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Ramadan is once again just around the corner and this year, unlike years past, we wanted to narrowly focus our Ramadan workshop on one thing: Intentions. The goal is lofty so we got this workshop out early and we recommend that you get started right away so you are already on a roll in Ramadan.
One of the most famous – if not the most famous – sayings of the Prophet ﷺ is the hadith of Omar:
عَنْ عُمَرَ، أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “ الأَعْمَالُ بِالنِّيَّةِ، وَلِكُلِّ امْرِئٍ مَا نَوَى، فَمَنْ كَانَتْ هِجْرَتُهُ إِلَى اللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ، فَهِجْرَتُهُ إِلَى اللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ، وَمَنْ كَانَتْ هِجْرَتُهُ لِدُنْيَا يُصِيبُهَا، أَوِ امْرَأَةٍ يَتَزَوَّجُهَا، فَهِجْرَتُهُ إِلَى مَا هَاجَرَ إِلَيْهِ ”.
‘Umar bin Al-Khattab r Narrated: Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said, “The reward of deeds depends upon the intention and every person will get the reward according to what he has intended. So whoever emigrated for Allah and His Apostle, then his emigration was for Allah and His Apostle. And whoever emigrated for worldly benefits or for a woman to marry, his emigration was for what he emigrated for.”Sahih al-Bukhari 54
The translation used above uses the term ‘reward’ but in the original Arabic, what the Prophet ﷺ says is closer to “and every person shall have what he intended”. He ﷺ is saying, your actions may all be the same, but your experience and your results will manifest based on the intentions you came into the action with. What it would indicate is that everyone will face the consequences of his intentions.
As muslims, we are often taught the importance of intentions. Some of the most famously pious Muslims obsessed about intentions. It is said that Umar bin Abdalaziz, Caliph of the Muslims, would not put one foot in front of the other without intending it first. The saying of the Prophet ﷺ on intentions cited above is at the start of most books on Prophetic tradition. A simple search on youtube of Islamic lectures on intention yields at least a hundred videos of both famous and ‘regular’ Muslim takes on the topic. Even non-religious personal development gurus talk about how important intentions are and how most people do not intend enough.
But what is an intention really, and what do we gain from intending? Is intention deciding to do an action? A lot of the time when we are taught about intentions that’s what it seems like. Especially as they relate to our worship, we are told we must intend the action – i.e. resolve to do the action specifically and for the sake of Allah – for the action to be valid as worship. From this we easily grasp the importance of deciding to do an action and that we can’t just do things because ‘everyone is doing it’. Beyond this though, a lot of us fail to properly make use of the intentions for our actions. Especially for things that are routine, intentions fall into the background. Of course, I’m doing what I’m doing – how could I not be. But, the power of intentions happens not when we intend our actions but rather when we intend the results of our actions. When we intend what we want this action to give us, that’s when intentions suddenly transform into something truly valuable. When we intend the results of our action this allows us to clarify our goals, align our actions with our values, and manifest the experience in life we wish to draw us closer to Allah.
How does intending the results achieve all this?
Take the example of brushing your teeth. You and I both brush our teeth, and while I intend to brush my teeth to prevent cavities, you intend to brush to smile confidently. Firstly, clearly, our actions have different motivators. My motivation is mostly out of fear, hence my focus on prevention. You are more positive and you are motivated by a desire to connect with others. Only by intending what we want to get out of brushing our teeth though, is this clarified. If we start brushing our teeth by making the intention, I am brushing my teeth to complete my morning tooth brushing session – well that just feels nonsensical. At the same time though, if we just brush monotonously, we’d never be able to tease out these distinct goals and thus realign if we see fit. Thinking about what we want to get out of brushing is what will shine light on where we could go. Maybe I want to grow beyond fear, or maybe you want to focus more internally. Regardless, now we have a greater understanding of why we are doing what we are doing.
Another important aspect of intending with the end in mind, is how it leads to a change in how the action is performed. The rigor with which I brush my teeth may be more than yours and I may spend time trying to reach those hard to reach wisdom teeth way back. Overall, brushing my teeth probably wont uplift my spirits in and of itself. You on the other hand, may spend more time focusing on your visible teeth and smile at the mirror afterwards. The happiness you experience from brushing is more likely since it immediately connects to a positive experience. When we know what we want to get out of brushing, the way in which we brush will differ and how we feel about afterwards will diverge. More broadly, it’s when we decide what we want to get out of our actions that our actions increase in depth and satisfaction for us. Life becomes a lot more meaningful.
So let’s get back to prayer … What do you intend for your prayers?
If all of this feels a little overwhelming then just start with something simple: how you want to feel.
The thing is, there is an emotional underpinning to so many actions we do, whether we realize it or not. For many of us our emotional intention for praying is to avoid guilt by completing our Divinely ordained requirements – so after completing the prayer we feel that the burden of having to pray is lifted. We feel relief not by getting into the prayer as the Prophet ﷺ did1A man from the tribe of Khuza’ah said: I heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) as saying: O Bilal, call iqamah for prayer: give us comfort by it. Source: Sunan Abi Dawud 4985, but by getting out of the prayer. We experience our prayers exactly as we intended to. Right now in the workshop, we want to move those intentions from the background subconscious to the conscious and purposeful. We often expect that our feelings will naturally fall in line with wherever our mind goes but why just leave it all to chance like that. Why not intend before you begin your prayer how you want your prayer to make you feel upon completion.
Sometimes we’re so disconnected from our prayer experience that we don’t even know what action we’re doing: am I praying thuhr or did I just start following the imam? Am I in my 2nd unit or 3rd? Which surah did I recite? We have no feelings attached to the literal action we are performing. It’s almost robotic. Then we feel like we have to make these grandiose intentions: by praying this prayer I will unify the ummah, I will experience ultimate connection with Allah, I will discover hidden meanings in the Quran, and on and on. A lot of time when we read or hear advice about intentions we are told to compound our intentions. If you feel like you can experience all those things then by all means go ahead, but if you are already struggling with basic intention making, then start by clarifying what you intend to experience immediately. Stacking our goals for our intentions are great but don’t let that fool you, that’s not intending. That’s motivating an intention. Your intention should directly lead to a tangible experience.
Which brings us back to the original point: intend for each and every prayer exactly what you want to feel by doing this prayer. If you want to experience greater connection in prayer, intend to feel Allah’s love grow in your heart every time you pray. If you want to experience greater peace then intend a prayer that is calming and breathful. Focus on the way you wish your prayer to move you and then intend that. You can experiment with choosing a single intention for all of Ramadan and renew that intention for each prayer throughout the month. Or you can vary the intentions by day, or even by each prayer. Let your feelings guide you. The best thing is to really hover at the point where you feel the strongest emotional response.
More Examples to Try: I intend to feel uplifted by this prayer, I intend to relieve the burden of my worries, I intend to erase my sins, I intend to feel Allah watching over me …
But I’m not really praying all my prayers yet …
If you’re not regular with your prayers yet, you can still intend results when it comes to your prayers. You could do this by considering how you want to feel about your prayers in general, what the barriers are to your praying regularly, or how consistent you wish to be about your prayers. Where you begin to target your prayers doesn’t matter so much as pinpointing a place that resonates strongly in your emotions and can give you that direct feedback that: yes, this intention is working, I feel it! Make an intention each day – and if you can remember throughout the day even better – that connects you emotionally with your salah.
Some Examples: I intend to feel good about my prayers today, I intend to find ways to connect with Allah, I intend to feel my faith grow, I intend to want to pray, I intend to feel motivated to respond to Allah’s call …
Let’s say you started praying and you forgot to intend a final result. If you find yourself halfway through the prayer and realize you didn’t intend anything, well that’s okay, just intend for the rest of your prayer! The same can be said if you’re making your intentions at the start of the day or for your prayer experience in general. Yes you missed the beginning, and yes it means this prayer will be less than, but just by remembering you are growing and getting closer to a greater connection with Allah. Your remembering means your intention setting is working and the more you do it, the more you will remember.
So many people complain about not being able to feel anything in their prayer, but maybe it’s because we never try to feel anything. We expect that our feelings should spontaneously just erupt in positivity and pure connection. But heart work is like all work, it takes grit, focus, and determination to see it through. If we set out sights on bringing our hearts into our prayers then surely we will begin to feel. It’s that simple. Allah offers us so many opportunities throughout our day to rectify our actions, and our prayer too is a work in progress. Ask Allah for guidance and steadfastness and be confident in the Mercy and Generosity of your Lord.
Let’s Get Started!
This is an exciting workshop that we are so inspired to get started on and we hope you feel excited too! Please share any intentions that you want to work on in the comments below. Any advice or challenges you share can help us all along the journey to better salah. May Allah allow us all to grow in love and faith together, and may He bring us all closer to Him through each and every prayer we make.
Have a blessed and wonderful Ramadan!