According to a frequently quoted hadith, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is reported to have said: “actions depend on intentions.” The subsequent wording of this hadith clarifies that what is being asserted is that the rewards for righteous actions are in direct proportion to the motivating intention behind them. In the final analysis, the spirit that causes a person to take a given action always trumps over its outward form. A selfish intention can ruin the most beautiful of gestures, while a pure intention can increase many folds the worth of a humble act.
This raises important questions about human nature. To give intention such a decisive weight is to require an extraordinary degree of self-observation and inner awareness. Mindless actions, those performed out of habit or out of the need to fulfill others’ expectations, fall short in terms of their motivating spirit even if their outward form reaches perfection. Are human beings even capable of such inner vigilance?
Intention also implies the consciousness of having multiple options as well as the ability to make free choices. Freedom is the measure of our responsibility. The more freedom we have the more will be our responsibility. Consequently, if we believe that intentions count, then we are assuming the reality of responsibility as well our ability to choose with some degree of freedom.
Responsibility is the ability to respond with conscious intention. When we act without conscious intention, we act without freedom. To act without freedom is to act without responsibility for the action in question. This does not necessarily mean a complete absence of responsibility, however, for we may still be held responsible for having given up our freedom in the first place. To act mindlessly is a choice, for it reflects our decision to give up our freedom in the hope of avoiding responsibility.
Yet, the principle holds. Where there is no freedom there is no responsibility. A well-known example is the knee-jerk reaction; when the tendon below the kneecap is gently tapped, muscles in the back of the thigh contract and the lower leg abruptly moves forward. Another example is the constriction of the pupil when a bright light shines on the iris. In both cases there is no freedom, no choices are consciously made, no question of intention arises, and there is an absence of responsibility. We cannot be blamed when our pupils constrict in bright light or when our lower leg moves abruptly when the patellar tendon is tapped, nor can we claim any credit for these acts. Strictly speaking, these are events rather than acts.
How free are we? This may depend entirely on how free we wish to make ourselves, which depends on how much responsibility we are willing to take upon our shoulders. A tension arises because we enjoy freedom but not responsibility, yet the two go together. To say that actions depend on intentions is to say that spirit trumps over matter; our zone of freedom is relatively limited in the world of matter but is potentially unlimited in the world of spirit. To exercise freedom in spirit is to attend to our intentions; as the zone of freedom is expanded in the realm of intention, who knows how the world of matter will respond?