Q. According to authentic Hadiths, the Prophet (peace be upon him) discontinued praying Taraweeh prayers for fear that it could become compulsory. It was never then offered in the Prophet’s Mosque in his lifetime, or during Abu Bakr’s reign. It was Umar who restarted it, and called it a bid’ah, which means “something added or invented.” He himself did not join that congregation. So, why should it be today prayed in congregation in mosques?
A. The Hadiths to which you refer are authentic. The Prophet (peace be upon him) offered the Taraweeh prayer in his mosque the first night when he was joined by one or two people, and on the following night he was joined by a fair-sized congregation. On the third night, he looked through his door and found the mosque full of people. Therefore, he did not come out. When asked why, he said that he did not wish that this prayer should become obligatory. This shows how thoughtful of his community the Prophet was. Even in matters of worship, he always wanted what was easier for them. If he were to offer this prayer in the mosque every night, throughout Ramadan, people would over the years elevate it to the obligatory or semi-obligatory status. Therefore, he decided to offer it at home to retain its status as voluntary night worship, which we can do at any time.
However, it is not true that it was never offered in congregation in the Prophet’s Mosque until Umar did what he did. In fact it continued to be offered in congregation, but without regular arrangements. What Umar did was to organize it in a proper way. One night in Ramadan he came into the mosque and found several groups of worshippers offering the Taraweeh prayer in several congregations. He disliked this, because it suggested division within the Muslim community. Therefore, he told them to form one congregation and appointed Ubayy ibn Kaab to lead the congregation. Ubayy was one of the best reciters of the Qur’an among the Prophet’s companions. Umar did not join because, as caliph, he led the obligatory prayers. Again he was keen not to give this prayer any impression of being obligatory. On the following night, he checked what was happening, and when he saw that there was one congregation, he made his comment that it was a fine bid’ah. He was not referring to the Taraweeh prayer itself, because the prayer was known to all and practiced by many. He was simply referring to the fact that it was offered in one congregation. So the addition is the organization of the prayer, not adding a new prayer.
Today, most people offer it in mosques in congregation. This is not obligatory. Anyone can offer it at home, with his family or friends, or alone. It is all acceptable. However, in congregation it earns a greater reward. Any prayer offered in congregation is rewarded at 27 times its normal reward when offered alone. In many countries, people prefer to have a long prayer, with the whole of the Qur’an recited in this prayer over the month of Ramadan. This is a great practice and long may it continue.