How do you interpret the response of the istikhara prayer, is it more of a feeling you will get or would it be a more concrete outcome/event? Additionally what should you do if you have mixed feelings after a long period of praying istikhara?
In terms of Istikhara, then the results of the prayer are not determined by a feeling, a dream, or the likes according to the correct scholarly opinion. It is true that some of our scholars have mentioned that if a person feels their chest expand or incline towards one of the two choices, then that is the right choice. That is, a person first clears their heart and mind from any decision, and then after the prayer they wait to see which of the two opinions they feel most inclined to with the condition that they did not incline towards any decision before the prayer. This was mentioned by Imam an-Nawawi (d. 676 H.) in Kitab al-Adhkaar (pg. 231), Shaikh ul-Islaam Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 H.) in Majmoo’ al-Fataawa (10/539), and others (may Allah have mercy upon them all). The origin for this opinion is a Hadith narrated by Anas (may Allah be pleased with him) reported by Ibn as-Sunni. However, it is very weak as mentioned by Hafidh Ibn Hajar (d. 852 H.), may Allah have mercy upon him [Fath ul-Baari (11/187)].
The most correct opinion is that when someone makes the Istikhara prayer, they should go forward with one of the two decisions that they see is the most beneficial for them. If this decision is the right one for the person, then Allah will make it easy for them, and if it is not the right one, then Allah will turn them away from it by having the issue become difficult for them or not possible to achieve.
This was the view of ‘Izz bin Abdul-Salaam (d. 606), may Allah have mercy upon him [See: Fath ul-Baari (11/187)]. This was also the view chosen by Mulla Ali Qaari (d. 1014 H.), may Allah have mercy upon him, who said:
“The scholars differed as to what the one performing Istikhara does afterwards. It was said he does what is apparent to him [to be correct] and he chooses whichever side he wants, and leaves off the other, even if his chest does not expand towards any of the two choices for verily that which he does has good in it, benefit, and he will not be granted success except to this good choice. This is because the hadith does not mention that Allah will make the heart of one seeking Istikhara to open towards one of the two choices, or incline towards it, just as it does not mention that he will see a dream, or hear a voice of an unseen entity, or that something will be placed in his soul. Rather sometimes the person doing Istikhara will not find any expansion in his chest after performing Istikhara a number of times. This strengthens the position that the affair is not based on the expansion of the chest. In a sentence mentioned in the Hadith is the command for the servant to supplicate that Allah turn him away from evil and decree for him good wherever it may be. This was the chosen opinion of Ibn Abdus-Salaam when he said:
‘the one seeking Istikhara choses what he decides upon and he used as evidence some of the wording of the Hadith of Ibn Mas’ud that mentions at the end, “then the person resolves to do (what he decided)” and in the beginning of the Hadith it states, “If any one of you intends an affair, let him say”…
Shaikh Kamaal ud-deen az-Zamlakaani said, “if a person prays the two Rakah of al-Istikhara for a matter, then he does after that what is apparent to him whether his soul inclines to it or not for verily in it is good, even if his chest does not expand towards it. The Hadith does not stipulate that the soul inclines to something”. End. This statement is found in Tabaqaat ash-Shafi’iyyah (5/258)'”. End. [Mir’aat ul-Mafaateeh (4/364)]
Likewise, Shaikh Muhammad bin Adam al-Itiyoopi (d. 1442 H.), may Allah have mercy upon him, held this view. He wrote:
“That which is apparent to me is that that which Ibn ‘Abdu-Salaam (may Allah have mercy upon him) said is more deserving. This is because the benefit of Istikhara is for Allah, the Exalted, to make easy the affair which is most suitable for the one performing Istikhara. So if he decides on something, and it becomes easy after seeking Istikhara with Allah, and entrusting the affair to Him, and asking Him to make it easy, then that is an indication of Allah’s response to him. So it is not necessary for him to hold back from implementing [that which he has chosen] because the affair [he has chosen] is the most suitable for him. And Allah, the Exalted knows best what is correct and to Him is the return and recourse”. End. [See: Sharh Sunnan an-Nasaai’ (27/182)].
Thus, a person does not need to wait or rely on a feeling after the prayer. Rather they go forward with the decision they see is best for their situation. Even if someone is feeling unsure about their action, they should not let that deter them from going forward in what they have set their mind to. If Allah decreed that it is the best choice, He will make it easy for the person and if not, He will turn them away from it as it comes in the dua of Istikhara itself:
“O Allah, if You know that this matter [then mention the thing to be decided] is good for me in my religion and in my life and for my welfare in the life to come, – [or say: in this life and the afterlife] – then ordain it for me and make it easy for me, then bless me in it. And if You know that this matter is bad for me in my religion and in my life and for my welfare in the life to come, – [or say: in this life and the afterlife] – then distance it from me, and distance me from it, and ordain for me what is good wherever it may be, and help me to be content with it” [al-Bukhari (no. 1166)].
And Allah knows best
Faisal bin Abdul Qaadir bin Hassan