Q. Is the correct number of rakaats for the tarawih eight or twenty? If eight, then how did the twenty rakaats get started and should this practice be continued? Some mullahs say that the twenty rakaats is a bid'ah by Umar and should not be followed. Does someone have to pray the same number of rakaats when not attending the mosque, i.e. at home?

Additionally, what is the correct number of rakaats for the tahajjud prayer? What is the time period for this prayer and is this something that the Prophet Muhammad practiced? Please base your answers on the Qur'an and hadith.

A. First of all, as far as nawafil are concerned, there need be no verse from the Qur'an to direct this. It stands to logic that this is why the tarawih prayers are called nawafil, and to the best of his/her ability, a Muslim should follow whatever the Prophet Muhammad did. The Qur'an does not have to spell out everything in detail, in some instances that is the job of the Prophet, which is why we are directed to obey him. In a rather long narration in Sahih al Bukhari, in the book of tarawih prayers, Ibn Shihab explains that the Prophet Muhammad had urged the people to nawafil prayers in Ramadan, and they did this individually. It would appear that the people used to come to the mosque to do this, and it continued until into the early period of the caliphate of Umar. According to this report, Umar saw the different groups of people praying, and encouraged them to pray under one imam. In fact, this is when Umar was reported to have used the apparent oxymoron "n'am al bid'ah" -- what an excellent innovation. If this did indeed occur, we hasten to point out that it was before the word "bid'ah" had become part of Muslim terminology with a negative connotation, and the usage by Umar was not in the terminological context as defined by the later jurists.

Now in the case of this change by Umar, Muslims need to be careful about attempting to criticize the companions of the Prophet and the earlier scholars without themselves having a firm background in fiqh. They should note that this is a dangerous thing. There are several reasons for this danger, among which are:

(1) It is for the most part tantamount to slander.

(2) It often betrays an abject ignorance of history.

(3) It stinks of arrogance.

Please note that we are not saying that the companions are immune from being declared in error. Our judgment always rests on putative reports about that period for which we have no truly decisive evidence as to the happenings. We are merely pointing out the fact that fiqh and related matters should be in the hands of those who are trained in it, and that judgment is in the hands of Allah only.

Now one needs to take into account that it is not prohibited to pray in groups when a nafil prayer is being done, and that if there were several groups praying loudly, it was certainly distracting for others. Therefore, it was indeed a good act for Umar to unite the groups under one leader, a person with a good voice, and as the reports indicate, Ubayy bin Kab was chosen for this. Another hadith in Bukhari by Urwa indicates that the people saw the Prophet praying in the mosque, and for two nights he came and led them in prayer. On the next night, he refused to show up, explaining that it was not an obligatory prayer. Therefore, as far as the number of rakaats for tarawih goes, there is no stipulated number, for the prayer itself is not a stipulated one. There are ahadith to show that the Prophet prayed twenty rakaats on the nights that he did so in congregation. These reports, however, are not traced back to the Prophet. In the chain is Abu Shaiba Ibrahim b. Uthman, who is considered weak by all of the major authorities, and an outright liar by Shu'ba. In several ahadith acknowledged to be sahih, the Prophet is reported to have prayed eight rakaats followed by the witr. It should be noted that the number, according to some, went even in excess of forty rakaats. So the question as to what the Prophet did, be it eight or twenty is devoid of any merit, and a perusal of the hadith books should provide anyone with a clear answer.

There are several salient points that need to be noted:

-The majority of ahadith report that the night prayer is eight rakaats.

-The congregational tarawih prayer is an ijtihad on the part of Umar, and indeed a commendable one, given the time and area of its inception.

-One has to put spirituality and intention before form regarding tarawih, and sura al-Ma'un is eloquent testimony to this. People who really wish to find taqwa during Ramadan should realize that it begins in the way they act, and that the prayer need not be done in congregation, although if such a prayer fosters brotherhood and sisterhood, then it is meritorious.

In the North American atmosphere, for example, most of the attendees are men, leaving the wives at home feeling deprived of this act. Considering that the life style is quite different to one in which a man is home all day with his family, or at least has access to them (as did most of the companions and early Muslims), one may need to do some thinking about making it a self-imposed duty. A person's family does not see him during the day, since generally, the male is the provider. At night, when he should presumably be sharing the warmth and spirituality with his family, he takes off for the masjid, where he rushes through (in most cases) four, eight or twenty rakaats often recited in a fashion that does not foment contemplation. This is not taqwa. It is better to recite two rakaats with devotion and contemplation. Indeed, it is better to just sit and think about Allah, than to indulge in this form of outward show which has no foundation in the heart. Any prayer that is nafil is always two rakaats in length, and one, if he wants to pray at home, may do so in increments of two. This does not have to match what the people at the masjid are doing.

Now as for the tahajjud, it was clearly ordered for the Prophet, as indicated by sura Muzammil, etc. The hadith show that he used to perform eight rakaats followed by the witr. Again, for the believer this too is a nafil, while for the Prophet a fard. In a nafil prayer, as previously stated, there is no set number. Even in the absence of hadith on the subject -- and there is certainly no lack of hadith -- the Qur'an on several occasions orders the Prophet to pray, in one instance giving a gauge -- half of the night or a third thereof. This is done in the early hours before fajr, and for the English speaking readers, an adequate reference guide is in Yusuf Ali's index of his translation under "prayer." For those who understand Arabic or can read it, one can check the Arabic concordance prepared by Muhammad Fuad Abd al Baqi under "Salaah" and its derivative forms, under "Lail" etc. There is a fiqh maxim to which one should pay close attention -- "The basic principle in everything -- except worship -- is permissibility." The premise here is that worship must always have a precedent or a clear command before we institute it. In the case of the tarawih, we have a clear case of it being nafil, and in the tahajjud, a clear case of it being specifically fard on the Prophet.

This means that we may observe them, but with the full understanding that they must be done only when we truly feel from our hearts to offer them, and should in no way become a burden which we do simply to get rid of some "chore." If we sometimes feel the same way about the stipulated five prayers, it should be noted that no qiyas can be made here between the fard and the nafil. The fard have been written as obligatory, and one carries them out, trying one's best to have the requisite state of mind for proper worship. Even in the case, however, where unfortunately one does not feel that s/he has mustered the true feeling and commitment to give Allah due adoration, then one may hope for Allah's mercy, for one has tried to obey a command to the best of one's ability. One cannot be castigated for this. In the case of a nafil prayer, it is not asked of us, and must therefore come from our very heart and innermost being.

The difference I think is clear. Every act of kindness reflecting God's grace is worship. One is better off doing any good deed, such as spending an evening of what is termed "quality time" with the family, rather than rushing off to the mosque, praying some lengthy rakaats with some supersonic recitations, and depriving the family of his presence and words of encouragement during this blessed month. As the ayah says:

"It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards east or west; but it is righteousness to believe in God and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which you have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God-fearing." (al-Baqarah 2:177)

May Allah accept our deeds that we perform striving for His Grace and Mercy. And may He cause us to be better Muslims to our families and all those around us, always knowing that if we cannot see Allah, He sees us, knowing what is in our hearts, knowing that which is done for show and that which is done out of heartfelt devotion.

Posted December 16, 1999