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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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