Dispelling the Confusion Surrounding the Sunnah Prayers
  • Wed, 01/01/2003
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Prayer is the second pillar of Islam. As Muslims, we are required to pray five times a day. This, however, is the bare minimum that we have to pray. We are encouraged to pray much more than the five obligatory prayers. Among the most important of these are the Sunnah prayers that we pray on a daily basis along with each of our obligatory prayers.

Many people are confused about these Sunnah prayers. They wonder how many units of prayer they are supposed to pray. Some people are unsure if their obligatory prayers are valid if they fail to make certain Sunnah prayers. This confusion is often the result of the way people think about these prayers, especially since some people fail to make a distinction between the obligatory prayers and the Sunnah prayers that are associated with them.

Therefore, the first thing that we must understand is that the Fajr prayer is only the two unit obligatory (fard) prayer. The Zuhr prayer is only the four unit fard prayer. The `Asr prayer is only the four unit fard prayer. The Maghrib prayer is only the three unit fard prayer. The `Ishâ' prayer is only the four unit fard prayer. This is agreed upon by all Muslims of all schools of thought and is a matter of juristic consensus (ijmâ`).

Associated with each of these prayers are other prayers that the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to pray with great regularity. Scholars differ as to the recommended number of these Sunnah prayers.

In our opinion, the strongest enumeration can be derived from the following hadîth:

Our Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "Whoever prays twelve units of prayer voluntarily in a day and night Allah will build him a house in Paradise" [Related by Muslim]. Al-Tirmidhî relates the same hadîth with a good chain of narrators, wherein these twelve units are enumerated as follows:

There are two Sunnah units before the Fajr prayer (sunnah mu`akkadah).

There are four Sunnah units before the Zuhr prayer (preferably performed as two separate prayers of two units each) and two Sunnah rakahs after it.

There are two Sunnah unit's after the Maghrib prayer.

There are two Sunnah unit's after the `Ishâ' prayer.

[refer to: Sunan al-Tirmidhî (380)]


There are also Sunnah prayers of lesser importance mentioned in other hadîth. There is a hadîth about praying four units of prayer before `Asr. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "May Allah bless whoever prays four units of prayer before `Asr" [Related by Ahmad, Abu Dâwûd, al-Tirmidhî and Ibn Khuzaymah who authenticated it]. Please note that these four units are preferably to be performed as two separate prayers of two units each.

There is also a two unit Sunnah prayer that may be prayed before the Maghrib prayer. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "Pray two units before the Maghrib prayer." He said this three times. After the third time, he said: "...for whoever wishes to do so. [Bukhârî and Muslim]

It is also Sunnah Mu`akkadah to pray Witr prayer either at night before going to sleep or after waking up for Tahajjud before the time of Fajr. However, the Witr prayer is a prayer in its own right and is not associated with any of the five obligatory prayers.

There are many other recommended voluntary (nafl) prayers that the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to pray, like two units before going to bed at night, but these are also completely independent of the five obligatory prayers. The most recommended of all voluntary prayers is the Tahajjud prayer at night which should be performed before the time of the Fajr prayer but after waking up from sleep.

The Sunnah Prayers According to the Hanafî School of Law


In the Hanafî school of Law, the recommended prayers are as follows:

There are two Sunnah units before the Fajr prayer.

There are four Sunnah units before Zuhr prayer (performed as a single prayer of four units) and two afterwards. The Hanafî scholars also recommend the performance of two voluntary (nafl) prayers after these Sunnah prayers.

There are four Sunnah units before the `Asr prayer (performed as a single prayer of four units).

There are two Sunnah unit's after the Maghrib prayer. The Hanafî scholars also recommend the performance of two voluntary (nafl) prayers after these Sunnah prayers.

There are four Sunnah units before the `Ishâ' prayer (performed as a single prayer of four units) and two after it. The Hanafî scholars also recommend the performance of two voluntary (nafl) prayers after these Sunnah prayers.

The Hanafî scholars also encourage the performance of Witr prayer immediately after completing the `Ishâ' prayer and the other prayers associated with it. This is because the Witr prayer is considered obligatory (wâjib) in the Hanafî school of Law, and it is feared that by delaying the Witr prayer, a person might fall asleep and miss it altogether.

The Hanafî scholars also recommend the performance of two voluntary (nafl) prayers after performing the Witr prayer, because the Prophet (peace be upon him) was in the habit of performing two units of prayer before going to sleep.

What we have mentioned above can be found with the supporting evidence in the books of Hanafî Law.

There is nothing wrong with the Hanafî enumeration of the Sunnah prayers. A person may follow this enumeration with confidence. Likewise, a person is free to follow the opinion of any of the other authentic schools of Islamic Law.

However, there is a problem with the way the Hanafî enumeration of Sunnah prayers is explained in some prayer handbooks published in the Indian subcontinent for use by the general public. These books attempt to make matters simple for the general public, but they actually cause a lot of confusion. These books make statements like the following:

"The Fajr prayer is four units - two Sunnah then two fard. The Zuhr prayer is twelve units - four Sunnah then four fard then two Sunnah then two nafl. The `Asr prayer is eight units - four Sunnah and four fard. The Maghrib prayer is seven units - three fard then two Sunnah then two nafl. The `Ishâ' prayer is seventeen units - four Sunnah then four fard then two Sunnah then two nafl then three Witr then two nafl."

You can see that the prayers mentioned in the above paragraph correspond to the ones that we enumerated as the Hanafî position. However, it is wrong and misleading to say things like "the `Ishâ' prayer is seventeen units", when the `Ishâ' prayer is four units, no more, no less. This causes a lot of confusion for people who follow this approach, especially when they learn that other people in the world pray a different number of Sunnah units. Some people think that all seventeen units make up the `Ishâ' prayer. We have even encountered people who think that if they fail to make all seventeen units, then their `Ishâ' prayer is invalid!

It is incorrect to explain the Hanafî position in this way. The correct way to do so is the way that we presented above, making a clear distinction between the fard prayers and the Sunnah prayers associated with them. In this way, there will be no confusion for anyone about the issue.

A Short Glossary of Prayer Terms

This short glossary of prayer terms might help to further clarify the matter:

Fard: Obligatory. Failure to perform it is sinful.

Wâjib: Obligatory. Failure to perform it is sinful.

For prayers, these words are synonymous to most scholars. Hanafî scholars differentiate between the two. Fard prayers are more serious and the one who neglects them incurs a greater sin. Neglecting a wâjib prayer is sinful, but not to the same degree. The reason for the distinction is the strength of the evidence that exists to establish the obligatory nature of the prayer. The Witr prayer, according to the Hanafî school, is wâjib, but it is not fard.

Sunnah Mu'akkadah: Emphatic practice of the Prophet (peace be upon him). It is strongly recommended to perform this prayer. Failure to do so on occasion, however, is not sinful.

Sunnah: Non-emphatic practice of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Performing this prayer is rewarded but failing to do so is not punishable.

Nafl: Any purely voluntary prayer.