I was at a Jāmi` mosque in the Southern African city where I work. It was around 13h45, that is, 30 minutes past the time for the main Zuhr prayer in jamā`ah. I finished my ablution and I asked three people who were standing in that area whether they would join me to pray as a small congregation, which is how it normally works among us. Two people acceded to my request, but one told me that he would pray alone since he followed Imām Mālik. I felt he was arrogant and anti-social, and I was flabbergasted, as I grew up with the view having been inculcated in me since childhood that praying in a group was 27 times better than doing so alone. Can you shed some light on the issue?
In the Name of Allah, the All-Merciful, the Most Merciful.
May Allah’s prayer of blessing and mercy and His salutation of peace be on His beloved Messenger, the master of the earlier peoples and the later ones, the pure and purified members of his family, the totality of his rightly-guided companions, and whoever follows them through engagement in beneficent goodness until the Day of Judgment.
The man you met at the mosque simply held, correctly, to the teachings of his juristic school.
According to the madhhab of the Imām of the Abode of the Hijrah, in fact, it is considered reprehensible (though taking the disliked route would not invalidate a person’s prayer) to repeat in congregation a prayer that has been held as a jamā`ah in your run-of-the-mill mosque which has a fixed imām, one who is paid a stipend to look after the affairs of the mosque, and where congregational prayers are customarily performed five times daily.
In the first place, the repetition (or even anticipation) of the congregational prayer contradicts the established Sunnah, as that was not the practice of the first Islamic generation. Right from the start, therefore, we can see that your attitudinal problem, rather judgmental though understandable because of your upbringing, was misplaced. You had no reason to hold against a fellow Muslim his desire to adhere to what ultimately conformed to the Sunnah.
Secondly, the Islamic encouragement to pray in congregation, and the Prophetically attested reward attendant on such deed (its superiority over an individual prayer by 27 times), have been legislated because of a purpose which is sought to be attained and a wisdom which is sought to be actualized: Uniting Muslims around an action which entails discarding, at fixed and precisely identified times, the engrossment with any other issue other than confiding jointly to Allah. One cannot shift and adjust those times at will and then claim that he has fulfilled the wise aim which such recommended act of self-striving has been legislated for. Coming 30 or 50 minutes or more than an hour after the appointed time for the congregational prayer led by the imām in charge of the mosque, at one’s leisure, is not the act for which the reward of an individual prayer multiplied by 27 times has been promised. To hold or even think otherwise is to play with the Dīn and make a mockery of it, apart from the fact that it induces people to be lazy and set out unhurriedly for a mosque as there is always “ample leeway” to pray “as a jamā`ah”.
In addition, that trend is a potential recipe for disunity in the community, whereas we have seen that uniting the Muslims in one action is one of the lofty goals of congregational prayers, since groups of frequenters of mosques adverse to the imām or hostile to the main body of the congregation would exploit it so as establish their own congregations after the main jamā`ah has concluded the prayer. Innovators in the Dīn are particularly prone to seize on such opportunity. In England, for instance, I noticed a group of people distinguished by long pointed green hats always waiting for the one and only jamā`ah to have ended in order for them to pray together at the back of a mosque. Discord is thereby furthered and enhanced, and sectarianism spreads widely. Islam is harmonious order and regularity.
The rule for the Mālikiyyah is that, in the scenario you have described in your question, the person should switch to another mosque if the time for the congregational prayer there is later and he can catch it, or else betake to his house and perform the salāt there, unless he cannot do so because he is working or studying far away from his residence, in which event he would have to do precisely what you have castigated him for, i.e. pray alone inside the mosque.
There are three exceptions to that rule:
The mosques which are set up in some countries for security guards doing patrols at night, and which are thus unused during daytime, which means there is also no imām attached thereto and getting a stipend to fulfill his general functions of looking after a mosque. Different groups of Muslims can go there, say, for Zuhr, and perform it in successive congregations. That is so as the rationale for the reprehensibility of such repetition of prayers in jamā`ah is lacking in the respect of such mosques;
The mosques which people in some Muslim countries build by markets or at the sides of roads in order for travelers to use them on an ad hoc basis, without any regular performance therein of the five congregational prayers;
By analogy, the same ruling is assigned to any place serving as a mosque which has no stable imām or mu’adhdhin, and in which people’s habit is to pray in successive groups. For instance, in your region, Southern Africa, you find that happening at mosques operating within university campuses or built inside shops or factories in work-related areas which are not really inhabited by Muslims after working hours.
Note that the Mālikis’ detestation of the repetition (or anticipation) of congregational prayers in a regular mosque overseen by an imām who is paid a stipend is not “cured” and thus removed by the imām granting his consent to that practice, as we have seen that the rationale for the ruling is broader than just the possible arousal of antipathy towards the imām. Even assuming there was more than one imām allocated to the same mosque and given a stipend for that, it would still be abhorred for another group of Muslims to pray in congregation if one fixed time was set for the jamā`ah, regardless of which imām led it.
Similarly, the position of the Shāfi`iyyah is that, in respect of a regular mosque with an imām paid a stipend for discharging his office, the performance of another congregational prayer is loathed, whether it occurs prior to, simultaneously with, or subsequently to the jamā`ah ordinarily led by him.
The Hanābilah (cf. al-Jazīrī’s Al-Fiqh ‘alā al-Madhāhib al-Arba`ah) assert the prohibition, in the absence of a consent to the contrary by the regular imām, of performing another congregational prayer in a mosque supervised by an imām who is the recipient of a stipend in return for the execution of his duties, before or at the time of the prayer led by him in jamā`ah. In the absence of his authorization, that is in other words harām according to them, and the prayer is deemed invalid, and Allah knows best.
NB: This article reflects the Mālikī position on the topic, and is not intended to refute any ruling which happens to be acceptable in terms of another school of jurisprudence of Ahl as-Sunnah, especially, in this case, the Hanafī madhhab.