When we consciously engage in any activity, even the most trivial daily task, we have an intention which brings us to do it. For an activity to truly be devoid of an intention, it has to be something carried out unconsciously or wholly by accident. Whenever we do something deliberately, we have an intention for doing it. However, we are often heedless of that intention.
This means that all deliberate actions are addressed by Prophet Muhammad’s famous words: “Actions are according to their intentions, and a person will be recompensed only according to what he intended.” [Sahih al-Bukhari (1) and Sahih Muslim (1)]
This does not apply only to formal acts of worship. It applies also to the good deeds we do for others, the help and money we provide, and the nice things that we say to people. Our kindnesses are worthy of Allah’s reward if we carry them out with an open heart. However, their reward is magnified if the intention behind our acts of kindness is to please our Lord.
Allah says: “There is no good in most of their secret counsels except for one who enjoins charity or kindness or reconciliation between people; and whoever does this seeking Allah's pleasure, We will give him a mighty reward.” [Surah al-Nisa’: 114]
The first half of this verse makes it clear that to “enjoin charity or kindness or reconciliation between people” is something “good” and presumably rewarded. However, for a person to earn “a mighty reward”, that same good act should be carried out with the express intention of “seeking Allah's pleasure.”
Our intentions also affect how our deeds will be blessed in their outcomes in this world. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Whoever borrows people’s money with the intention of paying it back, Allah will pay it back for him, and whoever does so with the intention of wasting it, Allah will cause it to be wasted.” [Sahih al-Bukhari]
We can see here how having a sincere intention to pay back the loan is a reason for attaining Allah’s provision in this world, so it will be easier to pay off the loan. By contrast, we can see how having a bad intention can lead to the borrower facing added financial hardship in life.
Up to now, we have been discussing everyday deeds which entail being kind or doing right by other people. However, our discussion regarding intentions also applies to the most commonplace permissible acts that concern nobody by the one who engages in them.
For instance, we must earn a living. As long as we fear Allah and do so in a lawful manner, we will be blessed. However, if we make our intention for earning a living and engaging in other worldly business that we do so in order to better fulfil our duty to Allah, then that intention turns those everyday acts devotional ones. In other words, our working, eating and drinking, and even our rest and sleep, are transformed by our intention into acts of worship.
In this way, all of our deeds will be doubly blessed by Allah, both in their worldly returns and in their effects on us in the Hereafter. If we forget this noble intention when we do these everyday lawful acts, those acts will still be lawful -- even blessed -- but we will miss out on so much more that those same deeds could bring us.