I wanted to know the Islamic position on seeking intermediaries to Allah, and on seeking help from the dead and calling onto them. Some say it is allowed, and others say it is major shirk. Can you please explain in detail?
You have asked about two different issues; and, as such, both will be treated separately. The first relates to supplicating Allah using an intermediary (known as Tawassul), and the second relates to calling upon and seek the help of other than Allah (known as Istighatha and Isti’ana).
Supplicating Allah through Intermediaries (Tawassul)
A detailed answer on this issue was previously posted (on our website). Nevertheless, here is a summary of what was outlined in that answer:
There are three ways of supplicating Allah through a means or intermediary:
1) Seeking intermediary through one’s actions (tawassul bi ‘l-a’mal)
This refers to using one’s good deeds and righteous acts as an intermediary when supplicating Allah Most High. For example, one says, “O Allah, please fulfil my need in consideration of such-and-such good deed I carried out on that particular day.”
This type of Tawassul is permitted, and even recommended, according to all major classical Imams – with no disagreement on its permissibility.
The proof for its permissibility is the famous incident described by the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) of three people from a nation before us who were blocked in a Cave. Each one of them beseeched Allah by naming a righteous deed, and then said, “O Allah, if I did this seeking only your pleasure, then relieve us [from this distress].” Consequently, Allah made the rock to move away and they all came out of the cave. (Bukhari and Muslim)
2) Seeking intermediary through living persons (tawassul bi ‘l-ahya)
This refers to using a living person as an intermediary when supplicating Allah Most High, due to his righteousness and closeness to Allah. For example, one says, “O Allah, please fulfil my need in consideration of such-and-such pious slave of yours and your love for him.”
This type of Tawassul is also permitted according to all major classical Imams and jurists, with no disagreement on its permissibility.
The proof for its permissibility, amongst others, is that which is related by Sayyiduna Anas ibn Malik (Allah be pleased with him) that the Companion Sayyiduna Umar ibn al-Khattab (Allah be pleased with him) sought rain from Allah at the time of drought through the intermediary of the uncle of the Prophet, al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (Allah be pleased with him). (Sahih al-Bukhari)
3) Seeking intermediary through deceased persons (tawassul bi ‘l-amwat)
This refers to using a person who has passed away – such as a Prophet or saint – as an intermediary when supplicating Allah Most High, due to his righteousness and closeness to Allah. For example, one says, “O Allah, please fulfil my need in consideration of your Prophet whom you love” or “O Allah, I ask you through your Prophet.”
This form of Tawassul is permitted according to the vast majority of classical Imams (salaf) and jurists (fuqaha) including the four Sunni Schools of Islamic law. Only Imam Ibn Taymiya and those who followed him object to it, saying that it negates the concept of Tawhid.
Among the many proofs of its permissibility is the Hadith of Uthman ibn Hunayf (Allah be pleased with him) in which the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) advised a man complaining of blindness to offer two Rak’ats prayer and then supplicate saying, “O Allah, I ask you and turn to you through my Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet of Mercy…” (Tirmidhi) The same Uthman ibn Hunayf, after the passing of the Prophet (peace be upon him), advised a person who visited him repeatedly, concerning something he needed, to do the same. (Al-Mu’jam al-Kabir of Tabarani and classed as authentic (sahih) by al-Bayhaqi, Mundhiri, al-Haythami and others).
Moreover, if the second form of Tawassul (through living persons) is permitted, then the third form (through deceased persons) should also be allowed, since in both cases one supplicates Allah and not the individual. It is not through a physical body or through life or death; rather, through the positive meaning attached to the person in both life and death.
In reality, both the second and third forms can simply be considered as manifestations of the first form, i.e. seeking intermediary through one’s actions. This is because when one uses Tawassul in supplication, one merely highlights the lofty position of the person before Allah and one’s love for him, i.e. saying, “O Allah, this certain Prophet of yours is very close to you. I do not possess any good deeds, but I have love for the pious. Pardon me and forgive my sins due to this love I have with this pious servant of yours”. As such, the thing being presented before Allah is the ‘love’ and ‘connection’ with the Prophet, which in reality is a righteous deed.
Before ending this section, it is important to note that one’s supplication (dua’) is not in need of Tawassul. To believe that Dua’ is not accepted, or the chances of its acceptance are less, should Tawassul not be carried out, is an erroneous understanding. One may never use an intermediary in supplication, and by doing so, would have not done anything wrong. And Allah knows best.
Calling Upon and Seeking the Help of other than Allah (Istighatha and Isti’ana bi ‘l-ghayr)
There are various ways of calling upon and seeking the help of other than Allah:
1) Calling upon others in imaginary terms
This is when a poet – for example – addresses a Prophet, saint or even inanimate objects in imaginary and figurative terms, merely to express love and desire. Such poetry has been related from a number of Imams and great scholars of Islam in which they address the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace), pious individuals, the city of Madina, birds, mountains, and so on and so forth.
This type of calling out is, in of itself, permitted because the intention is not to call upon the addressee and the belief is not that they are directly hearing; rather, it is done out of mere longing and love. However, in an atmosphere where such words may be misconstrued or lead to incorrect beliefs, they should be avoided. (Fatawa Usmani by Mufti Taqi Usmani 1/58-5)
2) Seeking help from one another in worldly matters
This refers to asking help from a living person in matters ordinarily in his control or in apparent causes (al-asbab al-zahira). For example, seeking help from a medical doctor for treatment, taking medicine, or asking an engineer to fix one’s vehicle.
This obviously is permitted and does not require any proof, provided one holds the one whose help is being sought merely as a means, and Allah alone as the true effecter.
3) Requesting living persons for Dua’
This refers to requesting a living person such as a scholar, pious individual, parent, friend or traveller to supplicate on one’s behalf, with the understanding that the chances of his Dua’ being accepted are great because of his rank, location or situation.
This also is without doubt permitted. The proof for its permissibility is the Hadith in which the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said to Sayyiduna Umar (Allah be pleased with him) when the latter was departing for Umra, “O my brother, do not forget us in your supplications.” (Abu Dawud and Tirmidhi)
4) Requesting deceased persons for Dua’
This is done in two ways:
a) Going to the grave of a Prophet or pious individual and requesting him to supplicate on one’s behalf. For example, one says, “Oh such-and-such person, pray for me that Allah Most High fulfils my work.”
The ruling concerning this returns to the issue of whether the dead are able to hear in their graves. There is a ‘legitimate’ difference of opinion between the Companions and classical scholars on this issue (although there is no difference in the hearing of the Prophets, peace be upon them) with many – such as Imams Ibn Abd al-Barr, Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Ibn Qutayba and Ibn Kathir (Allah have mercy on them) – affirming the hearing (sima’) of the dead, and this is also the position of the Companion Abdullah ibn Umar (Allah be pleased with him).
Among the proofs supporting this position is the Hadith narrated by Anas ibn Malik (Allah be pleased with him) that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “Verily when the servant is put in his grave, and his companions turn away from him, he hears the noise of their sandals.” (Sahih Muslim)
Secondly, the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) addressed the disbelievers from the dead of Badr saying, “We have found true what our Lord promised us, did you find true what your Lord promised you?” Umar (Allah be pleased with him) said, “O Messenger of Allah! You are speaking to bodies that have no souls?” The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) replied, “You do not hear better [than them] to what I say to them, except that they are unable to reply.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
Thirdly, the great exegete (mufassir) Imam Ibn Kathir (Allah have mercy on him), under the commentary of Surah al-Rum (3:438), relates a Hadith from Imam Ibn Abd al-Barr, who authenticated it, from Ibn Abbas (Allah be pleased with him), from the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) that, “None passes by the grave of his Muslim brother that he knew in the world and greets him except Allah restores his soul to him and he returns the greeting to him.”(Tafsir Ibn Kathir)
On the other hand, the position of Sayyida A’isha (Allah be pleased with her) and a group of scholars is that the dead do not hear, using as proof the statement of Allah Most High, “Truly you cannot cause the dead to listen.” (Qur’an 27:80)
As such, in accordance with the position that the dead can hear in their graves, it would be permitted to request the deceased for Dua’ and intercession at his grave. Conversely, in accordance with the position that the dead are unable to hear in their graves, it would not be permitted. Since, this is a matter of genuine scholarly difference, no one position should be considered as absolute and decisive. It is possible that Allah Most High makes the dead in the grave hear a speech out of His Infinite Power, and Allah knows best.
b) Requesting a Prophet or deceased saint from a distance (and not at his grave) to supplicate on one’s behalf. For example, whilst sitting at home, one says, “O Prophet, please pray for me that Allah forgives my sins.”
Since, there are no such examples in Hadith literature or from the practice of the Companions and early Muslims, this is best avoided. Most scholars consider it to be impermissible, given that there is no ‘clear’ evidence suggesting that one’s request will be heard or conveyed to the deceased person. Indeed, the Hadith mentions that salutations (salawat) recited upon the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) are conveyed to him [by the angels], but there is no mention of Dua’ requests being conveyed to him.
Indeed, it is ‘possible’ that Allah Most High conveys the message to the deceased, but since there are no proofs or examples, it is best to refrain – especially in the case of deceased persons besides the Prophet such as saints and the righteous.
5) Calling upon and seeking help from deceased persons in worldly matters through Allah’s granting
This means asking help from a deceased person in matters ordinarily in the control of living persons or in apparent causes (al-asbab al-zahira). For example, asking a deceased person for money or asking him to help fix one’s vehicle – believing that he is merely a means and not independent of Allah, and that only Allah helps in absolute terms and without Him no one can help.
6) Calling upon and seeking help in matters of the unseen through Allah’s granting
This refers to asking a deceased (or living) person such as a Prophet or saint for help in matters of the unseen (al-umur al-ghaybiyya) which are not ordinarily in the control of humans. For example; asking for good weather, children, prosperity or help in times of distress such as saying “O Messenger of Allah, help me (Ya Rasul Allah Madad)” or addressing the person in the grave and saying “Assist me in my trial” or “O Saint, grant me children” – believing that the one whose help is being sought is merely a means and not independent of Allah, and that only Allah helps in absolute terms and without Him no one can help.
Although some scholars may allow these two types of Istighatha (5 and 6) subject to one having a sound belief that it is only Allah who helps in absolute terms, the opinion of many other scholars including most of my teachers (and the position which I hold to be correct) is that such type of Istighatha is an ‘expression’ of Shirk and hence prohibited even if done with a sound belief. Seeking help in a matter not ordinarily in the control of the one whose help is being sought may create a doubt that he is independent in that action, because there is no immediate external reason from Allah’s design in His creation. Since it is a practical expression of Shirk, means to Shirk and resembles the Shirk of the Polytheists (mushrikun), it is forbidden. It is in order to block the means to ‘clear’ Shirk, especially in our times, given the widespread nature of ignorance and corrupt beliefs within the masses.
However, the perpetrator of such Istighatha will not be guilty of actual Shirk and disbelief (kufr), rather a sinful act. One must be careful in deeming other Muslims as polytheists (mushrikun) or out of the fold of Islam, especially when the person in question may be a scholar and generally has sound beliefs.
7) Calling upon and seeking help from deceased (or living) persons in absolute terms
This refers to asking a Prophet or saint directly for help, believing that Allah Most High has delegated some of his powers to him in a particular area, after which he has become independent in those powers, and can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, gives to whoever he wants and withholds from whoever he wants, without needing permission from Allah in each and every moment of executing those powers (like the King’s delegation of powers to his viceroy and other officials). For example, asking a saint to grant children with the belief that he has been given complete control of this area by Allah Most High.
Istighatha with this type of belief is clear and major Shirk, and takes one out of the fold of Islam, because one is assuming that the deceased shares a certain characteristic of Allah Most High.
This was the type of Shirk committed by the idolaters and polytheists of Makka, and severely condemned by Allah Most High. Unlike worldly kings, Allah does not have such subservient rulers working under Him who, after having received powers from Allah, become independent themselves. The worldly kings require such deputies because of their weaknesses, whilst Allah Almighty has no such need. All matters are in His hands, and nothing is in the hand of another in an independent fashion.
Allah Most High says, “Whatever you worship, other than Him, are nothing but names you have coined, you and your fathers. Allah has sent down no authority for them. Sovereignty belongs to none but Allah. He has ordained that you shall not worship anyone but Him. This is the only right path. But most of the people do not know” (Qur’an 12: 40)
And, “Say, Who is the One in whose hand lies the kingdom of everything and who gives protection, and no protection can be given against him, if you have knowledge?” (Qur’an 23: 88)
It is in this independent fashion we have been taught to seek only Allah’s help in Surat al-Fatiha, “You alone do we worship, and from You alone do we seek help.” (Qur’an 1: 5).
The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said, “When you ask, ask [only] Allah; and when you seek help, seek help [only] from Allah.” (Bukhari)
This is even more serious when the one whose help is being sought is regarded as omnipotent (qadir al-mutlaq), i.e. he has absolute, permanent and intrinsic powers in which he is not always dependent on the Will of Allah, and that this power was not given to him by Allah. Such a belief was not even held by the disbelievers and idolaters of Makka about their objects of worship.
And Allah knows best
[Mufti] Muhammad ibn Adam
Leicester , UK