DIGGING UP AERIAL ROOTS
Is it true that prayer aboard a plane is invalid according to MÄlikÄ« principles?
Muhammad SukhÄl al-MajjÄjÄ«
Our readers will no doubt concur with us on the fact that, self-evidently, Muhammad SukhÄl al-MajjÄjÄ« is one of the most insightful and methodologically precise MÄlikÄ« jurists of our age.
Yes, because there are still commendable scholars upholding and rejuvenating the classical path of savants from the Islamic West.
We thus deemed it useful to offer to the English-speaking readership, for the very first time (to borrow a commonplace marketable ploy from our Rum-dominated utilitarian world), an informed legal opinion on whether prayer performed aboard an aircraft is invalidated by the root-principles of the MÄlikÄ« school.
Here is the text. Any inadequacies in the translation should be laid squarely at my door:
“The praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of the worlds.
May Allah send prayers of blessing and salutations of peace on our Prophet Muhammad, on his family and all his companions.
One of the virtuous brothers asked me about the legal judgment on performing the prayer aboard a plane: it is true that the MÄlikiyyah’s fatwÄ on the matter is to the effect that it is voided of validity?
Searching for an answer to the question necessitated me exploring whether any recognized MÄlikÄ« jurists who lived during the age of air flights issued a fatwÄ to the said effect, for me to understand the basis upon which he built his fatwa, if any, invalidating prayer on a plane.
I did not, however, come across anything other than a short treatise spanning a limited number of lines, titled Hukm as-SalÄt fÄ« at-TÄ’irah (“The Judgment on the prayer aboard a plane”) and penned by Shaykh Muhammad ‘AlÄ« b. Husayn al-MakkÄ« al-MÄlikÄ« (1287-1367). He is the author of the gloss on (al-QarÄfÄ«’s) Al-FurÅ«q titled TahdhÄ«b al-FurÅ«q wa al-QawÄ`id as-Saniyyah fÄ« al-AsrÄr al-Fiqhiyyah .
In that work, he issued the legal opinion (fatwÄ) that prayer on a plane is voided of validity. He built it on an unsound understanding of one of the conditions of prostration, to be comprehensively elucidated by us hereunder, Allah willing.
He was followed, in this regard, by Shaykh IsmÄ`Ä«l b. ‘UthmÄn az-Zayn al-YamanÄ« al-MakkÄ« ash-ShÄfi`Ä«, in a treatise he wrote on this specific subject, which he titled IrshÄd az-Zumrah as-SayyÄrah bi-Hukm as-SalÄt fÄ« at-TÄ’irah.
Shaykh al-MÄlikÄ« wrote in his aforesaid fatwÄ:
“As for prostrating on what is not attached to the ground, such as a hanging bed, there is no dispute as to the fact that it is invalid [End of quotation from my father, Shaykh Husayn b. IbrÄhÄ«m al-MÄlikÄ«].
I (= Shaykh Muhammad ‘AlÄ« b. Husayn al-MakkÄ« al-MÄlikÄ«) say, commenting his words:
That is so because prostration on something detached from the ground is not a prostration recognized by the Law, inasmuch as the reality of prostration, as you are no doubt aware of, is to perform it on the ground or something attached thereto. A hanging bed, conversely, is detached from the ground. A fortiori, the prostration of someone aboard a plane, which is a common occurrence nowadays for people travelling to far-away places, engaging there in either an obligatory or a supererogatory prayer while facing the qiblah, is to be deemed invalid, a position unanimously held.
What is accordingly incumbent on a person travelling by plane is to advance the joining of Zuhr and ‘Asr or Maghrib and ‘IshÄ’, as the case may be, if he intends boarding the plane after the entry of the time for the former, or to retard the joining thereof to the latest possible time for the latter if he intends boarding it prior to the entry of the time for the former.”
What vexed me was the proposition that it is a condition of a person’s prostration that the place thereof be attached to the ground in order for his player to be valid.
I deliberately searched for the juristic locus expected to provide the support for the alleged condition, resulting in the fatwa that invalidates prayer on a plane.
What I found was that its foundation was traced to an erroneous understanding of the technical definition given to prostration by some late scholars (of the MÄlikiyyah), and of the inescapable conditions for prostration, which alone do justice to its meaning and failing which prayer is not valid.
Let us explain that:
The Shaykh of the MÄlikiyyah in his times, Muhammad b. ‘Arafah al-WarghamÄ« at-TÅ«nusÄ«, the ImÄm, savant and public orator of Tunis (d. 803 AH), thus described prostration (in his work Al-HudÅ«d, published together with its commentary by ar-RassÄs):
“Touching the ground or what is attached thereto in terms of the surface of the prostrating person’s place, such as a bed, with one’s forehead and nose.”
The definition of prostration, failing which a prayer is invalid, is for a person to touch, with his forehead and nose, either the ground, if he is praying directly on it, or the surface on which he is praying, provided it is attached to the ground, such as the bed which is attached thereto via its legs.
This definition necessarily evokes a number of circumstances, the answer to which might be inferred from some of the riders provided by Ibn ‘Arafah or might be drawn from derivative rulings, linked to this mas’alah, that are mentioned in the large-size MÄlikÄ« texts where a detailed treatment is of the judgment pertaining to prostration is provided.
Explanatory examples of that are the following:
- If a person were to prostrate on an interposing object that acts as barrier between him and the ground, such as carpets, mockado carpets, mats, rugs, wooden or metal boards etc, his prayer would be unanimously deemed valid. It has in fact never been reported from any learned man that touching the ground directly with the limbs affected by prostration is a prerequisite. What our savants have recommended is to touch it with one’s face and hands, since that entails additional humility vis-à-vis Allah and an open manifestation of abasement to Him, which is ultimately the core of prostration, in turn the core of prayer which is the core of worship. In the Mudawaanah we come across the following: “MÄlik used to dislike a man prostrating on mockado carpets, animal skin rugs, clothes or excessively tanned hides . He used to see no harm in him standing, bowing or sitting on it, so long as he neither prostrated nor laid his hands on it. Conversely, he saw no harm in him prostrating or laying his hands on mats and their like made of stuff that grows out of the earth.”
- If a person were to prostrate on a place high upon the ground, attached to it and firmly entrenched in it, such as raised platforms and minibars, beds and chairs, tables and desks, prayer on it would be undoubtedly valid, just like prayer by the gates of a mosque or the floors and roofs of a building, unless he is an ImÄm who alone prays there as a sign of superiority over the members of his congregation, in which case neither his prayer nor their prayer would be valid. Al-BarÄdha`Ä« wrote in TahdhÄ«b al-Mudawwanah: “An ImÄm should not pray on anything higher than what the members of his congregation pray upon. If he does that, they should absolutely repeat their prayer, since they would be merely playing, unless it is something negligibly higher, like what used to be there in Egypt, in which event their prayer would be sufficiently valid.”
- If the place of prostration is not firm, but rather sinks if one places his forehead on it or swells up if he raises it, as in the cases of pillows filled with empty stuff or with fluffy wool or cotton, or that of beds made of stretchable, rubber-like material, the prayer would be invalid due to the invalidity of prostration, inasmuch as firmness cannot be attained in it: firmness is in fact a condition for the meaning of prostration to be actualized, an aspect which Ibn ‘Arafah failed to encompass despite his thorough accuracy in ensuring that a definition and a thing defined thereby matched up.
- As for the different scenario where the surface on which a person prostrates is firm with regard to the motion of his prostration, though not firm in itself, nay, moving with a movement that does not prevent him from performing prayer in the proper manner on it if capable of doing so, the validity of the prayer is not affected. An example of that would be where he, being disabled, is carried on a camel-borne litter across which people move, or is aboard a ship or a train, so he prays on it, or a collective prayer with one common ImÄm is performed if they are more than one: they face the qiblah at the time of the opening takbÄ«r, and if the boat they are on changes direction, they, too, shift around while trying to face the qiblah as much as possible. That is what they do in their obligatory prayers as well, to the best of their ability: if the motion is too extreme or the space too narrow for them to pray standing, they pray seated, and if they are incapacitated from bowing or prostrating, they hint at both of them.
- If a person prostrates on something other than the surface he is settled in when standing or sitting, his prayer wold be invalid in the scenario where the level of the surface he prostrates on is significantly higher than the level of the surface on which he sits. That ruling is inferable from the proviso Ibn ‘Arafah resorted to when defining prostration, i.e. “(the ground or what is attached thereto) in terms of the surface of the prostrating person’s place”. Ar-RassÄ`, in his commentary on Ibn ‘Arafah’s text, wrote: “The only reason why he added the phrase “in terms of the surface of the prostrating person’s place” is to allude to the fact that if a person’s place was on the ground and he then prostrated on a bed attached to the ground, he could not be defined a prostrating person, since he did not prostrate “on the surface of the person’s place”.” To illustrate that, imagine that he placed before himself a chair or a table on which he prostrated. If he did so, his action would be invalid, since he is capable of prostrating on the surface he is praying upon, be it the ground or otherwise. His action would be the equivalent of a mere hint to the action of prostration; and by his prostrating on something he lays upon his knees, it would be as if he prostrated on something that carried him, so it would be akin to the situation where he prostrated on his own knee or leg.
- If, on the other hand, he does that when he is ill and incapable of bending down to the place on which he is prostrating, his prayer would be valid though in conflict with the correct manner of praying adopted by someone else in his state. In TahdhÄ«b al-Mudawwanah we find: “If he – meaning a sick person – is able to prostrate on the ground he should do so, otherwise he hints at the act of prostrating with his back or his head, without lifting onto his forehead anything he might prostrate upon, and without setting up in front of him something he prostrates on: if he does that, unaware of the correct method, he does not have to repeat the prayer.” The ruling has been summarized by Shaykh KhalÄ«l (in the Mukhtasar) by his statement: “[And] it is disliked that someone hinting at the act of prostrating lifts something he prostrates upon.”
- If the place of a person’s prostration is slightly higher than the level of the surface he sits upon, as in the case of a tablet or a book of modest thickness, that fact would not prevent the meaning of prostration from being actualized, whereupon the validity of the prayer, too, would be ensured, provided it is attached to the surface he is praying upon. If he prostrates on such a surface as a board or a bed hung onto a roof, his prostration would be invalid, even in the scenario where its level is very close to the level of the surface he sits upon: he would in fact be the equivalent of a person hinting at his place of prostration [while capable of prostrating] or a person lifting something onto his forehead; he would thus not be “prostrating”.
This is the condition Ibn ‘Arafah referred to by his statement: “Touching the ground or what is attached thereto in terms of the surface of the prostrating person’s place, such as a bed, with one’s forehead and nose.” What he meant was not the ground in itself, with the result that prayer would only be valid on it or on what was attached to it, as understood by those issuing a fatwa to the effect that prayer aboard a plane is invalid. What he meant was, rather, the surface on which he prays, whether such surface be the ground, a ship or a bed, the back of a building, a room or something else. Whenever, therefore, he touches with his forehead and nose the surface he is praying on, or another surface attached thereto, which is not substantially higher in level than it, he has validly prostrated.
Ad-DusÅ«qÄ« said in his gloss on (ad-DardÄ«r)’s Ash-Sharh al-KabÄ«r:
“As for prostration on what is detached from the ground, such as a hanging bed, there is no disagreement as to its invalidity, as stated earlier, i.e. in the scenario where he is not standing on that bed, for then the prostration would be valid, exactly like the prayer of someone on a litter.”
If, as in the said scenario, praying on a hanging bed might be valid, the condition that the place a person prays upon should be the ground itself or something attached to it is invalidated, and with it the rationale for stating that prayer aboard a plane lacks validity.
If, moreover, the condition that the place of a person performing the prayer has to be attached to the ground as such was true, prayer aboard a ship would be invalid, given that a ship is carried upon water, which is a liquid the parts whereof are in motion. It would be incorrect to say that a ship is attached to the ground via the water, the way a bed is attached to it through its legs. The legs of a bed, in fact, are firmly embedded in the ground, whereas the parts of the water connected to the ship are not firm, and by the motion of these parts the ship moves, floating above the surface of the sea, whereas, if it were to stride onto stagnant water, the ship would grind to a halt, becoming firm through the firmness of the ground lying underneath it: then, and only then, it would be correct to say that it is attached to the ground via that stagnant water.
There is, accordingly, no basis for advancing the unnatural allegation that the airplane is attached to the ground through the air beneath it, for us to treat it analogously to the ship when extracting the legal judgment to be passed on the prayer performed on it.
Likewise, if a condition existed that the place a person prostrated upon had to be the ground itself or something attached to it, the guiding scholars of the madhhab would have explicitly said so in their books, when dealing with the pillars and loci of the prayer. I did not however find anything of that kind in the books I have consulted, such as Al-Mudawwanah, An-NawÄdir (wa az-ZiyÄdÄt), Al-BayÄn (wa at-TahsÄ«l), Al-MuntaqÄ, Ibn ShÄs, Ibn al-HÄjib, KhalÄ«l and so forth. If it could not be found in the like of these books, where else could such an important condition, on which the validity of the prayer depended, be expressly mentioned?
Likewise, if it is in fact true, as some contend, that the aforesaid condition exists, with the result that prayer on a plane is void due to such condition being infringed, and if the duration of the flight spanned the whole time of a prayer or pair of prayers (with overlapping times), e.g. the plane took off before dawn and landed after sunrise, or took off prior to the sun reaching its zenith and landed after sunset, which ruling should be assigned to the prayer of that traveller? Would he be exempted from performing that prayer or pair of prayers despite being capable of performing it or them, having fulfilled all its conditions, ritual purity, covering his private parts, facing the qiblah as best as he could? We know, in fact, that the obligation to pray does not fall away save if one of the conditions of its obligatoriness is not met, as a result of such as insanity or the onset of menstruation, or if he lacks what he attains ritual purity by in terms of one of the four views on the mas’alah in the school. Or is it that he defers it until its time has elapsed, which is a ruling unsupported by any principle of the Law, save for the allegation of Asbagh b. al-Faraj to the effect that a person lacking either form of ritual purity [ablution or tayammum] makes up the prayer thus missed after he acquires either one of such forms?
It is thus clear from this analysis that the safest approach, which is also the one best conforming to the root-principles of the Law, that require prayer to be performed on time, according to what circumstances and capability permit, is for a person boarding a plane to perform the prayer at its appointed time, standing and facing the qiblah, or, if unable to stand, sitting: he would then go into bowing and prostration while seated, failing which he would hint at their respective acts. It would then be recommended for him to bend lower when prostrating than when bowing, exactly like a sick person would do. If unable to face the qiblah, he should turn to the direction that is easy for him to face, by analogy to the prayer aboard a ship.
Success is by Allah. He knows best about the truth, and to Him is the reference and the final destination.
 It is normally published together with Al-FurÅ«q.
 His statement indicates the dual fact that hands a) are not part of the limbs covered by the obligatory essentials of prostration, and b) are placed where forehead and nose are placed. MÄlik related from NÄfi` from ‘AbdullÄh b. ‘Umar that when prostrating the latter would place his hands where he placed his forehead. NÄfi` added: ‘I saw him on a very chilly day. He pulled his hands from beneath a burnus he was wearing and eventually placed them on some pebbles (See Al-Muwatta’: Book of shortening the prayer during travels / Placing the hands where one places the forehead in prostration).