Answered by Sidi Omar Mahmood
Is the validity of a Jama’ah (congregational) prayer affected by a physical barrier separating a follower from the Imam?
In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
The answer to this Question can be found in any of the major explanatory fiqh texts, including Bushra al-Kareem and the Hashiyat al-Baajuri and others, under the conditions of Jama’ah (congregational prayer) or the conditions of Qudwa / Iqditaa (following an Imam).
If one wishes to follow an Imam and thus become part of a congregation, there are a number of conditions that must be fulfilled. Among these conditions are the following:
**If the Jama’ah (congregation) is completely inside of a Masjid**
In other words, if both the Imam and the follower are inside a Masjid, then:
— There can be no barrier that prevents the follower from reaching the Imam. As long as the follower can reach the Imam, even if the follower must turn sideways or turn his/her back to the qibla in order to do so, the Jama’ah is valid.
Notes: If there is a locked door between the follower and the Imam, this is not a problem. However, if there is a completely impenetrable wall or a door that has been sealed shut (cannot be opened at all), then this condition has not been fulfilled. Seeing the Imam is not a condition inside of a Masjid…thus, even a barrier made out of glass that prevents the follower from reaching the Imam would invalidate the Jama’ah. The side-wings, basements, upstairs and courtyards of the Masjid are considered part of the Masjid.
***If the Jama’ah (congregation) is partly or completely outside of the Masjid** In other words, if both the Imam and the follower are outside of a Masjid, or one of them is outside of a Masjid, then:
–There can be no barrier preventing the follower from seeing the Imam. That is, the follower must see the Imam, or he/she must see another follower who sees the Imam, or he/she must see another follower who sees another follower who sees the Imam, etc.
–There can be no barrier preventing the follower from reaching the Imam. Unlike the Jama’ah within the Masjid, here the follower must be able to reach the Imam without turning away from the qibla.
–The distance between the Imam and the follower cannot exceed approximately 300 dhiraa’ (translated in the Reliance of the Traveller (f12.37) as approximately 144 meters, estimated by Habib Zayn bin Sumayt of Madina as approximately 150 meters). If one of them (either the follower or the Imam) is outside of the Masjid and the other is inside the Masjid, then the distance between the two of them cannot exceed 300 dhiraa’, measured from the edge of the Masjid, not from the last line within the Masjid.
Notes: Inside of a Masjid, a distance of greater than 300 dhiraa’ between Imam and follower will not invalidate the Jama’ah. A road coming in between the Imam and follower will not invalidate the Jama’ah, likewise a big river, or the Imam being on one boat and the follower on another boat in the middle of the ocean. Groups that congregate outside of Masajid for prayers (e.g., students praying in an MSA room, people praying in a house, etc.) should make sure to adhere to the above conditions. If the group prefers to have a barrier like a cloth separating men and women, the barrier must be partly lifted or opened during prayer to allow a line of sight between the followers and the Imam, or between the followers and other followers who see the Imam.
Attached is a picture to help clarify various (valid and invalid) examples of following an Imam.
Allah knows best.