Feet to Feet, Toe to Toe

Sep 4, 2010 | Salat (Prayer)


Hanafis are often criticised for not touching toes in congregational prayer (by Salafis), who point to the hadith (I don’t know it off-hand). I understand that it’s not the hadith that is being questioned, but the interpretation.

This is specifically a problem for women, as we have to keep our feet close together, according to our madhab. Please send me details as I am trying to put this across to a salafi sister.

Answered by: Mufti Abdurrahman ibn Yusuf

In the name of Allah the Inspirer of truth.

The following which is an excerpt from the 3rd edition of Fiqh al-Imam (currently under publication) will insha’Allah give more insight into the issue of joining the feet which has caused great confusion.

There is a hadith of Sunan Abi Dawud which describes the Companions joining their feet with each other to form orderly rows. Abu ‘l-Qasim al-Jadali reports:

I heard Nu’man ibn Bashir relate that the Messenger faced the people and instructed,

“Straighten your rows. By Allah, you should straighten your rows or else Allah will create disagreement between your hearts.”

Nu’man ibn Bashir then states, “I saw each person join his shoulders with the next persons and his knees and ankles with the next persons” (Sunan Abi Dawud 1:104).

This is one of the hadiths which is put forward as evidence by those who assert that each person’s feet should be joined with the next persons, during congregation. Some of them are overly particular about this, and if someone standing next to them happen to draw their feet inwards then these people widens their legs even more to maintain the contact. They continuously criticize those who do not leave a wide gap between their feet as though the sunna method is only what they claim.

However, their attempts to substantiate their point through the above or similar hadiths are in vain, for a number of simple reasons.

(1) The words which actually describe the joining of the feet are not the words of the Messenger e, but are the words of the narrator, i.e. his observation. Hence, that portion of the narration is not a statement of the Messenger himself (marfu’). The narrator is the one who describes the reaction of the Companions present at the time to the command and warning of the Messenger. In fact, this type of an observation added by the narrator is not even found in the majority of narrations that emphasize orderly rows. Hence, it becomes quite clear that the Messenger did not command that the feet be joined together. He merely commanded that the lines be orderly, and the Companions employed this method of joining their feet and shoulders together to fulfill that.

(2) The hadith merely tells us about the behavior of the Companions before the prayer had begun. In other words, to comply with the instruction of the Messenger e they attempted to form a straight line by joining their shoulders and feet together before the prayer commenced. No where in the hadith does it indicate that this was also done during the prayer. It states that the Messenger e turned towards them to instruct them in this regard, which proves that this activity took place prior to the beginning of prayer. Whether this arrangement was continued throughout the prayer or not is not mentioned in the narrations.

(3) If for the sake of argument, we were to accept that the joining of the feet was maintained throughout the prayer, a number of questions would arise. For one, it would be enquired whether the feet should be joined together in all postures of the prayer or only during the standing posture (qiyam). If the answer is that it is required only during the standing posture, then the question would be what is the evidence for that? Why is this arrangement confined to the standing posture only and not required in any other posture? If the answer is that it is necessary in all postures of prayer, then the question would be, How will people in each row go about joining their feet and shoulders together whilst in prostration or in the sitting posture? As is clear, it would be quite impossible to achieve that.

Moreover, if the counter-argument is that it is only necessary to have the feet together while standing up because it is difficult to do so in the other postures of prayer, then the answer to that would be, it is also very difficult, and sometimes quite inconvenient, for many people to ensure this joining arrangement during the standing posture as well, just as it is in other postures.

(4) If it is considered necessary to join the shoulders and feet together on account of the above hadith, then why have the knees been excluded? As is mentioned in the above narration of Sunan Abi Dawud that the Companions joined their knees together, it should also be treated as an obligation throughout the prayer. However, one must be warned that standing even for a short while with one’s knees joined to the next persons can be quite painful, in fact impossible in some cases, when there is significant difference in the size of the two people standing next to each other.

(5) Another interpretation of this hadith is that the narrator Nu’man ibn Bashir only intended to describe how the Companions attempted to form extremely straight rows at the instructions of the Messenger e, and not that they actually joined their feet, shoulders and ankles together. It is for this reason that the title of a chapter in Sahih al-Bukhari “Chapter on the Joining of the Shoulders and Feet Together Whilst Forming the Rows” has been classified by Hafiz Ibn Hajar to be based on exaggeration. He writes in his commentary Fath al-Bari, (Imam Bukhari’s) reason for choosing this specific title is to exaggerate (mubalagha) the importance of straightening the rows and filling the gaps in between. (Fath al-Bari 2:247)

This means that the narration is not to be taken literally. Imam Shawkani, who is constantly referred to by those who prefer not to follow a school of thought in Islamic jurisprudence, has not taken it for its literal interpretation either. He writes in his book Nayl al-awtar:

(The statement of the Companion) means, place the parts of the body (shoulders, etc.) in line with each other, so that the shoulder of each person performing prayer is in level with the shoulder of the next person. This way everyone’s shoulders, knees and feet will be in a single straight line (Nayl al-awtar 3:65*).

In clear words, this indicates that the real reason for joining the shoulders and other parts, was to straighten the rows, not that the joining itself is an obligatory act.

(6) Anas t has further stated in a narration of Ma?mar which Ibn Hajar has recorded in his Fath al-Bari, If I were to attempt this (joining the shoulders and feet together) with anybody today, they would scurry away like restive mules (Fath al-Bari 2:247).

It is apparent from this statement, that even the Companions did not continue this practice after the demise of the Messenger e. If it had been a continuous action of the Messenger e (sunna mustamirra) the Companions would never have abandoned it, let alone speak of it in such a manner.

(7) Once it is established that the primary reason for the Companions joining their feet together was to achieve perfect order in their rows, it can be easily understood that this joining of the feet is not required any longer, since in most of the masjids and places of worship today, the lines are well marked on the carpets, marble, and floor coverings. The worshippers by standing together with their heels on the markings will automatically come together in perfectly straight rows. There is no need to be so particular in joining the feet together to achieve this goal, let alone consider it the actual goal.

For the entire discussion see Fiqh al-Imam: Key Proofs in Hanafi Fiqh.

Mufti Abdurrahman ibn Yusuf