Purifying Your Intentions Using Cost-Benefit Analysis
In our daily lives we often must make a choice which is neither ‘black’ nor ‘white,’ neither completely bad nor perfectly good. Anything seen as a ‘grey’ area is typically dealt with based on some kind of practical Cost-Benefit Analysis at our disposal. This means we consider what an act under our consideration will ‘cost’ us, and what ‘benefit’ we can expect to gain from it. Here we are referring to Stage 4 (al–Hamm) among the Conditions of the Heart (Part 1).
Naturally, we seek a solution where the benefits outweigh the costs. The more we see the scale tipped to the benefits side, the more we are attracted to choosing in its favor. Allah’s guidance shows us what is to be preferred and what is to be avoided so as to keep pure our hearts. With Allah, it is the intention of the heart that is the most significant factor in determining our ultimate benefit.
Whatever measure we use —consciously or unconsciously— for running an instantaneous cost-benefit analysis in our moment-by-moment daily decisions, that default standard will impact the degree of purity in our hearts before Allah. That cost-benefit standard can be a worldly one with an eye to getting what we personally most want – wealth, power, status, acceptance, security, etc. But as serious Muslims we want to take —as our first and foremost benchmark — what Allah has designed to be in accord with our present and future happiness.
Islam gives us knowledge of the principles by which Allah conducts His accounting of our deeds – both in a present-time condition of the heart’s purity and also in looking forward to the ultimate tally of our lives. If we adopt Allah’s divinely-mandated cost-benefit schedule to monitor the purity of our hearts, then we are likely always to think twice before settling on a lesser choice.
Allah’s Accounting of the Acts of the Heart
One’s intention is related to what he or she ‘wills’ or wants as a ‘goal’ or ‘outcome.’ The deed is not sound and accepted with Allah, —nor is it unsound and rejected— except based on one’s projected, calculated, and willful acts of the spiritual heart. Please review Part 1 of this series for an initial description of Allah’s guidance for maximizing a clean heart.
The Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said:
“Actions are judged [accounted before Allah] only according to his intentions and every man shall have [his accounting] according only to that which he intended” (al-Bukhari and Muslim).
Ibn al-Mubarak said:
“It may be that a small action is increased [in reward] by intention and it may be that a great action is lessened [in reward] by intention.
“Allah wants from you only your [right] intention and [good] will.”
If the deed is done for pleasing Allah alone, then it is called a sincere deed. This is the case when the deed is carried out for Allah alone without anyone else having any portion of responsibility for its motivating force. If it is done for other than Allah, then it is called showing off, hypocrisy, or something similarly negative.
The Bottom Line
Allah has given us knowledge of what is required to please Him; what pleases Allah is the same as what will enable us to avoid destructive personal and community outcomes. Acting on that knowledge with sincere intention is what is required of a Muslim.
The first duty upon every Servant who wants to obey Allah is to know his own intentions; and then he must correct it, or perfect it, in his heart; then to act upon it, after knowing the reality of his own truthfulness and sincerity. To act without scrutinizing your true intention is a missed opportunity; having the ‘correct’ but insincere intention is showing off; and it is a waste to have sincerity without faith in Allah’s perfect and generous guidance —sent down to us through Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ).
Actions Belong to Categories of Acceptance with Allah
The following three basic categories guide us to paying close attention when choosing our deeds:
1. Sins. Having a good intention while committing a wrongdoing, as defined by the Quran and the teaching of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), does not make that action a good deed. Even worse, if you have a bad intention, your sin will be even
If a person does what would normally be a good deed that could benefit himself or others, but the deed is mixed with an intention of showing off to others, then such a deed may become instead sinful.
Similarly, when one’s motivation is the approval or praise from others, he may even end up losing his adherence to tawhîd, the foundational insight of Islam: that the Creator alone is rightfully to be trusted and thanked for man’s guidance and provision—as He alone is true Deity. When we “fear” only Allah, our hearts become clean and our intentions pure and sincere.
We need to beware that any deed which lacks goodness plus right intention has the possibility of graduating to a greater or lesser shirk, wherein one “associates with Allah” a person, institution, or force as his source for the power to benefit or to provide him his needs— thus wandering into the realm of unbelief. Those who truly believe in Allah, and the Message brought by Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), will do all within their power to avoid even skirting the edges of sin, whether minor or major.
2. Permissible Things. There is nothing that is permissible except that a person has the opportunity to make it count as a good deed through carrying it out with the intention of pleasing Allah.
3. Good Deeds. Actions that are inherently beneficial to one’s self or to others are welcomed and accepted by Allah. Even better, the reward for it may be multiplied — sometimes ten- or hundred-fold, depending upon the quality of one’s sincere intention.
Here is how the Prophet (ﷺ) put it for us in terms of the acts and intentions of our hearts.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
” Whoever considers doing a good deed but does not do it will have one complete good deed written for him. Whoever does it, will have ten good deeds – up to seven hundred – up to many more multiples of that, written for him. Whoever considers doing an evil deed and then does not do it after all, will have one complete good deed written for him. If he does carry it out, one evil deed will be written for him.” (al-Bukhari and Muslim)
He (ﷺ) also said:
“The similitude of this nation is of four people. One is he upon whom Allah has bestowed wealth and knowledge and so he acts according to his knowledge with respect to his wealth and spends it properly. Another is he upon whom Allah has conferred knowledge but no wealth, and he is sincere in his intentions and says, ‘Had I possessed wealth I would have acted like he [the first] acted.’ “—The Messenger of Allah added, “They are equal in reward.”—”Another is he whom Allah has given wealth but no knowledge and he squanders his wealth wrongly. And another is he upon whom Allah has bestowed neither wealth nor knowledge, and he says, ‘Had I possessed wealth I would have acted like he [who is without knowledge] does.” The Messenger of Allah again added, “They [the last two] are both equal in sinfulness.” (al-Tirmidhi)
None of us are completely immune to mixing our deeds with showing off. Since showing off spoils our good deeds with Allah, we must continually examine the acts of our spiritual hearts (Part 1) and correct our intentions whenever they are faulty.
CAUTION: There are Three Categories of Showing off:
1. When showing off is the basic impulse for doing something that would ordinarily be a good deed, this good deed turns into shirk —because through that act of the heart we have abandoned, or wavered in, our adherence to the one true Deity— and the reward of the deed is about to be This is a common trap. Watch out!
2. The deed is done for Allah, but in the process of doing it the intention of showing off enters into the acts of the spiritual heart. Can this intention be changed?
- If the intention at the end of the deed has changed and is not based on the same good intention as at the beginning of it, for example an act of charity, then the beginning of the deed is accepted, and the end is rejected. In this case, the person submits to his desires, which will diminish the reward of the good deed he was performing.
- It may be, however, that the intention at the end of the deed has turned back to the same good intention as at the beginning. For example in performance of Prayer, a person —in the middle of it— has fought against an intention to show off and has turned away from it. In that case the wrong intention was corrected and will not harm him in the end.
3. The spoiling of one’s original good intentions can be reversed if one keeps in tune to the acts of his spiritual heart. (Again, review Part 1.) One feels the intention to show off after the completion of the deed. In this case, this is merely malicious whispering and has no negative effect on the deed after its completion, nor is there a negative effect on the one who has done the good deed.
There are other, less obvious ways which may lead one to show off in one’s actions, so you must be very careful to be aware of, and to correct, the acts of your heart concerning them.
If a person’s intention is mixed, he plainly intends to gain some worldly benefit while doing a well-intentioned good deed. In that case, his reward or sin depends upon all the mixed components of his intention.
Can one learn to read the acts of his or her heart and thus delay doing the good deed until the acts of his/her heart are purer? Yes.
Keep in Mind that there are Three Levels of Intention
When monitoring the acts of your spiritual heart, be aware of your personal intention for each action that you are about to carry out. Don’t settle for less than the best intention. If need be, delay your act until the best intention is sincerely in your heart. Ask Allah to make your intentions pure. If this is difficult for you, then consider whether there is an alternative act that would please him more and come more sincerely from your heart.
Level (1) The deed is done only with an eye to gaining some worldly benefit, such as a person who leads people in Prayer just to get money. This person has committed a sin.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
“Whoever learnt knowledge by which the Face of Allah is sought, but does not do so except for attaining a goal of this world, (he) will not smell the fragrance of Paradise on the Day of Resurrection.” (Abu Dawud)
Level (2) The deed is done for pleasing Allah as well as for gaining some worldly benefit. This person’s belief and sincerity may be decreased through performing this deed with mixed intentions, such as when a person goes on hajj for the sake of trade at the same time as performing his obligatory [or optional] hajj. This person’s reward is based on his sincerity in the eyes of Allah.
Level (3) The deed is done for Allah only, but the person accepts, in good conscience, money or something else to help him perform this deed, for example accepting gas money to get to and from the place where he is to lead the Prayer. This person’s reward is complete and what he took in exchange does not have a negative effect.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
“That for which you are most entitled to take a wage is the Book of Allah.” (al-Bukhari)
Know that the People who are Sincere in their Deeds are on One of Three Levels.
Again, examine the acts of your heart (Part 1) in each case and seek Allah’s pleasure in becoming the most beloved of his servants.
- Those who do good deeds solely to get rewarded by Allah —or out of fear of being punished by Allah. Know that good deeds are rewardable, but that motivation out of fear is the lowest level of sincere intention.
- Those who do rewardable deeds out of being grateful to Allah and desiring to obey This is the midway level of sincere intention.
- Those who do obligatory actions, or any other preferred or allowed actions, out of love and glorification of Allah. This is the level of the Siddîqîn (the truthful ones) and it is the highest level of sincere intention.
Purifying the Heart: Stand Ready for Repentance
Keeping the heart pure means being ready to repent of anything connected with a less than the sincerest intention to please your Lord. It is obligatory that one repent immediately after realizing one’s mistaken deed or faulty intention.
One must not become discouraged at his inability to stamp out his wrongdoing once and for all. Rather, we must simply accept the fact that committing sin is a part of our human design.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
“Every son of Adam repetitively commits sins, and the best of those who repetitively commit sins are the ones who often repent.” (al-Tirmidhi)
He (ﷺ) also said:
“If you weren’t to commit sins, Allah would have wiped you out of existence and replaced you by another people who would commit sins. They would ask forgiveness from Allah and He would forgive them.” (Muslim)
The real problem for us is in keeping the acts of our spiritual hearts pure and free of the black marks which we can so easily accumulate when we persist stubbornly in committing sins and when we delay in seeking repentance for them. An ongoing ‘maintenance’ of our hearts is crucial.
Satan wishes to ensnare mankind by tempting us, most especially to fall into any of the following pitfalls. He prefers for us the most sinful, first and foremost, and, if he is unsuccessful in that, then he tries the next most serious, and so on.
Look Out for these Seven
Keep in mind these seven, which are listed in descending order from the most serious sins to the lesser:
- Associating partners with Allah in polytheism/idolatry (Shirk) and disbelief (Kufr) in the universal sovereignty and exclusivity of our Creator and merciful Lord
- Innovation in religion (Bid’ah) and leaving off from the way of the Prophet (ﷺ) and the way of his Companions
- Committing the greater sins (Kaba’ir)
- Committing the lesser sins (Sagha`ir)
- Inciting to an overabundance of the allowed things
- Inciting to do certain acts of obedience when there are other acts more obligatory and greater in reward
- Inciting the devils of men and jinn to annoy and bother the Muslim
We continue in Part 3 with the seriousness of wrongdoing, its effect in weighing down and blackening our spiritual hearts, the effect of repentance in cleaning the heart, and how to be clear regarding the sincerity of one’s repentance.
 I would like to acknowledge my debt of gratitude for assistance in writing this article to Al-Azhar Univeristy graduate, Mr. Ahmed Nagy, now Director of the online Firdaws Academy for English language teaching of the Qur’an, Arabic language and Islamic Studies <https://firdawsacademy.com>, where the author is a tutor.