Congregational prayer is one of the most important aspects of Islamic worship. It helps to bring people in the same locality together so that they would know each other and establish friendly and close relations. Moreover, their frequent meetings at prayer times give them a chance to learn more of one another’s work and what they can provide. Thus, they will seek to get what they need from within their own neighborhood. Furthermore, congregational prayer instills discipline within the community. When people take instructions from the imam during worship, which is a bond between each individual and God, they learn the value of discipline in their lives.

Stressing the importance of discipline in prayer, the Prophet (peace be upon him) says, as quoted by Abu Hurayrah: “When a person lifts his head before the imam, does he not fear that God will make his head like that of a donkey, or that He will make him look like a donkey?” (Related by al-Bukhari).

This is the strongest form used by the Prophet to emphasize the importance of following the imam in all actions, and not to go ahead of him. The Prophet said: “I am your imam. Therefore, do not go before me in bowing, prostration or standing up.” He also said: “An imam is appointed so that he is followed.” However, people are often impatient. When the Prophet noticed that his admonition in this respect has not given its desired results, he stated the hadith we are discussing, warning of a stern punishment on the Day of Judgement. Thus, a person who races the imam in prayer runs the risk of having a changed shape marking him out among all people. We should emphasize here that this is merely a warning, and it does not follow that everyone who does not abide by the order to follow the imam will be changed in form. Such a person, however, exposes himself to this risk.

A question arises here about the validity of the prayer when a person moves ahead of the imam in congregational prayer. Scholars have expressed different views, going into considerable detail. They agree that it is forbidden to precede the imam in any action. Everyone in the congregation is required to follow the imam, not to precede him. It is indeed reprehensible to do any movement or say any words of the prayer at the same time as the imam, except for the first takbeer, which signals the beginning of the prayer.

What worshippers in the congregation are required to do is to follow the imam. When he signals a move, they make it shortly after he has signaled it, and before he has gone to the next move. If a person delays moving until the imam has completed the next action and went into the following one, then that person’s prayer is invalid. To explain: We stand to read the Quran, then bow, then stand up again, then go into prostration. If the imam bows and stands up while someone in the congregation remains standing because he wants to finish his recitation, then that person’s prayer is invalid. If he bows when the imam is still bowing, his prayer remains valid but his action is not correct. He should follow the imam.

A violation of this instruction that is often done by worshippers occurs in the last prostration. The imam signals moving to the last sitting for tashahhud. Yet we see people remaining in prostration for a whole minute or longer. This is absolutely wrong and they run the risk of making their prayer invalid.

– by Adil Salahi