Both intermediation (tawassul) and appeal for help (istighathah) have a common focus of meaning. What differentiates them from each other is the nature of the defining act. When the act relates to the help-seeker, the act is known as appeal for help, and the virtual helper whose help is being sought will act only as an agent or a means because the real helper is Allah Himself. Thus Ya‘qub’s act serves as an appeal for help and the shirt serves as a means to invoke help. On the other hand, when Allah’s help is beseeched through direct prayer, He in this case acts as the real helper because there is no greater source than the source of divine assistance. Therefore, while intermediation is loaded with indirect implications, appeal for direct help from Allah has a palpitating immediacy about it and elicits a more prompt response. In short, the Qur’anic verse clearly establishes the fact that appeal for help by deed is proved by the practice of the prophets. (A detailed discussion on the concept of intermediation is available in our book Islamic Concept of Intermediation.)
Difference between appeal for help and supplication
To seek help in a state of trouble, grief and pain is called appeal for help. When someone cries for help unconditionally, it is called supplication as it precludes the condition of trouble, grief and pain. The relation between supplication (du‘a’) and appeal for help (istighathah), in fact, boils down to the relation between general and particular. While supplication is unconditional, appeal is conditional; it is spurred by some trouble or pain. Therefore, each appeal is a form of prayer while each prayer is not a form of appeal for help. And this is the basic distinction between appeal and prayer.