Al-Hafidh ibn al-Qayyim, may Allah have mercy upon him, explained the meaning of audhu (I take refuge) in a beautiful way. He said:
“Know that the verb adha and its derivative carry the meaning of being careful and wary, guarding and fortifying, being rescued and victorious. Its essential meaning is to flee from that which you fear will harm you to that which will safeguard you from it. That is why the one you seek refuge with is named ma’adh and malja (the source of refuge and recourse).
In the hadith there occurs, ”When the daughter of al-Jawn entered upon the Prophet, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, [after their marriage] he moved his hand [to touch her] and she said, “I take refuge with Allah from you.” He said, “Indeed you have sought refuge with the Ma’adh, return and rejoin your family.” (Bukhari)
Therefore the meaning of audhu is: I take refuge, guard myself and take precaution. There are two opinions concerning the basis of this verb. The first is that it is derived from the meaning of as-satar, covering or protection, and the second is that it is derived from the meaning of luzum al-mujawara, firmly adhering to that which adjoins it. (Ar-Razi vol 1, p70) As for the first opinion then the Arabs used to say with regards to a house that is in the shade of a tree – uwwadha. Therefore when this house did adha with this tree by being built under its shade the Arabs named it uwwadh. The same applies to the one who takes refuge for he seeks protection and cover from his enemy with the One he seeks refuge with. As for the second opinion, then the Arabs used to say regarding flesh that was struck with a bone and could not be removed, uwwadha, because of its refusal to be dislodged from it. The same applies to the one taking refuge for he sticks firmly to the One he is seeking refuge with and refuses to be distanced. Both of these opinions are correct for seeking refuge includes both. The one taking refuge seeks protection with the One he is seeking refuge with and sticks firmly to Him. His heart attached itself to Him and holds firm just as the child sticks close to its father when threatened by an enemy.
The same applies to the one taking refuge for he flees from his enemy who desires his destruction to his Lord, throwing himself between His hands, holding firmly to Him, sticking close to Him and resorting to Him. Now, know that the reality of seeking refuge that is established in the heart of the believer surpasses, and is beyond these description, for these serve only as examples and representations. As for that which is established in the heart in its taking refuge, holding fast to, and its throwing itself before its Lord, its need of Him and its submission and humility before Him, then all of this is beyond description. In a similar vein, love of Him and fear of Him can only be described in a deficient way for they cannot truly by understood except through experiencing them. This is similar to the case of one trying to describe the pleasure of sexual intercourse to one who is impotent and feels no sexual urges. No matter how much you describe it and how many examples you give, never will he truly understand it. However if you were to describe it to one who does have these urges and has had intercourse then he will understand your description completely.
If it is asked: When one is commanded to take refuge with Allah why does the form of command carry a sin and ta? For example His saying, “Seek protection (fastaidh) with Allah from the accursed Shaytan” (an-Nahl 16:98) Yet one says, ‘I take refuge’ (audhu) and ‘I took refuge’ (taawwadhtu) without including the sin and ta? The reply is: the sin and ta are grammatically used to denote a person’s seeking something. Therefore when one says, ‘Astaidhu with Allah’ he is saying, ‘I seek refuge with Him.’ When he says, ‘Astaghfirullah‘ he is saying ‘I seek the forgiveness of Allah.’ However, when the person says, ‘I take refuge (audhu) with Allah’ he is actually implementing and realising what he seeks because he sought refuge and protection with Allah. There is a clear difference between actually taking refuge and seeking refuge. Therefore, because the one who is seeking refuge is actually recoursing to Allah and holding firmly to Him, he says the verb that denotes that he only seeks this. The opposite is true for the saying, ‘Astaghfirullah‘ (I seek the forgiveness of Allah) for in this case the person is asking Allah to forgive him. Therefore when he says, ‘Astaghfiruallah‘ he is implementing what he desires because the meaning of this statement is, ‘I ask Allah that He forgive me.’ This then is the best way of seeking refuge and it was for this reason that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, used to say, “I take refuge with Allah’s perfect words” and “I take refuge with the Might and Power of Allah” saying, ‘audhu‘ rather than ‘astaidhu.’ Indeed this is what Allah taught him to say with His words, “Say: I take refuge with the Lord of Daybreak” (al-Falaq 113:1) “Say: I take refuge with the Lord of Mankind” (an-Nas 114:1) Employing the word ‘audhu‘ rather than ‘astaidhu‘ (ibn al-Qayyim Badai al-Fawaid vol 1 p439-441)
The Spiritual Cure: An Explanation of Surah Al-Fatihah prepared and translated by Abu Rumaysah Pages 42-45