Common Misconceptions About Istikharah
Sheikh Muhammad b. `Abd Al-`Azîz al-Musannad
The istikhârah prayer is a blessing to us from Allah. It is a means for us to place our trust in Him when it comes to the decisions we need to make in our lives. There are, unfortunately, some misconceptions that people have about the istikhârah prayer that cause them to miss out on some of the benefits that the prayer has to offer.
Some people think that the istikhârah prayer is only prescribed when a person has to decide between two options. People arrive at this misunderstanding since the word "istikhârah" literally means "to seek (someone else's) decision on a matter". Some people jump to the conclusion that this means that they must be in a situation where they have to decide between two things.
However, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said we should offer the istikhârah prayer whenever we are thinking about embarking upon something. He said: "When one of you thinks to embark upon something, he should offer two units of prayer other the obligatory prayer" [Sahîh al-Bukhârî]
He did not say: "Whenever you are wavering between two options…"
Therefore, the istikhârah prayer is prescribed for us whenever we have a concern to embark upon a course of action but have not yet developed a firm and unwavering resolve to do so. Even if it is a single course of action with no alternative option open to us, we still have the choice between undertaking that course of action or not undertaking it. We should offer the istikhârah prayer.
On the other hand, if there are multiple options open to us, we should first consult with knowledgeable people we trust as to which course of action is best for us. Then we should pinpoint the course that appears to be the best to us and offer the istikhârah prayer about that choice, seeking Allah's decision on the matter.
Some people think that the istikhârah prayer is prescribed only for a limit set of actions, like marriage and travel. Others feel that the prayer is only for actions of paramount importance, and not for everyday decisions. Both of these ideas are wrong. This misconception leads people to avoid praying the istikhârah prayer on many occasions where it would benefit them to do so. The prayer is prescribed for all of our decisions.
The narrator of the hadîth tells us: "He used to teach us the istikhârah prayer for all of our concerns…" This is general for all decisions, major and minor.
There is an idea that the istikhârah prayer requires the offering of two units of formal prayer exclusively with the intention istikhârah. This is really not a misconception, since there is legitimate scholarly disagreement on this issue. Nevertheless, I would still strongly argue that such a restriction is incorrect, because the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "…offer two units of prayer other than the obligatory prayer." This is general for all non-obligatory prayers, including the two-units we observe upon entering the mosque or after performing ablutions, and the two-unit Sunnah prayers we offer along with our obligatory prayers.
This means that we can beseech Allah with the istikhârah supplication after any two-unit voluntary prayer we make, whatever our initial intention was to offer that two-unit prayer. In this way, we can get the benefit of two acts of worship together, by intending a certain voluntary prayer and then offering the istikhârah supplication after it.
Some people assume that it is essential to experience some sort of resolve in the heart after performing the istikhârah prayer. There is no evidence to support this assumption. In fact, the istikhârah supplication belies this idea:
O Allah! I seek Your decision through Your knowledge and your facilitation through your power and I ask You of Your tremendous grace. For indeed, You are capable while I am not, and You know while I know not, and You are the Knower of the Unseen. O Allah! If you know this affair to be best for me in my religion, my livelihood, and in the final outcome (or: in my immediate life and my future one), then decree it for me and facilitate it for me and then bless me in it. And if You know this affair to be worse for me in my religion, my livelihood, and in the final outcome (or: in my immediate life and my future one), then turn it away from me and turn me away from it and decree for me what is good, wherever it may be, and then cause me to be contented with it.
If we consider what we are asking Allah in our istikhârah supplication, we are really leaving the decision in His hands. Whether or not we feel comfortable or happy with the course of action, we are asking Allah to bring it about for us if He knows it to be best for us and to keep it away from us if He knows it to be in our best interests not to be involved in it.
Allah says: "It is possible that you dislike a thing that is good for you, and that you love a thing that is bad for you. But Allah knows, and you know not. " [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 216]
The assumption that some people have that the istikhârah prayer is supposed to manifest a sign or resolve in our hearts about the course of action has led to no end of confusion. They repeat their istikhârah prayers over and over again waiting to experience this resolve. When they do not experience it, their sense of confusion only increases. This is unfortunate, since the istikhârah prayer is supposed to help us shrug off our confusion by putting the matter in Allah's hands.
Another common misconception is that a person who offers the istikhârah prayer is supposed to have a dream that night revealing the correct decision. Many people who think this way will put off their decision and not embark upon their course of action until or unless they have this dream. However, there is absolutely no basis for this idea. What we are supposed to do after entreating Allah with the istikhârah prayer is to put our trust in Allah and go forward. If we have a dream telling us what to do, that is good and well and we can benefit from our dream. However we should not expect to have such a dream and we should certainly not wait for it.
These are but some of the most common misconceptions that people have about the istikhârah prayer. Unfortunately, sometimes even those who are looked upon as people of knowledge contribute to spreading these ideas. This comes from blindly following conventional wisdom instead of referring back to the sacred texts.
And Allah knows best.