The Witr prayer

Details of the Question
Why is the witr prayer wajib in the Hanafi madhab but it is not wajib in the three other madhabs?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Witr prayer is the last prayer performed at night. 

It is advised in hadiths that the witr prayer, which is the last prayer performed at night, can be performed as one or up to eleven rak'ahs in odd numbers; it is called witr because one rak'ha is added to the supererogatory prayers performed at night and they have odd numbers like three and five rak'ahs. (Bukhari, “Witr”, 1)

There are many hadiths showing the practices of the Messenger of Allah about its legitimacy, importance, time, number of rak'ahs of the witr prayer and reading the supplication of qunut in it.

The decree about witr prayer is quite debatable among fiqh madhhabs. According to the view of Abu Hanifa and the preferred view in Hanafi school it is wajib; according to the majority of the fiqh scholars including Imam Abu Yusuf and Muhammad, it is sunnah al-muakkadah.   

It is stated in Islamic resources that scholars like Abdullah b. Mas‘ud and Hudhayfah b. Yaman from the Companions, Ibrahim an-Nahai, Said b. Musayyab and Mujahid b. Jabr from the Tabiun and Hanbali scholar Abu Bakr al-Khallal regard witr prayer as wajib.

Acting upon the evidences that the number of the daily fard prayers was determined as five, those who regard witr prayer as sunnah say an identification that can mean an addition to them cannot be made. Since the middle prayer mentioned in the following verse can take place only when the number of the daily fard prayers is five, they say that there cannot be an additional obligatory prayer: “Guard strictly your (habit of) prayers especially the middle prayer.” (al-Baqara 2/238).

Besides, the following narrations and similar ones are among the evidences that are often referred to: Fard prayers are mentioned as five in the hadith of Isra and Miraj (Ascension) (Bukhari, “Salat”, 1) and in other hadiths and narrations (Bukhari, “Iman”, 34; Abu Dawud, “Wiir”, 2); Hz. Ali’ said, “Witr is not obligatory like other fard prayers; this prayer is the sunnah of the Prophet introduced by him; (Tirmidhi, “Witr”, 2); Ibn Umar's narration that Hz. Prophet performed witr prayer on camelback though he does not pray fard prayers on camelback (Bukhari, “Witr”, 6); the hadith “Three things were rendered fard for me but they are supererogatory for you: witr prayer, sacrificing an animal and the prayer of late morning.” (Musnad, I, 231) Imam Muhammad and Imam Yusuf regard witr prayer as sunnah and they say a person who denies this prayer cannot be regarded as an unbeliever since it has been determined by khabar wahid; they also take into consideration the facts that an adhan is not necessary for this prayer, that it is connected to the night prayer and that reading the Quran is necessary in all of its rak'ah. (Kasani, I, 270-271)

In Hanafi resources, the view of Abu Hanifa that witr is wajib is based on the following evidences: The hadith: “Allah added a prayer for you; it is witr” (Musnad, VI, 7); the Messenger of Allah said three times by emphasizing, “Witr is necessary; a person who does not perform witr prayer is not one of us.” (Musnad, V, 357; Abu Dawud, “Witr”, 2) Acting upon the principle that an absolute order expresses obligation, Hanafis conclude that this is an addition to fard players since the Prophet ordered this prayer and that an addition needs to be something of the same kind and to the determined things. According to this interpretation, the hadiths mentioned above expresses that the witr prayer, which was already performed by Companions as sunnah, is wajib. Kasani mentions the fact that Hanafis accept witr as a three-rak'ah prayer among the evidences of being wajib since there is nothing similar to it among supererogatory prayers. (Badai I, 271)

In Hanafi resources, in the objection to the hadiths that are used to conclude that witr is sunnah, the difference between the concepts of fard and sunnah is highlighted; so, the hadith starting with "there are three things…" and the other hadiths indicating that five prayers are wajib are not regarded as contrary to the decree of Abu Hanifa that witr prayer is wajib. Since witr is not fard, the number of the fard prayers is not increased to six with the addition of this prayer; the addition of witr to the five daily prayers does not mean naskh (abrogation). In these resources, a conversation between Abu Hanifa and Yusuf b. Khalid as-Samti stating that the views of Abu Hanifa related to the difference between fard and wajib are misinterpreted or overlooked by the majority of the scholars is reported. According to Hanafis, it cannot be decreed that this prayer is sunnah just because it is attached to the night prayer due to not having a separate time period. As a matter of fact, it is regarded as makruh to delay the night prayer to the end of the night but it is mustahab to delay witr. The reason why reading a chapter or verse from the Quran is necessary in all rak'ahs is a kind of precaution since it is not among the absolute fard prayers. (Badai, ibid)

The scholars who hold the view that witr prayer is sunnah state that this prayer is the strongest or one of the strongest prayers of sunnah al-muakkadah due to the importance the Prophet gave to it and that it should not be skipped.

It is stated in Hanbali resources that the threat against those who skip this prayer does not express that it is fard but that emphasizes its importance and virtue; the statement of Ahmad b. Hanbal that the witnessing of a person who deliberately skips witr prayer should not be accepted is based on the same reason. (Muwaffaquddin Ibn Qudama, II, 594) Similarly, it is stated that the term "wajib sunnah" used in some Maliki resources to express the decree about witr means "sunnah al-muakkadah". (Salih b. Abdussami‘ al-Abi, p. 672)

Witr prayer is not peculiar to certain people like the Friday and eid prayers, it needs to be performed by all Muslims, whether they are residents or travelers, male or female. A view is reported from Dahhak that it is not necessary to perform witr for travelers but it is known that the Messenger of Allah performed witr when he was a traveler and all madhhabs agree on it. Due to the hadith beginning with “There are three things that are fard for me...”, witr is fard for Hz. Peygamber according to all madhhabs accept Hanafis. The narration that he performed witr on camelback is explained with the possibilities of having an excuse, the permission given to him regarding the issue, or witr prayer being rendered fard for him when he is a resident not when he is a traveler.

The number of rak'ahs of witr and how to perform it. There are narrations that the number of rak'ahs of a witr prayer is one, three, five, nine or eleven. When the views of the scholars of different madhhabs related to the witr prayer and the prayer that is recommended to performed before it (shaf') are taken into consideration, it can be said that the decree about the number of the rak'ahs of witr is generally three. According to Hanafis, witr prayer is a prayer consisting of three rak'ahs like the evening prayer performed in both Ramadan and the other months with tashahhud in the second and third rak'ahs, and salutation after the third rak'ah. (Musnad, I, 89; Darimi, “Salah”, 212; Sarakhsi, I, 164) The difference between the performance of the witr prayer and the evening prayer is that a chapter or some verses are read after the chapter of al-Fatiha in the third rak'ah of witr. A person who forgets to sit after the second rak'ah and stands up in the witr prayer does not return. (Kasani, I, 273) Hanafi scholars state that the narrations about the performance of the witr prayer with more or fewer than three rak'ahs belong to the period before the decree about the witr prayer became definite. According to Shafiis and Hanbalis, the minimum number of rak'ahs for the witr prayer is one and the maximum number is eleven. It is accepted that it is permissible to perform one rak'ah based on the hadith “night prayers are performed as two rak'ahs…", one rak'ah is not regarded as appropriate and at least three rak'ahs are recommended. If a person performs it as three rak'ahs, he can salute after the second rak'ah and perform the third rak'ah separately. According to Hanbalis, it is sunnah to wait for a while after the second rak'ah and it is mustahab to talk in order to separate it from the single rak'ah to be performed after it. According to Shafiis, when witr is performed in congregation, it is better for the imam to perform the three rak'ahs together in order to prevent confusion. According to Shafiis and Hanbalis, it is possible to perform it as three rak'ahs without tashahhud or salutation in the second rak'ah and by saluting after tashahhud in the last rak'ah. Shafiis aim to separate it from the evening prayer by doing so. When witr is performed as more than three rak'ahs, there are different practices based on the interpretations of the narrations coming from the Prophet. According to Malikis, witr prayer is one rak'ah but due to the hadith “night prayers are performed as two rak'ahs…", they regard it necessary to perform a prayer of two rak'ahs with a separate intention and salutation before witr prayer. It is regarded as makruh to perform witr as one rak'ah without performing a two-rak'ah prayer before it or as three rak'ahs without a break except following the imam in congregation. Ibn Hazm prefers witr being performed as a single rak'ah after performing six two-rak'ah prayers. (al-Muhalla, III, 42). According to Jafaris, witr is a single rak'ah but a prayer of two rak'ahs apart from tahajjud is regarded as rawatib.

According to Hanafis, witr is wajib so it is not permissible to perform it on horseback, camelback, etc unless a person has an excuse. According to the scholars who regard it as sunnah, it is permissible for him to perform it by sitting or on horseback, camelback, etc even if a person can perform it by standing. Those who regard witr prayer as a supererogatory prayer and Abu Hanifa, who regard it as wajib, regard it necessary to read the Quran in all rak'ahs as a precaution since there is a possibility of it being fard or supererogatory. Hanafis and Hanbalis regard it as mandub to read the chapter of al-Ala in the first rak'ah, the chapter of al-Kafirun in the second rak'ah and the chapter of al-Ikhlas in the third rak'ah based on the hadith reported by Ubayy b. Ka‘b. However, according to Hanafis, the chapters mentioned in the hadiths should sometimes be replaced by other chapters or verses so that it will not be an absolute rule.

Shafiis and Malikis mention the same chapters for the first two rak'ahs taking into consideration the narration reported from Hz. Aisha but they regard it as mandub to read the chapters of al-Falaq and an-Nas along with the chapter of al-Ikhlas in the third rak'ah.  (for the hadiths mentioned above, see Abu Dawud, “Witr”, 4; Tirmidhi, “Witr”, 9)

Performing missed or skipped witr prayers. Hz. Prophet said, “A person who sleeps without performing witr prayer or forgets to perform it should perform it when he remembers.” (Musnad, III, 44; Abu Dawud, “Witr”, 6; for the views regarding performing missed or skipped witr prayers, see Shawkani, III, 58-59)

According to Hanafis, if a person misses witr prayer deliberately or by mistake and the time for the morning prayer starts, it is necessary for him to perform it together with qunut supplications. According to Abu Hanifa, it is necessary to pay attention to the order (tartib) of the prayers since witr prayer is regarded like fards in terms of deeds; if a person who is sahib at-tartib remembers that he has not performed witr prayer while performing the morning prayer, his morning prayer is invalidated if there is enough time to perform witr prayer; that is, he needs to perform witr first and then the morning prayer. Those who cannot perform it at that time and those who are not sahib at-tartib can perform it later at any time. Imam Muhammad and Imam Yusuf decree that it is necessary to perform missed or skipped witr prayers though they regard witr as sunnah.

According to Shafiis, it is regarded as mustahab to perform missed or skipped witr prayers later though there are some views that they are not performed later. Hanbalis have a similar view, too.

According to Malikis, the determined period for witr prayer is up to the time of the performance of the morning prayer; so if a person remembers that he has not performed witr prayer after performing the morning prayer, he does not perform witr prayer; if he remembers it while performing the morning prayer and there is enough time for the morning prayer, he needs to stop the morning prayer and perform witr prayer first. According to Ibn Hazm, a person who skips witr prayer deliberately cannot perform it later; however, if a person skips it due to oversleeping or forgetting, he can perform it later. (al-Muhalla, III, 101, pp; see TDV İslam Ansiklopedisi, Witr item)

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