Ibn 'Umar radiallahu 'anhu reported that Allah Messenger sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam said, "Establish your lines straight, for indeed the angels pray in lines. Align your shoulders, close the gaps, yield your hands to your brothers, and do not leave any gaps for Shaytan. Whoever connects a line, Allah maintains him, and whoever breaks a line, Allah cuts him off." [Ahmad, Abu Dawud, an-Nasa'i and others. See Sahih ul-Jami' no. 1187]
Anyone who has prayed with different groups of people will probably have experienced the following situation: When you line up for prayer, the person next to you prevents your feet from touching theirs. If you try to move closer to them, they move away, if you persist trouble will most likely erupt.
The Evidence for Standing Four Fingers Width Away
Most people who stand away from their neighbor during group prayer do so simply out of custom. It would not be fair to claim that it is based upon a certain madhhab, for one will not find it taught in any of the source books for the madhahib. For example, in the famous Hanafi fiqh book Hashiyah by Ibn 'Abidayn, the only mention of one not touching the feet to their neighbor during group prayer, is in the case of a man praying with his wife! Similarly, it is not mentioned in al-Um by ash-Shafi'i. However, the opinion stating that it is allowable for one to stand four fingers width away from the person praying next to them is collected in some comparative fiqh books (al-Fiqh ala al-Madhahib al-Arb'ah, for example). This opinion, we hope to show, is pure baseless conjecture, and furthermore implementing it violates numerous general and specific texts which govern how to stand in line for group prayers. Additionally, the manner in which the companions prayed in the presence of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam is an evidence for the Muslims to follow. Especially when he sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam said, " ... For surely I can see you from behind my back ... " [Al-Bukhari] And he said so after commanding the companions to correct their lines. Were they to have not followed his command properly, or if they were excessive, then he, being able to see them in that state, surely would have corrected them further. And this is the argument against those who claim that concern over this matter constitutes excessiveness.
Furthermore, this opinion is one that requires the praying person to do an additional act, that is - to move away, whereas were he to stand still when the person next to him put his foot next to his, he would be doing less, and less action is the rule in prayer unless there is an evidence otherwise! This is especially true in the light of the texts as we will prove if Allah, the Most High, allows.
The Command to Straighten the Rows and Close the Gaps, and that it is Wajib
The Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam said, "Make good your standing in the rows during prayer." [Ahmad and Ibn Hibban. Authenticated by al-Albani in Sahih ul-Jami' no. 195) And, "Establish your lines straight, and consolidate ... " [Al-Bukhari, Muslim, and others]
Imam al-Baghawi comments on the word tarassuw (translated here as consolidate) saying, "His saying tarassuw means to cling together until there are no gaps between you. As Allah, the Magnificent, said, 'Surely Allah loves those who fight in His cause in ranks as if they were a solidified (marsusan) wall.' [Al-Qur'an 61:4] meaning they join together with each other. In this is the evidence that the Imam should turn towards the people commanding them to straighten their lines." [Sharh us-Sunnah vol. 3 pg 365]
The Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam also said, "Straighten your lines, for indeed straightening the lines is part of the completeness of the prayer." [Al-Bukhari and Muslim], about which Imam ash-Shawani noted, "From this it is understood that straightening the lines is wajib." [Nayl ul-Awtar] And he sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam commanded, "Close the gaps ... " [Ahmad, Abu Dawud, An-Nasa'i and others. See Sahih ul-Jami' no. 1187]
Ordering the Action by Way of a Verb Accompanied by the Lam of Command
Among the well known signs of an obligation or wajib, in usul ul-fiqh, is when the commanding verb is preceded by the Arabic letter lam. This type of lam is known as lam al-amr, or the commanding lam. Whenever it is used then we understand that the address is an obligation, unless it is accompanied by an act or saying which indicates that it is only recommended. In the following texts, such lam precedes the verb, letting us know that the statement is a command, "Establish your lines straight, [in one narration this follows, 'By Allah either you establish your lines straight] or Allah will cause dissension in your hearts." [Abu Dawud, Ibn Hibban. Authentic, see Sahih at-Targhib wat-Tarhib no. 512 and the addition is with Abu Dawud, see Sahih ul-Jami' no. 1191]
And, "Straighten your lines or Allah will cause dissension to appear upon your faces." [Al-Bukhari, Muslim and others]
Imam an-Nawawi explains as follows, "Meaning that anger, animosity and disagreement will appear in the hearts. As when it is said, 'So and so's face changed towards me.' It means, 'his face shows his dislike for me.' So their differing in their rows is an apparent type of dissension, and outwardly evident differences are the cause for inner dissension." [Sharh Muslim]
Mentioning the La of Prohibition
The la of prohibition is called such be cause it means, "Do not do such and such." In all such cases of prohibition (nahi), then it implies that the act is haram, unless it is accompanied by an act or saying which indicates that it is only disliked.
The Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam said:
- Do not leave gaps for Shaytan [Ahmad, Abu Dawud, an-Nasa'i and others. Sahih ul-Jami' no. 1189]
- Do not differ, or your hearts will dissent. [Muslim, Ahmad, an-Nasa'i and others]
- Do not make your chests irregular, or your hearts will dissent. [Ibn Khuzaymah. See Sahih at-Targhib wat-Tarhib no. 513]
- Do not let your lines be irregular or your hearts will dissent. [Abu Dawud, an Nasa'i and others. See Sahih at- Targhib wat-Tarhib no. 513)
The Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam said, "Beware of the gap." Meaning in prayer. [at-Tabarani in al-Kabir and others, see as-Sahihah no. 1757])
The Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam said, "Straighten your lines, and align your shoulders, and yield your hands to your brothers, and close the gaps, for indeed Shaytan comes between you through them, just as the small lamb does." [Ahmad, at-Tabarani and others and it is sahih. See Sahih at-Targhib wat-Tarhib no. 491]
"Whoever connects a line, he is maintained by Allah, and whoever breaks a line, Allah cuts him off." [See note for first hadith] And such a severe warning would not be issued for a deed that is simply recommended.
The Behavior of the Companions
'Umar and Bilal radiallahu 'anhu are both reported to have hit the feet of people in order to straighten their lines. [Fath ul-Bari] And as Ibn Hazm noted, they would not hit anyone unless he radiallahu 'anhu felt an obligation.
'Anas radiallahu 'anhu reported that in Madinah he was asked whether he found anything to have changed from the time of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam, to which he replied, "I have not found any change except that you do not straighten your rows properly." [Al-Bukhari]
It would be enough for us to understand his saying, "taqimuna as-sufuf" to mean simply, your lines are zig-zagged and you don't straighten them. But the following narration of Anas radiallahu 'anhu enlightens us to the true meaning of straightening the lines "After standing for prayer, before the takbir, Allah's Messenger sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam faced the people and said, 'Straighten your lines and consolidate, for indeed I see you from behind my back.' " [Two separate narrations from Al-Bukhari and Muslim] In one narration 'Anas added, "I saw that one of us would connect his shoulder to the shoulder of his companion, and his heel to his heel, and if one were to do this today, one of you would flee as if he were an untamable donkey." [Reported by al-Mukhlis in al-Fawa'id and Abu Ya'ala in his Musnad, Sa'id bin Mansur in his Sunan and Isma'ili. See Fath ul-Bari 2 /112. It is authentic according to the conditions of Al-Bukhari and Muslim, see as-Sahihah no. 31]
An-Nu'man ibn Bashir radiallahu 'anhu said, " ... So I saw a man clinging his shoulder to his companion's shoulder, and his foot to his foot, and his ankle to his ankle." [Al-Bukhari]
The Argument that Tightening the Lines Prevents Concentration
After all of what we have noted, some people insist that standing closely to another during prayer causes them to have distracting thoughts. Due to this problem they believe that their prayer is more apt to be accepted if they stand away from the person next to them. However this is a poor excuse, because one's lack of ability to concentrate during prayer is not a reason for him to encourage Shaytan to enter the ranks. And clearly the command as well as the virtue is with the people who pray close not separately as the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam said, "The best of you is the one with the friendliest shoulder in prayer." [Abu Dawud and others. It is hasan according to al- Albani, Sahih ul-Jami' no. 3264]
Ibn Hajar reports by way of Ibn Juraij who said, "I said to Ata, the man who prays with another man, where does he stand? He said, 'Along his right.' I said, he comes parallel to him until he aligns with him, neither of them is further back than the other? He said, 'Yes.' I said, do you like that he be equal with him until there is no gap between them? He said, 'Yes.' " [Fath ul-Bari - Kitab al-Adhan no. 57]
It is obligatory for the people to line up either ahead of or behind the threshold of any architectural structures in the masjid. This is derived from the following reports.
Mu'awiyah ibn Qurrah reports that his father said, "We were prohibited from aligning between as-sawari (fences, walls, pillars, etc.) during the time of Allah's Messenger sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam, he drove us away from them." [Ibn Majah, Ibn Khuzaymah, Ibn Hibban and others. Al-Albani has shown it to be hasan in Tamam ul-Minnah pp. 296-297, and As-Sahihah no. 335, and the following report is a witness for it]
And 'Abdul-Hamid ibn Mahmud said, "I prayed with 'Anas ibn Malik one Friday, we prayed opposite the sawari, we went forward or backward, for 'Anas said we were prevented from this during the time of Allah's Messenger sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam." [Abu Dawud, An-Nasa'i, at-Tirmidhi, and others with authentic chain of narrators]
It is reported that Ibn Mas'ud said, "Do not line up between sawari." [Al-Bayhaqi 3/104 and Ibn al-Qasim in al-Mudawanah 1/106. See As-Sahihah no. 335]
Al-Bayhaqi commented, "This is because the columns prevent them from connecting the line." Imam Malik said, "There is no harm in the lines between columns if the masjid becomes tight." And Ibn Qudamah said, "It is not disliked for the Imam to stand between the sawari, only for the followers because it cuts their lines ... " [Al-Mughni. For previous quotes see As-Sahihah no. 335]
Abu Hanifah said, "It is disiked to stand between two pillars or in the corners or enclaves ... " [Hashiyah Ibn 'Abadayn]
There are numerous reports forbidding one to pray alone behind the line. The following is an example. 'Ali bin Shayban said, "We prayed behind him (meaning the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) so the Prophet of Allah finished the prayer. He saw a man praying alone behind the line. The Prophet of Allah waited until he finished his prayer, then he said to him, 'Return to your prayer, for there is no prayer for the one alone behind the line.' " [Ibn Khuzaymah, 1569 see Irwa ul-Ghalil no.541]
There is no authentic evidence for pulling a person from the line ahead to form a new line when the prayer has begun already and one is late. However the texts supporting this are very weak or fabricated, see for example Silsilat al-Ahadith ad-Da'ifah no. 921.
Since it is confirmed that the reports on commanding one to pull another back are not authentic, then it is not allowed for one to do it, rather it is obligatory for him to close any gaps on the lines, and if not, then he prays alone and his prayer would be correct, for he has done all he can correctly do, and followed that which is legislated, and Allah has said (which means):
"Allah does not burden a soul beyond its ability." [Al-Qur'an 2:286]
From Taswayt us-Sufuf wa Atharha fi Hayat ul-Ummah by Shaykh Husayn al-'Awayishah and Al-Qawl ul-Mubin fi Akhta il-Musallin by Mashur Hasan Salman, published by the Qur'aan and Sunnah Society of North America