Fardh [Obligation]: What is obligatory and what is voluntary?

Q197 :In a previous article, you said that a prayer is complete if only the obligatory part has been offered. In my part of the world, most people and many scholars say that unless all Sunnah prayers are offered together with the obligatory part, then that prayer is not complete and a Muslim has to be accountable for it. Could you please further elaborate. I have noticed that some people in my home country refrain from prayer because they find it too difficult. You mentioned in one of your answers that if a person omits a Sunnah, he will not be questioned about it by Allah. Can you please explain this further. Is it not true to say that if you offer a Sunnah, you are rewarded for it?

A197 : These are the only two of several letters which I have received on this subject which I had thought is basic knowledge for every Muslim. The fact is that my answer to a reader's question has provoked so many requests for elaboration, compels me to come back on this issue in greater detail. A fardh or obligation is something that Allah has commanded us to do, either in general or specific terms. He could make the order in the Qur'an or He could give it to us through the Prophet in an authentic Hadith. For example, the obligation of prayer has been imposed by numerous Qur'anic verses, which tell believers to "attend regularly to your prayers". The Prophet has made it clear that "Allah has made it obligatory for you to offer five prayers every day and night." The two obligations run side by side, and it is not sufficient for a Muslim to offer less than the five obligatory prayers every day. Again, the obligation of zakah has been imposed in the Qur'an, when Allah says on several occasions, "and pay out your zakah". It is the Prophet who has given us the details of how much zakah we should pay on every type of property that we have. In both instances, what the Prophet has told us becomes part of the obligation, because he has only sought to explain what the Qur'anic obligation entails. There are many other examples of details of obligations being given by the Prophet. What the Prophet defines as part of the obligation becomes also obligatory. It is important to realize that Allah grants maximum reward for the fulfillment of the obligation He has made binding on His servants. In a Qudsi Hadith, the Prophet mentions that Allah, the Al-mighty, says: "My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have imposed on him." This is due to the fact that the fulfillment of an obligation Allah has made binding denotes recognition of Allah's authority and submission to His orders and readiness to fulfill what He has required of us. It is demonstration of total submission and obedience to Allah. Hence, Allah rewards for it so generously. If one does not attend to his religious obligations, one will definitely have to account for his negligence. He will have to answer even for a single obligatory prayer missed or a single riyal short of zakah, or a single day of non-fasting in Ramadhan, etc. When a human is being held to account for a missed duty, he is in a serious position. Unless Allah forgives him that omission, then he will have to be punished for it. Punishment in the hereafter is too serious to be trifled with. The term "Sunnah" means, from the linguistic point of view, a road or way. From the religious point of view, it means following the Prophet's example, or his method or what he has indicated as recommended. For example, Allah has made it obligatory on all Muslims to fast during the day throughout the month of Ramadhan. The Prophet has recommended us to add to this obligation taraweeh prayer at night. If one acts on the Prophet's recommendation and attends to taraweeh prayer as the Prophet has recommended, he stands to earn a much greater reward than a person who does only the obligatory part of fasting. When you do your taraweeh prayer, you also demonstrate your love of the Prophet and your readiness to follow his example. This is a much clearer demonstration of your love of the Prophet than celebrating his birthday or chanting his praises in what is termed as "na'at". Now the Prophet has recommended us, either by verbal statement or by action to offer Sunnah or nafil, with each one of the five obligatory prayers. Reports of how many rak'ahs he recommended with each obligatory prayer differ, with some people suggesting that with Duhr alone, 10 rak'ahs of Sunnah or nafil are to be offered. Some go to the extent of saying that unless this total of 14 rak'ahs are offered every day at Dhuhr, then Dhuhr prayer is incomplete. This betrays a gross misunderstanding. The fact is that what is obligatory is known as "fardh", which is made up of 17 rak'ahs for all five obligatory prayers, in this order: Two rak'ahs for Fajr, four for Dhuhr, four for Asr, three for Maghrib and four for Isha. A question may be asked here: If a Muslim offers only these 17 rak'ahs everyday, and does not offer any Sunnah throughout his life, what does he miss? The answer is that he misses a great deal of reward, because Allah gives generous reward for supererogatory works. Let us quote here the same Qudsi Hadith from which we have made the earlier quotation: "The Prophet is quoted to have said: "Allah, the Almighty says: Whoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, I shall be at war with him. My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have imposed upon him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him I am his ear with which he hears, his eye with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, and his leg with which he walks. Were he to ask something of Me, I would surely give it to him; and were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant him it." (Related by Al-Bukhari). What is meant by "supererogatory works" mentioned in this Hadith is any voluntary action which is offered over and above the religious duties Allah has imposed. This relates particularly to prayers, since the Hadith uses in Arabic the same word we use to refer to voluntary prayers. But will such a Muslim who does not offer any voluntary prayer throughout his life be question by Allah about that? To suggest that we will be questioned for omitting any Sunnah is to make a very serious statement, for which evidence is required. To state that is to make a claim that Allah will question people about things that He has not imposed on them. How can anyone suggest that? Why would Allah question us about that, when He is the most fair of all judges? If he has not made something obligatory, would he ask about its omission? If the traffic law in your country does not require you to stop at a "Give way" sign, when the visibility is clear, would a policeman standing at that junction be justified to book you for not stopping? Would you not be able to stand in court and say that you could see very clearly and there was no need for you to stop and you simply negotiated the junction safely? Do you think that the policeman who booked you would be reprimanded for so doing? If this is true in human courts, would it not be true in Allah's court when Allah is the most fair of judges? If anyone says that Allah will question us about what is recommended or what is Sunnah, then he is making a very wild statement for which he can have no proof. If we say that Allah will not ask us about the Sunnah, how can anyone say that our prayer is incomplete unless we pray the Sunnah? How can anyone suggest that if you do not pray 14 rak'ahs at Dhuhr time, your prayer is incomplete? The fact is that Allah questions us only about those matters that He has imposed on us as duties or those He has forbidden us. If we commit something that is forbidden, He will question us about it. If something is neither of the first sort nor of the second, why would He question us about it when He has given us no instructions regarding it? The fact is that if the whole Muslim nation in all periods of history did not offer a single Sunnah, Allah will not question anyone of them about it. Let me give you this example: Allah has imposed the duty of offering the pilgrimage on every Muslim once in a lifetime. The Prophet has recommended us to offer a voluntary pilgrimage once every five years. Suppose that a Muslim offer his pilgrimage duty when he was 25 and did not go on pilgrimage again until he died at the age of 80. Will Allah ask him on the day of judgment: Why have you not made 10 extra pilgrimages? If anyone says yes, then he does not know what he is talking about. If we say that Allah will not ask him about those 10 pilgrimages because he had fulfilled his duty, then what distinguishes prayers from pilgrimage or fasting or zakah? Let me remind you here the Hadith reported by Talha ibn Obaidallah, one of the best known companions of the Prophet: "A Bedouin came to Allah's messenger (peace be upon him) with a disheveled hair and said: Messenger of Allah, tell me what has Allah imposed on me as a duty of prayer? The Prophet answered: "The five obligatory prayers, unless you wish to volunteer something extra." The man said: "Tell me what has Allah imposed on me as a duty of fasting?" The Prophet answered: "The month of Ramadhan, unless you wish to volunteer something extra." The man asked: "Tell me, what Allah has imposed on me as a duty of zakah?" The Prophet answered him and related to him the duties of Islam. The man then said: "By Him Who has honored you with the message of the truth, I am not going to volunteer anything more or less than what Allah has imposed on me as a duty." The Prophet then said: "The man will be prosperous, if he is true to his word." (Related by Al-Bukhari). In another version also related by Al-Bukhari, the Prophet is quoted to have commented: "The man will be in heaven if he is true to his word." I do not think that there can be any clearer statement to show the difference between what is obligatory and what is recommended. However, we must not underestimate the value of offering the Sunnah prayer, or anything that the Prophet has recommended to us. Everything voluntary you offer will earn you a reward from Allah. The more you offer, the greater your reward. Not only so, but when you do these recommended actions, you draw closer to Allah. This is clearly indicated in the sacred Hadith quoted above. Needless to say, when you are trying to persuade someone to attend regularly to his prayers, you do not want to make the task seem to be difficult for him. You do not tell him that he has to offer 14 rak'ahs for Dhuhr and eight for Asr, seven for Maghrib, etc. You tell him that he needs to offer only 17 rak'ahs in five different settings. When he has acquired the habit of offering prayers regularly, you speak to him about adding the Sunnah. If you tell him at the beginning that he has to offer at least 42 rak'ahs every day, he might not respond. But when he realizes that the task is not that [much] difficult, he may be much more forthcoming.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )