GUIDELINES ON ISTIKHĀRAH
What does istikhārah mean? It means to ask Allah, may He be Exalted, to choose (yakhtār) for you the better (khayr) of two matters: either an act or its omission. Khārallāh: Allah chose; Istakhārallāh: He (= the slave) asked Allah to choose (for him). The whole Shādhilī path is centered on dropping self-orientation and entrusting the choice about matters to Allah.
What is the legal value of istikhārah, i.e. the judgment the Law assigns to it? Meritorious recommendation = it is mustahabb. That is so according to all the Sunni madhāhib.
Is istikhārah an important matter? Yes, as proven by the famous hadīth in Sahīh al-Bukhārī which stresses that the Prophet, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, used to teach it to the Companions the way he would teach a Qur’ānic sūrah = he, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, would teach it to them and ask them to teach it to others.
Though istikhārah is valuable as a whole principle in life, the precise wording of it as transmitted in the Prophetic reports should be adhered to, since the blessing (barakah) is found both in its form and in its content.
The hadīth in Sahīh al-Bukhārī mentions the fact that the Prophet, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, used to teach recourse to istikhārah in all matters = whether relating to this life or relating to the Next.
Istikhārah is not done about obligations of the Dīn one cannot but carry out. It is not done about things prohibited in the Dīn one cannot but refrain from carrying out. Istikhārah is not done about lawful things which are reprehensible (makrūhāt), since the preference to refrain from them is established by the Dīn. What is therefore the legitimate scope of istikhārah? a) The neutrally permissible (mubāh) in general, such as starting one business venture or another; b) the meritorious or recommended (mandūb) so long as a legal evidence (dalīl) does not accord greater weight to one mandūb over the other. For instance, if you have to choose between marrying either one of two Muslim women of comparative worth, or between traveling abroad to gain knowledge in either one of two institutes or localities of comparable merit, istikhārah is in order. You cannot however make istikhārah between something meritorious and something else which is neutrally permissible; or between something meritorious and a collective duty (fard kifāyah). If, for instance, it is a collective duty to write a manual of basic jurisprudence for English-speaking people where none is available and none but you can render justice to that obligation, you cannot resort to istikhārah to choose between doing that or help as editor of a nice Sufi text the like of which is already found in the market and available to readers.
In the said hadīth reported by al-Bukhārī in his Sahīh, the Prophet, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, says that “if any one of you develops an intention (hamma)”, he should do istikhārah. It means that istikhārah a) should precede a firm resolution to do something, and b) is not called upon whenever a thought crosses your mind without having developed into an intention properly so-called as yet.
The best method of istikhārah is to recite its formula after completing two units of prayer (rak`atayn): The phrase “two units of prayer” excludes compulsory prayers and includes all sunan, nawāfil and their like. For instance, if one performs two supererogatory prayers after the obligatory Sunset prayer or a two-unit prayer of greeting the mosque, he can on completion thereof recite the istikhārah, so long as he formulated the intention to do so before commencing it. He does not necessarily have to recite a distinct istikhārah prayer, even if that is obviously permissible.
He can recite only the Fātihah in those two units of prayer, or the Fātihah followed by a sūrah. The preferable one would be Sūrah al-Ikhlās (= the sūrah of devoted sincerity, where you wash yourself of any claim of personal strength and power and acknowledge His exclusive possession of strength and power); alternatively: «Your Lord creates and chooses whatever He wills» (Sūrah al-Qasas: 68) in the first unit and «When Allah and His Messenger have decided something, it is not for any man or woman of the mu’minūn to have a choice about it» (Sūrah al-Ahzāb: 36) in the second unit. The reason for choosing those two Qur’ānic passages is quite self-evident from their contents. You can consult the mushaf to memorize the original Arabic texts. If a person is for some reason unable to have the istikhārah preceded by two units of prayer, he is allowed to recite the istikhārah on its own, in accordance with the general Islamic principle enshrined in a Prophetic hadīth which says: “If I command you to do something, comply with it as best as you can” (Sahīh al-Bukhārī).
It is not impermissible for a person to make istikhārah on a matter involving someone else, but the latter will not earn its reward, though one hopes that he might benefit from such other person’s istikhārah.
It is recommended to frame the istikhārah by praise of Allah and the prayer of blessing + greeting of peace on the Prophet, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam (= before and after the formula of istikhārah). The evidence? The general etiquettes of supplication, of which istikhārah is an integral part.
What should one do after reciting the istikhārah according to the foregoing? a) Once he has recited it, he embarks on any one of the two matters he was undecided about, without waiting for anything else, as stated by as-Subkī (a great bastion of knowledge and correct doctrine who triumphantly refuted the errors of Ibn Taymiyyah); b) He embarks on what his heart feels reposefully inclined to, as stated by an-Nawawī.
What if his heart feels expanded towards neither of the two options he asked Allah to choose for him? He repeats the istikhārah. If he cannot wait indefinitely after doing so, he selects the option which has been made easier for him, as that is in itself an indicator of His authorization of that option.
His heart leaning reposefully on one option instead of another can be gathered from the fact it has been eased for him, from a dream he has, from a dream someone else has about it, or from some other such pointer.
Any Muslim, from the Caliph or King down to the simplest of subjects, can reap the benefit of istikhārah and be raised up by practicing it, just as each of them can bring īmān, pray, remember Allah, stand in the plains of ‘Arafāt robed in the plain ihrām or be addressed by Him on the Day of Rising.
Finally, the wording of the hadīth seems to indicate that one should do istikhārah on an ad hoc basis, whenever a contingent situation calls for it. Ostensibly, it does not make room for a generic advance istikhārah on whatever a human being might do in a day. However, Muhyid-Dīn b. ‘Arabī said his likes had tested that, and had found every good to be stored in it. One word of caution: Such a dilation of the practice is for accomplished Sufis and not for every Muslim. Knowing ourselves is the path to knowing Allah.