When examining the reality of our existence as human beings, it is often necessary to…
[ICYMI: Click here for part 1 of this article series on the Role of Identity, where we address the factors that determine our identity and the forces that can create conflict in a Muslim’s life.]
Many believers, especially youth, face difficulty when making major decisions. A person might feel exceedingly perplexed when confronted with critical choices in their lives, like choosing what to study at the university, where to live when pursuing studies or work, or even how to choose a suitable spouse, especially given the influences of culture, customs, national identity, and backgrounds. In such cases, many seek recourse in istikhara to remove their confusion and decide on a final course of action. Moreover, several sacred texts substantiate istikhara by stressing resorting to God in every circumstance, being that He is the first and the last, and that He is the cause of everything. The Holy Quran says, “The believing men and women must not feel free to do something in their affairs other than that which has been already decided for them by God and His Messenger.”1 and “Your Lord creates and chooses (to grant mercy) to whomever He wants. (In matters of guidance) they (unbelievers) do not have the choice to choose whatever they want.”2 Similarly, many narrations emphasize the use of istikhara [as a recourse in decision-making], for example, it was reported by Imam al-Sadiq (p) that he said, “Almighty God says: it is the wretchedness of my servant that he does things without consulting me [through istikhara].3
Nevertheless, many youth, who are open-minded and searching, question istikhara [as a legitimate approach], and their questions are certainly worthy of discussion. These questions concern the lawfulness of istikhara from a religious perspective, its method and means of application, as well as its practical ramifications. More importantly, people may question its relevance given that humans possess the faculties of reasoning and logic. Therefore, some people argue that istikhara may be a cause of the disruption of human reasoning, the process of critical thought, mental development, and creativity, all of which can lead to the stagnation of the mind. This article, which is the second in a three-part series on identity and decision-making, briefly highlights the aforementioned points without delving into jurisprudential discourses or academic approaches used by jurists, which suit researchers and experts in the field of jurisprudence. Hence, the goal is to present a clarification of istikhara that is comprehensive and beneficial to the public.
Meaning of Istikhara
The term istikhara derives from khair, or goodness in the Arabic lexicon, which means supplicating to God for the best when making a decision in a matter of great concern.
It can be considered from two perspectives, the first relates to its linguistic meaning, which is to supplicate and seek God’s guidance in the form of [spiritual] inspiration and direction to fulfill what the believer intends to do, or to inspire them not to proceed [as it would not be in their best interest]. This type of istikhara is known as a supplicatory istikhara. The second is based on seeking a definitive indication as to whether a believer’s given action is in their best interest or not. This is performed using the Holy Quran or prayer beads and provides an answer of do [the action] or do not. This type of istikhara is known as the consultative istikhara.
Religious Permissibility of Istikhara
With respect to the supplicatory istikhara, it does not require proof or authentication of its permissibility since it is a form of prayer that indicates a believer’s reliance on God and their profound belief that everything is under His power. Many verses of the Holy Quran and various traditions have mandated supplication to God, and described its importance and necessity, such that there is no room for doubt of its lawfulness. Furthermore, supplication to God or dua is an agreed upon practice by consensus of all Muslims. Imam al-Sadiq (p) once said, “If one of you wanted [to do] something, he should perform two units of prayer and then glorify and praise Allah and send blessing upon the Prophet and his progeny (pbut). Then say, ‘Oh Lord, if this matter was in my best interest in [the preservation of] my religion and worldly affairs then make it easy for me and cause it to happen, otherwise dismiss it away from me.’”4
In another narration, Imam al-Sadiq (p) advised a person who was confounded by an issue to “perform two units of prayer and seek the best from Almighty God, verily by God, any Muslim who seeks the best from God, He will grant it to him.”5 Further, when asked about whether to travel by land or sea by a group of perplexed companions, Imam Ali al-Rida (p) advised one of them saying, “Go to a mosque at a time other than during obligatory prayers, perform two units of prayer, and seek the best from God by repeating “astakhir Allah” one hundred times, then act upon what is infused in your heart.”
As for the consultative istikhara, many believers commonly use it to know good from evil by way of a sign that indicates whether to do or do not. People differ in how they perform this type of istikhara. Some resort to the Holy Quran and base the answer (i.e., do or do not) on the apparent meaning of the first verse that appears to them upon opening it. If the verse has a positive connotation, such as glad tidings, like entering paradise, or describing something good, the person considers it as “do,” otherwise they consider it as “do not.” Others might resort to using prayer beads or subhah, which most believers use for glorifying God, or tasbih after performing prayers. To perform istikhara using prayer beads a person randomly takes a grasp of beads and then counts in increments of two, if only one bead remains at the end then that means “do,” and if two beads remain then it means “do not do.”
The source and legitimacy of this type of istikhara require some clarification. Jurists have different opinions about its religious basis, although they are unanimous in not considering it either unlawful (haram)or recommended (mustahabb). Among them is his eminence al-Sayyid al-Sistani, who states that it should be done with the intention of raja or hope that it is an acceptable method by the Divine Legislator,6 which indicates that there is no clear and solid authentication.
Taking into Account Reason and Logic
God gave human beings minds or aql (the power of reasoning) and by it He distinguished them from other creatures and made them the undisputed masters. Through reasoning and intellectual creativity, humans have progressed and advanced, and as a result possess a level of self-realization and fascination. Moreover, this era has witnessed great human achievements in technology, engineering, medicine, physical and biological sciences, and other areas. After indicating that God has provided humans with the means to achieve their desired perfection, the Holy Quran stresses rationality, ponderance, perseverance, and diligence. God says “He has disposed for you[r benefit] whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth; all is from Him. There are indeed signs in that for a people who reflect.”7 Thus, what role would istikhara play given this Quranic principle? Some people might contend that istikhara is a hindrance to reasoning, which could stem from and perpetuate mental weakness and perhaps low self-esteem. Moreover, it is argued that a person who resorts to consultative istikhara does not want to take responsibility for their decisions and instead relies on the world of the unseen. In doing this they have built up their hopes and planned their future on ambiguous unseen forces while attempting to ascribe the remedy to God.
These questions are legitimate and useful, but they should be contextualized within a complete human experience, because although it is certainly unquestionable that the human mind is progressing towards perfection and grows more knowledgeable and experienced over time, there is no evidence that proves the existence of a complete human mind. Therefore, God asserts that reliance on the mind is not possible in every circumstance, otherwise there would be no need for divine revelations and holy scriptures. He says, “The Messengers whom We sent before you were mere mortals to whom We had sent with miracles and revelations. Ask those who know about the heavenly Books if you do not know about this.”8 In fact, even the prophets and messengers, all of whom had been chosen and guided by God, at certain critical stages paused to seek further recourse in God so that they might fully understand the immensity of what lay before them and the proper course that needed to be undertaken. For example, some of the unexplainable acts of Khidr astonished Moses, until Khidr explained the divine wisdom behind them as mentioned in the Holy Quran chapter 18 (al-Kahf), verses 60 to 82. This is only one type of example from the Holy Quran demonstrating the hidden guidance and wisdom of God bestowed upon those He chooses, and the need for turning to Him for clarity when all the details cannot be known.
This indicates a general tendency to turn towards a source that has greater insight into the details of a given circumstance, which the wise people of all times, places, and nations embraced because they recognized the value of consulting one who is more knowledgeable, wiser, and more experienced, in all their important matters. Therefore, there is nothing contradictory or irrational that prevents a person from seeking the counsel of God, which should be the preferred approach. On the other hand, the problem seems to be in understanding the concept of istikhara and the scope of its use, and not necessarily how soundly it is based on reason and logic. Therefore, we must first consider the believer’s faith and trust in God when discussing the concept of istikhara. Secondly, we should attempt to understand the nature of the underlying conviction and what drives them to depend on God in such a manner, because people undoubtedly attempt to actively resolve the confusion surrounding their affairs prior to resorting to istikhara.
The two most common approaches are reasoning through a possible solution to one’s issues by collecting relevant information and consulting with people who have knowledge and experience, and thereafter acting upon their advice. This is certainly neither a practice of immobilizing the mind, nor is it an evasion of personal responsibility. Rather, it is the most suitable and safest way out of a perplexing situation. Otherwise, what should a person do when they are utterly confused and must make a decision after exhausting all means to find an answer about something important? How will this person justify the course they chose if they made the decision arbitrarily? Their answer will be no more than to say something like “it was inevitable that…” or “there was no other option but…,” while the believer in God, after exhausting every option to reach a decision, says, “I resorted to God confident in His answer to my prayer in unveiling the unknown, and surely God never disappoints His servants.” In this sense, a truly insightful person does not need to forego rationality or reason but rather realizes that there is a hidden dimension that serves to guide human beings if they seek recourse in it and observe its etiquette. Thus, the act of turning to God translates to the development of the inner aspects and inherent nature within us as well as the outward and apparent. Even then, the consultative istikhara is not a process that is subject to personal methodology. Indeed, a person can surmise or derive any number of answers (i.e., based on their whims) from what they perceive from the Holy Quran or the names of God. Therefore, look for part III, which will conclude the series by describing the terms and conditions of using istikhara as well as its practical application in one’s life.
Click here for our third & final part of this series on the terms and conditions of using Istikhara. Can it be repeated? Can a believer go against the results of an Istikhara? Should a believer perform it themselves or appoint someone to do it for them?
1. The Holy Quran 33:36. Unless otherwise indicated, Quranic quotations in this article are from the Muhammad Sarwar translation.
2.The Holy Quran 28:68.
3. Sayyid ibn Tawus, Fath al-abwab, p. 132.
4. Shaykh al-Jawahiri, Jawahir al-kalam, vol. 12, p. 160.
5. Shaykh al-Tusi, Tahthib al-ahkam, vol. 3, p. 179.
6. Sayyid al-Sistani, A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West. Miscellaneous issues (a question about istikhara) [Question: Is the common method of istikhara religiously desired or does it have any basis? Is there a problem in repeating the istikhara [for the same intention] by paying alms [before it] in order to get a guidance that is to one’s liking?] [Answer: One may resort to istikhara with the intention of raja in situations where he 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]. Repeating the istikhara is not right, unless it is for a different issue, of which is giving some alms].
7.The Holy Quran 45:13. Ali Quli Qarai translation.
8.The Holy Quran 16:43.
1. ﴿وَمَا كَانَ لِمُؤْمِنٍ وَلَا مُؤْمِنَةٍ إِذَا قَضَى اللَّـهُ وَرَسُولُهُ أَمْرًا أَن يَكُونَ لَهُمُ الْخِيَرَةُ …﴾
2. ﴿وَرَبُّكَ يَخْلُقُ مَا يَشَاءُ وَيَخْتَارُ مَا كَانَ لَهُمُ الْخِيَرَةُ سُبْحَانَ اللَّـهِ وَتَعَالَىٰ عَمَّا يُشْرِكُونَ﴾
3. عن الإمام جعفر الصادق (ع): “يقول الله عز وجل: إن من شقاء عبدي أن يعمل الأعمال ثم لا يستخيرني”.
4. ثمّ ليحمد الله ويُثني عليه ويصلّي على محمّد وأهل عن الإمام الصادق (ع): “إذا أراد أحدكم شيئاً فليصلِّ ركعتين، بيته، ويقول: اللهم إن كان هذا الأمر خيراً لي في ديني ودنياي فيسّره لي، وأَقْدِرْه، وإن كان غير ذلك فاصرفه عني”
5. عن الإمام الصادق (ع) في وصيته لشخص وقع في حيرة من أمره: “صل ركعتين واستخر الله عز وجل فوالله ما استخار الله مسلم إلا خار الله له البتة”
7. قال تعالى: ﴿وَسَخَّرَ لَكُم مَّا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ جَمِيعًا مِّنْهُ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ﴾
8. ﴿وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِن قَبْلِكَ إِلَّا رِجَالًا نُّوحِي إِلَيْهِمْ ۚ فَاسْأَلُوا أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِن كُنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ﴾