What should a person do when they must make a decision on a perplexing and…
[ICYMI: Click here for part 2 of this article series on Istikhara, Its Philosophy, Significance and Use, for the meaning of istikhara, religious permissibility, and the importance of taking reason and logic into consideration.]
A believer is reassured by the fact that they resort to God in all the matters of their life through supplicatory istikhara, which is a regular and constant appeal for general guidance and inspiration toward everything that is beneficial and positive. Furthermore, when faced with a perplexing circumstance or decision, a believer has the option to perform a consultative istikhara, which provides them with a “do” or “do not” answer based on an indicative verse from the Holy Quran or sequential counting of prayer beads. In the third installment of the three-part series “Toward Greater Clarity in Decision Making,” we focus on the importance of knowing the rules of the consultative istikhara. This is particularly necessary given what was covered in the previous article, and keeping in mind the answer of his eminence al-Sayyid al-Sistani that: “one may resort to the [consultative method of istikhara] with the intention of raja in situations where a person is confused and cannot prefer one side [of the issue] to the other after having pondered over it and having consulted [those who know about it].”1
Terms and conditions of using istikhara
The following are a set of rules and conditions that must be considered when resorting to istikhara:
1) One must determine the religious standpoint of the matter that istikhara would address; is it an obligatory matter, unlawful, disliked, recommended, or permissible? It is not appropriate to perform istikhara on a religious duty, such as doing daily prayers, or an act that is obligatory based on rationality like going to a doctor to address a medical concern. Similarly, one cannot perform istikhara on an unlawful act (haram) such as lying, or an undesired act (makrooh) like keeping the finger nails very long, or a recommended act (mustahabb) like reciting the Holy Quran. Istikhara is only valid for confusion arising from situations concerning permissible (mubah) acts.
2) Istikhara can be used on a permissible act that is unclear in the sense that acting upon it (or not) becomes a cause for concern and fear of the resulting consequences. However, if the matter (i.e., the decision that needs to be made) is clear, there is no place for the consultative istikhara; instead, after making up their mind on how to proceed, a person can resort to the first form of istikhara (i.e., supplicatory) by performing two units of prayer, and then supplicating to God to bring about what is in their best interest. It is in such situations that the faith of a believer becomes apparent. God says, “But, when you reach a decision, trust God. God loves those who trust Him.”2
3) Istikhara can be used for a permissible matter that is of serious concern, such as very important financial transactions or travel to a country with security risks, and not for simple matters such leaving the house, eating food, or choosing between drinking water or juice.
4) Istikhara can be used for a personal matter such as marriage, the purchase of property, or travel, but not for a social matter, such as participating in elections, making an administrative decision, or volunteering to provide a social service. In such cases, there is no significance to istikhara.
5) One must think deeply and study the matter that is causing confusion from all aspects and perspectives until they reach a satisfactory decision of whether to do or not. It is narrated that the Prophet (pbuh&hp) said, “if you desire [to do] something, look further into its consequences, if it is appropriate then do it, and if it is inappropriate avoid it.”3 If it is not possible to reach a convincing decision, causing hesitation and confusion, then one should move on to the next stage, which is consultation.
6) Consult people of expert opinion, insight, and knowledge, and who have experience in the matter in question (e.g. buying a house). A person should seek guidance from them to find the right decision. Furthermore, one should seek consultation from more than one person, so that the issue becomes completely clear through the analysis of various minds making a suitable decision possible. Almighty God says, “who conduct their affairs with consultation among themselves,”4 and narrations tell us that the Prophet (pbuh&hp) said to the commander of the faithful Imam Ali (p), “Oh Ali, a person who resorts to istikhara [shall] not be bewildered, and one who consults [others] will not be regretful5 In another narration, Imam Ali (p) said, “One who consults the people of reason will be enlightened by the lights of reason,”6 and there are many others that have asserted the importance of consultation. However, in certain circumstances, if after all this consultation a person is not able to make a decision because the matter is very sensitive and possibly difficult to assess by the people they consult (i.e., their opinions vary greatly), then they will undoubtedly be left even more puzzled.
In such cases, it is advisable for a person to start by resorting to the first type of istikhara, which is to supplicate to God seeking guidance for what is best. Thereafter, they may perform the consultative istikhara through one of its methods (i.e., by the Holy Quran or prayer beads), trusting in God to direct them to act or refrain from the issue in question. Basing this istikhara on the firm belief in God’s kindness and His response to supplication, the apparent meaning of the Quranic verse or the number of beads become a means for knowing the subtle directive of God in this matter and His response. Indeed, God says, “Your Lord has said, “Pray to Me for I shall answer your prayers. Those who are too proud to worship Me will soon go to hell in disgrace.”7
Repeating a supplicatory istikhara is certainly permissible and reasonable regardless of the circumstances. However, the consultative istikhara cannot be repeated without a realistic reason, because it would defeat the purpose of resorting to this method to find an answer. Let us imagine that the first consultative istikhara suggested doing something but then indicated the person must refrain from repeating the istikhara. What stance would the person take at this point? Reason deems such an act to be pointless. Jurists do not consider repeating the istikhara to be valid unless there is a change in the circumstances of the matter in question. As such, Sayyid Sistani states that the person resorting to istikhara must “[acknowledge that] repeating [it] is not correct, unless it is for a different issue, and after giving some alms.”8 Based on authentic traditions, giving alms on its own can change the circumstances It was reported that the Prophet (pbuh&hp) once said, “The act of charity protects from tribulation, it is the most effective medicine, it averts [a specific] fate while it is in its final stage, nothing removes illnesses except for supplication and giving charity.”9 Thus, if there is a possibility of evil or harm, a person can give charity with the intention of averting tribulation, then repeat the istikhara, and act according to it. This should not be done more than once.
Acting contrary to the result of istikhara
There is no dispute among jurists that the use of istikhara is not a binding obligation such that it results in punishment if it is violated. However, it would be improper for a person who believes in God and relies on Him to seek advice and then act opposite to it. In fact, it seems ill-mannered and abhorrent when a person consults an expert on a perplexing matter but then acts contrary to the advice. How abhorrent would it be if the one being consulted is God, the “Knower of the sensible and the Unseen?”10 Thus, it would be unreasonable for a person to manipulate or tamper with istikhara (i.e., to suit their whims). Instead, a believer should act based on its results from a place of faith in God regardless of what they desire.
Istikhara on behalf of others
This could be referred to as istikhara by proxy. There are those who do istikhara on matters concerning others, such as a father who wants to get his son or daughter married. Others resort to someone who is pious and highly virtuous to do the istikhara on their behalf. Therefore, it is necessary to revisit the concept of istikhara and its conditions and then address such cases.
There is no problem in performing the supplicatory istikhara. In fact, Islam has emphasized prayers of parents for their children given that acceptance of those prayers is more guaranteed. This also applies to the prayer of a believer for his or her believing brother or sister.
However, the consultative istikhara, by which a person seeks to know whether they should do or not do something with respect to a perplexing matter, is a topic of discussion among jurists. Some jurists consider it to be problematic for the father to do istikhara for the decision of his daughter’s or son’s marriage because it is not concerning his own personal matter, but is the matter of the person who is getting married.
When a person requests another to do an istikhara on their behalf for whatever reason, the latter will act as nothing more than an agent in opening the Holy Quran or counting a grasped set of prayer beads. The basis for seeking an answer through these means is the relationship between the individual seeker and God, irrespective of who is opening the Holy Quran or counting the beads. Moreover, there are no individuals who possess a special competence in the opening of the Holy Quran or in drawing a certain number of beads for the purpose of receiving a favorable answer. The answer received is solely based on the seeker’s conviction in God and their trust in Him. Even so, the person who needs istikhara should do it themselves by resorting to God and seeking the best from Him, since there is no reason to appoint another person for this purpose. In addition, there is no indication or evidence, as alluded to by numerous jurists, scholars, and Islamic researchers, that any of the companions of the Prophet (pbuh&hp) or the infallible Imams (pbut) requested istikhara from them. Instead, the infallibles taught the people the first type of istikhara, which is istikhara of supplication, and then left it to them. On the other hand, it may be desirable to ask the meaning or significance of the Quranic verse (e.g. from a scholar who can explain its apparent and explicit meaning) when seeking a “do” or “do not” answer because some people may not be able to decipher whether it is positive or negative in its connotation to support or forbid the matter in question.
Modern means of istikhara
In recent years, a new mechanism for doing a consultative istikhara has become available. There is a website online, as well as through smart phone applications that can be downloaded to one’s own device, that offers this service. Some of these methods are based on indicating Quranic verses and their meaning that then either suggest “do” or “do not.” These are nothing more than alternative methods, just like the use of prayer beads, which is not exclusive as an alternate method of istikhara. The important part is to have a correct and sincere intention, and humbly turn to God with one’s heart and mind in seeking the best.
Etiquette of istikhara
Since istikhara is a form of supplication and beseeching to God, books of jurisprudence and ethics usually recommend observing the following forms of etiquette:
1) Purity: the person performing istikhara should be in the state of purity (e.g., wudhu).
2) Place of honor: perform istikhara in a sacred place when possible, such as the Holy Mosque in Mecca by the station of Ibrahim (p), under the Mizab or rainwater spout of the Holy Kabah, or the in Holy Mosque of the Prophet (pbuh&hp) in the rawdah or chamber between the mimbar or pulpit and the mihrab or prayer niche, for example. One may use any other holy place such as mosques, holy shrines of the infallibles, or even a local mosque established as a waqf or endowment. If none of these are available to the believer, then they should perform it in the prayer niche or place in their home that they have dedicated for prayer. It is that it is mustahabb for a believer to have a prayer niche in their house.
3) Honor of time: perform istikhara during blessed times whenever possible, such as the nights of Qadr, the night of the Mabath, the night of the fifteenth of Shaban, the night of Friday (the night that precedes Friday), the day of Friday especially before sunrise and after performing the obligatory or recommended prayer.
4) Recite the supplication of istikhara as mentioned in the books of supplications. For example, here is a well-known invocation: “O God, I seek recourse in You for the best [outcome] in my affairs, because indeed I am of those [people] who have delegated their affairs to You, and submitted themselves to You, and depended on You for regards to their matters, and surrendered to what was decided [by You]. O God, choose what is best for me and not that which is against me, and support and empower me and not what is against me, and guide me to what is best for me and do not allow me to go astray. Make me satisfied with what You have destined and make blessed [for me] what You have decreed. Indeed, You do what you want and provide [to us] what You want to give. O’ God, if the best is meant for me in [such and such a matter], then make it possible and will for me to achieve it, and clarify the means by which I can do so. However, if it is not so, then remove it from my path and replace it [with] what is better for me. Verily, only You can assure this [and I cannot], and only You know [the reality] of this and I do not, for You are the Knower of the hidden, and Most Merciful.”11 A believer may also recite any supplication used to seek guidance from God.
5) Repent to God for every sin.
After covering the concept of istikhara, both here and in the previous article in this series, and considering the development of identity and the forces that shape who we are as people (see Part I) over the course of many years, it is important to reiterate that human beings will almost invariably encounter circumstances in their lives that will leave them perplexed and unsure of how to proceed. As such, the process of making decisions depends not only on the acquisition of accurate information and facts concerning the matter at hand, but also personal ideology, which results from the sum of our experiences. Hence, the traditions and cultures that surround us shape us and exert influence in our lives, and this molds the way we respond to virtually everything.
Islam stresses the importance of applying cognition, logic, and reasoning based on a premise of knowledge and understanding (i.e., what the knowledge means and how to apply it) as personal tools that help a person navigate through life. Yet, the soundness, authenticity, and reliability of that premise is sometimes questionable, because human logic may not follow principles that universally promote the advancement or improvement of humankind. Instead, cultural, tribal, societal, and mainstream popular factors often program people and sometimes restrict their views and shape their choices. Furthermore, these factors can create identity conflict when they are at odds and result in perplexity and confusion, because the person cannot reconcile what they hold to be true and worth acting upon. Thus, although it is good to hold onto one’s culture, whether it is American, Iraqi, Indian, or Nigerian, a believer must root their identity in Islam and make it the predominant factor in how they make the critical decisions of life.
On the other hand, a part of this identity is the realization that we have limits, not only in what we can possibly know, but also how much we can understand of the consequences of our actions. It is inevitable that we will face circumstances that are unfamiliar and possibly harrowing because the dimensions of life include what we often cannot learn from our senses. Under such conditions, and as a general tendency, a believer seeks what is best through the guidance of God, whether it is in the form of mental stillness and inspiration or a definitive answer. So, we must shape who we are and how we act and define the perception we have of ourselves by our relationship with God, because only then can we truly achieve what is best.
1. Sayyid al-Sistani, A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West, Miscellaneous issues (a question about istikhara).
2. The Holy Quran 3:159. Unless otherwise noted, Quranic quotes in this article are from the Muhammad Sarwar translation.
3. Al-Shaykh al-Kulayni, Al-kafi, vol. 8, p. 150.
4. The Holy Quran 42:38.
5. Shaykh al-Tusi, Al-amali, p. 136.
6. Rayshahri, Mizan al-Hikmah, vol. 2, p. 1524.
7. The Holy Quran 40:60.
8. Sayyid al-Sistani, A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West, Miscellaneous issues (a question about istikhara). It is acceptable to repeat the istikhara if either the subject or terms of the matter in question change, or the believer gives alms. In this statement, Sayyid Sistani combines both, which is more appropriate for repeating the istikhara than either of the two conditions alone.
9. Rayshahri, Mizan al-hikmah, vol. 2, p. 1595.
10. The Quran 6:73. Ali Quli Qarai translation.
11. Sayyid ibn Tawus, Fath al-abwab fil istikharat, p. 265.
٢) ﴿فَإِذَا عَزَمْتَ فَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللّهِ إِنَّ اللّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَوَكِّلِينَ﴾. [القرآن الكريم، سورة آل عمران ٣، آية ١٥٩]
٣) عن النبي (ص): “إذا أنت هممت بأمر فتدبر عاقبته فإن يك رشداً فامضه وإن يك غياً فانته عنه.” [الكليني: الكافي، ج ٨، ص ١٥٠]
٤) ﴿وَأَمْرُهُمْ شُورَىٰ بَيْنَهُمْ﴾. [القرآن الكريم، سورة الشورى ٤٢، آية ٣٨]
٥) عن النبي (ص) مخاطباً أمير المؤمنين علي (ع): “يا علي ما حار من استخار، ولا ندم من استشار.” [ريشهري، محمد: ميزان الحكمة، ج ٢، ص ١٥٢٤]
٦) عن أمير المؤمنين علي بن أبي طالب (ع): “من شاور ذوي العقول استضاء بأنوار العقول.” [ريشهري، محمد: ميزان الحكمة، ج ٢، ص ١٥٢٤]
٧) ﴿وَقَالَ رَبُّكُمُ ادْعُونِي أَسْتَجِبْ لَكُمْ إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يَسْتَكْبِرُونَ عَنْ عِبَادَتِي سَيَدْخُلُونَ جَهَنَّمَ دَاخِرِينَ﴾.[القرآن الكريم، سورة غافر ٤٠، آية ٦٠]
٩) عن رسول الله (ص): “الصدقة تدفع البلاء، وهي أنجح دواء، وتدفع القضاء وقد أبرم إبراماً، ولا يذهب بالأدواء إلا الدعاء والصدقة.” [ريشهري، محمد: ميزان الحكمة، ج ٢، ص ١٥٩٥]
١٠) ﴿عَالِمُ الْغَيْبِ وَالشَّهَادَةِ﴾. [القرآن الكريم، سورة الأنعام ٦، آية ٧٣]
١١) “اللهم إني أستخيرك خيار من فوض إليك أمره، وأسلم إليك نفسه، وتوكل عليك في أمره، واستسلم بك فيما نزل به من أمره، اللهم خر لي ولا تخر علي، واعني ولا تعن علي، ومكني ولا تمكن مني، واهدني للخير ولا تضلني، وأرضني بقضائك، وبارك لي في قدرك، إنك تفعل ما تشاء وتعطي ما تريد، اللهم إن كانت الخيرة لي في أمري هذا وهو كذا وكذا، فمكني منه، وأقدرني عليه، وأمرني بفعله، وأوضح لي طريق الهداية إليه، وإن كان اللهم غير ذلك فاصرفه عني إلى الذي هو خير لي منه، فإنك تقدر ولا أقدر، وتعلم ولا أعلم، وأنت علام الغيوب، يا أرحم الراحمين.” [السيد ابن طاووس، فتح الأبواب في الإستخارات، ص ٢٦٥]