As for the number of Raka’aat in the Taraaweeh prayer, the Shar’a did not define a set number to be bound to however the best number to be prayed is eight followed by three for Witr as this is the number that has been related that he صلى الله عليه وسلم performed. Abu Salamah Bin ‘Abdur Rahmaan asked ‘Aa’ishah (ra): “How was the prayer of the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم in Ramadhaan? She replied: The Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم did not exceed eleven Rak’ah either in Ramadhaan or outside of it, he would pray four and do not ask about its excellence and length, he would then pray a further four and do not ask about its excellence and length and then he would pray three…” as recorded by Al-Bukhaari, Muslim, Maalik and Abu Daawood.
The statement: “And then he prayed three” refers to Witr. She (ra) also related: “That the Nabi صلى الله عليه وسلم used to pray thirteen Rak’ah in the night which included the Witr and the two Rak’ah of Fajr (i.e. the Sunnah)” as recorded by Al-Bukhaari and she (ra) related: “He -i.e. the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم -used to pray thirteen Rak’ah. He would pray eight Rak’ah then perform Witr…” as recorded by Muslim.
So his صلى الله عليه وسلم’s prayer in the night consisted of eight Raka’aat excluding Witr and Jaabir Bin ‘Abdullah (ra) said: Ubayy Bin Ka’b approached the Nabi صلى الله عليه وسلم and said: “O Messenger of Allah is there anything that I should do (specially) in the Night meaning in Ramadhaan -He said: And what’s that O Ubayy? He said: Women in my house have said: We will not read the Qur’aan but pray your prayer. He said: So I prayed with them eight Raka’aat and then performed the Witr. He said: It looked like he accepted (was pleased at) this and he did not say anything” as recorded by Ibn Hibbaan, it was also recorded by Abu-Ya’laa and At-Tabaraani in the Awsat and Al-Haithami verified the Isnaad as Hasan.
However it is permitted to increase the Taraaweeh prayer to twenty Raka’aat followed by a single Rak’ah or three of the Witr prayer as has been reported from the Sahaabah (rah) of the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم. Had eight Rak’ah been binding then why did the Sahaabah go beyond and exceed this number, so their exceeding of this number has indicated that it is not obligatory to stick to eight Rak’ah and this is especially so given that they did not exceed this number in their individual prayers or in their houses but rather this happened in the Masjid of the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم. Nobody disagreed with this action and it was therefore an Ijmaa’ (consensus) of the Sahaabah and the Ijmaa’ of the Sahaabah (rah) is a Daleel Shar’i (legal evidence).
Saa’ib Bin Yazeed related: “In the time of ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattaab (ra) they would perform twenty Rak’ah in the month of Ramadhaan and they would recite the Suwar with over one hundred Ayaat, and in the time of ‘Uthmaan they would lean upon their staffs due to the severity (length) of the standing” as recorded by Al-Bayhaqi.
This Hadeeth mentioned the Taraaweeh alone and that it consisted of twenty Rak’ah and ‘Abdur Rahmaan Bin ‘Abdin Al-Qaarri related: “I went out in the company of ‘Umar bin Al−Khattaab one night in Ramadan to the mosque and found the people praying in different groups. A man praying alone or a man praying with a little group behind him. So, ‘Umar said, ‘In my opinion it would be better to gather these (people) under the leadership of one Qaari (Reciter) (i.e. let them pray in congregation!)’. So, he made up his mind to congregate them behind Ubayy bin Ka’b. Then on another night I went again in his company and the people were praying behind their reciter. On that, ‘Umar remarked, What an excellent Bid’ah this is; but the prayer which they do not perform, but what they miss due to sleep is better than the one they are offering. He meant the prayer in the last part of the night. (In those days) people used to pray in the early part of the night” as related by Al-Bukhaari and Maalik.
The word ‘Bid’ah’ (innovation) used by ‘Umar here must be understood linguistically meaning wonderful and good and should not be understood from the meaning given in the Hadeeth of the Nabi صلى الله عليه وسلم: “Every newly invented thing is a Bid’ah and every Bid’ah is Dalaalah (misguidance)” as related by Abu Daawood by way of Al-‘Arbaad. This is because this action from ‘Umar (ra) was not a newly invented thing, and was not from the prohibited acts of Bid’ah (innovation) because we reported a short while ago that the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم had prayed the Taraaweeh prayers in Jamaa’ah on a number of nights in the Masjid: “So when it was the third (night from the end i.e. 27th) he gathered his family and wives and people and prayed with them” as reported by Abu Daawood and other than him from Abu Dharr (ra).
So ‘Umar (ra) did not invent a new matter by gathering the people behind Ubayy Bin Ka’b and therefore this action cannot be considered as following under the meaning of the Hadeeth: “Every newly invented thing is a Bid’ah and every Bid’ah is Dalaalah (misguidance)”. So the Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم would suffice himself with eight Raka’aat and his Sahaabah (rah) increased the number in the time of ‘Umar (ra) to twenty Rak’ah and their Imaam was Ubayy Bin Ka’b who we related about previously that he led the women of his household with eight Raka’aat so all of this indicates permission.
I am not happy with those who have said that the Taraaweeh can be increased to forty Rak’ah as we have at our disposal the action of the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم and the action of his Sahaabah (ra) and after these two actions there is no merit to be looked for or goodness to be sought. As for the recitation in the Taraaweeh prayer then specific Suwar have not been related for it so the Muslim can recite what he likes from the Book of Allah Subhaanahu and to lengthen the recitation according to his ability especially if he is praying individually. As for what people do in our current time in terms of reading a short Ayah in one Rak’ah this perhaps does not realise the meaning of Qiyaam (i.e. standing in prayer). This indicates ignorance and against seeking the reward of Allah سبحانه وتعالى and an insult to the performance of this prayer which has been named Qiyaam-ul-Layl (Standing in the Night) in Ramadhaan and the meaning of Qiyaam-ul-Layl includes that it should be long and take time.
The above is an extract from volume 2 of Al-Jami li Ahkam as-Salah “A complete guide of the rules of prayer” by Sheikh Abu Iyas Mahmoud bin Abdul Latif al-Uweida from Jordan.