The Holy Qur'an

Exegesis of Iyyāka Na‘budu wa Iyyāka Nasta’īn

{إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ}

Thee alone do we worship and Thee alone do we implore for help.


From the verses الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ al-Hamdu lillahi [verse number 2] to مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ Maliki Yawmid-Din [verse number 4], it appears that God Almighty is hidden from the servant’s sight and he is praising God. However, all of a sudden, in the present verse إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ, God Almighty is addressed directly. Some ignorant people have raised the objection that this is contrary to the dictates of eloquent speech even though this is not the case. On the contrary, this is a sublime example of eloquence; for the Being of Allah Almighty is a hidden treasure which is transcendent and not visible to the servant. The servant recognises Him through His attributes, and by remembering Him, he becomes so close to Him that he sees Him with the eyes of his heart. This subtle point of man’s spiritual journey is mentioned in those verses and it explains that when man ponders over the four divine attributes of:

 رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ (Lord of all the Worlds)

 الرَّحْمَنِ (The Gracious)

 الرَّحِيمِ (The Ever-Merciful)

  مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ (Master of the Time of Judgement)

his eyes are opened and an intense love for Allah the Almighty is sparked in his heart. It is then that, having been honoured with spiritually beholding Him and being overwhelmed with His love, he spontaneously cries out, ‘O Lord! You alone do I worship and You alone do I implore for help.’ Therefore, changing the pronouns [from third person to second person], indicates that when man reflects on Allah the Almighty’s attributes in the Qur’an, he secures a meeting with Him and His Being emerges before him.

In the hadith [oral traditions of the Holy Prophet(sa), it is reported by Hazrat Abu Hurairah (ra) that that he heard the Holy Prophet (sa) say, ‘Allah Almighty says: “I have divided Sūrah al-Fātiḥah between me and my servant. Thus, one half of it is for me and the other half is for my servant. And I shall grant whatever my servant asks of me (by means of it).” When a servant says:

 الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ

[All praise belongs to Allah, Lord of all the Worlds]

Allah the Exalted replies: “My servant has praised Me”.

And when His servant says,

الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ

[The Gracious, the Ever-Merciful]

Allah Almighty replies, “My servant has glorified me.”

And when His servant supplicates مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ [Master of the Time of Judgment], Allah Almighty states, “My servant has declared my nobility.”’

Moreover, at times, the Holy Prophet (sa) would say that Allah states that His servant has entrusted all his affairs to Him. And when His servant recites إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ [Thee alone do we worship and Thee alone do we beseech for help] Allah Almighty states ‘this verse is divided equally between me and my servant and I shall give him whatever he asks.’ And when His servant recites from اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ [Guide us on the right path] to the end of the chapter, Allah Almighty states, ‘this supplication is for my servant, and my servant shall get all that he asks for.’

From this narration we can conclude the following: firstly, it draws a distinction between, ḥamd [praise in general], thanā’ [to praise repeatedly] and tamjīd [glorification of God]. Secondly, the verse مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ signifies complete trust [in Allah], i.e. it suggests that when man believes that it is Almighty Allah that determines the final outcome and says الْحَمْدُ لِلَّه he expresses his contentment and acceptance of Allah’s decree. If man places his trust in God in this way, why then would Allah not show him benevolence and grant him forgiveness? Thirdly, the prayer that one offers to attain the bounties mentioned within this chapter, most surely will be granted to the Muslim nation because it is stated – in regards to this prayer – in a Hadith ولعبدي ما سأل wa li‘bdi ma sa’ala [my servant shall be given whatever he asks for].

In this verse, نعبد [we worship] has come before نستعین [we implore for help]. Here, some people have objected that one is only able to worship God Almighty through His help, so why has نعبد been mentioned before نستعین, since the latter should have come first. The reply is that while there is no doubt that one can worship only if he is helped by Allah the Almighty, the word used here is not إعانة [helping someone], rather, it is  استعانة, that is, to seek help. There is no doubt that only when the thought of submission (عبودیة) and worship (عبادة) pass through the servant’s mind would he then worship Allah the Almighty. Why would the one who has no desire to pray seek help? Hence, without the grace and help of Almighty Allah, one cannot have the ability to worship Him, yet the thought of استعانة [seeking help] i.e. the servant prostrating at the threshold of Almighty Allah only comes after his intention to worship Him. It is for this reason that نعبد proceeds نستعین. 

The second reply to this is that intention comes from man and the ability to act is granted by Almighty Allah. If intention also came from Almighty Allah, man’s actions would be by compulsion. Hence, in this verse, it has been stated that when the thought of worship comes to the mind of a servant, then he should pray to Almighty Allah to carry out this intention, saying: ‘O my Lord I am determined to worship You. However, I cannot accomplish this commitment without Your help. So, help me and grant me the ability to worship none besides You.’

Worship means perfect submission. Thus, worship signifies that man should cultivate Allah the Almighty’s attributes in himself. The outward form of worship have only been established to transform the condition of the heart; otherwise, there is no doubt that worship refers to the state of the heart and the actions that originate as a consequence of it. Moreover, the prescribed times of worship, facing towards the qiblah, standing with arms folded, and bowing and prostrating are not the essence of worship; but as physical movements effect the heart and help maintain concentration, hence these actions have been prescribed in prayer. However, they are like a utensil in which the milk of divine knowledge is poured, or the shell containing the kernel of worship.

In this verse and the following verses, the prayer has been used in plural form. That is, it is stated that ‘We worship’, ‘We seek help’ and ‘Guide us on the right path.’ This indicates that Islam is a communal religion and its aim is the progression of mankind, as opposed to the progression of any one individual. Moreover, every Muslim is appointed as a guardian of every other person. His duty is not only that he himself should worship, but also to encourage others to do the same. He should continue to urge them until they join him in worship. Not only should he trust in Almighty Allah, but he should direct others to do the same, and continue to advise them until they develop this trust. It is not that he alone should seek guidance from Allah, in fact he should also exhort others to do the same, and he should not stop until their hearts develop a passionate yearning to seek guidance, and as a result they join him in saying ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ in every prayer. This indeed is the very spirit of tablīgh [propagation of the faith] and tarbiyyat [the moral and spiritual training] that led to the remarkable spread of Islam in only a few years. The Muslims of today can only make progress by cultivating this passion in their hearts. Until the Muslims truly mean ‘We worship’, ‘we seek help’ and ‘guide us’, and until they strive to put these words into effect with utmost sincerity of heart, they will not excel either in their faith or in the world.

The truth is that worshipping Allah, seeking His help and guidance can be done only through a community; for one person can worship alone for a limited time and within a limited scope. Indeed, the one who also includes his children and his neighbours expands the scope of worship and extends its time. There is no doubt that the true servant is he who does not allow the enemy to seize the possessions of his master. The one who sees his master’s garden being plundered and does not strive to guard it can never be called a true servant.

The verse إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ [Thee alone do we worship and Thee alone do we implore for help] also refutes the misconception of people about the doctrine of predestination. People have two types of misconceptions regarding human actions. Some are of the view that all human actions are predetermined; that is to say, that man does them under compulsion. This view is found both among religious people and philosophers. Now some psychologists too have begun to agree with this to a certain degree, led by Dr Freud, an Austrian professor. Those who hold this opinion on account of an erroneous religious doctrine claim that Almighty Allah is the Master [Mālik]; thus, like an engineer who, when constructing a building, decides which brick to lay in the bathroom and which bricks to lay in the upper story,  similarly, Allah Almighty is at liberty to choose who He desires to be virtuous and who He desires to be evil. Hence it is Allah who makes some people virtuous and some evil. The Christians, having accepted the concept of original sin, have promoted the doctrine of predestination, because if man cannot be liberated from original sin without atonement, this means anyone who does not believe in the doctrine of atonement has no choice but to be sinful. The doctrine of transmigration too favours predestination. For the type of reincarnation that was the result of a previous sin would necessarily remain governed by the limitations that have been imposed on it on account of that sin.  The views of the philosophers were based only on observation that some people cannot escape sin despite trying to do so. However, Dr Freud has turned this [i.e. the matter of predestination] into an intellectual debate. He believes that, because man’s period of learning, that is, during his childhood, precedes the period of volition and freedom of action which begins in adolescence, that therefore  one cannot say that his decisions are made freely. Rather, what we call freedom of choice, is in fact those inclinations that one develops in their childhood owing to their environment. Man believes that his actions are intentional and his thoughts free, whereas all these are the result of childhood influences. Because they have become part of his nature, he does not regard them as the result of external influences; but rather, he believes them to be his own will.

These views of Dr Freud are not novel. A basis for them is found in Islam. The Holy Prophet (sa) stated:

مَا مِنْ مَوْلُودٍ إِلاَّ يُولَدُ عَلَى الْفِطْرَةِ . فَأَبَوَاهُ يُهَوِّدَانِهِ أَوْ يُنَصِّرَانِهِ

No child is born except on the nature created by Allah and then his parents make him Jewish or Christian. [1]

That is, the child, even before they reach adolescence, accepts the parents’ wrong views under the influence of their upbringing and, without giving any thought to it, begins to follow in their footsteps. Likewise, the Holy Prophet (sa), having commanded that the adhān [call to prayer] be recited in the ear of a newborn child, has indicated the extent and importance of childhood influences.

In Māliki Yawmiddīn and Iyyāka Na’budu, the Holy Qur’an has refuted the incorrect aspects of this view [of predestination]. Because, if everything is predetermined, the concept of reward and punishment are void. In affirming Iyyāka Na’budu, it states that man has freedom of choice even though it may be limited in some matters. However, there is no doubt that man is free to the extent that upon finding guidance, he can determine a new way to adopt for himself. For instance, even if man is under bad influences, but he ponders over the attributes of Almighty Allah, he can hear the words Iyyāka Na’budu from within him, and no one can deny this. What reply can Dr Freud and those that follow his philosophy give to the fact that circumstances [of man] continue to change, as do [people’s] perspectives and that the world does not remain static? Had the childhood influences been so entrenched that man could not free himself from them, then the world, from Adam to the present day, should have followed the same unchanged path. However, the world has evolved and continues to do so, which makes it clear that it is possible to steer man’s views away from the direction of his childhood influences. The Holy Qur’an has given incontrovertible arguments in support of this view; however, a detailed discussion cannot be made at this point. Only a brief discussion of this verse has been presented here. 

There is another view also, which is diametrically opposed to the tenet of predestination. And it is that man enjoys absolute freedom of choice, and that Almighty Allah does not intervene in human actions. Islam also rejects this view, and says that you cannot altogether ignore those environmental influences which are affecting man. Hence, it is necessary that a Superior Being, Who is immune from all influences, should guard over man, and, when such bad influences become extremely dangerous, then He, helping man, should rescue him from them. And, having taught the prayer Iyyāka Nast‘aīn, has drawn your attention to and informed you that your God is not idle; rather, He is aware of your difficulties. Hence, you should ask of God, and in return it shall be granted to you. Knock, and God will open it for you.

  1. Al-Bukharī, Kitābul Janā’iz, Bābu mā qīla fī awlādil-mushrikīn.