The Muslims are one voice regarding salat al-jama’ah (congregational prayer) being a ceremony and symbol of Islam. It was performed perpetually by the Prophet (S) and by the Caliphs and the Imams after him. The schools differ as to whether it is wajib or mustahabb.
The Hanbalis state: It is wajib upon every person capable of it. But if he forsakes the jama’ah and prays individually, his salat will be valid, though he will have sinned.
The Imamis, Hanafis, Malikis and most Shafi'is observe: It is neither wajib individually ('ayni) nor collectively (kifa’i) but is an emphasized mustahabb.
According to the Imamis, the Shari'ah has ordained jama’ah only for wajib, not for mustahabb prayers, except istisqa’ and ‘idayn prayers despite the absence of its conditions. The four schools consider it ordained for both wajib and mustahabb prayers.
The following conditions have been laid down for the validity of jama’ah:
1. Being a Muslim. There is a consensus about it.
2. Sanity. They concur regarding it.
3. According to the Imamis, the Malikis and the Hanbalis, in one of the two opinions narrated from Imam Ahmad, ‘adalah (i.e. 'justice' of the imam ) is necessary. The Imamis cite as their evidence the Prophet's statement, "A woman will not act as an imam for a man, nor a fajir (a libertine) for a believer", the consensus of the Ahl al-Bayt ('a), as well as the reason that the imamah in salat is suggestive of leadership, and a fasiq is not competent to assume it under any circumstance. But they also observe: If a person were to trust someone and pray behind him, later coming to know that he is a fasiq person, it is not wajib upon him to repeat the prayer.
4. Being a male is necessary, and a woman cannot act as an imam for men, though other women can follow her as their imam according to all the schools except the Malikis who say: A woman cannot act as an imam even for women.
5. The Malikis, Hanafis and Hanbalis consider maturity as a requirement for the imam. The Shafi'is are of the opinion that it is valid to follow a child of discriminating age (mumayyiz). The Imamis have two opinions; in accordance with the first, maturity is necessary, and according to the second the imamah of an adolescent mumayyiz is valid.
6. As per consensus, the minimum number of persons required for jama’ah is two, one of them being the imam; this does not include the Friday prayer.
7. The ma’mum should not stand ahead of the imam, in the opinion of all the schools except the Malikis, who observe: The salat of the ma’mum will not be invalid even if he stands ahead of the imam.
8. The jama’ah should be conducted in a single place and there should be no partitions. The Imamis state: There should not be an unusual distance between the ma’mum and the imam without there being a connection through the continuity of the rows. The jama’ah is not valid if there exists between the imam and a male ma'mum an obstacle which prevents the latter from seeing the imam or seeing those ahead of him who see the imam. Women are excepted, and they can follow a male imam despite the presence of a partition provided the acts of the imam are not uncertain for them.
The Shafi’is observe: A distance of more than 300 cubits between the imam and the ma’mum is not objectionable provided there exists no obstacle.
The Hanafis are of the opinion that if a person whose house adjoins a mosque follows the imam from his house with only a wall separating them, his salat will be valid, provided the actions of the imam are known to him. But if the house and the mosque are separated by a road or stream, following the imam is not valid.
The Malikis state: The difference of place does not preclude the validity of following the imam; hence if the imam and the ma’mum are separated by a road, stream or wall, the salat will be valid as long as the ma’mum is capable of ascertaining the acts of the imam.
9. There is consensus that it is necessary for the ma’mum to make the niyyah of following the imam (niyyat al-'iqtida’).
10. The identity of the salat of the ma’mum and the imam. The schools concur that following the imam is not valid if the two salats differ in their arkan and af’al (acts) (such as the daily prayers as compared to the salat of funeral or ‘id), they differ regarding the remaining matters.
The Hanafis and the Malikis observe: It is not valid for a person offering zuhr prayer to follow one offering ‘asr, and for one offering qada’ to follow someone offering ada’, and vice versa.
The Imamis and the Shafi'is consider all these as valid. The Hanbalis consider it invalid to offer zuhr prayer behind someone offering ‘asr and vice versa, but they consider valid the offering of zuhr prayer as qada’ behind someone performing it ada’.
11. The qira'ah of the imam should be perfect. Hence the schools concur that it is not valid for a person knowing qira'ah to follow one who does not know it, and if he does so his salat will be invalid. According to the Hanafis, the salat of both the imam and the ma'mun will be invalid; and they have a sound ground for holding the opinion that an illiterate person should follow, as far as it is possible, someone whose recital is correct, and it is not valid for him to pray singly where he can pray with a correct qira'ah by attending a jama'ah.
There is consensus that one praying with wudu’ can follow an imam who prays with tayammum and that it is obligatory for the ma'mun to follow the imam in the recital of the adhkar such as:
سبحان ربّي العظيم،سبحان ربّي الأعلى، سمع الله لمن حمده
They differ concerning following him in the qira’ah.
The Shafi'is observe: The ma’mum should follow the imam in the salats that are recited silently and not in those that are recited loudly, and it is wajib for him· to recite al-Fatihah in all the rak’ahs.
The Hanafis state: He should not imitate the imam either in the salats where the qira’ah is silent nor in those where it is loud; rather, it has been narrated from Imam Abu Hanifah that the qira'ah of a ma’mum behind the imam is a sin (al-Nawawi, Sharh al-Muhadhdhab, vol. 3, p. 365).
According to the Malikis, the ma’mum should perform the qira’ah in the salats where it is silent, not in the salats where it is loud.
The Imamis do not consider it wajib (for the ma’mum) to perform qira’ah in the first two rak'ahs, but consider it wajib in the third rak'ah of maghrib prayer and the last two rak'ahs of the four-rak'ah prayers.
All the schools concur concerning the wujub of following the imam’s actions by the ma'mun, but differ in their interpretation of the term ‘following’ (mutaba’ah).
The Imamis state: The meaning of mutaba’ah is that every act of the ma’mum should neither precede the corresponding act of the imam nor follow it after an inordinate delay; rather it should be either simultaneous or follow it with a small lag.
In the opinion of the Hanafis, mutaba’ah is achieved by performing simultaneously or immediately afterwards or with some lag, the acts performed by the imam. Hence if the ma’mum performs ruku’ after the imam has raised his head from the ruku’ but before his going down for sajdah, he will be considered as having 'followed' the imam in the ruku’.
The Malikis say: The meaning of mutaba’ah is that every act of the ma’mum should take place after the corresponding act of the imam without preceding it or occurring simultaneously with it or following it after excessive delay, so that the ma’mum will perform ruku’ before the imam has raised his head from it.
The Hanbalis are of the opinion that mutaba’ah implies that the ma’mum should neither precede the imam in any of the acts of salat nor delay any act after the imam has performed it. Hence the ma’mum should not enter ruku’ after the imam has finished it, and the imam should not have ended the ruku' before the ma’mum has entered it.
If a person joins the jama’ah after the imam has finished one or more rak'ahs, the schools concur that he will make the niyyah for jama’ah and continue to perform it with the imam. But the question is whether he will consider the rak'ahs being performed along with the imam as the initial part of his salat or the end part of it. For example, if he performs only the last rak'ah of maghrib prayer with the imam, there remain two more rak'ahs which have to be performed; now, will the third rak'ah which he has performed with the imam be considered his third rak'ah as well with the first two rak'ahs remaining to be performed, or will it be considered his first rak'ah, with the second and the third rak'ahs remaining to be performed?
The Hanafis, Malikis and Hanbalis observe: The part of the salat which the ma'mum performs with the imam will be considered the end part of the former's salat. Therefore if he performs only the last rak'ah of maghrib prayerin in jama’ah, it will be considered his last rak'ah as well, and he will perform after it a rak'ah in which he will recite al-Fatihah and another surah, followed by tashahhud, and in the next rak'ah, al-Fatihah and a surah. To put it briefly, in such a situation he will offer the third rak'ah before the first two rak'ahs by considering the part of his salat performed with the imam as the end part, and the part performed without the imam as the initial part.
The Shafi'is and the Imamis state: The part of the salat which the ma'mum performs with the imam will be considered the initial part of his salat, not the end part of it. Hence if he performs the last rak'ah of maghrib prayer with the imam, he will count it as his first rak'ah and will stand up for performing the second rak'ah, which will include tashahhud, and will follow it up with the third rak'ah that will be the end part of his salat.
The Hanafis say: If equally qualified men gather for salat, the person most learned in its rules will be preferred for leading it, followed by one with the best qira’ah, then the most pious, then the one whose acceptance of Islam was earlier, then the eldest, then the superior in character, then the most handsome, then the noblest in respect of lineage, and then the most cleanly dressed, in that order. If they are all equal in respect of these qualities, the selection will be by casting lots among them.
The Malikis are of the opinion that the ruler or his deputy will lead the prayers, followed by the imam of the mosque, then the master of the house, then the one most learned in hadith, then the most just, then the one having the best qira'ah, then the most devout (al-'a'bad), then the one preceding others in his acceptance of Islam, then the one having the best lineage, then the one with the best character, and then the one who is best dressed, in that order. If they are equal in these respects, lots will be cast among them.
The Hanbalis observe: The most learned in fiqh (Islamic law) and having the best qira'ah will be preferred, followed by one who excels only in qira’ah; then comes the one who excels in the rules of salat, then the one who excels in qira’ah but does not know the fiqh of salat, then the most aged, then the person with the best lineage, then the one who has migrated earliest, then the most God-fearing (al-atqa), and then the most pious (al-awra'), in that order. If they are equal in these qualities, lots will be cast.
The Shafi'is prefer the ruler, and then the imam of the mosque, then the one most learned in fiqh, then the one having the best qira'ah, then the most ascetic (al-azhad ), then the most pious (al-awra'), then the one who has migrated earliest, then the most eloquent, then the best in terms of lineage,then the best in character, then the cleanest in matters of dress, body and craft, then the one with the best voice, then the most handsome, and then a married person, in that order. In the event of their being equal in respect of these qualities, lots will be cast.
The Irnamis state: If a number of persons are eager to lead the prayers for the sake of the thawab (spiritual reward) of imamah and not for any worldly purpose, the one whom the ma’mums prefer on the basis of the preferential qualities mentioned in the Shari'ah with a religious intent in mind and not with mundane intentions, will be the imam. But if they differ, it is better that a faqih be preferred, followed by one who has the best qira’ah, then the most eloquent, and then one who enjoys a preference in accordance with the Shari'ah.