealth. Allah is teaching us how to improve ourselves, therefore understanding the intention behind the action is important. When your inward intention is pure, you enjoy doing the obligations. You do not only feel overjoyed if you receive money you feel overjoyed you also feel overjoyed when you give money too.

When you purify your intention it  enables you to disconnect your heart from the dunya. This does not mean that you do not have any possessions, but that you do not let the possessions possess you. This is the danger and leads to miserliness. Many people are generous and they give way beyond the zakat that is due as they have trained themselves to give and are not controlled by possessions.

Ghazali says if you have an ulcer in your stomach, it will not be cured by rubbing cream on his tummy. So we have to address the inward. This is why the Prophet (peace be on him) said (in a weak narration):

The intention of a believer is better than his action.

In other words a sincere intention is worth more than an action done without the right intention.

Multiply the intention

When you know the intention is so important and the core of what you do, then you should roll up yourselves and multiply your intention.

You can take one action and multiply manifold if you think about it. For instance entering a mosque can have 8 rewardable intentions.

  1. It is an act of worship to enter the mosque and sit in it.
  2. A mosque is the House of Allah, so you are visiting Him, and because it is his ‘house’, Allah will be generous to you, because you are His guest.
  3. Then have the intention of ribat, (guarding the frontiers of your land from enemies). This is a highly rewarded action. Based on the hadith that waiting after one salah for the next salah is an act of ribat – as if you are guarding the frontiers from the enemies.
  4. Intend to etikaf – seclusion in the mosque. There are different opinions in the schools what the minimum time you can spend in etikaf. In the Hanafi school, as per the opinion of Muhammad bin Hasan you can do it for a short time. This means you are shutting out the world and focusing on your akhirah.
  5.  Dedicating your time and efforts on dhikr, recitation, hadith, and knowledge.
  6. To seek knowledge or teach knowledge by helping others who do not know who to pray correctly.
  7. Refrain from any haram while being in the mosque.
  8. Make a new acquaintance for the sake of Allah who will be your companion in the akhirah.

This grows you action and raises your status – you can apply this to any action, such as walking in the park.

Do not multiply the evil

Just as you can multiply your good, it is also possible to multiply evil if you sit in the mosque, by going with the intention of backbiting, criticising others and being divisive and argumentative or boastful or attention seeking, or to have a laugh or to ogle women entering the mosque.

Shaykh Haytham Tamim – Thursday Hadith Class

Related posts

Ghazali on showing off (part 3)

Ghazali on showing off (part 1)

Ghazali on self admiration

Ghazali on pride

Ghazali on love of dunya

Ghazali on love of status

Ghazali on how much wealth is sufficient

Ghazali on stinginess

Ghazali on envy

Duas for protection

Ghazali on breaking free from anger

Evils of the tongue 5 – praise

Evils of the tongue 4 – joking

Evils of the tongue 3 – arguing

Evils of the tongue 2- backbiting

Evils of the tongue 1- lying

The benefits of feeling hunger

Why is following the sunnah the key to success. Ghazali’s secrets part 1

What is wrong with excessive laughter?

Do you have to practice what you preach?

Self righteousness when giving counsel

Command good and forbid evil

Brotherhood, friendship and wilayah

How to deal with difficult neighbours

The first 6 rules of how to deal with people

Dealing with gossip (7-8)

How to deal with people according to their status (9-11)

Cover the faults of others (12-13)

Shake hands (15 continued)

Defend others in their absence, be tactful, be cautious of the company of the rich (16-18)

Avoid the people of ghaflah

Be good to your relatives

Love they neighbour

[i] ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab relates that he heard the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) say, “Verily actions are by intentions, and for every person is what he intended. So the one whose hijrah was to Allah and His Messenger, then his hijrah was to Allah and His Messenger. And the one whose hijrah was for the world to gain from it, or a woman to marry her, then his hijrah was to what he made hijrah for.” [Agreed upon]


Shaykh Haytham Tamim is the founder and main teacher of the Utrujj Foundation. He has provided a leading vision for Islamic learning in the UK, which has influenced the way Islamic knowledge is disseminated. He has orchestrated the design and delivery of over 200 unique courses since Utrujj started in 2001. His extensive expertise spans over 30 years across the main Islamic jurisprudence schools of thought. He has studied with some of the foremost scholars in their expertise; he holds some of the highest Ijazahs (certificates) in Quran, Hadith (the Prophetic traditions) and Fiqh (Islamic rulings). His own gift for teaching was evident when he gave his first sermon to a large audience at the age of 17 and went on to serve as a senior lecturer of Islamic transactions and comparative jurisprudence at the Islamic University of Beirut (Shariah College). He has continued to teach; travelling around the UK, Europe and wider afield, and won the 2015 BISCA award (British Imams & Scholars Contributions & Achievements Awards) for Outstanding Contribution to Education and Teaching.