Niyyah is the Arabic word for intention, and it is derived from the letters nūn, wāw and yā. From the same root we find the word nawāh, meaning, amongst many other things, date pit, fruit kernel and core. From this we understand that the intention belongs to the innermost core of the human being and that intentions are more important than actions . Most of us have been in situations where we wanted to act in a certain way, but acted contrary to our desires because of external pressure. Maybe you behaved badly against another student, even if you didn’t really want to, just because you where afraid of the other students. Or maybe you did good to someone in front of others when in reality you wanted to hurt him. This means that good and bad doesn’t always manifest in our actions. Our actions don’t always display our inner core, our intentions. But even if we are able to keep a discrepancy between our actions and our intentions for a short while, our inner nature will eventually manifest and become clear. In a hadith the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
By Allah, other than Whom there is no god, verily one of you [seemingly] behaves like the people of Paradise until there is but an arm’s length between him and it, and that which has been written over takes him and so he behaves like the people of Hell-fire and thus he enters it; and one of you [seemingly] behaves like the people of Hell-fire until there is but an arm’s length between him and it, and that which has been written over takes him and so he behaves like the people of Paradise and thus he enters it. (Bukhari & Muslim)
The word niyyah is also related to the word nawa meaning remoteness and distance. One way of understanding the relation between these two words is that intentions reach remote distances. Our body is limited in time and space, but our intentions aren’t. We can intend to do things that we can’t possibly do because of our limitations as human beings, but we might get rewarded or punished according to our intentions. A man might want to be unfaithful to his wife, and he might even go to a bar hoping that he will meet a woman. When he goes to the bar however, nobody wants to fornicate with him because he’s not attractive. In the outer world he wasn’t unfaithful, but in the inner world he is considered to be a fornicator. This meaning has been explained in the following hadith:
If two Muslims meet with their swords [in combat], the killer and the killed are in the fire’. I said: ‘O Prophet of Allah! This [is] the killer, how about the one killed? He said: ‘He was intent upon killing his companion. (Bukhari)
The mere intention to kill makes you a murderer, because intentions travel far distances to destinations unvisited by the body. The good thing is that the same can be said about intentions to do good things. If you intend to give money to the poor if you only had money, you will be rewarded, even if you don’t get any money and thus can’t give anything.