Actually, that is not the question. It is evident from the corpus of traditions available to us that the practice of Istikhara is a very desirable practice, and one that should be employed at every occasion. In a Prophetic tradition narrated in Bihar al-Anwar, the Prophet of Allah states: “Among the felicities of the children of Adam is that he performs an Istikhara and his pleasure in that which Allah has decreed for him. And among the misfortunes of the children of Adam is abandoning the Istikhara and not being pleased with what Allah has decreed.” (Translation of the tradition was copied from the text Istikhara: Seeking the Best from Allah, available online.)
In another tradition, Amir al-Mu’mineen (peace be upon him) states in his last will to his son Imam al-Hasan (peace be upon him): “And perform a lot of Istikharas.” In fact, those who abstain from Istikhara are harshly reprimanded in certain traditions: “Perform the Istikhara and do not select (based on your own opinion). How many a person selected an affair which was the cause of his doom.”
Such traditions are a plenty, and we therefore observe the impact of such traditions on the thinking of our scholars as well. Many of them have highly recommended the practice of Istikhara in all our life affairs, including buying and selling, travelling, marrying and various other occasions.
The question is thus not whether we should do an Istikhara or not; rather, it is how we should be doing it. In this era, the word Istikhara evokes in the mind the practice of divination and foretelling with the Qur’an or a rosary. This however was not the general understanding of our scholars nor of the practicing believers who lived during the times of the Imams or shortly thereafter.
In order to grasp the common understanding of Istikhara in that era, one needs to refer to the Arabic lexicographers. They unanimously indicate that the three letter root for the term Istikhara is khayr, which means goodness. Hence, the word Istikhara is best translated as seeking goodness, much as istighfar is translated as seeking forgiveness. The famous lexicographer, al-Raghib al-Isfahani, in his Mufradaat notes the following: “The servant performed an Istikhara, and so his Lord destined goodness for him: that is, he sought goodness from Him and so He granted it.”
The authors of Majma’ al-Bahrayn and Lisan al-Arab also concur with the same definition. Given that this is the root meaning of the word, it becomes evident that there are various ways of seeking goodness from Allah. Below, we shall describe a few of the more popular ways of doing Istikhara, according to the traditions of the Holy Infallibles (peace be upon them all).
A Prayer for Goodness
The most common way of performing an Istikhara during the times of the Infallibles and centuries later was to resort to prayer and supplication. This manner was applicable in cases where a person felt strongly about his decision, but experienced moments of hesitation within himself. In such situations the Imams would recommend the individual to go ahead with his decision, and couple it with an Istikhara, or a prayer.
Shaikh al-Tusi narrates that Imam al-Sadiq (peace be upon him) was once asked concerning the Istikhara, to which he responded, “(One should state), Astakhirullah (I seek goodness from Allah)”. Then he said, “You should state it a hundred and one times in important affairs, and ten times in affairs that are not as important.”
Such narrations are plenty in the books of traditions. Some recommend these words to be uttered during the last prostration of the night prayer, whilst other narrations may recommend a different time or a different supplication. The following tradition illustrates the practice of Imam al-Sajjad (peace be upon him) in performing the Istikhara. Narrated once again from Shaikh al-Tusi, when Ali ibn al-Hussain would plan to go for Hajj or Umrah, or buy or sell an item, or free a slave, he would purify himself (perform wudhu) and offer two units of prayer. He would then supplicate by saying (at the end of the prayer), “O Allah, if this affair is good for me in my faith, my world and my hereafter and my immediate matters and their future consequences, then ease it for me in the best of manners and the most beautiful of manners, and if the affair is harmful to my faith, my world and my hereafter and my immediate matters and their future consequences, then avert it from me in the best of manners.”
In fact, historical records show that Imam al-Hussain (peace be upon him) performed an Istikhara in a similar manner in Mecca before embarking on his journey to Kufa. Clearly, the concept of Istikhara as understood from these traditions and others revolves around supplication, and a prayer of seeking goodness from the Lord. This is the meaning that the infallibles wished to convey, and it is this meaning that was understood by our predecessors. With respect to the issue of marriage, Shaikh al-Mufid highly recommends that a person perform an Istikhara before deciding to marry. He states in his text al-Muqni’ah: “One who wishes to get married, should first search for a spouse according to the criteria that we have already elaborated. Then, he should perform an Istikhara with Allah, the Mighty and Majestic by stating, ‘O Allah, I wish to get married, make it easy for me to acquire from the women, the best of them in character and physique, the most chaste amongst them, the most protective of herself, her faith and my trust that I place with her.'”
Again we note that the Istikhara, as understood by Shaikh al-Mufid is not more than a prayer.
This method of performing Istikhara is applicable in cases where a person wishes to implement a decision, but faces a little hesitation within himself. In fact, it is also applicable where there is no hesitation, for our efforts merely facilitate the results, and it is the will of the Lord that causes it to occur.
However, there are instances where a person is confused between multiple options, and cannot choose either of them. In this case, the Infallibles still insist that the individual perform an Istikhara, but in a different manner.
Prayer and Consultation
One effective manner of seeking goodness from Allah is to seek the solution for the problem in the tongue of His creatures. However, before we engage in seeking advice from an expert in the field of our concern, traditions encourage us to perform an Istikhara.
Narrated from Imam al-Sadiq, “When you wish to embark on an affair, do not seek counsel from anyone until you have sought counsel from Allah.” The narrator states, “I said, ‘And how should I seek counsel from my Lord?'” Imam Sadiq replied, “You should state Astakhirullah (I seek goodness from Allah) one hundred times, and then you should seek counsel from people, for surely Allah will cause what is good for you to flow on the tongue of whomever He wishes.”
In this day and age, the Istikhara has become a resort – that is, when it is not abused – for culminating the confusion in the minds of the affected, and – when abused – a means to evade responsibility and diligence in one’s affairs. However, it is worth noting that the practice proposed by the Infallibles leads to an increase in a person’s neural activity, or his intelligence, and an increase in his faith in Allah. This is self-evident from the subsequent tradition, which elaborates yet another manner of performing an Istikhara.
Prayer and Reflection
Narrated from Shaikh Kulayni, a group of people asked Imam al-Ridha (peace be upon him) regarding whether they should take the land route or ride the seas to reach Egypt. He informed them of the preference of going by land, and said, “(Travel by) the land, and come to the mosque at a time other than the time for the obligatory prayers, and offer two units of prayer and seek goodness from Allah a hundred times, and then look into your heart – whichever of the two options occur to you, act accordingly.” The companion later informed him that traveling by land is more dear to me, and the Imam responded, “And to me as well.”
In cases of confusion, the Infallibles wished their followers to act with diligence, and make decisions based on the data that was available to them without relying on divination in its various forms. In this sense, the Istikhara is transformed into a practice that increases one’s faith in Allah and in the power of prayer. It was only in cases where none of the above methods seem to work, did the infallibles ask the followers to resort to the Qur’an.
Prayer and the Qur’an
A man once came to the presence of Imam al-Sadiq and stated, “I wish to perform a task, and I seek goodness from Allah, but my opinion does not accord with what is good for me.” The Imam replied, “Open the Qur’an and consider the verse that your eyes fall on, and act according to it, God-willing.”
In other traditions, the Imams have taught us to recite certain supplications before opening the Qur’an. It is very obvious from this narration that the Shi’as living during the time of the Imam did not associate the concept of Istikhara with any form of divination with the Qur’an. The man states that he performed an Istikhara and apparently in his judgment, it did not result in his success. The Imam, knowing what the man understood from the practice of Istikhara, taught him a manner that was not obvious to him.
It can therefore be concluded from the traditions mentioned above that the practice of Istikhara as understood in the parlance of our predecessors is quite different from what is practiced today. In most cases, the word Istikhara evoked the meaning of prayer and supplication, and had little correlation with the Qur’an. It was a practice that encouraged the use of the intellect and mutual cooperation, and coupled it with faith in the Almighty Lord.