The istikhara prayer is not a well-established part of Islam

A famous hadith of the Prophet PBUH teaches us about the istikhāra prayer, which is a prayer performed to request for God’s guidance in an important matter that a person is uncertain about. What is surprising is that this hadith comes to us from a rather low-quality chain of transmitters:

Narrated Jabir bin `Abdullah:

Jabir (May Allah be pleased with him) reported:
Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) used to teach us the Istikharah (seeking guidance from Allah) in all matters as he would teach us a Surah of the Qur'an. He used to say: "When one of you contemplates entering upon an enterprise, let him perform two Rak'ah of optional prayer other than Fard prayers and then supplicate: "Allahumma inni astakhiruka bi 'ilmika, wa astaqdiruka bi qudratika, wa as-'aluka min fadlikal-'azim. Fainnaka taqdiru wa la aqdiru, wa ta'lamu wa la a'lamu, wa Anta 'allamul- ghuyub. Allahumma in kunta ta'lamu anna hadhal-'amra (and name what you want to do) khairun li fi dini wa ma'ashi wa 'aqibati amri, (or he said) 'ajili amri ajilihi, faqdurhu li wa yassirhu li, thumma barik li fihi. Wa in kunta ta'lamu anna hadhal 'amra (and name what you want to do) sharrun li fi dini wa ma'ashi wa 'aqibati amri, (or he said) wa 'ajili amri wa ajilihi, fasrifhu 'anni, wasrifni 'anhu, waqdur liyal- khaira haithu kana, thumma ardini bihi." (O Allah, I consult You through Your Knowledge, and I seek strength through Your Power, and ask of Your Great Bounty; for You are Capable whereas I am not and, You know and I do not, and You are the Knower of hidden things. O Allah, if You know that this matter (and name it) is good for me in respect of my Deen, my livelihood and the consequences of my affairs, (or he said), the sooner or the later of my affairs then ordain it for me, make it easy for me, and bless it for me. But if You know this matter (and name it) to be bad for my Deen, my livelihood or the consequences of my affairs, (or he said) the sooner or the later of my affairs then turn it away from me, and turn me away from it, and grant me power to do good whatever it may be, and cause me to be contented with it). And let the supplicant specify the object."

Sahih al-Bukhari 1166

This hadith is the strongest existing hadith that mentions istikhāra. There are a few other hadiths but they are either weak or so low-quality as not to be worth considering. Below is a diagram of most existing chains of transmitters for this hadith:

I used probabilistic hadith criticism to judge the strength of this chain, and the result is that this hadith gets a score of 21.3% probability of authenticity, which is below the 30% needed for a hadith to be judged ṣaḥīḥ (authentic).

The instincts of hadith scholars are seldom wrong, and this hadith raised red flags among them due to coming to us through a single transmitter (ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Abī al-Mawālī), who is the person in the above diagram from whom all the chains branch out. Al-Tirmidhī and al-Dāraquṭnī considered the hadith gharīb (strange/unusual), while Imam Aḥmad considered it munkar (unusual and basically not worth taking too seriously).

Based on these facts, we can determine that the istikhāra prayer is not a strongly-supported part of Islam, as I have always suspected.

Now, there is no issue with praying to God for guidance. But doing it in this ritualistic way, as if it is some sort of magic spell designed to bring out assured results, has never felt very “Islamic” to me and goes against my Quran-taught instincts. Ideally we should pray for guidance constantly, and any practicing Muslim will pray for guidance at least 17 times a day during the ṣalāh as they recite Surat al-Fātiḥa (“Guide us to the Straight Path” is in verse 6). But performing the istikhāra seems to be an unnecessary and possibly fabricated addition to Islam.

However, since the hadith has a score of 21.3%, it is still a ḥasan (possibly authentic) rather than a ḍaʿīf (weak/unsound) hadith. So there is no justification for criticizing people who perform this prayer.

Was the salah originally 50 prayers?

A famous part of the Prophet’s Night Journey PBUH is the story of God making 50 daily prayers obligatory on Muslims. Below is an excerpt from a hadith from Sahih al-Bukhari that mentions this:

Among the things which Allah revealed to him then, was: "Fifty prayers were enjoined on his followers in a day and a night." Then the Prophet (ﷺ) descended till he met Moses, and then Moses stopped him and asked, "O Muhammad ! What did your Lord en join upon you?" The Prophet (ﷺ) replied," He enjoined upon me to perform fifty prayers in a day and a night." Moses said, "Your followers cannot do that; Go back so that your Lord may reduce it for you and for them."

Sahih al-Bukhari 7517

There are many strange aspects to this story: The idea that God prescribed 50 daily prayers, the idea that Prophet Muhammad PBUH did not complain, the idea that Prophet Moses had to speak up on behalf of the Muslims and lecture Prophet Muhammad on the number of daily prayers humans can handle, and the idea of the Prophet PBUH going back and forth between God and Moses to adjust the number of the prayers.

I decided to do a study of all existing chains of all hadiths that mention this “50 daily prayers” theme in order to find out just how strong their chains are. Below is a diagram of the result:

I used probabilistic hadith verification to calculate the strength of the chains. This method uses probability theory to bring out the hidden weaknesses in chains of transmitters. The result was as I expected: the hadiths all have very low-quality chains of transmitters. None of them reach the 30% probability of authenticity that is necessary for judging a hadith ṣaḥīḥ (“authentic”) using this method. In fact none of them even reach 20%:

  • First hadith: 4%
  • Second hadith: 17.9%
  • Third hadith: 11.64%
  • Fourth hadith: 18.14%

The first hadith is so low-quality that it is actually undeserving of being in Sahih al-Bukhari (where it is found).

We can take a final step to combine all of these hadiths’ probabilities together. The result is 27.95% probability of authenticity. (See the linked essay for the details of how these calculations are done).

The verdict is that the supporting hadiths for the story are not strong enough for us to consider it proven that it happened. Therefore skeptical Muslims who find the story strange have the right to be skeptical about it, but I recommend that we keep open minds about it since there is still sufficient support for it that we cannot say with certainty that it is fabricated. (I understand that folks who like to see things in simple black and white terms will find this discussion rather useless, but the science of hadith is all about probabilities, not certainties, and it is important to remember this fact.)