بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the Name of Allah The most Gracious The Most Merciful
This is one of the most popular arguments amongst Muslims during the month of Ramadhan. People go to extremes in both cases and begin to insult or get upset at the person who chooses to pray 8 or 20 rak’ah. People begin to declare each one as a bid’ah although there is proof for both (we will get to that with evidences). We ask the Muslims to show patience and understanding with one another and if you follow an opinion then do that and if not then let others do what they think is right.
Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen (may Allaah have mercy on him) said, when speaking about the matter of one who prays ten rak’ahs with the imam, then sits down and waits for Witr and does not complete the Taraaweeh prayers with the imam: It grieves us deeply that we find in the Muslim ummah a group which differs concerning matters in which differences of opinion are acceptable, and they take these differences as a means to cause division. Differences within the ummah existed at the time of the Sahaabah, yet they remained united. The youth in particular and to all those who are committed to Islam must remain united, because they have enemies who are laying in wait. Al-Sharh al-Mumti’, 4/225
The Ruling on 8 or 20 rak’ah
Q: What is the opinion of the Fuqaha’ (Muslim jurists) and scholars of religion on Tarawih (special supererogatory night Prayer in Ramadan)? Is it twenty or eight Rak’ahs (units of Prayer) – according to the Sunnah? If the Sunnah is to offer it as eight Rak’ahs, why is it offered as twenty Rak‘ahs in Al-Masjid Al-Nabawy (the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah)? Most people conclude from that it is the Sunnah to offer it as twenty Rak‘ahs.
A: Tarawih is a Sunnah (supererogatory act of worship following the example of the Prophet) initiated by the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him). There are proofs that he (صلى الله عليه وسلم) never offered more than eleven Rak‘ahs, whether in Ramadan or at any other time.
Abu Salamah asked ‘Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her) about the manner in which the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه وسلم) used to offer supererogatory Salah (Prayer) in Ramadan. She said, ‘The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) did not pray more than eleven Rak’ahs in Ramadan or at any other time. He would pray four Rak‘ahs, and do not ask about their beauty and length, then he would pray four Rak‘ahs, and do not ask about their beauty and length, then he would pray three Rak‘ahs.’ `Aishah added, ‘I asked: O Messenger of Allah! Will you sleep before offering the Witr (Prayer with an odd number of units)?’ He said, ‘O `Aishah! My eyes sleep but my heart does not.’ (Agreed upon by Al-Bukhari and Muslim). It was also authentically reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) used to offer thirteen Rak‘ahs on some nights.
Thus, the words of `Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her) when she said that The Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه وسلم) did not pray more than eleven Rak’ahs in Ramadan or at any other time should be interpreted according to the more frequent practice of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) in order to reconcile between the Hadiths. There is nothing wrong in offering more than this, as the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not set a specific limit for optional Night Prayer. When he was asked about it, he (صلى الله عليه وسلم) stated: (Optional) Night Salah is two Rak‘ahs followed by two Rak‘ahs (and so on), and when one of you fears the break of dawn (Fajr Prayer), let them offer a single Rak‘ah to make the Salah they have offered Witr (Prayer with an odd number of units). (Agreed upon by Al-Bukhari and Muslim). He (peace be upon him) did not set a limit, whether eleven Rak‘ahs or anything else, which indicates the flexibility in optional Night Prayer, whether in Ramadan or at any other time. Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Ifta’
Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen (may Allaah have mercy on him) said: Here we say that we should not go to extremes or be negligent. Some people go to extremes in adhering to the number mentioned in the Sunnah, and say that it is not permissible to do more than the number mentioned in the Sunnah, and they aggressively denounce those who do more than that, saying that they are sinners. This is undoubtedly wrong. How can they be sinners, when the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم), upon being asked about night prayers, said that they are to be done two by two, and he did not specify any particular number? Of course the one who asked him about the night prayer did not know the number, because if he did not know how to do it, it is even more likely that he did not know the number. And he was not one of those who served the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) so that we might say that he knew what happened inside his house. Since the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) told him how to do it but did not say how many times, it may be understood that the matter is broad in scope, and that a person may pray one hundred rak’ahs then pray Witr with one rak’ah.
With regard to the words of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم), “Pray as you have seen me praying”, this does not apply in absolute terms even for these people. Hence they do not say that a person should pray Witr with five rak’ahs sometimes and with seven rak’ahs sometimes and with nine rak’ahs sometimes. If we understand it in absolute terms, then we would have to pray Witr with five rak’ahs sometimes and with seven rak’ahs sometimes and with nine rak’ahs sometimes. But what is meant by the hadeeth is pray as you have seen me praying with regard to how to pray not how many rak’ahs, unless there is a text to state what the number is.
Whatever the case, a person should not be strict with people with regard to a matter that is broad in scope. We have even seen some brothers who are strict on this matter accusing the imams who pray more than eleven rak’ahs of following bid’ah, and they leave the mosque, thus missing out on the reward of which the Messenger of Allaah (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said: “Whoever stands with the imam until he finishes (the prayer), the reward of qiyaam al-layl will be recorded for him.” (Narrated by al-Tirmidhi, 806; classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in Saheeh al-Tirmidhi, 646).
Some of them even sit down after completing ten rak’ahs, thus breaking up the rows of worshippers by sitting there, and sometimes they start talking and disturb the people who are praying.
We have no doubt that their intentions are good and they are doing their best to come to the right conclusion, but that does not mean that they are correct.
The other group does the opposite. They sternly denounce those who pray only eleven rak’ahs and say that they have gone against scholarly consensus. Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning): “And whoever contradicts and opposes the Messenger (Muhammad) after the right path has been shown clearly to him, and follows other than the believers’ way, We shall keep him in the path he has chosen, and burn him in Hell — what an evil destination!” [Surah al-Nisaa’ 4:115]
All the generations who came before you only knew the number as twenty-three rak’ahs, and they denounce anyone who says anything different. Al-Sharh al-Mumti’, 4/73-75
Ibn Qudaamah said: The favoured view according to Abu ‘Abd-Allaah (i.e., Imam Ahmad, may Allaah have mercy on him), is that it is twenty rak’ahs. This was the view of al-Thawri, Abu Hanfeefah and al-Shaafa’i. Maalik said it is thirty-six. Al-Mughni, 1/457
Al-Nawawi said: Taraaweeh prayer is Sunnah according to scholarly consensus. Our view is that it is twenty rak’ahs with ten tasleems, and it is permissible to pray it individually or in congregation. Al-Majmoo’, 4/31
These are the views of the four imams concerning the number of rak’ahs of Taraaweeh prayer. All of them said something more than eleven rak’ahs. Perhaps the reasons why they said something more than eleven rak’ahs include the following:
1- They thought that the hadeeth of ‘Aa’ishah did not mean that this was the specific number.
2- A greater number was narrated from many of the salaf. See al-Mughni, 2/604; al-Majmoo’, 4/32
So the topic is broad but what seems to be better is that one should follow the actions of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) and do 8 rakah in order to follow his Sunnah. It does not mean someone is doing a bid’ah if they do more than that but the best guidance is the guidance of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) and it is best to follow his way.