What is the importance of sunnah prayers? Is it enough to perform only fard prayers?

Details of the Question
Are the first sunnah prayers of the afternoon and night prayers bid'ah?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

When there is a risk of missing a prayer, it is necessary to perform the fard prayer in time. When the fard prayer is performed, the obligation is fulfilled. However, if it is possible, one should perform the sunnah prayers along with the fard prayers. For, "the sunnah prayers performed before fard prayers discourages Satan and prevent the delusions and tricks of Satan." Satan thinks, "This man does not miss even the prayers that are not fard; he will never miss fard prayers." Thus, he is discouraged.

The sunnah prayers performed after the fard prayers serve to complete the incomplete parts in the fard prayers. (see Ibn Abidin, Raddu'l-Mukhtar, 2/12-13) Therefore, we need to be careful about performing the sunnah prayers before and after the fard prayers. 

On the other hand, to act in accordance with the sunnah means to remember the Messenger of Allah, who caused the universe to be created, and to show our loyalty to him. For, fulfilling the orders of Allah gives peace to a believer; similarly, following the Messenger of Allah and trying to act in accordance with his Sunnah add meaning to and illuminates our life. Besides, the best way of obeying Allah and loving Him is possible only through following the way of His beloved Prophet. Thus, to act in the way that the Prophet indicated especially in worshipping will show the degree of our love and closeness to Allah and increase the significance and abundance of our worshipping.  

Nafilah (supererogatory) means worshipping that is performed though it is not compulsory.It means the prayers that are reported to be performed by the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and that are not fard or wajib. They are regarded into two as nafilahs that are sunnah and nafilahs that are mandub. Nafilahs that are sunnah are the deeds that the Messenger of Allah usually kept doing and rarely skipped. The reason why he occasionally skipped them was to show people that they are not fard. Nafilahs that are mandub are the deeds that the Prophet sometimes did and sometimes skipped. Mandub is also called mustahab.

In fiqh, the terms nafilah, sunnah, tatawwu, mustahab and ihsan are used synonymously with "mandub".

Sunnahs that are muakkad: Some of the prayers performed before and after five daily prayers and Friday prayers are sunnah al-muakkadah. The sunnahs like that are mentioned as follows: in a hadith:

"Whoever performs twelve rak'ahs of prayers along with fard prayers, Allah will build a house for him in Paradise. They are as follows: two rak'ahs before fajr (morning prayer), four rak'ahs before zuhr (noon prayer) and two rak'ahs after it, two rak'ahs after maghrib (evening prayer) and two rak'ahs after isha (night prayer)."(Tirmidhi; Salat, 189; Nasai, Qiyamul-Layl, 66; Ibn Majah, Iqamah, 100)

Sunnahs that are ghayr muakkadah: They are the sunnahs that the Prophet did not always perform; he sometimes skipped them; they are also called mandub. These prayers are as follows:

According to Hanafis, the four-rak'ah prayers performed before the afternoon and night prayers are sunnahs that are mandub; they are not muakkad. The four-rak'ah sunnah prayer performed before the night prayer and the four-rak'ah nafilah prayers performed before and after the night prayer with one salutation are sunnah ghayr muakkadah. It is sunnah muakkadah to perform the nafilah prayer after the night prayer as two rak'ahs.

1. The four-rak'ah prayer performed with one salutation before the afternoon prayer. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) stated the following about this prayer: "May Allah have mercy on a person who performs a four-rak'ah prayer before the afternoon prayer !" (Tirmidhi, Salat, 301).

2. The four-rak'ah prayer performed before the night prayer. The following was reported from Hz. Aisha:

"Hz. Prophet performed a four-rak'ah prayer before the night prayer." (Zaylai, Nasbur Raya, II/145 ff. ash-Shawkani, Naylu'l-Awtar, III/18).

If a person wishes, he can find it enough to perform two rak'ahs as sunnah al-muakkadah after the night prayer. This ijtihad is based on the following hadith mentioned before:

"Whoever performs twelve rak'ahs of prayers along with fard prayers, Allah will build a house for him in Paradise."

The sunnah prayers we perform before and after the five daily prayers are the prayers that were reported from the Prophet and that were performed by him. The sunnahs have a general gradation; the sunnah prayers of the five daily prayers also has a gradation. For instance, the sunnah prayer of the morning prayer is sunnah at the degree of wajib.  

“The two-rak'ah sunnah prayer of the morning prayer is better than the world and everything in the world.”(Muslim, Musafirin, 96, 97; Tirmidhi, Salat, 190)

The hadith above expresses this meaning. In terms of virtue, after the sunnah of the morning prayer come the sunnah prayers before and after the noon prayer, the sunnah of the evening prayer and the sunnah after the night prayer. They are sunnah al-muakkadah. The sunnah of the afternoon prayer and the first sunnah of the night prayer are sunnah ghayr muakkadah.

While the Prophet (pbuh) encouraged people to perform some sunnah prayers, he warned people not to skip some of them. For instance, he gives the following warning about the sunnah of the morning prayer:

"Do not skip the sunnah of the morning prayer even if you are chased by cavaliers." (Abu Dawud, Tatawwu 3; Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad, II/405)

The following are the hadiths that give glad tiding about the sunnah of the afternoon prayer:

“May Allah have mercy on a person who performs a four-rak'ah prayer before the afternoon prayer!”

“Hellfire will not touch a person who performs a four-rak'ah prayer before the afternoon prayer.”

"Allah will not put the body of a person who performs a four-rak'ah prayer before the afternoon prayer in Hell."[see at-Targhib wa’t-Tarhib, (Beirut: Ihyau’t-Turathi’l-Arabi, 1388-1968), 1:396-406]

On the other hand, abandoning the sunnah prayers deliberately and continuously may deprive a person of the intercession (shafa'ah) of the Prophet (pbuh). As a matter of fact, the following is stated in a hadith -which we could not find in hadith resources but which is mentioned in fiqh books:

“A person who skips the four-rak'ah sunnah before the fard of the noon prayer cannot attain my intercession.” (see Ibn Abidin,ibid, II/14)

"Being deprived from intercession" here is understood in two ways: Firstly, it is a warning so that Muslims will not abandon sunnahs and will not act negligently. Secondly, it serves to increase the degree of those who perform sunnah prayers in the eye of Allah. In fact, the intercession of the Prophet is for the whole ummah.

These hadiths show that when the sunnah prayers are performed along with the fard prayers, a duty of worshipping like prayer (salah), which is the essence and summary of all worshipping, is fulfilled.

If the sunnahs before and after the fard prayers are not performed, will the prayers be incomplete? Is the prayer regarded to have been performed if the fard prayer is performed only?

A person who performs the fards of the daily prayers is regarded to have fulfilled his duty and obligation. However, some of the sunnahs of the daily prayers are sunnah at the degree of wajib.

According to the hadiths above, it is mandub to perform four rak'ahs of sunnah prayers before the afternoon and night prayers. It is worshipping with high rewards and virtues. Imam Muhammad regards it permissible to perform the sunnah prayers before the afternoon and after the night prayers as two or four rak'ahs. That is, the sunnah of the afternoon prayer can be performed as two rak'ahs, too. However, the other imams of Hanafi madhhab regard it more virtuous to perform it as four rak'ahs.

According to what is mentioned in the fiqh book called "Muhit", the Prophet (pbuh) sometimes skipped the sunnah of the afternoon prayer and the first four-rak'ah sunnah of the night prayer. He sometimes performed them as four rak'ahs and sometimes as two rak'ahs; he sometimes did not perform them. Accordingly, it is possible to perform them all the time for their rewards.

It is compulsory to perform fard and wajib prayers; when they are skipped, a sin occurs and the person is punished in the hereafter. The same thing may be valid for the sunnahs that are at the degree of wajib. One gets great rewards when he performs the other sunnahs but it is not a sin to skip them. However, if we do not perform them, we might not complete our incomplete prayers and might be deprived of the high degrees that we can obtain through the intercession of the Prophet (pbuh).

Accordingly, it is necessary not to skip the sunnah prayers if there is enough time and if there is not a necessity that prevents it. Thus, we can attain the happiness of performing a perfect prayer.

However, not performing the sunnah of the afternoon prayer and the first sunnah of the night prayer does not make a person responsible whether he has enough time or not. He who does not perform them is not regarded to have committed a sin; he is not held responsible, either.

However, we can always have four or five minutes to perform such a sunnah prayer that makes us gain great rewards.

By the way, we should not forget the following sentence:

“While those who are lazy and do not follow the Sunnah suffer vast loss, and those who consider them to be unimportant commit a great crime, while if they criticize them, which infers denying them, it is serious misguidance.” (see Nursi, Lem’alar, On Birinci Lem’â)

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