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The Various Rulings on Changing Intentions in Prayer

Imām Muḥammad ibn Ṣāliḥ al-ʿUthaymīn

An explanation on when it is and is not acceptable to change one’s intention after initiation of ṣalāh.

Changing Intention from Praying Individually to Being Led in Prayer: The Opinion of the Ḥanbalī Madh`hab

If a person praying by himself decides to change his intention to being led, his ṣalāh is deemed incorrect. For example, a person starts praying by himself, then, a group of people enter and begin praying in congregation. So this person decides to join the congregation by suddenly following the actions of their imām. His ṣalāh is deemed incorrect because his intention of being led only occurred after he had already begun praying, as he already started his ṣalāh independently. In this way, his intention may be perceived as fragmented, invalidating his ṣalāh. This applies similarly, if he was to change his intention from one obligatory ṣalāh to another [after already beginning the prayer]. This is the opinion of the Ḥanbalī madh`hab.

The Opinion of Shaykh Ibn ʿUthaymīn (رحمه الله) on Changing Intentions from Praying Individually or Being Led/Leading After Entering the Prayer

The second opinion on this issue—which is a narration from Imām Aḥmad—is that it is acceptable for a person praying by himself to change his intention (from praying individually) to being led. This is because the change that has occurred here is to an attribute among the attributes of his original intention (i.e. to complete a given prayer). In the beginning, he intended to pray independently before subsequently being led. This change does not, in actuality, affect his original intention, so it should be deemed permissible. This is the correct opinion on this issue. The evidence for this is that the permissibility of changing one’s intention from praying independently to leading others (or being led) has been authentically confirmed in the Sunnah, as we will mention—in shāʾ Allāh. This proves that such changes to one’s intention are ineffectual as far as the validity of the ṣalāh is concerned. Just as it is permissible for one to change his intention from praying independently to leading others, it must also be permissible for one to change his intention from praying independently to being led. There is no difference between the two save for the fact that in the first circumstance the person has become an imām, and in the second he has changed to being led by another.

[Q]: If such a change in intention is valid, what if a person has prayed a portion of the ṣalāh, then a group of people enter and begin praying Ṣalāh al-Ẓuhr in congregation. Before their entry, this person had already performed two rakʿahs at which point they start praying and he joins them. He will finish his ṣalāh by performing two more rakʿahs with them [while they will pray two more]. So, what should he do?

[A]: He should sit after praying two with them, and cease following their imām. This is because if he did continue to follow their imām he would pray six rakʿahs altogether. Such a prayer is impermissible. Thus, he may sit and wait for the imām to perform his taslīm, and perform the taslīm with him to conclude his ṣalāh. Alternatively, he could change his intention back to praying independently and perform the taslīm to conclude his prayer by himself. He can choose between either of these courses of action.

Changing Intention From Praying Individually to Leading Others: A Matter of Obligatory Prayers Versus Supererogatory Prayers?

As for changing one’s intention from praying by oneself to leading others, this is also incorrect when performing obligatory ṣalāhs according to the composer [al-Ḥajāwī]. For example, a person begins praying by himself. Then, a group of people enter and say aloud to him: “Lead us in ṣalāh”. So he changes his intention in order to lead them. In doing so, he would have changed from praying independently to leading others. This should be deemed invalid because it represents changing from one intention to another, invalidating the ṣalāh just as if he had intended to change from the performance of one obligatory ṣalāh to another. Although from the statement of the composer we can infer that this only applies to the performance of obligatory ṣalāhs. As such, according to his opinion, if a person was to change his intention from praying independently to leading others while paying a supererogatory prayer, it would be deemed correct. The evidence for this is that Ibn ʿAbbās (رضي الله عنهما) once spent the night in the domicile of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم). During the night, when the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) stood to pray, Ibn ʿAbbās (رضي الله عنهما) stood on his left. So the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) held his head and moved him from behind until he had positioned him on his (صلى الله عليه وسلم) right. Here, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) would have changed his intention from praying independently to leading another while performing a supererogatory prayer. Therefore, changing intention from an independent prayer to intending to lead others in supererogatory prayer has been confirmed by narration to the Messenger (صلى الله عليه وسلم).

Changing Intention from Praying Individually to Leading Others in Prayer: The Opinion of Shaykh Ibn ʿUthaymīn (رحمه الله)

The second opinion on this issue is that it is correct for one to change his intention from independent to leading others, regardless of whether the ṣalāh being performed is supererogatory or obligatory. The proponents of this opinion evidence their stance by saying that anything that applies to supererogatory ṣalāh must similarly apply to obligatory ṣalāh except if there is evidence to prove otherwise. If such a change in intention validly applies to supererogatory ṣalāh, it must also apply to obligatory ones. As for the evidence to support applying to obligatory ṣalāh that which is applied to supererogatory prayers, except where evidence proves a differentiation between the two: The companions narrated that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) used to pray on the back of his mount to whichever direction it faced, except that they stated explicitly “except that he would not pray obligatory prayers on it.” This proves that it was well-known to them that anything that applied to supererogatory ṣalāhs (in general) must similarly apply to obligatory ones. Otherwise, there would be no point in specifically mentioning obligatory ṣalāhs as an exception in this case.

Changing Intention from Praying Individually to Leading Others in Prayer: The Opinion of the Ḥanbalī Madh`hab

The third opinion on this issue is that it is incorrect for anyone to change their intention from individual to intending to lead others, regardless of whether the ṣalāh being performed is obligatory or supererogatory. Likewise, it is incorrect for anyone to change their intention from praying independently to intending to be led by another regardless of whether the ṣalāh in question is supererogatory or obligatory. This is the opinion of the Ḥanbalī madh`hab. The stance of the composer is in the middle [in that he allows it in supererogatory rather than obligatory prayers].

Although, the correct opinion is that such a change in intention is correct regardless of whether the particular ṣalāh is supererogatory or obligatory. As for supererogatory, a clear passage from the Sunnah was narrated which pertains to it directly, as aforementioned. As for obligatory prayers, anything that applies to supererogatory prayers applies to obligatory ones, except where evidence stipulates a differentiation between the two.

[Q]: How do the proponents of the opinion that changing intention is impermissible in both obligatory and supererogatory prayers answer the aforementioned ḥadīth of Ibn ʿAbbās (رضي الله عنهما)?

[A]: They answer it by saying that when the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) began praying by himself he was almost certain that Ibn ʿAbbās (رضي الله عنهما) would join him. In consideration of this interpretation, they claim that if a person changes his intention from praying individually to leading others, while surmising at the very beginning of his prayer that he will lead another who will subsequently join him, then his ṣalāh is valid. They say: This is because by him thinking that someone may join him, he has actually made a conditional intention based on this secondary occurrence from the very beginning of his ṣalāh. As such, such a change in intention is harmless.

We refute this interpretation in two ways:

  1. It is quite improbable that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) would expect Ibn ʿAbbās (رضي الله عنهما) to join him in prayer as he, at the time, was a sleeping adolescent youth.
  2. Even if such a notion was probable, who told you that the Messenger (صلى الله عليه وسلم) thought that he would join him? Such a claim requires evidence as the fundamental state is that he expected no such thing. Therefore, the ḥadīth of Ibn ʿAbbās (رضي الله عنهما) remains a fully actionable passage, safe from opposition. As for analogising supererogatory with obligatory ṣalāh, it is a form of analogization that is doubtless; most acceptable.

Changing Intention from Being Led in Prayer to Praying Individually

As for changing intention from being led to praying independently, its ruling is subject to elaboration. If the praying person has a valid excuse to do so, such an act is permissible. If the person possesses no excuse, then it is impermissible. For example, a person begins praying behind an imām. Then, he decides to pray by himself. So, he begins praying independently and concludes his ṣalāh. Here, we say: If he has done so in relation to a valid excuse, then his ṣalāh is valid. Otherwise, his ṣalāh is invalid.

Examples of Valid Excuses

An example of a valid excuse would be if the imām lengthens his recitation longer than what has been related in the Sunnah. It would be permissible for those being led to change their intention to that of an independent prayer. The evidence for this is the incident of the man who prayed with Muʿādh (رضي الله عنه) who used to pray ʿIshāʾ with the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم). Then, he would return to his own community and lead them in ṣalāh [supererogatory for him and ʿIshāʾ for them]. One night he came upon them and lengthened his recitation with Sūrah al-Baqarah. A man behind him began praying independently, concluding his ṣalāh by himself. When Muʿādh (رضي الله عنه) was informed of his actions, he said: “He has committed hypocrisy”, that is: by abandoning the Muslim congregation. Then, this man complained to the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) concerning which the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said to Muʿādh: “Do you wish to be the cause of discord and dissent O Muʿādh?!”.1 He (صلى الله عليه وسلم) did not scold or reprimand the man. This proves that it is permissible for a person being led to change his intention and pray independently if the imām has lengthened the ṣalāh. Although this lengthening must be greater than that which has been narrated in the Sunnah, not merely longer than what the people are accustomed to. For this reason, if a man was to lead a congregation whose regular imām shortens his recitation, whose sujūd and rukūʿ are consistently brief, and this other person leads them with a recitation, rukūʿ and sujūd that are consistent with the Sunnāh, it would be impermissible for anyone praying behind him to begin praying independently. This is because there is no valid excuse here.

Nausea, Bloating and Discomfort

Among the valid excuses as well is if a person feels nauseous, needing to vomit, while praying to the extent that he is unable to remain in ṣalāh until his imām has concluded it, then he may pray independently. He may shorten the duration of its movements and excuse himself.

Another valid excuse is if a person is experiencing bloating or intestinal gas to the extent that he finds it difficult to remain with the imām. He may also pray independently, shortening its movement durations, and leave.

Need to Relieve Oneself

Another valid excuse is if a person is afflicted with holding in urine or defecation to the extent that the call of nature restricts him while praying.

However, if hypothetically one would not benefit from abandoning his imām and praying independently because the imām is already praying quickly, to the extent that if he was to pray independently and shorten its movements more than the imām he would not be able to attain calmness or stillness in each position, then it would be impermissible for him to pray independently. This is because the independence that is gained here would be completely futile.

Difference in Intention Due to Praying a Shorter Prayer (i.e. A Traveller Praying Maghrib When the Imām Is Praying ʿIshāʾ)

Another valid excuse is if the ṣalāh of the ones being led is shorter than the ṣalāh of the imām leading them. For example, a person is praying Maghrib behind an imām who is performing ʿIshāʾ provided we adopt the opinion that such a prayer is valid. In this circumstance, it would be permissible for the one being led to start praying independently [in the third rakʿah], say the tashahhud, perform the taslīm, and leave. Alternatively, he could finish Maghrib, join the same imām in the last rakʿah of ʿIshāʾ, then finish the remaining three rakʿahs of ʿIshāʾ after the imām’s taslīm. This opinion is a narration from Imām Aḥmad (رحمه الله), and the stance adopted by Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah (رحمه الله). This opinion is the truth, the type of excuse provided here is a legislated one as, if this person had stood with his imām for the fourth rakʿah [while he is praying Maghrib], his Maghrib ṣalāh would be invalidated.

Changing Intention From Being Led in Prayer to Praying Individually Without a Valid Excuse

If a person changes his intention and prays independently without a valid excuse, then his ṣalāh is considered invalid according to the composer, and the Ḥanbalī madh`hab.

The second opinion in this issue is that his ṣalāh is not considered invalid. This opinion is predicated upon this person having joined the congregation and prayed at least a rakʿah or more behind the imām. If he was unable to join the congregation, then he may not begin praying independently as this leads to complete abandonment of the congregation without an excuse. However, if he has prayed at least a rakʿah with them, then decides to pray by himself, then this would be considered permissible [according to this opinion].

However, I hold misgivings related to the opinion that espouses arbitrarily deciding to pray independently without a valid excuse. As for Islamically legislated excuses or those that are perceived, there can be no doubt in the permissibility of praying independently because of them.

[Q]: Would a valid excuse be if the one being led is a traveller and the imām he is praying behind is a resident, such that [in a four rakʿah ṣalāh] he starts praying independently after two rakʿahs, performing the taslīm by himself?

[A]: No. This is because a traveller who prays behind a resident imām should pray the ṣalāh in a complete manner. As the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said: “The position of imām has been set such that he is followed”2 and his (صلى الله عليه وسلم) saying: “Pray the [remaining portion of the] ṣalāh whose [congregatory] time you have arrived within, and complete what has missed you.”3 Also, when Ibn ʿAbbās (رضي الله عنهما) was asked: “What is the reasoning for a traveller praying two rakʿahs by himself, but praying four when behind a resident imām?” He answered: “Such is the Sunnah”.

[Q]: If a person changes his intention and prays independently due to a valid excuse, then that excuse ceases, should he change his intention back to being led and begin following the imām again, or continue praying by himself?

[A]: The jurists have stated that both are permissible. That is, he may either go back to following the imām or simply continue praying by himself. For example, if this person starts praying independently, and finishes a rakʿah while his imām is still in the rakʿah which he left him in. Here, if he re-joins the imām, the imām will always be a rakʿah behind him. So, when the imām stands for the final [congregatory] rakʿah, this person can either sit and wait for the imām, or return to independence and conclude his ṣalāh. In reality, this can occur if a person arrives at the congregatory ṣalāh late such that he stands up to pray what he missed when the imām concludes the prayer. Then, the congregation informs the imām that he has missed a rakʿah. So the imām stands and leads the congregation in this missing rakʿah. This person has begun praying independently in relation to a legislated excuse, so his independence is completely excusable. Then, if the imām returns to ṣalāh to complete what was missed, he has a choice. He may either continue praying by himself or return to following the imām.

Changing from Leading Others to Praying Independently

The fourth type of changing intention is to change from leading others to praying independently. This has two circumstances:

  1. The ṣalāh of those praying behind the imām is invalidated. Here, the imām continues his prayer by himself as those behind him have invalidated their ṣalāh.
  2. Those being led begin praying independently of their imām due to a valid excuse causing the imām to change from leading others to praying independently. This will occur if those being led have a valid, legislated excuse or a perceived, felt one causing them to begin praying independently of their imām. The imām continues praying by himself, changing from leading others to independent prayer.

Changing from Leading Others to Being Led

The fifth type of change is from leading others to being led. For example, a man begins leading the congregation by saying the takbīrah al-iḥrām. This man is a representative of the regular imām for that community. While they are praying, the community imām enters and steps forward to finish leading the remaining portion of the congregational prayer. His representative steps back and joins the first row of the congregation if there is room. Otherwise, he may remain on the imām’s right side. Thus, this representative would have changed from leading others to being led. This change is permissible.

The evidence of the permissibility of this change is what had occurred with the Messenger (صلى الله عليه وسلم) when he ordered Abū Bakr (رضي الله عنه) to lead the congregational prayers [during the sickness at the end of his life (صلى الله عليه وسلم)]. One day the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) found respite [from the fever that had afflicted him], so he came upon the congregation and led them in prayer. He (صلى الله عليه وسلم) did so by sitting on the left side of Abū Bakr (رضي الله عنه), with Abū Bakr on his (صلى الله عليه وسلم) right. The Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) would say the takbīr but his voice was faint. So he (صلى الله عليه وسلم) would say the takbīr, and Abū Bakr would repeat after him such that the congregation would hear.4 Here, Abū Bakr (رضي الله عنه) changed from leading others to being led. Those who were already being led changed from following one imām to following another. Although, they are being led in both instances.

As for the example mentioned, it is most apparent that the community imām alone has the right to step forward and lead the congregation instead of the representative. This is because the community imām is considered the fundamental origin of leadership in that community. Therefore, his taking of leadership may be perceived as a return to the original state of being for that congregation, as opposed to anyone besides him. However, what is more apparent is that there is no difference in ruling [between the community imām and anyone else] provided the second imām possesses desirable characteristics of leadership like excellence in recitation, or greatness in terms of scholarship or worship. If no such desirable characteristic is present, then such a change in leadership is impermissible.

Changing from Being Led to Leading Others

The sixth type is changing from being led to leading others. This may occur in several circumstances:

  1. The existing imām requires a representative during the ṣalāh. For example, during the ṣalāh, the imām believes that his ṣalāh will be invalidated due to him sensing impending urination. To the extent that he knows it is about to flow out. Here, a representative should step forward to complete the remaining proportion of the prayer. Here, this person would have changed from being led to leading others. Such a change is permissible.
  2. Two people arrive at the congregatory ṣalāh late. One of them says to the other: “When the imām says the taslīm, I am your imām” to which his companion says: “Okay”. So, when the imām says the taslīm, one of them begins leading the other in ṣalāh. Here, one of them is changed from being led to leading another while the other has changed from being led by one imām to following another. The Ḥanbalī madh`hab views this change as permissible. This is because changing from one imām to another has been confirmed in the aforementioned ḥadīth of Abū Bakr (رضي الله عنه) with the Messenger (صلى الله عليه وسلم).

While others among the companions of Imām Aḥmad view this change as impermissible. They say: This stipulates a person changing from following one imām to another, and another person changing from being led to leading another both without a valid reason. One cannot change from that which is low through being led to that which is higher through leading another. They also say: Such an agreement was never made during the time of the pious predecessors. As the companions never made an agreement that one of them would lead the other if they missed a part of the congregational prayer. If such an action represented goodness, they would have preceded us to it.

Although the proponents of this action do not claim such an agreement to be a recommended act. Rather, they say: If this occurs, then it is permissible. Here, it should be noted that there is a clear difference between claiming an action as being permissible and claiming it as a legislated, recommended action. As such, we do not claim this act to be legislated or recommend people engage in it such that if they enter the masjid, and some of the congregatory prayer has elapsed, one of them should say to the other: I will be your imām [when the imām finishes]. However, if people have done this we would not say: “Your ṣalāh is invalid”. This is the more correct opinion on this issue. Such an action is permissible, but should not be encouraged because it was not done at the time of the pious predecessors. It is, therefore, better that such actions are left as we know that they have preceded us to all forms of goodness. As such, if there was goodness in this action, they would have definitely preceded us to it.

The types of intention changes that we have discussed may be summarised as follows:

  1. Changing from praying independently to being led. There are two narrations regarding it from Imām Aḥmad and the Ḥanbalī madh`hab views it as impermissible.
  2. Changing from praying independently to leading others. It has several opinions, one of which differentiates between supererogatory and obligatory.
  3. Changing from being led to praying independently. This is permissible if done in relation to an excuse. If done without an excuse, there are two narrations from Imām Ahmad regarding it and the Ḥanbalī madh`hab views it as incorrect.
  4. Changing from leading others to praying independently. It has two circumstances and both are considered valid.
  5. Changing from leading others to being led. It has one circumstance that is permissible.
  6. Changing from being led to leading others. It has two iterations both of which are permissible despite the difference of opinion in the second. Elaboration on it and its evidence has been mentioned previously.

Endnotes:
[1] Authentic: narrated by al-Bukhārī: 6106 and Muslim: 465.
[2] Authentic: narrated by al-Bukhārī: 689 and Muslim: 411.
[3] Authentic: narrated by al-Bukhārī: 636 and Muslim: 602.
[4] Authentic: narrated by al-Bukhārī: 687 and Muslim: 418.

Source: Al-Sharḥ al-Mumtiʿ 2: 307-314
Translated by: Riyāḍ al-Kanadī

Published: February 18, 2024
Edited: February 23, 2024

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