The word istikharah comes from the root word of khayr. Khayr in the Arabic language in its origins is representative of all that which is good. Khayr is an umbrella word that represents all that which is good. Istikharah means to seek the good and seek that which is good. This is the meaning of the word istikharah itself.
Just like the meaning, the prayer salat’-l-istikharah, which is from the Sunnah of the Prophet , is an authentically narrated Sunnah of the Prophet and an extremely emphasized practice of the Messenger . Just like the meaning of the word istikharah, the purpose of the salah is similarly to seek that which is good from Allah . I want to insha’Allah have this session to explain the procedure and the purpose of istikharah.
I am going to split today’s presentation into two parts. The first part will focus on the ritual itself, meaning the technicalities, procedure, concept and outcome of istikharah. The second part of the lecture will focus on the purpose of the istikharah, which is explaining the meaning and beauty of the supplication of istikharah itself because that unlocks the purpose and the reason why we even do istikharah.
To begin with the technicalities, I would like to begin with a few basic points. The first is the concept of istikharah to understand istikharah conceptually and what it is. I can explain best to you what istikharah is by explaining to you what istikharah is not. As they say in Arabic, sometimes the best way to get to know something is to know the opposite of it. The best way I can help you understand what istikharah is conceptually and the role and purpose of istikharah is by explaining to you what it most definitely is not.
Istikharah is not a Magic 8 ball. Did you ever buy that? You get it at the mall as a gag gift. You ask the Magic 8 ball, “Should I go to the mall today?” [Shake it]. “Maybe.” This is the Magic 8 ball. What I am trying to say by giving you this silly example is what people play around with when playing with the Magic 8 ball is throw out a random question, shake the Magic 8 ball and get a magical answer and go with it. It is kind of like rolling the dice. Istikharah is not that.
Decision Making Process: 3 Steps
Istikharah is the third of a three-step decision making process. The first step of a decision making process is to use the God-given intellect, ability, and critical thinking that Allah has blessed each and every single human being with in different capacities. Allah has granted every human being the ability to take factors into consideration and weigh different options and think about, ponder, contemplate, and process. That is the first step of the decision making process in the life of the believer. He first uses his ‘aql, intelligence and ability to think that Allah has given him.
There is a reason that Allah emphasizes the ‘aql, uli’l-albab, and these types of things in the Qur’an because these are from the greatest of Allah’s blessings. That is the first step of the decision making process: Take your circumstances into consideration, look at the options available to you, and then sit down and think and try to figure out and do some research and try to come to somewhat of a conclusion. At least try to narrow your options and come to somewhat of a conclusion. This is number one.
The second step of a decision making process is istisharah. It is the Arabic word for seeking counsel and seeking advice. The next step of the process is to then seek some counsel and advice, and it really depends on what type of a decision you are trying to make. If you want to buy a car, you first do some research online and do some car shopping and test drove and narrow down to about three or four different cars that you are thinking about. Then what you could do, for instance, is go to a brother from the masjid who is a car mechanic. Sit down with that brother and say, “Brother, I want to take advice from you because you are experienced and knowledgeable about cars. What do you recommend? These are the three or four cars I am looking at.” He says, “I wouldn’t buy that because it has transmission problems. This car wears out really quickly, etc.”
Now you are seeking counsel and advice. If it is a more personal issue, something that is a life type decision, then you seek the counsel and advice from somebody who sincerely and honestly cares about you, somebody who is experienced and mature and maybe even spiritually focused so that they have a well-rounded perspective they can provide to you.
That is istisharah and seeking counsel. This is the second step of the decision-making process.
The third and final step of the decision making process is now istikharah. What has occurred up to this point is that you started with no idea of what to do. You narrowed it down to maybe half a dozen different options and sought some counsel and got some advice from someone and are down to your last couple of options. At this point in time, you are struggling with this or that and are starting to lean a little more towards one direction. You are thinking about two cars and are leaning towards buying a convertible, for instance – random example. You are thinking about buying the Camaro over the mini-van. No brainer, but nevertheless for some strange reason you are conflicted. Maybe you have two kids, but it doesn’t matter, they can sit in the backseat.
You are starting to lean in one direction, but you are little conflicted and just need a little bit of a push and convincing. You are looking for that confidence to make your decision that you have come to by critical thinking – apply your intellect and do some research – and you sought some counseling. You are leaning in a direction but need some confidence and some clarity of heart. This is where istikharah comes in.
What I have just explained to you removes many of the issues and questions that people have about istikharah itself. A lot of people are confused about istikharah because they try to use it like the Magic 8 ball. “I have got to buy a house. Let me do istikharah.” What do you think is going to happen? Are you magically going to see a house in your dreams and going to go searching for it and find it and buy it? It doesn’t work that way. You don’t decide that you need to buy a car and then pray istikharah and a Honda Civic is going to fall on you. It doesn’t work that way.
When people try to utilize istikharah in that way, then they walk away confused and say, “Shaykh, I made istikharah and I can’t figure anything out. It’s not working.” You don’t change the batteries in your istikharah, right? What is basically going on is that you are not utilizing it properly. Anything that is not utilized properly is not going to work right. You have to utilize it properly and appropriately. Make sure you turn it into the third of a three-step decision making process. This is the concept and role of istikharah.
Prerequisites of Istikharah
The next thing I would like to explain are the prerequisites of istikharah. What is required to do istikharah?
I am going to give you the actual narration, but for now we are just going to roll with it and speak a little more generally. What is required for the istikharah is what is required for any other prayer, which is you need to make sure that you are pure and clean, clothed appropriately, have wudū’. You do not require a bath of purification. You face towards the qiblah. That is what is required for istikharah.
Basically whatever is required to normally pray is what is required for istikharah. There are no other extra prerequisites or requirements for istikharah. You don’t have to pray it immediately before you go to sleep. You don’t have to take a shower and then immediately pray istikharah. You need wudū’ for prayer; you need wudū’ for istikharah. Istikharah is a prayer just like dhuhr is a prayer and nafl would be a prayer. You don’t need to stop talking to people when you decide to do istikharah. You don’t need to wake up in the middle of the night and do istikharah. You don’t have to go stand on top of a mountain on one leg and do istikharah. You get my drift at this point – anything extra that you may heard, come across, or assumed that is needed for istikharah aside from what is needed for prayer. Wudū’, dressing appropriately, facing the qiblah, Allahu akbar – that is istikharah.
The only thing I will add in here is that according to the opinion of the majority of scholars, there are small difference of opinion – I’m going to tell you what the majority of scholars say. In salat’l-istikharah, there are not major differences of opinion. There are a few minor opinions here and there that differ from the vast majority. I’m just going to go ahead and share the majority opinion because it is an overwhelming majority opinion.
The overwhelming majority opinion is that the only thing you have to watch out for is what you watch out for in other prayers. Make sure you don’t pray istikharah at the times when prayer is forbidden. Those are three basic times of the day: while the sun is rising, when the sun is at its peak (which lasts for a minute or so), and the setting of the sun. Those three times of the day are when we are told not to pray. It is the same requirements of salah and for istikharah.
These are the prerequisites of istikharah.
What is the procedure of istikharah? There is a sequence of events or procedure. Once you fulfill the prerequisites, you will stand up and pray two rak’ahs, two units, of nafl (voluntary, supererogatory) prayer. Why am I emphasizing and specifying it to be two rak’ahs of a voluntary prayer? When we read the text of the hadith together insha’Allah, at that time you will see it. It is mentioned explicitly within the text of the hadith by the Messenger of Allah . No debate and no question here.
What that means is that you can’t pray salat’l-‘isha’ and make the supplication of istikharah – two for one, all done. You can’t do that.
The Prophet explicitly said that you have to invest two more extra rak’ahs of prayer that are voluntary and optional. You pray those two rak’ahs of prayer. There is nothing different about those two units of prayer. You pray them as you should pray any other salah. There’s obviously room for improvement in my prayer, and I’m pretty sure everybody feels there is room for improvement within their prayers, so aside from that entire discussion, basically you pray istikharah like you would pray any other prayer, which is two rak’ahs, qiyam, rukū’, sujūd. You sit at the end, tashahhud, salawat on the Messenger , supplication, salam, and that’s it. That is the procedure of the istikharah.
There is no extra special sūrah that should be recited here. There’s nothing that is authentically narrated from the Prophet about reciting this in the first rak’ah and that in the second rak’ah. There is nothing of that sort. Just pray two rak’ahs of prayer.
Once you finish these two rak’ahs of prayer, which means the taslim, you then at that time recite the exact supplication taught to us by the Prophet in the Arabic language. You read it in Arabic. Again, here, the vast overwhelming majority of scholars are of the opinion that the supplication of istikharah is to be done after the prayer. There are a couple of opinions here and there to do it before the taslim; however, the vast majority overwhelming majority, and again, if you analyze the text of the hadith, which I’m going to point out to you when we do read the hadith of the Prophet , you will see that the Prophet mentions a word which makes it very clear that the supplication is meant to be said after the prayer is done.
Now at this point we recite the supplication. Read the supplication in Arabic. Why am I explicitly saying that? Again, the hadith very clearly mentions that fact. A question comes up here: what if I don’t have it memorized? Read it off of a piece of paper. Fuqaha’ have stated that very clearly if somebody needs to read it off of a piece of paper, that is ok. Read it out of a book, read it off of a piece of paper, photocopy it, do what you have to do. Nevertheless, read the actual Arabic of the supplication. Don’t read the summarized English translation. When we read the text of the hadith, we see the Prophet explicitly said, “Read it as I have taught you.”
The other thing I want to state is – just in case anyone is watching the video or listening to the lecture – what if somebody can’t read Arabic? Use a transliteration or something of that nature to the best of your ability. Of course if somebody recently took shahadah or somebody recently came into connection with their din, there is always an exception to the rule.
We do not give enough consideration to people who have had a major turning point in their life, whether we are talking about people who may have been born in Muslim families but just not raised with the din and come to practice the din later on in their lives, or if we are talking about reverts and converts, people who took shahadah later in life. Consideration should always be given to them, and it should be understood that they are doing the best that they can, and they should definitely make an effort to try to learn Arabic as much as possible and as quickly as possible, but until and unless they are able to get to that point, they are completely capable of practicing their din to the best of their ability, and it is ok for somebody like that to read it in English or to read the translation of it. That is a very, very specific situation and consideration should be given to those types of cases.
Nevertheless, going back to the procedure. We talked about praying two rak’ahs, completing the prayer, reading the supplication in Arabic to the best of your ability. That is the procedure of istikharah. Read the supplication in Arabic, and it is done. You don’t have to make any extra du’a’ after that. The supplication that you read in Arabic is the supplication and du’a’ itself. There is no other extra procedure after. Once you are done reading the supplication, you are done.
Outcome of Istikharah
The next issue I would like to address is what is the outcome of the istikharah? Again, I can start by telling you what is not the outcome of the istikharah. You will not wake up in the middle of the night and have a 3D vision of what you should. I can tell you that is not going to happen. It is istikharah and not Avatar. That is one thing we need to be clear on. While it might seem like a joke or silly to some people, sometimes people just don’t know. The outcome of the istikharah is nothing out of this world.
The primary outcome of the istikharah is the clarity of mind and confidence to make the decision that you need to make that I alluded to earlier. You feel confident and good about making your decision. You were already leaning towards one option – option A – and there is another option on the table, but you are a lot more confident about option A or maybe you have come to a decision about option A but you just need that extra little confidence.
You do your istikharah and naturally start to feel more confident and feel clearer and feel ready to make that decision. That is the outcome of your istikharah. The outcome of the istikharah is to reflect internally and be a bit introspective and look inside and see if you feel good and confident about making your decision.
How do you know that the outcome of the istikharah is maybe this isn’t the best decision for you? You will naturally feel down. You will feel conflicted, doubtful, very scared or anxious or hesitant about making your decision. Then at that point, this is your response of istikharah that maybe this isn’t the best decision for you. That is how simple and easy istikharah is.
The reason why istikharah has become complicated for us a lot of times is because we are looking for something out of this world and something supernatural and really far out. We look for something crazy like that, and when we don’t find it, we feel unfulfilled.
If we learn to just think of it internally and learn to be a little more reflective and introspective, naturally you will find the response to your istikharah to be a lot more facilitated for you. You are thinking internally and feel naturally confident in your decision. That is the outcome and result of the istikharah.
What about Dreams?
The question always comes up: what about dreams? The issue of dreams is one thing that needs to be understood. We don’t completely dismiss dreams altogether. Authentic narrations of the Prophet tell us that dreams are something that a believer derives inspiration from. Even the greatest of scholars like Ibn Sirin of the tabi’ūn and great scholars of interpretation of dreams, one of the first things they would say or one of the first things they taught their students was that dreams are not a basis of making decisions. Decisions should not be based on dreams. These were the first and foremost to tell their students that even though these were the scholars of the interpretation of dreams. They said at the most it is inspiration, motivation, encouragement. That is all it is. It is not something you base a decision on.
I would like to clarify that right here. If you have a dream and it kind of inspires you or motivates you, alhamdulillah. Don’t read too much into it because you are not supposed to.
Two Miscellaneous Issues
That is the outcome of the istikharah. There are two miscellaneous issues I would like to explain. The first issue is related to the outcome.
What if I make istikharah and I just still don’t feel comfortable or confident in my decision? I still don’t feel confident or clear and am still not comfortable making a decision, and I made istikharah and followed the procedure properly. What do I do at that time? The course of action at that time is: do it again. If it doesn’t work again, then do it again. If you are still not comfortable, then do it again. Keep doing it until you feel confident and comfortable in making your decision.
There is even a narration from ‘Abdullah b. Zubayr , one of the companions of the Prophet and probably ‘a’ishah’s best and brightest student. He says, “I made istikharah with Allah three times. Then I was comfortable and confident in making my decision.” He explicitly mentions while explaining to his students that if you have to make istikharah multiple times, then you have to make istikharah multiple times and that’s ok. He said, “I had to pray istikharah three times one time to make a decision.” Don’t be afraid of repeating the istikharah multiple times.
A lot of times, it is just a matter of – and this is a tragedy of our times – becoming spiritually numb and we are not very introspective and not very reflective. Sometimes the superficial nature of the culture we live in or activities make us a little spiritually dull or numb. We might have to do istikharah a few times to break through the surface or crack the shell, and that’s ok.
The last issue I want to mention here that is associated with istikharah is that there is one very commonly asked question and issue that comes up quite often. That is: can I have somebody else do istikharah for me? There is no precedent. There is no religious verification for having someone else do istikharah for you. There is nothing mentioned in the ahadith of the Prophet . There is no precedent from the generation of the sahabah. The classical fuqaha’ have explicitly stated that istikharah is meant to be done by the individual himself or herself. That is a rule. That’s it. A person has to do the istikharah himself or herself.
There is a very honest and sincere question and concern that is in the mind’s of people who ask this question. The question or that concern is often: I am not a very good person, I don’t pray five times a day, I have a lot of sins and issues in my life, I feel distant from Allah, I don’t know if I make istikharah if it will be clear or won’t be clear, so I want to ask someone to make istikharah who is a lot more righteous and pious, and someone who is a lot better person than I am. That is a concern a lot of people have.
I would like to answer that concern by first saying that maybe part of the reason that you feel that way about your relationship with Allah is because of the mentality and approach that you have where you don’t feel like you are good enough to talk to Allah . You feel like you don’t have access to Allah.
The first thing that you have to get over is the simple fact that Allah is just as available and just as accessible to the sinful person as He is to the most righteous and pious person. Allah is available and accessible to everyone. We can all pray to Allah . We can all ask Allah for whatever we need. We can all do istikharah with Allah.
The second answer to that concern is if you are feeling a bit guilty and self-conscious about the fact that you are distant from Allah and not praying and maybe that is why you should not be doing istikharah, then why not fix the problem? Why not say, “I have a situation. I need to do istikharah. I don’t pray five times a day and that’s why I don’t feel comfortable doing istikharah. Well, it’s time for salat’l-maghrib right now or time for salat’l-‘isha’ right now, why don’t I go ahead and take that first step? Why don’t I go make wudū’, stand up and pray salat’l-‘isha’ and then pray two raka’at to do my istikharah.” Get it out of the way and get it done. That is the answer to the question.
There is no validity to having somebody halfway across the world in some village do istikharah on your behalf and that person doesn’t even know who you are and what’s going on with you. By the way, as a side note and a word of advice, if that person is charging you, it’s probably a scam. Just a little note of caution. If a person is charging you, you need to stay away from that entire situation.
Nevertheless, I did want to address that in a serious issue and serious manner. There is no validity, there is no precedent, and there is absolutely no authenticity to having somebody do istikharah on your behalf. The person him or herself needs to be doing their own istikharah whatever situation they are dealing with.
Their might be situations where a decision affects multiple people. Then everybody involved in the situation makes their own istikharah. If I will be implicated by this decision, then we all make our own istikharah. Nevertheless, it is not like doing a business deal. If I’m getting into a business deal with a couple of people and we need to come to the decision whether it is good or not, we decide we’ve looked at the facts, crunched the numbers, and spoken to a couple of people and gotten some consultation, we need to do istikharah. Let everybody go and do their own istikharah. Even when it is a joint decision, everybody should be doing istikharah. Definitely when it is your own personal decision, make your own istikharah. Don’t put it off on somebody else. Nobody can do your istikharah – you do your own.
The concern that is there that “I’m not good enough, I’m not pious enough, I’m not righteous enough,” it doesn’t make any sense. Allah is Allah. He is accessible to you. All you have to do is go get clean, make wudū’, face the qiblah, Allahu akbar, and you are talking to Allah . Done deal.
Secondly, if you do feel that you are distant from Allah, then fix the problem. Don’t create another problem. Repair the relationship and fix the issue.
It obviously goes without saying that we don’t make istikharah for anything that is impermissible. There is no istikharah for: “Should I drink alcohol (na’ūdhu billah)” – of course that is very bad. “Should I gamble, what should I put my money on.” It goes without saying and it is common sense that you don’t make istikharah about the things that are impermissible.
Also, we do not make istikharah about things that are obligatory. There is no making istikharah about “should I pray salat’l-‘isha’ or not.” That goes without saying that things that are obligatory and things that are a part of the din and things that we are supposed to do like fasting Ramadan, there is no making istikharah “should I fast in Ramadan or not.” Similarly, we do not make istikharah for things that are impermissible. Of course that is common sense, but I just wanted to mention that.
Supplication of Istikharah
Now, let’s go ahead and discuss the supplication of istikharah itself. I’ll go ahead and read the hadith to you. This is a hadith from Sahih Bukhari.
Jabir (may Allah be pleased with him), a very knowledgeable companion of the Prophet of Allah , says, “The Messenger of Allah would regularly teach us to do istikharah in all of our affairs and issues just like he would teach us a sūrah from the Qur’an.” What does that mean? He is drawing a parallel. This is the same type of verbage used to talk about the tashahhud in the prayer. “He would teach us the tashahhud like he would teach us a sūrah from the Quran.” It is also said about the istikharah supplication.
That means two things and has two implications. Implication #1: he emphasized the importance of memorizing it. Just like we memorize a sūrah of the Qur’an, similarly he emphasized the importance of memorizing the supplication of istikharah. Implication #2: read it in the Arabic language like we read a sūrah in the Arabic language. When we read a sūrah from the Qur’an in our prayers, we read it in Arabic. Again, there is that rare exception that I talked about, nevertheless the general rule is that we read the supplication in Arabic. The Prophet taught us to read the supplication of istikharah in Arabic like we read a sūrah in Arabic.
“He would say, ‘When any one of you is concerned with an issue or a matter, then he should pray two rak’ahs of optional, voluntary prayer aside from the fard obligatory prayer.'” This is where I was explicitly saying it has to be voluntary optional prayer because the Prophet explicitly in the hadith in the narration says it must be voluntary optional prayer.
Then the Prophet says, “Thumma…” Thumma in the Arabic language in classical Arabic, the Quranic and prophetic language, is to say “afterwards, after that, then afterwards.” It states that this occurs after the previous thing has been completed or concluded. Based on this, the vast overwhelming majority of scholars are of the opinion the supplication of istikharah is to be read after the prayer has been completed, after the taslim.
The Prophet reads the supplication for us and teaches us the supplication. I’m going to explain the meaning of the supplication.