Contemplating Imam Nawawi’s 40-Hadith: Recollections of a Former ‘Salafi Jihadi’ – Hadith #1 – Actions are by Intentions

Jesse Morton (Younus Abdullah Muhammad)

Umar ibn Al-Khattab reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِنَّمَا الْأَعْمَالُ بِالنِّيَّةِ وَإِنَّمَا لِامْرِئٍ مَا نَوَى فَمَنْ كَانَتْ هِجْرَتُهُ إِلَى اللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ فَهِجْرَتُهُ إِلَى اللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ وَمَنْ كَانَتْ هِجْرَتُهُ لِدُنْيَا يُصِيبُهَا أَوْ امْرَأَةٍ يَتَزَوَّجُهَا فَهِجْرَتُهُ إِلَى مَا هَاجَرَ إِلَيْهِ

Verily, deeds are only with intentions. Verily, every person will have only what they intended. Whoever emigrated to Allah and His Messenger, then his emigration is for Allah and His Messenger. Whoever emigrated to get something in the world or to marry a woman, then his emigration is for whatever he emigrated for.

There is a divine wisdom in Imam Nawawi’s initiating his collection with this particular narration, for there is perhaps no other hadith in the corpus of Islamic texts that can be described as one the deen, “revolves around.” And this seems unanimous. For example, Imam Shafie said that, “This Hadith is one-third of the knowledge of Islam as it relates to about 70 topics of jurisprudence.” Imam Ahmad (in reference to al-Imam Shafie’s statement) stated, “Islam is based on three fundamentals (all are among the 42 hadiths Nawawi narrates): a) this first hadith, b) the firth hadith: “Whosoever introduces into this affair of ours something that does not belong to it, it is to be rejected, c). the sixth hadith: “Truly, what is lawful is evident, and what is unlawful is evident, and in between the two are matters which are doubtful which many people do not know…” Additionally, this first hadith, narrated by Umar ibn Al-Khattab (ra), is also the  first hadith Imam Bukhari included in his Saheeh. As the scholars categorize Bukhari’s collection as the most authentic book after the Quran and Nawawi’s collection of the 40 hadith as the most widespread, the profound impact of this narration, in developing the sciences of Islam and Islamic thought and behavior cannot be underestimated.

Nevertheless, for violent extremists, the hadith is often weaponized, utilized as a gateway that permits takfir and the labeling of other Muslims hypocrites. It is not uncommon to see propaganda posted in magazines such as Dabiq or Rummiyya, or in the lectures of key jihadist ideologues, that proclaim scholars and other leaders of the Muslims as disbelievers on the grounds of their intentions. To achieve this, propagandists search through the books, videos and classes of these leaders and seek to select a piece of the pile, a single comment that suggests that their intentions are to implement secular laws, to attack other Muslims, or to support non-Muslim countries in their proclaimed “Crusade” against Islam. Thus, they fool the ignorant with confirmation biases and unjustified allegations that one can correlate statements, often out of context, to belief in the heart. Yet, digging into the true essence of the hadith and its relationship to the rest of Islamic scripture documents the fact that the jihadi extremists are the true ignoramuses.

In his explanation of the 40 hadith, Imam Nawawi related that this first narration was “transmitted about a meccan immigrant to Medina who emigrated in order to marry Umm Qays.” The hadith is clear and sets forth one of the most important principles in Islam – that actions are judged according to the intentions that back them.

The alternative reference to the, “one who emigrated for worldly gain or for marriage” proffers a principle all Muslims dwell. Here we have an individual driven by love. While the hadith refrains from completely belittling this intention, it distinguishes the Muslim mindset and cognitive and emotional state the bridges the metaphysical and material. This is like the Quranic verse that says:

Whoever desires the quick-passing enjoyment of the world, we really grant him what We will for whom we like (17:18)

The fundamental distinction and aim focuses the Muslim, from the beginning, on the intention that backs the act. The man who emigrated for marriage obtained his objective, but in so doing, he left the better reward of engaging in an act for the sake of Allah and His Messenger. If acts depend on intentions, then it is clear that the whole religion revolves around a proper understanding and implementation of this first hadith. So, what of the one who is called to emigrate to a so-called Islamic State or calls to, supports or carries out violence and terrorism against civilians in the West? Is the intention behind these acts in accordance with shariah? What we see in actuality is a situation where many do so for political or personal reasons – with stolen goods, deception and desires, with little knowledge of, or contemplation on, the religion.

In order to grasp such a reality, we might contradistinguish the phrase, “emigration for Allah and His Messenger” by analyzing the initial emigration of Abu Bakr (raa) who departed with Muhammad (saws) for Medina. Abu Bakr was a noble Meccan. He believed in Muhammad’s prophethood from the beginning. After the Quraish increased their hostilities and plotted to kill the Prophet (saws), Abu Bakr (raa) departed with him in wisdom.

A conversation held at the onset of that mission exemplifies the way a Muslim is to consciously analyze the link between intentions and actions. Imam Tabari recorded that as the pair set out, Abu Bakr (raa) came with two camels and offered the better of them to his companion. Yet, the Prophet (saws) refused saying, “I will not ride a camel that is not my own.” Abu Bakr replied, “But she is yours, O’ Messenger of Allah.” The prophet (saws) then rejected the offer and instead asked how much he paid for her. After Abu Bakr revealed the price, he purchased her at full value and they set out pure in both intention and action, upon their historical journey. As the Orientalist Martin Lings put it in his biography of the Prophet (saws): “It was the Prophet’s heijra, his cutting off all ties of home and homeland for the sake of God. His offering the act of heijra must be entirely his, not shared by another in any respect. The mount on which the act was accomplished must therefore be his own, since it was part of his offering. The camel was Qaswa, and she remained his favorite camel.”   So, what of those that call for stealing the wealth of the “kuffar” to carry out false heijra, or even to carry out attacks on civilians?

We should contemplate these lessons and check our intentions. When I propagandized for Al-Qaeda, I imagined my intentions as pure, but I realize today that they had more to do with my own desires and ambitions. I had grown to resent the society around, but unlike the Messenger of Allah (saws), I wanted to destroy, not reform it. The reasons were personal – I was angry, frustrated, wanted meaning and significance. Unlike Abu Bakr (raa) I was not learning from the true message of the Prophet (saws). This is clear when we ponder Abu Bakr’s (raa) statement as caliph, when he would give speech after speech reminding the Muslims to contemplate the intentions that backed their actions. He said, for example, “Allah does not accept deeds except those which he performed for the sake of His face only. Therefore, seek Allah’s face by your actions. Know that whatever action you do with sincerity to Allah is an act of obedience that you performed, a good share that you earned, a duty that you fulfilled, and a reserve that you keep for perishable days; at that time you will be most in need and in anticipation.”  The vice-versa is also true. We might say beware of the deeds you imagine you perform for Allah but do seeking your own benefit. They may not count for you, but against you, and as Muslims we are most concerned with our Hereafter.

Careful reflection on the relationship between Islamic texts and the biographies of influential Muslims like Abu Bakr (raa) documents that focusing intentions and actions on Allah is the path to personal growth, significance and meaning and contentment. Proper tazkiyya (purification) and tarbiyya (learning) cannot occur until an individual or group becomes cognizant of the connection between action and intention. This conception of “success” as including both the here and hereafter is essential. As Allah says in the Quran:

And whosoever hopes to meet his lord let him do righteous actions, and in the worship of your Lord do not associate anything with Him (18:110)

The scholars of tafseer say that the end of this ayah implies that there are two important conditions for an action to be righteous and for its acceptance. First, it must be done with sincerity, seeking only the Face of Allah (ikhlas), and second, it must be in accordance with the sunnah (muwaffaqah– compliance). Thus, Hassan al-Basri (ra) said, “Statements cannot be correct without actions; statements and actions cannot be correct except with an intention; statements, actions and intentions cannot  be correct except according to the Sunnah.” Similarly, Ibn al-Qayyim (ra) said, “Deeds without sincerity are like a traveler who carries in his water jug dirt. The carrying of it burdens him and it brings no benefit.”

So, those young Muslims, many sincerely wanting to help Muslims across the globe, must consider these two aspects. Elsewhere, in Ighathatul-Lahfan fi Masjid al-Shayatn, Ibn al-Qayyim (ra) explained the two conditions of deeds saying,

“Some of the salaf said, ‘There is no action, even it be small, except that wo records will be unfurled for it: why? how? – meaning why did you do it? How did you do it? The first question inquires about the cause, onset and motive of the action. Was it done for some temporal and worldly gain, such as attaining the praise of the people?  Was it done for fear of people’s censure? Or was the motivation of this action establishing the rights of servitude, seeking the increase of one’s love of, and closeness to Allah and seeking the means of drawing close to him? The essence of this question is: was it upon you to perform this action for the sake your Master or for the sake of personal gain or base desire?”

“The second question enquires about following the Messenger (saws) in that action of worship: was the action from those actions which have been legislated upon the tongue of the the Messenger (saws)? Or was it an action that I did not legislate and was not pleased with? Therefore, the first question concerns sincerity (ikhlas) and the second concerns following (mutaba’ah). Allah does not accept any action until both prerequisites are met.”

So we should ask ourselves, has Allah legislated emigration to an Islamic State or emirate that oppresses the people, promotes chaos, remains rigid and refrains from weighing the consequences of barbarity? Has the Messenger (saws) authorized, anywhere, deliberately targeting civilians and breaking covenants of security?

A deep awareness of this principle leads to a heightened state of consciousness. In his Fiqh al-Qawaid al-Fiqhiyyah, Ibn Taymiyyah (ra) described the maxim ‘al-umur al-maqasidiha’ – actions are by their objectives – in manner incredibly important. He explained that a weighing outcomes and determining actions must include a calculation that identifies detrimental externalities and that a failure to do so can lead to responsibility for negative outcomes. This is true for both individuals and groups. To document this, Ibn Taymiyyah (ra) presented the example of Samurah bint Jundoob (raa). Samura had an obese son who could not control his eating habits. The Prophet (saws) indicated that, in the event Samura’s son died from his excessive indulgences, it would be considered suicide. Likewise, the distant effects of present actions must be considered in all of the Muslim’s affairs and engagements.

The Companions (raa) attributed defeat on the battlefield to the most elementary sins. On the other hand, these days, some of those most vociferous in their calls for the implementation of shariah and a return to pristine Islam do not themselves practice what they preach behind closed doors. This is due to a corruption in intention that leads to a corruption in action and, by extension, outcomes when harm outweighs benefits due to a lack of patience and wisdom.

So, look to those that call to attacking civilians in the West and explain that they do so to deter Western countries from attacking Muslims, yet do not recognize that if anything has led to the death of Muslims at the hands of foreign powers it is the justification for invasion terrorism gives those they consider to be the enemy of the Muslim masses. Or, look to those that claim Khilafah and suggest it is a liberating movement based on shariah. Yet, they suffer on the battlefield and in the perceptions of the masses due to their barbarism. The so-called Islamic State is degraded and the oppressors they claim to struggle against grow in power as those defending Muslims suffer from infighting and internal killing of each other. Muslims must always analyze the consequences of their actions. That requires deeper thought about what can be changed and whether attempting to change a thing will lead to greater negatives.

In conclusion, it is important to highlight a few other principles from Imam al-Nawawi’s first hadith. Those that truly want to work on behalf of Islam must seek Allah’s pleasure while acting upon a clear understanding of the shariah. They must avoid both violent extremism and ultra-liberalism. Weighing the consequences of action is as important as guaranteeing efforts comply with the Quran and Sunnah. Many abandon shariah, and assume it cannot be interpreted in a flexible way, not understood in relation to the time period it was revealed in, and refrain from looking at the Prophet as a true progressive and classical liberal. This perspective is far away from the stance postmodernists take theses days, standing upon no axiomatic foundation and accepting no objective truth, deriving conclusions from their own preconceived desires. On the other hand, ultra-literalists seek to return society to the seventh century, go the extremes of terrorism and wanton violence, believing that violence alone can rectify the current plight of Muslims. Each of these extremes stands upon isolated evidences, adulterated and manipulated texts and innovated principles. However, the one acting solely for the pleasure of Allah and the acceptance of their efforts, will be guided, as will the ummah at large when its actions are based on pure intention and knowledge.

In no way does such an awareness belittle concern for Muslims all over. The Prophet (saws) said, “He who is not concerned with the affairs of the ummah is not one of us.” It is justice to balance perceptions, to take emotions away from the equation and to practice what the scholars have explained as, “bring the evidence and then believe, do not believe and then find the evidence.” Like a doctor, the sincere one, must treat the symptoms of disease, but can only do so if he or she is first healthy. The Muslim ummah is like a body and the Prophet (saw) stressed that in any body there is a piece of flesh – the heart- if it is pure then the body is pure. Muslims everywhere will never be pure until their hearts and minds are pure. So, reflect upon intentions; do not be deceived by the callers to the gates of hell, preachers like myself that used to isolate evidences to justify atrocity against humanity. There is the heijra to the land of Islam and their is the heijra from sins and mistakes. So, do not rush to calamity. If only ISIS had informed those westerners that traveled to their so-called caliphate that the same Imam Mawardi they quoted to justify Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph did not at all support obligatory heijra??? In fact, Mawardi (ra) explained that if  a Muslim emigrated from the lands of Islam to reside among the non-Muslims and he, “acquires family and relatives, and it is possible for him to practice his religion openly, then it is permissible for him to emigrate since the place in which he is has become for him an abode of Islam.”

If Muslims appreciate these conceptions, all derived from the principle Imam Nawawi includes in the first of these 42 hadith, then every place they go will become an abode of Islam, their affairs in this world and the Hereafter will prove beneficial, and the ummah may one day realize that the non-totalitarian Islamic State is rooted in the heart from where both intentions and action originate.