In the Name of Allaah, the Most Merciful, the Ever-Merciful…
A Great Third-Century Imaam of the Sunnah Gathered the Narrations of the Salaf Regarding How Many Rak’ahs They Prayed or Preferred for the Taraaweeh Prayers of Ramadhaan
The highly celebrated imaam, Shaykh al-Islaam Aboo ‘Abdillaah Muhammad ibn Nasr al-Marwazee [d.294] was one of the greatest of the third-century authorities on the Sunnah. One of the most highly-qualified and knowledgeable imaams of his era, he was recognized by the scholars for his specific expertise in issues that the early Salaf differed over. Great early historians, like Ibn Hibbaan, Aboo Is-haaq ash-Sheeraazee, and al-Khateeb al-Baghdaadee referenced him as one of the leading authorities in detailed Fiqh issues which the Companions and their students (the Taabi’oon) differed over. 
The author of al-Muhallaa, Ibn Hazm, remarked that no one since the time of the Companions themselves had been more complete in their knowledge and understanding of the narrations than Muhammad ibn Nasr. 
Ath-Thahabee commented, “It is said that he was THE most knowledge of all scholars in entirety about matters of differing.” And he said, “He was from the most knowledgeable of the people in his era about the matters which the Companions and their students differed over. Rarely have people like him ever been seen.” 
It was this great early imaam who compiled an amazing book on the topic of the night prayers of Ramadhaan. Scholars who spoke on the topic throughout history have recognized this work as one of the most significant contributions to the topic ever. 
From this authoritative compilation, we stand to gain much insight into the early practices of the great imaams of the Salaf. One highly relevant and important topic is the number of rak’ahs the Companions, their students, and the early imaams prayed in the nights of Ramadhaan. As this topic is often the subject of differing among the Muslims today, a glimpse at the numbers from the first three generations of the Salaf should prove highly enlightening. And what better source material to return to? The following is a summary of the narrations gathered by Imaam Muhammad ibn Nasr al-Marwazee in his book, Qiyaam Ramadhaan:
1. As-Saa’ib ibn Yazeed reported that ‘Umar ibn al-Khattaab ordered Ubayy ibn Ka’b and Tameem ad-Daaree (may Allaah be pleased with all of them) to lead the people with 11 rak’ahs. They would read 50 to 60 verses in each rak’ah [i.e. about 5 to 6 pages], praying all the way to nearly dawn. One narration of this report mentions that ‘Umar had them pray 13 rak’ahs.
2. Muhammad ibn Ka’b al-Qurathee stated that the people were praying 20 long rak’ahs in the time of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattaab, adding three rak’ahs for Witr Prayer. As-Saa’ib ibn Yazeed and Yazeed ibn Roomaan also reported that 20 rak’ahs (23 with Witr) were being prayed in the time of ‘Umar.
3. Wahb ibn Kaysaan [d.127], a student of a number of Companions in the city of al-Madeenah, said: The people have always been praying, and continue to pray today in Ramadhaan: 36 rak’ahs, adding three for Witr Prayer.
4. Sulaymaan ibn Mihraan al-A’mash and Shutayr ibn Shakal narrated that ‘Abdullaah ibn Mas’ood (may Allaah be pleased with him) used to lead the prayer with 20 rak’ahs, adding three for Witr. Yazeed ibn Wahb al-Juhanee noted that he would finish praying with part of the night still remaining.
5. ‘Ataa ibn Abee Rabaah [d.114], the great scholar of the Taabi’oon in Makkah, a direct student of a number of Companions, said: I found them praying 20 rak’ahs, with three for Witr, in Ramadhaan.
6. Muhammad ibn Seereen [d.110], the great senior scholar of the Taabi’oon in Basrah, born in al-Madeenah in the time of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattaab, reported that Mu’aath Aboo Haleemah, a reciter, used to lead the people in 41 rak’ahs of prayer.
7. Saalih ibn Nabhaan, one of the Taabi’oon of al-Madeenah, stated: I recall the people from before the Harrah Event [in the year 63] praying 41 rak’ahs, five of them being Witr.
8. ‘Amr ibn Muhaajir reported that the people were praying 15 tasleems (i.e. about 30 rak’ahs) during ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdil-‘Azeez’s leadership, which was at the end of the first century [96-99].
9. Daawood ibn Qays narrated that he reached al-Madeenah in the time of Abaan ibn ‘Uthmaan [d.105] and ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdil-‘Azeez [d.99], and they were praying 36 rak’ahs, adding three for Witr.
10. Naafi’ [d.117], the freed slave of Ibn ‘Umar, the great scholar of al-Madeenah, said: I found no one praying other than 39 rak’ahs, three of them being Witr.
11. Wiqaa’ ibn Iyaas and Habeeb ibn Abee ‘Amrah both reported that the great imaam of the Taabi’oon, Sa’eed ibn Jubayr [d.95], used to lead the prayer in Ramadhaan with 24 rak’ahs. Wiqaa’ added: He would pray 28 rak’ahs in the last ten days.
12. Yoonus ibn ‘Ubayd [d.139] reported that ‘Abdur-Rahmaan ibn Abee Bakrah, Sa’eed ibn Abil-Hasan al-Basree, and ‘Emraan al-‘Abdee used to pray 20 rak’ahs until the last 10 nights when they would pray 24 rak’ahs. They would complete the reading of the entire Quran twice during the month.
13. ‘Emraan ibn Hudayr al-Basree reported that Aboo Mijlaz Laahiq ibn Humayd al-Basree used to lead them in 16 rak’ahs, reciting one-seventh of the Quran each night.
14. Thakwaan al-Harashee reported that he witnessed Zuraarah ibn Owfaa, the judge of Basrah, leading the people in 24 rak’ahs for the first 20 nights of Ramadhaan. In the last ten, he would pray 30 rak’ahs.
15. Maalik ibn Anas [d.179], the great imaam of al-Madeenah, was asked about decreasing the number of rak’ahs. He forbade them from doing so, confirming that the people had always been praying 39 rak’ahs. He added: This has been the practice in al-Madeenah for over 100 years.
16. Is-haaq ibn Mansoor [d.251] asked the great imaam, Ahmad ibn Hanbal [d.241], about the number of rak’ahs in the night prayers of Ramadhaan. He replied with mention of reports of various numbers around 40 rak’ahs, adding: It is but a recommended deed (i.e. it is open).
17. Is-haaq ibn Mansoor [d.251] said: We prefer 40 rak’ahs with less recitation.
18. Al-Hasan az-Za’faraanee reported that the great imaam, Muhammad ibn Idrees ash-Shaafi’ee [d.204] said: I saw the people praying 39 rak’ahs in al-Madeenah, while 20 is more preferable to me. That is what they were praying in Makkah. There is no restriction or maximum limit in any of that, because it is optional. If they lengthen the standing with less prostrations (i.e. praying less rak’ahs), it is fine, and even more preferable to me. If they pray with more bowing and prostration (i.e. more rak’ahs), that is fine, too.
With all these narrations ranging from 16 rak’ahs all the way up to 40 or more, it can be known clearly that the matter is not an open-and-shut case, that 11 is the Sunnah, and anything more is an innovation. Aside from this position not being founded in the speech of the early scholars, how could it be correct, when the Salaf of this Ummah, from the Companions all the way to the great imaams (Maalik, Shaafi’ee, Ahmad, etc.), never understood a limit to the number? These were the imaams of Islaam, and not one of them understood a limit or restriction to the number of rak’ahs for Taraaweeh Prayer.
As there are many people who hold firmly to the opinion that it is against the Sunnah to pray more than 13 rak’ahs, there is a need to respond to some legitimate concerns on the topic. The remainder of this article addresses those issues.
CONCERN: Aren’t the narrations about Ubayy praying 20 rak’ahs weak (unauthentic)?
Upon close investigation, this is not the case. Al-Haafith Aboo ‘Umar Yoosuf ibn ‘Abdil-Barr [d.463] studied the narrations and compared them, after which he came to the conclusion that the mention of 11 in the report of Ubayy was proven to be a mistake, and that 20 was the authentically preserved. He also acknowledged the possibility of accepting 11 as something done in the first stage, before they moved on to pray 20. Review his book, al-Istithkaar.
Al-Haafith an-Nawawee [d.676] called the chain of one of the narrations collected by al-Haafith al-Bayhaqee: saheeh (authentic). (Sharh al-Muhath-thab, 4/23)
Shaykh al-Islaam Ibn Taymiyyah [d.728] (may Allaah have Mercy on him) stated, as found in his Fataawaa (23/112):
Indeed it is authentically established that Ubayy ibn Ka’b used to lead the people with 20 rak’ahs in the Qiyaam of Ramadhaan, adding three for Witr. Most of the scholars held that to be the Sunnah, since he prayed that in front of the Muhaajireen and Ansaar, and no one objected.
Furthermore, in the writings of the scholars throughout the ages, the reports of Ubayy praying 20 rak’ahs were generally not something the scholars challenged or objected to. The view that the reports mentioning 20 are unauthentic is actually a minority opinion, one made popular in our time through the writings of al-‘Allaamah Muhammad Naasir ad-Deen al-Albaanee (may Allaah have Mercy on him).
CONCERN: Imaam Maalik considered anything more than 13 to be innovation?
Some people may say: “But Imaam Maalik labeled anything above 13 rak’ahs a newly-invented matter (i.e. a blameworthy innovation in Religion).”
The response: This is not established from Imaam Maalik (may Allaah have Mercy on him). Not only is its chain to Imaam Maalik missing hundreds of years of connectivity, it is in stark contradiction to what is authentically established and well known from him, that he endorsed and defended the practice in al-Madeenah of praying 39 rak’ahs for Taraaweeh, as mentioned.
CONCERN: So 11 rak’ahs is wrong somehow?
Someone may ask: “What is wrong with praying 11 rak’ahs, according to the authentic Sunnah?”
The response: How could there be a problem with the Sunnah?! The point is: There was no limit set by the Prophet (may Allaah raise his rank and grant him peace). The Companions and the early Salaf prayed 20 and more, without anyone having a problem with any of that.
CONCERN: The Salaf neglected the Sunnah?
If it is said: “Why didn’t the Salaf stick to the Sunnah of praying 11 rak’ahs?”
The response: What seems to be the case is that they understood a general difference between the Prophet’s personal practice (may Allaah raise his rank and grant him peace) for himself and how he would stand in prayer much less when leading others in congregational prayer.
You could add that they understood from his description of the night prayers as being “two-by-two”  an indication to pray more than 11, or not to limit it to 11.
You could also add that they understood that the practice of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattaab, as a rightly-guided Caliph, having Ubayy pray 20 rak’ahs, was also grounds to call 20 “Sunnah” as well. The Prophet (may Allaah raise his rank and grant him peace) said (what means): “Follow my Sunnah and the Sunnah of the rightly-guided Caliphs…” 
CONCERN: How can you say Shaykh Al-Albaanee was wrong?
If it is said: “How can you say that a great scholar of the Sunnah like Shaykh Al-Albaanee was wrong in limiting the number?”
The response: Al-‘Allaamah Al-Albaanee was indeed a great imaam who spent his life reviving the correct understanding of Islaam, teaching us to follow the way of the Salaf in how we understand the Book and the Sunnah. Truly following him and his legacy requires us to embrace his overall principles, looking at the bigger picture, shunning any bigoted blind-following of any one of our scholars, as he stressed so much, and then shunning an individual opinion he held in opposition to the understanding of the Salaf. May Allaah have an abundance of Mercy upon him.
Interestingly enough, those who would blame scholars or students of knowledge for considering Shaykh Al-Albaanee to be mistaken in this one minority position he held should reflect carefully. Why do they have no problem at all believing that the vast body of the imaams of the Salaf were all mistaken throughout history?
Also, for more advanced students capable of reading Arabic, my Shaykh, Dr. Muhammad ‘Umar Baazmool (may Allaah preserve him) recommended reading the book “Taraaweeh Akthar Min Alf ‘Aam” (Taraaweeh Over More than a Thousand Years), by Shaykh Muhammad ‘Atiyyah Saalim (may Allaah have Mercy on him), for an amazing historical breakdown of what the Ummah prayed over the centuries. Special focus is given to the era of the Companions, in details that no other book has gathered.
And Allaah knows best.
Prepared by: Moosaa Richardson
 Ath-Thiqaat (9/154), Taareekh Baghdaad (3/315), al-‘Ebar (1/427)
 Siyar A’laam an-Nubalaa’ (14/40)
 Siyar A’laam an-Nubalaa’ (14/34)
 While the original work has not been preserved, a summary of it by one of his students has been located and published.
 Mukhtasir Kitaab Qiyaam Ramadhaan (pp.51-57)
 Ibn ‘Umar (may Allaah be pleased with him) narrated that a man asked the Messenger of Allaah (may Allaah raise his rank and grant him peace) about the night prayer. He said (what means): “Two-by-two, until you fear the coming of the morning, then pray one rak’ah, making it Witr (an odd number) for what you have prayed.” It was collected by al-Bukhaaree and Muslim.
 From the authentic hadeeth narrated by al-‘Erbaadh ibn Saariyah (may Allaah be pleased with him), collected by Aboo Daawood and others.