Lit. “Asking favors.” A prayer for special favors and blessings, consisting of the recital of two rak’ah prayers. (Mishkat, book iv. ch. xl.)
Jabir says: “The Prophet taught the Istikharah, as he also did a chapter of the Qur’an; and he said, ‘When anyone of you intends doing a thing, he must perform two ark’ah prayers expressly for Istikharah, and afterwards recite the following supplication: O God, I supplicate Thy help, in Thy great wisdom; and I pray for ability through Thy power. I ask a thing of Thy bounty. Thou knowest all, but I do not. Thou arr powerful, and I am not. Thou knowest the secrets of men. O God! If the matter I am about to undertake is good for my faith, my life, and my futurity, then make it easy for me, and give me success in it. But it it is bad for my faith, my life, and my futurity, then put it away from me, and show me what is good, and satisfy me. And the person praying shall mention in his prayer the business which he has in hand.'”
This very simply and commendable injunction has, however, been perverted to superstitious uses.
Mr. Lane, in his Modern Egyptians, says:-
“Some persons have recourse to the Qur’an for an answer to their doubts. This they call making an “istikharah”, or application for the favor of Heaven, or for direction in the right course. Repeating three times the opening chapter, the 112th chapter, and the fifty-eighth verse of the sixth chapter, they let the book fall open, or open it at random, and, from the seventh line of the right-hand page, draw their answer.
“The words often will not convey a direct answer, but are taken as affirmative or negative according as their general tenour is good or bad, promising a blessing, or denouncing a threat, &c. Instead of reading the seventh line of this page, some count the number of letters kha and sheen which occur in the whole page; and if the kha’s predominate, the inference is favorable. Kha represents kheyr, or good; sheen, shur or evil. There is another mode of istikharah; which is, to take hold of any two points of a sebhhah (or rosary), after reciting the Fat’hhah three times, and then to count the beads between these two points, saying, in passing the first bead through the fingers, ‘[I assert] the absolute glory of God;’ in passing the second, ‘Praise be to God;’ in passing the third, ‘There is no deity but God;’ and repeating these expressions in the same order, to the last bead. If the first expression fall to the last bead, the answer is affirmative and favorable; if the second, indifferent; if the last, negative. This is practiced by many persons.
“Some again, in similar cases on lying down to sleep at night, beg of God to direct them by a dream; by causing them to see something white or green, or water, if the action which they contemplate be approved, or if they are to expect approaching good fortune; and if not, by causing them to see something black or red, or fire; they then recite the Fat’hhah ten times, and continue to repeat these words: ‘O God, favor our lord Muhammad!’ – until they fall asleep.” (Modern Egyptians, vol. i. 338.)
Amongst pious Muslims in Asia it is usual to recite the two rak’ah prayers before retiring to rest, in the hope that God will reveal His will in a dream during the night.
Based on Hughes, Dictionary of Islam