The Night Vigil Prayer
Allah Most High said, ‘Establish worship at the going down of the sun until the dark of the night, and (the recital of) the Quran at dawn. Lo! (the recital of) the Quran at dawn is ever witnessed. And some part of the night awake for its recital, as voluntary worship for you. It may be that your Lord will raise you to a praised estate.’ [Quran, 17: 78-79]
Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) reports that the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him, his family, and companions) said ‘The best prayer after the obligatory prayers is the night prayer.'[Muslim]
Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) reports that the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him, his family, and companions) was asked, ‘What prayer is most virtuous, after the obligatory prayers?’ He said, ‘Prayer in the depths of the night.’ [Muslim, Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Nasai, Ibn Majah]
Abd Allah ibn Salam (Allah be pleased with him) reports that the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him, his family, and companions) said, ‘O people! Spread the salams, feed others, maintain family ties, and pray at night when others sleep and you will enter Heaven safely.'[Tirmidhi, Hakim]
Abu Umama al-Bahili (Allah be pleased with him) reports that the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him, his family, and companions) said ‘Hold fast to night prayer, for it was the way of the righteous before you, a way of drawing closer to your Lord, an expiation for wrong deeds, and a shield from sin.’ [Tirmidhi, and others] In some narrations, there is an addition ‘And it repels sickness from the body’
Ibn Mas`ud (Allah be pleased with him) said ‘The virtues of night prayer over day prayer is like the virtue of secret charity over open charity.’ [Tabarani] The scholars explain that this refers to voluntary prayers.
Imam Saffarini, the Hanbali faqih and sufi, explained in his Sharh Mandhumat al-Adaab:
Night prayer is superior to day prayer because:
It is more concealed and closer to sincerity. The righteous early Muslims (salaf) used to strive hard to hide their secrets [f: i.e. the actions between them and Allah].
Hasan [al-Basri] said ‘It used to be that a person would have guests staying over and he would pray at night without his guests knowing’
And because night prayer is harder on the lower self, because night is a time of rest from the tire of day, so leaving sleep despite the lower self being desirous of it is a tremendous struggle (mujahada). Some have said that the best of works are those the lower self is forced to perform.
And because recitation in night prayer is closer to contemplation, because things that busy the heart are mostly absent at night, so the heart is attention and is with the tongue in understanding, as Allah Most High said ‘Lo! The night vigil is (a time) when impression is more keen and speech more certain. [Lo! You have by day a chain of business. So remember the name of your Lord and devote yourself with a complete devotion.]’ (Quran, 73: 6-7) It is because of this that we have been commanded to recite the Quran in night prayer in a steady recital (tartil).
And it is because of this that night prayer is a shield from sin
And because night vigil time is the best of times for voluntary worship and prayer, and the closest a servant is to his Lord.
And because it is a time when the doors of the sky are opened, supplications answered, and the needs of those who ask fulfilled.
Allah has praised those who wake up at night for His remembrance, supplication, and to seek forgiveness and entreat Him, saying ‘They forsake their beds to cry unto their Lord in fear and hope, and spend of what We have bestowed on them. No soul knows what is kept hid from them of joy, as a reward for what they used to do.’ [Quran, 32: 16-17]
And He said ‘Those who pray for pardon in the watches of the night.'[Quran, 3: 17]
And ‘[The (faithful) servants of the Merciful are they who walk upon the earth modestly, and when the foolish one address them answer: Peace;] And who spend the night before their Lord, prostrate and standing’ [Quran, 25: 63-64]
Allah most negated similitude between those who pray at night and those who do not: Is the one who worships devoutly in the watches of the night, prostrate and standing, fearful of the Hereafter and hoping for the mercy of his Lord, (to be accounted equal with a disbeliever)? Say: are those who know equal with those who dpnt know? But only people of understanding will pay heed. [Quran, 39: 9] [Saffarini, Ghidha al-Albab Sharh Mandhumat al-Adaab,
Imam Abu Said al-Khadimi said ‘There is scholarly consensus (ijma`) that among the best of virtuous acts is the night vigil prayer.’ [al-Bariqa al-Mahmudiyya Sharh al-Tariqa al-Muhammadiyya]
The scholars derived the following from the Quran and prophetic hadiths:
1. The minimal night vigil prayer is 2 rakats. [Hindiyya, quoting Fath al-Qadir]
2. Its optimal recommended amount is 8 rakats, because this was the general practice of the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him, his family, and companions). [Hindiyya, quoting Fath al-Qadir]
3. Lengthier recitation is superior to a larger number of rakats prayed. [Durr al-Mukhtar, Radd al-Muhtar]
4. If one divides the night in thirds, then the final middle third is most virtuous. [Durr al-Mukhtar]
5. If one divides the night in half, then the second half is more virtuous. [ibid.]
6. Voluntary (nafl) prayer at night is more virtuous than voluntary prayer during the day. However, the full reward mentioned in the Quranic verses and Prophetic hadiths refers to worship that was preceded by sleep. This is also understood from the very linguistic meaning of tahajjud, which is to struggle rid oneself of sleep. [Ibn Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar, quoting Ibn Amir Haajjs Halba]
7. Ibn Nujaym and Haskafi both affirmed that night prayer is recommended. [al-Bahr al-Raiq, and al-Durr al-Mukhtar; chosen in al-Fatawa al-Hindiyya] Kamal ibn al-Humam, the brilliant mujtahid who was the greatest Hanafi faqih of the latter half of Islamic history, however, wavered between it being recommended or a confirmed sunna. This is because while the spoken hadiths indicate recommendation, the continued practice of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) would seem to indicate it being a confirmed sunna. This was also chosen by Ibn al-Humam’s student, Ibn Amir Haaj in his Halba. [Ibn Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar]
8. It is disliked to leave the night vigil prayer for one who has made it their habit, unless there is an excuse, because the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) said to Ibn Umar (Allah be pleased with him) ‘O Abd Allah! Do not be like so-and-so. He used to pray at night and then left it.’ [Bukhari and Muslim] Therefore, one should take on an amount of works one can sustain, for the Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him, his family, and companions) said ‘The most beloved of actions to Allah are the most constant, even if little.’ [Bukhari and Muslim] [Ibn Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar, from Ibn Amir Haajjs Halba]
9. It is recommended to start the night vigil with two short rakats, because of the hadith of Abu Hurayra that the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) said ‘It you get up for night prayer, start with two short rakats.’ [Muslim, Ahmad, Abu Dawud]
10. Supplications in the depths of the night are answered, as the hadiths have mentioned.
Ibn Mas`ud (Allah be pleased with him) was asked ‘I cannot pray at night.’ He said ‘Your sins have prevented you.’
The general ruling, as Imam al-Shurunbulali and Ibn Abidin both mention, is that it is disliked (makruh) to pray non-obligatory prayers in congregation, unless it is a small congregation, defined as 2 or 3 people, and not made a habit.
Ibn Abidin’s position, in his Hashiya, confirmed by his son Ala’ al-Din Abidin in the latter’s Hadiyya al-Ala’iyya, is that this is somewhat disliked (makruh tanzihan). One should still avoid it, because a somewhat disliked matter is something Allah Most High dislikes and asked His servants not to do, though He will not punish them if they do it. Some other major Hanafis, however, held that praying non-obligatory prayers in congregation is prohibitively disliked (makruh tahriman), so we should be even more cautious.
HOWEVER, some major Damascene Hanafi ulema DO pray in congregation on the special nights of the year, using the argument that though this may be somewhat disliked IN OF ITSELF, this dislikedness is lifted by the greater general benefit (maslaha) of gathering people together who otherwise may not engage themselves in worship, and add that this has been proven to be a means for many to come back to the worship of their Lord. It should be noted that this is the inherited practice of the lands of al-Sham since the times of the early Muslims (the Salaf), and has been differed upon since.