Tawassul comes from the Arabic word “wasilah” which simply means “medium” or means”.
In theological terms, Tawassul is “Using certain means or medium to gain proximity to Allah or to reach Allah”.
According to Allamah Tabatabai, in his Tafseer Al-Mizan,
“Wasilah to Allah is the observance of His path with knowledge and worship through adherence to the shariah – the divine Laws.”
In other words, Wasilah is a means of communication with Allah and a link between man and his Creator.
The point to note here is that Tawassul has a broad connotation. Any thing or action that can take one closer to Allah becomes the Wasilah to reach Him. It will become apparent in the ensuing discussion that a Mus- lim cannot avoid Tawassul in his worship at any given instant.
Allah says in the holy Qur’an:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَابْتَغُوا إِلَيْهِ الْوَسِيلَةَ وَجَاهِدُوا فِي سَبِيلِهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ
O you who believe! Be careful of your duty to Allah and seek means of nearness to Him and strive hard in His way that you may be successful (5:35)
Allah (SWT) lists four ingredients to achieve success in this temporal life. These four conditions are mutually inclusive i.e. all of them have to be present simultaneously. These are:
By invoking the believers to success, Allah (SWT) makes it apparent in this verse that the first and foremost condition for success is Imaan. The next condition is Taqwa, a higher stage, acquired only after believing in Islam.
One would have thought that attaining Taqwa would have been a sufficient condition for a believer to attain success. However, the verse continues and the list grows bigger by the command “and seek means of nearness to Allah” i.e. look for Wasilah to reach Him.
This means that Taqwa is a necessary but not sufficient condition to attain nearness to Allah. The Taqwa that one struggles to achieve has to be attached, connected and brought near to Allah. Allah is commanding us specifically to look for means to attach and connect this Taqwa to Him.
This “means” or “way” of attaching Taqwa to Allah is Wasilah and the process of using Wasilah is Tawassul.
This can be graphically explained using a simple example of the light bulb. In order to light a bulb, 3 components are necessary: a functioning bulb, the mains and a connecting wire. All the three have to be connected to each other for the bulb to glow; otherwise, although the functioning bulb has all the potential to glow, it will not do so.
The bulb cannot be connected directly to the mains without a wire since the electrical current flowing from the mains is much too powerful for the bulb – doing so would result in the bulb being destroyed. The wire of appropriate capacity becomes the ‘Wasilah’, the connection and the means through which the electrical current flows from the mains to the bulb.
In a very similar manner, the human soul, the nafs, which can be substituted for the bulb in the example above, has all the potential to glow and illuminate spiritually but it is necessary for it to be connected to the Main Power, The Source, The Cause of all Causes, and The Centre of everything, The Creator – Allah (SWT).
The soul cannot be attached to Allah directly because of its inherent nature. The soul is finite, limited, weak, impure, sinful and prone to attacks by Shaytan. Allah is All- Powerful, the Omnipotent, The Pure.
There has to be an intermediary to attach the finite to The Infinite, the sinful to The Pure, the weak to The Omnipotent. This intermediary is the Wasilah that Allah instructs the muttaqi to look for so that he can attach himself to Allah. This is the rationale of Wasilah and Tawassul.
However, having attached one’s Taqwa filled soul to Allah: one cannot rest since the verse continues, “And struggle in His way”. The chain of Imaan, Taqwa and Tawassul has to be constantly and actively maintained. One has to constantly struggle against forces that try to prevent one from becoming a mu’min, a muttaqi or from getting the right means of attaching oneself to Allah. If one succeeds in maintaining this right chain constantly the result is “falaah” – success, in this world and the hereafter.
Success is a relative term, relative to one’s aims and goals in life. A doctor considers himself successful if he can treat his patients and cure them, similarly a businessman is successful if he can spin money from dust.
What was Imam Ali (‘a)’s criterion for success? There are numerous instances in the history of early Islam that would have been reason enough for Imam Ali (‘a) to consider himself successful. Did he consider it success to become the hero of Badr, Uhud and Khandaq or Jamal, Siffin and Nahrwaan?
Was his idea of success the declaration of his Wilayat on all Muslims on the day of Ghadir? Was the final acceptance by all Muslims of his status as the rightful Khalifa 25 years after the Prophet’s (S) demise his notion of ultimate triumph? No indeed!
At none of these incidents did Imam Ali (‘a) declare himself successful. History tells us that this declaration was made on the day he was struck the fatal blow by Abdul-rahman Ibn Muljim (la), the day of his martyrdom. Soon after the blow was delivered he said:
فزت برب الكعبة
“By the Lord of Ka’aba, I have succeeded!”
Attaining martyrdom was Imam Ali’s (‘a) criterion of success and he epitomizes the verse quoted above perfectly. As for Imaan, he is the Ameerul Mumineen; for Taqwa he is the Imamal Muttaqeen; he is one of the means to reaching Allah and he struggled every moment of his life in the way of Allah. The pinnacle and climax of every mujahid is shahadat; this he gloriously attained on the 19th of Ramadhan 41 AH. What should be our criteria of success and goal of life? Allah says in Surah al-Mujadila:
لَا تَجِدُ قَوْمًا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ يُوَادُّونَ مَنْ حَادَّ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَلَوْ كَانُوا آبَاءَهُمْ أَوْ أَبْنَاءَهُمْ أَوْ إِخْوَانَهُمْ أَوْ عَشِيرَتَهُمْ أُولَٰئِكَ كَتَبَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمُ الْإِيمَانَ وَأَيَّدَهُمْ بِرُوحٍ مِنْهُ وَيُدْخِلُهُمْ جَنَّاتٍ تَجْرِي مِنْ تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمْ وَرَضُوا عَنْهُ أُولَٰئِكَ حِزْبُ اللَّهِ أَلَا إِنَّ حِزْبَ اللَّهِ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ
“You shall not find a people who believe in Allah and the latter day befriending those who act in opposition to Allah and His Apostle, even though they were their own fathers, or their sons, or their brothers or their kinsfolk; these are they into whose hearts He has impressed faith, and whom He has strengthened with an inspiration from Him: and He will cause them to enter gardens beneath which rivers flow, abiding there in; Allah is well pleased with them and they are well pleased with Him; these are Allah’s party: now surely the party of Allah are successful ones”.(58:22)
The criterion for success as mentioned in this verse by the Creator Himself is very clear. If we want to succeed in this temporal life we have to join the party of Allah.
In order to be included in His party, we need to fulfill 4 broad conditions;
3. Wasilah to reach Him.
4. Constantly struggle in His way – struggle against internal and external forces.
All four conditions deserve a detailed study, but due to circumstances mentioned in the introduction, we will concentrate on the third condition - Tawassul.
Tawassul is often thought of as an act of invoking or imploring some human intermediary to reach Allah or seeking for help from other than Allah. As it is commonly presented, Tawassul is understandably redolent of “shirk”; this is a major misconception and the main weapon used by “Anti-Tawassul” ideologues.
Tawassul, in fact, has a much wider meaning and implication. It is important therefore that before we embark on the subject matter we wash off the stains of “shirk” from Tawassul and distinguish between the two very clearly.
As previously mentioned the main objection against Tawassul is that it is suggestive of shirk. Ultimately the mushrikeen too believe in One God - however, they seek intermediaries to reach Him. They use idols, angels and heavenly bodies as liaisons to reach Allah.
Isn’t Tawassul then the same thing given that Allah is approached via intermediaries like the Prophet, Imams, Saints etc? Or that, instead of using idols and angels, names of people and personalities are used? And instead of asking for help from the Almighty directly, a human is asked to alleviate one’s calamities and fulfill wishes?
Opponents of Tawassul to prove their point often quote the following verses:
• Surah Al-Fatiha:
إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ
“You do we worship and You do we beseech for help” (1:5)
• Surah Al-A’araf:
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ تَدْعُونَ مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ عِبَادٌ أَمْثَالُكُمْ فَادْعُوهُمْ فَلْيَسْتَجِيبُوا لَكُمْ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ صَادِقِينَ
“Verily those whom you call upon besides Allah are slaves like you. So call upon them and let them answer you if you are truthful” (7:194)
• Surah Al Fatir:
وَالَّذِينَ تَدْعُونَ مِنْ دُونِهِ مَا يَمْلِكُونَ مِنْ قِطْمِيرٍ
“And those whom you invoke or call upon instead of Him, own not even a Qitmir (thin membrane over a date stone)” (35:13)
إِنْ تَدْعُوهُمْ لَا يَسْمَعُوا دُعَاءَكُمْ وَلَوْ سَمِعُوا مَا اسْتَجَابُوا لَكُمْ وَيَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ يَكْفُرُونَ بِشِرْكِكُمْ ۚ وَلَا يُنَبِّئُكَ مِثْلُ خَبِيرٍ
“If you call on them they shall not hear your call, and even if they could hear they shall not answer you; and on the resurrection day they will deny your associating them (with Allah); and none can inform you like the One Who is Aware.” (35:14)
• Surah Az Zumar:
أَلَا لِلَّهِ الدِّينُ الْخَالِصُ ۚ وَالَّذِينَ اتَّخَذُوا مِنْ دُونِهِ أَوْلِيَاءَ مَا نَعْبُدُهُمْ إِلَّا لِيُقَرِّبُونَا إِلَى اللَّهِ زُلْفَىٰ
“Surely the religion is for Allah only. And those who take helpers besides Him say: We worship them only that they may bring us near Allah” (39:3)
• Surah Al-Jinn:
وَأَنَّ الْمَسَاجِدَ لِلَّهِ فَلَا تَدْعُوا مَعَ اللَّهِ أَحَدًا
“And the mosques are for Allah, so invoke not anyone along with Allah” (72:18)
• Surah Al-Israa:
قُلِ ادْعُوا الَّذِينَ زَعَمْتُمْ مِنْ دُونِهِ فَلَا يَمْلِكُونَ كَشْفَ الضُّرِّ عَنْكُمْ وَلَا تَحْوِيلًا
“Say: call upon those whom you fancy (to be gods besides Him); they have no power to remove the distress from you nor to change it. (17:56)
أُولَٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ يَبْتَغُونَ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهِمُ الْوَسِيلَةَ أَيُّهُمْ أَقْرَبُ وَيَرْجُونَ رَحْمَتَهُ وَيَخَافُونَ عَذَابَهُ ۚ إِنَّ عَذَابَ رَبِّكَ كَانَ مَحْذُورًا
Those whom they call upon seek (for themselves) means of access to their Lord (to know) which of them is the nearest (to Him) and they hope for His Mercy, and they fear His Chastisement. Verily the Chastisement of your Lord is to be feared” (17:57)
The clarification comes from the Qur’an itself.
• Surah Hud:
وَقَالَ ارْكَبُوا فِيهَا بِسْمِ اللَّهِ مَجْرَاهَا وَمُرْسَاهَا إِنَّ رَبِّي لَغَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ
“And he said “Embark on it in the name of Allah, be it sailing or its anchoring; most surely my Lord is Forgiving, Merciful”. (11:41)
وَهِيَ تَجْرِي بِهِمْ فِي مَوْجٍ كَالْجِبَالِ وَنَادَىٰ نُوحٌ ابْنَهُ وَكَانَ فِي مَعْزِلٍ يَا بُنَيَّ ارْكَبْ مَعَنَا وَلَا تَكُنْ مَعَ الْكَافِرِينَ
“And it moved on with them, carried by waves like mountain; and Nuh called out to his son and he was aloof. “O’ my son, embark with us and be not with the unbelievers”. (11:42)
قَالَ سَآوِي إِلَىٰ جَبَلٍ يَعْصِمُنِي مِنَ الْمَاءِ قَالَ لَا عَاصِمَ الْيَوْمَ مِنْ أَمْرِ اللَّهِ إِلَّا مَنْ رَحِمَ وَحَالَ بَيْنَهُمَا الْمَوْجُ فَكَانَ مِنَ الْمُغْرَقِينَ
“He said: I will take refuge of a mountain that shall protect me from the water. Nuh said: There is no protector today from Allah’s punishment but He Who Has Mercy, and a wave intervened between them, so he was of the drowned”. (11:43)
These verses describe the conversation between Prophet Nuh (‘a) and his son when the floods had started and Prophet Nuh (‘a) had gathered his companions in the ark ready to sail. The following points are worth considering:
1. Allah could have saved Prophet Nuh (‘a) and the companions of the ark without the help of the ark. He could have asked Nuh (‘a) to gather his companions on one land and instructed the flood-water NOT to touch that land thus saving them from being drowned. He did that with the fire into which Prophet Ibrahim (‘a) was thrown.
• Surah Al-Anbiya:
قُلْنَا يَا نَارُ كُونِي بَرْدًا وَسَلَامًا عَلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ
“We (Allah) said: O’ fire, be cool and safe for Ibrahim” (21:69)
Similarly, He parted the Nile for Musa (‘a) and his followers such so that not even their feet became wet - the very same water in which Firaun drowned.
• Surah Al-Baqarah:
وَإِذْ فَرَقْنَا بِكُمُ الْبَحْرَ فَأَنْجَيْنَاكُمْ وَأَغْرَقْنَا آلَ فِرْعَوْنَ وَأَنْتُمْ تَنْظُرُونَ
“And remember We separated the sea for you and saved you and drowned Firaun’s people while you were looking”. (2:50)
Allah instead instructed Nuh (‘a) to build the ark and take refuge in it.
2. Both Nuh (‘a) and his son took refuge of objects, Nuh (‘a) of the ark and his son of the mountain. In fact, the son’s refuge was God-made and Nuh (‘a)’s refuge was man-made albeit under Divine guidance and supervision.
In essence, both took Wasilah for salvation (from being drowned). Nuh (‘a) was saved and his son drowned. What was the difference? The only difference between the two Wasilah was the source of Wasilah. For Nuh (‘a), the Tawassul for salvation, the ark was from Allah Himself whilst the son sought his own Wasilah.
Although the eventual aim was identical for both, the means they used were different! Both wanted to be saved from drowning; the means used by Nuh (‘a) was Divinely ordained, that of his son chosen by himself.
This is one of the major differences between Tawassul and Shirk. The former is a Divine exhortation and the latter an unholy human attempt at reaching Allah.
In the verses quoted at the beginning, which on the surface appear to be against Tawassul, the central points are:
1. Worshipping the objects/people that are used for Tawassul.
2. Considering them to have powers equal to Allah.
3. Considering them to have independent powers. This is undoubtedly shirk.
In the case of Tawassul we neither:
1. Worship the objects/ people used for Wasilah NOR
2. Consider these people equal to Allah, NOR
3. Do we believe they have independent powers of their own, NOR
4. Do we assert that they can influence or change Allah’s decision, NOR
5. Do we suggest they can neutralize or reverse His Command.
Our concept of Tawassul, be that via a person(s) or an inanimate object, is that:
a. These people have a special place or status in front of Allah.
b. Allah has given them special powers to be used for the benefit of His creation.
c. They do not work independently of Allah’s Will and only do that which Allah wills.
d. They will not do anything against Allah’s plan. They cannot change, reverse or influence Allah’s decision nor suggest to Him, because He is the Lord and they are His servants.
These are the core differences between Tawassul and Shirk and all these qualities will be looked at in more detail in the chapters to come. Any one taking Wasilah of any kind in order to achieve nearness to Allah, with the thought that the Wasilah can change Allah’s decisions or reverse His Plan or influence His actions, is in fact committing Shirk. This is an extremely important point for the young reader to keep in mind.
It will not be out of place here to mention the hadeeth of the Holy Prophet (S):
مثل اهل بييت كمثل سفينة نوح من رکبها جنا ومن تلف عنها غرق
“The likeness of my Ahlul Bait amongst my ummah is similar to Nuh’s ark, those who embarked on it were saved and those who rejected it, drowned”.
In the dua of the Prophet (S) in the Holy month of Sha’ban, we recite;
اَللّـهُمَّ صَلِّ عَلى مُحَمَّد وَآلِ مُحَمَّد الْفُلْكِ الْجارِيَةِ فِي اللُّجَجِ الْغامِرَةِ، يَأْمَنُ مَنْ رَكِبَها، وَيَغْرَقُ مَنْ تَرَكَهَا، الْمُتَقَدِّمُ لَهُمْ مارِقٌ، وَالْمُتَاَخِّرُ عَنْهُمْ زاهِقٌ، وَاللاّزِمُ لَهُمْ لاحِقٌ،
“O Allah! Send blessing on Muhammad and his family, an unsinkable sailing ship afloat over the fathomless deep waters of the seas. Who so gets into it is saved and who so stays away from it is drowned. Who so steps in front of them misses the aim and goes astray and who so lags behind them wonders in the wilderness, who so holds fast to them reaches the destination”.
The similarity between Nuh (‘a)’s ark and the Ahlul Bait points to the fact that the way the companions of the ark were saved from drowning through the means of the ark, the companions, adherents and those who follow the ways of the Ahlul Bait shall similarly be saved from going astray and drowning in the seas of sins and lowly desires. They are our means of reaching Allah; they are our wasillah to Allah.
This authentic hadith of the Holy Prophet (S) proves that the way Nuh (‘a)’s ark was chosen by Allah to be Wasilah for salvation, Ahlul Bayt too have been chosen by Allah to be the means of salvation for the believer.
In conclusion therefore, we see that Tawassul and Shirk are two different and opposite entities. Allah Has instructed us to look for Wasilah and warned us not to do shirk. This discussion would be enough for the seeker of truth.
However, for the young mind that is exposed to daunting ideological attacks, more academic discussion may be warranted. We shall therefore delve deeper into the discussion.