Q. The "congregational tarawih" prayer is in progress. A few brothers come in late, so obviously they have to pray the "isha fard" first. How should they proceed? Do they form a separate saff behind the main body of praying Muslims, or join the tarawih and stand to finish the additional two fard rakaats after the taslim?

A. Regarding the salat, several aspects come into play, all of which reflect the evolution of Islam in its post prophetic stage. The tarawih as such was not a maintained communal practice of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w). It is essentially sunna or nafil, and the Prophet left us with enough, or rather, there is enough to glean from the hadith and the practice of Umar (r.a) to extrapolate a ruling which would be thus. The Prophet said: "If the salat is called, then there is no salat except that which is in progress (idha uqimat is salat, fa laa salaa ilaa allatee uqimat)." It may be pointed out that this was said in reference to a fard prayer, but this is a wrong specification. The hadith is general, and even though there is no iqama for tarawih, the mere fact that someone announces that tarawih will start is an iqama.

The Prophet's dictum is to ease the problem of confusion and dissension. The Imam is praying, so if you start a different prayer, that is totally against the spirit of Islam and the Qur'an, especially in the scenario you mentioned. The Qur'an states: "If the Qur'an is being recited, listen to it, etc." How can the Imam be praying a tarawih prayer (jahri,) and people start a separate jahri prayer?

According to the sunna of the companions, the prayer would be thus. You start with the Imam at the beginning of a two rakaat prayer, having made your intention in your heart that you will pray the isha fard. You make your medial tashahud, and when the Imam makes taslim, you do not make taslim, but stand up out of your tashahud and finish your final two rakaats reciting the fatiha. The Imam does not have to know what you have done, for the matter is one of niyat and does not concern him.

The focus is on maintaining unity as much as possible. He is reciting the Qur'an, which means that you must listen to it. It does not matter how many of you there are. As Al Albani and several others have shown, if the masjid is a communal one, and the fard has been performed, it is incorrect for the late comers to make a second jamaat while the tarawih is in progress, they pray individually. Remember that it was the several different jamaats that caused Umar (r.a) to legislate the tarawih as being a single communal activity. In conclusion, my observation is that the tarawih has become more important than the fard prayers in many Muslim communities, and I do not place too much emphasis on rituals that have no Qur'anic sanction.

Posted December 28, 1998