Question # 446: What is ruling with respect to Sutrah – is it obligatory? Also, how much distance should a person keep while passing in front of the praying person?

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).

Dear questioner,

First of all, we implore Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) to help us serve His cause and render our work for His sake.

Shorter Answer: The sutrah is mustahabb (recommended), not obligatory according to the majority of fuqaha’; therefore, it is makrooh (disliked) to omit it, if one fears that someone may pass in front of him. However, for a person who is praying behind an imam, it is not mustahabb for him to use a sutrah because the sutrah of the imam is the sutrah for those who are praying behind him, or the imam is the sutrah for them. Next, there is nothing wrong with taking a person who is praying or sitting in front of you as a sutrah. Further, after the Imam concludes the prayer, it is permissible for a person who is preceded in prayer to walk forward one row, two rows or even three rows in order to have a sutrah.

Lastly, the scholars have differed over the distance for someone, who wants to pass in front of a praying person who has not set up a sutrah.  Some scholars have reconciled the two authentic hadiths, and stated that the distance should be either three cubits from the feet of the worshipper, when he is in the standing position (qiyam), or a space equal to where a sheep could pass, from the place, where the worshipper is prostrating.

Long Answer: The sutrah is mustahabb according to the majority of fuqaha’, and some of them are of the view that it is obligatory.

It says in al-Mawsoo’ah al-Fiqhiyyah: It is Sunnah for the worshipper, if he is praying alone or is leading others in prayer, to have a sutrah in front of him that will prevent people  from walking in front of him, and enable him to focus properly on the actions of the prayer. That is because of the report narrated from Abu Sa’eed al-Khudri (رضي الله عنه), that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: “When one of you prays, let him pray facing towards a sutrah and draw  close to it, and not let anyone pass in front of him.” And he (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: “Let one of you use a sutrah when he prays, even if it is an arrow.” This includes when one is travelling and when one is at home, and it includes both obligatory and naafil prayers.

The idea behind it is that the worshipper should refrain from looking beyond the sutrah, and focus properly so that his mind will not wander; the idea is also to prevent others committing sin by passing directly in front of him.

The command in the hadith is to be understood as meaning that it is mustahabb, not obligatory. Ibn ‘Aabideen said: It is makrooh to omit it. There are reports to show that it is not obligatory such as the report narrated by Abu Dawood from al-Fadl ibn ‘Abbas (رضي الله عنه) who said: The Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) came to us when we were in the desert and he prayed in the desert with nothing in front of him.

The Hanbalis said something similar. Al-Bahooti said: That is not obligatory because of the hadeeth of Ibn ‘Abbas (رضي الله عنه) who said that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) prayed in the open with nothing in front of him.

It is mustahabb according to the Hanafis, and the well-known view of the Maalikis, for the imam and the person praying alone if they think that people will walk in front of them. Otherwise the sutrah is not prescribed in those cases. And it was narrated that Maalik enjoined it in all cases. This was also the view of Ibn Habeeb and was favored by al-Lakhmi.

The Shafi’is said that it is Sunnah in all cases, and they did not mention any limits.

The Hanbalis said: The sutrah is Sunnah for the imam and the person who is praying alone, even if they do not fear that anyone will pass in front of them. For the person who is praying behind an imam, it is not mustahabb for him to use a sutrah, according to consensus, because the sutrah of the imam is the sutrah for those who are praying behind him, or because the imam is a sutrah for him.”

Al-Bukhari (may Allah have mercy on him) said: Bab sutrat al-imam sutrah li man khalfahu (the sutrah of the imam is the sutrah of those who are behind him).

It was narrated that Ibn ‘Abbas said: Once I came riding a female donkey and had (just) attained the age of puberty. The Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) praying at Mina, and there was no wall in front of him. I passed in front of part of the row while they were praying. Then I let the donkey loose to graze and joined the row, and nobody objected to it. (Narrated by al-Bukhari, and Muslim) (See al-Mughni)

Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen (may Allah have mercy on him) said, after quoting the evidence for both points of view: The evidence of those who say that the sutrah is Sunnah, who are the majority, is stronger, and this is the more correct opinion. (al-Sharh al-Mumti’)

[Next,] there is nothing wrong with taking a person who is praying or sitting in front of you as a sutrah. [However, some jurists disliked taking a person who is talking as a sutrah, lest he would distract him during his prayer.] Then if he leaves and you find another sutrah close by, such as a wall or pillar, or another worshipper, you may move towards it, and his moving will be forgiven, because it is for the sake of the prayer. But if there is nothing nearby, you should complete your prayer as you are, and stop anyone who tries to walk in front of you.

It says in al-Mudawwanah: Maalik said: “If a man is praying behind an imam and he missed part of the prayer, and the imam says the salaam, and he has pillars on his right and on his left, there is nothing wrong with moving back and standing behind the pillar on his right or on his left, if it is close by, to use it as a sutrah.” He said: “The same applies if it is front of him and he moves forwards towards it, so long as it is not far away.” He said: “The same applies if it is behind him; there is nothing wrong with moving backwards, if it is close. He said: But if the pillar is far away from him, he should pray where he is, and he should try to prevent those who want to pass in front of him as much as he can.”

[However, as regards a praying person moving forward in order to get nearer to the sutrah, if it is only few steps, then this is permissible. It is confirmed that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) prayed while taking a wall in the direction of Qiblah as a sutrah, then a lamb wanted to pass in front of him, so he  kept moving forward in order to prevent it from passing in front of him until his stomach and chest touched the wall, then the lamb passed behind him. (Ahmad and Abu Daawood)

Moreover, the jurists  stated that after the Imam concludes the prayer, it is permissible for a person who is preceded in prayer to walk forward one row, two rows or even three rows in order to have a sutrah.]

[As for the second part of the question,] if someone wants to pass in front of a person who is praying, one of the following scenarios must apply:

  1. If he passes in front of the one who is praying, i.e., in the area between the spot where he puts his forehead when he prostrates and where he stands, this is haraam, and indeed it is a major sin as the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: “If the one who passes in front of a person who is praying knew what (a burden of sin) he bears, it would be better for him to stand for forty rather than pass in front of him.” Abu’l-Nadar – one of the narrators – said: I do not know whether he said forty days or months or years. (Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim from Abu Juhaym (رضي الله عنه))

In this case it makes no different whether the person has a sutrah (object to serve as a screen) or not.

  1. If he passes in the area that is beyond the place where he prostrates. Two scenarios may apply in this case:
  • If the one who is praying has set up a sutrah (object to serve as a screen). In this case it is permissible to pass beyond the sutrah, because the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: “If any one of you prays, let him face towards something. If he cannot find anything, then let him set up a stick. If he cannot do that, then let him draw a line, then it will not matter if anyone passes in front of him.” (Narrated by Ahmad; Ibn Majah; Ibn Hibbaan. Ibn Hajar said in al-Buloogh: The one who said that it is mudtarab (a kind of weak hadith) is not right; rather it is hasan)

And it was narrated that Talhah (رضي الله عنه) said: The Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) said: “If one of you puts something in front of him that is like the back of a saddle, then let him pray and not worry about anyone who passes beyond that.” (Narrated by Muslim)

  • [If the one who is praying has not set up a sutrah,] …the scholars (may Allah have mercy on them) differed… Some of them said that the distance is three cubits from the feet of the one who is praying, because the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) prayed in the Ka‘bah with three cubits between him and the wall. It was narrated from Naafi’ that whenever ‘Abd-Allah ibn ‘Umar entered the Ka’bah, he would walk towards the opposite wall, with the door behind him. So, he would walk towards the wall until he was three cubits away from it, then he would pray in the place which Bilal told him the Prophet (صلى الله عليه و سلم) had prayed. (Narrated by al-Bukhari) This is the view of the Hanafis, Shafi‘is and Hanbalis, and it is what may be understood from the words of Maalik, because the distance between the one who is praying and the sutrah should be as much as he needs to stand, bow and prostrate. (al-Mawsoo‘ah al-Fiqhiyyah)

Others were of the view that the distance should be sufficient to allow a sheep to pass, from the place where the worshipper prostrates, because of the report narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim from Sahl ibn Sa‘d (رضي الله عنه) who said: Between the place where the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) prayed and the wall there was a space where a sheep could pass.

Al-Nawawi (may Allah have mercy on him) said: “In the hadith, Between the place where the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه و سلم) prayed and the wall there was a space where a sheep could pass, what is meant by the place where he prayed is the place where he prostrated. This indicates that the Sunnah is for the one who is praying to be close to his sutrah.”

Some scholars reconcile between the hadith of Ibn ‘Umar and that of Sahl ibn Sa‘d (رضي الله عنهما) by interpreting the hadith of Ibn ‘Umar, which mentions three cubits, as applying when the worshipper is standing, and the hadith of Sahl, which mentions a space where a sheep could pass, as applying when the worshipper is prostrating.

(The above reply is based on the following resources:

  • Various answers provided by Shaykh Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid on similar topics
  • Islamweb.net, a web site belonging to the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in the State of Qatar)

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.

Wassalaam