Understanding the Different Opinions on Tarawih

Tarawih is a recommended prayer performed in Shahr Ramadan by a large majority of Muslims, but there are some differences of opinions on this prayer. We explore these using evidence from reliable narrations.

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Tarawih is a recommended prayer performed in Shahr Ramadan by a large majority of Muslims, but there are some differences of opinions on this prayer. We explore these using evidence from reliable narrations.

Tarawih is a non-obligatory prayer that is performed by a large majority of Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. It is typically done at night, after Isha prayer. The word “tarawih” comes from the Arabic word for “rest,” which reflects the fact that the individual can pause or take a break after every two rakah of the prayer.

Tarawih consists of reciting specific verses from the Quran, and it is typically done in a congregation. Many Muslims believe that performing tarawih is a way to earn extra rewards from Allah during Ramadan. In addition, it is seen as a way to deepen one’s connection to the Quran and to Islam as a whole. For many Muslims, tarawih is an important and cherished part of their Ramadan.

Tarawih is a recommended prayer and no Muslim argues against performing a recommended prayer, as they are an avenue to earn the pleasure of God with the Prophet Muhammad also having prayed many recommended prayers throughout his life. The difference of opinion on tarawih arises between Sunnis and Shias on the way in which it should be prayed with the former group being of the belief tarawih, in the way it is practised today is perfectly OK and the latter arguing that with tarawih being a recommended prayer, it cannot be performed in congregation and in the way it is today.

Within the Sunni school, there is also a difference of opinion on how many prayers should be performed – some people think eight rakah is the ideal number, while others believe that twenty rakah is more appropriate. However, that discussion is outside the scope of this article.

The sunni view on tarawih prayer

Putting the smaller differences of opinions aside (such as how many rakah tarawih should be), the overall stance of Sunni Muslims is tarawih can be performed alone at home or in the mosque as a congregation, with the latter method being recommended because it brings forth greater rewards.

Sunnis Muslims maintain the Prophet Muhammad prayed tarawih (or a form of recommended prayers, because the word tarawih was never uttered by the Prophet or the Holy Qur’an) during Shahr Ramadan and in a congregation, citing many pieces of evidence, one such narration coming from Sunan Abi Dawud that comes to use from his wife Aisha:

That the Prophet once offered (tarawih) prayer in the mosque and the people also prayed along with him. He then prayed on the following night, and the people gathered in large numbers. They gathered on the third night too, but the Messenger of Allah did not come out to them. When the morning came, he said: I witnessed what you did, and nothing prevented me from coming out to you except that I feared that this (prayer) might be prescribed to you. That was in Ramadan.”

The hadith shows the Prophet would pray recommended/tarawih prayers in the mosque and people would join him. The Prophet had no problem with this. The only reason the Prophet did not come to the mosque on the third night to pray wasn’t that he disapproved of tarawih/recommended prayers in a congregation but because he was concerned people might start assuming it’s an obligatory (wajib) prayer.

This indicates some form of tarawih was prayed in a congregation. As far as my research took me, there is no further evidence to show there were other instances of tarawih prayer in the Prophet’s lifetime nor in the lifetime of the first caliph Abu Bakr. Tarawih became mainstream (as we see it today) during the reign of the second caliph Umar ibn Khattab.

Nevertheless, recommended prayers in the holy month of Ramadan were highly emphasised as is indicated by the following hadith which is found in the two books of hadith considered the strongest by Sunni Muslims, al-Bukhari and Muslim, narrated by Abu Hurairah:

The Messenger of Allah said, “He who observes optional prayer (Tarawih prayers) throughout Ramadan, out of sincerity of Faith and in the hope of earning reward will have his past sins pardoned.”

the shia view on tarawih prayer

Shia Muslims don’t have an objection to recommended prayers in Shahr Ramadan and accept the above hadith about the rewards of doing optional prayers – they only maintain that recommended prayers cannot be done as a congregation and only wajib prayers are to be in the congregation.

The first claim they put forward is the Prophet never prayed tarawih because he never mentioned the word ‘tarawih’ nor is it mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. They say he did extra prayers (known as nawafil which literally means ‘extra’) during the month such as Salatul Layl but not tarawih in the way it is seen today. Their logic extends to state that because the Prophet never did it like that Muslims should not be doing it like that either.

Shia Muslims point people to a hadith also found in al-Bukhari and Muslim where the Prophet instructs people to perform all voluntary prayers at home on their own, except the wajib prayers:

“O people! perform your (voluntary) Salat (prayers) in your homes because the best Salat of a man is the one he performs at home, except the obligatory Salat.”

Still, this hadith doesn’t say don’t do recommended/tarawih prayers in the congregation. It just says to do it at home, meaning it’s perfectly OK to invite friends over at home and perform it together. The response given by the Shia to this is from another hadith in a book titled Ash-Shama’il Al-Muhammadiyah:

Abdu’llah ibn Sa’d said:

I asked Allah’s Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) about performing the ritual prayer in my home, and performing it in the mosque.” He said: “You may notice how near my home is to the mosque. I prefer praying at home over praying in the mosque, except in the case of a prescribed ritual prayer.”

The Prophet’s house was connected to the mosque i.e. he could open the back door of his house and he’d be in the mosque. Therefore when he says ‘I prefer praying at home over praying in the mosque, except in the cause of prescribed ritual prayer’ the implication is that only wajib prayers should be prayed at the mosque i.e. in congregation with ‘praying at home’ implying praying furada (on your own).

The final argument of Shia Muslims is that there is no evidence of the Prophet praying tarawih regularly and it was actually brought about by the second caliph Umar. Here’s how it came about according to Sahih Bukhari:
I went out one night to the mosque with ‘Umar b. al-Khattab and we saw the people in sections separate from one another, one man praying by himself, and another followed by a group; so ‘Umar said, “If I collected these people behind one reciter it would be better.” He then made up his mind and collected them with Ubayy b. Ka‘b as imam. Afterwards I went out with him another night when the people were following the prayer of their reciter, and ‘Umar said, “This is a good innovation, but what you miss through sleeping is more excellent than what you are getting up for, meaning at the end of the night, for the people were getting up during the early part of the night.”
Shia Muslims reject the notion of “good innovation” or “good bidah.” Bidah by its very essence (in Islamic terms) is an innovation against the religion i.e. doing an act of worship not confirmed and accepted in the Holy Qur’an or in reliable traditions. Therefore the phrase ‘good bidah’ is a logical impossibility.
The purpose of this article is not to convince anyone which way is the right way but to understand the root of the beliefs of each school so that we can appreciate and respect them (even if we don’t agree) without resulting in ridiculing and similar unIslamic behaviour.
And Allah (SWT) knows best!