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Are Muslims required to literally stand foot to foot and shoulder to shoulder in prayer?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
Prayer congregational rows should generally be as straight as possible. The meaning of foot to foot mentioned in some narrations is simply the straightness of prayer rows and reasonable proximity and closeness between the individuals. But the feet of adjacent worshippers are not required to be touching.


Contemporary Notion

Some contemporary scholars argue adjacent worshipper feet and shoulders should touch. They deduced this from prophetic ahadith referring to the filling of gaps and spaces between the individuals in the row, as well as the narrated acts of some of the companions (ra).

Evidences

The following ahadith arguably support their understanding:

Anas (ra) narrated the Prophet (saw) said:

أَقِيمُوا الصُّفُوفَ وَحَاذُوا بَيْنَ الْمَنَاكِبِ

"Set the rows in order, stand shoulder to shoulder." (Sunan Abi Dawud 666)

It was also narrated that an-Nu'man ibn Bashir said:

أَقْبَلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم عَلَى النَّاسِ بِوَجْهِهِ فَقَالَ ‏"‏ أَقِيمُوا صُفُوفَكُمْ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ ثَلاَثًا ‏"‏ وَاللَّهِ لَتُقِيمُنَّ صُفُوفَكُمْ أَوْ لَيُخَالِفَنَّ اللَّهُ بَيْنَ قُلُوبِكُمْ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ فَرَأَيْتُ الرَّجُلَ يُلْزِقُ مَنْكِبَهُ بِمَنْكِبِ صَاحِبِهِ وَرُكْبَتَهُ بِرُكْبَةِ صَاحِبِهِ وَكَعْبَهُ بِكَعْبِهِ

"the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) paid attention to the people and said three times; straighten your rows (in prayer); by Allah, you must straighten your rows, or Allah will certainly put your faces in contrary directions. I then saw that every person stood in prayer keeping his shoulder close to that of the other, and his knee close to that of the other, and his ankle close to that of the other." (Sunan Abi Dawud 662)

Anas (ra) narrated:

وَكَانَ أَحَدُنَا يُلْزِقُ مَنْكِبَهُ بِمَنْكِبِ صَاحِبِهِ وَقَدَمَهُ بِقَدَمِهِ‏.‏

"Everyone of us used to put his shoulder with the shoulder of his companion and his foot with the foot of his companion." (Sahih al-Bukhari 725)


Juristic Analysis

The general juristic understanding of such ahadith is quite different. They argue the meaning of these ahadith has nothing to do with touching and being tight in a way that is not comfortable, but rather it has everything to do with the straightness of prayer row and to avoid leaving large gaps or spaces between individuals in the row.

Khatib Sherbini said:

ِيُسَنُّ سَدُ فُرَجِ الصُفُوفِ، وَأَنْ لَا يُشْرَعُ فِي صَفٍ حَتَى يَتِمَّ الأَوَلُ، وَهَذا كُلُهُ مُسْتَحَبٌ لَا شَرْط؛ فَلَوْ خَالَفُوا صَحَّتْ صَلَاتُهُمْ مَعَ الكَرَاهَة

"It is recommended to fill the gaps in the rows and not to start another row before the end of the former. … all of these are recommended matters (musahab) and are not conditions (for validity). If worshipers did not do, their prayer is valid with karahah 'disliked.'" (Mughni al-Muhtaj, Vol. 1, p. 247.)

Qastalani commented on the statement of Anas (ra) "Everyone of us used to put his shoulder with the shoulder":

الْمُرَادُ بِذَلِكً الْمُبَالَغَةُ فِي تَعْدِيلٍ الصَّفِّ ، وَسَدِّ خَلَلِه.

"the intended meaning is the intensiveness in regulation of the row and filling its gaps." (Irshad as-Sari, Vol. 2, p. 67.)

Ibn Hajar commented with the same meaning. (Fath al-Bari, Vol. 2, p. 211)

Counter-Evidences

The Prophet (saw) said:

رُصُّوا صُفُوفَكُمْ وَقَارِبُوا بَيْنَهَا وَحَاذُوا بِالأَعْنَاقِ

"Stand close together in your rows, bring them near one another and stand neck to neck." (Sunan Abi Dawud 667)

This narration is one connected to the first hadith of Anas (ra); they clarify one another. If we are going to understand this narration literally, it would mean that worshippers should ensure their necks touch in prayer. The literal meaning is incorrect, so this narration is understood by its metaphorical meaning referring to the straightness of the prayer row, in the process helping to clarify the meaning of the previous hadith of Anas (ra) where he mentions "stand shoulder to shoulder."

Manawi commented on this hadith and said:

ٍيَكُونُ عُنُقُ كُلٍ مِنْكُمْ عَلَى سَمْتِ عُنُقِ الآَخَرِ ... يَعْنِي لَا يَرْتَفِعُ بَعْضُكُمْ عَلَى بَعْض.ٍ

"the neck of every one of you should follow the same order of the others … i.e. no one advances the others." (Faydd al-Qadir, Vol. 4, p. 7)

The Prophet (saw) also said:

خِيَارُكُمْ أَلْيَنُكُمْ مَنَاكِبَ فِي الصَّلاَةِ

"The best of you are those whose shoulders are soft in prayer." (Sunan Abi Dawud 672)

Al-Khattabi commented on this hadith saying:

ِمَعْنَى لِينِ المَنْكَبِ: لُزُومُ السَكِينةِ فِي الصَلَاةِ، والطُمَأْنِينَةِ فِيهَا لَا يَلْتَفِتُ وَلَا يُحِاكُ بِمِنْكَبِهِ مِنْكَبَ صَاحِبِه

"The meaning of softness of shoulders is tranquility in prayer, i.e. worshiper should not look around and should not rub his shoulder with the worshiper next to him." (Ma'alim as-Sunan, Vol. 1, p. 184)


Conclusion

The classical jurists who argue the meaning of the ahadith that mention "foot to foot" and "shoulder to shoulder" in prayer is the straightness of prayer rows and being close to each other in a way that doesn't bother worshipers and does not disrupt the khushu'.

Further Reading

For more elaboration on the straightness of prayer rows, read: Why do Muslims pray in straight rows?

References

Al-Khattabi, Ma'alim as-Sunan
Khatib Sherbini, Mughni al-Muhtaj
Qastalani, Irshad as-Sari
Ibn, Hajar, Fath al-Bari
Manawi, Faydd al-Qadir


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