What is the significance of congregational prayer?
“There is no prayer for the neighbor of the mosque (It will not be a complete prayer) except in the mosque”
(Saying of the Prophet (pbuh) reported by Ibn Abi Shaybah)
Performing some acts of worship in congregation and having people from all levels of society participate in their performance consists of several social and individual benefits. Just like the existence of righteous people who deserve to be followed, there are also weak people in our society who need guidance and encouragement to ascend the steps of spirituality. The latter type of people may show negligence if they do not feel the pressure to perform some of their obligations in front of other people. This is why performing an act of worship in congregation, such as prayer which is obligatory to every believer, is one of the most beneficial acts of obedience. And this is why it should be performed in congregation and popularized in society. Thus, those who perform it and those who do not can be distinguished; those who have the knowledge can be followed and those do not have the enough knowledge can learn. Worshipping Allah in congregation is kind of a measurement to find out the good and bad servants of Allah.
On the other hand, Allah’s request is to keep Islam as the greatest religion in this world. This goal can only be achieved by gathering people frequently from all levels of society, such as scholars and the ignorant, city dwellers and peasants, young and old for congregational prayer, since this is the greatest sign and the most common act of worship of Islam. In addition, to encourage people to achieve this goal, Allah the Almighty gives more rewards for prayers performed in congregation. This is stated by the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) as follows:
“Allah’s Apostle said, “The prayer in congregation is twenty seven times superior to the prayer offered by person alone.” (Bukhari, Adhan, 30)
Praying and repenting together also have a great effect on the acceptability of the supplications. Therefore, supplications done during the performance of a ritual prayer will be accepted faster.
“No believer does his ablution, does it well, then heads towards one of the mosques without Allah recording a blessing for him for every step he takes raising him a degree for it, and effacing a sin from him for it; this way Allah’s mercy and presence surrounds him.” (Bukhari, Adhan, 30; Muslim, Masajid, 272)
Again the Prophet (pbuh) said, “Allah will prepare for him who goes to the mosque (every) morning and in the afternoon (for the congregational prayer) an honorable place in Paradise with good hospitality for (what he has done) every morning and afternoon goings.” (Bukhari, Adhan, 37) These prophetic sayings describe the beauty and abundance of the blessings waiting for the believers who continue the congregational prayer five times a day. Sheikh Uftadah (q.s.) points out the lofty and honorable place of the congregation in the presence of Allah in his following lines in which he addresses to Ulu Mosque:
“O grand Mosque! O sacred place in which great people come together! How happy those who visit you five times day and night are!”
As their leader, Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) would check the attendees of the congregation and ask about those who were not present. During those days, only the hypocrites and very sick would not attend the dawn and night prayers. Ubay b. Ka’b narrates:
“The Apostle of Allah (pbuh) led us in the dawn prayer one day. And he said: Is so and so present? They said: No. He (again) asked: Is so and so present? They replied: No. He then said:
“These two prayers are the ones which are most burdensome to hypocrites. If you knew what they contain (i.e. blessings), you would come to them, even if you had to crawl on your knees. The first row is like that of the angels, and if you knew the nature of its excellence, you would race to join it. A man’s prayer said along with another is purer than his prayer said alone, and his prayer with two men is purer than his prayer with one, but if there are more it is more pleasing to Allah, the Almighty, the Majestic.” (Abu Dawud, Salat, 47)
Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) presented the best example to his ummah about continuing the congregation. He attended the congregation with the help of his two friends until the day he passed away. Aswad (r.a.) narrates that:
“We were with Aisha (r.a.) and we talked about continuing and showing respect to the prayer. Then she told us:
“When Allah’s Apostle fell sick with the fatal illness and when the time of prayer became due and Adhaan was recited, he said, ‘Tell Abu Bakr to lead the people in prayer.’ He was told that Abu Bakr was a soft-hearted man and would not be able to lead the prayer in his place. The Prophet gave the same order again but he was given the same reply. He gave the order for the third time and said, ‘You (women) are the companions of Joseph. Tell Abu Bakr to lead the prayer.’ So Abu Bakr came out to lead the prayer. In the meantime the condition of the Prophet improved a bit and he came out with the help of two men, one on each side. As if I was observing his legs dragging on the ground owing to the disease. Abu Bakr wanted to retreat but the Prophet beckoned him to remain at his place and the Prophet was brought till he sat beside Abu Bakr.” (Bukhari, Adhan, 39) Given that, he (pbuh) said:
“There is no prayer for the neighbor of the mosque (it will not be a complete prayer) except in the mosque” (Ibn Abi Shaybah, I, 303)
When Ali (r.a.) was asked about who the neighbor of the mosque was, he said:
“They are those who hear the muadhdhin.” (Bayhaqi, Al-Sunan al-Kubra, III, 57)
Those who hear the voice of muadhdhin should go to the congregation; it does not matter whether they live far or near it. Only those who have disabilities are excluded from this rule. Allah the Almighty has promised rewards for every step of those who go to the mosque. Therefore, it means the further the distance the more the reward. The master of the universe, the Prophet (pbuh) said, “The people who get tremendous reward for the prayer are those who are farthest away (from the mosque) and then those who are next farthest and so on. Similarly one who waits to pray with the Imam has greater reward than one who prays and goes to bed.” (Bukhari, Adhan, 31)
On the other hand, regularly going to the mosque and making it a habit is regarded as a sign of real believers (Tirmidhi, Iman, 8) and such a good habit is also considered to be like the reconstruction of the mosques. Only those who believe in Allah and the Last Day, who perform prayers, give alms, and do not fear anything other than Allah can perform this deed. Being on the straight path and not moving away from this blessing can be realized only through such good deeds. (al-Tawbah 9; 18)
Those who push all those rewards away by choosing not to join the congregation not only harm Islam, but also commit the greatest oppression. Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) says in regards to the grievous fate of those who do not join the congregation that:
“If there are three men in a village or in the desert among whom prayer is not offered (in congregation), the devil has got the mastery over them. So observe (prayer) in congregation, for the wolf eats only the straggling animal.” (Abu Dawud, Salat, 46)
In this prophetic saying there is also implication that quitting congregation may lead to quitting prayer completely. This is why excuses presented for not attending congregation are not accepted. Abdullah b. Ummu Maktum, who was a blind man, came to the Apostle of Allah (pbuh) and said:
“O Messenger of Allah, I have no one to guide me to the mosque.” He, therefore, asked the permission of Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) to perform his prayers in his house. The Prophet (pbuh) first granted him permission. Then, when the man turned away he called him and said:
“Do you hear the call to prayer?”
He said: Yes.
The Holy Prophet then told him:
“Then you should respond to adhaan and come to the mosque.” (Muslim, Masajid, 255)
The Prophet (pbuh) paid so much attention to the congregation that he did not like that his followers pray alone. Abu Sa’id al-Huḍri (r.a.) narrates:
“A man came to the mosque, but the Prophet (pbuh) had already finished his prayer. Then Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said:
“Who would like to give this man charity and get its reward?” immediately someone stood up and prayed with him.” (Tirmidhi, Salat, 50)
A companion who had already performed his obligatory prayer with the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) stood up and re-performed his prayer just to help his brother to get the reward of congregation.
Narrated by Yazid ibn Amir (r.a.):
I came while the Prophet (pbuh) was performing the prayer. I sat down and did not pray along with them. The Apostle of Allah (pbuh) turned towards us and saw that Yazid was sitting there. He said:
“Did you not embrace Islam, Yazid?”
“I have, O Apostle of Allah; I have embraced Islam.”
Then the Prophet (pbuh) said:
“What prevented you from performing prayer along with the people?”
“I have already prayed in my house, and I thought that you had prayed (in congregation).”
“When you come to pray (in the mosque) and find the people praying, then you should pray along with them, even though you have already prayed. This will be a supererogatory prayer for you and that will be counted as obligatory.” (Abu Dawud, Salat, 56)
Abdullah b. Mas’ud (r.a.) reported:
“He who likes to meet Allah tomorrow as Muslim, he should persevere in observing these prayers, when a call is announced for them, for Allah has laid down for your Prophet the paths of right guidance, and these (prayers) are among the paths of right guidance. If you were to pray in your houses as this man who stays away (from the mosque) prays in his house, you would abandon the practice of your Prophet, and if you were to abandon the practice of your Prophet, you would go astray. No man purifies himself, doing it well, and then makes for one of those mosques without Allah recording a blessing for him for every step he takes, raising him a degree for it, and effacing a sin from him for it. I have seen the time when no one stayed away from it, except a hypocrite, who was well known for his hypocrisy, whereas a man would be brought swaying (due to sickness) between two men till he was set up in a row.” (Muslim, Masajid, 256-57)
Because those who do not attend the congregation are warned by Allah’s Apostle (pbuh) as follows: “By Him in Whose Hands my life is, I was about to order for collecting fire wood and then order someone to pronounce the Adhan for the prayer and then order someone to lead the people in prayer and then I would go from behind and burn the houses of men who did not present themselves for the (compulsory congregational) prayer. By Him in Whose Hands my life is, some of those who do not attend the congregational prayer had known that they would receive a bone covered with meat or two (small) pieces of meat present in between two ribs, he would come for ‘Isha’ prayer.” (Bukhari, Ahkam, 52; Adhan, 29; Muslim, Masajid, 251-254)
 This is the grand mosque built by the orders of Ottoman Sultan Bayazid I between 1396 and 1400 in the city of Bursa.
 Here the intention of the Prophet (pbuh) was not to give permission to burn down the houses of those who do not come to the congregation, but to inform believers how great it is to neglect such a deed.
Source: An Excellent Exemplar, Osman Nuri Topbaş, Erkam Publications