tarāwīH prayers: about صلاة التّراويح, Salāt at-tarāwīH

September 28, 2006 at 7:33 pm (Arabic, Islam, Religion, Religions, South Asia)

A popular feature of Ramadan is the tarāwīH prayers (صلاة التّراويح, Salāt at-tarāwīH; the latter word is pronounced as tarāvī by South Asian Muslims). What is striking–and many have noticed and remarked about this–is that this seems to quite the rage these days, a most fashionable thing to do. Although mosques had tarāwīH prayers even before, they were nowhere as popular as they are today. So much so that many mosques have more than one tarāwīH prayer time to accomodate the large numbers of people who can’t fit at one time. There is som dispute whether this is an indication of an increase in religiosity and piety, whether this indicates social pressure to exhibit more religiosity, or whether this is some sort of weird passing fad. To explain why it is somewhat surprising and puzzling that tarāwīH prayers, of all things, are so popular, let me explain what they are.

In order to explain what tarāwīH prayers are, I need to explain how canonical prayers are performed. (Canonical = as mandated by the sharī‛ah; namely, the five mandatory prayers.) Every prayer is broken into units. One of these units is called a (ركعة, rak‛ah), the plural of which is (ركعات, raka‛āt). (Both of these words are pronounced as “rakāt” by South Asian Muslims. I will stick to the Arabic way.) Each rak‛ah consists of standard elements:
1. Assume the posture of standing (which various among Muslim groups and interpretations)
2. Recitation of sūrat al-fātiHah (the first sūrah/chapter of the Qur’an)
3. Recitation of a portion from the Qur’an
4. Bowing from the waist with hands on one’s knees
5. Standing up straight
6. Prostration with forehead and hands on the floor
7. Sitting up straight (and optionally reciting a short supplication)
8. Second prostration
9. Sitting up straight

From 9, one goes back to 1 and repeats as necessary.

After doing steps 1 through 9, one rak‛ah is completed. In even-number raka‛āt, a small supplication is recited while seated after the second prostration. At the last rak‛ahyet another supplication is recited. If the last rak‛ah is an odd-number rak‛ah, then the supplication of the even-numbered rak‛ah and the final supplication are both added.

The core of the tarāwīH prayers is the second recitation, the recitation from the Qur’an after reciting sūrat al-fātiHah. During canonical prayers, anything (within certain limits) may be recited, as long as it is not sūrat al-fātiHah. This can be an entire sūrah, especially one at the end of ther Qur’an, which are quite short, or it can be a number of verses. Disregarding the rules of brevity, the person leading the tarāwīH prayers makes a long recitation of the Qur’an.

Slowly, rak‛ah by rak‛ah, the whole Qur’an is sequentially recited. The number of raka‛āt may be anywhere from eight to twenty. There should, ideally, be a break after four raka‛āt.

Different places offer different types of tarāwīH prayers. In the usual format, one of the thirty volumes of the Qur’an is recited each night. If Ramadan is 30 days longs, this will work out quite well. If Ramadan is 29 days long, two volumes will need to be recited during one session. There are marathon sessions, though, where the entire Qur’an is recited in ten days. This obviously means much, much longer prayers, but the advantage is that one has finished the Qur’an and can concern oneself with more pressing matters the other nights. Or one might go again for another recitation of the whole Qur’an.

Considering the length of portions recited, the other gymnastics involved (what with bowing, prostrating, sitting up, getting up, standing straight, and so on), and how hard this much be for one’s knees, it is truly surprising that tarāwīH prayers are as popular as they have become. But considering the merit one can attain fro participating in these devotional sessions, as inconvenient as they may be, makes it well worth it. Something like all of one’s sins would be forgiven or somesuch.

Now women are beginning to attend tarāwīH prayers. In South Asia, women rarely go to mosques. So hey hold their tarāwīH prayers in homes, where ladies get together and pray. (I don’t remember if they have the services of an imam or not.)

These prayers are not mandatory. Some have said they are neither sunnah, meaning following the example of Muhammad or senior members of the early Islamic community. These people say, for example, that Muhammad intentionally avoided attending such prayers so that people would not think they are mandatory or even sunnah. On the other hand, it is said that they were made routine during Ramadan – and tarāwīH prayers can be prayed during Ramadan only – during the caliphate of ‛Umar bin al-Khattāb (عمر بن الخطاب, ‛umar bin al-khaTTāb), the second caliph. So if it is his practice, then it can be said to be the sunnah of ‛Umar bin al-Khattāb. But this is a semantic debate anyway, and irrelevant in the end.

Let us see how long this will last.

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5 Comments

  1. rjackson said,

    THANK YOU – FOR WHAT YOU EXPLAIN,
    FOR WHO YOU ARE

  2. Alaa said,

    Most Imams, Muslims… Agree that IT IS sunnah. 11 rak‛ah with the wetr. That’s what we know from prophet pbuh himself.

  3. Muslihoon said,

    Some people say that tarāwīH prayers consist of 20 raka‛āt (not counting the witr). So there is obviously some dispute over this, which is to be expected and is minor.

  4. Alaa said,

    20 raka’at is what they know from the followers of the prophet pbuh but what we know about the prophet himself is that it’s 11.

  5. Zia Sheikh said,

    Alaa, you may contact me at theimam@hotmail.com

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