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If one of you thinks to embark upon something, he should pray two units of prayer

“If one of you thinks to embark upon something, he should pray two units of prayer…”
Sheikh Bandar b. Nâfi` al-`Abdalî
Jâbir b. `Abd Allah relates that Allah’s Messenger used to teach them the prayer to seek assistance in a decision (istikhârah) in the same way that he taught them a chapter of the Qur’ân. He said: “If one of you thinks to embark upon something, he should pray two units of prayer aside from the obligatory prayer, then say:

“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’.”

He said: “Then state your need.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî, Sunan Abî Dâwûd, Sunan al-Tirmidhî, Sunan al-Nasâ’î, Sunan Ibn Mâjah, and others]

Although there are other hadith related to seeking Allah’s guidance in a decision, only the hadith of Jâbir makes mention of praying two units of voluntary prayer beforehand.

The meaning of the hadîth:

The term “istikhârah” means to ask for the good of something. In the specific context of this hadith, it means for a person to ask Allah for the best of two possibilities when he needs either one or the other of them to happen.

The statement “If one of you thinks to embark upon something…” implies that the time for istikhârah is when a person’s heart first inclines to doing something. Such a person seeks Allah’s blessing by praying to Him and asking Him for what is best. He is not a person who is fully decided on his course of action.

The Arabic word used in the text is “ hamm”, meaning to have an initial resolve to want to do something without actually doing it. It is not a firm resolve. A person should seek Allah’s decision with an open mind. He should not have his mind made up already.

The context of this hadîth is general. This means that we should seek Allah’s decision in all of our affairs, great or small. Al-Shawkânî observes Nayl al-Awtâr (3/315)]:

A person should not consider any matter too small or insignificant for istikhârah. Many affairs that we take lightly can bring great harm to us, sometimes if we embark upon them and sometimes if we neglect them. This is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “One of you should ask his Lord, even for the strap of his sandal.”

However, scholars point out that this does not include matters wherein a person is supposed to know what is right and what is wrong. What is known to be good, like acts or worship are not matters for istikhârah. Likewise, there is no need for a person to perform istikhârah about committing sins and iniquities. The answer to these matters is already known.

However, it is permissible for a person to perform istikhârah to determine whether he should perform Hajj in a given year, especially when the possibility of danger is present or the possibility of finding good traveling companions is uncertain.

A person should definitely perform the istikhârah for important matters like whether or not to marry someone, purchase a home or a car, or enter into a business venture.

Its legal implications:

There are many questions brought up by this hadîth. Among them are the following:

The first question:

Should the istikhârah prayer be performed before seeking the counsel of others?

Some scholars are of the opinion that the counsel of others should be sought first. Al-Nawawî says:

It is preferable to consult with people who are known for their good advice, their sympathy, and their expertise before performing istikhârah. These people should be reputed for their religiousness and their knowledge. Allah says: “And consult them in the affair.” If, after seeking consultation, the matter seems to be in the person’s best interest, he should then seek Allah’s decision in the matter.

Ibn Taymiyah says: “No one regrets who seeks Allah’s decision and consults with His creatures and is resolved in his affair.”

I see the matter to be open. If a person wishes to seek the consultation of others before performing istikhârah, he should do so. If he prefers to perform istikhârah first, then there is nothing wrong with that either. What is desired is that he does both.

The second question:

Can a person perform the istikhârah prayer by offering more than two units of prayer?

Clearly, the Sunnah is to perform two units of prayer, since the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “…he should pray two units of prayer…”

A single unit of prayer will therefore be insufficient. However, some scholars permit praying more than two units of prayer on the basis of the hadîth about voluntary prayers related by Abû Ayyûb that reads: “Pray what has been written for you of prayer.”

Ibn Hajar, in his commentary on the hadîth of istikhârah, qualifies this permission by saying Fath al-Bârî (11/185)]:

What seems clear is that it is required for a person to offer the taslîm after each two units of prayer, since this is the only way that the meaning of “two units” can be realized. Therefore, a prayer of – for instance – four consecutive units of prayer will one taslîm will not fulfill the requirement of this prayer. However, al-Nawawî’s discussion on the matter seems to imply that it would.

In any event, it is undoubtedly better to follow what is found in the hadîth and offer the istikârah prayer as two units of prayer. The Prophet’s words “…he should pray two units of prayer…” should be construed as qualifying his general statement about voluntary prayers that we may pray as many units of prayer as Allah has decreed for us.

The third question:

Is it acceptable to offer the supplication of istikhârah after other types of prayer, like the standard Sunnah prayers and the prayer for greeting the mosque (tahiyyah al-masjid)?

Al-Nawawî, in his discussion of this prayer, seems to think that this would be acceptable. Ibn Hajar, however, disagrees, and writes [Fath al-Bârî (11/185)]:

(Al-Nawawî’s) statement is general, but his opinion is questionable. It seems better to say: if a person has the intention to pray that other prayer and the istikhârah prayer together from the onset, then this will be acceptable. However, if he did not initially have that intention, this will not be the case. (The istikhârah prayer) differs from tahiyyah al-masjid in that the purpose for tahiyyah al-masjid is to occupy the moment with the remembrance of Allah, whereas the purpose of the istikhârah prayer is to have the supplication occur either after it or within it.

Al-Sheikh al-`Uthaymîn says the following [Majmû` Fatâwâ Ibn al-`Uthaymîn (14/322)]:

The supplication of istikhârah should not be read after a person prays tahiyyah al-masjid or his Sunnah prayers without having the intention for istikhârah from the onset. This is because the hadîth clearly requests from us a two-unit prayer for the purpose of istikhârah. In the event that he had an intention for istikhârah before performing tahiyyah al-masjid or his Sunnah prayer, then the apparent meaning of the hadîth indicates that this will be sufficient for him, for it says: “…pray two units of prayer aside from the obligatory prayer…”. This statement excludes nothing but the obligatory prayers.

At the same time, there is the possibility that it will not suffice him, since the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “If one of you thinks to embark upon something, he should pray two units of prayer…” This conveys the idea that the prayer has no other purpose for it besides that of istikhârah. On account of this possibility, I consider it better for a person to pray two separate units of prayer for this purpose. It may be that the Prophet (peace be upon him) when he said “…aside from the obligatory prayer…” meant that we should offer a separate voluntary prayer. And Allah knows best.

The fourth question:

Should the supplication of istikhârah be offered during the prayer or after it?

The majority of scholars are of the opinion that the supplication of istikhârah must only be offered after the worshipper has completely finished his prayer. Al-Qurtubî says: “He should offer the supplication after saying salâm.” This is also the view of al-Shawkânî.

Ibn Hajar is of the opinion that it is permissible to offer the supplication during the prayer, either during the prostration or immediately after reciting the tashahhud.

Ibn Taymiyyah holds the view that the supplication should be offered before the salâm.

I consider the opinion of the majority to be the most correct one, since this is the most obvious understanding to be gleaned from the hadîth.

The fifth question:

Should the supplication of istikhârah be preceded and followed by the invocations customarily offered at the beginning and end of our supplications?

Many scholars hold the view that it is preferable to open and close the supplication of istikhârah with the customary praises of Allah and salutations upon the Prophet (peace be upon him).

Ibn `Âbidîn says: “It is preferable to precede one’s supplication and to close it by praising Him and offering salutations.”

Al-Nawawî says: “It is preferable to precede the supplication that is mentioned and to close it with the praise of Allah and with offering salutations and peace upon Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him).”

However, it has also been argued that the best thing to do is recite the supplication exactly as it appears in the text of the hadîth. And Allah knows best.

Some benefits of this hadîth:

1. The hadîth shows us how important it is to seek help from Allah in our decisions and how strongly the Prophet (peace be upon him) encouraged us to do so. He used to teach his Companions the supplication for istikhârah with the same attention and care as he would teach them a chapter of the Qur’ân.

This does not imply that the istikhârah prayer is obligatory. Al-`Irâqî observes:

I know of no one who says that istikhârah is obligatory, though this conclusion could be drawn from the fact that it was taught in the same manner that a chapter of the Qur’ân was taught. Some scholars have used as evidence for the tashahhud being obligatory in prayer the fact that Ibn Mas`ûd said: “He used to teach us the tashahhud in the same way that he taught us a chapter of the Qur’ân.”

Among the evidence that istikhârah is not obligatory are the authentic hadîth that confine the obligatory prayers to five, like the hadith where a man asked: “Must I perform any besides these prayers?” and the Prophet (peace be upon him) replied: “No, not unless you do so voluntarily.”

2. This prayer means submitting our affair to Allah and taking recourse in Him to secure for us what is good for us in this world and the next. It implies on our part an admission of our powerlessness and helplessness before our Lord. For this, we must knock on the door of our Sovereign and there is no better way for us to do this than through supplication and prayer. This is because prayer is our way of glorifying Allah and praising Him. It is how we express our need for Him. Whenever the Prophet (peace be upon him) was troubled by a problem, he sought refuge from it in prayer. Prayer is our way of relating to our Lord. It is how we beseech Him, beg Him, and place all our hopes upon Him.





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