Istighatha: Definition and Ruling
Istighatha – and its synonym Isti’ana – in the Arabic language means “pleading for help” . In the context of the study of Aqeedah, what is intended by this term is “Isti’ana bi-Ghayr Illah”, which refers to making Du’a to any entity other than Allah . Du’a is a petition to an empirically absent entity for seeking assistance in either some material affair or some assistance related to salvation.
In the fifth verse of Surah al-Fatiha, Allah instructs the believer to say, what is translated as: “It is you alone who we worship (Na’budu), and it is you alone from whom seek help (Nasta’een)” . On the authority of Ibn Hibban, Nu’man ibn Bashir narrates from the Prophet Muhammad (saws) the following statement, translated as: “Du’a is worship” . Tirmidhi reports from Anas ibn Malik with the Ziyadah: “Du’a is the essence of worship” . The preceding Ayat, Ahadith, and others have all established the classical understanding of Du’a and Isti’ana to be equivalent to worship.
As a result, with respect to the Hukm of Isti’ana bi-Ghayr Illah, the Ulama of Ahlus Sunnah have overwhelmingly spoken harshly against this practice. The Ulama of the Salafi and Deobandi schools of thought have generally considered the Hukm of Isti’ana bi-Ghayr Illah to be Shirk Akbar: an offence that removes one from the fold of Islam . The Murji’atul Fuqaha and Ahlul Kalam have generally considered the act to be an immense, potentially unforgivable sin, which can take someone out of Islam if accompanied by a heretical belief. The former position is the safest, strongest and best supported by the Qur’an and Sunnah, inshaAllah.
While many works have been written – primarily in Arabic – proving and arguing the Hukm of Istighatha and the concept of Shirk ‘Amali, this article will not delve any further into arguing the Hukm. Instead, we shall assume the aforementioned position of the Salafi and Deobandi schools, and explore the Masa’il and Shurut (conditions) of Istighatha pertaining to its Haqa’iq and Manat (real-world applications).
The Question of Tawassul
To commence with an analysis of the form of Istighatha, the following quote is paraphrased from the work of a Deobandi Shaykh, Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, who writes about three different forms of what he identifies as Istighatha:
- “To make Du’a directly to Allah, that He fulfills a request on the account of the holiness (Jaah) of a certain individual. This form of Du’a is permissible by consensus, regardless of whether this is done at the grave or some other place. No one has any objection to this.”
- “To go close to a grave and make a petition directly to a person to ask Allah of something on the petitioner’s behalf, such as the saying: “Oh Fulan! Make Du’a for me that Allah fulfills such-and-such request.” There is a difference among the Ulama regarding this. Those who consider this permissible (Halal) are those believe that the dead can hear around their grave, and those who consider this prohibited (Haram) do so because they do not believe that the dead can hear. However, on account of the hearing of the Prophets (Anbiya), they are exempt.”
- “To make Du’a to the dead directly, such as saying: “Oh Fulan! Please aid me in fulfilling such and such task”. This is Shirk, regardless of whether this is said at the grave or away from it. As for what has been mentioned in some ahadith such as: “Aid me, Oh servants of Allah!” In reality, this is not Isti’ana from the dead, but the seeking of aid from the servants of Allah present in the desert. So this is not from the concept of isti’anah. To bring this as evidence for its permissibility is ignorance of the meaning of the hadith.” 
The Shaykh brings this entire discussion under the topic of Istighatha. However, what is meant by Istighatha for the purposes of this article is only the third category. The first two categories are more accurately labeled as “Tawassul”, which has its own Ahkam and Ikhtilaf therein that is debated to by our scholars to a degree of nuance exceeding the scope of this article. However, that is a separate issue from the discussion of Istighatha, and will not be addressed from here on out.
Du’a or Talab?
Istighatha is also a similar but separate action from simple “Talab” (requests). Talab can be linguistically considered as a Du’a, but is technically different in that it is Halal to direct to the creation of Allah, in the sense that it does not meet the requirement of empirical absence to be considered Du’a.
With respect to the empirical proximity and causal capability between the petitioned and the petitioner, “Talab” has two Shurut (conditions) that determine its legality. If any of these two conditions are not met, the petition is rendered as “Du’a”, which is an act of Ibadah that can only be directed to Allah. These two conditions are derived from considering the linguistic meaning of Du’a, analyzing it’s usage and application throughout the Prophetic era, and distinguishing its specific characteristics through rigorous inductive abstraction (Istiqra’ Tamm).
The two conditions of the petitioned is that he must be both: 1) Hadhir, and 2) Qadir.
The First Condition
“Hadhir” refers to empirical presence, traditionally characterized by the conditions of being Hissi (empirical), Tab’i (physical), and A’di (normal) . This condition means that the petitioned must be empirically perceived by the petitioner for the latter to specify the former in directing a petition. In this case, perception is the requirement for specification; in the absence of a specified (Ma’rifah) petitioner, empirically perceived presence is no longer a condition for being a normative “Talab”.
The following three cases are examples in which the condition of “Hadhir” is met:
1) When a someone makes a request in person, in which the one petitioned is perceived by the petitioner through all of his physical senses.
2) When a request is being made over a distance through some physical means – be it in writing or phone call – in which the presence and actions of the one petitioned is perceived by the petitioner through his hearing or sight respectively.
3) When the petitioned is not usually physically perceivable, but is being perceived through some non-physical means. Such is the case for an individual perceiving a dead saint, prophet, angel, or jinn. This perception may take place in a waken state, in dreams, or even in delusions and hallucinations (Awham). In all such cases, the petitioned is deemed empirically present to the petitioner, and the petition qualifies as a normative “Talab”, which is Halal. If the petitioner does not genuinely perceive the petitioned with his senses (be they faulty or sound), then the condition of “Hadhir” for the petitioned is not met.
The following three cases are examples of scenarios in which the condition of being Hadhir is not required:
A) When the petitioner is not specified through language or intention by a definite article or proper name/pronoun. This is the case when a wounded calls out “Doctor save me!”, or a stranded calls out “anyone help me!”. Because the petitioner is not specifying any specific doctor or person to help him, the petitioned would not be considered specified (Ma’rifah).
B) When the empirical perception of the petitioned is rationally possible for the petitioner, but – due to some circumstance – becomes a matter of uncertainty (Shakk). This is the case for example when a patient yells “Dr. Ahmad, help me!”, but is unsure whether Dr. Ahmad is actually present to be able to help him/her.
C) When the empirical perception of the petitioned is rationally possible for the petitioner, but physically impossible due to some circumstance. An example of this is when a deaf and blind man asks Dr. Ahmad for help.
The Second Condition
“Qadir”—the second condition—relates to the causal ability of the petitioned to actuate the request. This means that the entity petitioned must — by Islamic epistemological standards — possess the actual ability to assist the petitioner with the affairs of the petition. The determination of this causal efficacy is deemed legitimate on the basis of reasonable presupposition (Dhann Rajih).
The following three cases provide one example of the condition of “Qadir” being met, followed by two examples in which it isn’t met:
1) When a man asks another man to help him lift some wood. It is generally within the causal efficacy of humans to be able to lift wood, so the petitioner is reasonably justified in making this petition, regardless of the apparent strength of the petitioned. Even if the petitioner later finds out that the man is physically too weak to lift the wood, the petition remains justified within the context of the condition of “Qadir”. This also applies to petitions made remotely through telecommunications.
2-A) The first of the two examples in which the requirement of Qadir is not met is when the petitioned is clearly deprived of the causal efficacy to fulfil the petition, as determined by reasonable epistemological standards, including prevalent scientific knowledge. This is the case when we ask a statue, idol, or a piece of wood or stone for help, since clearly they cannot provide any assistance to us.
This is not the case when we ask our phones for help saying “Hey Alexa” or something of the sort, because A) phones in the modern times are able to respond satisfactorily to such petitions – as determined through experience – and B) technically such a statement would not be a “Talab” towards a sentient entity, but rather a type of “code phrase” to initiate a set of pre-programmed actions from a lifeless entity.
2-B) The second of the two invalid examples is when the causal ability of the petitioned as a category (Jins) is insufficiently established through empirical or textual means. Generally, such cases are scientifically invalid, and justified only through dubious spiritual or textual teachings.
The Case of Tasarruf
A prevalent example of the second invalid scenario (2-B) is the act of making a petition on the basis of a belief in Tasarruf. Tasarruf is a concept in which a saint allegedly attains a level of knowledge about reality to the extent of being attributed control over the atoms (Jawahir) of the universe by virtue of his cognitive faculties, such that he is said to induce changes and effects in the world through the power of his “mind” in a manner generally deemed unnatural or unscientific .
Such a scenario is not taken as a normative (‘Adi) consideration in Islamic epistemology, and as such, would fall under the example cited in 2-B. So even if a saint is popularly considered to possess supernatural abilities to such a degree, making a petition hinged upon the utilization of such abilities does not meet the condition of “Qadir”, unless the alleged supernatural phenomena are actually witnessed first hand by the petitioners – as was the case for the companions of Musa and Isa AS as they performed miracles before their eyes as proofs of Prophethood.
A more clear example of such a scenario is when someone claims to be Wali who is vested with supernatural powers, and may even be widely acclaimed to possess those supernatural powers. A petition to such an individual – for example – to split the red sea, would not meet the requirement of “Qadir” to be considered a normative/natural “Talab”, unless such phenomena is actually witnessed first hand by the petitioner.
This concludes the summary of the definition, ruling, and conditions of Istighatha. For the purposes of clarification, inshaAllah, this article will be of benefit and answer some lingering questions. Unfortunately, the practice of Istighatha is becoming increasingly prevalent in circles claiming the mantle of Islam, but in reality it is a practice performed by those submerged within the quagmires of Shirk. May Allah keep this Ummah upon the pristine path of Tawheed, and forgive me for any mistakes I may have made in conveying the message.
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 Al-Mawrid; p. 93, 95
 Muhammad ibn Adam, Darul Iftaa; q. 7556
 Al-Qur’an, Surah al-Fatiha; a. 05
 Ibn Hibban, Taqasim al-Anwa; h. 890
 Tirmidhi, Jami’ al-Mukhtasar; h. 3371
 Isma’il Nakhuda, “Istighatha”; Deoband
 Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, Fatawa Rashidiya; p. 139
 Sayyid Abul-Hasan; Sharh Taqwiyat al-Iman
 Ashraf Ali Thanawi, Imdad al-Fatawa; v. 05, p. 236-241