By Mawlana Badrul Islam
There has been a growing tendency in recent times within some quarters of the Muslim Ummah to attempt to understand the hadiths of the beloved Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) without the proper prerequisite knowledge of fiqh and its principles. Movements have emerged, a fundamental part of whose methodology it is to take hadiths in their apparent and literal meanings, without attempting to understand the actual purpose of any hadith. The issue of how those in congregational prayer should stand is no exception. They have looked at the chapter in Sahih al-Bukhari entitled Bab ilsaqi ‘l-mankibi bi ‘l-mankibi wa ‘l-qadami bi ‘l-qadami fi ‘l-Saff (Chapter regarding the joining of shoulders to shoulders, and feet to feet in prayer rows) and the athar of Sayyiduna Nu’man ibn Bashir and that of Sayyiduna Anas (may Allah be pleased with them) (hadith: 725) and without even attempting to use their intellect to explore the various interpretations to which the wording is open, they seek to enforce on the Muslims the physical joining of shoulders and feet with one another when standing in the prayer row. The ‘ulama of the madhhabs (that is, the four established schools of Islamic law) have always maintained that this is not how these athar are to be understood.
Imam ‘Allamah Sayyid Anwar Shah Kashmiri (may Allah mercy him) has discussed this issue at some length in his commentary of Sahih al-Bukhari, Fayd al-Bari (2:301-302). He explains how it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for people to physically join their shoulders and feet when standing in the prayer row. Those who seek the physical joining of feet and shoulders argue their case pointing at the letter ‘ba’ used in the abovementioned athar. The rule in grammar that ‘al-ba li ‘l-ilsaq’ (the letter ba is used to denote physical contact) is not to be understood in this context as a full physical contact or ilsaq. For, if this were the case, how would they explain the sentence Marartu bi Zayd? Does this mean that the subject (fa’il) of the verb passed by, or with, Zayd whilst physically sticking to him?
When any verse, hadith or athar is ambiguous or open to interpretation, we must look at the practice of the Companions (Sahabah) and the Salaf (those illustrious Muslims who succeeded the Sahabah). It would appear that neither the Companions nor the Salaf were in the habit of physically joining their shoulders and feet in the way that some Muslims so painstakingly do today. Imam Anwar Shah Kashmiri states that this interpretation has not been adopted by any of the madhhabs but by the abovementioned Muslims only.
The intention of the athar, with its ambiguous wording, is that the shoulders and feet should be straight and parallel, that there should be no gap for Shaytan between any two people standing in a row, and that the rows should be straight. It does not mean shoulders and feet should be in physical contact. This interpretation is also given by Imam ‘Allamah Badr al-Din al-‘Ayni in his monumental ‘Umdat al-Qari (commentary of Sahih al-Bukhari – 5:377) and Imam Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani in his unparalleled Fath al-Bari (2:611).
Another explanation given by Imam Kashmiri is that the specific wording could have been not of the noble Companions to whom they are attributed, but of the narrators. This practice is well known in the science of hadith.
In his Lami’ al-Darari ‘ala Jami’ al-Bukhari (1:279), the great shaykh Imam Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhlawi has mentioned some very logical arguments supporting the above interpretations. He writes that physically joining shoulders and feet would only be possible when the shoulders of all those standing in the row are at the same height and their feet are of the same length. Moreover, to do this, all the people standing in the row would have to spend some time before saying the takbir and entering their prayer to get their shoulders and feet in the right place. Clearly, this would be contrary to khushu’, the desired calmness and the spirit of Salah.
After providing similar explanations as the ones mentioned above, ‘Allamah Mawlana Zafar Ahmad ‘Uthmani in his Imdad al-Ahkam (1:290) states: “Even if [for argument’s sake] it is accepted that physical contact of ankles is required by the Shari’ah, the question arises as to whether this is so in every part (rukn) of Salah or just some [parts]. If it is said that it is required in every part, one must ask how this is possible in the sitting posture. If, on the other hand, it is said that physical contact is only required in some parts of Salah, the question would follow as to what evidence has specified these parts of Salah while others are excluded? If it said that the physical contact of ankles is difficult in the sitting posture and therefore it is exempted in such a posture, then we will say the same regarding the standing posture; those standing in the prayer row find this very difficult. One may try doing this and see for themselves…
“The words of the Companion Anas (may Allah be pleased with him) have been reported in Fath al-Bari from Ma’mar: ‘Had I done this with any of them today, he would have fled like a wild ass’ (2:612). This clearly indicates that after the demise of the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) Sayyiduna Anas did not join his ankles with people standing next to him in prayer. This is proof that the joining of ankles is not a desired Sunnah act. For, had it been so, none of the Companions would have forsaken it for the fear of others disliking it. People would also dislike a practice only when it is not normally done in Salah. If a practice is normally done in Salah, then there is no reason for people to dislike it. Thus, if the joining of ankles were to be a desired Sunnah, it would have been a general practice of all of the Companions, and the Followers (Tabi’un) would have taken this as a Sunnah element of Salah. Hence, there would have been no reason for anyone to dislike the joining of ankles. Just as it can be understood from the above statement of Sayyiduna Anas that he would avoid joining his ankles with those of others standing next to him fearing they would dislike it, it can be inferred that this practice [of joining ankles] was not the general practice of the Companions or the Followers. This is evidence of its not being a desired Sunnah. This is the reason why [to the best of my knowledge] there is no command to join ankles in the hadith of the beloved Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace).”
Ahmad ibn ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari, 17 vols (Riyadh: Dar Tayyibah, 2005).
Badr al-Din Abu Muhammad Mahmud ibn Ahmad al-‘Ayni, ‘Umdat al-Qari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari, 25 volumes (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001).
Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhlawi, Lami’ al-Darari ‘ala Jami’ al-Bukhari, 3 volumes (Karachi: H M Sa’id, no date).
Sayyid Anwar Shah Kashmiri, Fayd al-Bari ‘ala Sahih al-Bukhari, 6 volumes (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2005).
Zafar Ahmad ‘Uthmani, Imdad al-Ahkam, 4 volumes (Karachi: Maktabah Dar al-‘Ulum Karachi, 1421 AH).