The Length and Number of Units of Prayer

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

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They asked: What are the obligatory and sunnah prayers (ṣalāh), and what is the number of their units (rakʿahs)?

I replied: I have mentioned to you in a previous article that our prayers are scheduled according to the statement of Ibrāhīm: “I love not the things that go down” [6:76], avoiding the timings of the worship of the polytheists, those who worshiped the sun, planets and stars. Building upon this, the obligatory units of prayer are ten in the day and ten in the night. Ten is a number that denotes completion and perfection, as God says: “These are ten complete days.” [2:196]. So they are twenty in total number.

As for the prayers of the day, they are the two units of the Dawn prayer, the four units of Ẓuhr, and the four of ʿĀṣr. The prayers of the night are the three of Maghrib, the four of ʿIshāʾ and the three of the Witr prayer.

Similarly, the supererogatory prayers are also twenty units: two before Fajr, four before Ẓuhr and two following it, two after Maghrib, two after ʿIshāʾ, and the eight units of tahajjud prayer. It is not established from the Prophet’s practice that he ever exceeded more than twenty units of supererogatory prayer in the day and night. This was done out of respect and deference for the obligatory prayers, which are the first to be presented before the presence of God. What lofty respect and what utter humility from him, peace and blessings be upon Him!

The Prophet would exert himself in the month of Ramadan more than any other month. Bukhārī and others relate that Ibn ʿAbbās said: “The Prophet was the most generous of people in charity, but he was generous to the utmost in the month of Ramadan, when Jibrīl would visit him. Jibrīl would meet him every night during the month of Ramadan until it ended, and God’s Messenger would recite to him the Qurʾān; and when Jibrīl met him, God’s Messenger was more generous than the blowing wind.” So the Prophet would add twenty additional units of prayer specifically for Ramadan in order to review the Noble Qurʾān, and his Companions followed him in that practice.

They asked: You have placed the Witr prayer among the obligatory ones, which is a view no one expressed before you.

I replied: I have not considered it obligatory but included it among the obligatory prayers. Abū Ḥanīfah has designated it mandatory (wājib), while some Companions described it as the truth (ḥaqq), and the rest of the scholars described it as sunnah, because they know it through the sunnah. But they emphasized it more than they emphasized any other prayer and have allowed it to be made up in case it was missed (qaḍāʾ).

They asked: Why did the Prophet mention only the five prayers without mentioning Witr in numerous sound ḥadīth reports?

I replied: Simply because of the fact that the Witr follows the ʿIshāʾ prayer, and he felt no need to mention it separately. Since it is the final prayer of the night, and it is difficult for many to perform it while fighting sleep, he lightened it out of mercy for them.

They asked: Why are the units of obligatory prayer divided up in this manner?

I replied: Perfection belongs to God alone, and absolutely nothing from creation shares with Him in that. As for creation, their completion is in pairs. Therefore, two units of prayer are a pair, and each pair has another pair to add to this completion. All of this is to motivate the believers and incline them strongly to increase themselves in this great blessing of prayer. So the units of Ẓuhr, ʿĀṣr and ʿIshāʾ prayer are four in number.

The units of the Fajr prayer are two, following the command of God: And hold fast to the recitation of the Qurʾān at dawn, for the recitation of the Qurʾān at dawn is witnessed. [17:78] So lengthy recitation in this prayer is greatly encouraged. If a servant is standing for the Fajr prayer (had Fajr followed the default of four units) and lengthens his recitation until the rise of the sun is at hand, causing him to fear that the third unit would be after sunrise (recitation is part of the first two units), then while he is in the first unit, he simply adds another unit and ends the prayer to avoid its occurrence in the forbidden time of prayer.

Maghrib prayer resembles the Fajr prayer in that Fajr is tied to the rising of the sun while Maghrib is tied to the setting of the sun. Since there is no fear from the setting of the sun in Maghrib (the prayer beginning after the sun has already set), a third rakʿah has been added to it. Another pair of rakʿahs has not been added in order to avoid resemblance to Ẓuhr, ʿĀṣr and ʿIshāʾ. So it has become three units. Additionaly, its recitation is made short to avoid resemblance with Fajr. So the Fajr is lengthened with long recitation while Maghrib is lengthened by three units. The Witr prayer, which is the last prayer of the night, has also been made odd, just as Maghrib, which is the last prayer of the day from one angle, is odd in its units.

Then there is an additional wisdom here. The number three implies a deficiency. The day ends with Maghrib which is three units, because the servant feels his deficiency in worship as he is not able to worship his Lord as He deserves. Similarly, when he ends the night prayer with the Witr, he feels this deficiency, a matter which humbles the servant and makes him long to worship even more. And then God says: However, when you are secure (and you reach Makkah before the Hajj season begins), whoever takes advantage of this opportunity to perform `Umrah shall offer the sacrifice that he can afford. But if he cannot afford a sacrifice, he shall fast three days during the Hajj season and seven days after reaching home, that is, ten days in all. [2:196]

Here fasting has also been divided in an odd manner, while the total number is ten.

They asked: So what do you say concerning the ḥadīth of ʿĀʾishah that: “The prayer was enjoined two units at a time in travel and residence, and then the prayer while traveling remained like that, while the prayer as a resident was increased.”

I replied: The reason is the same as I have clarified. The mother of the believers ʿĀʾishah mentioned what she had witnessed, for the Prophet used to pray in Makkah two units of prayer out of fear, and the prayer of fear (khawf) is shortened from a number of angles that are not hidden. But when he migrated to Madīnah he performed the prayers in their complete form. And that is from the statement of God: Even if you are in danger, you must offer your Prayers anyhow on foot or on horseback. And when you have peace again, remember God in the manner He has taught you, which you did not know before. [2:239]

They asked: Your view regarding the supererogatory prayers that they are twenty in number is supported by the ḥadīth of Umm Ḥabībah, God be pleased with her, but not by the ḥadīth of Ibn ʿUmar, may God be pleased with them both.

I replied: The ḥadīth of Ibn ʿUmar necessitates a deficiency, and there is no problem with that, for the Prophet did not precede the command of God but always followed it. But I have another support for my view, which is the fact that since the Prophet would offer his supererogatory prayers at home, his wives had far more familiarity and precision regarding these than the men had.

They asked: You have made the Tarāwīḥ prayer twenty units, so what do you say about the ḥadīth of ʿĀʾishah, God be pleased with her, that: “The Messenger of God used not to pray more than eleven units whether in Ramadan or in any other month. He used to offer four units—and don’t ask me about their beauty or length— and then he would offer four units—and don’t ask me about their beauty and length—and then he would offer three.

I replied: The ḥadīth of ʿĀʾishah affirms what I have said, for the three is the Witr while the eight is the tahajjud. These eight plus the prayers mentioned in the ḥadīth of Umm Ḥabībah makes for twenty total units, which the Prophet never exceeded in Ramadan or outside of it.

And the Tarāwīḥ prayer is another sunnah specific to Ramadan, which is different from the usual prayers that the Prophet persisted upon, inside and outside of Ramadan. The ḥadīth of ʿĀʾishah does not deal with Tarāwīḥ prayer. Had she intended all prayers, then there would be no meaning to the statement of the Prophet: “He who stands in prayer throughout Ramadan, out of sincerity of Faith and in the hope of earning reward will have his past sins pardoned”; along with his similar statement: “He who fasts in Ramadan . . .” Just as this fasting is specific to Ramadan, so too this standing in prayer (qiyām) is specific to Ramadan. Had there been no prayer specific to Ramadan, he would not have said, “He who stands in prayer in Ramadan.”
The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, would increase good deeds in Ramadan, and this is what his Companions understood and practiced, following his footsteps, without innovating or inventing anything new in the religion.

They asked: Is it allowed to shorten the units to less than twenty?

I replied: There can be no talk of permissibility, as these are all recommended prayers to begin with, and the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, hated to cause hardship for his nation. So do not cause hardship on people, and invite them to pray what is easy for them.

They asked: What do you say about the people of Madīnah who exceeded twenty?

I replied: They did not consider this addition to be sunnah, but only did so in competition with the people of Makkah, who performed ṭawāf (circumambulation of the Kaʿbah) after every Tarāwīḥ pair. So what they persisted upon without considering it sunnah is not problematic, for it is allowed for a Muslim to perform as much extra worship as he or she desires, without considering it obligatory or sunnah.

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