Beseeching for Help (Istighathah)

Purging disbelief in Muhammad

Allāh has conferred infinite blessings on the followers of the Holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم). One of these blessings is their impossibility to return to disbelief after embracing Islam. It happened in the past that the followers of a particular prophet returned to their earlier state of ignorance and disbelief after his death. But this shall not happen to the followers of the Holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم). The Prophet of Allāh(صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) in the last days of his earthly sojourn had himself declared that he had no fears that his followers will relapse into disbelief after his death. As Muslims, we should reflect on his words. The Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) who was sent to this world to quash disbelief and all forms of impermissible innovation, who is our primary source of guidance and who is our ultimate means of salvation, is saying that he has no doubts lurking in his mind about our steady and irreversible belief, while we are hurling allegations of disbelief at one another to cater to our false sense of superiority or to pamper our egotism based on prejudice and sheer stubbornness. What could be more unfortunate than this mutual incrimination?

It is narrated in a tradition:

‘Uqbah bin ‘Āmir has narrated: The Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) one day went (to Uhud) and offered prayer for the natives (martyrs) of Uhud as it is (generally) offered for the dead. Then he returned to the pulpit and said: ‘I am your forerunner and I am a witness on you. By Allāh! I am right now seeing the basin of my fountain (kawthar), and I have been handed over the keys of the treasures of the earth (or the keys of the earth). I swear on Allāh, I have no fears that after me you will return to disbelief but I am apprehensive that you will try to outdo each other in acquiring worldly goods.’[1]

This is a statement made by the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) himself. He has sworn on Allāh about his followers that they will not revert to disbelief. The Prophet’s words call for deep reflection and serious soul-searching. We brush aside the Prophet’s statement when we accuse one another of disbelief. This tradition has been reproduced by Imām Muslim[2] and Imām Ahmad bin Hambal[3]. Repeated references to this tradition by people of such calibre and prestige, and our dogged defiance of its contents are nothing but harrowing unawareness of the real spirit of our faith.

Istighāthah, which has been established as a valid act in Islam by countless Qur’ānic injunctions and authentic and certified traditions and which has been practised by the large majority of Muslims, is now turned into a matter of dispute and controversy, and is now being used as a convenient ploy to not only indulge in incriminating one another in disbelief but also to give vent to our personal frustrations. If we care to reflect on his words and statements, we will come to realise that to insist on the illegality of beseeching for help, either as a doctrine or in some of its actual applications, especially when its legality has been conclusively established both by the Qur’ān and the sunnah, is nothing but religious perversity. Tens of statements made by the Holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) are witness to the fact that to call someone for help other than Allāh is quite consistent with Qur’ānic commands and the Prophet’s statements.

As it is reported by ‘Amr bin Shu‘ayb that his grandfather says: we were present in the company of the holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) when messengers from Hawāzin tribe came and said, “O Muhammad! We belong to the same origin and tribe, and the trouble we are facing is not hidden from you, therefore, have mercy on us.” The holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) replied, “Opt one of the two choices; either take away your property and wealth or have your women freed.” They opted for their women and children. Then the Messenger of Allāh (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) added: as far as my share and the share of ‘Abd-ul-Muttalib and his children (in the spoils) is concerned, I have already given it to you. But when I have performed the noon prayer, you should all stand up and say:

Through the means of the Messenger of Allāh (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) we seek help for our women and children from believers (or Muslims).[4]

The narrator says that when people had finished their prayer, they repeated the same words as the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) had advised them. These words were uttered by the sacred tongue of the holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) himself and he uttered them in the form of a command. Therefore, this tradition furnishes a cogent justification for the act of beseeching for help.

Figurative relation between belief and disbelief

To hold the holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) and the saints and pious people of Allāh in reverence and to beseech them for help is quite compatible with the basic principles of Islamic faith. But sometimes the petitioners, while addressing these favourites of Allāh, employ words, which are reserved only for Allāh and, therefore, according to some religious scholars, commit disbelief. This conclusion is based on a fundamental misconception as these scholars fail to draw the vital distinction between the literal and figurative sense of these words. They interpret these modes of address or the vocative forms in a literal sense and thus wring a perverse conclusion from them. It is an admitted fact that these modes of address are used only for Allāh in their absolute sense, therefore, to use them for any other creature is obviously disbelief and for a Muslim it is simply inconceivable. Thus a basic distinction must be drawn between their literal and figurative meaning. The literal sense applies to Allāh alone and no creature, whether he is a prophet or a saint, can arrogate to himself this exclusive divine prerogative. Therefore, the petitioner is using the words only figuratively and it is in this sense alone that they are generally interpreted. The allegation of disbelief against these people is quite misplaced; it reflects rather the twisted consciousness of those who hurl such malicious allegations against them. The petitioners are, in fact, immune to disbelief. For instance:

  1. O, the most reverend (Prophet) of all creatures! I have no one else as my (helper) except you whose help should I seek at a time when I am engulfed by troubles and calamities.

  2. There are five (friends) for me with which I extinguish the intensity of a lethal epidemic. (These are:) the holy Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم), ‘Alī, both of his sons (Hasan and Husayn) and Fātimah.

  3. All this is an expression of your mercy and magnanimity that I am still surviving in the midst of trouble and turmoil.

  4. I beg the charity of your magnanimous eye as there is no one except you to bail me out in this hour of distress.

  5. All people have some support to rely upon when they are down and out, but I have no one else except you to turn to when I am in trouble.

Similarly, some Muslims in different situations, while addressing the Holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) use these words like “O Messenger of Allāh! We have no other shelter except you.” If we interpret these words in their literal sense, obviously we would like to conclude that the person using them is committing disbelief. But the fact is that a Muslim is not using them in their absolute sense. Any Muslim who uses these words is fundamentally motivated by the belief that the power of the Holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) is only derivative as it is contingent on divine will. He is in fact saying through his mode of address: ‘after Allāh, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) is my place of shelter, and after Allāh, it is his support that can serve as a means of help and salvation for a sinner like myself.’ Thus he is not equating the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) with Allāh Who is unique and from Whose favour the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) derives his exceptional status among the creatures of Allāh. So he is saying: ‘I have no one else except you among Allāh’s creatures and I have no expectations from other creatures except you.’ Thus he is not elevating the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) to the level of divinity, he is only stressing his exceptional status among the creatures. Though we normally do not use these ambiguous words during intermediation or at the time of beseeching help from others, nor do we encourage others to make use of them to pre-empt even the slightest suspicion of disbelief, we also regard it as necessary to propose that a person using these words figuratively and derivatively should not be accused of disbelief in a fit of misplaced enthusiasm or an overplay of religious sentiment.

It is more pertinent to realise that we should not entertain unnecessary suspicions about the integrity of their faith; instead of making them hostages of our crude sense of justice, we should display a reasonable degree of open-mindedness to give them the benefit of doubt. Before hurling at them the accusation of disbelief, we should try to probe into their real intentions; before convicting them, we should presume them innocent and refrain from equating their figurative expressions with literal statements. We all know, and only a sense of perversion can contradict this gut feeling, that these petitioners seeking help from others believe in divine unity, which is quite consistent with the basic postulates of Islamic faith and attested by the Messengership of the Holy Prophet(صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم). They offer prayer and pay zakāt. When they follow the basic tenets of Islam, not as an eyewash but as a demonstration of commitment, then it will not be an act of wisdom to drive them out of the fold of Islam simply because they use a string of ‘undesirable’ expressions in their supplications in a figurative sense. Truly speaking, they are “more sinned against than sinning”[5] as the punishment seems to exceed their innocuous act. Anas bin Māik has reported that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) said:

Anyone who prays like us and makes our qiblah as his qiblah and eats our slaughtered meat, so he is a Muslim for whom Allāh and His Messenger (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) are both responsible. So do not break Allāh’s responsibility.[6]

In view of this sound tradition, there is hardly any scope left to level the allegation of infidelity against the Muslims who use these words figuratively. This figurative application is sanctioned by the Qur’ān and the hadīth and demonstrated by the practice of the Companions, not sparingly but frequently and therefore, its reality cannot be denied. And there is no harm to declare their application as a valid act if a believer uses them figuratively. According to the correct Islamic belief, a person who believes that Allāh alone is the Creator and the Master, and He alone has empowered His creatures to perform different acts, and He is absolutely independent of the leanings and cravings of the living and the dead, that is, it is the exclusive divine privilege to grant or reject the wish of a creature, no matter how highly placed he is, such a person is a true believer and a true Muslim. This is precisely what is meant by divinity and this is exactly what Islam stands for. It is proved by Jibrīl’s dialogue with Maryam (Mary) in which he had stressed his derivative power in relation to the absolute power of Allāh. It meant that his act was not self-prompted but both sanctioned and sanctified by the will of the Lord who is One and Unique. The Qur’ān declares it in these words:

So that I should bless you with a pure son.[7]

When the chief of Allāh’s creatures of light can attribute these figurative words to himself, and Allāh Himself is reinforcing them in the Qur’ān, then if a creature of flesh and bone attributes them to the holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم), then what crime has he committed or what sin has he perpetrated? What is urgently needed is to understand the essence of the Qur’ān itself so that the Muslims stop condemning one another, inflating one set of beliefs while deflating others, and in the process giving a bad name to their faith. This is the only way to preserve the integrity of our religion and to retain the purity of our faith.

The last word

Here, summing up the discussion, we would like to rephrase the vital point stated earlier that, in the present times, some people have cast aside the basic difference between the literal and figurative meanings in the interpretation of Qur’ānic verses. Moreover, their interpretation is marked by imbalance and extremism, which blatantly violates the basic principles of Qur’ānic exegesis. They prop up their interpretation on the literal sense and are not willing to concede the figurative sense. This is the reason that their interpretations are deflected from the established and authentic consensus of the traditions and the early religious leaders and scholars deeply charged with the true spirit of their faith and make sheer opinion and speculation as the basis of their conclusions. This is nothing but individualism gone haywire. They are interjecting undesirable innovations into our religious fabric and disfiguring its texture by their insensible and insensitive deviations from certified and well-documented explanations. The other group that has discarded the sobering crutches of balance has displayed such extremism in its application and patronage of the figurative sense that it appears to have lost all sense of balance, while balance is a sine qua non of all sane interpretation. If we keep in view the Qur’ānic sense of balance, the chasm between the two extremes can be abridged and the Muslim community will be transformed once again into an indivisible unity. This is the only way to preserve our faith and to perpetuate a correct interpretation of the nature and essence of divine unity.

[1]. Bukhārī narrated this tradition in his as-Sahīh with different words at six various places, i.e. b. of janā’iz (funerals) ch.71 (1:451#1279); b. of manāqib (virtues) ch.22 (3:1317#3401); b. of maghāzī (the military expeditions led by the Prophet) ch.14, 25 (4:1486, 1498-9 #3816, 3857); b. of riqāq (softening of hearts) ch.7, 53 (5:2361, 2408#6062, 6218); Tabarānī, al-Mu‘jam-ul-kabīr (17:278-80#767-70); Bayhaqī, as-Sunan-ul-kubrā (4:14); Baghawī, Sharh-us-sunnah (14:39-41#3822-3); and ‘Alī’ al-Hindī in Kanz-ul-‘ummāl (14:416#39122).

[2]. Narrated in his as-Sahīh, b. of fadā’il (virtues) ch.9 (4:1795 #30/2296).

[3]. Narrated in his Musnad (4:149, 153-4).

[4]. Nasā’ī, Sunan, b. of hibah (gifts) 6:262-3.

[5]. Shakespeare, King Lear.

[6]. Bukhārī narrated it in his as-Sahīh, chs. of qiblah, ch.1 (1:153#384); and Nasā’ī in his Sunan, b. of aymān wa sharā’i‘ahū (8:105).

[7]. Qur’ān (Maryam, Mary) 19:19.

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