The Virtues of the Congregational Prayer:
Performing the (obligatory) prayers in congregation is mandatory and required of every believing adult male who has no excuse for not doing so. Many authentic narrations highlight the superiority and excellence of praying in congregation. Among these narrations are:
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Prayer in congregation is superior to a prayer performed individually by twenty-seven degrees.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
The Prophet also said:
“The prayer of a man in congregation is twenty-five times more superior (in reward) to his prayer in his house or market – and this is because he performs ablution and perfects it and goes to the mosque with the sole purpose of performing the prayer. He does not take a step without being raised a degree and having one of his sins erased. When he prays, as long as he does not lose his ablution, the angels keep on praying (for him): ‘O Allah, bless him. O Allah, have mercy upon him’. And he is considered in prayer as long as he is waiting for the prayer.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Abandoning the Congregational Prayer
To know the status of praying with the congregation and how serious a matter it is to abandon it, the Prophet hardly exempted anyone from it.
Abu Hurairah reported that a blind man said to the Prophet: “O Messenger of Allah, I have no guide to lead me to the mosque (to attend the congregational prayer)”. He asked the Prophet for permission to pray in his house and the Prophet permitted him. Then, when he turned to go, the Prophet called him and said: ‘Do you hear the call to prayer?’ The blind man said ‘yes’. The Prophet then said: “Then respond to it (by coming to the mosque)!” (Muslim)
Moreover, the Prophet severely warned against abandoning it. Abu Hurairah also reported that the Prophet said: “By Him in whose hand is my soul! I have considered ordering a fire to be kindled and then ask someone to lead the people in prayer. And then go to the men [who did not attend the prayer] and burn their houses over them.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
This was clearly understood by the Companions and their words reflected it. `Abdullah ibn Mas`ud said: “If anyone would like to meet Allah tomorrow as a Muslim, he should persevere in observing these five prayers (in congregation) whenever the call for them is made, for Allah has chosen for your Prophet the way of right guidance.
And the (five prayers in congregation) are part of this right guidance. If you were to pray them in your houses, as the one who stays behind in his house, you would be leaving a ‘Sunnah’ of your Prophet. If you leave the ‘Sunnah’ of your Prophet you would go astray. Verily, I have seen a time when no one abandoned them (the congregational prayers) except for the hypocrites who were well known for their hypocrisy. A man would be brought, supported by two people (due to his weakness or illness) until he was placed in a row (in the congregation).” (Muslim)
The Prophet stressed on the importance of praying in a congregation under all circumstances. In one narration, he said: “If there are three men in a village or desert and prayer is not established among them, then the devil takes mastery over them. So be with the congregation since the wolf devours the remote (stray) sheep.” (Abu Dawud)
What is Considered a Congregation?
The least number required for the congregational prayer is two: the Imam (leader) and another one with him. The more the people, the more rewarding is the prayer by Allah. The Prophet said: “A man’s prayer with another man is worth more than his prayer individually, and his prayer with two men is worth more than his prayer with only one man. The more there are, the more rewarding by Allah.” (Ahmad and Abu Dawud)
The Prayer is better to be performed in the mosque. The farther mosque is better than the near. Concerning this, the Prophet said: “The people attaining the most reward are those who have farthest to walk.” (Muslim, Ahmad and Abu Dawud)
Who should be the Imam?
The congregational prayer is led by an Imam. The Imam should be male, just, and well aware of Islamic jurisprudence. The Imam stands in front by himself while the followers stand behind him in straight lines, all facing the Qiblah (the direction of Ka’bah). The most worthy of leading people in prayer is the one who is the best in memorizing and reciting the Qur’an. If they are equal, then the one who has the deepest knowledge of Sunnah. If they still are equal in the knowledge of Sunnah, then the oldest of the group. The Messenger of Allah said: “The most versed in recitation of the Book of Allah leads the people in the prayer. If they are equal, then the one most aware of the Sunnah. If they all are equal, the one who emigrated earlier. If they all are equal, then the oldest of them.” (Muslim)
Women Attending the Congregational Prayer
Concerning women, it is better and more rewarding for them to pray in their houses than to attend the congregational prayers. However, they may attend the congregational prayer in the mosque provided it will be secure from any temptation by their attendance. Also, they should avoid wearing or using any attractive or tempting adornment or perfume, and refrain from intermingling with men, as the Prophet said: “Do not prevent the female slaves of Allah (i.e. women) from the mosques of Allah. They should go without wearing perfume. If one wears perfume, it is not lawful for her to attend the prayer in congregation in the mosque.” (Ahmad and Abu Dawud)
Women Leading the Congregational Prayer
It is forbidden for a woman to lead a man in prayer, but they may lead other women in prayer, which is the case for female only mosques for example. Since the rules of Prayer is established by the prophet, at the time of the Prophet women were never allowed to lead men in congregation prayers or even a mixed gathering of men and women.