How to pray Witr

al-Witr, also pronounced al-Watr, refers to an odd number such as one, three, five, etc.

According to Islamic Jurisprudence Salaah al-Witr refers to the prayer which is prayed between the 'ishaa prayer and tuluu al-Fajr. It is called al-Witr because it consists of an odd number of Rak'ah such as one, three, five, nine, etc. It is not permissible to pray an even number of Rak'ah.

One group of scholars say that Salaah al-Witr is a part of the prayers of Qiyaam al-Layl and al-Tahajjud while another group says that one cannot name al-Witr tahjjud and it is not [a part] of al-Tahajjud prayer.


According to the majority of scholars [Shaafi, Maaliki, Hanaabilah schools of thought] Salaah al-Witr is a stressed upon Sunnah. It is not Waajib.

They have drawn evidence from the following hadiith and narrations for it being a stressed upon Sunnah and not a Waajib.


Narrated Ali ibn Abu Taalib:

The Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) said: Allah is single (witr) and loves what is single, so observe the witr, you who follow the Qur'an.

[Sunan Abu Dawud Hadith No. 1416]


It was narrated that Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

"Witr is not essential like the obligatory prayers, but it is the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allaah (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam)."

[Sunan al-Nasaa’i Hadith No. 1676]


Narrated Salim:

At night `Abdullah bin `Umar used to offer the prayer on the back of his animal during the journey and never cared about the direction he faced. Ibn `Umar said, "Allah's Messenger (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) used to offer the optional prayer on the back of his mount facing any direction and also used to pray the witr on it but never offered the compulsory prayer on it."

[Sahih al-Bukhaari Hadith No. 1098]


Had the Salaah al-Witr been obligatory then the Messenger of Allaah (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) would not have prayed it on his mount.


Abu Bakr from the Hanaabilah school considered it to be a Waajib.

There are three narrations from Abu Hanifah regarding his opinion on Salaah al-Witr. One narration says he considered it Waajib. The second narration says he considered it a Sunnah. The third narration from him says he considered it a Fard.

Members from his school have explained the narration in which he said Salaah al-Witr is Sunnah to mean that evidence for the prayer is derived from the Sunnah and not that the prayer itself is merely a Sunnah.

According to the majority of scholars Salaah al-Witr is a stressed upon Sunnah with the exception of the Hanafis who consider it a Waajib.

The Hanaabilah says that it is disliked to not pray al-Witr and the person who leaves it has done evil. It has been attributed to Imaam Ahmad that he said that the witness of a person who does not pray Salaah al-Witr is not to be accepted.

The Hanaabilah school considers Salaah al-Witr to be from among the Rawaatib Sunan. The Shaafi and Maaliki schools of thought consider it to be from among the most stressed and best of all the Rawaatib Sunan.

According to the Hanaabilah school of thought the most stressed upon optional prayer is Salaah al-kusuuf. Then is Salaah al-'istisqaah. Then is Salaah al-Taraawiih. Then comes Salaah al-Witr followed by the Sunnah of al-Fajr.


They consider Salaah al-kusuuf to be the most stressed upon optional prayer because they say the Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) never left it when the cause to pray it was present.

Next, they say comes Salaah al-'istisqaah in importance because it has congregation attached to it just like the obligatory prayer does.

Then comes Salaah al-Taraawiih because they say that the Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) only left praying it because he (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) feared that it would become obligatory, and because it has congregation attached to it like the obligatory prayer.

They then consider Salaah al-Witr to be most important, even more so than the Sunnah of al-Fajr, because they say there have come narrations regarding Salaah al-Witr the likes of which have not come for the Sunnah of al-Fajr.


Time of Salaah al-Witr

The time of Salaah al-Witr with the Hanabli school of thought – and that which is considered credible with the Shaafi school of thought – is after the prayer of al-'ishaa up until Tuluu al-Fajr. It is recommended to pray al-Wtir, according to them, after one has prayed the Sunnah of al-'ishaa.

They say that if a person combines al-Maghrib and al-'Ishaa together during the time of al-Maghrib [jam’ al-taqdiim] then he will pray al-Witr after the completion of the prayer of al-'Ishaa.

If he prays it prior to al-'Ishaa then his al-Wtir will not be correct since its time has not entered, and if he prays it forgetfully, then he is to repeat it.

According to one opinion in the Shaafi school of thought, the time of Salaah al-Witr begins when the time of Salaah al-'Ishaa begins. Thus, if a person prays Salaah al-Witr prior to the 'Ishaa prayer [once the time of ‘ishaa prayer has come to be], it is correct to do so.

The Maaliki school of thought holds the opinion that the time of the Salaah of al-Witr begins at the time of the true 'Ishaa prayer when the shafaQ has disappeared. Thus, according to them, if a person combines the Maghrib and the 'Ishaa prayers at the time of al-Maghrib [jam’ al-taqdiim], then he cannot pray the Salaah of al-Witr after the 'Ishaa prayer, but has to wait until the shafaQ disappears and the true time for 'Ishaa prayer comes to be. He can, then, pray Salaah al-Witr.

The Hanafi school of thought is of the opinion that the time of Salaah al-Witr begins with the ghuruub of the shafaQ and lasts up until the Tuluu of al-Fajr.

They say that if a person prays the Salaah al-Witr prior to the 'Ishaa prayer then it is not correct, and the reason for it not being correct is not that its time has not entered but because they see it necessary to maintain the sequence between the 'Ishaa prayer and the Salaah al-Witr. Praying the Salaah of al-Witr prior to the 'Ishaa prayer would disturb the sequence of praying the Salaah al-Witr after the 'Ishaa prayer.

According to a view in the Hanafi school of thought if a person does not see the time for the prayer of 'Ishaa and al-Witr as in the case of a person who resides in a country where the Tuluu of al-Fajr takes place at the same time as the the ghuruub of the shafaQ, then neither the prayer of 'Ishaa or al-Witr is obligatory on him.


When is best to pray Salaah al-Witr

The Jurists agree that it is a Sunnah to pray the Salaah al-Witr as the last prayer of the night. If a person plans on praying optional prayers after the 'Ishaa prayer, then he is to pray the Salaah al-Witr after he has prayed the optional prayers. If a person intends to wake up at night and pray al-Tahajjud and is confident that he will wake up, then it is Sunnah for him to pray the Salaah of al-Witr after al-Tahajjud.


Narrated `Abdullah bin `Umar:

The Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) said, "Make witr as your last prayer at night."

[Sahih al-Bukhaari Hadith No. 998]

 

But if he fears that he might not wake up for al-Tahjjud, then it is best he pray al-Witr before going to sleep.


Jabir reported Allah's Messenger (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) as saying:

If anyone is afraid that he may not get up in the latter part of the night, he should observe Witr in the first part of it; and if anyone is eager to get up in the last part of it, he should observe Witr at the end of the night, for prayer at the end of the night is witnessed (by the angels) and that is preferable.

[Sahih Muslim Hadith No. 755]

 

Least number of Rak'ah of Salaah al-Witr

According to the Shaafi and Hanaabilah schools of thought the least number of Rak'ah for the Salaah al-Witr is one Rak'ah. One can pray one Rak'ah of the Salaah al-Witr without it being disliked based on the following hadiith:


It was narrated from Ibn Umar that:

The Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) said: "prayers at night are (offered) two by two, then if you fear that dawn will come, pray witr with one."

[Sunan al-Nasaa’i Hadith No. 1671]


However, they say that doing so is not optimal.

The Hanafi school of thought does not permit praying only one Rak'ah of the Salaah al-Witr.


Highest number of Rak'ah for Salaah al-Witr

According to the Shaafi and Hanbali schools of thought the highest number of Rak'ah for Salaah al-Wtir is 11 Rak'ah. According to one opinion in the Shaafi school of thought the highest number is 13 Rak'ah. One can pray any odd number of Rak'ah which falls between one Rak'ah and the highest number of Rak'ah. [i.e. one can pray 3, 5, 7, 9, etc.]

In the opinion of the Shaafi and Hanaabilah schools of thought, the least number of Rak'ah for the Salaah of al-Witr which will constitute optimality is three Rak'ah.

One can pray only one Rak'ah of al-Witr but it will be considered to be doing that which is against that which is better.  And praying five Rak'ah is more optimal than three, seven is more optimal than five, nine is more optimal than seven, and finally eleven is more optimal than nine. Eleven Rak'ah is the most optimal.

The Hanafi school only advocates praying three Rak'ah like one prays al-Maghrib prayer.

The Maaliki school says that the Salaah al-Witr is in reality only one Rak'ah. They say three Rak'ah is named al-Witr metaphorically. In reality Salaah al-Witr is only one Rak'ah. However, they say it is disliked to pray only one Rak'ah. Rather one is to pray the one Rak'ah after one has prayed an even number of Rak'ah of an optional prayer prior to the one Rak'ah. The least number of Rak'ah for that optional prayer is two Rak'ah and there is no highest limit of Rak'ah.

According to them one has to pray an even number of Rak'ah prior to praying the one Rak'ah of Salaah of al-Witr and does not need any specific intention attached with those even Rak'ah optional prayer[s].

The exception is when one has an excuse such as being a traveler or being sick. In such a case one can pray one Rak'ah only without praying an even number before it. However, there is another opinion in the Maaliki school which says that even in the case of having an excuse one cannot pray one Rak'ah without having prayed an even Rak'ah optional prayer prior to it.


How to pray Salaah al-Witr


There is al-faSl [to separate] and al-waSl [to connect].

A person can pray one Rak'ah, three, Rak'ah, or more of the Salaah al-Witr.

If a person prays only one Rak'ah – by adopting the opinion of those who permit it – then the matter is clear as to how one is to pray.

If he chooses to pray three Rak'ah of the Salaah al-Witr, then there are three possibilities of how one can pray these three Rak'ah.


al-faSl

The first way to pray three Rak'ah of Salaah al-Witr is to pray two Rak'ah and then say the Salaam. Then he prays one Rak'ah with an independent takbiirah 'ihraam [the Allaah ‘akbar said when beginning prayer]. This way of praying is permissible with the Shaafi, Hanbali and Maaliki schools of thought.
Only the Hanafi school has not permitted this way of praying.

The Maaliki school of thought has choosen this method of praying the Salaah al-Witr and any other way is disliked unless one is praying al-Witr behind someone who prays it by al-WaSl.


The Shaafi and Hanbali schools of thought have permitted this way of praying the Salaah of al-Witr [known as al-faSl]. The Shaafi have said that this way is superior than to pray Salaah of al-Witr with al-waSl. According to one opinion in the Shaafi school of thought, if one is leading the prayer as an Imaam then al-waSl is superior, and if he is praying alone than al-faSl is superior.

The evidence for this method of praying Salaah al-Witr is the following:

Nafi` told that `Abdullah bin `Umar used to say tasliim between (the first) two Rak`at and (the third) odd one in the Witr prayer, when he wanted to attend to a certain matter (during that interval between the Rak`at).

[Sahih al-Bukhaari Hadith No. 991]


The Hanaabilah have explicitly stated that it is a Sunnah to delay praying the one Rak'ah after having prayed the even Rak'ah. It is recommended to talk between the even Rak'ah and the final odd Rak'ah for purposes of al-faSl [separating].

The Shaafi school has said that one is to intend for the two Rak'ah that they are two Rak'ah of Salaah al-Witr or intend Sunnah al-Witr or intend that which precedes al-Witr, and it does not suffice to intend the even Rak'ah or Sunnah of al-'ishaa or the night prayer.


al-waSl – first way of doing it

The second method of praying the Salaah al-Witr is to pray three Rak'ah without separating between them with a Salaam or sitting. The Maaliki school of thought considers this method of praying the Salaah al-Witr to be disliked unless one prays behind someone who prays like this. In that case, he is to pray the Salaah al-Witr with al-waSl along with the Imaam.


al-waSl – second way of doing it

The second method of al-waSl is that one prays three Rak'ah and sits after the second Rak'ah. He preforms tashahhud but does not give Salaam. Rather, he stands up for the third Rak'ah, and then says Salaam at the end. This is similar to praying the Maghrib prayer. The only difference is that one recites a Suurah after al-Faatiha in the third Rak'ah unlike in the Maghrib prayer in which one does not recite a Suurah after al-Faatiha in the third Rak'ah.

This is the adopted method of praying the Salaah al-Witr by the Hanafi school of thought.

If a person stands up, forgetfully, for the third Rak'ah without sitting for the tashahhud then he does not return to the sitting position. And if he does it on purpose he still does not return to the sitting position in the opinion of Abu Hanifah. This is 'istihsaan.

al-Qiyaas dictates that one returns to the sitting position in such a situation.

The Shaafi say that praying the Salaah al-Witr like this is disliked because it resembles the Maghrib prayer. To make Salaah of al-Witr resemble the Maghrib prayer is makruuh.

The Hanbali school says that it is not disliked to pray the Salaah al-Witr in this manner but al-Qaadi Abu Ya'laa forbade to pray like this.


Praying more than three Rak'ah of Salaah al-Witr

According to the Shaafi and Hanaabliah schools of thoughts one can pray more than three Rak'ah for Salaah al-Witr.

The Shaafi school is of the opinion that the most superior way to pray is by means of al-faSl. One should say Salaam after every two Rak'ah. It is also permissible for a person to pray four Rak'ah with one Salaam or six Rak'ah with one Salaam, and then pray one Rak'ah. One can also do al-waSl and preform one tashahhud or two tashahhud in the last three Rak'ah.

The Hanaabilah school is of the opinion that if one is going to pray five or seven Rak'ah of Salaah al-Witr then it is best that he prays them uninterrupted and does not sit except in the last portion. There evidence is the following hadiith:


'A'isha reported:

The Messenger of Allah (sallallaahu alayhi wa sallam) used to observe thirteen rak'ahs of the night prayer. Five out of them consisted of Witr, and he did not sit, but at the end (for salutation).

[Sahih Muslim Hadith No. 737]


And if one prays nine Rak'ah, then it is most virtuous that one pray eight Rak'ah without sitting, then sit for tashahhud and does not say salaam. Then he prays the ninth Rak'ah, performs tashahhud and says Salaam. And it is permissible for the person when he is praying five, seven, or nine Rak'ah that he say salaam after every two Rak'ah.

And if a person is going to pray eleven Rak'ah then it is best that he say Salaam after every two Rak'ah. It is also permissible that he pray ten Rak'ah without sitting and then sits for tashahhud, then gets up for the eleventh Rak'ah and then says Salaam at the end. And it is also permissible that he prays eleven Rak'ah and does not sit for tashahhud except in the last Rak'ah.

 

Praying Salaah al-Witr sitting

The majority of scholars which includes the Shaafi, Hanbali, and Maaliki schools of thought have said that it is permissible for a person to pray Salaah al-Witr sitting even if  he is capable of praying it standing, and he can pray it on a mount even if he does so without an excuse. And this has been narrated from Ali, Ibn Umar, and Ibn Abbaas (may Allaah be pleased with them all). It is also the opinion of al-Thawri and 'ishaaq.

The Hanafis school has not permitted this.

They say one cannot pray Salaah al-Witr sitting or on a mount unless there is an excuse. One has to pray Salaah al-Witr standing.

 

Reciting a Suurah in the Rak'ah of Salaah al-Witr


The scholars agree that one is to recite Suurah al-Faatiha and another Suurah in every Rak'ah of al-Witr. The majority consider reciting the additional Suurah a Sunnah. Hence, if one omits it and goes into Rukuu, he is not to return to recite it.


The majority of scholars are of the opinion that reciting al-Qunuut in Salaah al-Witr is legislated. They have differed as to if it is recommended or obligatory. They have also differed as to if it is to be recited in Salaah al-Witr every night or only in some nights. They have differed if it is to be recited prior to the rukuu or after it. They have also differed in regards to the Sunnah of what is to be asked for in al-Qunuut.

The Maaliki school is of the opinion that reciting al-Qunuut in Salaah al-Witr is disliked.


Ruling of Salaah al-Witr when traveling

The ruling of al-Witr while traveling is the same as when one is not traveling. Those who hold Salaah al-Witr to be a Sunnah, such as the majority [i.e. the Shaafi, Hanbali, Maaliki] say that it is Sunnah while traveling. Those who hold it to be a Waajib [like Abu Hanifah and Abu Bakr from the Hanaabilah] hold it to be a Waajib while traveling.

 

Praying Salaah al-Witr in congregation

The Shaafi and Hanaabilah schools of thought are of the opinion that it is not a Sunnah to pray Salaah al-Witr in congregation. But it is recommended to pray in congregation when the Imaam prays it at the end of Salaah al-Taraawiih.

The Hanafi have also stated that it is recommended to pray it in congregation at the end of Salaah al-Taraawiih. Some have said that it is Sunnah to pray it at ones place of residence.

The Maaliki school of thought has said that it is recommended to pray Salaah al-Witr at ones place of residence even if it be in congregation [even] if the mosques are not devoid of it being prayed in congregation. The reason for it being more virtuous to pray at ones place of residence, according to the Maaliki school of thought, is because a person who prays alone at his place of residence is safe from al-Riyaa’ [showing off].  They say one cannot be completely free of al-Riyaa' in the mosque.

The Hanaabilah school of thought has said that since Salaah al-Witr is a Sunnah, it is best to pray it at ones home like all the other Sunan except when there is something which stops one from doing so like when one is in i'tikaaf. In such a case, he prays it in the mosque. And if a person prays al-Taraawiih with the Imaam then he prays al-Witr along with the Imaam to get the reward of the congregation. But if he has to pray al-Tahajjud, then he follows the Imaam in al-Witr and when the Imaam says salaam, he does not say salaam with him. Rather, he gets up and prays another Rak'ah to make his al-Witr even.

 

Praying optional prayers after Salaah al-Witr


If someone prays al-Witr and then decides to pray optional prayers after, then this is permissible and not disliked in the opinion of the Shaafi school of thought.


The Jurists have outlined two methods for a person who wants to pray optional prayers after having prayed al-Witr.

The first method is to pray as many even Rak'ah optional prayers as one wants, and then one does not pray another Salaah al-Witr.

This is opinion of the Hanafi, Maaliki, Hanaabliah, and Shaafi schools of thought. This has been narrated from Abu Bakr, 'Aishah, and Ibn Abbaas (may Allaah be pleased with them).

The second method is to pray one Rak'ah which will make his al-Witr even. Then he prays as many even Rak'ah optional prayers as he wants, and finishes off with al-Witr.

This has been narrated from Uthmaan, Ali, 'Asaamah, Ibn Umar, Sa'd, Ibn Masuud, and Ibn Abbaas (may Allaah be pleased with them) based on what al-Nawawi and Ibn Qudaamah have related. It is the second opinion in the Shaafi school of thought.


Reference(s):

The Kuwaiti Encyclopedia of Fiqh
Volume 27 Page(s): 289-302