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April 16, 2014

Istikharah – an Instrument of Divine Guidance

Should I… or shouldn’t I? How many times have we asked ourselves this question, or put it to someone of sound judgment, when we set out to do something we were unsure of?

If a person cannot make up his or her mind about a certain course of action, it is not necessarily a sign of a confused mind, because some decisions are indeed rather difficult to make. In the final analysis, the basic reason for it is undoubtedly the limited vision of human beings. Hesitation in doing something, or uncertainty about leaving something undone, exists because we wonder what the outcome of our action or non-action might be, without being able to arrive at any definite conclusion. The exception to this is the spontaneous gratification of certain desires and appetites, the attraction of which is so strong that we do not allow ourselves to consider their consequences.

The good news is that Allah’s Compassion embraces all aspects of existence.

In generally, there is a veil between the action and its echo, which will eventually come back. In other words, the question, whether the boomerang about to be thrown will come back and knock out the thrower himself, remains open. There are people of insight, who have some knowledge about the laws that govern the unfolding of events in creation, and they usually have fewer problems in doing the right thing, but even their wisdom is limited, as Allah states in the famous ayat ul kursi:

Surah 2:255 – Al Baqarah

‘… and they do not encompass aught of His Knowledge, except for what He wills.’

It is indeed only Allah’s infinite Knowledge and Omnipotence that embraces the entire realm of cause and effect, i.e. all of man’s (and all other creatures’) potential and concrete actions along with all possible consequences of each of these. At the same time, Allah’s Knowledge and Omnipotence encompass the entire scope of time, i.e. as far back, as the Universe exists, and as far ahead as it will remain. This is a concept of such immensity that the human intellect cannot possibly grasp it, and it is corroborated by Allah’s own Words, which could be translated as follows:

Surah 36:12 – Ya Sin

…and WE write, what they sent ahead of them and their traces,
and all things have WE preserved in a clear master ledger.

..to know something, and to be aware of it, may be as distant from each other as sleeping and being awake.

In the face of this reality, even the most circumspect human consideration does not guarantee a safeguard against what humans dread most, i.e. harm or loss in terms of economic, material, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. This fear is perhaps the equalizing burden, man has to bear, for the faculty of reason, by which he makes conscious choices and decisions, and which distinguishes him amongst most of his fellow creatures. In contrast, animals do not consciously decide, but act on instincts and impulses. Unlike humans, they do not fear consequences, but only experience fear, when they are in actual danger.

The good news is that Allah’s Compassion embraces all aspects of existence. By this Compassion, fate is rendered benign and fear of harm and loss is appeased. The main ‘delivery system’ of Allah’s Benevolence, particularly within the realm of human existence, and especially for Muslims, is the practice (sunnah) of the Noble Prophet Muhammad (‘alayhi salam) whom Allah has designated as ‘a mercy for all spheres of existence’ (rahmatu_llil ‘alamin) and as a ‘role model par excellence’ (uswatun hasanatun).

Some of the prophets and favored servants of Allah live on such intimate terms in the divine presence that they partake to a great deal in the knowledge of consequences evolving from human actions. They, however, do not make any of it public, unless ordered to do so by Allah. A very detailed account of this is given in the Qur’an in the story of the prophet Moses and Khidr (‘alayhima salam). (Surah 18:60 ff. – Al Kahf)

In his legacy, our Noble Prophet (‘alayhi salam) has left us a superb instrument; a means by which to seek Allah’s approval of and intervention in our dealings, so that good will come from them, and harm and loss will be averted. This instrument is a prayer known as ‘istikharah’, which literally means ‘asking for good’, and which the Noble Prophet (‘alayhi salam) recommended every Muslim man and woman to do for every affair they intended to embark upon. A hadith mentions that he would teach his companions the method of conducting istikharah, “as he would teach them the surahs of the Qur’an”, which is a fairly strong indication of the importance he attached to this practice.

Allah is in absolute control of everything and only He is able to cause benefit and avert harm.

As for every transaction or practice in the din, certain requirements and proper etiquette must be observed for istikharah. The first and foremost condition is humility – the humility to let Allah decide whether the plans we have made are good for us or not, and to ask Him for protection from what might be bad in the intended affair. Through this process we make ourselves aware of, and admit our own utter incapability and helplessness. We acknowledge unconditionally that Allah is in absolute control of everything and only He is able to cause benefit and avert harm. This may be common knowledge and basic Islamic doctrine, but to know something, and to be aware of it, may be as distant from each other as sleeping and being awake.

The outward condition required for Istikharah is to be in a state of ritual purity, perform two rakat nafl (a supererogatory prayer ritual of two cycles), and to recite a particular supplication, the basic meaning of which is:

O Allah, I ask You to decree what is good for me according to Your knowledge, and by Your Omnipotence, and I beg to let me partake in Your tremendous blessings, for You are capable and I am not, and You know and I do not, and You have full knowledge of the unseen.

O Allah, if You know that this affair of mine, which is such and such, is beneficial for me in my din and my worldly concerns and my Hereafter, and in its immediate and long term effects, then ordain it for me and make it easy for me, and then bless me in it.

And if You know that this affair of mine is detrimental for me, then avert it from me, and turn me away from it, and ordain for me whatever is good for me, and make me content with it (for the exact wording see endnote).

Unfortunately, there is widespread misunderstanding about this precious divine gift. A lot of people consider istikharah some kind of oracle that can make their decisions for them, which it certainly is not!

If we give proper thought to the above mentioned hadith and to the contents of the respective du’a (supplication), it will become apparent that the principle of the istikharah is to make our own decision, in accordance with our conscience, knowledge, reason and understanding. Based on this decision, we form an intention for a certain course of action, which we then submit for divine approval, asking God for His blessings in it. We do all this in the trust that He will not allow it to realize, if it would eventually be harmful for us.

Ever since I became a Muslim, I have been approached again and again by people close to me, to “take out an istikharah for them” about some affair of theirs. For some reason, they fancied that I was better qualified than they to do istikharah, or to get an intelligible response to it. Although I did oblige some of them in my early days as a Muslim (a childhood vanity, as it appears now), upon deeper reflection on the institution of istikharah, I realized how wrong it is to have someone else do istikhara on one’s own behalf. Moreover, I also realized how fallacious, misconceived and inappropriate all the reasons are that people bring forward for not doing it themselves.

In the first place, it is a diversion from the prophetic tradition that we owe the istikharah to, directs the seeker of its benefits to perform it by themselves, and thus, asking someone else to act as a surrogate, is an ‘innovation’ (bid’a) in the true sense, which has been condemned in the strongest terms. Secondly, with regard to the particular du’a of the istikharah, it appears totally perverted that someone should delegate another person with such an intimate affair between them and their Maker, Who is closer to them than their jugular vein!

There is, of course, no harm in asking a Muslim brother or sister to pray for us – even to pray that Allah guide us in a particular affair and protect us from harm and loss. By asking someone to do istikharah on our behalf, however, we are not only violating the proper spiritual courtesy, but on top of it, enticing somebody else to overstep their limits.

Furthermore, the response that a third person may receive, in terms of guidance, particularly if it is in the form of dreams, will always contain elements of that person’s own mental substance. In other words, it will be mixed up with the psychological environment, moral parameters, memory of past experiences, knowledge and information of the other person, which have nothing to do with the person, for whom the istikharah was performed, and which may be very difficult to sift out.

As regards people’s reasons for not doing the istikharah themselves, they are for the most part suggestions of the Devil, the archenemy of man, who wants them to fall on their noses instead of being blessed and protected. “I never get an answer…”, “I am too much emotionally involved to get a clear, objective indication…”, “I am not a very religious person…” etc., etc.

Subhana_llah!

Do you think that your petty hang-ups and deficiencies, or your pretentious expectations can prevent Allah – Who has brought the entire Universe into existence by just ordering it to be – from benefiting you if He wishes so? Moreover, do you think that anything can prevent Him from backing the recommendations of His beloved Messenger (‘alayhi salam) which can be considered as good as His Own guidance!

..although human behavior cannot frustrate Allah’s kindness from being dispensed, it might render us incapable of receiving it..

As regards the response to istikharah, there does not necessarily have to be one (!), particularly, if it is positive. If you do not perceive any indication to the contrary, you should go ahead with what you intended to do. If your intended undertaking realizes, then that is in fact the actual response to your istikharah, a positive one in this case, and if your intended affair does not come about, it is negative, but you have to accept it for what it is: Allah’s response to your prayer, and you need to take it seriously. It is likely that in the course of time you will become aware of the blessings of the actual outcome, whether your intention realized, or not, but even if they are kept hidden from you, you can be at ease and need not entertain feelings of remorse and guilt, because you entrusted your affair to Allah and the responsibility for the outcome is His.

Among the people who have developed the heart’s sensitivity towards inspiration, there is a well founded belief that the first inspiration one has about something is always from the angels. The doubts, which usually follow and put the initial inspiration into question, are from the Devil. Thus, some wise people have said that the first feeling one has upon waking up in the morning after having performed istikharah the night before, is the best answer, even better than a dream. Hence the argument “I never get an answer…” is altogether irrelevant.

If someone says: “I never pray, how can I expect it to work for me?” I would say it is a good occasion to make a start. You cannot lose anything by doing it; on the contrary, you might perchance have just the experience you need to rediscover meaning in prayer.

There are certain things, however, one must be very careful to avoid, because they not only constitute a breach of spiritual courtesy, but are very likely to frustrate the whole undertaking. Having misgivings or entertaining any kind of disdainful or negative thoughts about this institution beforehand; speculating about its outcome; deliberately disregarding any indication because it was not to one’s liking; or repeating it, after having received some clear indication, because one was hoping for a different outcome, are all opposed to the very meaning and purpose of istikharah. As already stated above, although human behavior cannot frustrate Allah’s kindness from being dispensed, it might render us incapable of receiving it, and that means the Devil was successful!

To conclude, I would like to add a small dose of reality: The choices and decisions that are presented to us in the course of our life are opportunities, given to us to progress towards the fulfillment of the purpose of our existence. Irrespective of the choices and decisions we make, we will reach our destiny, which is known to Allah, and which He has virtually given us the power to shape. There are unlimited options and infinite potential courses, our life may take, but each of them will eventually be part of the completion of Allah’s Affair. The istikharah however, is our act, and it is an act that invokes divine blessings upon us in our, virtually to be decided, but actually (in the knowledge of Allah) already accomplished – or abolished – undertaking; it evokes Allah’s protection, which wards off from us any harm that any of its potential outcomes could possibly inflict on us. Thus it is the performance of the istikharah that counts, not ‘our’ decision!


ENDNOTES

In Sahih al Bukhari, the following hadith is reported:
Jabir Ibn ‘Abdullah related: “The Noble Prophet – may peace be upon him – used to teach us the way of doing istikharah in all matters, as he taught any surah of the Qur’an. He said: ’If anyone of you thinks of embarking on any affair he should offer two rak’at other than the fard prayer and say after the prayer:

اَللّٰهُمَّ إِنِّي أَسْتَخِيرُكَ بِعِلْمِكَ وَأَسْتَقْدِرُكَ بِقُدْرَتِكَ وَأَسْأَلُكَ مِنْ فَضْلِكَ العَظِيمِ ط
allahumma inni astakhiruka bi‘ilmika wa astaqdiruka biqudratika wa as`aluka min fadlika_l’azhim
فَإِنَّكَ تَقْدِرُ وَلاَ أَقْدِرُ وَتَعْلَمُ وَلاَ أَعْلَمُ وَأَنْتَ أَعْلاَّمُ الغُيُوبِ ط
fa`innaka taqdiru wa la aqdiru wa ta‘lamu wa la a‘lamu wa anta a‘llamu_lghuyub
اَللّٰهُمَّ إِنْ كُنْتَ تَعْلَمُ أَنَّ هٰذَا الأَمْرَ [وَهُوَ…]
allahumma in kunta ta‘lamu anna hadha_l`amra [wa hua… (the particular affair should be mentioned here)]
خَيْرٌ لِّي فِي دِينِي وَمَعَاشِي وَعَاقِبَةِ أَمْري (أَوْ… عَاجِلِ أَمْري وَآجِلِهِ)
khayru_lli fi dini wa ma‘ashi wa ‘aqibati amri [(or) …‘ajili amri wa ajilihi]
فَاقْدِرْهُ وَيَسِّرْهُ لِي ثُمَّ بَارِكْ لِي فِيهِ ج وَإِنْ كُنْتَ تَعْلَمُ أَنَّ هٰذَا الأَمْرَ[وَهُوَ…]
faqdirhu wa yassirhu li thumma barik li fih wa in kunta ta‘lamu anna hadha_l`amra [wa hua… (the particular affair should be mentioned here*)]
شَرٌّ لِّي فِي دِينِي وَمَعَاشِي وَعَاقِبَةِ أَمْري (أَوْ… عَاجِلِ أَمْري وَآجِلِهِ) وَاصْرِفْنِيْ عَهُ
sharru_lli fi dini wa ma‘ashi wa ‘aqibati amri [(or)…‘ajili amri wa ajilihi] wa_srifni ‘anhu
فَاصْرِفْهُ عَنِّي وَاقْدِرْ لِي الخَيرَ حَيثُ كَانَ ج ثُمَّ أَرْضِنِيْ بِهِ !
fasrifhu ‘anni wa_qdir li_lkhayra haythu kana thumma ardini bih

*The Prophet – salla_llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam – added that the person should mention his affair.

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