Sources:

  • Fiqh As-Sunnah
  •   Sharh Bulugh al-Maraam by Shaikh Muhammad ibn Saalih al-‘Uthaimeen.

Who has the most right to be Imaam?

The one who should be Imaam is the one who is the most versed in the Qur’an. If two or more are equal in this, then it is the one who has the most knowledge of the Sunnah. If they are equal in that, then it is the one who performed the migration first. If they are equal in that, then it should be the eldest.

Abu Sa’id (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhu) narrated that the Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) said: “If you are three in number, then one of you should be Imaam. And the one who has the most right to it is the one who is the most versed in the Qur’an.” [Related by Ahmad, Muslim, and an-Nasa’i] The meaning of “most versed in the Qur’an” is the one who has memorized most of the Qur’an. This interpretation is based on the Hadeeth from ‘Amr ibn Salamah (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhuma) which says: “Your Imaam should be the one who is most versed in the Qur’an.”

Ibn Mas’ood (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhu) narrated that the Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) said: “The Imaam of the people should be the one who is the most versed in the Book of Allaah. If they are equal in their recital, then the one who is most knowledgeable of the Sunnah. If they are equal in the Sunnah, then (it is) the one who migrated first. If they are equal in migration, then the eldest among them in Islam.” In another version, “age-wise” – “and no man should be an Imaam for another man in his domain or sit in his place of honor in his house without his permission.” [Related by Ahmad and Muslim]

Shaikh Muhammad ibn Saalih al-‘Uthaimeen (Rahimahullah) said: “The one who is most entitled to lead the prayer is the one who is most versed in the Book of Allaah, could mean:

(a) The one who recites the Qur’an perfectly and in the best manner with proper Tajweed.

(b) The one who has more knowledge of the meaning of the Qur’an.

(c) The one who has memorized more of the Qur’an than the others.”

In fact, the Sunnah has explained that the meaning of the most versed in the Qur’an is the one who has memorized more of the Qur’an. This interpretation is based on the Hadeeth narrated by ‘Amr ibn Salamah (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhuma) which says:  “When the time of Salaat comes, one of you should announce the Adhaan and the one from among you who knows the most Qur’an should be your Imaam. So they looked for such a person and found none who knew more Qur’an than I. They made me their Imaam (to lead the Salaat and at that time I was a boy of six or seven years.” [Reported by al-Bukhaari, Abu Dawoud and an-Nasa’i]

This means that if one man memorizes ten parts of the Qur’an and the other one memorizes twenty parts, then the latter is more entitled to be an Imaam than the former, even if the former recites the Qur’an with perfect Tajweed and a more beautiful voice.

  • If they are equal in their memorization, then the one who is most entitled to lead the prayer is the one who is most knowledgeable of the Sunnah. The Sunnah in this Hadeeth means, the way of the Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam); it doesn’t mean the voluntary acts. The knowledge of Sunnah means, to have the knowledge and understanding of the meaning of the Sunnah, the meaning of the Ahadeeth and what they indicate.
    • The Sunnah of the Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) includes the utterances, actions and matters approved by the Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam).
    • If they are equal in their knowledge of the Sunnah, then the one who is most entitled to lead the prayer is the one who was earliest to emigrate. Migration is from the land of Shirk (polytheism) to the land of Islam. The foremost in migration is the one most eligible to be an Imaam. This is because the one earliest in migration has more knowledge of the Book of Allaah and the Sunnah of the Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) than the one who migrated later. Migration will never stop until repentance stops, and that is when the sun rises from its setting position; so it remains until the establishment of the Day of Judgment.
    • If they are equal in migration, then the one who is most entitled to be an Imaam is the one who is oldest in Islam; in another narration, the oldest in age. If both were born in a Muslim country, then the oldest in age is more eligible for the Imaamate, because his Islam has preceded. However, if previously they were both disbelievers, then this is not a condition, because the youngest in age could have embraced Islam before the older one. In the case where embracing Islam and old age are contradictory, then the one who became Muslim first will be given priority, in accordance with the Hadeeth which says that the one who migrates is more eligible to lead the prayer than the one who is older.

This means that if two men came forward for the Imaamate, one is fifty years old and the other one is thirty years old, but the latter embraced Islam ten years earlier and the former embraced Islam five years earlier, and both are excellent in their recitation and knowledge of the Sunnah, the one who is thirty years old is more eligible to be an Imaam, because he is the oldest in embracing Islam.

This arrangement (order) is set by the Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) and the people should take it into consideration, especially when there is a group or congregation and they want to choose an Imaam to lead them in prayer. However, if a Masjid has a regular Imaam, then he is more entitled in every case to lead the prayer, even if there is someone other than him who has memorized most of the Qur’an, because the Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) said at the end of the Hadeeth: “No man should lead another in prayer in his domain.” [Sharh Bulugh al-Maraam]

If the Sultan (similar to a king), who has the highest authority in the country comes to a Masjid, he is more eligible to lead the prayer than the assigned, original Imaam, because this is his Sultanate (domain, authority). The special Sultanate (domain) is the authority of a man (i.e. the Imaam) in his own Masjid, or the owner of the house in his own house, and he is more entitled to lead the prayer than anyone else. [Sharh Bulugh al-Maraam]

Sa’id ibn Mansur said: “A person should not be an Imaam for another in a place where the other is in authority, except with his permission.” The meaning of this is that the one in authority, the owner of a house, the leader of a meeting and so on, has more right than others to be the Imaam if he has not granted the permission to any of the others. Abu Hurairah (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhu) narrated that the Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) said: “It is not allowed for a man who believes in Allaah and the Last Day to be an Imaam for a people, except with their permission, nor may he specifically make supplications for himself without including them. If he does so, he is disloyal to them.” [Related by Abu Dawoud]

If a man came to the Masjid who is more knowledgeable of the Qur’an and the Sunnah than the regular Imaam, he has no right to lead the prayer unless the regular Imaam cedes (gives up) the Imaamate to him.

Is it permissible for the one who is most versed in the Qur’an to give up (cede) the Imaamate?

Shaikh Ibn ‘Uthaimeen (Rahimahullaah) said, “This is not permissible, because this is a legal Imaamate (leadership). The Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) has commanded the people to be led in prayer by the one most versed in the Qur’an, and his command is obligatory. As for the owner of the house, he is allowed to give up the Imaamate. However, he should give it up to the one who is more versed in the Qur’an.” [Sharh Bulugh al-Maraam]

Whose Imaamate is acceptable?

The Imaamate of all the following is acceptable: a discerning boy, a blind person, a standing person for those who are sitting, a sitting person for those who are standing, a person praying Fard (obligatory) for people who are praying Nafl (voluntary), a person praying Nafl for people who are praying Fard. Likewise, a person who has performed ablution can be Imaam for people who have performed Tayammum, as can a person who has performed Tayammum for people who have performed ablution, a traveler for the resident, a resident for the traveler, and a less qualified person for the people who are more qualified.

‘Amr ibn Salamah (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhu) led his people in Salaat while he was six or seven years old. This explains that a boy, who has not yet reached puberty, may lead the adult in prayer, or a group of adults, in the case that he is more versed in the Qur’an than those adults. The Messenger of Allaah (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) twice appointed Ibn Umm Maktum (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhu), a blind man, to lead the people of Madinah in prayer. The Messenger of Allaah (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam), during his last illness, prayed behind Abu Bakr (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhu) in a sitting position. And he prayed in his house in a sitting position while those behind him were standing. He pointed to them to sit and when he had finished the prayer he said: “The Imaam has been appointed to be followed. If he goes into Rukoo’, then make Rukoo’. When he raises his head, raise your head. If he prays sitting, then pray sitting behind him.” [al-Bukhaari, Muslim, Abu Dawoud and Ahmad]

Mu’adh (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhu) would pray ‘Isha with the Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) and then return to his people and lead them in the same prayer, it being Nafl for him and Fard for the others.

Yazeed ibn ‘Aamir (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhu) narrated: “I came to the Messenger of Allaah (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) in the mosque and they prayed while I did not. He (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) said to me: “Why didn’t you pray?” I said: ‘O Messenger of Allaah, I prayed in my place and then came here.’ He (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) then said: When you come (to the mosque), pray with them and make it superogatory.'” [Authenticated by al-Albaani in Mishkaat al-Masaabih]

The Messenger of Allaah (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) saw a man praying by himself and said: “Who will give charity to this man by praying with him?” [Reported by Ahmad and Abu Dawoud] ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aas (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhuma) led others in prayer when he had made Tayammum only and the Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) approved of it.

After the Conquest of Makkah, the Prophet (Salla-Allaahu ‘alayhi wasallam) led the people in prayer by praying two Rak’at (except for Maghrib) and said: “O people of Makkah, stand and pray the last two Rak’at, as we are travelers.” If a traveler prays behind a resident, he must complete the whole four Rak’at, even if he only prayed part of the Rak’ah behind the resident Imaam.

Ibn ‘Abbas (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhu) was asked: “Why is the traveler to pray two Rak’at if he prays by himself and four Rak’at if he prays behind a resident?” He answered: “That is the Sunnah.” In another version, Musa ibn Salamah (Radia-Allaahu ‘anhuma) said to him: “If we pray with you, we pray four Rak’at, otherwise we pray two?” He told him: “That is the Sunnah of Abu al-Qasim (the Prophet).” [This is related by Ahmad]

 


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