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SALATUL TARAWEEH – EIGHT OR TWENTY,
DIVISIVE OR UNIFYING
In every religion, there are differences based on sectarian doctrines. Because of the divisive
nature of sectarian doctrines and the crucial importance of unity among Muslims, the King of Saudi
Arabia invited eight Muslim sects to a dialogue at a summit conference on August 14, 2012. The
President of Iran attended this conference. The different sects invited were “Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’I,
Hanbali (i.e. the four Sunni schools) and the Shiite al-Jaafari, al-Zaidi, al-Abazi and al-Zahiri sects, which
exist in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Yemen and Iraq.” It was a “royal” attempt to ease the
growing tension between Sunni and Shiite Muslims whose influence and power appear to be growing.
Sectarian doctrines are so ingrained in the practices of Muslims that the Ulama over the centuries have
avoided changes for fear of the terrible resulting consequences.
Where the Ulama have feared to tread, the least qualified unwittingly expose their ignorance and
base desires. They condemn as blind following (taqlid) adherence to a school of thought (Madh-hab) of
any of the four Imams: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, Hambali. They advocate adherence to Quran and sunnah,
but being bereft of knowledge they are blind to the dangers and chaos. They have been labeled Ghair
Muqallid (non-conformist). Non-adherence to a Madh-hab cannot be taken by unqualified Muslims, who
are ignorant of the requirements to deduce a ruling using the Quran and sunnah.
The Ghair Muqallid at times are pragmatic. If Muslims become pragmatic, the situation will
definitely become chaotic since practices will be a matter of convenience. Such an act requires scholarly
knowledge of the highest level. In order to see the divisive nature of sectarian doctrines, let us examine
the performance of Salatul Taraweeh.
Salatul Taraweeeh is a special prayer offered in the Month of Ramadan only. In all the major
collections of hadith, there are references to the performance of Salaah by the Prophet (S) during
Ramadan. The interpretations of these ahadith have caused the Sunni Muslims to be divided into two
groups. One group prays twenty rakaat and the other prays eight. Who is right and who is wrong? This
question has been submitted to the most qualified Muslim theologians (Ulama), and each has given his
opinions and findings based on his interpretations of the ahadith, prejudice, and school of thought (Madhhab).
Origin of Taraweeh
This is how it began. One night in Ramadan in Madinah, the people saw the Prophet (S) praying
behind a wall and decided to pray behind him. The news spread, and the following night as the Prophet
(S) stood for Salaah, the people gathered behind him. He might have led his companions in this Salaah
twice or thrice. The next night, his companions waited for him, but he did not come out for the prayer.
Upon inquiry, he said “I knew you were waiting for me, but I did not come out to lead Salaat Al-
Taraweeh last night because I was afraid it might become an obligation (Fard) on the Ummah which they
might find difficult to fulfill.” (Bukhari, h872; Muslim, h1271; Abu Dawood, h1166)
Salatul Taraweeh is classified as sunnah; it is not fard (obligatory). This prayer can be offered in
congregation or individually at home. It is the practice of Muslims to attend the Masjid for this prayer.
With regard to the performance of eight or twenty, the Alims, Muftis, Shaykhs and Moulanas molded
their words to suit their immovable positions, that is, those who support eight or twenty will skillfully
steer the argument in favor of eight or twenty. Muslims accept these arguments, which reinforce their
position of being right and the other group wrong.
Umar ibn AlKahattab ®
After the death of the Prophet (S) and during the Khilafat of Abu Bakr ®, the Muslims after
Salatul Esha on their own volition and using their judgment offered prayers (number of rakaats) as
isolated groups in the Masjid. Umar ibn Al-Khattab ® having observed this during his khilafat (14 AH)
“Now that we do not have the fear that Salaat Al-Taraweeh will become Fard on us, we can start
performing it in congregation.” He gathered the people into one congregation and appointed Ubaiy Ibn
Ka’ab ® as the Imam. This became Salaat Al-Taraweeh. However, the debatable point is how many
rakaats Ubaiy ibn Kaab ® prayed? Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafii, and Imaam Hanbal approved the
offering of twenty rakaats for Salatul Taraweeh while Imam Malik extended it to 36.
Taraweeh or Tahajjud
Muslims who advocate eight rakaats cite as authority the hadith narrated by Aa’ishah ® who said, “He
did not pray more than eleven rak’ahs in Ramadaan or at other times. He would pray four, and do not ask
how beautiful and long they were, then he would pray four, and do not ask how beautiful and long they
were, then he would pray three.” Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 1909; Muslim, 738. The supporters of twenty
reject this hadith as being conclusive. They skillfully dissected this hadith to prove that it really refers to
the Tahajjud prayers since Imam Bukhari recorded it under the section of Tahajjud prayer. An important
point to note is Imam Bukhari also recorded it under Taraweeh prayers.
Aisha ® was living in Madinah when Umar organized the Taraweeh prayers. There is no record
that she, Utham, Ali, nor any of the renowned Sahab ® raised any objections. Those who prayed behind
the Prophet (S) were part of the congregation, and the practice became an institution. Today in Makkah
and Madinah, the Muslims pray twenty rakaats for Salatul Taraweeh, and this has been the practice for
the past 1400 years. In the subcontinent (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan) and wherever the
Muslims of this area have emigrated, they pray twenty.
The Muslims from Arab countries, e.g., Masjid Musab, Masjid Daud, Darul Dawah, Masjid Iman,
pray eight. In a Masjid where a hafiz leads, the practice is to complete the recitation of the Quran by the
th Ramadan. In some Masjids the Huffaz are from overseas, e.g., Masjid Ansar, Foch Ave. At Masjid
Musab, students of Al Noor School, Brooklyn, who have memorized the Quran, lead the Taraweeh
prayers. This raises the point of the responsibility of the Madrasah to produce students who will lead the
To condemn those who pray twenty or to deem it bidah has implications. It is like saying “the
foremost Imams of … Ahl-al-Sunnah wa'l-Jama'ah have been committing a gross innovation (Allah
forbid)…that the venerable Sahaba kiram (RA), the four great Mujtahid Imams (RH), as well as the
foremost scholars of Hadith and Fiqh of the last 1400 years have 'innovated' the practice of 20 Rak'ahs of
Position of Shia
The Shia have added another dimension to the conflict. While the Sunni are arguing with the
eight deeming twenty as bidah, the Shia declare Taraweeh as bidah. According to Shiah’s sources,
Taraweeh prayer did not exist during the time of the Prophet (S) or the Khilafat of Abu Bakr ®. It is an
innovation introduced by Umar ibn Khattab ®. Sayyid Murtaza (r.a.) declares: “As far as the
congregation of the Taraweeh prayers is concerned, it is without doubt an innovation.” The Shia declare
that Taraweeh prayers of the Sunni is really Tahajjud because of the timing and number of Rakaats. Sunni
Ulama has used this hadith to support the performance of twenty rakaats.
The intentions of the debaters of eight and twenty are important. Our prayer is for Allah not for
any Imam, self-proclaimed reformers, sect, or traditionalists! In determining whether it is eight or twenty,
the jurists indulge in the technicalities of logic and the science of Fiqh to arrive at their conclusions. The
conclusion from all evidence available is that no determination can be made of the number of rakaats.
The praying of eight and twenty rakaats has been established as a practice. To impose upon either
group to change will have conflicts, divisions, and even separation. Let those who pray eight or twenty
continue to do as they wish, for there is no “holier than thou position” for eight or twenty. It must always
be foremost in our mind that the Prophet(S) offered the prayer with an unspecified number of Rakaats.
However, there is unanimity that the clear instruction is to offer the prayer during the month of Ramadan.
Let me end this article with a story. The eight and twenty groups reached a dead end. Eventually
they presented their case to a mediator. Having listened to two disagreeable groups, Shaykh Abdallah, the
mediator, began to lose his patience. He ordered everyone out of the Masjid and locked the doors. They
became very angry. They began to shout that it was haram to shut the Masjid.
He said, “Aren’t you engaging in haraam behavior every Ramadan? Why are you fighting in the
Masjid? Taraweeh is sunnah. Peace and unity are more important and FARD upon you. The best thing to
do is to shut the Masjid. Let us all go home and pray our eight or twenty. You can reopen the Masjid for
Tarweeh when you have reached an agreement.”