Muslims pronounce the following verse in their daily prayers as part of Surah Al-Fatehah:
إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِيْنُ
You alone do we worship, and You alone do we turn for help.
The Islamic term ibadah is used in three sense:
(i) worship and adoration;
(ii) obedience and submission; and
(iii) service and subjection.
In this particular context the term carries all these meanings simultaneously. In other words, we say to Allah (s.w.t.) that we worship and adore Him, that we are obedient to Him and follow His will, and also that we are His servants. Moreover man is so bound to none save Allah, that none but He, may be the subject of man's worship and total devotion, of man's unreserved obedience, of man's absolute subjection and servitude.
Not only do we worship Allah, but our relationship with Him is such that we turn to Him alone for help and succor. We know that He is the Lord of the whole universe and that He alone is the Master of all blessings and benefactions. Hence, in seeking the fulfillment of our needs we turn to Him alone. It is towards Him alone that we stretch forth our hands when we pray and supplicate. It is in Him that we repose our trust. It is therefore to Him alone that we address our request for true guidance. (Tafheemul Quran)
Iyyaka Na’budu wa iyyaka nasta’een
إياك نعبد وإياك نستعين
In reality, the first ayah should suffice for us to declare our enslavement to Allah, Who is the Rabb, the Master. If that is not enough, then He is the extremely Merciful, who is being merciful to us right now, and His Mercy is always there for the believers but can be taken away from us if He wills, and if that is not enough, then the fact that He is the King and the Owner of the day of Judgement, when there will be no king or owner of anything, except Him. And this is the thought-process of the believer.
This ayah is often translated as, “You Alone we worship and You Alone we ask for help.” Unsurprisingly, this translation fails to convey the entire meaning of the verse. Firstly, we need to add the missing dimension of slavery to Allah in that translation. In Arabic, the phrase we worship (نعبد) includes both slavery (عبد) and worship (يعبد) are combined. This is important to understand because a person may appear to worship Allah, but not necessarily act like His slave; worship and slavery are not the same. This is the case of a person who only takes from Islam what pleases him. While a true slave is one who only does what his master asks him to do. That is the master-slave relationship.
This ayah is therefore a declaration of slavery, to none other than Allah. When we declare slavery to Allah, only then we truly free ourselves. Otherwise we are either enslaved to entertainment, culture, peer-pressure, false ideologies, fashion, and so on. To be free from all that is by being a slave of Allah, the Creator, the Only One worthy of being enslaved to. The only One we need to impress is Allah.
The next part of this ayah is iyyaka nastain. While this is often translated as “You Alone we ask for help,” the word ‘help’ does not do justice to the statement in this ayah. The word nastain is a the same as istiaana (to seek) help, and is a derivative of the word ‘aaun,’ which is not merely help, rather a type of help that you seek when you are already struggling with something. For instance, you are on the highway and have a flat-tire, you have everything with you to fix that tire, but you ask someone for help because you would rather listen to the radio. This is seeking help in a matter that is not difficult for you and you are not struggling in. On the other hand, imagine a similar scenario, but this time you are not strong enough to lift and fit the spare tire. This time you are already struggling and so the help you seek here is different. When we are told to seek help from Allah in this verse, it is the help in matters we are already making considerable effort in, and struggling to complete. In reality, if one is not struggling, then it may not even be appropriate for that person to seek help. A common example of that is a person who complains about not being a good Muslim, complains that Allah is not helping him be one, but does not make effort to actually be one. Such a person is not struggling and so is not technically doing istiaana.
Another way of looking at it is as a warning from Allah to only ask for help if we are sincerely struggling, and need it desperately. This is the case with the righteous of the past, Ibrahim alayhi as-Salam was first thrown into the fire and then the fire was cooled by the will of Allah, the outnumbered believers first went to the battlefield of Badr and then the angels descended to help them. If we understand this, it would change the way we act and seek help. Put this into perspective, how bad it is to lie to a human being, and how often we insincerely seek help from Allah in our prayers when we recite this ayah.
Another gem in this phrase is the fact that Allah did not mention what it is that we seek help for. This would be necessary as you need to inform the one you seek help from, what it is that you are struggling with. This absence of the subject can be interpreted in a number of ways.
One of the reason for that may be that the One we ask help from already knows what we are struggling with---Allah is The all-knowing, The all-aware---and does not need to be told what the problem is. A second reason could be that the list of things we need help with is so long that it is easier to just ask for help without listing them. This is not untrue as we have uncountable challenges in our lives that we need help with. A third way of interpreting this ayah could be that this cry for help is a cry of desperation. Imagine that you were in the woods and slipped off a cliff, you are now hanging for dear life by a branch of a tree. How would your cry for help be in such a case? Would you say, for example, “I am in need of immediate help as I have slipped down the cliff and am hanging by a branch. I fear that I will fall down to my death if I don’t get immediate help.” Rather, the instinctive response would be to simply scream, “Help!” If we put that into context in the ayah, then this would mean that the cry for help that we direct towards Allah is for an extremely desperate situation that has rendered us almost speechless. We cannot even come up with words. In reality, all those are different ways of understanding the reality of our situation and the reason why we say to Allah, iyyaka nasta’een.
Note, that this cry for help is also related to previous verses, and in particular the verse where we declare our slavery to Allah. Think about it this way, slavery to Allah is something that is in reality a challenge, as we are always going to be tempted and seduced by shaytaan and his followers, and because this slavery is such a difficult task, we have to ask Allah for help with it. If you intend something that is extremely difficult, it would be normal to ask for assistance in performing it. Also note, that this help is not limited to help in being slaves of Allah, this is because the wording is not restricted in any way. However, the first thing that we would need help with is slavery to Allah, and so it is the first thing mentioned after we say to Allah, iyyaka na’budu, that You alone we enslave ourselves to and worship. And while slavery is the first thing we seek help with, we seek help in all matters, but once slavery to Allah is taken care of, everything else is taken care of.
Once we ask Allah for help in being His successful slaves, He responds, in the next ayah, with what we are supposed to seek. (Ref: Linguisticmiracle.com)