The issue of the permissibility of istighathah/isti ‘anah is one that is widely discussed and a bone of contention for many. The elders of Deoband — like their predecessors from the Waliullah and Mujaddidi tradition — write that there are three meanings of isti’anah. Imam Rabbani Mawlana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, quoting Mi’ah Masa’il and Arba’in Masa’il of Muhaddith Shah Muhammad Ishaq Dahlawi, writes:
“One is to beseech the Most High that he completes something on account of the holiness of such a such person. This is permissible by consensus regardless of whether this is [done] at the grave or some other place. No one has any objection to this.”
“The second is to address the person of the grave by saying, ‘You fulfil my work’. This is shirk, regardless of whether this is said at the grave or away from it. And that which has been mentioned in some narrations, ‘Aid me, oh slaves of Allah.’ In reality this is not isti’anah at the grave but the seeking of aid from the slaves of Allah who are in the desert; in that Allah has appointed them there for some work. So this is not from this (the concept of isti’anah). To bring [this] as proof of permissibility is ignorance of the meaning of the hadith.”
“The third is to go close to a grave and say, ‘Oh such a such person, pray for me that the Most High fulfils my work.’ There is a difference among the ‘ulama regarding this. Those who consider it permissible to believe that the dead can hear consider this permissible and those who do not believe that the dead can hear forbid this … However, there is no difference in the hearing of the Prophets (peace be upon them), on account of this they are exempt.”
Mawlana Gangohi writes elsewhere that if a person was to do istighathah of the second type with the belief that the person called upon has knowledge of the unseen (‘ilm al-ghayb), then this is kufr. If, on the other hand, a person does not have this belief then this would not be kufr, but close to kufr.
This is the safest and most prudent of positions on the issue. In relation to this, in counter-arguments against the esteemed and definitely safe position of the elders of Deoband, it is heartrending to come across accusations of the Deobandi ‘ulama being “reformative” and their opinions described as “minority opinions” (or bluntly put — “Wahhabi-like” or “Salafi-like”).
With the Azhar of India — Dar al-’Ulum Deoband — founded in the 1860s, many of the Deobandi ‘ulama’s antagonists forward the impression that their views are recent. The reality is quite different, the elders of Deoband are merely the successors of a spiritual legacy that traces its origins through Shah Waliullah Muhaddith Dahlawi (and his sons) to Mujaddid Alf al-Thani Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi Naqshbandi and beyond through the ummat’s scholars to the best of creation, the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace).
Below are a series of translations from various books on the topic, including primarily a section from a commentary of Shah Isma’il Shahid’s Taqwiyat al-Iman written by Shaykh Abu ‘l-Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi at the behest of Shaykh al-Hadith Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandahlawi. In his commentary, Shaykh Abu ‘l-Hasan presents the views of ‘Allamah ‘Abd al-Haqq bin Sayf al-Din Bukhari Dahlawi (from his book Ashi’ath al-Lam’at) and Shah ‘Abd al-’Aziz Dahlawi (from his book Majmu’ah Fatawa Shaykh ‘Abd al-’Aziz).
In addition, translations of relevant sections of Mawlana Yusuf Ludhianwi’s brilliant Ikhtilaf-i-Ummat awr Sirat-i-Mustaqim (quoting Qadi Thana’ullah Panipati from Irshad al-Talibin), ‘Allamah Mahmud Alusi al-Hanafi’s Tafsir Ruh ul-Ma’ani fi Tafsir al-Qur’an al-’Azim wa Saba’a al-Mathani (also known as Ruh al-Ma’ani), ’Allamah Muhammad Tahir Patni’s Majma’ Bihar al-Anwar, Shah Waliullah al-Dahlawi’s Hujjat Allah al-Balighah, ‘Allamah ‘Abd al-Hayy al-Lakhnawi’s Majmu’ah Fatawa, ‘Allamah ibn ‘Abidin al-Shami’s Radd al-Muhtar, and ‘Allamah ibn Nujaym al-Misri’s Al-Bahr al-Ra’iq have been included to unequivocally show that the elders of Deoband’s position in relation to the second type of istighathah is not an isolated one but, rather, one that is firmly grounded in the Shari’ah as understood by traditional scholars of bygone days.
 Shaykh Sayyid Abu ‘l-Hasan writes in his commentary to Shah Isma’il al-Shahid’s masterpiece Taqwiyat al-Iman: “In the latter days, people adopted the wrong custom of seeking aid from and supplicating to people in the grave. Some pious people gave permission for it with the thought that it was a means of benefiting from the spirituality (ruhaniyat) of the person of the grave and that it was merely a request for du’a (supplication) from the person and nothing more.
However, well-versed jurists (muhaqqiq fuqaha’) and sincere Sufis forbade it, as it is a means of fitnah and an extremely delicate issue that may place one in err. In the above mentioned it is extremely difficult to differentiate between that which has been intended and that which has not. There is a fear that the lay masses may become involved in shirk and begin seeking aid from the dead, because according to Islamic dogma — in respect to those things that are not sensed (hissi), physical (tab’i), and ordinary (‘adi) — one may only seek aid from Allah and only rely on him.
This topic was discussed a long time ago, and the ‘ulama of that age discussed it. ‘Allamah ‘Abd al-Haqq bin Sayf al-Din Bukhari Dahlawi (died 1052AH) — who is a hadith scholar (muhaddith), jurist (faqih) and Sufi, and someone of an easygoing opinion in these sorts of issues — has mentioned in his Persian commentary of Mishkat al-Masabih: ‘If those that visit the graves, abandon turning towards Allah and imploring Him, and have belief that the people of the grave have full power and an ability of their own — as is the way of the ignorant and simple lay masses, who having gone there indulge in haram and do such acts that Islam has prohibited, such as kissing graves, prostrating in front of them, praying in front of them and any other type of action that the shari’at has prohibited and which have been warned of — then this has been prohibited; (it is) haram and a wrong belief (‘aqidah)’.” (Ashi’ath al-Lam’at, Kitab al-Jihad, Qissat Qatla Badr).
 Shaykh Abu ‘l-Hasan further writes: “Mawlana Shah ‘Abd al-’Aziz Dahlawi (died 1239AH) writes: ‘(They) seek aid from the souls of the pious, (regarding this) a large number of Muslims have exceeded the limit. In relation to this, whatever the ignorant and lay masses do, in every action of theirs they have the belief of their (the souls of the pious) strength and involvement, this is open shirk.” (Majmu’ah Fatawa Shaykh ‘Abd al-’Aziz, p.121).
In addition, Fatawa ‘Azizi of Mawlana Shah ‘Abd al-’Aziz Dahlawi contains the following question and answer: “Question. Is it correct or not to seek aid from the Prophets (may Allah grant them peace), the noble saints, the worthy martyrs and the lofty pious after their deaths, saying, ‘Oh such and such a person, request for me a need from the Almighty, intercede on my behalf, and pray for me’.
“Answer. To seek aid from the dead (istimdad) — regardless of whether this is done at the grave or away — is without a doubt a bid’ah, and did not exist in the time of the Companions and the Followers. However, there is a difference of opinion regarding which type of bid’ah this falls into. In that, is it a reprehensible bid’ah or a praiseworthy bid’ah, as a result the ruling would be different. Considering istimdad is of different types, if the seeking is of the type mentioned in the above question then it is clear this is permissible. This is because there is no shirk in this. This is the same as making requests for supplications and other needs from the pious in their life. If this (istimdad) is done in a different way then the ruling would accordingly be different.” (Fatawa ‘Azizi, 1:89)
 Furthermore, the great Hanafi jurist, ‘Allamah Mahmud Alusi al-Hanafi, in Ruh al-Ma’ani, under the Qur’anic verse: “Oh believers, fear Allah and seek a means (wasilah) towards reaching him,” writes: “Indeed people have increased supplicating to others apart from Allah from among the saints, those that are alive or dead and others. For example (they say): ‘Ya sayyidi fulan agithni (Oh my such and such master, aid me).’ This is not from the permissible type of tawassul (intercession) at all… Many of the ‘ulama have considered this to be shirk.”
‘Allamah Alusi, under the Qur’anic verse: “Surely, those you call apart from Allah cannot create even a fly,” writes: “This is an indication rebuking those who have exceeded the limit in regards to the saints when seeking their aid at times of distress while being neglectful of Allah Most High and making vows (nadhr) to them. And the intelligent from among them say, ‘They are our means to Allah Most High; we are only vowing to Allah Most High and dedicating its reward to the wali.’ And it is clear that in their first claim they are similar to those who worship idols who say, ‘We only worship them so they may bring us close to Allah.’ And there is nothing wrong with their second claim as long as they do not seek from them, with that, cure for their sick or the return of their lost items or something like that.
And the concept of [them] ‘seeking’ (from the dead person) is clear from their situation. This [meaning] is understood if they are told: ‘Make a vow for Allah Most High and allocate its reward for your parents for indeed they are in more need than those people.’ They would not do so.
And I have seen many of them prostrating at the doorsteps of the mausoleums of the friends of Allah. And among them are those who affirm that they all have the right of disposal (tasarruf) in their graves and that, however, they are different in that (in their ability of tasarruf) according to the differences in their statuses.
And the ‘ulama among them enumerate the right of disposal in the graves into four or five, and when they are asked for proof they say: ‘That was established through kashf‘. May Allah Most High fight them. How great is their ignorance and lies.
And among them are those who claim the saints can leave their graves and take different shapes. And their ‘ulama say their souls appear in different shapes and travel wherever they wish. At times they take the shape of a lion or a gazelle or something similar. And all of this is false, and without basis in the Book, the Sunnah and the speech of the predecessors of the Ummah. These people have ruined people’s faith and have become an object of ridicule for the people of those religions which have been abrogated, such as the Jews and the Christians, and likewise the people of other sects and the freethinkers (dahriyyah). We ask Allah for forgiveness and well being.”
 Mawlana Yusuf Ludhianwi, one of the leading khalifas of Shaykh al-Hadith Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandahlawi, writes in his brilliant Ikhtilaf-i-Ummat Awr Sirat-i-Mustaqim: “The other juristic issue is that just, as in the way of supplication and to gain nearness to Allah Most High, one calls out to Him and recites wazifahs (incantations) using His pure name. Similarly, some people use the names of some pious people (buzrugs) and call out to them and recite incantations. This is completely impermissible in Islam. The reason being that such actions fall under the scope of worship (‘ibadat) and all worship is purely for the sake of Allah Most High. Neither the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), nor the Sahabah, nor any pious predecessor used the name of any other being besides Allah Most High for the recitation of any incantations.”
 Mawlana Ludhianwi then quotes the great Hanafi jurist of India, ‘Allamah Qadi Thana’ullah Panipati, a Naqashbandi Mujaddidi Sufi master who was the khalifah of Mirza Mazhar Jani Janan and who was also one of the leading students of Shah Waliullah Muhaddith Dahlawi: “It is not permissible to make dhikr with the name of any of the pious (awliya) as a wazifah or as a means of achieving any objective or need, like how the ignorant ones do.” (Irshad al-Talibin, quoted from Al-Jannat li Ahl al-Sunnat, p.7)
Mawlana Ludhianwi quotes Qadi Thana’ullah again: “Juristic issue: It is not permissible to make supplications to the pious, who have passed away or are living or to the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). The Prophet of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said that supplications are the core of worship, and then the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) recited this verse: ‘And your Cherisher says: supplicate to Me, I answer you. Indeed those people who are proud (refrain) from My worship, soon they will enter the hellfire disgraced.’ And the statements of the ignorant ones: ‘Ya Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaylani shay’an lillah‘ and ‘Ya Khawaja Shams al-Din al-Panipati shay’an lillah‘ (‘Oh Shaykh Abd al-Qadir al-Jaylani give something for the sake of Allah’, and ‘Oh Khawaja Shams al-Din Panipati give something for the sake of Allah’) are not permissible. In fact, they are shirk (polytheism) and kufr. But if someone says: ‘Oh my lord, through the mediation of Khawaja Shams al-Din Panipati fulfil the following need of mine…’ then this will be correct.” (Irshad al-Talibin, p.18.)
He further quotes Qadi Thana’ullah: “Juristic issue: If any person says that Allah Most High and His prophet are witness in a certain act, then that person becomes a kafir because such a person has regarded the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) as the knower of the unseen (‘alim al-ghayb). The awliya of Allah do not have the ability or power to bring a non-existent thing into existence nor to make an existing thing non-existent. Hence, to relate to them the power of bringing into existence and taking out of existence, sustenance, granting of children, removing and averting illness and hardships, etc. is an act of kufr. Allah says: ‘Say (Oh Muhammad [may Allah bless him and grant him peace]), I do not have the power to benefit or harm my own self, except what Allah wills…’” (Irshad al-Talibin, p.18).
Qadi Thana’ullah writes at another place, “To prostrate before the graves of the prophets and saints, to circumambulate around them, to invoke them [for help], and to accept offerings of their behalf is haram; rather some of these matters lead to kufr.” (Ma la Budda Minhu, p.80)
 The Hadith Scholar ’Allamah Muhammad Tahir Patni Shahid (died 986AH) writes: “Imam Malik disliked that one says, ‘We visited (zurna) his [the Prophet’s (peace and blessings upon him)] grave.’ And they have shown the reason for this, in that the word ziyarat is used in the meaning of that which is legal in terms of Shari’ah and that which is not. For indeed there are those among them who proceed to visit the graves of the prophets and the pious to pray by their graves, supplicate by them and ask them (the prophets and the pious) for their needs. And this is not permissible according to any of the scholars of the Muslims, for indeed worship, asking for needs and seeking aid (isti’anah) is only the right of Allah.” (Majma’ Bihar al-Anwar, 2:444)
 Imam Shah Waliullah Dahlawi (died 1176AH) writes: “And among that (the occasions where forbidden shirk is present): Surely they seek aid from [people] other than Allah for their needs — including cure for the ill and giving wealth to the poor; and they make vows (nadhr) and hope that their aims are successful on account of those vows; and they recite their [people’s] names hoping to gain their blessings. Allah Most High has made it incumbent on them that they say in their prayers, ‘It is only you that we worship and it is only you that we seek aid from.’ Allah Most High says, ‘So, do not call with [the name of] Allah anyone else.’ And the meaning of du’a (supplication) is not ‘ibadah (worship), as the exegetes say, but it is isti’anah (seeking aid), according to the saying of God, may He be Exalted, ‘No, but you call upon Him and He removes the thing because of which you call upon Him’ (Qur’an, 6:41).” (Hujjat Allah al-Balighah, 1:186)
 ‘Allamah ‘Abd al-Hayy Lakhnawi (died 1304AH) writes: “…in that seeking aid (istighathah) from the saints and the prophets is haram and clear shirk.” (Majmu’ah Fatawa, 1:46-45)
 ‘Allamah ibn ‘Abidin al-Shami (died 1252AH), author of the famous Hanafi book of fiqh, Radd al-Muhtar, which is a commentary of ‘Allamah al-Haskafi’s Durr al-Mukhtar, writes: “[[His saying: And know that indeed the vows (nadhr) made to the dead by the majority of the lay-masses and what dirhams, candles, oil and their like are taken at the mausoleums of the noble awliya to gain proximity to them…]] like one says, ‘Oh my such and such a master, if you return that which I have lost or cure my illness or fulfil my need, then for you is a large amount of gold or silver or food or candles or oil or the like.’ [[His saying: this is baseless and haram]] on account of a few reasons. Among them (those reasons) is that he has promised to the creation and promising to the creation is not permissible because this is a [form of] worship and worship should only be for the creator; and among them is that the person being promised is dead and the dead cannot own; and among them is that if he thinks that the dead person has discretion (tasarruf) in issues beside Allah Most High. And his belief in that is kufr, oh Allah, except if he says, ‘Oh Allah, surely I promise you — if you cure my illness, or return me my lost possession, or fulfil my need — that I shall feed the poor, who are at the door of Sayyidah Nafisah, or Imam Shafi’i, or Imam Layth etc, from among those things in which there is benefit for the poor and the offering is for Allah…’” (Hashiyyah Rad al-Muhtar, 2:439)
 ‘Allamah ibn Nujaym al-Misri (died 970AH) writes in a section about nadhr: “Shaykh Qasim (d. 879AH) writes in Sharh al-Durar: ‘And as to the vows (nadhr) made by the majority of the general lay public, according to what is witnessed, it is as if the person has lost something or is ill or has a necessary need, so he comes to some of the [graves of the] pious and places the sheet covering the grave on his head and says, “Oh my such a such master, if my lost item is returned, or my illness cured, or my need fulfilled, then for you is so much gold or silver or food or water or wax or oil.” Then this vow is baseless by consensus (ijma’) on account of a number of reasons. Among them (the number of reasons) is that making vows to the creation and vowing for the creation is not permissible because this is a [form of] worship and worship is not for the creation; and among them (the number of reasons) is that the person who is being vowed is dead and the dead person cannot own; and among them (the number of reasons) if he thinks that the dead person has discretion (tasarruf) in matters beside Allah Almighty, then his belief in that is kufr, oh Allah, except if he says, “Oh Allah, surely I promise you — if you cure my illness, or return me my lost possession, or fulfil my need — that I shall feed the poor, who are at the door of Sayyidah Nafisah, or the poor who are the door of Imam Shafi’ or Imam Layth [provide], or prayer mats for their mosques, or oil to light them, or [give] dirhams for those who worship inside etc,” from among those things in which there is benefit for the poor and the offering is for Allah…’” (Al-Bahr al-Ra’iq, 2:320)