The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Joining Feet to Straighten Prayer-Rows: Is it a Sunnah?

taraweeh_universality1Q. As part of straightening the rows for congregational prayer (salat al-jama‘ah), is it required or recommended that each person join their feet with those standing either side of them?

A. Two issues need addressing here. Firstly, the importance of straightening the rows and the care and attention our Prophet ﷺ gave to it. Secondly, the manner in which prayer-rows are to be straightened.

I

As for those hadiths which insist prayer-rows must be straightened, the following is a representative selection:

1. Anas relates; the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Straighten your rows and keep close together, for indeed I see you from behind my back.’1

2. Abu Mas‘ud al-Ansari related that the Prophet ﷺ would touch our shoulders at the prayer, saying: ‘Straighten [your rows] and do not differ, lest your hearts differ.’2

3. Abu Umamah relates the Prophet ﷺ saying: ‘Straighten your rows, stand shoulder to shoulder, be soft upon your brother and fill the gaps, for the devil enters through the gaps like the small lambs.’3

4. Ibn ‘Abbas relates; the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘The best of you are those whose shoulders are the gentlest in the prayer.’4

5. Anas also relates that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Stand close together in your rows, keep them near each other and stand neck to neck. By Him in whose hand is my life, I see the devil entering between the gaps as do the small lambs.’5

6. Al-Nu‘man b. Bashir related that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Straighten your rows. For by Allah, if you do not straighten your rows, Allah will separate your hearts.’6

The above hadiths demonstrate that straightening the rows for prayer, and filling the gaps between people standing in prayer, is highly emphasised; a few jurists holding it to be obligatory.7 We further see that being neglectful about doing so could result in hearts being at odds with one another (as per the 2nd and 6th hadith): the shari’ah of Islam loathing even the slightest cause of disunity.

II

As for how the rows must be aligned and straightened, the following two companion-reports seem to lie at the heart of the contention:

Firstly, having related the 1st hadith, Anas, may Allah be pleased with him, went on to say: ‘I saw each one of us join shoulder to shoulder and ankle bone to ankle bone with that of his companion.’8

Secondly, at the end of the 6th hadith, al-Nu‘man b. Bashir, may Allah be pleased with him, remarked: ‘I saw each man join shoulder to shoulder with that of his companion, knee to knee with that of his companion, and ankle bone to ankle bone with that of his [companion].’9

In recent decades, and based upon these two companion-reports, some now hold that one is to literally [physically] join shoulders and feet with the persons praying either side of them. This they believe is the Sunnah that is to be maintained throughout the entire length of time one is standing in the prayer. At first glance, the opinion seems to be quite validated. But shine a little light on this claim and some quirky problems begin to show themselves.

III

Now before spotlighting some of these anomalies, it’s worth getting a grip on what’s at stake here. For this isn’t intended to be a bit of a fiqhi argy-bargy for its own sake. Not at all! Instead, the fact of the matter is that the above claim (that one is required to literally join shoulders and feet) is something of a point of dogma with many of its advocates. To them, this act isn’t only prescribed by the shari‘ah; more than that, it is: ‘an abandoned Sunnah that must be revived.’10 Who has it been abandoned by? Well, apparently not just by the ordinary laymen; those unschooled in the finer points of fiqh. But by the vast majority of the fuqaha and ‘ulema too! And just how long has this alleged Sunnah been abandoned? Apparently for more than a thousand years; in other words, for the majority of Islam’s fourteen hundred year history.

That’s not all: feeling more than a little privileged at being told of a sunnah neglected for the past millennium, the advocates are enjoined ‘to call the people to it, until they unify upon it’.11 Such is the spirit of dogma and missionary zeal which has been bred, that those who differ with this stance – even if they be from the ranks of the qualified scholars – can find themselves accused of ‘denigrating and belittling the status of the Sunnah.12 Lamentably, such can be the stakes.

IV

So what are these anomalies? And how should the above two companion-reports be understood? As it happens, they’re quite straightforward to grasp. They do not require a trained juristic mind.

For instance, the norm among such practitioners is that they will get their shoulders and feet to literally touch the shoulder and foot of those standing either side of them in the prayer row. Yet why limit it to shoulders and feet; to just these two body parts? Where’s the proof? For doesn’t one of the reports mention knees as well?

To stand in the prayer, with not only shoulders and sides of the feet touching those on either side, but the sides of the knees too, makes for a highly awkward and difficult standing. For many, getting the knees to physically touch those praying on either side requires having to stand bandy-legged: standing with one’s legs curved outwards such that one’s knees are pushed wider apart and closer to one’s neighbours’. Is this gawky and ungraceful posture really what’s called for?

Furthermore, the apparent wordings of the reports do not actually mention feet, but rather anklebones (al-kabayn). Again, what’s the proof for not taking this literally? It could well be a case of the fiqh maxim: itlaq al-ba‘d wa iradat al-kul – ‘mentioning the part, but intending the whole.’ But what’s the proof for this being the case?

And if, as some die hards attempt to do, one insists on physically joining anklebone to anklebone, many people will not only be standing bandy-legged, but they’d also have to turn their feet outwards slightly in order for their anklebone to be physically joined to that of their companion. Such a standing goes from being awkward and unseemly, to being a tad gruelling and insufferable. As for how one can maintain the prescribed sakinah and adab – the tranquility, composure and dignified courtesy – in the prayer, in such a standing, it does beggar belief.

And what about the Prophet’s directive ﷺ to align the necks (as per the 5th hadith)? Should they be touching too? Obviously not!

Given the quirks and conundrums a literal reading of these hadith and reports throw up, a better reading of the reports could be what one contemporary scholar wrote: ‘All this – to straighten [the rows]; keep them aligned; and fill in the gaps – doesn’t mean that [the bodily parts] must physically touch. For getting necks to touch is impossible. Keeping shoulders touching throughout the entire standing is clearly taxing. Getting knees to touch is impossible. And ankles touching is, to an extent, unattainable … It is therefore evident that being close is from a single perspective, and it is in four things: necks, shoulders, knees and ankles. What is intended is to urge the establishment of the rows, keep them aligned and consolidate them: without any crookedness or gaps. By this, the aim of the Lawgiver is attained.’13

The above reading is more in keeping with what earlier, classical jurists have stated on the matter – as will follow shortly.

V

If, for a moment, we put aside talk of how right or not the ‘physical-touching’ reading is, yet even the application of it is often so very wrong. For what this opinion devolves down to a lot of the time is: fidgeting in the prayer so as to get feet touching; wedging one’s foot tightly against another’s (its detractors call it ‘foot-jamming’); and standing with feet so far apart that it causes huge gaps between peoples’ shoulders. Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymin once remarked:

‘From the extremism in this issue is what is done by some people, in that one of them will join his ankle with that of his companion, but his feet will be so wide apart that there will be a gap between his shoulder and that of his neighbour’s; thus opposing the Sunnah by doing so. Rather the aim is that shoulders and ankles should be aligned with one another.’14

Blinded by their uncritical convictions, such people fail to see how they contradict the Sunnah of filling the gaps, due to standing with feet so wide apart that it causes large gaps between people’s shoulders.

They fail to see how they breach the duty of limbs being reverent, tranquil and still; or hearts being attentive, mindful and focused (collectively called khushu‘), in the prayer, because of constantly fidgeting and foot-jamming.

And they fail to see how they violate the prescribed gentleness towards those praying next to them (as per the 4th hadith), because of an extreme reading, confusing means with ends, and an unwarranted rigidness in religious practice.

VI

The bulk of jurists down the ages have understood the reports which mention knees and ankles are to be joined, to mean that they could be utilised to help align the rows; not that they should physically touch. Explaining al-Bukhari’s words in his Sahih al-Bukhari: ‘Chapter: Joining Shoulder to Shoulder and Foot to Foot in the Prayer-Row’, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani stated: ‘What is meant by this is to exaggerate [the importance of] straightening the rows and filling the gaps (al-mubalaghah fi ta‘dil al-saff wa saddi khalalihi).’15

After citing the above statement of Ibn Hajr, Shaykh Anwar Shah al-Kashmiri noted: ‘It is [also] the intended meaning in the view of the jurists from the Four Schools (al-fuqaha al-arba‘ah).’16

Al-Shawkani explains the hadith (no.3) which orders to ‘stand shoulder to shoulder’ to mean: ‘Aligning the body parts with one another so that the shoulders of each person praying are arranged and in line with the shoulders of others. In this way, shoulders and necks will be aligned.’17

VII

To conclude: One hadith states that: ‘Allah’s Messenger ﷺ would straighten our rows as though he were straightening the shaft of an arrow, until he saw that we had learnt it. One day he came out and was about to commence the prayer, when he noticed a man whose chest was protruding from the row. He said: “O slaves of Allah! Straighten your rows, or else Allah may cause dissension among you.”’18

As to the expression: ‘he would straighten our rows as though he were straightening the shaft of an arrow’, Imam al-Nawawi explains that an arrow’s shaft (qidah) ‘is the long, wooden part of an arrow that is pared and trimmed [until it is as straight as can be] … Meaning that he paid great attention to making the rows straight, as if he were sparing no effort to straighten an arrow and keep it uncurved as possible.’19

This alone should help us realise just how punctilious we each should be to keep the prayer lines straight and to fill in the gaps. There’s an even greater responsibility upon the person who leads the prayer to ensure that this happens. The Sunnah demands we show no slackness in this, as part of our reverent quest to be present with Allah in the actual prayer.

As for how the prayer-rows are to be formed and straightened, we’ve seen that there is no requirement to join feet or knees with those praying on either side, such that they physically touch. Ironically, insisting upon only this view and refusing to accept the validity of any other scholarly view, creates the very schism between Muslims that the hadiths wish us to avoid. Classical jurists chose not to follow such a literal reading of the reports, not out of neglect on their part (as some would have us believe); but out of a keen knowledge of the intent of the reports. Their collective juristic wisdom also came down in favour of worshippers each standing with their feet roughly the width of four fingers apart, or even a handspan, presumably to reflect a sense of humility of posture.20 In this way, each person aligns their shoulders with those on either side of them and ensures that gaps are gently filled. The worshippers may then focus on the Great Encounter that lies immediately ahead of them: Allahu akbar!

And Allah knows best.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.719.

2. Muslim, no.432.

3. Ahmad, Musnad, no.21760. It was confirmed as authentic (sahih) in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.1840.

4. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.672. The hadith, with its collective support, is sahih – as per al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), no.2533.

5. Abu Dawud, no.667; al-Nasa’i, no.814, with a sahih chain. See: al-Nawawi, al-Majmu‘ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 2000), 4:227; and Albani, Sahih Sunan Abi Dawud (Kuwait: Dar Ghiras, 2002), no.673; al-Arna’ut, Sunan Abi Dawud (Damascus: Dar al-Risalah al-‘Alamiyyah, 2009), 2:9.

6. Abu Dawud, no.662 and its chain is sahih. Cf. Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.32.

7. Like al-Bukhari, Ibn Hazm and al-Shawkani. See: al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1989), 2:266; al-Shawkani, Nayl al-Awtar (Dar al-Mustaqbal, 2005), 3:211.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.719. Shaykh al-Albani wrote: ‘This addition also occurs in the report of al-Mukhallis and Ibn Abi Shaybah [1/351] with the following wording: Anas said, “I saw each of us joining our shoulders with those of our companions and our feet with those of our companions. If you were to do this today, a person would flee [from you] like a restless mule.” And its chain is also authentic, according to the conditions of the two Shaykhs.’ Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah, 1:1:71; no.31.

9. Abu Dawud, no.662.

10. Al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah, 1:1:70; no.31.

11. ibid., 1:1:73; no.32

12. ibid., 1:1:73.

13. Bakr Abu Zayd, La Jadid fi Ahkam al-Salah (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1998), 14.

14. Majmu‘ Fatawa wa Rasa’il (Riyadh: Dar al-Watn, 1992), 13:52; no.428.

15. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2012), 2:561.

16. Fayd al-Bari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2005), 2:302.

17. Nayl al-Awtar (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2006), 6:113.

18. Al-Bukhari, no.717; Muslim, no.436.

19. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 4:131.

20. See: al-Kashmiri, Fayd al-Bari, 2:302.

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23 thoughts on “Joining Feet to Straighten Prayer-Rows: Is it a Sunnah?

  1. Asalaamu Alaykum Shaykh,

    JazakAllahu khairan for this post. A concise yet comprehensive elucidation. However, it is a real shame that this topic still needs to be addressed and revived, even though it has been done to death…and then some.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah.

      While I agree this topic has been written about in plentiful measure, Ive been wanting to put something in writing for the past eighteen years. So I finally did.

      How much the topic still needs to be addressed is a bit subjective. In many communities the issue isn’t that explosive or divisive any more. People have opted for one position or the other without a great deal of fuss, schism or bad blood.

      Unfortunately, there are a few places and individuals where it’s still seen as a defining mark of who’s truly orthodox and who’s not. And that certainly is a real shame. But hopefully, such infantile and hizbi attitudes are rapidly dwindling.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. adammeah on said:

    Alhamdulillah a very comprehensive article written indeed and hadiths explained. I have a sneaky feeling a few may still be blinded by their zealousness. Inshallah this Article will help redirect peoples thinking to a more open minded view of classical islam. I do however wonder how on earth this practice even came about surely any respectable scholar would have spotted
    this.

    Like

    • Thank you for your comment adammeah. I hope the article achieves some of the aims you’ve mentioned. As for how a tiny handful of scholars arrived at this view … well, however they did, we need to be respectful of genuine scholarship and remember that even the best steeds can stumble.

      Like

  3. JazakAllah! Sounds like another simple command convoluted by the literalists. Common sense and moderation: if we all applied a little of this to our daily lives, perhaps we could be closer to the path set by our Liegelord.

    Like

  4. Great article. May it be widely accepted and understood. Touching of the feet appears to have become a pillar of the prayer to some.

    Like

  5. There are a few (sadly) controversial issues which are oft-discussed, the topic of this article included. However, I always find your articles to be the best and first resources I send to people when they ask about such issues. They always summarize the topic excellently. Barak Allahu fikum.

    Imran Ahmed

    Like

  6. So refreshing to read analysis that scratches well below the surface. Jzk!

    Like

  7. Atif Jung on said:

    You’d think, by looking at some people pray, they are trying to span the Grand Canyon, so wide apart are their feet. I’ll let you into a little secret, I used to be one of those people, ssh!

    Like

    • Lol.

      If secrets are to be revealed, from the late-eighties to the mid-nighties, I too was an advocate of touching shoulders and feet (and with a few people, sides of the knees). I was never a Grand-Canyoner though. I had my limits.

      Like

  8. Nadeem on said:

    MashAllah tabarakAllah a another very enlightening read. My only concern is that we try and avoid the tension depending on the masjid, I still touch my feet to my neighbours and not touch the feet of my neighbours when appropriate.

    I still follow the opinion of touching shoulder to shoulder and feet to feet. But I will be not entertain a dispute/ discussion regarding this. dispute should be more with ourselves in making sure our connection is strong with our Rabb in Salah.
    May AllahSWT give Us and me hidaya, protect Us and me. Amin

    Like

    • also lets not fall into the danger of looking down or feeling negativity towards a brother for indeed there will be shaitan inspiring divisions.

      Like

    • May Allah reward you abundantly for trying to keep the peace between Muslims, and for your tolerance too.

      I think the crux of the issue here is in this famous maxim: “Do not adopt an opinion if you don’t have an Imam to precede you.” And it is felt by most scholars, that this view of physically touching feet and knees does not have a precedence in a clear-cut fatwa, ruling or stipulation from one of the early fuqaha.

      And Allah knows best.

      Like

  9. Hamayoun on said:

    Salam

    Maybe a bit of a rant here. Many, many years ago, because of the people I took my deen from, I was convinced that this was a fundamental issue, and that scholars who did not insist on it, or who differed, were “problematic”. The bigger issue is how many of these kinds of items there were where I felt the same way, thinking that just because the minhaj I followed said this, every other opinion was WRONG. Over the years, I have learnt how WRONG I was. Among some of these items which I know now feel come under the same category – some of which you have spoken about in other posts – are:

    * Can’t follow a madhab
    * Beard must be of a certain length
    * Music is haram
    * All clothes must be above the ankles
    * Milaad is a completely unacceptable bidah
    * Reciting the Quran for deceased is a completely unacceptable bidah
    * That one cannot eat from food provided by someone earning haram earnings
    * That parents can be rebelled against if they prevent you from being involved in Islamic activites
    * That gold in a circular form is haram, even for women
    * That reading 20 taraweeh was sinful

    Over the years, as I have matured and tried to dig deeper outside the minhaj I was exposed to, I have realized that for all these matters there are different, authentic opinions from real scholars. I kind of feel pretty upset that I allowed myself to discard all other opinions based on the sliver of knowledge I had and which made sense to me.

    Ok, rant over!

    Like

    • Salams br Hamayoun.

      I’m certain many people can relate to what you’ve written, to a larger or lesser extent; including myself. The problem, in many of the above listed cases, was a lack tolerance and smug arrogance in areas of legitimate differing. In a few of the above issues, it was a matter of following rulings that actually opposed Sunni orthodoxy. In both situations it was, as the hadith states, a case of dal mudill – “misguided and misguiding”.

      It is Allah’s sheer grace that He guides a person from such a tainted attitude and path, to a more normative one. And for that we must give thanks.

      And while, after tawbah, we hope Allah’s mercy and magnanimity may excuse our folly, we must also realise the following:

      In some instances, a person can be a sincere seeker of the truth, but unwittingly become misguided. In other instances, it’s a case of the dal mudill deserving each other.

      And we seek refuge in Allah from both.

      Like

      • i have a general question about shariah and this modern push to reform islam.

        islamic hadd laws such as apostasy, stoning, lashing, capital punishment for various crimes can they enforced without an islamic state or caliph? how are hadd punishments relevant to your ordinary muslim today? there are half baked muslim governments partially implementing shariah law is this a case of better than nothing.

        is there a principle in islam or usul where the jurists derive a law based on the benefits, harms to society? if so could some of these hadd rulings be revisted or reformed in the light of the world we live in. I heard a lecture by tim winters were he mentioned numerous muftis attended a conference and came to the conclusion that at most apostatsy would merit a prison sentence. Is this not an example
        of small reforms which are valid? I also heard that hamza yusuf mention that alot of this work is yet to be done.

        i wonder if you have written anything in the past or intend to in the future to address some of these questions.

        Like

        • Salams adam,

          Your question is probably the most pressing issue of our time. I’ve been wanting to write something about it for a while now, but it is rather complex and the juristic conversations about all the nitty gritty stuff is still on going. A few discerning trends have emerged that could be spoken of in general terms, but beyond that, no juristic consensus has emerged on these issues – other than the one that says that some new ijtihads are certainly needed. But how much and what issues is another question.

          Like

  10. JazakAllah khayr Sheikh, I remember the statement of Anas (r.a) being used as a proof for foot-jamming. “If you were to do this today, a person would flee [from you] like a restless mule.” Is everything mentioned above enough to disprove this claim.

    Like

    • Barakallahu fikum, carzens86. I like the way you worded your question, mashallah.

      Is all what has preceded enough to disprove the claim? I think it is, for two reasons:

      1. We don’t have this ‘foot jamming’ transmitted to us in an unbroken chain of practice, and we should be suspicious of broken chains.

      2. What mujtahid Imam clearly and unambiguously ruled with this?

      All the juristic evidence suggests that such words are a hyperbole in speech – not to be taken literally – as the article clearly explains.

      And Allah knows best.

      Like

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