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Significance of the Taraweeh prayers in Ramadan

What is the significance of the ‘Taraweeh’, which the devout say in the Ramadan?


To the less-informed Muslims, Taraweeh prayer is additional, almost obligatory prayer prescribed specially for the holy month of Ramadan. Anybody who does not say them in congregation, it is generally believed, loses a good share of the Ramadan’s blessings. As a result, Muslims throng the mosques for the ‘Isha’ prayer and make sure that they manage to endure twenty additional rakat every night. The Huffaz, however, gifted with the extraordinary ability of briskly uttering the Message of God in the most incomprehensible manner, squeeze long passages into as short duration as possible. Completing the recitation of the Holy Book at least once during these prayer is also considered an important part of this formality, making the Huffaz a highly sought-after group as the Ramadan approaches near.
The reality, however, is that the Tarawih prayer is neither obligatory nor is it supposed to be said by all means after ‘Isha’ in congregation. It is, as is evident from the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws), nothing but Tahajud, the late-night prayer, allowed for the common Muslims to be said in the early part of the night during the Ramadan. The Prophet (sws) it appears, never said this prayer in the earlier part of the night. In one of the Ramadan night’s, however, he came out into the mosque to say his Tahajud prayer and did so thrice in successive nights. He was joined in by his followers, who grew in number each successive time. On the fourth night, an even larger number waited vainly, only to see him at the Fajr prayer. He informed his followers that he had deliberately kept himself from saying prayer in the mosque, lest people should take it as binding on them.
It appears that people who were not used to saying Tahajud regularly (as is evident from the Quran that there was a group which did not) and some others who perhaps found praying in the later part of the night during the Ramadan impracticable because of the time-involving task of preparing Sehri, got permission from the Prophet (sws) to say it in the early half. It seems, moreover, that people formed many small groups to say this prayer in congregation. The practice continued till the caliphate of Umar (raa), who found the plurality of congregational prayer led by the loudly reciting Imams, scattered in the confines of the mosque, much to the dislike of his sensitive religious taste. He lost no time in asking the people to pray behind one Imam. Later, one night, impressed on witnessing the disciplined congregation behind a single Imam, he remarked:
“What a fine innovation is this!”
Of course, the statement was induced by the fact that even though the arrangement was apparently an innovation, it was, nevertheless, in complete consonance with the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws) — his practice which continued for three days running. Umar (ra) is also reported to have remarked on that occasion thus:
“That (the prayer which is said alone in the later part of the night) is indeed superior to the one they are saying instead.”
We may conclude from the above that the Taraweeh prayer has no distinct status, it is only the Tahajud prayer allowed to be said earlier during the Ramadan. As such, Taraweeh is clearly not binding on the Muslims, though the blessings of the Ramadan clearly add to its significance. Tahajud, the night prayer, however, is far more preferable, whether in Ramadan or otherwise. A Muslim should therefore try to say these night prayer regularly at least in the Ramadan and recite the Quran slowly and clearly to facilitate maximum understanding while praying. If, owing to some difficulty which may include the fact that very little of the Quran is committed to memory, Tahajud is not possible, then he should seek to find a mosque to say his Tarawih prayer after ‘Isha’ where the Imam is doing justice with the Book of Allah with proper recitation.
Completing the recitation of the Quran at least once in these night prayer is, of course, no religious obligation. The Quran can be completed many times by reciting it on occasions other than prayer.