On istikharah

  • And the misconceptions surrounding it


The other day, Mufti Kifayatullah of JUI-F let it slip on live TV, during an altercation with anchor Yashfeen Jamal, that as per his istikharah Maulana Fazlur Rehman was about to become prime minister. Now, whether the irate mufti made that up in the heat of the moment or he really meant it – it’s a scary thought either way. At any rate, he has broken new ground because though politicians, businessmen and parents of eligible bachelors have been known to resort to istikharah to help them make profitable decisions, this is the first time that istikharah has been presented as a political forecasting tool. Well, politicians will be politicians, even if they double as muftis.

With that said, it may be a good idea to review what istikharah really is because even among the general public there are more misconceptions regarding it than there need to be. Thanks to which, it is very much an industry now, with istikharah professionals and istikharah centres, and what not. It can now be ‘done’ on the phone, on TV and online as well. The early practitioners of the art needed to sleep in order to get the ‘result’. Now they are so proficient that they only need to close their eyes for a moment to tell you whether something is advisable.

The answer to the frequently asked question of how to perform and interpret istikharah is that there’s no ‘procedure’ for it. Istikharah simply means to seek khair; that is, to pray to God for a beneficial outcome. It’s simply a supplication (dua). It’s not sortition (faal), by any means. The famous sequence of your performing a certain ritual, going to sleep, having a dream, and waking up with your mind nicely made up one way or the other is all a figment of some creative soul’s imagination.

The early practitioners of the art needed to sleep in order to get the ‘result’. Now they are so proficient that they only need to close their eyes for a moment to tell you whether something is advisable

The words for istikharah were taught by the prophet (peace be upon him) himself. Like all supplications taught by him, it’s an exceedingly elegant composition. Acknowledgment of God’s Supremacy and Omniscience and an admission of one’s own limitations are expressed beautifully, followed by a request to enable one to choose the best course of action based on His Infinite Wisdom. Supplication itself is, of course, a form of worship, because it reminds one that it’s God that’s ultimately in charge. Since it’s a supplication, one should have a fair idea regarding what the words mean (and one must genuinely believe in what one is saying); or else it would be some sort of an incantation. There’s none of that in Islam.

The words can be found in Sahih Bukhari. In English, they translate to: O Allah! I seek what is better through Your knowledge, and through Your might I seek strength, and I beg from You Your great blessings, because You have the power, and I do not have the power. And You know everything, and I do not know, and You have knowledge of the unseen. O Allah! If in Your knowledge this action [which I intend to do] is better for my religion, my life and my fate then destine it for me and make it easy for me and then add blessings to it for me. And O Allah! In Your knowledge if this action is bad for me, for my religion and for my fate, then turn it away from me and turn me away from it, and whatever is better for me, ordain that for me wherever it is, and then make me satisfied with it.

Like any other supplication, there’s no subsequent dream or mysterious telepathic signalling in istikharah, and none should be anticipated. There are any number of ways in which God can help man make the best decision. He may be struck by a point that he was hitherto overlooking; relevant new information may become available; an expert on the matter may chip in with decisive input. Doors leading to certain avenues will therefore start opening or closing. Thus, an outcome will either be facilitated or made difficult. Not through visions or dreams, but by means of normal, everyday events. And for good reason too; for those who are familiar with human psychology and with the power of autosuggestion know that it’s rather easy to convince oneself of something one wants to be convinced of. In Islam one is exhorted to rely on one’s knowledge and reasoning in all circumstances, instead of falling back on superstition of any sort.

The general Islamic requirement of doing one’s best and leaving the rest to God is therefore in no way invalidated or overruled by istikharah. In fact, it is reinforced. For one is still supposed to choose one’s course of action based on the available evidence and employing one’s mental faculties to the fullest; and (since one is still prone to err despite one’s best and most sincere efforts) accompany it with a plea to God for help in the process. Istikharah is nothing more, and nothing less, than this entreaty to God.