Answered by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
Congregational prayer for men is one of the major symbols of Islam, the most emphasized of the sunnas of the Beloved of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) and his joy in this world, and a means for individuals and communities to strengthen their relations with their Lord.
The hadiths censuring those who stay away from praying in congregation are well known. [See, for example, Imam Nawawi’sRiyad al-Salihin]
The Prophet (Allah bless him & give him peace) said, “If people knew the reward in praying Fajr and Isha in congregation, they would go to the mosque even if they had to crawl.” [Bukhari & Muslim]
He (Allah bless him & give him peace) also said, “ Prayer in congregation is superior to prayer alone by twenty seven degrees.” [Bukhari & Muslim, from Ibn Umar (Allah be pleased with him)]
The master of those of intelligence, Sayyidi Imam al-Shafi`i (Allah have mercy on him) said in hisal-Umm: “I do not allow anyone who is able to attend the congregational prayer to miss it, unless they have an excuse.”[Shafii, al-Umm, 1.154]
The Hanafi jurists explain that:
1. It is a very strongly confirmed sunna, at the strength of the necessary (wajib), for able men without strong legally-acceptable excuses to pray in congregation. [Ibn Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar, 1.371-371; al-Fatawa al-Hindiyya ; Kasani,Bada’i` al-Sana’i` 1.155]
Thus, it is sinful for men miss praying in congregation without such an excuse. As for women, it is not a sunna for them to pray in congregation: they get the same reward by praying alone, at home. [See attached answers.]
2. According to many scholars, including the great early Hanafi jurist, Imam al-Karkhi, the legislated congregation is in the mosque: unless one has a strong excuse, one does not fulfill the command to pray in congregation if one does so at other than a mosque. Some notable later scholars followed this opinion as well, and it is from taqwa to do one’s best to follow it. [Radd al-Muhtar, 1.266]
3. The legally sounder opinion, however, as explained by Ibn Abidin in his Radd al-Muhtar, is that the command for able men to pray in congregation is fulfilled by any congregation one prays in, even outside the mosque. This would include praying in congregation leading one’s wife.[ibid.]
4. At the same time, Ibn Abidin points out that doing so does not have the same reward as praying at the mosque. [F: And one loses out on the great rewards mentioned by the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) for going to the mosque, catching the opening takbir with the imam, praying with the congregations of believers, etc.] At the same time, one falls into the difference of opinion explained above. [ibid.]
5. This is useful, however, for those who are unable to pray at the mosque but able to pray in congregation with other Muslims (such as co-workers or one’s wife). They get the reward of praying in congregation if they take the means and establish such congregations at work or at home. Then, when they are able to go to the mosque, they should hasten to do so. If, while doing this, they have the firm and sincere intention that had they been able to go to the mosque they genuinely would have, they get (some or all of the) reward of praying at the mosque itself, as rigorously authentic hadiths of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) clearly explain.[Shurunbulali, Imdad al-Fattah Sharh Nur al-Idah; Tahtawi, Hashiyat al-Maraqi]
6. As for “being far from the mosque,” major scholars have explained at being an Arab mile (1.85 km) away from the mosque is considered being far, and considered an excuse. Others have chosen to explain it as being “such that there is genuine hardship in getting to the mosque.” When one is “far from the mosque,” one is no longer blameworthy for not praying at the mosque. One should, however, take the means and establish prayer in congregation when able.
And Allah alone gives success.
 This term, ‘the master of those of intelligence,’ (sayyid al-adhkiya’) is a term used by some major Indian Hanafis to refer to Imam al-Shafi`i, because (a) he was from Qurayshi, and (b) the sharpness of his intellect.
MMVIII © Faraz Rabbani and Qibla.
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