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Understanding the Letter and Spirit through the Prayer of Istikharah
Sheharbano Ali


I am sure reading the title of this article would have captured the attention of many readers. For many, the title alone might even be a compelling reason to carry on reading this article. Such is the nature of this topic. Or if I may say, the fallacy that has been spread related to this particular practice, by the people who claim themselves to be “religious presenters” has led to ambiguity among the minds of the masses. The clarity along with peace of mind that this profound prayer has to offer has sadly been engulfed in self-invented ways and completely overshadowed by the notions of the ones who claim to represent religion. Not to mention, the whole essence of religion has been dyed by tradition, emotions and many a times, own established philosophies, making it impossible to separate the former from the latter. This prayer of istikharah, in its original form taught to us by the Prophet (sws) himself, of course, has not been spared from the same injustice as the whole religion has undergone. Thanks to technological advances that we have been able to preserve the true and original “words” of the prayer, as they have been transmitted generation after generation both verbally and orally. This process of tawatur has played the key role in preserving the words revealed by God to the Prophet (sws) in its truest form.

But mind you, I only said “words”. A page can perfectly preserve words and pass down those same words year after year, making their way in the memories of masses upon masses, passing it down to generations after generations. This is a gift our creator has bestowed upon us and we should be thankful to Him for this extraordinary capability given to us human beings in the form of both memory and speech. These words, however, are a mere mixture of letters void of their true spirit. In order to maintain the true spirit of these words it is the duty of both the writer/speaker as well as the reader/listener to make sure to establish what needs to be established by maintaining the true spirit of the subject. A writer/speaker can accomplish this by explaining the background, setting, as well as the purpose those particular words serve. Same goes for the reader; the reader must not separate the two in order to form his own understanding of the given subject, rather, should try to keep up as much as possible with what the writer/speaker is trying to establish on the subject that he is presenting.

Our religion has encountered a similar tragedy. In simpler words, Islam, both partially and wholly, is often misunderstood because of separating the two very essential components mentioned above; the letter and the spirit. Yes, religious presenters nonetheless are responsible, but the problem lies with the laypersons as well whetreby there seems to be no effort to reach to the truth with utmost honesty. In my humble understanding, the foundation of this setback has arisen by assuming ourselves as being “born” Muslims rather than “thinking” Muslims. These indifferent minds are offering certain rituals, reading specific words that have been passed on to them from generations and most of them don’t have a shadow of desire to learn why they are doing what they are doing, what they have been doing. The mind and soul is devoid of the exercise of both learning and unlearning. Thus, as a result, the same equilibrium follows down from generations creating a vacuum whereby no learning is taking place and no new things are discovered. Instead, either they receive the distorted bit by those who claim to be the presenters and go on practicing exactly the way it was given to them without challenging. Or, others are left confused and eventually, go on to abandon faith all together when nothing makes sense to them.

This injustice to religion can be explained through the simple example of the prayer of istikharah and how it is both presented and comprehended by the Muslims. I will begin by establishing what istikharah is so that the readership would automatically know what it is absolutely not. I’ll do that by sharing my personal experience with this prayer few years back in 2016 when I embarked on the journey of becoming a “religious” person. Among the very first things that I introduced myself to was this prayer of istikharah as I was facing desperate times. Back then I had not yet started to study Islam consciously rather you could say that I was at the introductory phase. However, the problem that I was going through, the istikharah prayer seemed to be a great solution considering all that I had heard about it. Desperate times, desperate measures. Thankfully, I had put in a lot of effort to know myself what this prayer really is, pondered upon its words, tried to gather all the satisfactory information I could to try to find out the reality behind it as well as the spirit behind it. So I started with the journey. I’m sorry, neither am I a writer nor do I have the capability to bring life to words but I can assure the readers that God manifested Himself and each of His attributes to me through this prayer and fulfilled each of what He has offered for us through the words of this particular prayer. Initially, just when I had started reflecting upon this prayer and began translating it into practice, I felt like everything had started falling into place. I could experience His power manifesting in the change of circumstances around me. I could see the impossible becoming possible as He showed me that He undoubtedly is the All Powerful. What seemed like a far-fetched thing to achieve was now offering itself to me. In that moment, I realized that truly nothing is impossible for Him. Running parallel to this process was the progression of my faith. It was getting stronger and stronger by this very prayer as I was getting to experience the words of this prayer in real. As time went on, he unfolded such aspects of the subject I was running after that I had never thought about in such a manner before. Or at least never felt the need to give consideration to, as the thought of separation with the subject was unthinkable. One by one, all the hidden aspects that He was disclosing were gaining verification either through a person or some other source, which further convinced me why He was keeping me away from that thing in the first place even before this process began. Since He had already shown me that for Him to present me with that thing is no big deal at all. So, I got to experience and thus verify His attributes that the prayer was asserting. That He is the All-Capable and All-Knowledgeable.

Four years have now passed ladies and gentlemen, and I cannot express the gratitude I feel towards my Lord God for making me get rid of the thing that I was running after. Still, every now and then He reveals to me an aspect of why letting it go was essential and why having it was not better for me, as if He, my Lord, is seeking the verification of His servant in order for His servant to appreciate and be in awe of who my Creator is. Now if I look at it in hindsight, and that too with the eyes of a worldly person, I gained nothing special out of the whole experience. However, if you ask me what I earned through all this, I would put it simply in a few words: Recognition of Who my Creator is. This prayer became a  proof for me that God does exist and that too with All of His Perfect Attributes rightly mentioned in this prayer taught to us by our beloved prophet (sws).

And this leads to my conclusion. There are two lessons that the readers should leave themselves with. Firstly, du‘a is a powerful tool to form and strengthen your relationship with the creator. What has been decreed has been decreed but once you submit yourself to the Lord God by knowing him through experience, inference and established history, He will make you submit to the reality. You will be looking at things with the eyes of the heart, you will able to look beyond the manifest and extract the good out of every situation that you face. You will be thankful to Him for the “apparent” trials that you face because you know that it was either to make you learn some lesson or to purify your faith further. Likewise, istikharah is also a prayer just like any other prayer. Istikharah has not come to change the reality around you. It is you asking from your Lord God to guide you towards what is best for you and you will surely be guided if you make use of each of your faculty wisely during the process. Along this prayer you do not abandon making use of the most valuable gift bestowed upon us by the creator and that is intellect. Once a human being abandons intellect, he no longer stays a human being. And this brings me to my second and last point. If all of us start making efforts to consciously study religion and the spirit or wisdom behind each of its individual components then we would have a better understanding of it. We will be able to appreciate and recognize the hidden pearls of wisdom behind each of the practices and rituals that have been sanctioned by the Prophet (sws). Then we would also not deprive ourselves of the numerous benefits that this prayer of istikharah has to offer us only if we strive to find the purpose it serves. If we learn to contemplate and reflect on its words and what they mean and then allow ourselves the chance to decide whether in any way it deems appropriate for us to ask people to do istikharah on our behalf or to look for white or green in your dreams as an answer to this prayer, we will be able to protect ourselves from the misconceptions out there. So, ladies and gentlemen equip yourselves with knowledge and learn to consider both the letter and the spirit when you approach religion.



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