Is it permissible to perform prayers behind (following) an imam who commits bad deeds?

Details of the Question
Can we perform prayers behind the imams in whom we do not trust and who do some deeds that do not fit imams?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

The imam that leads prayers needs to have some scholarly and ethical qualities. For, the imam undertakes the responsibility of the congregation during the prayer. Besides, the imam becomes the guide of the congregation when he leads the prayer. 

The people who lead prayers as imams should be very careful, act like a model with their lifestyle and ethics and avoid doing disliked things considering that the Muslims have an eye on them.

It should always be kept in mind that this duty is a duty of prophets; therefore, the imams need to act very carefully and cautiously. Taking these issues into consideration, Islamic scholars list the properties an imam should have as follows:

- The imam should know the decrees and conditions of the validity of prayers, what invalidates prayers, what does not invalidate prayers, and the sunnah and makruh deeds of prayers very well.

- Secondly, he should read the Quran properly and without any mistakes. What is meant by the Quran is to be able to read the chapters and verses of the Quran correctly enough for the prayer to be valid. In addition, the imam should have taqwa and keep away from haram and doubtful things. 

- Furthermore, the imam should have high ethics and keep away from the bad deeds that are regarded as immorality. On the other hand,the imam should be a person that is liked and loved by others. For, the first condition of being an imam is to be a meritorious person rather than having a big congregation; he should have a personality that is adopted by the congregation.  

It is makruh for some people to lead prayers. 

The following people are given as examples regarding the issue: It is makruh for a slave, a blind person, a sinner (fasiq) who does not avoid committing sins and harams, a person who favors bid'ahs and a bastard to become an imam (to lead prayers). There are different reasons for each of them. There is no slavery today but a slave is regarded as a half person. A blind person cannot be careful about cleanliness of his clothes. He might perform a prayer while there is some impurity that can invalidate prayers on his clothes. (Multaqa'l-Abhur, p. 31-32)

As for the imamate of sinners and people of bid'ah, a person who drinks alcohol, gambles, gives and takes interest, tells lies, backbites, etc is called a sinner (fasiq). By the way, football pools and lottery are also regarded as gambling; so, a person who plays them knowing that they are haram becomes a fasiq. Essentially, a person who leads prayers should not commit those deeds, which are disliked by Muslims. Therefore, people like that should be warned by various means in order to keep them away from such bad deeds.

However, according to what is written in hadith, fiqh and kalam books, it is makruh but permissible to follow the imams who commit sins and who are people of bid'ah. Prayers behind such imams are valid. However, if such an imam underestimates the deeds he commits and does not heed them and, what is more, states that they are not haram; people must not perform prayers following them.  

It is written in some sources that a person who performs a prayer following a person of bid'ah and a fasiq receives the reward of congregation but this reward cannot be equal to the reward of a prayer performed following an imam who has taqwa. (al-Fatawa'l-Hindiyya, I/84)

Since there is not a definite decree that smoking is haram, one cannot introduce a decree like this: "It is makruh to perform prayers following an imam who smokes." Maybe, he commits a makruh deed. However, as we have mentioned above, imams are regarded as models and they serve as examples; therefore, they should try to give up smoking. 

We should also state the following: When somebody sees that an imam has a bad habit, commits a sin, he should remind the imam about it when he is alone; he should not say it aloud among other people, causing a negative attitude against the imam. Such a wrong attitude can harm indirectly the other imams, too.

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