Q. Could you please explain what is obligatory and what is recommended or Sunnah in prayer. Is it permissible to recite surahs in prayer not observing their order in the Qur’an?
M. I. M. Azard, Abha
A. If we take a prayer from start to finish, we say that the iqamah, or the call to start the prayer is recommended when one is praying alone. The intention is obligatory, but the intention is not vocalized. It remains a matter of mind and thought. Reading the opening supplication is a Sunnah, while reading Al-Fatihah in every rakaah is obligatory. Reading additional verses or a surah of the Qur’an in the first two rakaahs is recommended, and it is recommended to recite them in the proper order as they occur in the Qur’an. Bowing, i.e. rukoo, rising after it, doing two prostrations, i.e. sujood, and a sitting in between in every rakaah are obligatory. What we say in each one of these positions is recommended, or Sunnah, as is the phrase, “Allahu Akbar” or “God is Supreme” which signals each such movement. Sitting down for tashahhud after the first two rakaahs is recommended or Sunnah, while it is obligatory after the final rakaah. The reading of the first half of tashahhud is obligatory, while the second half is recommended. Saying salam at the end is obligatory.
All this applies in every prayer and every rakaah. For an imam and a person praying alone to read the Qur’an as stated above is obligatory according to all schools of thought. When one is praying with a congregation, some schools of thought do not require him or her to read the Fatihah and a passage of the Qur’an in any part of his prayer. They consider that the recitation by the imam to be sufficient for all.
The reader asks several other questions about prayers and other subjects, which other readers will understand by reading the answers. First of all there are many movements and positions which people do in different ways in prayer.
These are all matters of detail, and they are recommended by scholars according to what they learnt from the Prophet’s companions who described prayers to them. Undoubtedly the Prophet used different movements in the same situation in order to indicate that there is no need to stick to one form every time, and to show that there is a range of what is acceptable in every part of the prayer. Thus, in tashahhud some people raise their finger and keep it raised, while others move it in circles, and others still raise it for a couple of seconds and lower it after that. All these are acceptable forms.
Surah 9 of the Qur’an, entitled At-Tawbah, does not start with the usual phrase of Bismillahi-Rahmani-Raheem, which means “in the name of God, the Merciful, the Beneficent.” That is due to the fact that the surah renounces all past treaties and agreements made with the idolaters, exposes the hypocrites and threaten both with severe punishment if they continued in their defiance of Islam. The subject matter does not fit with the opening phrase promising mercy and compassion. It is forbidden to read Bismillahi-Rahmani-Raheem at the beginning of this surah, because that means adding to the Qur’an something that is not part of it.
If one wears socks after having performed the ablution, or wudhu, he does not need to take them off for a fresh ablution. He merely needs to wipe the top of both socks with his wet hand. This is valid for any number of ablutions for one 24-hour day at a time.
If one is starting the Umrah one or more days after arriving in Jeddah, then his point of meeqat is at Jeddah.
Our reader describes a ritual at the end of religious gatherings, when the leader says loudly, “Al-Fatihah.” Then all the congregation recite Surah Al-Fatihah together with the last 3 surahs of the Qur’an. This ritual was not ever performed by the Prophet, nor did his companions do anything of the sort. Hence, it is an innovation which must not be followed. When a gathering was over, the Prophet used to say a short prayer, glorifying God and praising Him, declaring His oneness and praying for His forgiveness. In Arabic, this prayer reads as follows: Subhanak Allahumma wa bihamdik. Ashhadu an laa ilaha illa ant. Astaghfiruka wa atoobu ilaik.
To protect oneself or one’s child against envy, evil eye and the like, one is recommended to read the last two surahs of the Qur’an, namely, Al-Falaq and An-Nas. When one moves into a new home, whether rented or owned, it is good to offer voluntary prayer and to pray God to bless his new abode and give him happy days therein.
Controversy over historical events
Q. Why was Ali ibn Abu Talib not chosen as the Caliph immediately after the Prophet when he was the most suitable person among the Prophet’s companions? If you do not answer me this question, I will think that the Shia are more correct in their views than us.
A. Our reader states in his letter that he has asked several people on this but received no satisfactory answer. He also goes into a great length of describing the qualities of Ali which, in his view, qualifies him as the best to assume the leadership of the Muslim community after the Prophet.
The first thing I would like to say to this reader and others who dwell on such matters is that however much time we spend over past controversy, we cannot alter the facts of history. Nor can we truly find out the real intention behind an action or a statement done or said by any one who lived in an earlier generation. Yet if we make judgments on people’s characters on the basis of historical reports, God will ask us about these judgments and we expose ourselves to His punishment if our judgment is wrong. So what is the use of saying today who was better suited for this role or that role at any period of history?
The first Muslim community chose Abu Bakr to be the first Caliph after the Prophet. That choice was unanimous. Is it not enough for us to remember the Hadith: “My community cannot unanimously approve something wrong.” This means that since the Muslims in Madinah, who were the Prophet’s companions, unanimously chose Abu Bakr, then he was the right choice. But suppose he was not. Who are we to judge those companions of the Prophet and their actions? Besides, what purpose would it serve?
Having said that, I wish to add that all Sunni Muslims love Ali ibn Abu Talib dearly. How could a Muslim refrain from loving such a great servant of Islam, when he was also a member of the Prophet’s household and praised by the Prophet greatly? But to love him does not mean to engage into argument about whether he should have been this or that. Such matters cannot be influenced now by any argument. Hence, we do not engage in them.