Tarawīḥ Prayer is not Obligatory

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwī and translated by Dr. Abu Zayd

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They said: Some people before us have condemned in very severe terms those who don’t perform the Tarawīḥ prayer.

I replied: This condemnation is extremism in the religion of God and strictness where it doesn’t belong. Rather, you should be gentle and forbearing with people and strive to make them love the religion. Be wary of becoming excessive and extreme in any of its matters, lest you drive people away, for that is a trait of the deviated Khārijite sect and the innovators.

They asked: What then is the ruling of the Tarawīḥ prayer?

I replied: It is sunnah like the rest of the sunnah prayers of the night and day.

They asked: What is the extremism that you allude to?

I replied: Extremism (in Arabic, ghuluww) is to exceed a bound or limit, such as adding to the measure of a matter in any way: either in quality or quantity. So, to treat an act that is supererogatory (nafl) as sunnah, or a sunnah as obligations, treating something permissible as detested, or detested as forbidden, are all examples of excess in religion. But the Prophet always encouraged us to do things properly and to try our best. He stated, as related by Bukhārī: ‘Therefore, do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately, and worship Allah in the forenoon and in the afternoon and during a part of the night, and always adopt a middle, moderate, regular course whereby you will reach your target (Paradise).’

The Prophet also said, as related by al-Nasā’ī and Ibn Mājah: ‘O people, be careful about excess in religion, for the people before you were destroyed by their excesses in religion.’

They asked: What is your proof that the Tarawīḥ is not obligatory?

I replied: God did not command it in the Qurʾān, nor did the Prophet ever order it. In fact, every single time he was asked about the prescribed prayers, he confined them to the five known prayers without adding to them a single other prayer of the night or day. Moreover, he stopped the practice of praying [Tarawīḥ] with the people for fear that it would become obligatory upon them.

Bukhārī and Muslim relate from ʿĀʾishah that the Prophet once prayed in a night [of Ramadan] at the masjid, and the people began to follow him. The next day, even more people joined him. On the third or fourth night, they gathered for him but he did not come out that night. The next day, he informed them: I knew what you were doing, but the only thing that prevented me from coming out to you [to pray with you] was that I feared that it would become obligatory upon you.

Imām Nawawī says: The Tarawīḥ prayer is sunnah by the consensus of the scholars [al-Majmūʿ 4/31].

They said: There are people that argue excessively about their number.

I replied: The view that I prefer is that the Tarawīḥ prayer is 20 rakʿahs, or units (based upon proof that is the not the subject here), but there is no problem with adding or subtracting from that number. Scholars, old and new, have allowed for concessions in this matter. Bukhārī relates from ʿAbdullah b. ʿUmar that the Prophet was asked about the prayer of the night and he responded, “The prayer of the night is two by two, and if any one you fears the dawn prayer at hand, then he should pray one rakʿah to close the prayer with Witr.” So the Prophet clarified that they are two by two (i.e. in pairs), and dependent on the stamina of the one who is praying and the time available to him. Ibn Taymiyyah states:

If one prays the Tarawīḥ prayer according to the school of Abū Ḥanīfah, Shāfiʿī and Aḥmad as 20 rakʿahs, or 36 rakʿahs according to the school of Mālik, or 13, or 21, then that is all good, as Imām Aḥmad has clearly stated in a text narrated from him, for this is a matter that is not religiously mandated. Rather, the number of rakʿahs should correspond to the length of the standing. [Ikhtiyārāt, pg. 64]

Suyūṭī has said: What has been narrated by sound ḥadīth reports is the order to stand for the night of Ramadan, with great encouragement and without specifying the number. It has not been established that the Prophet prayed the Tarawīḥ prayer as 20 rakʿahs, but he prayed in the nights of Ramadan without a known number, and then stopped in the fourth night fearing that it would become obligatory and did not pray it again [in congregation]. Ibn Ḥajar al-Haythamī says: It has not been soundly established that the Prophet prayed 20 rakʿahs of Tarawīḥ, and the report that he prayed 20 rakʿahs is very weak. [al-Mawsūʿah al-Fiqhīyyah 27/142-145]

I also said: A hideous evil is that which some people practice with their extremely fast recitation and extremely rapid motions of prayer, caring only for their quantity. In that, they are playing with the Qurʾān and neglecting the tranquility of prayer. If anyone has doubts about the impermissibility of this, should know that the only goal of these people is to achieve the number of rakʿahs. They have changed the aims and converted obedience to its mere form and appearance. Rather, the aim of Tarawīḥ is to stand before God the Exalted, remembering Him and reciting His Book slowly and with deliberation, pondering over its verses in humility and devoutness. And as the Prophet has said to the one who made a mistake in his prayer: Return and pray for you have not really prayed!

They asked: What do you advise us?

I replied: I remind myself and you to adopt the taqwā (consciousness) of God, to make the people love His religion with gentleness and forbearance, and to avoid quarrel and disputes about religion. Bukhārī and Muslim relate from ʿĀʾishah that the Prophet said: The most detested person to God is the ruthless, quarrelsome one.

Tirmidhī and Ibn Mājah relate from Abū Umāmah that the Prophet said: No people go astray after having followed right guidance, but those who indulge in disputes. Then he recited the Verse: “Nay! But they are a quarrelsome people.” [43:58]

Disclaimer: Translations have not been checked by the author and represent the work of the translator