Answered by Shaykh Hamza Karamali, SunniPath Academy Teacher
In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
1. Gathering One's Thoughts
The scholars mention that it is sunna to verbally utter the intention because this helps create the intention in the heart. If you have trouble bringing the intention to your mind because your thoughts are scattered, then before washing your face in wudu, for example, you should say aloud, "I intend the obligation of wudu." Sometimes, it may help to say it aloud multiple times until you are focused. The same applies to the prayer: before your opening Allahu Akbar you should say aloud, for example, "I intend to pray the fard of zuhr." If saying it once doesn't quite clear your thoughts, say it a couple of times until the intention settles in your mind.
2. Intention and the Opening Allahu Akbar
The position of the early Shafi'i scholars is that one's intention for prayer must exist throughout the duration of the opening Allahu Akbar. This is what you have mentioned in your question. Imam Ghazali (Allah be pleased with him), however, differed and said that the intention only needs to exist for a moment while one is uttering the opening Allahu Akbar. According to Imam Ghazali (Allah be pleased with him), then, one only needs to bring to mind the intention to pray the obligation of zuhr (for example) for a moment while one is uttering the opening Allahu Akbar. All the later Shafi'i scholars have given fatwa according to it because of the difficulty entailed by the first position. Some even said that if Imam Shafi'i himself was alive, he would have given fatwa according to it (Fath al-Allam, 2.188 (Dar Ibn Hazm)). Following this position will, in-sha'Allah ease things for you.
3. Washing Limbs in Wudu
It is not necessary to have complete certainty that one has washed every speck of skin on one's face, arms, and feet during wudu. As long as one deems it most likely that one has washed the limb completely, one has fulfilled one's obligation (Fath al-Mu'in ma'a I'anat al-Talibin, 1.73 (Dar Ihya al-Turath al-'Arabi)). If you know that you have washed your arm, but doubt whether or not you have washed every speck, you should ignore your doubt, complete your wudu, and rest easy, because you have performed a valid wudu.
4. Doubts during Acts of Worship
The way to minimize the number of doubts that assail one during one's acts of worship (such as the prayer) is to find out about the inner fiqh of such acts of worship. For example, the inner fiqh of the prayer entails that one focus on who one is speaking to and perform the prayer with submissive humility (khushu'). The point of the worship that we perform is to express our slavehood to Allah; this remains unfufilled by someone who performs his actions mechanically and heedlessly. A by-product of performing one's actions in such a manner is being plagued by baseless misgivings.
5. The Cure for Baseless Misgivings (waswasa)
If one is afflicted by baseless misgivings, one should take the following two steps to cure oneself:
(1) Learn one's fiqh properly by sitting with or asking someone who has studied with living heirs of the tradition. More often than not, things are not as hard as they seem.
(2) Keep the company of the righteous, especially those who are given to making abundant dhikr. Such people have a light that drives away the devil, and keeping their company can help relieve one's misgivings.
And Allah knows best.
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