Imamah and Congregation (Shafii)


What is imamah in islam? What is congregation in islam?

“Jamaah (congregation)” means “the person or people who follow an imam while performing a prayer:’ One person is enough to constitute a jamaah. There is no limit for the maximum number of people that can be in a jamaah. As for the word “Imam: although it can mean a captain or a leader, it also means the person whom the jamaah follows while performing the prayer in regards to matters concerning prayer.

I. Merits and Rulings of Congregation

Our religion has given great importance to praying in congregation. Performing the five daily prayers in congregation is a communal obligation (fard kifai) according to the most well attested view. If a group of believers in a certain residential place fulfills this obligation, the rest of the Muslim community will be saved from the responsibility.  Some scholars are of the view that performing the five daily prayers is a Sunnah muakkadah upon every single competent member of Muslim community.

The Friday prayer, the funeral prayer, and the festival prayers are also congregational prayers. In principle, the supererogatory prayers are not performed in congregation. However, the festival prayers, the solar and lunar eclipse prayers, and the prayer of requesting rain from Allah are performed in congregation even though they are Sunnah prayers.

It is preferred to perform the Tarawih and the Witr prayers in congregation during the month of Ramadan.

It is very important for a believer to try to attend the congregation in a mosque. This is because in a hadith, the Prophet (pbuh) clearly expresses that the people whose hearts are connected to the mosque are one of the seven groups of people who will be blessed with the divine shelter/shade in the horrific circumstances of the Judgement Day when there will be no other shade.

According to what was related by Abu Said Al-Hudri (r.anh), The Prophet (pbuh) stated:

When you see a man who has made it a habit to continually pray in masjids, witness that he is a true believing Muslim.”[1]

Those who perform their prayers in congregation gain more spiritual rewards (thawab) than those who perform them individually. In this regard our Beloved Prophet gives us the following good news: “The spiritual rewards of the prayer of a person who performs it in congregation is twenty seven times more than the person who performs it individually.” [2]

II. The Situations when One is Allowed not to Attend the Congregation

The congregational prayer for the five current prescribed prayers is a communal obligation upon all male non-travelers. However, one is allowed to perform prayers individually under following and similar other circumstances:

  1. Those who are too ill to go to the mosque or those who have an illness which prevents them to go to the mosque.
  2. Those who are paralyzed or too old to go to the mosque.
  3. The blind and the crippled who cannot go to mosque by themselves and do not have anybody to take them to the mosque.
  4. Those who have to walk through a muddy and dark road to reach the mosque.
  5. Those who have to go to the mosque in a very cold, rainy, stormy, or hot weather and the existence of the danger of icicles falling from the roofs.
  6. Those who have emergencies at home such as fire,.
  7. Those who work at emergency public services which cannot be left during the congregational prayer.
  8. Those who take care of the emergency patients or attend the care of a patient.
  9. Those who fear to be oppressed or are under the threat of life or wealth or who keep watch in military zones.
  10. Those who are in search for something lost or try to get something seized from them.
  11. Those who take care of a funeral.
  12. Those who are travelling or about to set out to a journey.
  13. Those who frequently need to go to the bathroom and those who miss the congregation when going to the bathroom or while performing the minor ablution.
  14. Those who teach or study important Islamic sciences such as fiqh.
  15. Those who have eaten something with a bad odor which may disturb the congregation.
  16. Those who are in the presence of food or drink that they are supposed to consume.

If a woman is very attractive, it is reprehensible for her to attend the congregation neither for Friday Prayer nor for daily prayers. If there is available place in a mosque, it is permissible for old women and women who do not wear attractive attires to attend the congregation.

III. Leadership in Prayers and Its Requirements

In order for the communal prayer to be valid, a number of conditions must be met by the imam, or prayer leader. The imam must be a fully rational Muslim adult male or at least a boy, who has reached the age of discernment, and who is free of any condition that would exempt him from leading the prayer, such as urinary incontinence. It is also required for the leader of a prayer to be able to recite the Qur’an correctly or to be able to recite chapter al-Fatiha and an adequate amount of the necessary verses from the Qur’an.

Another condition of the validity of the prayer leadership is that the imam be free of any speech defect that causes him to pronounce one letter as another, for example, by pronouncing the ra’ sound as a ghayn, a sin as a tha, a dhal as a za, a shin as a sin, or any other such substitution.

The imam should lead the prayer in accordance with the rules of ta’dil-i arkan. However, it is reprehensible to prolong the recitation and the integral parts of Friday, Festival or daily prayers, so much that it would bore the congregation. Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said,

“When any one of you leads the people in prayer, he should be brief for among them are the young and the aged, the weak and the sick.”[3]

“When one of you prays by himself, he may (prolong) it as he likes.”[4]

It is not a requirement for the imam to intend to read the prayer in five daily prayers. However, this is a condition in the Friday prayer, in prayers combined due to heavy rain, and when re-performing a prayer. (According to the Hanafis, the imam’s intention to lead others in prayer is required for the validity of the prayer if those being led are women. Hence, women’s prayer will be invalidated if their imam fails consciously to intend to lead them in prayer. It is recommended to express the intention in words as “Ana imamun liman tabi’ani (I am an imam for those who follow me.)”)

If those being led in prayer are all women, it is not necessary for the imam to be a male. Rather, it is permissible for a woman to act as imam for other women or for hermaphrodites. In such cases, the woman who serves as imam stands in the middle of the first row and does not stand in front of the congregation.

Another condition for the validity of the prayer leadership is that the prayer of the imam must be valid according to the school of the person being led in prayer. Hence, if a Shafii prays behind a Hanafi who touched a woman who is not a blood-relative [and did not repeat his ablutions afterwards], the prayer of the person following the imam will be invalid because, according to his school, the imam’s prayer is invalid.

The Reasons of Preference in the Leadership of Prayer

According to the Shafiis, it is recommended that the priority and the right to serve as imam be granted to: (I) the governor in the domain of his governorship, then (2) the regular mosque imam, then (3) the person residing by right [in the place where the prayer is being performed], if he is qualified to serve as imam. If no one who fits any of these descriptions is present, the following list of criteria is to be used:

(1) the most knowledgeable of Islamic jurisprudence.

(2) the most skilled reciter.

(3) the most ascetic and self-disciplined.

(4) the most pious and conscientious.

(5) the one who has been a Muslim for the longest time.

(6) the one with the most superior family lineage.

(7) the one with the most honorable life history.

(8) the one with the cleanest clothes, body and occupation.

(9) the one with the most pleasant voice.

(10) the one with the most attractive appearance.

(12) one who is married.

If those present are equal with respect to all these criteria, lots are to be cast among them. It is permissible for the person most entitled to serve as imam to put forward someone else for the task if the former is not superior to the latter with respect to a particular personal attribute, for example, his being more knowledgeable of Islamic jurisprudence, in which case he may not do so. [5]

According to the Shafiis, it is undesirable for the following people to lead others in prayer:

  • someone who took over the position of imam without meriting it.
  • someone who does not take care to avoid ritual impurity.
  • someone who is employed in a base profession, such as cupping.
  • someone who is disliked by most of the people due to some objectionable characteristic or habit, such as laughing too much.
  • someone of unidentified paternity.
  • someone of illegitimate birth, unless he is leading someone else who is likewise of illegitimate birth.
  • someone who is uncircumcised, even if he is an adult.
  • a young boy, even if he is more well-versed in Islamic jurisprudence than the adults.
  • someone who involuntarily repeats the f / and w sounds in his speech.
  • someone who mispronounces words, though not so severely that their meanings are altered.
  • someone who violates the subsidiary rulings of the school to which those following him adhere, such as a Hanafi who believes that utterance of the basmalah is not obligatory.

IV. The State of Those who Perform Prayers Following an Imam

One who follows an imam is called “muqtadi”. Those who follow an imam should make intention to follow him (iqtida’). It is required that this intention is made at the beginning of prayer. If it is not done at the beginning, then making the intention while performing a congregational prayer becomes valid, despite it being reprehensible. However, this ruling is not applicable to the prayers for which a congregation is a condition, such as the Friday Prayer and the like. In this latter category, one must make the intention to follow the imam together with the beginning takbir.

The congregation must follow the imam. Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) expressed in one of his sayings, “The imam is meant to be followed.”[6]

If two people are in disagreement about which way the direction of qibla is then  they are not allowed to follow each other in prayer.

If the imam performs the prostration of forgetfulness, those who follow him performs it as well. If an imam does not perform the prostration of forgetfulness even though he makes a mistake, which requires prostration of forgetfulness, those who follow the imam should not follow him in this regard and perform prostration of forgetfulness by themselves after the imam says his salams.

If the imam makes an error and does not sit in the first testification of faith (sitting), those who follow him do not sit, either. As for the supplication of qunut, those who follow the imam are not required to follow the imam with regard to its recitation or not. If the imam performs a prostration of recitation of the Qur’an in the Dawn Prayer on Friday, those who follow him need to perform it as well. If the imam omits to perform it, the congregation also need to omit it.

Another condition for the validity of the prayer leadership is that the person praying behind the imam follow his imam in the actions of prayer. The congregation must follow their imam in the utterance of the beginning takbir, in raising their heads from bowing or prostration and in uttering the final greeting of peace. Otherwise their prayer will be invalidated.

If a muqtadi deliberately fails to follow his imam in two entire pillars of a prayer – for example, if the imam bows, prostrates, and rises from his prostration while the worshiper is still standing – his prayer will be invalidated.[7] However, if it is unintentional, and if the worshiper is able to perform the two missed pillars quickly enough to catch up with the imam and follow him through the rest of the prayer, he should do so.

This, then, is the ruling on a worshiper who arrived in time to join the imam long enough to recite the Fatihah and who got ahead of his imam by two action based pillars either deliberately, out of ignorance, or out of forgetfulness, or who got ahead of his imam by two verbal pillars or by one verbal and one action-based pillar. As for a worshiper who arrived in time to join the imam long enough to recite the Fatihah and who then lagged behind the imam-for example, if the worshiper is a slow reciter while the imam recites at a medium pace – it is pardonable for the worshiper to lag behind the imam by as many as three ‘long’ pillars, namely, the bow and the two prostrations.

If a worshiper being led in prayer forgets to recite the Fatihah but remembers it before the imam bows, he must lag behind the imam to recite the Fatihah, in which case it is pardonable for him to part with the imam for the duration of three long pillars. However, if he remembers not having recited the Fatihah only after he bows with the imam, he should not go back to recite it; rather, he must perform an extra rak’ah after the imam has concluded his prayer.

According to the Shafiis, it is not permissible to pray behind another worshiper as long as the latter is himself being led in prayer. However, if one worshiper prays behind another as his imam after the latter’s imam has concluded his prayer, or after he has made it his intention to part with his imam – given that the intention to part with one’s imam is permissible in the Shafii view-it will be permissible for him to pray behind him as his imam. This ruling applies to all ritual prayers other than the Friday congregational prayer.

When a group is ready to form a congregation, and there is another group performing prayer in congregation and the latter group’s imam rises from the bowing of the final cycle. It is Sunnah for the new group to wait for the first congregation to finish their prayer and then form a second congregation. This is because the perfect congregation is the one in which the congregation follows an imam from beginning to the end.

The Muqtadi (the one being led by an imam) can be either muwafiq or masbuq. The muwafiq refers to the person who joins a congregation and who has enough time to utter the beginning takbir and recite the chapter Fatiha before the imam goes down to ruku’,  even if it is in the final cycle.  As for the masbuq, it refers to the person who catches up with the congregation in the final cycle but does not have enough time to recite the chapter Fatiha before the imam goes to ruku’.

If the masbuq catches up with the imam while he is in the position of ruku’ or if the masbuq catches up with the imam while he is still in the position of standing but goes down to ruku’ before the masbuq has had time to recite the chapter al-Fatiha, then the masbuq must also go to ruku’ together with the imam.

If the masbuq has had enough time to stand motionless for a while together with the imam before going down to ruku’, that cycle of the masbuq will be valid. Otherwise, it will not be valid and the masbuq will have to perform that cycle after the imam says the final greetings of peace.

If the masbuq catches up with part of the standing and then if the imam goes down to ruku’, the masbuq recites part of Fatiha and becomes exempted from the rest of Fatiha. In such cases, omitting the recitation of iftitah and ta’awwudh is recommended.

One who catches up with the congregation in the second cycle of the Dawn Prayer needs to recite the supplication of qunut when he is completing the first cycle. This is because the cycle he performs together with congregation is considered his first cycle and the cycle he performs alone is his second cycle.

If one catches up with the congregation in the third cycle of the Noon prayer, it is a Sunnah for him/her to recite an additional part from the Qur’an when completing the missing cycles alone.

A person earns the spiritual rewards of being with the congregation, as long as he joins the congregation, utters the beginning takbir, and goes directly down to prostration without uttering another takbir, i.e. he catches up with the congregation in the position of prostration. Moreover, a person also earns the spiritual rewards of being with the congregation if he joins them by uttering the beginning takbir and catches up with them when they are sitting in the final testification of faith. However, if the person cannot perform a full cycle of the Friday Prayer together with the imam, then he is not considered to have reached the congregation, and thus the Friday Prayer.

V. The Place Where those Who Follow the Imam Should Stand

The imam should stand in the center in front of the congregation. If the imam is leading only either a man or a boy who has reached the age of discernment, the man or the boy being led in prayer should stand to the right of, and slightly behind, the imam; it is undesirable for them to stand directly across from the imam to the imam’s left, or directly behind the imam. The heel of the person who follows the imam cannot be in front of the heel of the imam while they are standing. Similarly, the hip of the person who follows the imam cannot be in front of the hip of the imam while they are sitting. Otherwise, the prayer of the person who is being led by the imam will be invalid.

If the imam is leading two men or a man and a boy, it is recommended that they stand behind the imam. If the imam is leading a man, he should stand to the imam’s right. If a second man joins the congregation while a man is performing prayer in congregation by standing to imam’s right, the latecomer pulls the man to his side and they stand behind the imam together. In such case, it is permissible for the imam to go forward. The second man can also stand by the imam’s left side. However, it is reprehensible to stand by the imam if there is a row formed behind the imam.

If the imam is leading a man and a woman, the man should stand to the imam’s right, while the woman stands behind the man. If he is leading a boy and a woman, the same ruling applies. If those being led in prayer include men, boys, hermaphrodites and females, the men should stand in front, followed by the boys, followed by the hermaphrodites, and finally followed by the females.

If a man and a woman perform the prayer side by side, their prayer is valid even though it is reprehensible. (According to Hanafis, the man’s prayer becomes invalid.)

There is no problem if the congregation stands before the imam or the man and the women pray side by side in the Masjid al-Haram.

Those who are more knowledgeable and virtuous should stand in the front row right behind the imam so that in case something happens and imam cannot continue to the prayer, the one who stands right behind him may continue to lead the prayer as his proxy. The Arabic term istikhlaf (the appointment of a proxy) is employed by scholars of Islamic jurisprudence to refer to the act by which either the imam or one of the worshipers being led in prayer appoints a man, who is qualified to serve as imam, to finish leading the worshipers in prayer in the event that their imam cannot do so. For example, as the imam is leading a congregation in prayer, he may complete one or two rak’ahs with them (or more, or less), after which something happens which prevents him from completing the prayer, such as a sudden illness, an occurrence of ritual impurity, etc.

The first row is more virtuous than the second row, and the second row one is more virtuous than the third row. The degree of virtue continues to decline in every row until the last one.

When the congregation stands up to perform prayer, they should keep the rows straight, fill the gaps, and keep their shoulders straight with each other. If one sees a gap in the front rows, the person should go and fill that gap. If a late coming person sees a gap in the front rows before the prayer begins, he should go and fill that gap without disturbing the other people in the congregation.

If a person arrives for communal prayer and finds that the imam is bowing and there is a gap in the row, it is recommended that he should postpone entering the prayer with the imam until he has reached the row, even if this involves missing the rak ‘ah. If, after commencing the prayer, he finds a gap in one of the rows, he may pass through the rows until he reaches the gap, as long as it does not require him to take three consecutive steps and that he walks from a standing position; otherwise, his prayer will be invalidated. Moreover, one may only walk during the prayer to fill a gap in another row if the gap already existed before one began to pray; if the gap comes into being after the person begins to pray, he may not pass through rows to reach it. If someone arrives for the prayer and does not find a gap in the row, he should utter takbtrat al-ibram outside the row; in such a case, it is an emulation of the Sunnah-after he has uttered beginning takbir and while standing – for him to draw toward him a free man whom he hopes will agree to stand with him. However, the row from which the man was drawn must contain more than two worshipers; otherwise, it is not in accordance with the Sunnah to draw him out.

Those who follow the imam should be able to perceive the imam’s movements by seeing or hearing. It is a Sunnah for the congregation to stand behind the imam. It is also Sunnah to keep the distance less than 144 cm between the imam and the congregation and the distance between each consecutive row. The imam can be on one end of the mosque and those who follow him can perform their prayer on the other end of the mosque. If the distance between the imam and those who follow him is more than 300 zira’ (about 100 m.), they are still considered in the same place as long as they are in the same mosque. The extensions and yard of the mosque is accepted as part of the mosque. When there is a distance between the imam and the congregation of more than 100 meters or if there is a river through which boats sail, or a busy road lies between them, then the congregational prayer becomes invalid.

It is reprehensible if the place where the imam is standing is one zira’ (about 33cm) higher or lower than the level where the congregation stand. However, if at least one man is at the same level as the imam, then the reprehensibility is eliminated.

VI. Rulings Related to the Mosques

Mosques and prayer houses are the most sacred and blessed places on earth. Islam attaches utmost value and significance to those places. Muslims enters and exits these places with great respect and reverence. The most sacred ones among the mosques are al-Masjid al-Haram (which surrounds the Ka’bah in Mecca), Masjid al-Nabawi (in which our beloved Prophet’s grave is located) and Majsid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said,

“Do not set out on a journey except for three Mosques i.e. al-Masjid al-Haram, the Mosque of Allah’s Messenger (pbuh), and the Mosque of al-Aqsa, (Mosque of Jerusalem).”[8]

“One prayer in my mosque is better than one thousand prayers elsewhere, except the Sacred Mosque, and one prayer in the Sacred Mosque is better than one hundred thousand prayers elsewhere.”[9]

Constructing mosques and prayer houses is among the deeds that help believer earn great spiritual rewards. In fact, Allah’s Messenger said in this regard, “Whoever builds a mosque intending to gain Allah’s Pleasure; Allah builds for him a similar place in Paradise.”[10]

There are certain rules that need to be obeyed related to the mosque. Below are some of them,

  1. It is prohibited for someone who is in major ritual impurity (janaba) to enter and stay in a mosque. However, it is permissible to pass through the mosque without stopping. One who experiences semen discharge in the mosque must exit the mosque if there is not anything preventing him from exiting the mosque. However, there is no harm for one who is in minor ritual impurity to stay in the mosque.
  2. It is permissible to sleep in the mosque. It is known that the Companions of the Suffa slept in the Prophet’s Mosque. It is also recorded in some historical sources that Ali (r.a.) would sometime sleep in the Prophet’s Mosque.
  3. There is no harm in eating and drinking in the mosque when it is needed. One should not go to the mosque after eating things with bad odor that may disturb the congregation such as onion, garlic, leek, etc. or after smoking unless it is necessary. Allah’s Messenger said in this regard, “He who eats garlic or onion should remain away from us or from our mosque and stay in his house.”[11]
  4. When entering and exiting a mosque, one should enter with the right foot and exit with the left foot. It is reprehensible to leave the mosque without a valid excuse after the call for prayer is recited, and before the prayer is performed. It is also reprehensible to sit down when entering a mosque before performing a two-cycle tahiyyat al-masjid prayer. It is as Sunnah to go to the mosque and to perform a two-cycle prayer when coming back from a journey.
  5. It is recommended to have scholarly circles in mosques and to deliver sermons and speeches to people in the mosques. There is no harm to recite poetry praising the Prophet (pbuh), Islam, and good characteristics in the mosques.
  6. It is also recommended to wait for the time of the prayer, to keep oneself busy with knowledge, or with remembrance of Allah in the mosques. It is also recommended to make the intention for the religious seclusion in the mosque (itikaf) when entering a mosque, even if it is for short time to carry out a lawful act.
  7. It is a Sunnah to clean the mosque or to help those cleaning the mosque.
  8. It is reprehensible to argue, speak loudly, to make announcement of lost items, or sell and buy something in the mosques.
  9. There is no harm to give charity to beggars, but begging in a mosque is reprehensible.
  10. There is no harm performing the minor ablution in the mosque if there is a special section reserved as long as water is not splashed around.
  11. There is no harm to keep the mosques locked if there is fear for the valuable items in the mosque to be stolen.
  12. It is not permissible to take anything from the mosque.
  13. It is reprehensible to adorn mosques and decorate them with writings and decorations.[12]
  14. It is reprehensible to build a mosque over a grave and it is prohibited to dig a grave inside a mosque.

[1] Al-Tirmidhi, Iman 8; Ibn Maja, Masajid 19[2] Al-Bukhari, adhan 30; Muslim, Masajid 42[3] Muslim, Salat, 183,186; al-Tirmidhi, Salat, 61[4] Al-Bukhari Adhan 21; Muslim, Salat 37[5] Al-Shirbini, Mughni al-Muhtaj, 1/476-479; al-Nawawi, al-Majmu’; 4/175-181[6] Al-Bukhari, Salat, 18[7] Al-Shirbini, Mughni al-Muhtaj, 1/505[8] Al-Bukhari, Fadl al-Salati fi Masjidi Mecca wa al-Madina 1; Abu Dawud, Manasik 94-95[9] Ibn Maja, Salat, 195; Ahmad, al-Musnad, 2/16-68[10] Al-Bukhari, Salat, 65; Muslim, Zuhd, 3[11] Muslim, Masajid, 17, 73; Abu Davud, At’ima, 41[12] Al-Nawawi, al-Majmu’, 2/199-208

Source: Fiqh1 (According To The Shafi’i School Of Islamic Law), Erkam Publications

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