Health & Fitness Personal Development

Niyyah and the Power of Intentional Living

by Samaiya Mushtaq

I always found myself drawn to people who had an element of certainty to them. It wasn’t the kind of insufferable single-mindedness of powerful people, nor was it the brazen overconfidence of youth. It wasn’t that they necessarily knew more than others, nor did they claim to. They didn’t always get things right, and that wasn’t their end game anyway. I’m not sure what the word was at the time to describe this it-factor. What I knew was that they had reasons – clearly defined, purposeful reasons for why they were doing what they were doing or saying what they were saying or behaving how they were behaving. And not in a carefully-curated, image-conscious way, because they were genuine people. It simply was never willy-nilly with them; they didn’t use the phrase “oh, just because.” Looking back, they were probably best described as

Sunday school taught me the various du`a’s (supplications) for niyyah (intention). I learned to make intentions before a prayer, before a fast. I was reminded to renew my intentions often, particularly when doing community work. But it wasn’t until later that I could understand the concept broadened to a lifestyle. The first of Imam Nawawi’s 40 hadith, “Actions are according to intention,” is a succinct illustration of the power of intention and the link between our hearts and our deeds. It implies a necessary connection of one’s internal and external states. In a goal-focused, action-oriented culture, it is the internal state that is so easily neglected, and it is cultivated in large part by this quality of being intentional.

Living intentionally is different from setting goals. Goals are yet another outward measure, an accomplishment set in the future, whereas being intentional is an inward existence, and one focused on the present. If goals are the mile markers on our life’s path, intention is our day-to-day walk along it – the pace we’re going at and the route we traverse upon. Without goals, we are caught in a drift, with little direction until we find ourselves asking, perhaps years later, “What am I doing here?” But without intention, we might find ourselves in an arguably worse situation: “What was the purpose of all this?” Intention gives meaning to our movement.
The value of intentional living is hardly taught and often lost, but establishing it results in a much more enriching existence. What I saw in individuals who practiced this skill was how purposeful they were and how much more of life they experienced. And it is a skill, which means it can be learned. Here’s what I have found to be a few ways to develop it:

Change the question

On a more macro level, start shifting the question from asking yourself, “What do I want to get done today/next week/this year?” to, “How do I want to be today/next week/this year?” On a micro level, ask yourself why you are doing the things you’re doing as they occur. Why am I participating in this activity? Why am I posting this status on Facebook? Why am I sharing this thing told to me in confidence, or why am I not sharing more of myself in this relationship?

Be mindful of the moment

Being intentional, by definition, requires us to be engaged with ourselves in the present. For those not introspective to begin with, start with mindful ‘extrospection’ – noticing things around you that you otherwise miss as you move about your day. Being present with your environment can help you better connect with yourself.

Examine your past

Whether it’s at the end of the day, the end of the year, or looking back all the way to your childhood, reflecting upon your past actions for their intentions gives you a better framework from which to either continue those or make changes. Your own history is the best determinant of your future.

Make niyyah

Just do it. And then keep doing it, before every action, big or small.

Samaiya Mushtaq is a resident physician training in psychiatry.  She is particularly interested in the intersection of mental health, wellness, and spirituality in Muslim populations.

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  • assalamu alaykum,
    i actually love reading these articles on, thank you for sharing your thoughts brother/sister.
    Concerning intention, sometimes i feel stuck between two options. When, for example, i’m talking to someone about religion, i say to myself “do i talk about religion for the sake of Allah, or do i do it just to attract interlocutor’s intention so that he/she thinks i’m religious?”.
    I often think that all my actions are pure ostentation, i don’t know why. When people ask me to recite quran, i beautify my recitatio. When people ask me how much quran i learnt, i answer but i feel as if i’m bragging.

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