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The number of Rak’āts in Salāh al-Tarāwīh.

The aim of this short article is to prove conclusively an issue that has been agreed
upon by our scholars for the last fourteen centuries; that Salāh al-Tarāwīh consists
of twenty rak’ats. Prophetic narrations, reports and the opinions of our pious
ancestors will be highlighted to prove this, and objections raised on the issue will
also be answered.

To perform salāh al-tarāwīh in the sacred month of Ramadān has been declared
sunna mu’akkada (stressed practice) by Imam Abu Hanīfa, Imam al-Shāfi’ī and
Imam Ahmad (may Allah shower His mercy upon them). Imam Mālik has
classified it as mandūb (preferred), though he too acknowledges its importance.
To perform it in congregation is also a sunna, as this has been proven from the
Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).

The majority of the Companions, Imams and scholars of hadīth and fiqh assert
that salāh al-tarāwīh consists of twenty rak’āts. This is proven from the following
Prophetic traditions, reports and statements;

*Ibn Abbās (may Allah be pleased with him) reports that:
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) would perform
twenty rak’āts in Ramadān,

excluding the witr. 1
*The actions of Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) later showed that the
number of rak’āts is twenty in total when he gathered Muslims in his era in the
mosque to perform this amount. Imam Mālik reports in his Muwatta from Yazīd
ibn Rumān that:

The people in the era of Umar ibn al-Khattāb would stand in the month of
Ramadān for twenty-three rak’āts. 2
This figure of twenty-three is inclusive of the three rak’āts of witr too. Therefore
this hadīth also supports the opinion of Imam Abu Hanīfa (may Allah be pleased
with him) that witr consists of three rak’āts and not one.
*Imam Bayhaqī affirms this when he reports in Ma’rifa that Sā’ib ibn Yazīd said:
In the era of Umar (may Allah be pleased with him), we would perform
twenty rak’āts and the witr.
1 This hadith has been recorded by Ibn Abi Shayba, al-Tabarani (in al-Mu’jam al-kabir) and Imam
Bayhaqi. Imam Bayhaqi added the words ‘without congregation.’
2 Muwatta. Imam Malik, Hadith no. 233. Book; the Call for Salah, Chapter; what has been mentioned
regarding the establishing of prayer in Ramadan.
*Twenty rak’āts was also the opinion and practice of Alī (may Allah be pleased
with him). Imam Bayhaqī reports from Abu Abd al-Rahmān that:
Alī ibn Abī Tālib (may Allah be pleased with him) called the reciters in the
month of Ramadān. He ordered one of them to recite five tarwīhāts 3 as a
total of twenty, and then Alī would lead the witr prayer.
*Imam al-Bukhārī and Imam Muslim both narrate in their Sahīh that:
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) came out in the
month of Ramadān on certain nights. They were three separate occasions;
the third night, the fifth night and the twenty-seventh night. The people
read their prayer with him. He would perform eight rak’āts with them,
and they would read the remaining rak’āts in their homes…
From this authentic report, several points are deduced.
-Firstly, to perform salāh al-tarāwīh and to perform it in congregation is the
sunna of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
-Secondly, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) never read the
full twenty rak’āts with them, and this continued during the time of the
-Thirdly, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) never made a
habit of performing salāh al-tarāwīh regularly. This – as we are informed in other
narrations – is because the Prophet feared that if he did, it would become
incumbent upon his followers.
-Fourthly, the number of rak’āts is not as some Muslims believe confined to eight.
As the report clearly states, the Companions would complete the remaining
rak’āts at home.

*Imam al-Tirmidhī writes:
And the men on knowledge have differed in the rak’ats of the qiyām of
Ramadān (salah al-tarāwīh). Some have seen forty-one rak’āts with the
witrs, and this is the opinion of the people of Madina…and the majority of
the people of knowledge act upon what Umar, Alī (may Allah be pleased
with him) and others have reported of twenty rak’āts. And this is the
opinion of Thawrī, Ibn al-Mubārak and Imam al-Shāfi’ī. 4
*There is further evidence to suggest that salāh al-tarāwīh is twenty rak’āts. We
know that the Companions would recite approximately one rukū of the Qur’ān in
every rak’at of salāh al-tarāwīh and would aim to finish the entire Qur’ān on the
twenty-seventh night of Ramadān. If performing eight rak’āts was their practice,
then they could only complete the entire Qur’ān if they were 216 rukūs in the
Qur’ān. But the Qur’ān consists of about 540 rukūs.

3 The word tarāwīh and tarwīhāt is the plural of tarwīha. In Arabic, this means ‘rest’, since Muslims
are asked to rest after every four rak’ats. 4 Sunan al-Tirmidhi. Book of Sawm; Chapter; what has been mentioned regarding the qiyam of
Ramadan. These are al-Tirmidhi’s notes after mentioning hadith no. 743. 3

*From a grammatical perspective, salāh al-tarāwīh is twenty rak’ats. Tarāwīh
(and Tarwīhāt) is the plural of tarwīha. Tarwīha means ‘rest’; this is because
after every four rak’āts Muslims rest for a moment. If salāh al-tarāwīh consisted
of eight rak’āts then there would only be two ‘tarwīhas’, after four rak’āts and
after eight rak’āts. This would then mean the name of the prayer would be salāh
al-tarwīhatayn (the prayer of two rests), not salāh al-tarāwīh (the prayer of
many rests). When we rightly assume salāh al-tarāwīh is twenty rak’āts, then
this means there are five rests; and in Arabic the plural is used for three items or
Imam al-Bukhārī reports in his Sahīh that that Aisha (may Allah be pleased with
her) was asked about the Prayers of the Messenger in the month of Ramadān.
She replied:
‘The Prophet did not exceed more than eleven rak’āts in and outside
Ramadān…’ 5
This seemingly suggests that salāh al-tarāwīh is eight rak’āts (with the other
three for witr).
The answer to this objection is that the hadīth is in fact about the tahajjud
prayers of the Messenger, not salāh al-tarāwīh. The proof is in the text when
Aisha said ‘in and outside Ramadān…’ Salāh al-tarāwīh is only recited in
Ramadān, tahajjud can be performed throughout the year.
To conclude, to assume salāh al-tarāwīh as eight rak’āts, one has to ignore the
practice of the Prophet, the actions of the Companions and the statements from
our great Imams and scholars. Throughout the Muslim world – including in the
Grand Mosques of Makka and Madina – Muslims have rightly performed twenty
rak’āts. We pray to Allah Almighty that He continues to shower His guidance
upon the Muslims in this matter, Ameen.

Dr. Hafiz Ather Hussain al-Azhari
BA Principles of Theology, al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt.
MA Arabic and Islamic Studies, Dar al-Ulum Muhammadia Ghawsia, Bhera, Pakistan.
BA Political Science, MPhil Theology & PhD Theology, University of Birmingham.
5 Sahih al-Bukhari. Book; Salah al-Tarawih; Chapter; The superiority of standing in prayer in
Ramadan. Hadith no. 1874.