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

We find Shaykh Ṭūsi in his al-Mabsūṭ[1] writing:

نيّة القربة أن ينوي أنّه يصوم فقط متقرّبا به إلى اللّٰه تعالى، و نية التعيين أن ينوي أنه صائم شهر رمضان فإن جمع بينهما كان أفضل فإن اقتصر على نية القربة أجزأه

Niyyah of qurbah is that one makes an intention that they are fasting only – while seeking closeness through it towards Allah Ta’āla. And niyyah of ta’yīn is that one makes an intention that they are fasting for the month of Ramaḍān (i.e. they have explicitly determined what the fast is for) – and if a person reconciles between these two intentions then that is better, and if one limits it to just the niyyah of qurbah, it will suffice.

For the fasts of the month of Ramaḍān we thus find that the popular ruling has been that mere intention of performing an action while seeking proximity to Allah (swt) is enough and one does not need to specify that they are performing a fast for the month of Ramaḍān, let alone explicitly determine it in their intention that it is an obligatory fast. This is unlike the case for fasts outside the month of Ramaḍān, such as supererogatory fasts, or fasts that have become obligatory due to vows or covenants – the discussion in this series of posts is not concerning these latter types of fasts.

We will now briefly look at the main arguments used to defend such a verdict:

1) Consensus

Some jurists have simply cited consensus (ijma’) on this matter. Sayyid Zanjāni says:

I checked the works from the time of Sayyid Murtaḍa (d. 436 Hijri) to the time of the author of al-Ḥadāiq (i.e. Shaykh Yūsuf Baḥrāni, d. 1186 Hijri) – and the subsequent scholars are probably all of the same opinion – they have all said that mere intention (to fast) suffices, and explicitly determining it to be the fast of the month of Ramaḍān is not necessary.

Some books where consensus has been cited from are: al-Ghanīyyah of Ibn Zuhrah (d. 585 Hijri), Kashf al-Rumūz (completed in 672 Hijri) of Fāḍil Ābi, and al-Tanqīḥ of Fāḍil Miqdād (d. 826 Hijri).

2) Ontologically Impossible

This is one of the main reasons used to argue against the necessity of doing ta’yīn of ‘unwān. Many have argued that fasting in the month of Ramaḍān is a takwīni matter. In other words, it is ontologically impossible for any other fast to occur in the month of Ramaḍān, except the fast of Ramaḍān. The month of Ramaḍān does not accept – by its very nature – any other fast, except of it. Therefore, there is no reason to do ta’yīn of ‘unwān, since the fast will be of Ramaḍān by default. This argument is also then employed in cases where a person forgetfully or out of ignorance makes an intention of a fast other than that of Ramaḍān, where the general verdict there is that not only does it not invalidate the person’s fast, but it is even accepted as the fast of Ramaḍān.

Ayatullah Maẓāhiri has reservations on this explanation, and that is because of his overall understanding of the nature of intentions and how they relate to people’s actions. This is not to say that his final verdict will necessarily differ, and it is very possible that a jurisconsult argues for a certain position in their classes, but in their published work of verdicts gives an opinion more inline with the mainstream and popular opinion. Nevertheless, his arguments will be described shortly in a separate section.

3) Itlāq of Verse 185 of Surah al-Baqarah

فَمَنْ شَهِدَ مِنْكُمُ الشَّهْرَ فَلْيَصُمْهُ

(2:185)…therefore whoever of you is present in the month, he shall fast therein…

Sayyid Khoei[2] has employed this specific argument. The argument is as follow: The verse says that when one witnesses and encounters the month of Ramaḍān, then they must fast. The verse after that is silent on whether one should fast with or without an intention where the ‘unwān of Ramaḍān is required. In technical terms, the verse is absolute – Mutlaq (or it has Itlāq) – and there are no conditions mentioned. There is also no external contextual evidence which we can use to restrict this verse or to presume that it is conditioned. The word al-Shahr (month) in the verse is also a Ẓarf of Zamān (adverbial of time), not a Qayd (condition or restriction), which makes the prima-facie of the verse ‘fast in the month of Ramaḍān’, not ‘fast of the month of Ramaḍān’.

Sayyid Zanjāni argues that if one were to take Itlāq from this verse, then that would include not just the instance where one fasts with or without the ‘unwān of Ramaḍān, but also an instance where one fasts with an ‘unwān other than that of Ramaḍān. For that, Sayyid Khoei further writes:

و أمّا بالنسبة إلى الصوم الآخر الذي قصده، فالمشهور و المعروف هو عدم الصحّة، بل قد ادُّعي الإجماع و التسالم على أنّ شهر رمضان لا يقبل صوماً غيره، و لكن من المحتمل بل المظنون بل المقطوع به و لا أقلّ من الاطمئنان: أنّ أكثر من ذهب إلى ذلك إنّما ذهبوا بناءً منهم على امتناع الأمر بالضدّين

As for another fast (other than that of Ramaḍān) that one makes an intention of, then what is famous and well known is that it is not valid. In fact, consensus and agreement has been cited for it that the month of Ramaḍān is not capable of accepting a fast other than of it. However, it is possible, rather probable, rather certain if not at the very least assurance: that most of those who went towards this view, went towards it based on the principle of Imtinā’ al-amr bil-ḍiddayn.[3]

To simplify the principle cited at the end: it argues that if one gives a command to do something, then it is not possible for them to give a command to do its exact opposite or contradiction under the exact same conditions. In this scenario, if Allah (swt) has commanded us to fast in the month of Ramaḍān, then it is not possible for Him (swt) to have commanded us to do a fast of other than that of Ramaḍān (in the very same month, from sunrise to sunset).

Sayyid Zanjāni disagrees not just with the principle (which he claims to be flawed in its evidence), but also with Sayyid Khoei’s assumption and his claim of having assurance in this matter (that previous jurists gave this verdict due to this principle). He says that not only is it not true that many of the past scholars accepted this verdict due to this principle, but as a matter of fact, many classical scholars did not accept this principle at all and some have even said if one made an intention of a fast other than that of Ramaḍān, the fast is not invalidated and it would still count as the fast of Ramaḍān. Ayatullah Maẓāhiri adds that scholars like Shaykh Ṭūsi in his al-Mabsūṭ[4] and ‘Allamah Ḥilli in his al-Tadhkirah[5] have argued that the niyyah of other than Ramaḍān is discounted and the fast will still count as that of Ramaḍān (just like in the case when one forgetfully or out of ignorance does the intention of a fast other than that of Ramaḍān, yet it still counts as that of Ramaḍān). Ayatullah Maẓāhiri’s verdict published in his responsum (i.e. risālah) says:

1206: If one knows that it is the month of Ramaḍān and intentionally does a fast of something other than that of Ramaḍān’s, it counts as the fast of Ramaḍān.


It appears that the reason why many of the classical scholars stated that a fast other than that of Ramaḍān is not valid is simply due to an absence of a command for it and that which has been commanded is a fast of Ramaḍān.

4) Principle of Absence of Liability (Barā’ah)

This important and foundational principle – as justified in Usūl al-Fiqh – when applied here says: I do not know if it is necessary for me to do ta’yīn of ‘unwān or not. After having exhausted my effort in figuring out a response to this, I am still in a state of doubt. So the principle of Barā’ah tells us that it is not necessary to do ta’yīn of ‘unwān, and if on the day of Judgement we learn that it was necessary and we were mistaken, we will not be liable in front of Allah (swt).

A Tradition’s Implications

In hindsight, it may be interesting to note that some have said it may be possible to argue for ensuring that a niyyah while specifying the ‘unwān (i.e. that one is doing the fast of the month of Ramaḍān) is required based on a reliable narration of Samā’ah. This narration has to do with a later discussion pertaining to Yawm al-Shakk (Day of Doubt – when one is not sure if it is 30th Sha’bān or 1st of Ramaḍān), where we see the Imam (a) implying that Allah (swt) changes the ‘unwan of Sha’bān to Ramaḍān, and Istiḥbāb to Wujūb:

وَ إِنَّمَا يَنْوِي مِنَ اللَّيْلَةِ أَنَّهُ يَصُومُ مِنْ شَعْبَانَ فَإِنْ كَانَ مِنْ شَهْرِ رَمَضَانَ أَجْزَأَ عَنْهُ بِتَفَضُّلِ اللَّه عَزَّ وَ جَلَّ وَ بِمَا قَدْ وَسَّعَ عَلَى عِبَادِهِ وَ لَوْ لَا ذَلِكَ لَهَلَكَ النَّاسُ

Excerpt from Imam Sadiq’s words: During the night one forms his intention to fast as a day of al-Sha‘bān and if it happens to be of the month of Ramaḍān, it is sufficient for it by the favour from Allah, most High, because of the ease He has granted to His servants; otherwise, they would have been destroyed.[6]

It could be argued that in this narration, the Imam’s words show that on the day of doubt, one can fast with the intention of it being a fast for the month of Sha’bān (i.e. with an ‘unwān), and that if it happens to be the month of Ramaḍān, Allah (swt) through His grace and favour will consider it an obligatory fast of Ramaḍān. In other words, though the person did a ta’yīn of ‘unwān (the ‘unwan being fast of Sha’bān), Allah (swt) alters that ‘unwān to that of Ramaḍān. Some have thus argued that this description presumes that a person has to do ta’yīn of ‘unwān to begin with, and the Imam has very explicitly referred to it in the narration, otherwise Allah (swt) altering the ‘unwān would not have had any meaning.

Ayatullah Maẓāhiri addresses this narration, and it is also worthwhile looking at this approach to the whole discussion of intention. The view he puts forth in his lessons – unlike the famous opinion – is that ta’yīn of ‘unwān is necessary, but his explanation of it is somewhat different. His argument (and subsequent explanation of the aforementioned narration) relies on the fact that intentions are something that remain intact with every person (consciously and subconsciously). He says, there are 4 scenarios one can think of:

  • A person has indeterminate knowledge (‘ilm ijmāli) and implanted/subconscious knowledge (‘ilm irtikāzi). In other words, they are attentive that in the month of Ramaḍān they must fast, and just like the rest of the Muslims make preparations for it, they wake up before Fajr, open up their fast after sunset and so on. This person neither says anything on their tongue, nor makes it explicit in their mind that they are performing the fast of the month of Ramaḍān, but if they were to be asked during the course of the day what they are doing, they will tell you that they are fasting because it is the month of Ramaḍān
  • A person verbally pronounces their intention and says they are performing the fast for the month of Ramaḍān
  • A person makes it explicit in their mind that they are performing the fast for the month of Ramaḍān
  • A person does none of the above (i.e. does not do ta’yīn of ‘unwān, whether verbally, in their mind, or even have ‘ilm ijmāli and irtikāzi towards it). In other words, ta’yīn of ‘unwān is not required, and an intention of mere “fasting” is enough

Ayatullah Maẓāhiri says, the 4th scenario (which is also the popular and contemporary view) is impossible. He argues, how is it possible that one neither has ‘ilm ijmali & irtikāzi, nor make it explicit in their mind or on their tongue, that they are performing the fast of the month of Ramaḍān (i.e. not do ta’yīn of ‘unwān). The fourth scenario presumes that even though ta’yīn of ‘unwān does not happen, in the month of Ramaḍān the fast will still be that of Ramaḍān’s. In other words, the ‘unwān of Ramaḍān will still come into existence in external reality (which is referred to as the mu’anwan, as explained in the first post of this series) without having done an intention of the ‘unwān of Ramaḍān.

Ayatullah Maẓāhiri argues that it is impossible for one to not have the intention of Sawm with the ‘unwān of Ramaḍān, yet the mu’anwan (Sawm of Ramaḍān) happens to come into existence. This is because Sawm is a universal concept in our mind (meaning it has more than one possible instance in external reality) and on its own (Sawm qua Swam) cannot be instantiated in external reality. In other words, you will not find a ‘Sawm’ in external reality, rather you will find particular instances of it. Instances of Sawm can be of different types (for example, Sawm of Ramaḍān, Sawm of a vow, Sawm of 13th of Sha’bān etc.) and so for Sawm to be instantiated, it must be extended to something particular. In our case, since the particular we are bringing into existence is indeed the fast of the month of Ramaḍān (which is the mu’anwan), it presumes that the ‘unwān has already been done ta’yīn of. To put it simply: the mu’anwan (fast of the month of Ramaḍān) cannot be brought into existence by a person without having done ta’yīn of the ‘unwān (which is also the fast of the month of Ramaḍān).

In essence, what Ayatullah Maẓāhiri is arguing for is the first scenario mentioned above. He believes that intentions remain with a person albeit indeterminate at any given time. Intentions accompanied by ta’yīn of ‘unwān (or even multiple ‘unwāns such as Wujūb, Istiḥbāb, what month, what occasion etc.) is a natural process within humans (in a state that they are not forgetful or ignorant – in which case they will still be doing ta’yīn of ‘unwān, but for something else). If a person fasts during the month of Ramaḍān and during the course of the day you ask them what they are doing, they will say they are fasting. If you ask them what they are fasting for, they will consciously tell you that they are performing the fast of Ramaḍān.

Through this understanding, his explanation of the narration is very straight-forward. When the Imam refers to a person having made an intention of the month of Sha’ban, Ayatullah Maẓāhiri argues, the Imam is referring to the very natural process that occurs when a person carries out all their actions. A person will do ta’yīn of an ‘unwān in order to bring a mu’anwan into existence. This argument of Ayatullah Maẓāhiri will have certain implications in the discussion of Yawm al-Shakk as will be seen later.


[1] al-Mabsut fi Fiqh al-Imamiyyah, Vol. 1, Pg. 276

[2] Mawsu’ah al-Imam al-Khoei, Vol. 21, Pg. 18

[3] Ibid, Pg. 19

[4] Al-Mabsūṭ, Vol. 1, Pg. 276

[5] Al-Tadhkirah al-Fuqahā’, Vol. 6, Pg. 10

[6] Usul al-Kafi, Volume 4, Pg. 82, H # 6280

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