What does Istikhara Mean?
The word Istikharah comes from the root word of khayr. Khair in the Arabic language in its origins is representative of all that which is good. Khair 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 Istikhara itself.
Just like the meaning, the prayer Salaatul 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 Istikhara, the purpose of the Salaah is similarly to seek that which is good from Allah .
I want to Insha’Allāh 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 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 Istikhara to understand Istikhara 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
Istikharah is the third of a three-step decision making process.
Step 1- Use your intellect, ability and critical thinking that Allah has blessed each and every 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 intelligence and ability to think that Allah has given him. 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.
Step 2- Seeking counsel and seeking advice. It really depends on what type of decision you are trying to make. If you want to buy a car, you first do research online and do some car shopping and test drove and narrow down to options. Now seeking counsel and advice. if it is more of a personal issue, something that is a life type of decision, then you seek the counsel and advice from somebody who sincerely honestly cares about you, somebody who is experienced and mature and maybe even spiritually focused who can provide to you.
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.
Step 3- The final step is then Istikharah. What has occurred up to this point that you started with no idea of what to do. You narrowed it down to options you sought counsel and got some advice. At this point in time you are struggling with this or that. You are starting to lean in one direction, but you are a little conflicted but you need a little confidence. 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 Wudu (Ablution) . You face towards the Qiblah (direction of the Kabah).
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 Wuḍu for prayer; you need Wuḍu’ for Istikharah.
Istikharah is a prayer just like Zuhr 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. Wuḍu, dressing appropriately, facing the Qiblah, Allāhu 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 Salatul-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 Salaah and for 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 Rakah’s, two units, of Nafl (voluntary, supererogatory) prayer. Why am I emphasizing and specifying it to be two Rakah’s of a voluntary prayer? When we read the text of the Hadīth together Insha-Allah, at that time you will see it. It is mentioned explicitly within the text of the Hadīth by the Messenger of Allah . No debate and no question here.
What that means is that you can’t pray Salatul-‘Eshā’ 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 Rakah’s of prayer that are voluntary and optional. You pray those two Rakah’s of prayer. There is nothing different about those two units of prayer. You pray them as you should pray any other Salaah. 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 Rakah’s, Qiyāam, Rukū’, Sujood. You sit at the end, Tashahhud, Salawaat on the Messenger , supplication, Salaam, and that’s it.
There is no extra special Surah that should be recited here. There’s nothing that is authentically narrated from the Prophet about reciting this in the first Rakah and that in the second Rakah. There is nothing of that sort.
What to do Step By Step
1- Make your intention by saying the Niyyah for Salaatul Istikharah.
2- Pray two Nafl Rakah’s
3- Once complete recite the supplication for Istikharah as taught to us by the Prophet (SAW). It must be read in Arabic. There are many opinions as to when the supplication can be recited either before or after.
4- Ask your question, problem etc. make sure that what you are asking are questions that will give a yes or no answer. Be direct in what you are asking ie: Should i marry so and so use this person’s name
Nevertheless, going back to the procedure. We talked about praying two Rakah’s, 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 Dua after that. The supplication that you read in Arabic is the supplication and Dua’ itself.
Outcome of Istikharah
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 primary outcome of the Istikharah is the clarity of mind and confidence to make the decision that you need to make. 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.
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.
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.
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 Sirīn 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, Alḥamdulillāh. 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 ‘Abdullāh b. Zubayr , one of the companions of the Prophet and probably ‘Ā’ishah’s best and brightest student.
He says, “I made Istikharah with Allāh 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 istikhārah multiple times, then you have to make istikhārah 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.
Can someone else do Istikharah for you?
There is no precedent. There is no religious verification for having someone else do Istikharah for you. There is nothing mentioned in the Hadith of the Prophet . There is no precedent from the generation of the Saḥabah. The classical furqaha’ 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.
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 Maghrib right now or time for Esha right now, why don’t I go ahead and take that first step? Why don’t I go make wuḍu’, stand up and pray.
May Allah bless us all to do Istikharah and to be pleased with Allah’s Decree and decision in our affairs and issues.