Kitab al-Sawm II – Niyyah (Intention) | al-Fiqh al-Istidlali

In our previous post, we showed briefly how jurists have argued that Ṣawm is a worship that is ta’abbudi. All ta’abbudi acts of worship require a niyyah (intention), and in the next few posts, we will go over the arguments made for a few rulings pertaining to it.

It is important to note however that this is not a topic which earlier classical scholars (before Shaykh al-Ṭūsi) have entertained in any great lengths. Either they have completely ignored it, or have only mentioned it in passing. Earlier books of Fiqh do not seem to have made the notion of niyyah an over-complicated concept as it appears in later books of jurisprudence. Before we begin a summary of the actual arguments put forth for some of the rulings, we will briefly consider some historical points regarding the subject.

Most books on jurisprudence and practical law today that deal with fasting, open up with a discussion on niyyah (see for example Sayyid Sīstāni’s Islamic Laws). Most earlier scholars though, are relatively silent on the matter of intentions in their works of jurisprudence. For example, in rulings of Wuḍū’, we find no mention of anything to do with niyyah in Shaykh Sadūq’s al-Muqni’ and neither in Shaykh Mufīd’s al-Ishrāf. Or in his al-Muqni’ah, Shaykh al-Mufīd discusses the method of praying in detail, yet is completely silent on the matter of niyyah. Elsewhere, some of these jurists would simply say that niyyah is to seek closeness towards Allah and to have sincerity in one’s actions (Shaykh al-Mufīd for example cites 98:5 to prove this).

Extensive discussions on niyyah seem to have slowly crept in during the end of the 6th century Hijri, and by 7th & 8th century with the appearance of Muhaqqiq Hilli and ‘Allamah Hilli this discussion had become part of mainstream jurisprudential discussions.

We began seeing discussions on whether niyyah is something that one has to literally notify themselves of, and if this is to be done in the heart, or in the mind or by tongue? Is niyyah a result of al-dā’ī al-nafsāni, meaning is it a natural consequence of another entity calling one to perform an action (for example, every human has a niyyah when they walk, sit, eat) and is something inseparable from any human being? Furthermore, does one have to specify in their intention that they are performing an obligatory or recommended act – and if obligatory, is it Qaḍā or not? Is there is a need to specify in the month of Ramaḍān that one is indeed doing the obligatory fast of Ramaḍān or not? Does niyyah have to be continuous or is one niyyah in the beginning of a worship enough? All these and other related discussions had become part of the discussion for centuries and can still be seen today, even in books of practical law published for the masses to follow.

Interestingly enough, we have also seen a few scholars speaking out against this phenomenon during the course of time. Some Shī’ī scholars – like Muhaqqiq Sabzwāri (d. 1090 Hijri) – even deemed these discussions outright innovations (bid’ah).[1] Another figure who spoke out against this matter was Shaykh Bahā’i (d. 1030 CE). In his Miftāḥ al-Falāḥ he writes (rough and slightly paraphrased translation):

“And know that some of our later jurists have exaggerated and extended their discussion on the matter of niyyah, while there is nothing in the narrations of the Imams (s) as such. Rather, what can be utilized based on what has been reported on behalf of them (s) on the topics of Wuḍū’, Salāt and all other forms of worship, which their followers would act upon, is that the matter of niyyah is easy. It is needless from being mentioned, present in the minds of all rational people when they carry out an act out of their own free-will. Due to this, our classical jurists (r) did not enter into discussions regarding it.

It was only a group of later jurists who embarked on it and initiated a discussion on it, such that it now becomes the subject of doubt for whether it had been abandoned from various parts of one’s actions, brings about difficulty for most people, and leads them into waswās. In fact, niyyah is nothing in reality but a simple intent to carry out a specific action for a specific cause; and it is a part and parcel of that action which is intended.

This intent can almost never be separated from a rational person at the time of every action, to the extent that some of our scholars have said that if Allah (swt) had made us responsible of carrying out a specific action without having its niyyah, our responsibility would be towards that which we have no ability of performing.

Thus, the notion of bringing into presence that which is intended, into the mind, such that it is differentiated from another, and the intent of carrying out an action to fulfill a command of Allah (swt) is at the height of simplicity. Take Ẓuhr prayers – an act we are responsible for performing at a specific time for example – which can be conceptualized with its specific characteristics by which it is differentiated from all other actions deemed worship and non-worship, and the intent of performing it to fulfill a command: there is no difficulty in any of this at all, like the working conscious of anyone will testify. If anyone finds this difficult, then they should ask Allah (swt) to correct their conscious, for He is omnipotent over all things.”

Muqaddas Ardebeli (d. 993 Hijri) seems to be the first jurist who attempts to simplify the case of niyyah. In his Majma’ al-Fā’idah wa al-Burhān[2] he points out the lack of any legal evidence to claim that anything other than having a simple intent to perform an action for Allah (swt) is required and necessary. Certain members from the Khwansāri scholarly family during the Iranian Safavid period had also been on the forefront of making the matter of intention simple for the laymen. Ḥusayn Khwansāri (d. 1099 Hijri), and his sons Raḍi Khwansāri, and Jamāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Khwansāri (d. 1122 or 1125 Hijri) had written extensive critical works and treatises on the topic of niyyah.

With this historical backdrop in mind, the main question that needs to be answered is whether it is obligatory to literally and consciously identify within one’s intention, that the fast they are performing in the month of Ramaḍān, is indeed for the month of Ramaḍān. In technical terms: is the ta’yīn of an ‘unwān necessary?

The general view with regards to the fast of Ramaḍān is that explicitly identifying the ‘unwān within one’s intention is not required. In the next post, we will investigate the evidence brought forth for this.


[1] Dhakhira al-Ma’ad, Vol. 1, Pg. 264; Published by Aal al-Bayt

[2] Majma’ al-Fa’idah wa al-Burhan fi Sharh al-Irshad al-Azhan, Vol. 1, Pg. 98

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