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A Donkey Mistake: Preceding the Imam in the Movements of Salat

By Kamil Uddin

عن أبي هريرةَ ، قال: قال محمدٌ ،أمَا يَخْشَى الذي يَرْفَعُ رَأْسَهُ قبل الإمامِ أن يحوِّل الله رأْسَهُ رأْسَ حِمَار. – الترمذي

Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “Does he who raises his head before the imam [in prayer] not fear that Allah will change his head into a head of a donkey?” (Tirmidhī)


This statement of the Prophet refers to the act of lifting the head in sajdah and rukūʿ before the imam in ṣalāt. The Arabic letter alif at the beginning of the statement is an interrogative particle and the mīm a negative particle; together they combine to form an intensifier, or harf al-tanbīh, whose purpose is to alert the listener to carefully consider of the words of the speaker.

Opinions differ regarding the warning issued in this hadith. Some scholars state that the warning is figurative. A donkey often denotes stupidity and idiocy in the Arabic language; and indeed one can find in Arabic few things more insulting to call someone than an ass. Also, in the Quran certain Jews are given the same ascription of a donkey in the verse, “The likeness of those charged with upholding the Torah, who, thereafter, did not uphold it (faithfully), is like the likeness of a donkey (merely) carrying books.” (Surat al-Jumu‘ah, 62:5) These scholars take the opinion that the hasty worshipper’s head will not physically transform into a donkey, but that Allah will slowly rob him of sound reason. Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd states that Ibn Bazīzah said, “The hadith carries the possibility of physical distortion, or the figurative sense can apply.” Anwar Shāh al-Kashmīrī is of the opinion that this distortion of the face will occur on the Day of Judgment, as on that day, all deeds and actions will be given a physical body and they will testify for or against those who performed them.

Whether the meaning is literal or figurative, the warning is severe in both cases. Lifting the head in sajdah or rukūʿ before the imam is expressly forbidden through this hadith and others of the same meaning.

From a legal perspective, the act of preceding the imam in any act of ṣalāt is disliked (makrūh) by consensus of the Muslim jurists (Bidāyat al-Mujtahid). Some go even further to say that the prayer is altogether invalid and must be performed again (ibid). The majority, however, hold that such action, though it decreases the prayer’s devotional value before Allah, does not completely annul it, and while it is preferable to repeat it, it is not necessary. The preferred ruling is that the prayer is still valid if one rises from rukūʿ or sajdah before the imam as long as one catches part of it with the imam; if he misses a rukn (pillar of the prayer) with the imam completely then he must repeat his ṣalāt. Regardless, the warning is clear, and one should exercise great care in the congregational prayer. Imam Nawawī states in his commentary on Saḥīḥ Muslim under the explanation of this hadith, “All of this explanation (on the action of lifting the head before the imam) demonstrates the severity of the prohibition of that action.”

A question that is likely to cross the inquisitive mind is, “Why such a severe warning?” The action seems harmless enough and not something warranting so much detail or attention. Much wisdom, however, lies in following the imam in prayer and in rebuking contradicting him in performing the pillars of prayer. Mutābaʿat al-imām (following the imam) is an fundamental Islamic concept. Numerous prophetic narrations emphasize its importance:

The imam is only made to be led, when he says: “Allāh Akbar” then you should also say “Allāh Akbar”. When he performs rukūʿ then you should also perform rukūʿ. When he performs sajdah then you should also perform sajdah. (Bukhārī, Muslim)

This hadith is a clear command from the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant peace) and Allah expresses the severity of disobeying him in the following verse of the Quran:

And let those who oppose the Messenger’s [Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace)] commandment (i.e. his Sunnah legal ways, orders, acts of worship, statements, etc.) (among the sects) beware, lest some fitnah (disbelief, trials, afflictions, earthquakes, killing, overpowered by a tyrant, etc.) befall them or a painful torment be inflicted on them. (Sūrat al-Nūr, 24:63)

The concept of following a leader not only applies to ṣalāt but to other facets of life as well. Allah states, “O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger, and those of you (Muslims) who are in authority. (And) if you differ in anything amongst yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if you believe in Allah and in the Last Day.” (Sūrat al-Nisāʾ, 4: 59)

Imam al-Nasafī states under the commentary of this verse that both government officials and scholars are included in “those of you who are in authority”. Following the imam (or those entrusted with leadership) is emphasized so much that it is included in our basic creed. Imam Ṭaḥāwī states in his renowned treatise on Islamic creed, “We do not believe in revolt against our leaders and rulers even though they may commit injustice.” The lifting of the head before the imam is a form of revolt, thus the severity in warning of the action. In another hadith the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “Whoever obeys me obeys Allah; whoever obeys the ruler obeys me; and whoever disobeys the ruler, disobeys me.” (Bukhārī) This hadith and the verse of Surah al-Nisāʾ stated earlier are both explained by Ibn Abī ʾl-ʿIzz al-Ḥanafī in his commentary of al-ʿAqīdat al-Ṭaḥāwiyyah. He explains that obeying those in authority is not an independent  obedience. In the verse of Surah al-Nisāʾ, Allah has used the imperative verb “obey” for both Himself and the Messenger, but not again separately for those in authority. The reason being is that they are only obeyed when it is obedience to Allah and His Messenger. But at the same time, we do not revolt against them or cause disunity and discord within the community. Stern warning has been given against this in a hadith in which Ibn ʿAbbās (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “Whomsoever finds something in his ruler that he disapproves of, he should bear it patiently, for one who moves a spans length from the jamāʿah and dies, dies the death of the Days of Ignorance,” (Bukhārī) and in another narration the words are, “he has removed the nook of Islam from his neck” (Ahmad), meaning he has thrown away his allegiance of Islam.

Islamically, there are two concepts of leadership, imāmah kubrā (leadership of the whole Muslim community) and imāmah sughrā (leadership in ṣalāt). Both have one and the same focus, providing unity to the Muslim body. After the passing of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace), the Companions elected Abū Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) on the basis of the latter leadership. On this occasion ʿUmar (may Allah be pleased with him) stated, “The Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was pleased with you in respect to our dīn (leading the prayer when the Prophet was unable to) so why should we not be pleased with you in respect to our dunyā (worldly affairs)?”

The sensitivity of the Islamic concept of leadership is such that causing the slightest possibility of dispute and discord, be it in prayer or any other aspect in life, is deemed destructive for the community as a whole (unless the leader is disobeying the commandments of Allah, in which case obedience to the leader is disallowed). The imam stands at the front of the congregation for a reason; he is likened to the commander of an army. His actions therefore, must always precede the action of his followers. To do otherwise would be a donkey mistake.


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