Assalamualaikum ustaz. When is the time to set the intention for ablution, is it when one is washing the face or performing its sunnah? Hope for an answer.
Waalaikumussalam wrt. wbt.,
Alhamdulillah, praise and gratitude to Allah SWT for His countless blessings for us all. Praise and salutations to our beloved Prophet Muhammad PBUH, his family, companions, and all those who follow his footsteps until the Final day.
We start with the statement of Allah SWT:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِذَا قُمْتُمْ إِلَى الصَّلَاةِ فَاغْسِلُوا وُجُوهَكُمْ وَأَيْدِيَكُمْ إِلَى الْمَرَافِقِ وَامْسَحُوا بِرُءُوسِكُمْ وَأَرْجُلَكُمْ إِلَى الْكَعْبَيْنِ
“O you who have believed, when you rise to [perform] prayer, wash your faces and your forearms to the elbows and wipe over your heads and wash your feet to the ankles.” 
Al-Maraghi stated that the meaning of the above verse is that if a person gets up to pray – but is still in hadas. The reason is all Muslims state that purification (ablution or obligatory bath) isn’t obligatory for those who wanted to pray except if he is in hadas (impure state). 
Habib Hasan bin Ahmad al-Kaff stated there are six requisites of ablution. Four of them according to the verses of the Quran are washing the face, both hands, wiping a part of the head and washing both the feet. While two of the remaining requisites based on the sunnah are intention and for the requisites to be performed in order. 
Definition of intention
Intention lexically means directing oneself towards an action.  Whilst according to Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka, the intention is the meaning or purpose of an action. 
Whereas, as for the terminology, there are several definitions given. Among them are:
- Al-Nawawi stated that intention is a determination (resolution) in one’s heart on every obligation or others. 
- While Ibn ‘Abidin said an intention is the purpose of obedience and getting closer to Allah SWT with one’s deeds. 
According to the above definition, we conclude that an intention is a thought that crosses one’s heart when there is determination and resolution to do something. In other words, the true meaning of an intention is for it to be followed by the action. Thus, if one wants to do something but it isn’t followed by the act itself, then it isn’t considered as an intention. Thus, it is in line with the statement of scholars regarding intention:
قَصْدُ الشَّيْءِ مُقْتَرِنًا بِفِعْلِهِ
“Desire and resolve to do something are accompanied by the action.” 
The intention is the condition for all worship. Thus, worship is invalid, including ablution except if it is with the intention. This is stated by al-Nawawi, the intention is the valid condition for ablution, bath and tayammum without any khilaf among the scholars of madhhab Syafi’i. It is also the opinion of Malik, al-Laith bin Sa‘d, Ahmad bin Hanbal and Daud. They presented the statement of Allah SWT:
وَمَا أُمِرُوا إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ مُخْلِصِينَ لَهُ الدِّينَ
“And they were not commanded except to worship Allah, [being] sincere to Him in religion,” 
The above verse shows that sincerity in worship is the act of the heart and it is the intention. Likewise, it is also a commandment that shows its obligation. While the evidence from al-Sunnah is based on the narration of Umar bin al-Khattab, where Rasullullah PBUH said:
إِنَّمَا الأَعْمَالُ بِالنِّـيَّاتِ، وَإِنَّمَا لِكُلِّ امْرِئٍ مَا نَـوَى
“Actions are to be judged only by intentions and a man will have only what he intended.” 
Thus, whoever didn’t set the intention for ablution, his ablution wouldn’t be considered valid. 
The time to set the intention for ablution
Regarding this matter, according to the author of the book al-Fiqh al-Manhaji, the time to set the intention is when one starts to wash the face, for it is the beginning of ablution.  The same is stated by Habib Hasan al-Kaff, who said that the time to set the intention for ablution is when one is beginning to wash his face, for it is considered the obligatory washing. 
However, al-Nawawi state that the priority is for a person to set the intention for ablution from the very beginning, and the intention continues to be present until the end of the ablution. This matter is agreed by scholars and it is sunnah and the beginning of ablution is by reciting basmalah. Al-Qadhi Abu al-Tayyib and al-Mutawalli said that it is sunnah to always has the intention – throughout the ablution – as it is sunnah in prayer to always have the intention from the beginning of prayer until the salam.
Furthermore, al-Nawawi said that if a person set the intention at the beginning of the washing of the face and doesn’t set the intention before or after it, then his ablution is considered as valid without any khilaf. However, if he washes some parts of his face without the intention, then the first washing of a part of the face – which is done without the intention – is considered invalid without khilaf because there is a part of the obligatory body part washed without intention. Thus, he has to repeat the first washing of the face before resuming to the other obligatory body part to be washed which is the hands.
Then, another question arises, if the ablution of a person is considered valid with the intention starts when he washes his face, then are the other sunnah washing before the face – which is performed without the intention – such as reciting basmalah, brushing teeth, washing hands up to the wrists, gargling, and passing water into the nose considered as rewarded as sunnah for ablution? In this matter, there are two opinions among the scholars of madhhab Syafi’i. Among the decided opinion by jumhur is that the sunnah actions for ablution – that were performed without the intention – aren’t rewarded, nor were they considered as a part of ablution performed because they are performed without intention. Hence, they are considered invalid just like other worships. The scholars who hold this opinion are al-Qadhi Husain, Imam al-Haramain, al-Ghazali, al-Mutawalli and al-Baghawi.
Moreover, Ibn Qudamah said that it is obligatory for the intention to precede the acts of ablution, for it is one of the conditions. If any of the obligatory actions of ablution is performed before the intention, then it will not be considered. Likewise, it is sunnah to set the intention before washing the hands up to the wrists, so that the intention covers all the sunnah and obligatory actions of ablution. If a person washes his hands up to the wrists before his intention, it is as though he hasn’t washed his hands. Concurrently, it is also permissible to set the intention a little bit earlier on the condition that it isn’t too long before the actual ablution. However, if it is too long, then it is impermissible.
According to the above discussion and arguments, in our opinion, the obligatory time for the intention for ablution is when one starts to wash his face, for it is the beginning of the obligatory washing. However, it is sunnah to set the intention earlier, which is at the beginning of sunnah actions, so that the intention covers from the beginning of the ablution – which includes the sunnah actions – and continues to let the intention continue until the ablution is completed.
May Allah SWT grant us all a clear understanding in religion. Amin.
 Surah al-Ma’idah: 6
 See Tafsir al-Maraghi, 6/61
 See al-Taqrirat al-Sadidah, pg. 82
 See al-Mu‘jam al-Wasit, pg. 1021.
 See Kemus Dewan Edisi Keempat, pg. 1080.
 See al-Majmu‘ Syarh al-Muhazzab, 1/310.
 See Rad al-Mukhtar, 1/105.
 See al-Taqrirat al-Sadidah, pg. 82.
 Surah al-Bayyinah: 5
 Narrated by al-Bukhari (1)
 See Majmu‘ Syarh al-Muhazzab, 1/356; al-Mughni, 1/156.
 See al-Fiqh al-Manhaji, 1/54.
 See al-Taqrirat al-Sadidah, pg. 83.
 See Majmu‘ Syarh al-Muhazzab, 1/318-319.
 See al-Mughni, 1/159.