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Articulating Specific Intentions for Specific Prayers

Imām Muḥammad ibn Ṣāliḥ al-ʿUthaymīn

Understanding the articulation of intention for performing prayers and its connected issues.

The Opinion of the Ḥanbalī Madh`hab

According to the Ḥanbalī madh`hab, one must hold an intention for every ṣalāh performed. That is, whoever wishes to pray should hold an intention to pray the specific ṣalāh he is about to perform. For example, if a person wishes to pray Ẓuhr, he must hold the intention for Ẓuhr ṣalāh. Likewise, if he wishes to pray Fajr, he must intend to pray ṣalāh al-Fajr. If he wishes to pray witr, he must intend to pray ṣalāh al-Witr. If he intends to pray supererogatory prayers, then it is sufficient for him to simply intend to pray without specification of any particular ṣalāh.

The composer has brought attention to the requirement of specific intentions for any specific ṣalāh like Ẓuhr for example. Thus, if a person was to intend to simply pray the obligatory prayer of the current time, or to simply pray without specification like, for example, if he enters the masjid and finds the people already praying so he joins the congregation immediately without being cognizant of whether this ṣalāh is Ẓuhr or ʿAṣr or obligatory or supererogatory, then according to the statement made by the composer, his ṣalāh is invalid as far as fulfilling the prespecified, obligatory ṣalāh. This is because he did not intend that specific ṣalāh, although his ṣalāh is correct and he is deserving of reward for praying.

The Opinion of Shaykh Ibn ʿUthaymīn (رحمه الله)

It has also been said: Intending specific prayers is not a prerequisite. Rather, it is sufficient for one to intend to pray. Specific prayers should be considered synonymous with their respective timings. For example, if a person performs wuḍūʾ for Ṣālāh al-Ẓuhr and then prays without being cognizant of whether the ṣalāh he is performing is Ẓuhr, ʿAṣr, Maghrib or ʿIshāʾ, his ṣalāh is valid. This is because if he was asked: “What did you desire from your performance of this ṣalāh?” he would reply: “I wanted to perform Ẓuhr”. Therefore, his intention could be considered applicable to the obligatory prayer of that time. People will find themselves only able to abide by this opinion. This is because many people simply perform wuḍūʾ and present themselves for prayer without being cognizant of whether they are currently praying Ẓuhr or ʿAṣr, especially if they arrive in the masjid while the imām is in rukūʿ. They are likely mindless of such specific intentions due to their endeavouring to catch the rakʿah being prayed.

Intentions For Missed Prayers Whose Identity is Unknown

In consideration of the difference of opinion in this issue, other issues may also be elucidated. This includes if a person knows he has a missed a four-rakʿah ṣalāh but does not know if it is Ẓuhr, ʿAṣr, or ʿIshāʾ. Here, he may pray four rakʿahs and simply intend by it the fulfilment of that which is obligatory upon him. Based on the opinion that the specification of particular ṣalāhs by intention is not obligatory, his ṣālāh is correct and he would have successfully fulfilled the obligatory prayer he missed. However, based on the opinion that specification of particular ṣālāhs by intention is obligatory, his ṣalāh is incorrect. This is because he has not specified which ṣalāh (Ẓuhr, ʿAṣr, or ʿIshāʾ) he is praying. So, according to this opinion, he would have to pray four rakʿahs with the intention of Ẓuhr, then another four with the intention of ʿAṣr, then another four with the intention of ʿIshāʾ.

I surmise that the correct opinion in this issue is that the specification of specific ṣalāhs by intention is not obligatory. Rather, the timing when the ṣalāh in question is performed is sufficient in specification (of intentions) for that ṣalāh. In consideration of this, it is valid for one to perform four rakʿahs with the intention of fulfilling that which is obligatory upon him, without specifying any particular ṣalāh. If he was to say: I am responsible for praying a four-rakʿak ṣalāh but I do not know whether it is Ẓuhr, ʿAṣr, or ʿIshāʾ. We would say: Pray four rakʿahs and intend by it the fulfilment of your obligation and, in doing so, you would have performed your responsibility.

Furthermore, if a person was to say: I am responsible for praying a ṣalāh but I do not know if it is Fajr, Zuhr, ʿAṣr, Maghrib or ʿIshāʾ. Based on the opinion that it is not obligatory to specify particular ṣalāhs by intention, we would say: Pray two rakʿahs, then three, then four. The four rakʿahs will fulfil Ẓuhr, ʿAṣr, and ʿIshāʾ. The three will fulfil Maghrib and the two will fulfil Fajr.

However, based on the other opinion, this person would have to pray all five prayers due to the possibility that he missed Ẓuhr, ʿAṣr, Maghrib, ʿIshāʾ, or Fajr. It would be obligatory for him to behave in this encompassing fashion by praying all five ṣalāhs such that his responsibility is fulfilled with assuredness.

[Q]: Some people say: The requirement for intentions is the cause of consternation and hardship for me.

[A]: The matter of intentions is quite simple. Abandoning intention while acting is, in actuality, more difficult. For example, a person performs wuḍūʾ and leaves his house to pray. This person would have undoubtedly harboured an intention. For it is only his intention that has spurned him coming to the masjid, standing in the line, and saying the takbīr. To the extent that some of the scholars even say: If Allāh had tasked us with acting without intentions, it would be a form of burdening us with more than we could bear. For example, if it was said to us: Pray but do not intend ṣalāh or perform wuḍūʾ but do not intend the performance of wuḍūʾ, we would not be able to fulfil such a command as there is no action that occurs except that is accompanied by an intention. For this reason, Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah (رحمه الله) said: “Intentions follow knowledge and awareness. Thus, whoever is fully aware of what he wants to do would have intended that action.” He (رحمه الله) has spoken the truth. This is also proven by his (صلى الله عليه وسلم) saying: “Actions are judged only by their intentions.”1 That is, there is no action that is performed except that it is accompanied by an intention.

[1] Authentic: narrated by al-Bukhārī: 1 and Muslim: 1907.

Source: Al-Sharḥ al-Mumtiʿ 2: 291-294
Translated by: Riyāḍ al-Kanadī

Published: February 29, 2024
Edited: March 1, 2024

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