Congregants standing ahead of the imam
Our mosque is small; therefore some of the congregants, especially late-comers, pray outside the mosque when it is full and end up praying such that they are positioned ahead of the imam. Are their prayers valid? In addition, if a person arrives at the mosque after the imam has concluded the prayer, is his prayer valid if he follows late comers who joined the group prayer before him?
The majority of scholars from among the Hanafis, Shafi'is and Hanbalis have maintained the impermissibility of standing ahead of the imam, holding that it renders the prayer invalid. They based their opinion on the lexical meaning of the word 'imam' (leader) which denotes the spatial relationship between him and the congregation.
• The Shafi'i scholar, Ibn Qasem al-Ghazzi, said in Fath Al-Qareeb Al-Mujeeb Sharh Matn Al-Ghaya wa Al-Taqreeb, "Standing behind the imam in any place in the mosque in such a manner that one is aware of the imam's actions or of those praying in the [previous] rows fulfills the obligation for (following the imam) as long as a person does not stand ahead of him. A prayer is invalid if a person's shoulder extends outward beyond the imam's though there is no harm in standing adjacent to him; it is recommended to stand a little behind."
• The Malikis maintained the permissibility of standing ahead of the imam though they consider it disliked unless there is a necessity. They maintained the prayer's validity if a person is properly able to follow the actions of the imam, and based their opinion on the fact that nothing has been mentioned in this respect. It is therefore excusable as long as it does not disrupt the prayer, by virtue of the person positioned in front of the imam being unable to follow the latter's actions.
• The author of Mawahib al-Jaleel Sharh Mukhtasar Khaleel cited the following, "It is doubly disliked for a person to stand ahead of the imam [in a group prayer] or the bier [in a Funeral prayer]: once for standing ahead of the imam and the other for standing ahead of the bier. Based on this, standing ahead of the bier is disliked only, and the prayer is valid whether the person standing ahead is an imam or a follower."
• The author of Al-Fawakeh al-Dawani 'ala Risalat ibn abu Zayd al-Qirwani, "It is known from what we have decided that the order of standing [in a group prayer] behind the imam is recommended; it is disliked to do otherwise just as it is disliked to stand in front of or adjacent to the imam without a necessity."
• In al-'Adawi's meta-commentary on Sharh Kifayat al-Talib ar-Rabbani: "It is permissible and not disliked to stand ahead of the imam during prayer for an excuse such as lack of space in the mosque."
A person's position in respect to the imam's
It is important to take the following into consideration in terms of standing ahead of, behind or adjacent to the imam:
• For a person standing: the shoulders.
• For a person sitting: the buttocks.
• For a person lying down: his side.
The legal principle concerning controversial matters, is that a person may follow the opinion of those scholars who maintain permissibility.
A latecomer, who finds the mosque full and cannot pray inside, may pray outside. He must:
• Stand behind the imam or at least be in line him.
• Not stand in front of the imam except when he cannot stand behind or be adjacent to him provided he is able to follow his actions.
• Intend to follow the Malikis in this respect.
His prayer will then be valid as is the prayer of a latecomer whom he follows in prayer.
Allah Almighty knows best.