Islamic Perspectives


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Praying With and Behind Muslims of Different Sects

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(1983)


Some years ago in Pakistan a "Wahhabi"(1) was a little late for his maghreb (prayer offered just after sun sets) prayer. So he swiftly went to the nearest mosque he could find and joined the congregational prayer that was already in progress. It was thus far a beautiful scene: a man is busily engaged in the affairs of his daily life when time comes for prayer: he leaves aside whatever he was doing and hastens to join his fellow-Muslims in the remembrance of his Lord and Creator. But what took place afterwards was an incident of such ugliness that it should repulse any human being in whom something of the beautiful nature with which God originally created man has survived.

It so happened that the mosque in which our Wahhabi friend went to pray belonged to the "Bralevis"(2), or rather we should say, was under Bralevi occupation, since mosques do not really belong to any particular group or individual but to God and all Muslims. In any case, when in the first two raka'as (units) of the maghreb prayer the imam recited Surah al-fatihah the Wahhabi said aloud, as Wahhabis are wont to say, "Amin", meaning that may God accept the prayer for guidance and salvation contained in the blessed Surah. This loud utterance of "Amin" was enough to greatly disturb the other worshippers in the mosque. As soon as the prayer ended, one of them shouted: "Who was this dog?" When the unfortunate stranger had been identified, a crowd encircled him and after a variety of insults, threw him out of the mosque. But the worshippers' madness did not stop at this. When the unwelcome visitor was gone, they washed the mosque as one would wash a mosque after a dog had actually passed through it.

For most Muslims it is an unpleasant and sad experience to read about this type of incident. But these incidents represent a part of the reality about our Muslim societies and communities. We must not close our eyes to that reality, however ugly it may be. We must face it in order to change it.

In some Muslim countries sectarian differences, strictly prohibited by the Holy Qur`an, have become so deep and absolute over the past centuries that even those ulama (Muslim jurists) who rise above those differences or deal with them in an enlightened, Islamic, way feel helpless against them. They tend to accept the situation and live with it.

But here in North America we have a unique opportunity to change the situation. Most Muslim communities here are quite young, being no more than a few decades old.(3) We can, if we so choose, organize our communal and religious life on right lines, so that we and our children will not fall into the type of sectarian darkness into which some of our fellow-Muslims in Muslim countries have fallen, so that in ten, twenty or one hundred years from now we or our children will not be washing mosques simply because a member of another Muslim sect has passed through them.

Unfortunately, we seem to be making no conscious effort to make use of this opportunity. Rather, a recent event in a local mosque shows that we are slowly following the footsteps of our sectarian-minded forefathers.

A couple of months ago about a dozen brothers gathered in one of the local mosques. It was time for prayer. One of the brothers was asked to act as the imam. He moved forward and led the prayer. The imam happened to be a shi'a but the brothers praying behind him did not know about it until during the prayer some of them noticed that the imam stood in prayer with his hands down as shi'a brothers normally do. After the prayer was completed one of the brothers bluntly asked the imam whether he was a shi'a, to which he replied that he was. This started a discussion among the sunni brothers with most of them saying that their prayer was null and void. The imam himself went into a corner of the mosque and started to read the Holy Qur`an. The discussion went on for a while and eventually it was decided that the Sunnis should repeat their prayer behind a sunni imam, which is what was done.(4)

There are very many Sunni brothers and sisters who feel this way about praying behind Shi'as and vice versa. We ask all these brothers and sisters whether this attitude of theirs is based on the teachings of Allah and His messenger or whether they are following principles that their own minds have invented? If they answer this question truthfully, they will have to admit that they are following the inventions of their own minds, for Allah and His messenger have taught nothing that condones this behavior.

The Holy Qur`an does not say anything explicit on the subject of imamat (leading of prayer) in prayers but it teaches us that each person is directly and individually responsible before God: there are no intermediaries that between God and man. Consequently, in Islam the imam does not act as a mediator for those praying behind him as a priest does in some other religions. Rather, each Muslim stands on his own in his prayers. The acceptance or non-acceptance of his prayers depends solely on his own faith, taqwa (Fearful God-consciousness) and presence of mind and heart during the prayers. The function of the imam is only to coordinate the movements in the prayers.

Hadith confirms the above view of the imam and gives some more detailed guidance. For example, it teaches us:

1) Mistakes committed by the imam do not necessarily affect the prayers of those praying behind him. Thus, in one tradition in Bukhari the Prophet is reported to have said:

"They lead you in prayer, and if they do it properly you will reap the reward, but if they make mistakes you will reap a reward and they will be held responsible."

2) Muslims should, of course, choose an imam of good character and the community should have at its disposal means to remove an imam if it is not pleased with him. But if in some situations a Muslim finds a person whom he thinks to be impious leading the prayer he should not refuse to pray behind him. In one hadith, the Prophet is reported to have said:

"Prayer is a necessary duty for you behind any Muslim, pious or impious, even if he commits heinous sins." (Abu Dawud)

3) While it is the duty of a Muslim not to refuse to pray behind any other Muslim, it is at the same time a duty of the imam that he should withdraw from his position of imamat as soon as he realizes that a majority of the people who pray behind him do not wish him to be their imam. In a tradition related by Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud and Ibn Majah, the Prophet has said that there are three persons whose prayers are not raised a span above their heads (i.e. are not accepted). One of these three persons is an imam who continues leading the prayers even though he knows that a majority of people who pray behind him do not wish him to lead them in prayers.

4) The main qualification of an imam is that he should be well-versed in the Holy Qur`an, that is, he should have committed enough of the Holy Qur`an to memory and should know how to recite it properly. A tradition reports the Prophet as saying:

"Most worthy to act as imam is the one who is most versed in the Qur`an" (Muslim)

That is why, we find instances in the early days of the Companions when even a boy of six or seven could lead grown-ups in prayer if no older persons sufficiently well-versed in the Qur`an were to be found. (Bukhari)

It is clear from the above teaching from the Holy Qur`an and Hadith that any Muslim with sufficient knowledge of the Qur`an can lead prayers and that we should not refuse to pray behind any Muslim.

Now throughout the centuries Sunnis and Shi'as have recognized each other as Muslims. Ulama of each sect may have found some extreme form of beliefs held by some members of the other sect as objectionable or even blasphemous but never have they declared all members of the other sect as non-Muslim. Never have Sunni ulama said that all Shi'as are kafirs(5) (non-believer, rejecter of faith) and never have Shi'a ulama declared that all Sunnis are non-believers. Consequently, in the light of the above teaching from the Holy Qur`an and Hadith it is not right for us to refuse to pray behind a brother simply because he is a Sunni or a Shi'a.

Some Sunnis, while willing to pray behind imams belonging to Sunni sects different from their own, are nevertheless reluctant to pray behind a Shi'a imam. But we cannot be selective in applying Islamic principles: Shi'as are Muslims and if prayer behind any Muslim is our duty, as one hadith teaches us, then we cannot refuse to pray behind Shi'as just because they are Shi'as.

Slight differences in modes of prayer that exist between Shi'as and Sunnis (and also within Shi'a and Sunni groupings themselves) should not be made the basis for refusing to pray behind each other. The fact is that almost all, if not all, Muslim groups pray according to the traditions of the Prophet. Their different modes of prayer all contain the elements of the prayer fixed in the Holy Qur`an and Hadith: qayam, recitation of the Qur`an, bowing, prostrating, praises of God and declaration of His unity, blessings of the Prophet (durud). They differ only in regard to matters that Allah and His messenger have not fixed but in which the Prophet himself followed different ways, e.g. in regard to the question of what exactly to say in different positions of the prayer, whether to raise one's hands at every change of position (rafa' yadayn) etc. It is not at all necessary to stick to one fixed method of prayer throughout one's life, since the Prophet himself did not rigidly follow a single fixed method. In praying behind an imam who follows a method different from that which we have been taught by our parents, we can either follow our usual method or follow the imam's way.


Notes

(1)A Muslim who follows the interpretation of Islam as given by Shaikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792)

(2)Muslims who follow the interpretation of Islam as given by Mawlawi Ahmad Reza Khan of Brailly

(3)For example, in 1931 there were only about 650 Muslims in Canada. This means that almost all the 200,000 Muslims now living in Canada came here in the last fifty years or less.

(4)After the preparation of this article, we learnt that the brothers who repeated an asr (mid-afternoon) prayer after finding out that the imam who led the prayer was a shi'a later talked to an 'alim (Muslim scholar) and discovered that they were wrong. They then apologized to the shi'a brother. God will certainly bless these brothers for their sincerity and readiness to bow to Islamic principle. However, the point made in this article remains relevant, since there are still many Sunni and Shi'a brothers and sisters in our community who hold wrong notions about praying with and behind Muslims of other sects.

(5)Shi'as who use insulting or obscene language for the first three rightly guided caliphs commit a grievous sin but that doesn't make then kafirs.

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