Question # 243: Is it allowed to pray behind a thief? You know he’s a thief but he has not yet been convicted.
Bismi-llahi r-raḥmani r-raḥīm,
Assalamu ‘laikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh,
All praise and thanks are due to Allah (سبحانه و تعالى), and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger (صلى الله عليه و سلم).
First of all, we implore Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) to help us serve His cause and render our work for His sake.
Shorter Answer: Since stealing is one of the grave major sins, an imam who commits such a sin openly should not be allowed to lead the prayers; but, if the imam has been appointed by those in authority and there is no shar’i purpose to be served by not praying behind him or stopping him will lead to greater evil in the form of division or conflict and the worshipper will miss out on Jumu’ah and prayers in congregation, then it is not permissible to ward off a lesser evil by means of a greater one. Consequently, praying behind such an imam is permissible. In fact, the Sahabah (رضي الله عنهم) prayed behind unjust leaders and ruler. Nevertheless, prayers offered behind evildoers are not haraam, but they are makrooh.
Long Answer: This is the issue of praying behind a sinner (faasiq). The faasiq is one who disobeys Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) by committing one of the major sins (kabeerah) or persisting in committing a minor sin (sagheerah). Stealing is one of the most heinous acts and one of the grave major sins. The evidence that theft is an abominable act is that Allah ordained a serious worldly punishment for it, which is the cutting of the hand of the thief. Allah says (سبحانه و تعالى) says in the Qu’ran: “Cut off (from the wrist joint) the (right) hand of the thief, male or female, as a recompense for that which they committed, a punishment by way of example from Allah.” (Soorah Al-Maidah, 5:38) In addition to this, a thief is repelled from the Mercy of Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) as the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: “Allah has cursed the thief…” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
[As for praying behind a sinner,] Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Azeez ibn Baaz (may Allah have mercy on him) was asked: What is the ruling on praying behind sinners such as those who shave their beards or smoke?
He replied: The scholars differed concerning this issue. Some are of the view that it is not valid to pray behind a sinner, because he is weak in faith and not trustworthy. But a large number of scholars are of the view that it is valid, but those who are in authority should not appoint sinners to lead the people in prayer when there are other people available. This is the correct view, because he is a Muslim who knows that prayer is obligatory upon him and he does it on that basis. So, it is valid to pray behind him. The evidence for that is the report in the sahih hadith, that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said concerning prayer behind immoral rulers: “They lead you in prayer and if they do good then it will be for you and for them, but if they do evil then it will be for you and against them.” (Narrated by al-Bukhari in al-Adhaan). And there are other ahadith in which the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said something similar. And some of the Sahabah (رضي الله عنهم) [‘Abd-Allah ibn ‘Umar and Anas (رضي الله عنهما)] prayed behind al-Hajjaaj al-Thaqafi even though he was among the most evil of people, and because prayer in congregation is essential, so the believer should be keen to do it and to pray in congregation regularly even if the imam is an evildoer. But if it is possible to pray behind an imam of good character, then that is better and is preferable, and is more on the safe side with regard to religious commitment. (Fataawa al-Shaykh Ibn Baaz)
Al-Nawawi said in al-Majmoo’: It is proven in Saheeh al-Bukhari that Ibn ‘Umar prayed behind al-Hajjaaj ibn Yoosuf, and many other sahih ahadith indicate that prayers offered behind evildoers and unjust rulers are valid. Our companions said: Prayers offered behind evildoers are not haraam, but they are makrooh. It is also makrooh to pray behind an innovator whose bid’ah does not reach the degree of kufr, but such prayers are valid. But if his bid’ah constitutes kufr then as we have stated before, prayers offered behind him are not valid as is the case with any other kaafir. Al-Shaafi’i stated in al-Mukhtasar that it is makrooh to pray behind an evildoer or an innovator, but if one does that, the prayer is valid.
Shaykh al-Islam [Ibn Taymiyah] said in Majmoo’ al-Fataawa: It is not permissible to appoint someone to lead the prayers who consumes hashish or does evil and haraam things when it is possible to appoint someone who is better than him. The imams are agreed that it is makrooh to pray behind an evildoer, but they differed as to whether such a prayer is valid. It was said that it is not valid, as is the view of Maalik and Ahmad according to one of the two reports narrated from them. And it was said that it is valid, as is the view of Abu Haneefah and al-Shaafi’i, and the other view narrated from Maalik and Ahmad. But there is no dispute concerning the fact that such a person should not be appointed.
Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Azeez ibn Baaz (may Allah have mercy on him) said: If by not praying behind him the worshipper will miss out on Jumu’ah and prayers in congregation, then no one does that except an innovator who is differing from the Sahabah (رضي الله عنهم). Similarly, if the imam has been appointed by those in authority and there is no shar’i purpose to be served by not praying behind him, then you should not refuse to pray behind him, rather it is better to pray behind him. (Majmoo’ Fataawa al-Shaykh Ibn Baaz)
With regard to replacing him, if you are able to replace him with another imam who is more religiously committed and doing so will not result in a greater evil, then it is better to do that, otherwise it is better to leave him.
The evidence that an imam who commits sin openly should not be allowed to lead the prayers is to be found in the report narrated by Abu Dawood, which says that a man led some people in prayer and he spat in the qiblah (of the mosque) when the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) was looking on. The Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said, when he had finished praying: “He should not lead you in prayer.” After that he wanted to lead them in prayer again, but they did not let him, and they told him what the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) had said. He mentioned that to the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) and he said: “Yes.” And I (the narrator) think that he said: “You have offended Allah and His Messenger.” (Classed as hasan by al-Albaani in Saheeh Abi Dawood)
This is so long as preventing him from leading the prayers will not lead to a greater evil; if that is the case, then you should pray behind him, and it is not permissible to refrain from praying in congregation because of the evildoing of the imam, as stated above.
Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Azeez ibn Baaz (may Allah have mercy on him) said: If it is possible for a person to prevent a person who commits evil openly from leading the prayer, then he has to do that; but if he has been appointed by someone else and it is not possible to stop him leading the prayers or it is only possible to stop him by means of a greater evil that is more harmful than the evil of the imam who commits evil openly, then it is not permissible to ward off a lesser evil by means of a greater one. Islam came to achieve and complete what is in people’s best interests and to wipe out and reduce evil as much as possible. (Majmoo’ Fataawa al-Shaykh Ibn Baaz)
(Most part of the above reply is based on various answers by Shaykh Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid)
Allahu A’lam (Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) knows best) and all Perfections belong to Allah, and all mistakes belong to me alone. May Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) forgive me, Ameen.