What are the necessary qualities for an Imam to have in order to lead a congregational prayer?

Details of the Question

What are the necessary qualities for an Imam to have in order to lead a congregational prayer? What are the essential conditions for a person to perform imamate?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

How are congregational prayers performed?

A person who is following the imam, that is, muqtadi, starts the prayer by uttering takbir after the imam utters takbir. He reads only Subhanaka and keeps silent. He does not recite al-Fatiha or any other verses. He bows down for ruku when the imam bows down for ruku. He says the glorification of ruku. After the imam goes back from ruku bu saying ‘samiallahu liman hamidah’, he only says ‘rabbana lakal hamd’. And he only reads the tasbihs of sajdah when they are in sajdah.

In the first sitting of three or four rak’ah prayers, only at-tahiyyat is read. In the last sitting, salawats and duas are read along with at-tahiyyat and; salutations are said with the imam.  

It is makruh tahrimi for a person who is following an Imam to read al- Fatiha and an additional chapter or verses. For, the imam reads on behalf of the congregation. Imam's reading replaces the reading of the congregation. As a matter of fact, this issue is stated clearly in a hadith. However, Imam Muhammad holds the view that it is makruh for the congregation to read when the imam reads aloud but he says it is permissible for the congregation to read when the imam reads silently.

The properties that an imam needs to have:

A person who leads prayers and is followed by the congregation is called an imam. The duty of leading the prayer for the congregation is called imamah. Following the imam is called iqtida; a person who follows the imam is called a muqtadi, muttabi or ma'mum.

The virtue of being an imam is more than being a muezzin. The responsibility of a person who becomes an imam though he is not competent is similarly more. For, the imam is muqtada bih religiously; that is, the person that the congregation follows. He obtains as many rewards as the number of people who follow him. However, if the prayer he leads is missing or wrong, the responsibility of the entire congregation lies in him. Therefore, some religious notables avoided being imams taking into consideration this responsibility. 

It is narrated that someone showed Hz. Ali an ambling nice horse:

- O Ali! What can you do with this horse, which can fly like a horse?

Hz. Ali, who had a great sense of responsibility, answered:

- You can ride it and escape from being an imam. (Ramuz al-Ahadith, number: 5728)

What are the conditions of being an imam?

1. The person to lead the prayer must be a Muslim.

2. The imam has to be sane and to have reached the age of puberty. It is not permissible for a mad person, a drunken person and a child who has not reached the age of puberty to become an imam.

3. The imam must be male. A woman cannot lead men in prayer.

4. The imam must know enough verses of the Quran for the prayer to be valid.

5. The imam must not be an excused person. The prayer of an excused person has special rules. A person who is not excused cannot follow an excused person. A blind person can be an imam but if there is a person more capable than him, it is makruh tanzihi for the blind person to lead the prayer. 

The conditions we have mentioned above are the basic conditions of being an imam. After these conditions, the following qualities are given priority for being an imam respectively: It is necessary for the imam to have a sound creed, a good knowledge of fiqh and sufficient knowledge about issues related to prayer. If there are some people who are equal in terms of the issues mentioned above, the one who reads the Quran the best or the one who knows more verses of the Quran by heart is preferred. If they are still equal, the one who avoids harams and has more taqwa (who fears Allah more) is preferred. If they are still equal, the following order is taken into consideration: the oldest one, the one whose ethics is the highest, the one who is liked by people and increases the number of the congregation, the one who comes from a more honorable and nobler family, and the one with the best voice.

However, if the host (landlord) is among the congregation, he is given priority; if the appointed imam of that district is present, he is given priority even if he does not have all of the qualities mentioned above.

* The person to lead the prayer has to be very careful about material and spiritual cleaning and be superior to the congregation in all aspects. It is necessary for the imam to pay attention especially to wearing clean clothes and socks, to wear nice smells, and to avoid eating things that emit disturbing smells like onion and garlic. 

* It is makruh tahrimi for fasiq people and people of bid'ah to become imam. For, they act heedlessly regarding religious deeds. The prayer performed behind these kinds of people will not have any rewards and virtues but a person is relieved of the responsibility of prayer. According to Imam Muhammad and Imam Malik, it is not permissible to follow such people in prayer.

* It is makruh for a woman to lead prayers to other women but it is permissible.If a woman leads a prayer to other women, she needs to stand among them in the middle of the first line, not in front of them. 

* The imam needs to avoid the things that will make the congregation hate him. For instance, it is not appropriate for an imam to lengthen qira'ah or tasbihat.  It is regarded makruh to make the congregation hate. The Messenger of Allah stated the following regarding the issue:

"When one of you becomes the imam, he should not lengthen the prayer because there may be old people and children in the congregation. There may be ill and weak people. There may be some people who have important things to do. A person who performs a prayer individually can lengthen it as much as he wishes." (Muslim, Salat 37; Nasai, Imamah 35; Tirmidhi, Salat 175)

Allah will not accept the prayer of a person who becomes an imam to the people though they do not like him. (Abu Dawud, Salat, 63)

* It is makruh for the imam to hurry up so much as not to allow the congregation to complete ruku' and sajdahs in accordance with the sunnah. It is also makruh to lengthen ruku so that someone or some people will catch up. 

* It is wajib for the imam to read the verses that are easy for him. He should not read the verses that he has not memorized well.

What are the things that those who perform a prayer behind the imam need to care about?

Following the imam is called iqtida and the person who follows the imam is called a muqtadi. The following conditions are necessary for the validity of iqtida:

1- A muqtadi has to intend to perform the prayer and follow the imam at the beginning of the prayer.

2- The imam has to intend to lead the prayer also for women to enable the women to follow him.  

3- The imam has to be in front of the congregation.

4- A person who performs prayers by sitting can lead a prayer to a person who performs prayers by standing; a person who has tayammum can lead a prayer to a person who has wuduaccording to Abu Hanifa and Abu Yusuf. However, according to Imam Muhammad it is not valid because the imam has to be higher than the congregation. A person who sits is lower than a person who stands and a person who has tayammum is lower than a person who has wudu.

5 -The prayer that the imam and the congregation pray has to be the same prayer. For instance, a person who wants to perform the afternoon prayer cannot follow the imam who is leading the noon prayer. A person who is performing a prayer on time cannot follow an imam who is performing a missed (qada) prayer. Both the imam and the congregation have to perform the same prayer whether it is a prayer performed on time or a missed prayer.  

A musafir (traveler) can follow a muqim (resident) in a prayer and vice versa. However, when a musafir is the imam, he shortens a four-rak'ah prayer as two rak'ahs. The muqims among the congregation stand up after the imam salutes and complete their prayers as four rak'ahs. When a musafir follows a muqim, he performs his prayer fully. It is permissible for a person who wants to perform a supererogatory (nafilah) prayer to follow an imam who leads a fard prayer. For instance, if a person who has performed the noon prayer follows an imam who is leading the noon prayer, his prayer becomes permissible as a supererogatory prayer.

6- When a prayer is performed in the open area, there must not be a gap wide enough for a stream where a small boat can sail, a road where a car can pass or a space where two rows of people can stand between lines. If the road is not covered by rows of people, the prayer is not permissible. If they are in a mosque, it is permissible because the inside of the mosque is regarded as the same place.

7- Having different madhhabs does not prevent following an imam. It is better for a Muslim to follow an imam who follows the same madhhab as him but if it is not possible, it is better to follow an imam belonging to a different madhhab than performing a prayer alone. However, it is necessary for the imam no to have undergone something that invalidates wudu in the madhhab of muqtadi. For instance, if a Hanafi person knows that a Shafii imam has undergone some bleeding, he cannot follow that imam. For, bleeding does not invalidate wudu according to Shafiis but it does according to Hanafis. In that case, a Hanafi cannot follow a Shafii imam. Therefore, those who lead prayers need to act cautiously regarding the issues that are controversial among madhhabs considering that there may be people belonging to other madhhabs among the congregation.

8- The place where the imam and the congregation perform a prayer must be regarded as the same place. Therefore, if there is a high wall between the imam and the congregation and if the imam cannot be seen and heard by the congregation, it is not permissible to follow the imam. 

9- It is makruh to run in order to catch up with the imam.

10- The prayers performed in congregation in the mosque are more virtuous than the prayers performed in congregation with the family members at home. For, every step take in order to go to the mosque has a separate reward and virtue. Nevertheless, it is not appropriate to perform all prayers in the mosque and not to perform any prayers at home. For, children imitate their parents and are affected by them. The daughter of a mother who is interested in adorning herself spends most of her time adorning herself. The son of a father who is interested in films and entertainment behaves in the same way when he grows up. Therefore, parents have to set good examples for their children; they also have to guide their children related to worship like performing prayers and fasting. Otherwise, they will be held responsible. The Prophet objects to homes being places where no prayers and worship are performed through the following hadiths:

“O people! Perform prayers at home. For, the most acceptable prayer except the fard prayers is the prayer performed at home.” (Bukhari, Adhan 81, I`tisam 3; Muslim, Musafirin 213)

“Perform some of your prayers at home. Do not transform your homes into graves.” (Bukhari, Salat 52, Tahajjud 37; Muslim, Musafirin 208, 209)

“When a person performs a fard prayer in the mosque, he should perform some part of it (sunnah prayer) at home. For, Allah creates goodness in his house due to this prayer.”(Muslim, Musafirin 210; Ibn Majah, Iqamah 186)

In the hadiths above, the Prophet (PBUH) opposes to making houses places where prayers are not performed and no worshipping is performed. This is probably one of the reasons why it is more virtuous and rewarding to perform sunnah and supererogatory prayers at home. 

11- If the sound of the imam is not loud enough for all of the congregation to hear, one person among the congregation or muezzins repeat the takbirs and salams of the imam loudly.

12- The imam utters the first salutation more loudly than the second one because what announces that the prayer is over is the first salutation. 

13- When the imam salutes, a muqtadi also salutes even if he has not finished reading salawat and supplications. However, if he has not finished at-Tahiyyat, he does not salute. He completes at-Tahiyyat and salutes.

14- A person who catches up with the imam in tashahhud and starts reading at-Tahiyyat, does not stand up if he has not finished reading at-Tahiyyat when the imam stands up. He stands up after he finishes at-Tahiyyat. However, it is permissible for him to stand up without finishing at-Tahiyyat.

15- If the imam gets up from ruku and sajdah before the muqtadi reads tasbihat three times, the muqtadi needs to get up with the imam.

16- A person who follows the imam needs to perform the rukns after the imam. It is not permissible to bow down for ruku and sajdah, and to get up from ruku and sajdah before the imam.

17- When the imam skips the following, the congregation does not follow him; they need to do them:

* takbirs or ruku and sajdah,

* raising the hand up when uttering the opening takbir,

* tasbihat in ruku and sajdahs,

* reading at-Tahiyyat in tashahhud,

* salutations,

* takbirs of tashrik.

18- If the imam sits but stands up by mistake, the congregation does not follow him. They warn him by uttering Subhanallah or Allahu Akbar.

19- If the imam forgets some words while reciting a verse, one of the people behind him needs to remind him. If the imam has read long enough for qira'ah (the amount that is wajb), he needs to bow down for ruku at once. If he has not read long enough of qira'ah (the amount that is wajb), he can move to the next verse or a verse that he knows by heart. He should not cause the congregation to remind him.   

20- It is sunnah for the imam to turn toward the congregation after the prayer.

21- If a muqtadi catches up with the imam in the first rak'ah, he salutes with the imam. A person who follows the imam fully, that is, from the beginning of a prayer to the end without any interruption is called a mudrik. A person who catches up with the imam when the imam is at ruku utters takbir while standing and bows down; if he stays at ruku with the imam long enough to say Subhanallah once, he is regarded to have joined that rak'ah.

22- A person who cannot catch up with the imam in the first rak'ah is called a masbuq.  A masbuq follows the imam but in the last sitting, he reads only at-Tahiyyat and keeps silent; he does not read salawat and supplications. He can read at-Tahiyyat slowly till the imam ends the prayer. When the imam salutes to the right side, he does not salute and waits for the imam to salute to the left. After the imam salutes to the left, he stands up and completes the rak'ah(s) he has missed.  

A person who catches up with the imam in the second rak'ah stands up by saying Allahu Akbar after the salutations of the imam. He reads Subhanaka, al-Fatiha, and an additional chapter or some verses from the Quran; then, he sits after performing the ruku and sajdahs. He reads tahiyyat, salawat and other supplications and salutes. 

A person who catches up with the imam in the 3rd rak'ah performs two more rak'ahs when he stands up by reading al-Fatiha, and an additional chapter or some verses from the Quran.

If a person catches up with the imam in the 4th rak'ah, he stands up after the salutation of the imam and reads “Subhanaka”,al-Fatiha” and an additional chapter or some verses from the Quran performing one rak'ah and sits. After reading at-Tahiyyat, he stands up and performs two more rak'ahs. In the first rak'ah, he reads al-Fatiha and an additional chapter or some verses. In the second rak'ah, he reads only al-Fatiha. What one should note here is to perform the first and second rak'ahs in which al-Fatiha and an additional chapter or some verses from the Quran are read first while praying alone because he has caught up with the imam in the 4th rak'ah in which only al-Fatiha is read. Two rak'ahs with al-Fatiha and an additional chapter or some verses from the Quran and one rak'ah with only al-Fatiha remain. Therefore, after the salutation of the imam, he needs to read al-Fatiha and an additional chapter or some verses from the Quran in the first two of the remaining three rak'ahs and only al-Fatiha in the last rak'ah.

If a masbuq catches up with the imam in the 3rd rak'ah of the 3-rak'ah prayers like the evening and witr prayers, he stands up after the imam salutes and performs one rak'ah by reading al-Fatiha and an additional chapter or some verses from the Quran. Then, he sits down. After reading at-Tahiyyat, he stands up and performs one rak'ah by reading al-Fatiha and an additional chapter or some verses from the Quran. Then he sits down and salutes.

23- If a masbuq, that is, a person who has not caught up with the imam in the first rak'ah, forgets and salutes with the imam does not have to perform sajdah as-sahw (prostration of forgetfulness). However, if he salutes after the imam salutes, sajdah as-sahw becomes wajib for him. If he salutes with the imam deliberately, his prayer is invalidated.   

24- After the salutation, the congregation remains where they are until the following sentence is recited: "Allahumma anta's-salamu wa minka's-salam, tabarakta ya dha'l-jalali wa'l-ikram." (O Allah, You are the source of peace and from You comes peace, exalted You are, O Lord of Majesty and Honor.) Then, they stand up and perform the sunnah prayer and supplication in an appropriate place. It is mustahab to break the row after the fard prayer so that those who come to the mosque late will not think that the fard prayer is going on. A person who performs alone can perform fard and sunnah prayers in the same place.

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