Istighāthah (taking help) can refer to asking a deceased person to fulfil one’s need. This is the meaning of istighāthah which the Barelwīs favour and the Deobandīs strongly oppose.
However, istighāthah has in the past been used more loosely to refer to other meanings, for example:
- Tawassul through deceased personalities. E.g. saying: “O Allah, I ask you through the intermediary of” or “by the blessing of so-and-so” “to fulfil this work of mine.”
- Deriving blessing (tabarruk) from the mention of someone. E.g. calling out Yā Muḥammad as an act of love and showing a connection with the blessed name, without the belief that the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) will hear it directly or that it will necessarily reach him.
- Deriving spiritual blessing from the grave of a saint. That is, sitting at the side of the grave and meditating, but not asking for anything from the inhabitant of the grave.
- At the grave side, asking the inhabitant of the grave to pray to Allah for the fulfillment of one’s needs.
These are meanings that Deobandīs do not dispute. Deobandīs unanimously accept the first three meanings. The fourth meaning they describe as a matter of legitimate dispute. Mawlānā Rashīd Aḥmad Gangohī said about the fourth meaning: “To go close to a grave and say, ‘Oh such and such person, pray for me that the Most High fulfils my work.’ There is a difference among the ‘ulamā’ 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.” (al-Fatāwā al-Rashīdiyyah, p. 139) About the third meaning, the author of al-Muhannad states: “As for deriving benefit from the spirituality of the great saints and receiving internal effusions from their breasts or their graves, this is correct in the manner recognised by its experts and specialists, but not in the manner widespread amongst the common people.” (al-Muhannad, Dār al-Fatḥ, p. 60)
‘Allāmah Ṣun‘ullāh al-Ḥalabī al-Ḥanafī (d. 1708), a pre-Wahhābī pre-Deobandī Ottoman Ḥanafī jurist based in Ḥalab and Makkah, refuted the practice of calling out to dead saints for help while believing they have taṣarrufāt (powers of discretion) to help. He wrote a relatively lengthy treatise on the topic called Sayfullāh ‘alā man Kadhaba ‘alā Awliyā’illah, containing many useful discussions, including a crucial distinction between karāmāt (exceptional miracles) and taṣarrufāt (continuous powers). ‘Allāmah Ṣun‘ullāh was a Sunnī who made ta’wīl of the Ṣifāt Khabariyyah like yad (hand) (hence could not have been a “Taymī” or a “Wahhābī”), and supported Tawassul. In explaining what some of the scholars before him meant by the permissibility of “istighāthah”, he said: “What has been said about istighāthah being permitted via the prophets and saints, the intent is only deriving blessing (tabarruk) from mentioning them, and making tawassul through them, not asking for help [directly] from them.” (Sayfullāh ‘alā man Kadhaba ‘alā Awliyā’illah, Dār al-Kitāb wa l-Sunnah, p. 49-50)
Shaykh ‘Abdul Ḥaqq Muḥaddith Dehlawī (1551 – 1642), the celebrated imām of ḥadīth from the subcontinent, has a brief discussion on “istighāthah” in his Arabic commentary on Mishkāt, al-Lama‘āt (Lama‘āt al-Tanqīḥ, Dār al-Nawādir, 7:38-40). What is interesting about this discussion is that although Shaykh ‘Abdul Ḥaqq Muḥaddith Dehlawī uses the terms “istimdād” and “istighāthah” and defends their practice against opponents, it is clear that he is using them in the alternative meanings described above (in particular, meanings 1, 3 and 4). Relevant parts of this discussion are translated below:
As for istimdād from the inhabitants of graves, some jurists have denounced it. If the denunciation is because they have no hearing, knowledge or feeling of the one visiting and his conditions, then this has been proven to be false, and if it is because they have no power or control in that location to help them but are held back from them and occupied in the trials that occur to their souls which distract them from all else, then this is not regarded as always [being the case], especially for the pious who are the friends of Allāh, and thus it is possible for their souls to acquire closeness to the Lord Most Exalted in the Barzakh, and position and power to intercede and make du‘ā and ask for needs to those visiting and making Tawassul through them.
I don’t understand the istimdād and imdād that the denouncer is negating. What we understand is that a needy supplicant, in need of Allāh, makes du‘ā to Allāh and asks his need from His Most Exalted grace, and takes the spirituality of this slave brought close and ennobled by Him Most Exalted as an intermediary, saying: “O Allāh, by the blessing of this slave that You have shown mercy to and have ennobled, and the gentleness and honour You have over him, fulfil my need and grant my request, verily You are the Generous Giver.” Or he calls out to this slave brought close and ennobled by Him Most Exalted, saying: “O slave of Allāh, O friend of His, intercede for me and make du‘ā to your Lord and ask Him to give me my request and fulfil my need.” The giver and the one asked and the one hoped in is the Lord Most High and Most Exalted, and the slave in between is nothing but an intermediary. The one with power, agency and control is none but Him, and the friends of Allāh are annihilated in His Most Exalted agency, power and control.
That which is transmitted from the saints who experience kashf upon istimdād (i.e. deriving spiritual benefit) from the souls of the accomplished and taking benefit from them, it is more than can be counted, described in their works, well-known amongst them, so there is no need to cite them. (Lama‘āt al-Tanqīḥ, Dār al-Nawādir, 7:38-40)
As can be seen, Shaykh ‘Abdul Ḥaqq is describing only the first, third and fourth meanings of “istighāthah” (a term he also uses in this passage alongside “istimdād”) described above. He is not talking about calling out directly to the deceased, asking for them to fulfil one’s needs. While describing how the ignorant engage in “istighāthah”, however, he states in the same discussion:
Yes, if visitors believe that the inhabitants of graves are independent, powerful actors, without turning to the Divine Presence and taking recourse to it, as believed by the heedless ignorant ones…that is prohibited and forbidden. The practice of the common people has no consideration at all. (Lama‘āt al-Tanqīḥ, Dār al-Nawādir, 7:39)
Shāh ‘Abdul ‘Azīz Dehlawī (1746 – 1824) also denounced the belief of the ignorant when engaging in istighāthah. He said in a Farsi answer:
People from this Ummah have gone into excess in the matter of istighāthah from pure souls. That which the ignorant and common people do, and what they believe about them of full independence in every action, this is manifest shirk without doubt. (Fatāwā ‘Azīzī, Maṭba‘ Mujtabā’ī, p. 121)
The Ḥanafī mufti of Baghdad who came a generation before the founders of Deoband, ‘Allāmah Maḥmūd al-Ālūsī (1802 – 1854), author of the celebrated Rūḥ al-Ma‘ānī, also condemned the istighāthah of the common people*:
People have increased in calling on other than Allah (Exalted is He), from the saints, the living of them and the dead, and other than them, like: ‘O my master so-and-so, give me relief.’ This is not from the permissible [form of] Tawassul at all. It is befitting the condition of a believer to avoid saying this and avoid roaming around its boundary. Some ‘ulamā’ have considered it shirk, and if it is not so, then it is close to it.
I have not seen anyone who utters this but he believes that the one called, whether an absent living person or a dead person, knows the unseen or hears the call and is able, intrinsically or extrinsically, to bring benefit and repel harm; otherwise he would not call him or open his mouth!
In this is a great trial from your Lord! It is obligatory to stay away from this and not seek [help] except from Allāh (Exalted is He), the Strong, the Independent, the Doer of what He wills.
Let it not delude you that the one seeking help from creation often has his need fulfilled and his objective accomplished, for that is a trial and a tribulation from Him (Great and Glorious is He). Often the devil takes the form to the one asking help of the one he asked help from, so he believes it to be a miracle of the one he asked help from. Far, very far! Indeed, it is only the devil misguiding him and turning him astray. (Rūḥ al-Ma‘ānī, Mu’assasat al-Risālah, 7:181)
* Note: Some have claimed that his work, Rūḥ al-Ma‘ānī, has been tampered with. In fact, there is no tampering in Rūḥ al-Ma‘ānī. The team of researchers who worked on the recent Mu’assasat al-Risālah print of Rūḥ al-Ma‘ānī relied on a number of manuscripts, the primary manuscript being one copied (by several scribes) directly from the author’s own copy, which was then checked by the author (Sayyid Maḥmūd Ᾱlūsī) himself. The researchers comment: “The manuscripts that we relied on, particularly this primary manuscript, is no different from the widely available prints of the Tafsīr. They are exactly the same. Hence what was said…that the son of Ᾱlūsī was not trustworthy in printing the tafsir of his father does not conform with reality.” (Rūḥ al-Ma‘ānī, Mu’assasat al-Risālah, 2010, 1:72)