Tawassul and Istighatha: A Holistic Overview

By Shaykh Haider Hobbollah

Translated by: Faisal H, Moussa al-Rufayie, Shayan

Question: I have a great deal of confusion regarding the issue of tawassul through the Prophet, his Ahl al-Bayt, and others. Can you clarify the difference of opinion in this issue for me? This topic has confused many of us, and there is much controversy around it in our country between different movements. Thank you. (Muhammad Amin, Baku, the Republic of Azerbaijan).

Answer: The issue of tawassul is one that, to me, still seems to be full of disorganisation in how it is examined, which has caused and continues to cause a number of things to be conflated among many people. This has led people to jump from one idea to another, despite the fact that there is no necessary connection between the two ideas. Given the plurality of divergent views on this issue, I shall mention my understanding of the fundamental roadmap for studying this topic. Through this, it may become evident that some have made methodological errors in their treatment and understanding of tawassul, as the details of the discussion shall clarify.

The issue of tawassul can be discussed under two fundamental axes:

The First Axis: The Concept and Meaning of Tawassul

Here, it is necessary to discuss two fundamental meanings of tawassul:

The first meaning:

Turning towards God (the Most High) in supplication, and requesting things from Him, but accompanied with ‘by the right of Muḥammad and the family of Muḥammad’ or ‘by the right of the saints and the righteous’, and so on.

So you would say: “O God – by the right of Muḥammad and the family of Muḥammad – forgive my sin” or “O God – by the right of Muḥammad and the family of Muḥammad and by the right of the righteous among your servants – bless me with your permissible and abundant sustenance” and other similar expressions.

There is no dispute among the majority of the Muslims regarding the permissibility of this meaning of tawassul, and there are many texts among both sides (Sunnī and Shīʿa) regarding it. Yes, there are reservations about this from some Salafī movements.

The second meaning: Turning towards the intermediary itself in supplication, which has two main forms:

The first form: Invoking the intermediary to supplicate to God for you. For example, by saying: “O Muḥammad, supplicate to God, for me, that he provide me a righteous son” or “O Ḥusayn, supplicate to God, for me, that he bless me with martyrdom in His cause, as He has blessed you with it”. This is similar to what the sons of Jacob (a) did when they asked him to pray to God for their forgiveness , as is understood by their request and his answer as the Noble Qur’an told us in Sūra Yūsuf:

They begged, “O our father! Pray for the forgiveness of our sins. We have certainly been sinful.” (12:97)

He said, “I will pray to my Lord for your forgiveness. He ˹alone˺ is indeed the All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (12:98)

The second form: Invoking the intermediary by itself to fulfil what you desire. For example, by saying: “O Muḥammad, provide for me” or “O ʿAlī, save me from the Fire” and other similar expressions. Thus, if an individual falls ill, he is taken to the shrine of a prophet, a successor (waṣī), or a saint (walī), to turn towards this prophet, successor or saint and say: “I have certainly come to you with my ill son, and I want you to cure him for me” and many other examples.

This meaning has caused great conflict among Muslims. In my estimation, the centre of dispute primarily has to be here–especially the dispute between non-Salafī Muslims. It is here, too, that the distinction appears between invoking the living and invoking the dead, and between istighātha (seeking help) through the living and istighātha through the dead, which the two sects (Sunnī and Shīʿa) have discussed in detail in its relevant place. 

The Second Axis: The Stance on Both Meanings of Tawassul

This must be considered on two levels:

The first level: The theological (kalāmī) level, meaning: is turning towards the prophet, or saint, or successor in supplication, kufr (disbelief) and shirk (association of partners with God) or not? And likewise for supplication to God by the right of this saint or prophet.

This is the well-known theological discussion in which conflict occurred between the Salafīs of the Sunnīs and the majority of Shīʿa, Ṣūfīs and other Muslims. In fact, before the time of Shaykh Ibn Taymīyya al-Ḥarrānī (d. 728), it was claimed that the people of Islām are in consensus that tawassul is not incompatible with faith.

On this level of the discussion, the issue is studied on more than one plane, the most prominent of which are the following:

1. The creedal theological plane. Does this tawassul mean that the proponent believes in the divinity (ulūhīyya) of the intermediary that he performs tawassul with or not? Does the proponent consider the intermediary to be independent [of God] in its influence or not? Those who perform tawassul say that they do not believe in the divinity of the intermediary, and nor do they consider the intermediary to be independent [of God] in its influence, whereas others may accuse them of believing in the divinity of the intermediary. Therefore this issue must be investigated. Does tawassul–especially in its second meaning of turning to someone other than God in supplication–conceal a belief in the divinity of something other than God or not? Here, it is appropriate to discuss the belief in the cosmological guardianship (wilāya al-takwīnīyya) of the Prophet, or successor, or mystic, or others, even after their death. Does this belief lead to shirk or not? And is there a suspicion of shirk in it or not? What is the evidence to prove that it is a belief of shirk, and what is the evidence to deny this also? In addition, it is appropriate to discuss life in the Barzakh here, and whether it is established or not, whether unrestrictedly for all people or for some specific people.

2. The practical theological plane. The intended meaning of this is whether this behaviour (tawassul) by itself – irrespective of the beliefs of the individual on a mental and intellectual level – is a behaviour of shirk or a behaviour of tawḥīd (monotheism), or a behaviour that does not contradict tawḥīd (or a behaviour of ghulūww)?

Why did we distinguish between what we called the creedal theological dimension and the practical theological dimension, given that actions are from the affairs of the sciences of the Sharīʿa, not from the affairs of the sciences of creed and theology?

The answer is that when the issue of shirk is raised between different Muslim movements, it takes a theoretical, doctrinal dimension, and a behavioural, practical dimension. That is because it is suggested here that whoever prays and prostrates to idols while believing they are not independent [of God] in influence, but turns away from God and directs his worship and prayer to the idols, is a mushrik according to the Qur’anic understanding. However, this is practical shirk, because shirk in worship is practical shirk. This means that this individual (committing practical shirk) does not consider someone other than God to have real independent influence on the world, but they make their devotional relationship centred around someone other than God (the Most High). Thus, this individual prays to the idol, fasts for the idol, makes vows for the idol, offers sacrifices to the idol; slaughters animals in the idol’s name instead of God’s name, takes oaths and swears by the idol’s name, and fears the anger of the idol too; they take the idol with themselves when travelling to protect them from danger and safeguard them from fear, wipe themselves with the idol to derive blessings and goodness from it, and–despite all this–they know that the idol and what it possesses is nothing except the possession (mulk) of God (the Most High). They (the Muslim movements) believe that the shirk of the Arabs of Jāhilīyya and the mushrikīn of Quraysh was only of this manner, and even if we were to examine the beliefs of the mushrikīn of our time, as is said about India and China, we would see that they believe in the One and Only God in theory, but their practical behaviour and approach to worship is shirkī. It is for this reason that the Jāhilīyya Arabs used to say, as the Holy Qur’ān reports:

“We worship them only so they may bring us closer to Allah” (39:3)

Therefore, God is the objective, and the idol is a means to reach this objective.

And the Jāhilīyya Arabs used to say this famous phrase during the talbīya of Ḥajj:

Here I am (labbayka), O God [in response to Your call], here I am. Here I am, You have no partner, except for the partner who is Yours, [whom] You possess and what he possesses.

Therefore, the idol is a partner of God but is owned by God, and all the power of the idol is under the power of God (the Most High).

As such, some of those who say that tawassul is shirk believe that every place in which shirk is practiced, is a place of shirk. Thus, the idols are a place of shirk, because the Arabs practiced shirk through their relationship with them, otherwise they are nothing but rocks. Consequently, those who say tawassul is shirk apply this same law on the tombs and shrines of the prophets, Imāms and saints, and thus believe that it is obligatory to destroy them, due to the obligation of destroying places of shirk, as the Prophet (s) did in Makkah after the Conquest of Makkah, by destroying the places of shirk in the Kaʿba. In doing this, they believe they are performing an act similar to that of the Prophet.

This underlines the importance of theologically studying the concept of tawḥīd and shirk in the practical dimension (and the study of the history of shirk and its understanding in the life of the pre-Islamic Arabs), and not solely in the theoretical dimension of belief. This is one of the major mistakes that I have seen occur in dialogue between the advocates and opponents of tawassul. Some opponents of tawassul intend this meaning of shirk, whereas its advocates deny that tawassul is shirk in the sense of believing that the intermediary is independent of God in its influence. Therefore, they are between practical and theoretical shirk, and it is necessary to investigate this matter in this way to further clarify the situation. Here, we find that the advocates of tawassul may make several distinctions between their behaviour and the behaviour of the polytheistic Arabs. They believe that comparing their actions with the actions of the Arabs is a huge injustice and a far-fetched analogy. How can they be compared when they pray to God, make sacrifices to Him, perform acts of worship purely for His Noble Face, and prohibit prostration to other than Him and so on? Therefore, investigating this issue in an academic manner – far from sectarian and polemic conflict – is one of the most important necessities of researching tawassul and its relationship to shirk and tawḥīd in Islam.

Another important point also is the issue of seeking help (istiʿāna), or tawassul, from other than God, especially from the dead, because the discussion and controversy often takes place here between those in dispute. One may use verse 5 of Sūra al-Fātiḥa, for example, to prove the obligation of limiting the seeking of help to God alone, while others may respond by saying that we all seek help from doctors, teachers, engineers and so on. I believe that the compass of discussion here should be guided in a different way by the two parties. That is, sometimes seeking help and tawassul are perceived as a phenomenon that is unrelated to a divine or religious aspect. Certainly, this is not what is intended by limiting seeking help to God alone, otherwise, the situation of the Muslims with the Prophet would have been different, and they would have stopped seeking help from anything around them. Rather, the centre of the idea of seeking help (istiʿāna), relying upon (tawakkul), tawassul, and so on – I must summarise since there is little room – is that these phenomena become devotional or religious instances relating to other than God.

For example, you use (lit. seek help from) an idol to break some glass, and this is not the same as seeking help from the idol as a sacred, metaphysical and religious matter. You seek help from the teacher to study chemistry or mathematics, but this is different from seeking help from a stone as a divine, religious matter, such that your religious and sacred recourse to God depends on the stone. You request from the teacher to help you in understanding chemistry and mathematics. Therefore, the distinction between the two situations makes it easier to organise and tidy the discussion of this topic. I propose that this matter be made explicit, to first examine the non-sacred form of seeking help and then the sacred form – so to speak. I believe that the centre of the dispute is mostly whether it is correct or not to seek. I suggest thinking about this distinction, as it may solve some of the problems here, and save time for some of the researchers.

The second level: This is the legal (sharʿī) level, meaning: regardless of the theological question, and assuming we agree that both meanings and forms of tawassul do not contravene tawḥīd, then what is the position of the Sharīʿa on this conduct? Does it agree with it or reject it, or does it leave it to the individual, or is there a particular view regarding it?

At this level of the discussion, which is undertaken by jurisprudential, ethical, ḥadīth and Qur’ānic studies, the investigation must be split into two stages:

The First Stage

Discussing whether there is permission or not to do tawassul. Here, it must be investigated whether tawassul is prohibited, regardless of the topic of shirk. Is there evidence in the Book or Sunna that forbids this type of supplication or not? And is there evidence in the Book or Sunna that permits this type of supplication or not?

This is also what is predominantly discussed in researches that have taken place among Muslims – after excluding the topic of shirk – as those who believe that tawassul is permitted have tried to rely on a set of textual sources from the Qur’ān and Sunna to establish the permissibility of tawassul – sometimes in the sense of tawassul with the living, and sometimes in the sense of tawassul with the dead. The centre of the great battle between the conflicting sides lies here. I’ve mentioned the sources mentioning Jacob’s children requesting that he seek forgiveness on their behalf; the sources mentioning the Prophet (s) seeking forgiveness on behalf of the Muslims; the Qur’an mentioning seeking a means of nearness to God (ibtighā al-wasīla) (al-Māʾida: 35 and al-Isrāʾ: 57); some of the Prophetic narrations, or narrations at the time of the Prophet (s); or the early Islamic era regarding tawassul through the Prophet, or at his grave or otherwise, such as the ḥadīth of ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb asking al-ʿAbbas to pray for rain, and the ḥadīth of al-Ḍarīr, and the ḥadīth of the Prophet praying for Faṭima b. Asad, and the ḥadīth of Adam’s (a) tawassul to Muḥammad (s), and the ḥadīth of ‘do tawassul by virtue of my status’, etc. Narrations that indicate the permissibility of tawassul–especially in the first meaning–are also mentioned, which are found in the ḥadīth sources among the Shīʿa.

Likewise, those who prohibit tawassul mention some evidences that they deem sound in transmission (ṣudūr) and meaning (dalāla), such as:

The places of worship are ˹only˺ for Allah, so do not invoke anyone besides Him. (72:18)

In addition, they dispute the evidences of those who permit tawassul in both their chains and meaning, and they consider some of these evidences to be in their own favour, not the other way around, such as the ḥadīth of ʿUmar asking al-ʿAbbas to pray for rain. They also have a completely different interpretation of the two verses of wasīla in the Holy Qur’ān, confining the tawassul that is permissible to tawassul through the Most Beautiful Names of God, through righteous deeds, and through the prayer of a living righteous man, etc.

The discussion in the fiqh of tawassul – at the level of permissibility and impermissibility – should have two sides in my opinion:

The first side: a singular individualistic view of the act of tawassul, in the sense that we consider if it is permissible for me to perform tawassul now through one of the prophets, but with my general conduct being to supplicate to God alone?

The second side: beyond the singular individualistic view, in the sense that we consider if it is permissible or not for the state of tawassulī supplication to become a general predominant culture, or equivalent to the culture of supplicating towards God directly?

There is a difference between these two sides of the issue. An action may be permissible if we look at it by itself, but it may be forbidden if it turns into a religious culture, from the point that it may become a religious innovation (bidʿa) (which is, according to some scholars, different to the concept of forbidden legislation). This issue is related to the theory of religious innovation in Islamic jurisprudence, and it is because of this that we find that some Muslim scholars permit something, but they do not permit it to become a custom. Thus, what we are discussing here is if the act of tawassul itself is permissible, but – when it is related to supplication, which is a religious issue – is it permissible for the tawassulī supplication to become a general religious phenomenon and a widespread popular culture such that it surpasses or becomes equal to the culture of direct supplication to God or not?

The Second Stage

Discussing the motivation to do tawassul or the lack thereof, which comes after the saying that tawassul is permissible, even through the deceased, and that there is neither a creedal nor a legal problem in it, but rather it is permissible either with positive evidence or on the base principle of non-prohibition. What is meant by this stage is that we study whether the supplication directed to other than God is a type of supplication that is encouraged by the Islamic Sharīʿa and desired by the Ḥanīf religion or not? For it is not sufficient for tawassul to be legally permissible in order for us to claim that it is desirable in the religion. Rather, additional evidence must be established to prove that the religion has desired this type of supplication, because the evidence that permit something are different to the texts that encourage something.

This is a conflict within the movement that permits tawassul. Here, it is said: tawassul in the first sense we mentioned – a supplication to God by the right of x and y person – is desired in the Sharīʿa, due to the existence of many religious texts, numbering in the tens, regarding this on the level of ḥadīth.

As for the second type of tawassul — especially in its second form which is a supplication to the Prophet or the walī (specifically the dead) to fulfil your request — there is a difference of opinion.

One group believes that the narrations of this type of supplication are extremely few and rare. They affectionately challenge the other group to bring these narrations. They see them only as a very small handful, of which all or the overwhelming majority have weak chains, that prove the practice (as a habit and custom) or call to these types of tawassulī supplications.

Whereas, we find that all, or the overwhelming majority, of supplications mentioned in the Qur’ān and noble Sunna among all the madhāhib —hundreds of verses and narrations — direct the human to turn towards God with supplication. So how is it possible, by the logic of reason, to abandon all this vast culture of supplications that lead us towards God, even if by the right of x and y person, and cling onto some extremely few narrations with weak chains — in fact, some are doubtful to be narrations in the first place, and some appeared in later centuries — to claim that the basis of supplication in Islam is tawassulī in this meaning of tawassul, or to claim that Islam desires such tawassulī supplication?! How can this be correct?!

And stranger than this, how is it possible to base popular culture on tawassulī supplication, in this sense of tawassul, despite the fact that the apparent understanding of the Qur’ān and Sunna in hundreds of texts (Ṣaḥīfa al-Sajjādīyya, al-ʿAlawīyya, al-Ṣādiqīyya etc) is that the desire was set to establish a popular culture on the supplication literature of directly turning towards God, exalted is He?

This is in addition to discussions about the connection of the two verses of wasīla to the issue of supplication, even if the verses are connected to the Prophet and his Ahl al-Bayt. Their connection to the Prophet and his Ahl al-Bayt—as reported by some narrations—does not mean that the two verses are connected to the issue of supplication that we are discussing, unless there is specific evidence for this. Otherwise, if the Qur’anic commandment to take the wasīla included supplication, it would be necessary to believe in the obligation of tawassul, not its permissibility alone. So how is it that hundreds of supplications in the texts were established contrary to this obligation?!

This is the fundamental conflict within the supporters of tawassul themselves, especially in the Imāmī madhhab.

Therefore, it becomes apparent:

1. Kalāmī argument is not sufficient to establish the permissibility or prohibition of tawassul. Rather, it is necessary to reopen a jurisprudential investigation that is also far from the issue of tawḥīd and shirk.

2. Proving individual or collective permissibility for tawassul is not sufficient to promote a culture of tawassul and consider it a religious approach. Rather, it is necessary to compare and approach the totality of supplicatory texts in the Qur’ān and the Sunna, to find out which ways of supplication are the most desirable in the religion and which are merely permissible. Accordingly, just because there is no evidence for the prohibition of tawassul does not mean that the Sharīʿa desires tawassul and makes it a religious slogan, so pay careful attention because these headings have overlapped a lot in the minds of some people.

3. Let us assume that tawassul is prohibited as a result of Sharʿī evidence, but this alone is not sufficient to prove that it is shirk, because the shirk of something cannot be established based just on the prohibition of an action, nor even merely on the assumption that it is a religious innovation in your view. Likewise, a distinction should be made between the concepts of visiting graves and tawassul, for a person may visit a grave and consider it recommended, but he does not do tawassul neither through the grave nor its resident, in fact he may consider it to be prohibited. Completely like someone who goes to visit the grave of the Prophet (upon him and his family be peace), or his mosque, or Makkah, without believing in or practising the act of turning to these issues. Rather, they are there turning to God, exalted is He, while also sending greetings (salām) to the Prophet in his grave, for sending greetings upon him is different from tawassul, even if it is invalid in your view. Pay attention to these issues and be careful not to conflate things.

4. It is necessary to precisely distinguish between the first and second meaning of tawassul. Many people conflate the meanings together, and the greatest conflict pertains to the second meaning, especially in its second and final form.

5. I believe — and this is a jurisprudential discussion which we may come to one day, and I had examined it in my discussion about the meaning of kufr in the Holy Qur’ān, and in my tafsīr lessons on Sūra al-Māʿūn—that we need to make a distinction between the concept of shirk and the concept of the mushrik, and similarly the concept of kufr and the kāfir. Similarly, we need to distinguish between kufr, shirk, īmān and Islam with regard to the legal criteria for religious affiliation that enters a person into Islam and the Muslim community and removes them from it, and between these same titles but in the general religious criteria. An act of shirk may arise from a person from your point of view, but this does not necessarily dictate that a person is a mushrik who is subject to the rulings of shirk and kufr in Islamic jurisprudence. Consequently, we find in the ḥadīth expressions such as ‘The one who abandons the prayer is a kāfir’ but what is intended is not kufr in the jurisprudential sense. This reveals that kufr and shirk are relatively uncertains, and that a specific degree of them is what gives expression to the title of mushrik and kāfir in the jurisprudential criteria, which entails legal impact. For this reason, the Prophet (s) considered many of those who are not classified as Muslims by takfīrī groups today as Muslims in the legal sense of belonging to the community, even if they committed acts of kufr by abandoning the prayer or even by nifāq.

Therefore, I find that some Muslims, who jump from the idea of an act of shirk to the idea of a jurisprudential mushrik, quickly judge people to be apostates. They fell into a huge mistake in understanding the religious texts when they considered them all to be in connection with expressing a legal and jurisprudential issue. This is why you find them believing that anyone who abandons jihād is an apostate, and whoever does not judge by what God has revealed is an apostate, and then they believe that fighting the apostate takes precedence over a kāfir. Thus, the criteria change a lot among them, and in my opinion this is a major ijtihādī error in understanding the totality of the religious texts in this regard. This was, in my humble opinion, due to the projection of legal jurisprudential terminology on the linguistic uses of these terms in the Qur’ān and Sunna. Hopefully time will allow us to expand on this important idea, which can also explain many of the texts which some Shīʿa in turn have used to establish the kufr of their opponents. Many recent scholars have noted this and pointed it out, albeit in different wording. Therefore, it would be correct to describe me as a kāfir if I abandoned prayer, but this does not mean I have left Islam in the jurisprudential and legal sense.

This is a brief snapshot of a preliminary roadmap when examining the topic of tawassul, with the omission of some other details. I hope it will be beneficial, God willing.