Istighatha and Tawassul in the Hanbali School: A Discussion With Sh. Kareem Helmy - The Thinking Muslim

Istighatha and Tawassul in the Hanbali School: A Discussion With Sh. Kareem Helmy

A week or two ago, I was asked by someone reaching out to me through this blog about the Hanbali position on istighatha (استغاثة), directly requesting aid from the dead, and tawassul (التوسل), to make a request to Allah through some sort of means. This is a controversial issue in the Muslim world and often leads to heated debates.

I wanted to know this matter for myself as well and this led to a chain of events starting with Sh. Abdul Wahid al-Hanbali’s book on the topic called al-Hanabilah wa al-istighatha. I wanted to restrict myself just to the Hanbali position because that is what the questioner and I were mainly interested in. The position about Hanablis allowing tawassul is well known and documented but there is not much clarity on istighatha without the unnecessary polemics from both sides.

The journey eventually led me to Sh. Kareem Helmy (كريم حلمي), a well respected Hanbali scholar and researcher in Egypt, who was generous enough with his time to answer my questions on the topic. He has been doing intensive research on issues related to Hanbali creed for many years now. I also sought him out because he is among those who is willing to be honest and is not afraid to speak uncomfortable truths.

The following is a discussion between him and myself that took place on Facebook Messenger over a period of few days. I am publishing this exchange with his permission because I found the discussion very beneficial and it cleared for me many confusing points on the topic. In order to make it easy to understand, I am publishing it as an interview between himself and me. Please note that all of his responses to me were in Arabic so the words below are my translation of his statements.

The Discussion With Sh. Kareem Helmy

RAMEEZ: Salam Shaykh, I’ve been dong some research on istighatha and tawassul from the Hanbali perspective. Here’s what I understand: Tawassul is allowed and may even be encouraged not just through the Prophet (pbuh) but also through righteous people. As for istighatha, in context of invoking directly the dead, then this is what I am confused about. Is this permitted in the school or is there a difference of opinion? I know Ibn Taymiyyah forbade it but what did other Hanbali scholars say? Is there a difference whether someone does it at the grave of a righteous person as opposed to from afar?

SH. KAREEM: Wa salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu, welcome my brother! No, none of the researchers of the school permitted istighatha nor is there any difference of opinion over it. There is also no difference whether the person does that at the grave or from afar. This is because the mere act of asking a dead person to cure you, for example, is impermissible and an act of shirk due to his belief that the dead entity itself cures or assists. In addition, the one who does that from afar while believing that the invoked dead entity can hear him in his location and is knowing of him, then this is even more problematic. However, this issue differs from requesting supplications (du’a) from the dead at their graves.

RAMEEZ: Shaykh, then why do Ibn Qudama, Abd al-Qadir Jeelani, al-Bahuti, and other Hanbali giants allow to say the following at the Prophet’s (pbuh) grave in their books:

وَقَدْ أَتَيْتُك مُسْتَغْفِرًا مِنْ ذُنُوبِي مُسْتَشْفِعًا بِك إلَى رَبِّي، فَأَسْأَلُك يَا رَبِّ أَنْ تُوجِبَ لِي الْمَغْفِرَةَ، كَمَا أَوْجَبْتهَا لِمَنْ أَتَاهُ فِي حَيَاتِهِ

I have certainly come to you seeking forgiveness of my sins as an intercessor to my Lord. So I ask You, O’my Lord, that You obligate forgiveness for me like You obligated it for the one who came to him (Muhammad (pbuh)) in his life.

(Al-Mughni)

Imam al-Bahuti says the same in his book and Abd al-Qadir Jeelani adds the following to be said at the grave of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh):

يا رسول الله إني أتوجه بك إلى ربي ليغفر لي ذنوبي

O’ Messenger of Allah! Verily, I have turned by you to my Lord to forgive me my sins!

(Kitaab al-Ghaniyy)

Why do they all seem to allow going to the Prophet’s (pbuh) grave and directly calling out to him and referring to him as an intercessor (مُسْتَشْفِع)?

SH. KAREEM: This is not istighatha but tawassul through the Prophet (pbuh) and calling out the Prophet (pbuh) directly does not change that. Their statements are not requesting any sort of action from the Prophet (pbuh) that is exclusive to Allah or contradicts with his human nature even with him being alive in his grave. The istighatha here is to Allah alone with tawassul through the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This is why our scholars permitted and recommended it but they prohibited istighatha to other than Allah.

RAMEEZ: You stated earlier that this is different than requesting supplications from the dead at their graves, is this something permitted? If so, then is it restricted to the Prophet (pbuh) at his grave or can it be extended to other righteous people’s graves as well in the Hanbali school?

SH. KAREEM: The Prophet (pbuh) is unlike others. If we say that even this is prohibited, then this is not like istighatha in which only Allah has the power to do the requested actions. The prohibition in such a thing would be to block the means to a greater evil (i.e. shirk) and safeguard tawheed. However, there is no clear direct statement regarding this issue by the Hanbali scholars. As for extending it to other than the Prophet (pbuh), then more research is needed to determine whether the ruling can be extended or not. This is because what is legislated in the texts is in reference to the prophets who are alive in their graves and the Prophet (pbuh) hears the salam given to him.

RAMEEZ: So, you’re saying it is safe to say that there is nothing clear from the Hanbalis on the topic of requesting supplications from the dead, correct? Did I understand this correctly?

SH. KAREEM: Yes, there is nothing explicitly clear on the matter. There is nothing found on the topic. There are indications and deductions that can be made and I plan to discuss those in detail in a forthcoming course on the matter insha’Allah. However, we have two clear facts from the Hanbalis without any doubt:

  1. They allowed seeking intercession through the Prophet (pbuh) at his grave as you showed through your references above (i.e. tawassul).
  2. They prohibited seeking one’s needs from the graves and considered it shirk, such as, seeking cures, forgiveness, assistance, direct fulfillment of needs, etc. (i.e. istighatha)

Between these above two cases is currently a silent space (i.e. requesting supplications from the dead) that needs extensive research as well as inference and analogical deduction (qiyaas) from their other statements.

RAMEEZ: Is there a reason why there is nothing clear from them on this particular topic? I would assume they would mention it in some of their many writings. Did it just not occur to them or was it just not an issue in their times? If it was widely happening in their times, then wouldn’t their silence on it entail that they accepted it?

SH. KAREEM: We cannot be certain of the particular reasons. However in general, the entrance of secondary branches (furoo’) into the primary texts of the school is not a simple matter. Most of the books of the school revolve around the branches transmitted from the earlier scholars of the school (mutaqaddimoon), but individual theses are broader and easier. And sure, it was happening widely at some point but this does not mean there was acceptance of it. The books of the Hanbali school have a systematic nature, like modern academic books, so they are not always a place to deny the evils of the age. For example, the prohibition of istighatha itself did not enter the primary texts of the school except by Al-Hajjawi, even though it was unfortunately a common practice before him. Certainly, this does not mean that for centuries before Al-Hajjawi they considered it permissible. Similarly, Al-Hajjawi did not view its absence from the previous texts as an indication of its permissibility, otherwise, he would not have contradicted them by mentioning the words of Ibn Taymiyyah. In addition, al-Bahuti and others who came after him would not have agreed with him.

RAMEEZ: Regarding this issue of requesting supplications from the dead, would it also apply to those who call out directly to the Prophet (pbuh) for their needs but intend with it Allah in their hearts? Some among such practices do this and say this is metaphorical (majaaz) and that they call directly to the Prophet (pbuh) but intend in their hearts Allah. So would this also fall under this silent issue that we are speaking about?

SH. KAREEM: This is completely unacceptable! Such a practice with this kind of belief may save the person from being a disbeliever but it is forbidden. We judge based on the fact that speech has apparent connotations that must be realized and not detracted through worthless philosophical exercises. If such a person intends to ask Allah, then why is he/she asking a human? If we allow this practice, then would we also allow a person to curse Allah, the Prophet (pbuh), and Islam and then say, “I intended something else in my heart”?! Would we also allow the people to prostrate to idols, make tawaf around them, and invoke them but then say, “we only intend by all these actions Allah”?! No scholar who fears Allah would say such a thing! Whoever wants to invoke Allah, then let him/her invoke Allah directly and not through such esoteric methodologies. This opens the door for the devil and destroys the religion from its origin.

RAMEEZ: Are there any individual theses on requesting supplications from the dead from the Hanbali scholars that you can refer us to?

SH. KAREEM: There is general discourse scattered and also that which is not entirely clear on this particular topic. For example, Ibn ‘Aqeel has some statements on this matter in his al-funoon and I think Abdul Qadir as well in his majaalis. There are scattered indications that I have gathered and will present them in my upcoming course insha’Allah.

RAMEEZ: But couldn’t one of them have written an independent short treatise on the topic of requesting supplications from the dead if it was indeed a common practice among them? Is it possible that someone did but it just has not reached us or it is still in manuscript form and unpublished?

SH. KAREEM: Very likely, of course. We find that many important individual cases were not presented by our scholars in the official books of the school but in their fatwas and treatises. For example, the treatises of Ibn Taymiyyah, fatwas of Abu Ya’la, Ibn ‘Aqeel’s thoughts in funoon, etc. Ibn Taymiyyah himself has many important theses and fatwas that are not in his individual systematic books like Al-WaasitiyyahAl-Tadmuriyyah, or even his vast work on the rejection of the conflict between reason and revelation. Unfortunately, however, most of the Hanbali individual compilations like treatises, fatwas, etc. are lost! For example, Sh. Mar’i b. Yusuf al-Karmi, who is among the pillars of the school and the author of two mu’tamad (official) texts of the school (Dalil al-Taalib and Ghayat al-Muntaha), did not say anything on the topic of requesting supplications from the dead in his two books. However, in his individual work Shifaa al-Sudoor, he presents many rulings pertaining to istighathatawassul through the dead, etc. In this book, he follows Ibn Taymiyyah very closely!

RAMEEZ: Did he mention the issue of requesting supplications from the dead in this book? If so, then what did he say?

SH. KAREEM: Yes. He said that it is not legislated and he did not say that there is a difference of opinion over it in the school. Here is a screenshot from one section of the book:

“And as for requesting supplications from the dead, whether they be prophets, righteous, or other than them, then that is not legislated. It is not legislated for us to say to the dead, ‘Ask your Lord for us.'”

RAMEEZ: Do we have anyone else among the Hanbalis this explicit on the topic or no?

SH. KAREEM: Allah Knows Best. Nothing comes to mind with this explicit type of clarity. But it should be emphasized that not having this type of clarity from others in our hands does not mean at all that if they were asked about it, they would permit it. We are hopeful since everyday new manuscripts are found and published. There was once a time when even Shifaa al-Sudoor did not exist.

RAMEEZ: Could we then say that there is a legitimate difference of opinion over the issue of requesting supplications from the dead and that those who allow it should be treated like those who are following a legitimate difference of opinion?

SH. KAREEM: Requesting supplications from the dead at their graves is not something I can say is a justifiable difference. At the very least, I cannot see justification for expanding it due to the disastrous practices that occur by the public at the graves. Due to the need to block the means to a greater evil, I am not assured to justify the difference of opinion on it. However, the one who justifies requesting supplications from the dead at their graves is not like the one who justifies absolute istighatha. The latter is shirk, whereas, the former who combines this practice with the belief that the dead can hear those around their graves due to some textual basis from the Qur’an and Sunnah, then this is definitely not shirk. This latter issue is easier even if we say that the difference over it is not justified, therefore, we may justify the ruling for individuals and in narrow circles. As for allowing it through a general fatwa for the masses, then I don’t think any sane person would contradict the necessity of denying and preventing it, and everyone who mixes with the public knows and understands it.

RAMEEZ: How do the modern Hanbali scholars who allow requesting supplications from the dead respond to the explicit words of Sh. Mar’i b. Yusuf al-Karmi?

SH. KAREEM: To be honest, I am not a good follower of these disputes, however, there are two famous responses regarding it:

  1. Sh. Mar’i b. Yusuf al-Karmi is only conveying and summarizing Ibn Taymiyyah’s statements on the matter and he is not determining the position of the school. We can respond to this by saying that in reality Sh. Mar’i b. Yusuf al-Karmi was clarifying the position of the school in different issues and he indicates objections to Ibn Taymiyyah’s positions when he differs with him, therefore, even if he was just conveying and summarizing his position, the fact that he is silent about it shows that he agreed with him on this point and that he did not view it as something outside of the school. Several years ago, I responded to some brothers who were doing the same thing with Iqna‘ and its explanation. They would say the author of the text is only conveying and summarizing Ibn Taymiyyah’s position and not endorsing it, however, this was wrong as I showed at that time.
  2. Sh. Mar’i b. Yusuf al-Karmi mentioned this in a specific compilation and not in any official text of the school or its explanation, therefore, it is not expressive of the school. It’s just his opinion on the matter. What counts is what is in the mu’tamad books of the school that are taught, read, used in fatwas and judiciary matters. We can respond to this by saying how strange is this that those who follow this view themselves rely on books outside of the mu’tamad when they want to permit istighatha! They go to treatises, poems, explanations, etc. that are not even part of the mu’tamad works!

However, we need to ask ourselves a very important question. What appears to be the biggest obstacle, the statement of Ibn Taymiyyah or Sh. Mar’i? It is not correct that we agree to abstain from opposing Sh. Mar’i while making it easy to oppose Ibn Taymiyyah! The actions of al-Hajjawi, Sh. Mar’i, and others in our school indicate that every choice of Ibn Taymiyyah in which he is not opposed by our scholars nor does he contradict their usool, then that is the Hanbali school in a nutshell! I am saying this even though I do not blindly follow Ibn Taymiyyah or Sh. Mar’i in determining the Hanbali school. I differ with both of them on various issues.

RAMEEZ: Do we have explicit and clear statement on the issue of requesting supplications from the dead from Ibn Taymiyyah? I’ve heard some say that even Ibn Taymiyyah is not clear about it and that he was mainly talking about istighatha.

SH. KAREEM: Yes, you can find it in his book Qaa’idah Jaliyyah in which he explains that there is nothing legislated on the issue of requesting supplications from the dead and that it is an innovation and not permitted. Some of Ibn Taymiyyah’s followers said that it is shirk, however, Ibn Taymiyyah is free from that because he did not call this practice shirk. He restricted that claim to istighatha alone.

[End of discussion]

The above is the discussion between myself and Sh. Kareem. For those interested in taking courses with him, then he uploads them for free on his official YouTube channel here.

Update (January 8, 2021)

Since the publication of this article, some of those outside the Hanbali school who allow the practice of requesting supplications from the dead and istighatha have pointed to Sh. Abdul Wahid al-Hanbali’s book, which I referenced in the introduction above, to say that it was indeed allowed by Hanbalis. However, it seems these people have not actually read the book. I have taken the time to read it. He is not trying to prove in the book that istighatha in general is something that is allowed in the Hanbali school, in fact, there are numerous places in the book where he himself admits that requesting aid directly from the dead is wrong.

The whole purpose of his book is to show that if the person’s internal theology is sound, then it does not fall into the category of shirk even though it may fall into something forbidden. In other words, he is trying to refute a certain group that says it is always shirk whether the person’s internal belief is sound or not. He does not have any issue with someone considering the practice an innovation but not shirk. He also distinguishes between istighatha and tawassul. For those who do not have the time to read the whole book, then I advise them to just read the last few pages of his conclusions.

Also, with all due respect to others schools, I was only interested in the Hanbali school for this research. Currently, I am not really interested in other schools’ perspectives.

Another point I would like to make is that I finished reading Sh. Abdul Wahid al-Hanbali’s book after publishing the above interview with Sh. Kareem Helmy and came across more statements from respectable Hanbali authorities who explicitly do not allow calling out to the dead for aid in Sh. Abdul Wahid al-Hanbali’s own book:

Qadi Abu Ya’la (d. 455 AH/1066 CE)

Someone asked Qadi Abu Ya’la the following question:

What do you say regarding a person who is found to say: “[O’] Muhammad” or ” [O’] Ali”?

Qadi Abu Ya’a responded:

إن قصد الاستغاثة؛ فهو مخطىء؛ لأن الغوث من الله تعالى، و هما ميتان، فلا يصح الغوث منهما.

“If he intends [by that] istighatha, then he is mistaken because aid is from Allah and both of them [Muhammad (pbuh) and Ali] are dead, therefore, is it not valid to request aid from them.”

Abdul Ghani al-Labadi

Sh. Abdul Wahid al-Hanbali reports the following the Hanbali scholar Abdul Ghani al-Labadi:

:من استغاث بنبي أو ولي؛ لا يخلو من ثلاثة أمور

.أحدها: أن يسأله ما لا يقدر عليه إلا الله؛ كالهداية، والعلم، وشفاء المرض، ونحو ذلك.

.ثانيها: أن يسأله لكونه أقرب إلى الله منه، ليشفع له في هذه الأمور. وهذا من جنس قول المشركين: ما نعبدهم إلا ليقربونا إلى الله زلفى

.ثالثها: أن يدعو له؛ فهذا حق، ولكن يطلب من الحي، لا من الميت

“Istighatha to a prophet or wali is done in one of three ways:

Firstly, the caller asks the called entity [prophet or wali] for things which only Allah has power over [to grant], such as, guidance, knowledge, cure from disease, etc.

Secondly, the caller asks the called entity because it is closer to Allah than him in order that this called entity [prophet or wali] may intermediate for the caller in such affairs [i.e. guidance, knowledge, cure from disease, etc.]. And this is the same as the saying of the idol worshipers: “We worship them only so they may bring us closer to Allah [Qur’an 39:3]”.

Thirdly, the caller is supplicating to the called entity [i.e. requesting supplication]. Then this is correct but [that] is requested from the living and not the dead.”

Ibn Badran (d. 1346 AH/1927 CE)

Someone asked Ibn Badran the following question:

What is the opinion regarding someone who stands at the grave of a righteous person and says, “O’ so-and-so aid me, relieve me of my anguish, cure my child, help me!”

Ibn Badran responded:

إن كان ذلك القائل يعتقد أن سيده فلان هو الذي يغيثه، ويفرج كربه، ويشفي ولده، ويمده بالمدد من عنده؛ فقد كفر باتفاق المؤمنين…وإن كان قصده مجرد الدعاء؛ فذلك غير جائز

If the one who says that believes that it is the called entity itself that is giving the aid, relieving the anguish, curing his child, extending aid, then such a person has disbelieved according to the agreement of the believers…[but] if he intends by that just supplication, then that is not permitted.”

Other Perspectives

During my research, I came across the following sources which I found helpful. They do not argue from a Hanbali perspective but provide a good overview of the topic from their own frameworks. I am sharing it here because it is good to know the overall discussions on the matter from different angles:

  • Hadith of the blind man – This is the main evidence used by those who justify tawassul.
  • Can the dead hear in their graves? – This is a talk by Dr. Yasir Qadhi and not related directly to the topic, however, it is important to know because the whole debate on the issue revolves around this factor. The ruling is very deeply tied to the question of the state of the dead in their graves. There is a difference of opinion over it and Dr. Qadhi presents arguments from both sides of the debate in a detailed manner.
  • Istighatha and Tawassul – This is a three part series in which the presenter takes the position of prohibition on both istighatha and tawassul. I do not agree with some of the arguments and conclusions presented for tawassul, however, it is a respectful presentation on the topic without the polemics. You can listen to part 2 here and part 3 here.
  • Ruling on invoking other than Allah – This is a talk by Dr. Yasir Qadhi in which he examines the three opinions on the matter among Sunnis. He favors the one that says that it is an innovation but not shirk as long as the caller does not believe the called entity to be a deity or able to do things independent of Allah.
  • Istighathah – This is the Deobandi perspective on the topic.
  • Tawassul & Istighatha – These are arguments presented for it by Sh. Hamza Yusuf and two other scholars.

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2 thoughts on “Istighatha and Tawassul in the Hanbali School: A Discussion With Sh. Kareem Helmy”

  1. Assalaamu alaykum. Does Shaykh Karim believe that the act of istighatha is shirk itself or only if it’s accompanied by the believe in istiqlal for the person who is being asked?

    1. WS. He only mentioned istighatha with istiqlal as shirk as is clear from the discussion above. However, he still views it as forbidden even if done without istiqlal but not necessarily shirk.

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