“O you who believe! Fear Allah and seek an approach unto Him…” (5:35)
Over the last few centuries, the Muslims have been wracked by severe discord and hostility over the issue of tawassul (beseeching or supplicating) to Prophet Muhammad (saws), the Ahl al-Bayt (as), the Saints and the Pious, to the extent that those who reject this concept have accused its supporters of shirk or polytheism, while the upholders of tawassul have charged its opponents with enmity and aversion towards the Prophet (saws) and his Infallible Household (as).
The result has led to increasing bigotry on both sides to the benefit of their common enemies who have increased their domination of Muslim lands. This article is an attempt to examine and critically study the issue of tawassul.
The lexical meaning of tawassul is ‘nearness’ or a ‘means’ through which to reach a certain goal. For instance, when it is said wa wassala ila Allah, it means to perform a certain act for gaining proximity to God. Accordingly wasil here means being ‘desirous of God’.1
According to the prominent Sunni scholar, Sayyid Muhammad Alusi al-Baghdadi, wasilah is a means of imploring in order to gain nearness to God through good deeds and abstaining from sins. For example when it is said “wasala ila kadha,” it means a thing through which nearness is gained.
As is clear from the wordings of ayah 35 of Surah al-Ma’idah, which we quoted at the beginning of the article, “fear Allah” is a commandment to abstain from sin, while “seek an approach unto Him” is an order to perform worship and acts of devotion.22
Both Raghib Isfahani and ‘Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i opine that al-wasilah means to reach a certain goal through desire, inclination or willingness, and in fact wasilah towards God means observance of His path with knowledge and worship through adherence to the Shari’ah. In other words wasilah is a means of communication and spiritual link between mankind and God.
According to a narration al-wasilah is a position in paradise which is reserved for only one person, and Prophet Muhammad (saws) has asked the ummah to pray that this status be granted to him.3
In the opinion of the founder of the Wahhabi sect, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and other likeminded ‘ulama’ of the past, it is permissible to seek help from fellow humans, as during wars and other affairs, if the person or the group who is being asked or entreated has the power and ability to help.44
Alusi believes that appealing to people, making them a wasilah or means and requesting them to supplicate to God is permissible without the least doubt, provided that the one who is being requested is alive, whether or not the one who is petitioned is superior than the petitioner, since the Prophet (saws) used to say to some of his companions “O brother do not forget us in your supplications to Allah.”
However, Alusi is of the opinion that if the one who is being petitioned is not alive, it is not permissible to request him for supplication. But Alusi adds that it is permissible to supplicate at the shrine of the Prophet (saws), since the companions of the Prophet (saws) used to stand beside his shrine and supplicate with face towards the Qiblah.
The ‘ulama’ are divided whether or not it is permissible after the death of the Prophet (saws) to make him the means of supplication with such phrases as Allahumma inni asaluka bi-Nabiyyika (O Allah! I beseech You through Your Prophet), or bi-jahi Nabiyyika (by the dignity of Your Prophet), or still bi-Haqqi Nabiyyika (for the sake of Your Prophet). We come across three different opinions in this regard.
All jurists including Imami, Shafi’i, Maliki, and later day Hanafi scholars as well as others such as the Hanbalis, are unanimous on the permissibility of this way of supplication, whether it was in the lifetime of the Prophet (saws), or whether it is after his passing away.55
The Abbasid caliph, Mansur al-Dawaniqi, once asked Malik ibn Anas the founder of the Maliki School of jurisprudence whether he should turn towards the shrine of the Prophet (saws) or face the Qiblah for supplication?
Malik answered him, why do you want to turn away from the Prophet (saws) when he (Prophet Muhammad (saws)) is the wasilah (means) for you and for your father Adam, towards Allah on the Day of Resurrection. Turn to him (the Prophet) and seek his intercession (shafa’at)6.
The Sunni scholar al-Nawawi in describing the manners and etiquette of making pilgrimage to the shrine of Prophet Muhammad (saws), writes. The pilgrim should face the shrine of the Messenger of Allah (saws), make him a means (tawassul) towards reaching God and seek his wasilah as intercession (shafa’at), in the same manner as the Bedouin who visited the Prophet’s shrine and standing beside it said “Peace unto you O Messenger of Allah”, I have heard Allah has said
“…Had they, when they had wronged themselves, come to you and asked Allah’s forgiveness and the Apostle had asked forgiveness for them, they would certainly have found Allah Most-Propitious, Most-Merciful.” (4: 64).
Therefore, I have come to you for forgiveness of my sins and seeking your intercession with Allah.77
Ibn Qudamah Hanbali, defining the manner of pilgrimage to the shrine of the Prophet (saws), writes in the book al-Mughni, Stand beside the tomb of the Prophet (saws), and say “I have come to you for forgiveness of my sins and to seek your intercession with Allah”.8
The Shafi’ite scholar Ghazzali has allotted a special section in his book Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din concerning the manners of pilgrimage to the shrine of the Prophet (saws) in order to repent and seek forgiveness from Allah. He writes:
“The Prophet should be made the means (wasilah) and the intercessor (shafi’), and with face turned towards the tomb, the pilgrim should implore Allah for the sake and position of the Prophet with the words: “O Allah, indeed You have said, Had they, who had wronged themselves, come to you and asked Allah’s forgiveness and the Apostle had asked forgiveness for them, they would have certainly found Allah Most-Propitious, Most-Merciful” (4:64)
O Allah, surely we have heard your words and we obey your command, by coming to Your Prophet(saws) to seek his intercession with You for our sins, how burdensome and heavy (are sins) on our backs! We repent of slipperiness, we confess our wrongs and our faults, accept our repentance for his sake, make Your Prophet intercessor for us, and exalt us for the sake of his position and his rights with you.”
Al-Ghazzali adds It is recommended the pilgrim should go daily to the Baqi’ Cemetery and after saluting the Prophet (saws), make pilgrimage to the tombs of Imam Hasan ibn ‘Ali (as), Imam ‘Ali ibn al-Husayn (as), Imam Muhammad ibn ‘Ali (as) and Imam Ja’far ibn Muhammad (as) Allah be pleased with them, and also perform the Salat in the Mosque of Fatimah (Allah be pleased with her)9
The jurist Abu Yusuf relates from his teacher Abu Hanifah that it is not right for anyone to call Allah except through (the Names and Attributes) Allah, since He says
“And to Allah belong the beautiful Names, so call on Him thereby.” (7:180).
Abu Hanifah, Abu Yusuf and Muhammad Shaybani also feel averse in invoking God by means (tawassul) of the Prophet (saws) and his position, on the assumption that the creatures have no right on the Almighty Creator, and He showers His mercy on whomever He likes.
Ibn ‘Abidin, however, says in this regard True, the creatures have no right whatsoever upon the Creator, but the Creator through His favours has given rights to mankind. On this basis, he relates a hadith concerning the manners of supplication and Tawassul “Allahumma inni asaluka bi-haqqi al-sa’ilina ‘alayk” (O Allah! I beseech you for the rights that seekers have upon you).10
Except for this narration of Ibn ‘Abidin, we find no opinion or view from either Abu Hanifah or his friend Abu Yusuf in the books of Hanafi scholars concerning tawassul to God through the wasilah (means) of the Prophet (saws).11
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