‘Istikhara’ literally means ‘looking for good’ or ‘asking for good’. In the Muslim world often consists of a religious practice performed when a person is uncertain about a decision he must make. At the said point, the believer asks God for help and seeks His guidance through prayer, supplication and turning his heart to Him.
It is not surprising that a believer who has faith in his Creator would look for God’s best decree whenever he is going to start something new such as choosing a school, spouse, during travel, while purchasing something, etc., asking Him for the best, especially when he is not certain about a choice that has to be made.
There are several forms of istikhara that can be individually performed mentioned in many religious books. Some of these forms have become quite popular in certain areas and communities and in some cases are practised with much assiduity.
One of them is the istikhara performed with the Qur’an. It consists of making a specific intention and invocations, opening a copy of the Qur’an, reading a passage from it to get an affirmative or negative answer, in accordance with the Quranic passage, on what to do in respect of the decision that needs to be taken. A similar type of istikhara is sometimes performed with a rosary in the way prescribed in several popular, devotional and religious books.
However, there is also another type of istikhara practised from the early days of the Islamic period. What has been widely reported in this regard is performing a two-units prayer followed by special supplications asking God for the best course of action and the best outcome in front of a particular situation. In some narrations, only special invocations have been mentioned with no reference to the two-units prayer, most probably referring to cases in which a ritual prayer is of difficult performance (such as lack of time, unbearable hardship, etc.).
It is reported in one narration on the authority of Imam al-Sadiq as follows: “Offer two units of prayer and seek forgiveness from God. I swear by God if a Muslim asks for God’s outcome, indeed He will definitely choose the best choice for him”.
In another narration, he said: “If anyone of you intends to do, then he should not consult anyone of the people until he starts consulting God”. And when he was asked the meaning of ‘consulting God’ he said: “You start by asking God to make a good choice first, for verily if you start with God, then He will put the best choice for you amongst the ones whom He wishes from the creation”.
Certainly, this type of istikhara valorises the power of invocation as the best form of approaching God. It is worth to note that the point here is not to abandon our faculty of thinking or stop seeking advice from others, but to start with God in our minds and hearts before any other step or consideration takes place.
The istikhara is a form of supplication aimed at seeking God’s guidance when doubtful and when difficult decisions are to be taken. Its purpose is to strengthen our trust in Him while going ahead with performing our duties within the limits that have been set for us in the outer world. It has been said that the more intensively a person supplicates, the stronger the answer will come from God, and the clearer the decisions to be taken will appear to him.
Sometimes such divine answers can reach directly the heart of the believer straight after the prayer and supplication while at other times it may get clearer during the course of his actions. Sometimes the answer could also be delayed due to divine wisdom, whose reasons may become evident later on, or even in the Hereafter! As a matter of fact, our relationship with God and our constant communication with Him should inspire in us an unprecedented type of confidence adorned with special peace and tranquilly.
Due to these personal implications of the istikhara, some scholars have said it is better to be performed by the person himself and not by someone else on his behalf. Since it is a form of supplication about a believer’s concern, and a supplication usually comes from deep within the heart, it would be good for him to perform istikhara by and for himself.
It is probably because of the lack of direct answers, or the inability to see them during the course of actions, that the istikhara with a rosary or the Qur’an became more popular as the answers through it are more direct and much easier to get. The same reason may also account for the practice of asking another person to perform istikhara. On the other hand, it is believed that a supplication from a more pious person may be accepted faster as his/her piety would bring a stronger answer or result for the istikhara performed.
Whatever the case may be, “asking God for the best outcome” and “seeking God’s advice before taking a step” are both valid forms of istikhara. The way that it should be performed is a choice that falls on the believer himself but what is universally accepted is the importance and necessity of trusting in God and asking Him to put His mercy in our affairs. If we think we have total control over our affairs and we can manage them in the best possible way relying exclusively on ourselves, it will be certainly one of the most difficult tasks to entrust them to someone else. However, if we realise that we own nothing, and that everything we use is just a concession and mercy from God, we would be relieved to rely on Him and to follow His advice and decision for many of the problems we face in our lives.