QUESTION: What is the significance of the `Taraaveeh', which the devout offer in the Ramadhaan?
ANSWER: To the less-informed Muslims, Taraaveehs are additional, almost obligatory prayers prescribed specially for the holy month of Ramadhaan. Anybody who does not say them in congregation, it is generally believed, loses a good share of the Ramadhaan's blessings. As a result, Muslims throng the mosques for the Ishaa prayers and make sure that they manage to endure twenty additional rak'ats every night. The Huffaaz, however, gifted with the extraordinary ability of briskly uttering the Message of God in the most incomprehensible manner, squeeze long passages into as short duration as possible. Completing the recitation of the Holy Book at least once during these prayers is also considered an important part of this formality, making the Huffaaz a highly sought-after group as the Ramadhaan approaches near.
The reality, however, is that the Taraaveeh prayer is neither obligatory nor is it supposed to be said by all means after Ishaa in congregation. It is, as is evident from the Sunnah of the Prophet, nothing but Tahajjud, the late-night prayer, allowed for the common Muslims to be said in the early part of the night during the Ramadhaan. The Prophet, may Allah be pleased with him, it appears, never said this prayer in the earlier part of the night. In one of the Ramadhaan night's, however, he came out into the mosque to say his Tahajjud prayers and did so thrice in successive nights. He was joined in by his Companions who grew in number each successive time. On the fourth night, an even larger number of Companions waited vainly---only to see him at the Fajr prayers. He informed his Companions that he had deliberately kept himself from saying prayers in the mosque, lest people should take it as binding on them.
It appears that people who were not used to saying Tahajjud regularly (as is evident from the Quran that there was a group which did not) and some others who perhaps found praying in the later part of the night during the Ramadhaan impractical because of the time-involving task of preparing Sehri, got permission from the Prophet (sws) to say it in the early half. It seems, moreover, that people formed many small groups to say this prayer in congregation. The practice continued till the caliphate of Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, who found the plurality of congregational prayers led by the loudly reciting Imaams, scattered in the confines of the mosque, much to the dislike of his sensitive religious taste. He lost no time in asking the people to pray behind one Imaam, Ubai Ibni Ka`ab. Later, one night, impressed on witnessing the disciplined congregation behind a single Imaam, he remarked: `What a fine innovation is this!' Of course, the statement was induced by the fact that although the arrangement was apparently an innovation, it was, nevertheless, in complete consonance with the Sunnah of the Prophet; his practice which continued for three days running. Umar is also reported to have remarked on that occassion thus: `That (the prayer which is said alone in the later part of the night) is indeed superior to the one they are saying instead.'
We may conclude from the above that the Taraaveeh prayer has no distinct status---it is only the Tahajjud prayer allowed to be said earlier during the Ramadhaan. As such, it is clearly not binding on the Muslims, although the blessings of the Ramadhaan clearly add to its significance. Tahajjud, the night prayer, however, is far more preferable, whether in Ramadhaan or otherwise. A Muslim should, therefore, try to say these night prayers regularly at least in the Ramadhaan and recite the Quran slowly and clearly to facilitate maximum understanding while praying. If, owing to some difficulty which may include the fact that very little of the Quran is committed to memory, Tahajjud is not possible, then he should seek to find a mosque to say his Taraaveeh prayers after Ishaa where the Imaam is doing justice with the Book of Allah with proper recitation.
Completing the recitation of the Quran at least once in these night prayers is, of course, no religious obligation. The Quran can be completed many times by reciting it on occassions other than prayers.