This being the sacred month of Ramadan, one of the controversies which is inevitably raised is regarding the special prayer of Tarawih. The dispute over the number of raka'at (cycles) in the Tarawih is coupled with another issue, raised by the Shi'a and others, that the offering of Tarawih by the Sunnis is an innovation. The Shi'a claim that the Tarawih prayer is an innovation introduced by the second caliph, sayyidina Umar b. al-KhattabRA, and cite the latter's words to that effect:
نِعْمَ الْبِدْعَةُ هَذِهِ
“A good innovation this is!” (Sahih al-Bukhari #2010)
The truth is that sayyidina UmarRA used the word bid'a “innovation” in an ordinary linguistic sense, and not in the technical sense which would indicate an innovation of religious practice that has no precedent from the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad . The proof for this is the fact that the Prophet Muhammad did in fact lead the special prayer which we refer to as “Tarawih” in his lifetime. Sayyidina UmarRA only referred to it as a “good innovation” during his caliphate because it had not been practiced for a duration of time until he facilitated its revival. It should be noted that the term “Tarawih” was adapted later to describe the offering of the night prayer, Qiyam al-Lail, in the month of Ramadan in congregation. Otherwise, it is not a new or separate prayer, but simply the offering of the night prayer, also known as Tahajjud, in the month of Ramadan in congregation. The Prophet Muhammad led the night prayer in the month of Ramadan in congregation for three nights:
أَنَّ عَائِشَةَ ـ رضى الله عنها ـ أَخْبَرَتْهُ أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم خَرَجَ لَيْلَةً مِنْ جَوْفِ اللَّيْلِ، فَصَلَّى فِي الْمَسْجِدِ، وَصَلَّى رِجَالٌ بِصَلاَتِهِ، فَأَصْبَحَ النَّاسُ فَتَحَدَّثُوا، فَاجْتَمَعَ أَكْثَرُ مِنْهُمْ، فَصَلَّوْا مَعَهُ، فَأَصْبَحَ النَّاسُ فَتَحَدَّثُوا، فَكَثُرَ أَهْلُ الْمَسْجِدِ مِنَ اللَّيْلَةِ الثَّالِثَةِ، فَخَرَجَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَصَلَّى، فَصَلَّوْا بِصَلاَتِهِ، فَلَمَّا كَانَتِ اللَّيْلَةُ الرَّابِعَةُ عَجَزَ الْمَسْجِدُ عَنْ أَهْلِهِ، حَتَّى خَرَجَ لِصَلاَةِ الصُّبْحِ، فَلَمَّا قَضَى الْفَجْرَ أَقْبَلَ عَلَى النَّاسِ، فَتَشَهَّدَ ثُمَّ قَالَ " أَمَّا بَعْدُ، فَإِنَّهُ لَمْ يَخْفَ عَلَىَّ مَكَانُكُمْ، وَلَكِنِّي خَشِيتُ أَنْ تُفْتَرَضَ عَلَيْكُمْ فَتَعْجِزُوا عَنْهَا ". فَتُوُفِّيَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَالأَمْرُ عَلَى ذَلِكَ
A'ishaRA narrated that Allah's Apostle went out in the middle of the night and prayed in the mosque and some men prayed behind him. In the morning, the people spoke about it and then a large number of them gathered and prayed behind him (on the second night). In the next morning the people again talked about it and on the third night the mosque was full with a large number of people. Allah's Messenger ﷺ came out and the people prayed behind him. On the fourth night the Mosque was overwhelmed with people and could not accommodate them, but the Prophet ﷺ came out (only) for the morning prayer. When the morning prayer was finished he recited Tashah-hud and (addressing the people) said, "Amma ba'du, your presence was not hidden from me but I was afraid lest the night prayer (Qiyam) should be enjoined on you and you might not be able to carry it on." So, Allah's Apostle died and the situation remained like that. (Sahih al-Bukhari #2012)
It would be wrong to conclude from this Hadith that the offering of Qiyam al-Lail in the month of Ramadan in congregation was abrogated. The Prophet was simply fearful that the Qiyam al-Lail would be mandated upon his Umma, something which they would not be able to handle, so he was not present in the mosque on the fourth night, and the people reverted to praying the night prayer individually. In fact, up to the caliphate of sayyidina UmarRA, not only were the people praying the night prayer in the mosque individually, they were also praying it in a number of small congregations. Sayyidina UmarRA then organized this prayer in the mosque under a single imam, single congregation. The decision of sayyidina UmarRA does not mean that praying the night prayer in the mosque individually, or in multiple small congregations, is incorrect. Sayyidina UmarRA simply revived the situation of those three nights in which the Prophet led the Qiyam al-Lail in the mosque during Ramadan, a single congregation. Until then, the Muslims of Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jama'a have been offering the Qiyam al-Lail in the month of Ramadan in the mosque as a single congregation, which has come to be known as Tarawih.
Nevertheless, the reader should bear in mind that while Tarawih is offered in the early part of the night, usually immediately after the Isha prayer, it is superior to pray the Qiyam al-Lail in the latter part of the night, even if one will offer it individually and at one's own dwelling instead of the mosque, as sayyidina UmarRA himself noted:
وَالَّتِي يَنَامُونَ عَنْهَا أَفْضَلُ مِنَ الَّتِي يَقُومُونَ. يُرِيدُ آخِرَ اللَّيْلِ، وَكَانَ النَّاسُ يَقُومُونَ أَوَّلَهُ
“But the prayer which they do not perform, instead they sleep at its time, is more excellent than the one they are offering.” He meant the prayer in the last part of the night, while the people used to offer it in the first part of the night. (Sahih al-Bukhari #2010)
Incidentally, this narration disproves the Hanafi position that the Tarawih prayer is distinct from Tahajjud or Qiyam al-Lail, because the people were not praying at both times (early and last part of night), rather, they were praying at one of those times and sleeping at the other.
As for the assertion of the Shi'a that it is an innovation to offer the Tarawih, because optional prayers cannot be offered in congregation, this is disproven from the Sunna. There are many examples from the Sunna in which the Prophet's companions prayed behind him in an optional prayer. However, offering optional prayers, such as the Qiyam al-Lail outside of Ramadan, in congregation should not become a regular practice, as the Prophet only led some of his companions in optional prayers occassionally and not regularly. This of course does not apply to optional prayers which are meant to be offered in congregation, such as the eclipse and rain prayers.
As for the number of raka'at in Tarawih, this is another controversy. The Hanafis insist that it consists of 20+3 raka'at, (23 including Witr), while the Ahl al-Hadith sect assert that it consists of 8+3 raka'at (11 including Witr). The Ahl al-Hadith position appears to be the strongest, as it is reported from Umm al-Mu'minin A'ishaRA when she was asked by Abi Salama b. AbdirRahman about the Prophet's prayer during Ramadan:
مَا كَانَ يَزِيدُ فِي رَمَضَانَ، وَلاَ فِي غَيْرِهَا عَلَى إِحْدَى عَشْرَةَ رَكْعَةً
“He did not pray more than eleven raka'at in Ramadan or other than (Ramadan).” (Sahih al-Bukhari #2013)
يُصَلِّي أَرْبَعًا فَلاَ تَسَلْ عَنْ حُسْنِهِنَّ وَطُولِهِنَّ، ثُمَّ يُصَلِّي أَرْبَعًا فَلاَ تَسَلْ عَنْ حُسْنِهِنَّ وَطُولِهِنَّ، ثُمَّ يُصَلِّي ثَلاَثًا
“He used to pray four rak`at ---- let alone their beauty and length----and then he would pray four ----let alone their beauty and length ---- and then he would pray three rak`at” (ibid)
The term “Tarawih” was derived from this, as it is from the Sunna to take a rest after offering four Raka'at (in two units of prayer).
Interestingly, a classical Hanafi text admits that the Sunna of the Prophet (peace be upon him & his family) with regard to Tarawih is to offer it in eleven rakaat. Those who claim that the Tarawih prayer consists of 20+3 raka'at claim that this was the practice since the time of the caliphate of sayyidina UmarRA. They cite a narration in the Muwatta of Imam Malik to that effect:
عَنْ يَزِيدَ بْنِ رُومَانَ، أَنَّهُ قَالَ كَانَ النَّاسُ يَقُومُونَ فِي زَمَانِ عُمَرَ بْنِ الْخَطَّابِ فِي رَمَضَانَ بِثَلاَثٍ وَعِشْرِينَ رَكْعَةً
Yazid b. Ruman said: “The people used to offer, in the time of Umar b. al-Khattab, in Ramadan, twenty-three raka'at.”
However, this narration cannot be used as a proof because it is disconnected, as the narrator Yazid b. Ruman was not in the time of sayyidina Umar's caliphate.
On the contrary, the narration preceding this one is authentic and proves that the Tarawih prayer consists of 8+3 raka'at:
أَمَرَ عُمَرُ بْنُ الْخَطَّابِ أُبَىَّ بْنَ كَعْبٍ وَتَمِيمًا الدَّارِيَّ أَنْ يَقُومَا، لِلنَّاسِ بِإِحْدَى عَشْرَةَ رَكْعَةً
Umar b. al-Khattab ordered Ubayy b. Ka'b and Tamim al-Dari to lead the people in prayer with eleven raka'at. (al-Muwatta of Malik: Kitab Salat Fi Ramadan)