In dictionaries, niyyah is defined as being determined or inclined to do something, showing will or determination, having the desire to accomplish something, having the resolve and intention to do something. When used in a religious context, the same word has slightly more subtle connotations such as “one’s heart knowingly and willfully tending towards an action for the purpose of pleasing Allah.” Imam Ghazali (rahmatullahi alayh) says that niyyah is “the heart’s leaning towards something that it believes will provide benefit instantly or in the future.”
As an action of the heart, niyyah is the precondition for deeds to be accepted because actions are valued by the intentions behind them. One can say that niyyah, in its essence, is a form of developing an inclination and having the will to do something. Therefore, it could be asserted that niyyah is consciously inclining towards an action, fully knowing what that desired action is.
Allah (subhanahu wa taala) says in the Qur’an: “And they were not commanded except to worship Allah, [being] sincere to Him in religion, inclining to truth, and to establish prayer and to give zakah. And that is the correct religion.” (Bayyina, 5) He thus informs us of the significance of niyyah and ikhlas. Ibn Juzay (rahmatullahi alayh) says the following regarding the tafsir of this ayah:
“If a deed is performed for any reason other than pleasing Allah such as worldly gains, people’s praise or other similar benefits, then this is a hypocritical act that is performed solely for the appearances and is not acceptable in the presence of Allah.”
As can be understood from this statement, the precondition for a deed to be accepted is the niyyah, which means the reason behind its performance. Our Beloved Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) says the following regarding the importance of niyyah: “Actions are but by intentions, and each person will have but that which he intended. Thus, he whose emigration was for the sake of Allah and His Messenger, his emigration was for the sake of Allah and His Messenger, and he whose emigration was to achieve some worldly gain or to take some woman in marriage, his emigration was for that for which he emigrated.” (Bukhari, Bad’ul-Wahy, 1; Muslim, Imara, 155; Abu Dawud, Talaq, 11)
Imam Ghazali says that niyyah is between two things: Knowing and doing. Knowing is the initial point of the action that is to be carried out. It means that action is subject to knowledge. Actions performed without knowledge, awareness and intention such as sleepwalking or talking in your sleep are not considered deeds. That is because each deed is complemented by willing it and exerting the effort to perform it. A person utilizes his knowledge of an action to will it and uses his physical and mental faculties to apply oneself to performing the deed. Knowing the nature and consequences of an action helps a person protect oneself from harm and direct oneself to more beneficial outcomes.
Haris al-Muhasibi explains the concept of niyyah as follows: “Niyyah is a servant’s will to do something. When a servant wants to do something due to a reason, this desire to take action is niyyah; whether it be for the sake of Allah or for anything else. Because Our Beloved Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) says “Each person will have but that which he intended.” Herein lies two meanings in relation to niyyah: The first is the niyyah to carry out a deed and the second is the niyyah to do it for a reason such as worldly gains or the afterlife.”
Niyyah is the spirit of deeds. With it, deeds gain momentum and find their worth in the presence of Allah. Abdullah bin Mubarak speaks of niyyah in the following words: “The way deeds achieve perfection is through niyyah. With niyyah, one achieves goodness that is impossible to attain through his deeds.”
The first step on the path to Allah (subhanahu wa taala) is niyyah. Without niyyah, a servant cannot advance through sayr u suluk towards Him. For this reason, the niyyah has to be pure, sincere and only for the sake of Allah. Abu Abdullah al-Sijzi (rahmatullahi alayh) expounds on the matter of the hidden defects that niyyah can have in this way: “He who doesn’t remedy the shortcomings of his knowledge can’t purify his actions. He who doesn’t purify his actions can’t purify his body. He who doesn’t purify his body can’t purify his heart. He who doesn’t purify his heart can’t purify his niyyah. All things are built upon the basis of niyyah.”
Harith al-Muhasibi (rahmatullahi alayh) says the following regarding the subject: “Niyyah is only possible through knowing, and knowing through niyyah… One does not dispense you from the other. For this reason, be determined to perfect your niyyah and be diligent. Only this way can you achieve ikhlas and find deliverance.”
Abdulqadir Gilani (quddisa sirruhu) says:
“- What is the key to niyyah, they asked. To answer, I said;
– The key is tawakkul. When they asked what is the key to tawakkul, I replied;
– Hawf, which is the fear of Allah.”
Due to niyyah being the precondition for the deeds to be accepted, the awliya have emphasized this matter greatly and said “Many minor deeds exist yet the niyyah scales them up to immense proportions. Many great deeds exist yet the niyyah shrinks them,” underlining the fact that a person should check his niyyah before setting out to perform a deed. Due to this, it is said “One should make niyyah for the deed before starting to act. A person is filled with goodness as long as he bears the niyyah to do good.”
To summarize, where there is no niyyah, there can be no deed. If there is no deed, then there is no ajr, which is the reward for the deed. The purity of the servant’s niyyah determines the extent of Allah’s aid to him. He who turns to Allah with a pristine niyyah gets accepted into His grace. Because of this, Abdullah Ansari (quddisa sirruhu) describes niyyah as “wanting Allah’s love to the degree of abandoning the desire of all else other than Him.”