Supplication through the Prophet Muhammad (al-tawassul)
One of the concepts within Islam that has been misunderstood in the modern age is the concept of tawassul. We need to return to the original linguistic and legal meanings of this term before we can discuss the ruling of making tawassul through the Prophet.
The linguistic and legal meaning of a go-between (wasilah): Linguistically, al-wasilah is a rank with the king and nearness. Someone acts as a go-between with God for someone if they do something that draws them closer to Him. The wasil is the one who desires God. The poet Labid said:
I see people unaware of their worth,
In fact, all who have an opinion are desirous (wasil) of God.
Someone tawassala to someone else with a wasilah if they draw closer to them by some act or another. He tawassala to him with such and such, meaning he drew closer to him with the sanctity of a bond that makes him endeared. Al-wasilah is a connection, and nearness.
The legal meaning of al-wasilah does not depart from this linguistic definition. The main concern of a Muslim's life is to draw near to God and attain His pleasure and reward. Part of God's mercy to us is that He has given us acts of worship and opened the door of being near to Him. Muslims draw near to God with all of the different means for doing so that God has legislated. When Muslims pray they are drawing near to God in their prayer, meaning they reach to God (yatawassal) with their prayer. Based on this, the Quran commands us, in its entirety, to seek nearness to God (wasilah).
God mentions al-wasilah in the Quran in two places. The first is when He commands it saying, O ye who believe! Be mindful of your duty to God, and seek the way of approach unto Him [al-wasilah] (5:35). The second is when God praises those who seek to draw near to him through their supplications, Those unto whom they cry seek the way of approach [al-wasilah] to their Lord, which of them shall be the nearest; they hope for His mercy and they fear His doom. Lo! the doom of thy Lord is to be shunned (17:57).
The four schools of Sunni jurisprudence are in agreement concerning the permissibility and even the preferability of making tawassul through the Prophet, and they make no distinction between his life and after his passing. The only person who differed (shadhdha) is Ibn Taymiyah, who claimed that there is a distinction between making tawassul through the Prophet during his life and after his passing, but his lone opinion (shudhudh) has no weight. We call upon the community to hold fast to that upon which its great Imams have agreed. The verse from the Quran that states, And if, when they had wronged themselves, they had but come to you and asked forgiveness of God, and asked forgiveness of the messenger, they would have found God Forgiving, Merciful (4:64), remains true after the passing of the Prophet. In another research, we related that which affirms the preferability of making tawassul through the Prophet and asking him to seek forgiveness on one's behalf. In what follows we will mention the evidence from the Quran and the sunna upon which the consensus of the four schools relied.
Firstly, the evidence from the Quran:
1) O ye who believe! Be mindful of your duty to God, and seek the way of approach unto Him, and strive in His way in order that ye may succeed (5:35).
2) Those unto whom they cry seek the way of approach to their Lord, which of them shall be the nearest; they hope for His mercy and they fear His doom. Lo! the doom of thy Lord is to be shunned (17:57).
3) And if, when they had wronged themselves, they had but come to you and asked forgiveness of God, and asked forgiveness of the messenger, they would have found God Forgiving, Merciful (4:64).
The first verse commands the believers to draw near to God with all the various means of drawing near to Him, and making tawassul through the Prophet in supplication is one of the means of drawing near to God, which will be established in detail when we discuss the evidence from the sunna. There is nothing to indicate that this verse refers to one particular wasilah as opposed to another. The command here is general and applies to all forms of wasilah by which God is pleased. Supplication is an act of worship that is accepted as long as it is not for familial ties to be severed, or something that is sinful, and as long as it is not comprised of phrases that are in contradiction with theological principles and the fundamentals of Islam.
In the second verse God praises those believers who have responded to Him and drawn closer to him by means of the wasilah of supplication. We will show how Muslims are to make tawassul to God in their supplications from the sunna.
In the third verse God clearly calls upon believers to go to the Prophet and to seek forgiveness of God in his presence stating that their repentance is more likely to be accepted in this way. This verse still holds true.
Evidence from the Sunna:
1) According to Uthman ibn Hanif, a blind man came to the Prophet and said, "Ask God to cure me." The Prophet said, "If you like you can be patient [i.e. and suffer your blindness] for that would be better for you." The blind man said, "Ask Him." So the Prophet told him to make ablutions well and to say this supplication, "O God, I ask You, and I turn to You through Your prophet Muhammad, the Prophet of Mercy. O Muhammad, I have turned to my Lord through you concerning this need of mine so that it may be taken care of. O God, let him intercede on my behalf."1 Both al-Hakim and al-Tirmidhi ruled that this hadith is authentic, and we do not know of anyone who has ruled that it is weak in the modern period among those known for being stern (tashadud); Sheikh al-Albani ruled that it is authentic.2 Nobody objects to this hadith, neither to its chain of transmition, nor to its body. This hadith is evidence for the preferability of this formulation in supplication since the Prophet taught it to one of his companions. God made the miracle of His prophet known by accepting the prayer of the blind man in the very same seating (majlis).
In reality we should not have to relate this story of the hadith that occurred during the reign of Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan in order to provide evidence for the permissibility of using this formulation in supplication after the Prophet's passing. If the Prophet taught one of his companions a formula for supplication, and it is transmitted to us with a sound (sahih) chain, that is evidence for the preferability of using this supplications at all times until God inherits the earth and all who are upon it. There is nothing to make this particular for that companion only, or to restrict it to the Prophet's lifetime. The basis of legal rulings is that they are absolute and general unless a particularization or restriction has been established in its regard. Al-Shawkani3 said, "There is evidence in this hadith for the permissibility of making tawassul to God through the Prophet with the belief that the one who acts is God. It is God alone who is the Giver and the Preventer; that which He wills is, and that which He does not will is not."
Due to the fact that many people today are unaware of these methodological concepts we find that it is necessary to mention the story of that hadith which clarifies that this great companion counseled those who are in need to use this formula for supplication after the passing of the Prophet.
2) The story of the hadith: A man used to come to Uthman ibn Affan with a problem, but Uthman would not pay any attention to him or address his problem. The man encounted Uthman ibn Hanif and complained to him. Uthman ibn Hanif told him, "Go to the place of making ablutions and make your ablutions, then go to the mosque and pray two cycles of prayer. Then say the following: 'O God, I ask You, and I turn to You through Your prophet Muhammad, the Prophet of Mercy. O Muhammad, I turn to my Lord through you, so take care of my need.' Then mention your need.” The man departed and did as he had been told. Then he went to Uthman ibn Affan's door. The doorkeeper came, took him by the hand, presented him to Uthman ibn Affan, and seated him with him on the carpet. [Uthman] asked him, "What is your need?" So the man mentioned his need, and Uthman took care of it. Then he told him, "You did not mention your need until this hour. Whenever you are in need come to us."4 The man left and met Uthman ibn Hanif and said to him, "May God reward you, he used to not pay attention to my need or even turn towards me when I addressed him." Utman ibn Hanif said, "By God, I did not speak to him, but I saw the Messenger of God, and a blind man came to him..."5 Then he related the hadith mentioned above.
Abd Allah ibn al-Sidiq al-Ghumari said, "This narration has been related by al-Bayhaqi in Dala'il al-Nabuwwah from the chain (tariq) of Yaqub ibn Sufyan [who said]: we were told by (hadathana) Ahmad ibn Shabib ibn Sa'id, we were told by (thana) my father, according to ('an) Ruh ibn al-Qasim, according to Abi Ja'far al-Khatami, according to Abi Umamah ibn Sahl Hanif, according to his uncle Uthman ibn Hanif, who said that a man used to go to Uthman ibn Affan..." mentioning the hadith in its entirety. Then he said, "Yaqub ibn Sufyan is al-Nisawi, al-Hafidh al-Imam the trustworthy (al-thiqah), rather even more than trustworthy, and this chain of transmission is authentic sahih, so the story is very authentic. Its authenticity has also been agreed upon by al-Hafidh al-Mundhiri in al-Targhib vol. 3 p. 606, and al-Hafidh al-Haythami in Majma' al-Zawa'id vol. 3 p. 379."6 This story proves that which is proven by the hadith along with closing the door in the face of those who would attempt to calim that this hadith is reserved for during the lifetime of the Prophet. As we have mentioned, there is nothing to make it so, but God willing this will strengthen the resolve and supports the correct position.
3) The hadith of going out to the mosque to pray: According to Abu Sa’id al-Khudri that Prophet said, “Whoever says, when going to prayer, ‘O God, I ask You by those who ask of You, and by my walking, for I have not gone out of insolence, pride, ostentation, or for a reputation. I have gone out of fear of Your displeasure and seeking You contentment. I ask You to preserve me from the fire and forgive my sins, for none forgives sins except You.’ God commands seventy angels to ask for forgiveness on their behalf and He turns towards them with His face until they finish their prayers.”7
This hadith is authentic and has been pronounced as such by al-Hafidh Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani,8 al-Hafidh al-‘Iraqi,9 Abu al-Hasan al-Maqdisi the Sheikh of al-Mundhiri,10 al-Hafidh al-Dumyati,11 and al-Hafidh al-Baghawi.12 The hadith indicates the permissibility of making tawasal to God through good deeds, namely the person walking to the mosque in a state of ritual purity, and by those who ask.
4) The hadith of Anas when Fatimah bint Asad Umm Ali died. It is a long hadith and at the end it says, “and he said, ‘O God who gives life and death, and who is the living who never dies, forgive my mother Fatimah bint Asad. Recite her proofs to her and make her entranceway wide by Your Prophet and the prophets before me. Verily You are the Most Merciful of the Merciful.”13 There is some discussion concerning the people in this hadith’s chain of transmission because it contains Ruh ibn Salah. Ibn Hibban considered him trustworthy, but Ibn al-Jawzi numbered him amongst those whose identities are unknown. On this basis there is difference of opinion concerning the hadith’s authenticity or lack thereof and its being attributed to the Prophet. Its meaning, however, is correct and it is supported by the authentic hadiths that have proceeded.
5) The tawassul of Adam through our Prophet to ask for forgiveness. In the hadith of Umar ibn al-Khatab the Prophet said, “When Adam committed the sin he said, ‘O Lord, I ask You by Muhammad to forgive me.’ God said, ‘Adam, how did you know about Muhammad although I have not created him.’ Adam said, ‘Because when You created me with your hands and blew into me from Your Spirit, I raised my head and saw written on the pillars of Your throne, ‘There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God,’’ God said, ‘You speak truthfully Adam, he is the most beloved of creation unto Me. You supplicated to Me by him so I have forgiven you. If not for Muhammad, I would not have created you.”14
Al-Hakim ruled that this hadith is authentic saying, “This hadith’s chain of transmission is authentic, and it is the first hadith that I mentioned to Abd al-Rahman ibn Zayd ibn Aslam in this book.”15 When he mentioned the story of Adam in his book Stories of the Prophets (Qisas al-Anbiya’) al-Hafidh Ibn Kathir said that it was false. Al-Hafidh al-Dhahabi exaggerated when he ruled that it is a fabrication due to the fact that Abd al-Rahman is in its chain of transmission. Abd al-Rahman is not a liar, nor is he accused, rather he is merely weak, and the likes of him do not make a hadith a fabrication. The most that could happen is that it would be weak. In any case we mention the difference between the hadith scholars out of a sense of academic duty. The hadith, if it is authentic, includes clear evidence that it is permissible to make tawassul through the Prophet in supplication. As for what may be unclear at the end of the hadith, namely the statement, “If not for Muhammad, I would not have created you,” I clarified it’s meaning in the answer to question 36.
6) The hadith that says, “Assist me servants of God.”: According to Ibn Abbas the Prophet said, “God has angels on the earth other than the guardian angels who record the seeds that fall from trees. If one of you is afflicted by lameness in a deserted place he should call out, ‘Assist me servants of God.’”16 Concerning its chain of transmission al-Hafidh al-Haythami said, “It was related by al-Tabarani, and its narrators are trustworthy.”17 The hadith contains evidence for seeking the aid of beings that we cannot see like angels and that God has caused to be an aid for us, and we may make tawassul through them to our Lord in order to achieve that end. It is not farfetched to make an analogy between the angels and the spirits of the righteous for they are bodies of light that remain in our world.
7) The story of praying for rain through the Prophet by his grave during the rule of Umar. According to Malik al-Dar, who was Umar’s treasurer, “People were afflicted with a draught during the reign of Umar. A man went to the grave of the Prophet ad said, ‘O Messenger of God, pray for rain on behalf of your community for they have been destroyed.’ The Messenger of God came to him in a dream and said, ‘Go to Umar and greet him with peace from me. Inform him that they are irrigating. Tell him to appoint the intelligent wise.’18 The man went to Umar and told him. Umar said, ‘O Lord, I will spare no effort in my capacity’”19
This is an authentic hadith authenticated by al-Hafidh Ibn Hajar who said, “Ibn Abu Shaybah related, with an authentic chain of transmission from the narration of Ibu Salih al-Samman according to Malik al-Dar that, “People were afflicted with a draught during the reign of Umar. A man went to the grave of the Prophet ad said, ‘O Messenger of God, pray for rain on behalf of your community for they have been destroyed.’ The Messenger of God came to him in a dream and said, ‘Go to Umar…’ And in al-Futuh Sayf narrated that the person who had the dream was one of the Companions, Bilal ibn al-Harith al-Muzani.”20 This narration was also mentioned by al-Hafidh Ibn Kathir who said, “This chain of transmission is authentic.”21 The hadith has been authenticated by major scholars of hadith, so it is acceptable as evidence for the permissibility of asking the Prophet in a prayer for rain and supplication after his noble passing.
8) The story of the Caliph al-Mansur with Imam Malik: When the second Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja’far al-Mansur al-Abbasi, asked Malik, “O Abd Allah, should I face the Messenger of God and supplicate or should I face the qiblah and supplicate?” Malik told him, “Why would you turn your face away from him when he is your connection (wasilah) to God and the connection of your father Adam until the Day of Judgement? Face him and seek his intercession, and God will make him an interceder [for you].”22 This contains a sign that Malik took the hadith of Adam’s tawassul into consideration, and that he considered it a good thing to face the grave of the Prophet and seek his intercession.
Due to all of this authentic and explicit evidence from the Quran and the Sunna, the scholars of the community, from the four schools and others, have formed a consensus concerning the permissibility and preferability of making tawassul through the Prophet during his lifetime and after his passing, and they agreed that this is not impermissible at all. We consider making tawassul through the Prophet to be preferable (mustahab) and that it is one of the formulations of supplication to God that are encouraged (mandub). No consideration is given to those who break with the consensus of the scholars like Ibn Taymiyah and those who repeat his words after him.