The hall that we rented has experienced overflow for the taraweeh prayers (the late night prayers offered in Ramadan). We started to pray outside, but the neighbors complained and we were forced to rent the room adjacent to the one we pray in. Some sincere brothers and sisters mentioned that the prayers of the people who pray in the other room are not accepted, because the rows are broken and they are not able to see the Imam (leader of prayer). What is your opinion on this issue?
It is the opinion of the Malikis and Shaf`is, Ibn al-Qudama of the Hanbali school, al-Azhar, Dar al-Ifta and Shaykh Ali Goma that in the face of a legitimate need, the congregation is allowed to separate the rows if they can follow the Imam by hearing or seeing him or those behind him, or are able to follow him by using a sound system.
The Maliki opinion was noted by al-Qarafi al-Maliki in al-Dhakhira who wrote, while arguing the Maliki’s position, “The spouses of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) used to follow him in prayer from their apartments next to the Prophet’s ﷺ masjid.”1
In the same text he writes, “The family of Umar (radi allahu `anhu - may Allah be pleased with him) used to pray in their home, which was in front of the masjid, following the Imam.”
With regards to this issue, scholars have traditionally taken two opinions:
- The prayers are allowed, but disliked
- The prayers are invalid.
Addressing this issue, Imam Ibn al-Qudama (ra), a great Hanbali jurist, wrote: “If a pathway (where people walk) or a space between two ships separates the Imam from his followers, then there are two opinions about the prayer’s validity.”
After mentioning the first opinion, he mentioned his opinion, which is that it is permissible. This differed with the opinion of his own madhab (school of thought), the Hanbali: ”My opinion is that of the Maliki and the Shaf`i schools [that it is allowed] since there is no scholarly consensus (ijm`a) on its impermissibility. This is because the situation does not interfere with the congregation’s ability to follow the Imam; rather what effects the prayer’s validity is anything that prevents them from seeing or hearing him.”
Furthermore, the statement that “their prayers are not accepted because they cannot see the Imam, their rows are broken and they cannot see a row in front of them” is disputed since the Malikis hold that, as long as a person can hear the Imam, and they are in close proximity of the place of prayer, their prayers are accepted.
Qadi ‘Abdu al-Wahab, a classical Maliki mujtahid, in his Ishraf wrote, “If the distance of the road or sea does not prevent them from hearing the takbir (the words that accompany transition into another position of prayer), then their prayer is valid.”
Those who quote scholarly texts, claiming that the reason for the prayer being invalid is because people cannot see the Imam, are probably following the Hanafi or Hanbali schools. While this is a respected opinion, and they are surely free to follow it, they should not tell others that their prayers are invalid. As was noted above, this issue falls under a legitimate difference based on evidences and sound principles. Imam al-Shaf`i said about these issues, “No one is allowed to force another to follow his opinion by force.”
There is no Rebuking Issues whose Wisdom is Disputed
Here it is important to invoke an important principle related to scholarly difference: “Legitimate disagreement over the `ila (cause) or manat (outcome) related to the wisdom of an act, is allowed, and it is not allowed to reprimand the one who differs, if that difference is based on sound scholarship.”
This is the case here, since the Hanbalis and Hanafis hold that the row must be connected and, in some cases, the Imam must be seen; while the Malikis hold that what is obligatory is being able to hear the Imam and follow him properly, close to the proximity of the masjid.
I advise you to continue as you are since it is documented that the wives of the Prophet ﷺ, as well as the family of `Umar (ra) during his caliphate, would pray in buildings adjacent to the Masjid of the Prophet ﷺ and follow the Imam by listening to him. It is well known that the rows were not connected to the congregation and no one from the companions (ra) or their students censured them for this. An axiom states, “If an act of worship was preformed in the presence of the Companions (ra) and they did not censure it, it is permissible.”
Let me add that I have performed prayer with the scholars in Masjid al-Azhar, and we stood during our lessons and prayed in the rooms adjacent to the masjid, following the congregation, which was 500 ft. away and our rows were not connected.
I observed prayer like this with Dr. Usama Sayid al-Azhari, the muhadith of al-Azhar, and Dr. Ali Gomma, the current Mufti of Egypt. In addition, there were at least 15 major scholars with us as well as 10-15 major students of knowledge. It is not possible to imagine that this many people of knowledge and fiqh (jurisprudence) would have done this and said nothing, or not asked the major scholars if there was something wrong with the act.
I would also like to mention an important axiom in Islamic Law: ”When issues of legitimate differences arise, the one that aides in facilitating of the maqaasid (objectives of Shari`ah - Islamic Law) is given precedence.”
In this case, the number of benefits is such that the act, in my opinion, becomes commendable. This is because there is a legitimate need for this worship to happen since the other mosques are some distance from yours, and by limiting the prayers, this may cause people not to observe them.
There is an important axiom in Islamic law that states, ”If an act is disliked, if there is a legitimate need for its performance, it becomes permissible or recommended.”
This was noted by the scholars who took this opinion when they said, “The disliked nature of splitting the rows is in the absence of a true need (hajjah). In such cases, the ruling changes.”
Finally, I encourage your community to avoid fitna (tribulation) and making this an issue of dispute, especially when the great scholars of old differed about it. While this is a legitimate difference, scholars agree that it is not permissible to divide the community, destroy the ranks of the Muslims and create strife over this type of issue.
For more on this, see the fatwa (ruling) issued by Dar al-Ifta of Egypt, which I helped edit, here.
I’ll end by quoting a question that was sent to Imam Malik (ra). He was asked, “Is it allowed for a family to pray following the congregation of the masjid if their house is close to the mosque (meaning they can hear the Imam)?” His response, “Yes! As long as it is not done like this for the Friday Prayers.” Commenting on this Ibn Rushd (ra) wrote, “There is no difference about this in our madhab.”2
We ask Allah to bless you and your community in this special month and Allah knows best.